Heart Butte, as a community and as a school, has been hit hard by the struggle to preserve their identity while still participating in the world. It’s only made worse when outsiders come in, because it takes a long time of “being there” to understand from the inside. The new theories of how a person claims an identity and empathy with other identities are “phenomenological” which has been a term of contempt in the past. It means that mammal bodies are based on their sensory interaction with the world, not just the five senses that are specialized by organs, but with the cellular records (memory) of subtleties like direction, proximity, wave impacts from light and sound, and so on. This is how mind is created. Memory is sensory based.
To be a Blackfeet, or other denizen of the pre-contact prairie, one literally ingested buffalo: the smell, the taste, the sound, the patterns of grazing, the means of killing and preparing to eat, the metabolism of meat, stomach contents, and all the other aspects of “inni,” who were called by the old people “real meat.” As opposed to ‘nothing meat’, like lesser animals or even birds. Men who took loads of fur hides to the east for purposes of trade, said that they hated to go because it meant not having “real meat,” being forced to eat “nothing meat.”
So when the superintendent, Greg Hirst, opened up the school to the idea that they should “become Blackfeet again”, that meant learning through their bodies, their senses, what a buffalo “is.” When I was there, Leo Zackowski, the biology teacher, had borrowed a kit from the Montana wildlife people. In the kit was a set of tanned sample squares of hide, hair-on, of each of the various game animals in Montana: deer, moose, elk, wolf, bobcat, and so on. The idea was to feel them so as to know and name them. Any oldtimer would find this obvious. Aside from a few boys who had hunted with their grandfathers, I was the only one who could do it — because of being married to a taxidermist.
This sent the boys in particular into a state of rage, deprivation, yearning, and diminished self-worth. They were no longer hunters, they no longer walked the barricades of the mountains or the long stretches of prairie or the coulees that marked the streams. Hirst knew about this. Betty N. Cooper and her daughter, Theda New Breast, understood. This is NOT the same thing as celebrating your Scots grandparents by eating haggis. It is much deeper and more crucial. There are still plenty of people back in Scotland who can eat haggis.
When the idea of giving the Blackfeet some buffalo from the bison range first came up, the whites in charge were told the tribe would accept the buffalo only if they could kill them. It had been a standard agreement when selling the animals that the new owners WOULDN’T kill the first generation, so the managers were shocked and repelled. They had visions of a starving people scarfing down the animals, bull first, like the possibly apocryphal stories from the 19th century about beef issues that had been meant to be breeding herds. But the tribe asked, “Are these going to be our animals or not?” And there was enough pressure from increasing numbers that finally the buffalo were transferred. You can see them often along Highway 2 between Browning and East Glacier.
A few years ago at Blackfeet Community College someone had the idea of killing and processing a buffalo. I wish I knew more about that. I wasn’t there. I'm told it took all day for the students, some of whom knew very well how to butcher a cow, to skin, disembowel (which meant eventually crawling inside the carcass to detach pieces), de-bone, and then cut the muscle meat into thin strips to hang on a framework over a drying fire. I don’t know whether anyone tried tearing out a mouthful of liver and squeezing onto it a bit of yellow bile as though that were mustard. I don’t think they boiled the bones to get the marrow out, but maybe. I need to find out what the students wrote and said.
Theda New Breast and Betty N. Cooper
The mother/daughter team helped the Heart Butte students take apart a buffalo. After the dry meat was ready, they organized a feast for the whole community. The students who were part of this will never wonder again about one aspect of what it was like to be an old-time Nitsiitahpi. I’m hearing about it from thirty miles away. It’s not my place to claim this ceremony — but then again, it exists. They’re reality; I’m theory, a bridge.
The bodies of the bison and the bodies of the people were once again one, literally merged. In the old days they formed a circle of survival in a specific ecology which is what tribes are about, how homeostasis works. But what’s most wonderful about Cooper and New Breast is how colorfully, how aesthetically, how joyfully they pursue such things. And how, in their day jobs, they link these projects to the care of individuals, through a visiting helper program.
I see my role not as being a part of this specifically located and targeted program, but as an interface with the larger planet, not to promote trade or tourism but to get at some of the things we have forgotten or are newly learning about bodies, flesh. This buffalo event is an anchor point. Over the years I’ve accumulated a shelf of books specifically about the issues of flesh (not about Indians) and now I want to investigate them, searching for some kind of core about being a human mammal evolved, we now suspect, not from a monkey or any other primate, but far, far, earlier. The kindling of life -- scientists now propose -- happened deep in the sea when conditions blew a little bubble that became the skin of a cell which gradually figured out how to go towards things it wanted and away from things that would destroy it, which is the beginning of self-managed homoeostasis.
“A restless manner of being” is as good a description of flesh-and-blood humans on the prairie as it is an account of grazing buffalo.
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