Tuesday, January 26, 2016


The Bullshoe Sisters: a force for education
when they grew up.

One of my chief pleasures and a driving reason for me to read is finding new ways to look at old things.  This is not widely shared around here.  People like to find the BP (“best practice” which is an interesting phrase linked to technologies, including health care and enforced by insurance) and then stick with it, even though new discoveries and goals develop.

Writing about historical indigenous people is often a matter of rehearsing the same old scripts and assumptions, some of them mistaken interpretations imposed by the oppressors of the times: missionaries, cavalry, railroad magnates, Euro adventurers and the like.  Even today the academics arrive with their heads full of romantic factoids which the local tribes are happy to exploit. 

So I’m pleased to be reading “Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory,” by Clive Gamble.  Gamble is English and thinks about the two major “revolutions” in the three million year history of hominid evolution: one is the sudden (in archeology years) explosion of creativity that created art, music, religion, language — the whole realm of metaphor that some believe is the real beginning of modern humans — the second is the development of agriculture and the relation to sedentary life.  (Not sitting down but settling in one place and building an environment that can be defined as containers, like houses.)

For instance, there is a lot of difference between a hearth and a fire.  A hearth is a place specially occupied by the fire, a “fire place,” which is related to crucibles, blacksmithing, and other technologies of metal that demand high heat over a short period of time.  This is different from the “fire place” that is used for cooking, even baking, because a camp fire can be improvised and baking can be done in a hole with a fire built on top of it, the way Blackfeet prepared camas roots.  People who do metallurgy are sedentary and repetitious.  People who only use fire as they travel are improvisers.  

This is one major difference between tribes.  The people of the Pacific Northwest lived in cedar plank long houses and built hearths, erected totem poles, created shell middens of considerable size.  The people of the prairie used technologies of tanning, cording, flintknapping, and left evidence of camps along streams where cottonwoods grew in predictable favored spots according to the seasons.  Since most of their materials were biodegradable, they are invisible to us now.  

Blackfeet kids at Heart Butte used to complain about getting more light-skinned as though it were yet another incursion of “pale faces,” but it was clear that they don’t go outside much these days.  This is windy country so it is a temptation to stay indoors by the TV, a kind of hearth, and they keep the light out for the sake of viewing screens.  In the days of lodge-dwelling, people were mostly outdoors, even maintaining a separate cooking and smoking fire outside the lodge.  They were good at rigging shade with pieces of tipi or leaned together leafy branches, but it was bright shade.  Photos that record skin ordinarily covered by clothing reveal much paler areas.  So having an “indoor hearth” has changed the people and what they do and what they think of themselves.  

Gamble talks about what he calls “scapes”, the environment one is aware of and uses, so there is a landscape of habit which for early Blackfeet would have meant trails more than “bushwhacking” which on the prairie would mean something more like “grass crushing,” the social landscape meaning how the people are distributed and connected, and the task scape which might mean hunting patterns or might refer to special sources of materials like the yellow clay used for paint.  He discusses the “childscape” as the territory and the pattern of knowing it through travel and work that shapes and limits the raising of children.  This is one of the uses of story which always includes the sky for Blackfeet children. 

When I was still teaching on the rez, I took a photo of the Rockies and used it to learn the horizon line of the peaks until I could “write” it like a cursive sentence.  I’d walk to the blackboard and “write” it or put it at the top of a page.  The kids always recognized it, but were surprised that it could be learned, which means that they had lost the map-drawing skills of their ancestors.  But there was a fascination with “white man’s maps” in Atlases and highway guides.  

Reciprocally, whites who come to the rez get very frustrated with the lack of street signs because people here (even whites) go by the social landscape and the task landscape, which are learned and repetitive, often anchored by landmarks like the location of community dumpsters.  People whose garbage is invisibly collected don’t register such objects or the logic of their location.

The Rockies at sunset

Anyway, white man’s maps are drawn as though from a satellite, looking from the top down. Indian maps, especially along the Rockies, are from the side and mark distinctively shaped peaks as well as the erosion valleys and canyons with uses.  The criteria for most things is experience — reacting to what one has learned through living with the sensory characteristics that translate to usefulness.  But other things known have been arrived at by analysis or implication, more often recorded as narrative than as abstract ideas.  

“Fittingness” becomes the criteria for something persisting unless it is an exceptional or "counter" practice or object that grabs the imagination.  The wheel was not invented by Blackfeet because it is mostly useless without roads, esp. in gumbo country where a “stone boat” — a wooden sled — or a travois can go places where a wheel would soon be bogged down.  In some ways glassified stone that could be knapped to an edge was more useful than metal.  But mirrors were fascinating, unique.

A childscape doesn’t just provide knowledge of materials and territories.  It teaches how to do things, how to learn, how to tolerate failure or even pain.  Missionaries and other Euro-taught and now-teaching people have pressed most rez kids NOT to rely on themselves but to ask for the “proper” way to do things.  They are punished if they do the wrong thing, which teaches them to do nothing without permission.  Guided by social opinion from the very beginning, they can be crippled by confusion and double-binds.  Pretty soon there is rebellion.

Since the Sixties, living territory has become even more treacherous because of political counterculture resistance to “best practices.”  In fact, the generation breaks introduced by new technologies and coalitions of same-aged kids — supported by music waves, the internet, and the media’s fondness for labeling — mean that kids don’t look to adults anymore but depend on each other, even when it comes to risky stuff like mind-altering substances, sex and reproduction, criminal matters, and precautions in a dangerous environment.  These are all part of the childscape, which patterns the child's thought into adulthood.

Gamble demonstrating how to butcher a sheep.

Clive Gamble is hard to read, partly because of anthropological neologisms for concepts that are uncommon and partly because of more classic jargon.   But far more than having to learn vocabulary, it is necessary to reframe one’s childlike from-the-outside perceptions -- as though “Other” people were dolls -- into the world-as-perceived-with-the-senses and the assumptions about them that are experience-based.  We are used to filtering, skimming, reducing to materials that can be marketed.  We are not used to being submerged in a landscape.  Sub- merged.  Land- scape.  Judging from computer games and videos, we want these experiences, but don't know we're IN them.

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