When I was taking a dive into the materials and theories about PTSD, one book was quite different. It was “Disciplined Hearts: History, Identity and Depression in an American Indian Community” by Theresa DeLeane O’Nell. The community in focus is the Flathead Valley complex of Salish/Kootenai/Flathead/Pend d’Oreilles. It’s in the category of “Jimmy P,” the movie about a Blackfeet veteran suffering from PTSD which is based on a book called “Reality and Dream.” But this book is not clinical. Some call it “ethnopsychology.”
What it comes down to is that O’Nell went to St. Ignatius, north of Missoula, and just listened to a lot of people. The motive was the high rate of suicide among those people and their constant declaration that all the tribes are depressed. But what does “depression” MEAN to those people?
These tribes, mostly “high plateau”, are quite different from Blackfeet and have existed in rivalry for centuries, partly because of their different ecologies. The Blackfeet lived in bands that moved around a vast windswept area in pursuit of abundant buffalo. The Flathead complex of people were in a verdant valley with much water and less violent weather. They were contacted by Jesuits early, had friendly relations with them, and accepted the Christian paradigm. Now and then a small group would cross the Rockies after buffalo, but for the most part they stayed on the west side. Their reservation lands were broken into a checkerboard, which forced them into assimilation. Today their tribal community college, “Salish/Kootenai” does well and Blackfeet go there to study.
At first it seems sort of dumb to wonder about depression among a people whose lands and culture were pulled out from under them, forcing them into poverty and stigmatizing them as losers. Isn't it obvious? What distinguishes this study is that O’Nell wanted to know exactly how they, still maintaining the concepts of their persisting if suppressed culture, thought depression meant. Which of the array of emotions and points of view were the ones they really believed?
First of all, she listened to a lot of stories about how dumb the white men are. They were little vignettes of encounters between Indians and whites in which the whites betrayed that they just didn’t get it. They were the Indian equivalent of Doug Gold’s “A Schoolmaster Among the Blackfeet” which greatly offended political Indians who realized they were being made fun of. Such stories are also told about immigrants who misunderstand and television writers use them all the time for comedy between whites and blacks or the generations.
Bob Scriver took a different attitude. He used to say that Indians believed that all white men were crazy and therefore white men got away with a lot, the way one indulges little children who don’t know any better. He himself was the butt of the opinion that all “artist fellers” are crazy and unaccountable, as his own family explained him.
What O’Nell saw was that these Flathead stories had a strong moral component, in that they always made the tribal people seem more compassionate, more tolerant, and just in general morally superior. This was a defense against stigma and chimed with the Germanic admiration of all things natural/innocent. White people were simply mean and corrupt, the way many youngsters in our culture see grownups.
In the second section (there are three) O’Nell listens carefully to tribal people as they tell her how they feel. Their idea of depression is not the modern physiologically confirmed black paralysis of the person who cannot get out of bed. Rather there are three constant themes: mourning over real loss; being aggrieved over injustice that can’t be resolved or escaped; and feeling worthless. The core of all three is loneliness.
This book was written with the cooperation and guidance of the Flathead Cultural Committee and often uses words in what I assume is Flathead, but I have no keyboard symbols for them, so I’ll stick to my clumsy whiteman approximations. I do, however, participate in some of this as James Willard Schultz did when he entitled his book “Why Gone Those Times?” For instance, O’Nell speaks of the “geography of loss,” meaning consciousness of the places of accidents (often marked with white crosses) where relatives and friends died, or the locations of old-time ceremonies that are now deserted. On the Blackfeet side, the three bridges that were washed out in 1964 are markers of tragedy, even though they are rebuilt.
The overwhelming injustice of being a peaceful land-based culture that was attacked, looted, and decimated is too much to grasp. But constant stigma-based put-downs, exclusions from public places, and failure of the legal machinery to support the claims of tribal people continue to be reminders that they are “lesser.” This is when it’s a comfort to feel that whitemen are morally stunted and Indians are better because they feel pity and offer compassion and comforting.
These are problems of boundaries that recur around the planet as one culture overwhelms another. It was particularly marked here in Montana because the Industrial Revolution made the encounter even devastating. Steamboats and railroads made it easy to crush cultures without metal machinery. North American indigenous tribes are sometimes described as “Stone Age,” because of that, and the implication was that their culture would be “neanderthal,” simple and empty. But it was, if anything, more elaborate, poetic, and fitted to the land than the “high” culture of Europe. And it was technological, meaning Indians are well suited to the future.
There were people who protested against genocide. A compromise was reservations, where the very different tribal people could be preserved. Cynics predicted that they would die out and then the whites could take the land. To some extent this has happened. The Blackfeet old-timers truly were very different from today’s common denominator, but the last of them have died or accommodated in the 20th century. O’Nell vividly outlines the consequences of what she calls the “empty circle,” the cultural center based on the “real people” from before contact who are now gone.
As the modern descendants try to hold onto their identity, each of them defines it differently, and this puts them into opposition with one another. In fact, individuals define being a “real Indian” in a different way depending on the context of the argument. Sometimes it about the material artifacts of the early days, sometimes it is a claim of descent described in terms of “blood,” sometimes it is the stories of moral superiority or about mythic structuring of the world. This empty and elusive center is the loss and source of loneliness that weighs down the tribal people of today.
Industrialization, resource exploitation, metal, money, competition, are all based on individual achievement. We have moved far away from responsibility for the least, the needy, the vulnerable. The group is a symbol of compromise and being trapped in conformity. But for the tribal peoples, what counts is belonging and counting on the support of a group, however it is defined. Economic hardship, epidemics and war can push us all back into group mode, but those who listen to media are soon seduced by individual elitism, however ridiculous.