Tuesday, November 01, 2016


Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, art and taxidermy studio
In Browning, Montana

On frontiers, especially new ones that combine paradigm shift with boundaries between cultures, there are two kinds of people.  One is the interstitial traveler who explores across borders, making contacts and finding sources.  The other is the stays-put node where persons who travel for any reason can leave messages or ask for directions.  When these two types work together, understanding grows and also material culture is transported as marketable goods.  In the Sixties the Scriver Studio was a trading post as well as a natural history museum, an interface between humans and game animals.  

Indigenous materials got involved various ways.  Bob was a fur-buyer and also supplier, so he was dealing with the local trappers.  Sometimes they wanted to sell artifacts, often obscure little leather sacks of substances like yellow fungus paint or balsam fir needles.  Maybe something found or whittled.  Only very rarely did someone have an emergency that meant selling something like parade suits, the white buckskin and glass-beaded shirts and leggings that were highly glamorous.  They have now become more valuable than any paintings.

There were always painters or sculptors or art dealers, though we didn’t usually handle large important objects.  Our gallery room was meant to exhibit Bob’s sculptured portraits of the game animals that were mounted in the main museum.  They were part of the preparation of papier maché bodies underlying the glued-on hides.  We never exhibited any Blackfeet materials.  There was a glass case in the sales room where things were stored, some of them hung up.  The case had glass doors so we could see to find things but they were not for sale.  Somehow over the years a few artifacts were stashed there, but it was important from the beginning, when John Ewers was building the Museum of the Plains Indian during WWII, that Scriver did animals, not challenging anything Ewers was doing.

Ewers was a formal anthropologist who went on to a respected career in the semi-academic, semi-bureaucratic world of public museums and publishing, since being there in the middle of the Blackfeet reservation meant the opportunity to interview elders and ceremonialists.  His focus was history and his assumption was that “Indians” were dying out.  The point of the Museum of the Plains Indian was that it was a place to protect materials, but mainly in order to use them as patterns while making replicas to sell, the way Appalachians made quilts and Navajo wove blankets.  

Claude Schaffer was the next anthropologist curator and then Tom Kehoe, whose photos show up on Paul Seesequasistwitter feed.  Next was the first indigenous curator, but he was not Blackfeet.  Rather Ramon Gonyea was Onondaga, part of the five “civilized” tribes, and he was sophisticated politically.  I remember his painting of an anguished Vietnamese child in the style of Picasso’s “Guernica.”  

This link to is to the 2013 obit of an anthropologist named George Stocking, a white man.   http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/08/12/man-who-forced-anthropologists-respect-native-cultures.  To quote:  “As the Times obituary says, "his work helped produce a culture shift in anthropology during the 1960s and ’70s that heralded a growing respect for cultural diversity.”

“The primary target of Stocking's work was the anthropological presumption that "civilization" means Western civilization. Stocking argued that this idea was the root of brutal, even genocidal, "civilizing" programs directed at American Indians and other peoples around the world. He also challenged the mythology of "race" that fueled colonial domination.”  He was part of the great paradigm-shift empowerments that are right now brutally demonstrated in North Dakota to force the corporation pipeline crossing Native American lands.  But that’s not exactly what this post is about.

In the surge and struggling times of the Sixties there were individuals who spoke several languages, who listened and watched carefully, and who married across “race” lines.  One of those was John Hellson who brought us news from Canada, where the reserves sequestered and protected the tribes, which sometimes felt to them like capture.  On the Montana side, the people were far more on their own and pressed to be “white.”  They felt abandoned.

The government assigned Cree-Chippewa bands to the Blackfeet reservation, over-stressing already inadequate supplies and functions, and blindly including those people’s long-standing intermarriage with Euros, which blurred “tribal” lines and “race” lines in many ways.  “Half-breeds,” “mixed bloods” — most rudely, “Squaw men.”  I’m talking about people like Charlie Russell’s cousins, the Bents, those who were white but thought like indigenous people.  The Bent Trading Post was famous.  The Bents shared Indian lives, married into their families.  

Who did what with which consequences became crucially mixed, making the interstitial people and the stays-put nodes a kind of unacknowledged system moving money and access through a complex underculture.  This was joined by artists, writers, wheeler-dealers, all making a little money by discovering artifacts, investing them with stories, and reselling them.  Later drugs and politics joined the channels.

This went on until the officials realized what was happening.  Already the practice had been established by the European formal religionists, esp. the priests and lay workers who came to missions before Lewis and Clark staked out territory.  These literate priests sent back to Europe a steady stream of significant objects — some sacred and used in ceremonies — and information written down in Italian, French, or Latin, anthropological information before such a discipline had been defined.  Some of that is barely being recovered by modern translators, but the bright side of Euro-hoarding is preservation.  In Rome is a fine collection of Plains Indians artifacts.

High prairie culture was oral, not written.  Written materials were invisible, inconsequential.  All was spoken, signed, or acted out, maybe with prompters, objects with meaning.  I will say a thing that will outrage some:  the ceremonial life at its most intense was not based on exotic valuables as in the oldest Eurasian cultures, but on practises and body states.  It was like sophisticated sexwork: secret, intense, personal, and gender-inflected.  Sometimes the most daring thinkers, like Darrell Kipp, would say that opening Sacred Medicine Bundles was like splaying one’s grandmother’s body naked in a public place.  

Ceremony altered consciousness by interfering with the most basic needs of the body: hunger, thirst, movement, cold, cutting, strangling, sweating, torture. (Today they might be called "kink.") These can be made to break ties to the physical world and take a person to another realm without the use of any inhuman substances.  Kids discover these acts and so do the insane, because they are spontaneous symbolisms of the brain responding to molecules.  But in the secret ceremonies of the tribal people, they were done in a context of protection: someone experienced was always monitoring and setting limits.  On the other hand, they accepted death as a possibility.  Coitus was also sometimes part of the event.

Euro officials despised all this.  Maybe part of the reason was the always failing attempt of major forces to dominate the indigenous worlds of Eurasia, which they never quite achieved.  (Check out the history of Cornwall.  Are you watching “Poldark” on PBS?)  They label the authochthonous ways of people still embedded in their local ecology as “animal”, “deranged”, “profane”.  They are afraid of the power.  They forbid and criminalize — and John Hellson got caught by that, serving a prison term, probably not for the most transgressive things he did, though I couldn’t guess what they were.  Those who know should not tell.

And so now the People, who hadn’t really understood they were powerful, have seen how to protest, how to escape bureaucratic ligatures that are tied to profit, and how to collaborate, esp. by image.  So far two symbolic moments have happened at the protest site:  one was the arrival of the running tribal bison herd, coming over the hills like cavalry; the other was a prairie fire which did not reach the improvised shelters.  

This level of events puts the weapons of the government — bean bags, shriek cannons, and so on — also into a symbolic context.  “Embrace” is not included. It's petulance, frustration, a desire to rape.  

I’m a stays-put person.  I watch.  So do others around the planet.  The internet lets us all be both stays-put and traveling witness at once.

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