Thursday, June 23, 2016


How can one writer help another?  This doesn’t address the question of whether one should.  That’s probably a different subject, but there are a few things to think about from the beginning, like writers who steal, writers who attack, writers who suck out the brains of other writers, differing ethical standards from one context to another, and the perennial problem of money.  Status is either a sub-category or uber-category of money — I haven’t decided.  I think it is a squirmy subject.

When I first came to the rez to teach English, the Indians (I’m going to call them this because it’s what we said at the time, because it’s pre-political in a sense even though it’s obviously a mistake and a joke on Columbus) thought of “writing” as telling someone a story that was “good” if it made you react or was at least useful in cueing you about something in the world, survival tactics.  Then that white person was only acting as a kind of servant by putting the story on a printed page.   Even now people will come to me and say,  "My aunt's story is terrific.  Maybe you could write it and then it would sell to people."  But it's unclear where the money would go. 

The money part was invisible.  Telling the story — which was seen as an object, a commodity, a dream — had value for the teller which he or she “transferred” to the hearer.  (These were all oral in the beginning.)  In exchange the teller acquired gratitude and a certain amount of admiration for originating the story.

Sometimes they were a gift, sometimes they were bought like a physical object, and occasionally they were traded: you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.  Several lesser stories could “pay” for a greater one.  Or a good story might be exchanged for an object of equal value.  The anthropologist fit into this pre-existing pattern but for the most part, It’s unclear whether he or she was abiding by the indigenous rules.  Most anthropologists could not tell their stories about their own culture or their own dreams without being unintelligible to indigenous people.  An even exchange was flatly impossible.  

I come to this insight through a story told in “My West: Personal Writings on the American West: Past, Present and Future” by Patricia Nell Warren.  Warren has earned many entitlements to stories we would not hear otherwise by writing several vital books about young men coming of age and realizing their gay sexuality, about running competitions, about the line between white and “Indian,” and about the actual historical and legendary great ranches in Montana.  She is part of the Grant-Kohrs ranching family whose buildings and fields are a national monument in Deer Lodge, MT.  

Grant Kohrs Ranch

In this case the insight came from her telling about a lovely little story that I’ll post in summary tomorrow — it’s about a cat that turned up in the Inuit world as the lone survivor of an ice-bound sailing ship that sank, drowning all hands except the cat.  I  do recommend the whole book.

Contrasting James Willard Schultz with Walter McClintock is a good idea.  Both men were earlier than the political movement that developed when the rez people realized that writing could make money and that handing over a story was a form of selling artifacts.  McClintock was closer to being the anthropologist since he came as a scientist, a botanist, and a photographer.  He was a collector, a taxonomist, and along the way fell in love with the people.  I resent the modern deconstructionists who accuse him of being a blood-sucking opportunist who did nothing for his friends.  The evidence doesn’t support that, but that version of the story fit the book collecting resentments with the purpose of making money and increasing influence in a deconstructionist/academic/
feminist/underdog/postcolonial context.

James Willard Schultz is sort of like Brautigan: a guy who leapt into the world of the Blackfeet by marrying one of them, living with them, ignoring the standards of both worlds and becoming close friends with those whites who enjoy the outrageous, coloring outside the lines, surviving adventures.  His other side, his respectful and obedient side, was in Blackfeet terms.  He was no journalist or scientist and didn’t spoil good stories with facts and technicalities, but for the most part he got the spirit of the thing.  

James Willard Schultz

His most unBlackfeet feature is that he loved his Blackfeet mother-in-law.  He's buried downstream from Holy Family Mission on the Two Med River where he has become an iconic figure for Sid Gustafson, a contemporary veterinarian who writes novels and books about horses.  Schultz is troublesome for contemporary bourgeois anti-addiction readers because he was frankly dependent on “grass” (marijuana) but probably not as much into morphine as many people of the time were.  He had a bad back and so did the rez agent of the time, who has a mountain named for his back  (“Major Steele’s Back”) and was such an addict.  It’s in the contested Badger/Two Med ceded strip of the reservation between Heart Butte and East Glacier.  

But my real subject is the bourgeois class or “Middle Class” of shop-keepers, business men, more prosperous ranchers, higher clerks, “respectable” people, who captured the English-speaking business of publishing books at some point and joined up with undergrad academia to convince us of stubborn assertions that helped them sell books.

First and most powerful, is the idea that published books are high quality.  Self-published books are vanity and have no value.  Being published is like earning a college degree.  If I say I’m a writer, the next question is always “published”?  Because writer is a euphemism for being a layabout in the same way that actress is a euphemism for prostitution.

Certain bindings and grades of paper make books more valuable, so that Shakespeare (much revered by the Middle Class) is bound in fine leather and rag paper, to make it more admirable than a pulp pocketbook with the same text.  This arose in part from the Protestant Christian (Middle-Class) worship of the Bible as Book in opposition to the Pope’s institutional construct (Catholicism) and the idea (maybe unconscious) that a luxurious book was more holy and worthy, honoring the value of the religious assumptions.

Saint Agatha

Books that advise good behavior (and self-improvement) are better than novels which are considered “trash” indulging emotion and encouraging adventure, defying authorities, and over-dignifying whatever suffering that was the sufferer’s own fault anyway.  (Again, a Mid-West Protestant put-down of the Catholic lives of saints, which are full of blood and stubbornness.)  

Anything that is not in the form of a codex (printed pages between hard covers) is considered transient, of little value or use.  “Proper” books are so sacred regardless of content that when the local library cut big holes in discarded books in order to put plants in them for centerpieces at a banquet, there were screams and cringing, as though tearing up paper currency.  The penumbra of value that had accumulated around the mere fact of being a book was overwhelming the reality that many books are pulped as unsaleable, therefore valueless.

True to the Middle Class conviction that the purpose of the Third World is to appreciate and be grateful for our cast-offs, to absorb our charity which demonstrates our superiority, we have the vague notion that we should send books to Africa or Asia along with stretched out t-shirts and partly unraveled sweaters.  The idea of brown people writing books for themselves — including the people we used to think of as “red”-for-blood in order to preserve the aura of savagery and danger — doesn’t really register with the Middle Class.  In fact, Middle-Class assimilated Indians read what’s popular with whites, in hopes that it’s a key to success.

In the meantime, the children of the Middle Class are besotted with a therapeutic culture based on revelations that used to be kept secret by the psychotherapist.  Individual psychoanalysis is a Middle-Class privilege but AA opened the doors to group-sharing and then secrecy didn’t seem as important.  Something similar has happened because of Kinsey revealing how many were gay, how many cheated on marriages and so on.  

In the digital age “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” has far exceeded the imagination of early inquirers.  Canada has just declared bestiality legal so long as the animal is not harmed.  (I assume they mean flesh rather than mind.)  The Middle-Class love of pets both as cuddlers and indicators of status has now gone about as far as it can go, even in Kansas City where they probably have an animal “cosplay” group.  (People who dress up like animals.)

The strange consequence of the receding boundaries of stories that were once forbidden by the Middle Class, is the loss of value of wicked stories.  We're not so curious nor embarrassed.  Also, the whole status of bound books has been wiped aside by video and digital, real-time, real-people texts.  

We have yet to reconcile the separate worlds of “other” cultures.  The Middle Class is even questioning the worthiness of “best-seller” indicators, all those little symbols, and Amazon’s practice of jacking the price around according to their guess about how much you want or need a particular book.

There’s probably a book in this subject.

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