Tuesday, March 29, 2016


A Blackft class learning sign language

There are almost as many Blackft bibliographies (lists of books about or by Blackft) as there are books of Blackft myths.  Probably too few in the first case, because they are always out-dated as soon as they are written and none of them include videos or blogs or music.  Too much is changing too quickly for a stable list, so I’m putting my list on this blog where I can update it over time.  

In the case of books about myths, the subject is not just fluid but also controversial.  As people transitioned from oral culture to written culture, it became apparent that they’d all been telling various versions — there is no Bible of mythology, definitive and authoritative, just a half dozen versions, at least.  White people in particular are quick to see any book about myth as equivalent to the Biblical myths, so one is immediately forced to admit that the Christian myths are just that and probably as various before they were written down.  Or else they raise up the Blackft stories and force them into the Christian template.  All heroic characters become Jesus and the Sun becomes Jehovah.

I'm spelling Blackft this way because in the US the word is spelled BlackFEET and in Canada the word is spelled BlackFOOT.  Many other words are spelled one way in Canada and another on the US side.  For instance, Piegan/Peigan.  It didn't matter a lot until computers demanded "accurate" spelling, meaning something like universal.  Then along came the righteous and demanded a return to the original names of the People, but they were an "oral culture" with no writing and those on one side of the rez pronounced the words differently so ended up with different spellings.  Even in English, one part of the rez spells "saddle" as "sattle" because that's the way they pronounce it.  They don’t hear the difference between a “d” and a “t.”  This symbols stuff is pretty tricky.

For instance, there are sounds in Blackft for which there are no English consonants.  To accurately "spell" those words one must go to a universal symbol system (which most of us have never learned) or go to a language like German that uses an alphabet with the back of the mouth sounds in it.  Pronunciation and spelling is the least of it -- this generation of Blackft on the US side hasn't learned or even heard those consonants.  So the language is simply bent and truncated to fit English.  It’s just as authentic isn’t it?  It’s spoken by today’s Blackft.

There is a way for everyone to hear traditional spoken Blackft: tribal radio stations like these two:

These are low power stations, so hearing them means either being close or streaming.  There will be a lot of basketball games.  Or you can use a search engine to find white stations that repeat Windspeaker episodes.

There is very little writing IN Blackfoot, but most of it is at the University of Lethbridge.  (Lethbridge is a city bigger than any in Montana.  It is 120 miles from me, but I can’t go there until I can pay to have my passport renewed.  I balk.)

Donald Frantz is the man who wrote the two Blackft language books that everyone buys and thinks they will learn, but one really needs a community for speaking the language.  Nevertheless, sometimes the books really help to decode Blackft words.  Learning to WRITE or even read Blackft is quite different from learning to SPEAK it.  

U of Lethridge, Alberta

Most of the tribal colleges in Montana and Alberta offer courses in the indigenous languages.  They will probably be taught by members of that tribal category.  The great value of speaking a different language is learning to see the world in a different way.  Every word carries a huge shadow of images, implications, experience, tropes and associations.  To TRULY learn a language means learning the sensory experience, human relationships, and cultural assumptions that developed in that specific place.  

Many people who have learned the languages of oral peoples have the purpose of creating written versions of Christian texts.  Frantz comes from this tradition.  This means that those who feel that learning the language will provide access to the Blackft spiritual world will probably not succeed by learning the written language, which is passed through a Christian filter.  This is not to put down Frantz or any others who have done this, because it is often the earliest and sometimes the ONLY access a person might have.

Donald Frantz

Recently I read about a scientific study of languages, the actual sounds of them, that discovered words respond to the environment in the very choice of vowels and consonants.  In a flat broad place, consonants make the words more intelligible.  In a jungly forested place sounds travel differently.  In Hawaii there are very few consonants: the language is carried by vowels.  In northern places, like Norway, there are lots of consonants.

“Montana, 1911” is the translated diary of the wife of a professor (Uhlenbeck) trying to learn Blackfeet.  In the morning he interviewed speakers and listened carefully, sometimes transcribing what he thought he heard.  In the evening he tried telling stories in Blackft to an audience of Blackft friends, who often laughed at him before they corrected him.

Most people on the rez, at least those who interact with locals, pick up words like “sokahpi” which means good.  Many people learning a new language will pick up the dirty words and cursing first because that sort of electrified words because of reactions.  But there AREN’T any of those kinds of words in Blkft.  If they hit their thumb with a hammer, the words they use are English or maybe French if they are a bit Metis (mixed).  I have no idea what they said before contact.

“Books” really means “codexes” — that is, pages with writing that are fastened inside covers, suitable for sales and for stacking on shelves.  They are a European middle-class invention that fits into the assumptions of acquisition, prestige, accumulation, display, promotion and fashion.  Even the idea of “forbidden” private books.  Or books schools require.  All this is a function of a certain kind of society.  Some say that because it is based on the Ferengian tradition (“Star Trek”) of selling anything to anybody and therefore living on the fringes and transitions and avoiding offence, so it is a function of diplomacy.  

But many see books as a threat when governments or corporations understand they are introducing new ideas.  In the Seventies when many incendiary counterculture books were rumored and wanted (“Be Here Now”, “Steal This Book”), they circulated in backpacked unauthorized xeroxes, so you never got to read the first and last pages because they wore off.

Cyber-access has changed all that.  The Blackfeet Reservation has issued electronic tablets to all their kids, which means that the adults, alongside, are learning to use them.  CD and MP3 players abound, and people listen to books as they drive or travel long distances.  (Everything on the prairie is far away).  Many teachers use video cameras for student projects.  It is a form of "literacy," though that’s a word developed by codexes.

If the old-time Blackft, the Nitsitahpi, had had electronic tablets, even in the days before the horse when dogs and people carried everything, we would have a huge store of spoken and pictured resources in Blackft.  Clothes would have had pockets for carrying electronic devices.  Of course, they would have to recharge at currant bushes, but they’re close enough to sarvisberry bushes that the people would soon locate the best patches. (jokes)  It’s just that on the prairies one would have to depend on satellite networks because there are no tall trees.  But wait!  There are still high ridges like the one where Lewis and the young Blackft horse raiders met.  That didn’t work out so well.  It still comes back to culture.

There is only one Blkft text that I know of that is in sign language  It is a video of old-timers visiting among themselves.  They do a lot of laughing and joking, but it is not the malicious kind of thing on white radio talk shows.  Every time I try to talk with old timers by using sign language, they roar with language and accuse me of saying dirty things.  You can pantomime suggestive things in every language.  Even Scalia knew that.

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