It’s such a pretty theory, that thing about inside and outside the theologically defined circle: inside are the believers, outside are those who study them. The problem is that, like a human cell, inside the circle are all sorts of smaller circles, each with its own function and self-definition. They can quarrel with each other over their relationship. They can become more complicated and active than the hoops of a pow-wow dancer.
So there is the diaspora of Blackfeet across the continent; the reservation-dwelling Blackfeet, each of the five major towns in its own circle but the river communities as long strips; the whites on the rez as a kind of internally dispersed group, the same for other self-designated circles like maybe gays or veterans or elders, each of the schools (Heart Butte, East Glacier, Browning and Babb plus the small independent schools) — you get the picture. A terrific labyrinth of experiences, each with its own narrative truth. Unique unless pressed into the terrible need to make expectations into confirmation, which seems to be a brain function, keeping reality out.
This is exactly what a writer loves to see in terms of material. I love all these sorts of complex circles, but some more than others. I’ve always been attracted to the self-defined communities and the experience of seeing them come apart into Venn Diagrams, not as destruction but as analysis. The UUMA more than the UUA. “Leathermen” more than generic gay men. “Method” actors more than others. And so on. The ones I find most interesting are the ones who are more secretive, who tread more closely to the forbidden — like messing with people’s minds — who are transgressive and therefore go where no one has gone before, sometimes barely intelligible. Those who have been through annealing ordeals. Those who walk the edge of the glacier while it melts, finding the strange artifacts and occasional person’s body that have fallen into the crevasses centuries ago.
The Blackfeet and their cohort are endlessly intriguing and most of what is written about them is simply incomplete, by necessity, but usually pretty absorbing even if you don’t know much about the writer. It’s dangerous for anyone to describe the People too accurately, not because of witchcraft but because they get angry and they can get their hands on you, politically if not physically. (You realize I’m only saying “Blackfeet” as a figure of speech, a “part-for-the-whole.”)
The sequence in the transition from oral culture Indians to today’s Ph.D.-holding as-well-as-enrolled theorists is that the point-of-original-contact NA person tells (in Blackfeet) a white person what he wants to say, hoping for some kind of accuracy in translation, which is not likely. Later, the NA ESL English-speaking person tells a white person the story and can tell if his interlocutor is getting it right, which it never quite is. Then the NA educated person who speaks English and has studied, accepting as normal the Euro conventions about writing, maybe with an MFA, writes and is praised by white people. Eventually the NA person, possibly without much traditional background, takes off into experiment-land with his own heartsong.
This is where we begin to get into trouble. Publishers and editors, who control public access to most info, rarely know anything about all the possibilities. They only know what they already know. Thus, ceremonies are supposed to be secret, so describing them is enticing. There’s always sex and violence. And people go around in disguise, like Central Casting in Hollywood who thinks that Cochise is Italian and never realizes that their cinematographer is a full-blood. Etc. Bring your favorite issue, but don’t get your publisher in trouble. (Trouble means spending money on legal counsel.) On second thought, says the publisher, maybe it’s not smart to publish books about indigenous people.
There’s another dimension I never hear discussed or read about. It is how “cute” NA children are and the motivations that adorability brings to the surface. Some of them seem so irreproachable, adopting the child from an abusive or poverty-stricken family with full knowledge and approval of the court. But without any understanding of what that child is really like or really needs. Just being turned on by the slender necks, the huge eyes, the clever restless hands. (Which disappear as they grow up.) At the other end of that continuum is the predator who sees sex and violence as the same thing and murder as equivalent to orgasm.
Or perhaps the children are considered en masse through mailed-out photos of groups at the mission or on the retreat or maybe in a mini-pow-wow wearing dresses that dance with fringe and bells. “Send money” pleads the mailing, and whole groups, whole church congregations, pledge without ever checking them out, without ever anyone knowing that the kids spend hours at tables stuffing those envelopes or maybe snapping together little plastic knickknacks to mail in appreciation. There’s more than one way to steal the children.
But in the midst of all this messy muddle, an occasional stand-up comic named Napi shouts “Follow me!” and they do and they go down a path and along a stream and finally to a hill top where there is an ancient cairn with little satin bows and calico packets of holy things in the nearby aromatic trees.
That’s all very pretty and if you say not all poetry is so pretty and not everyone who follows is going along for a good reason, you will make everyone angry and you will never work there again, which is pretty awkward if you’re a member of that tribe.
Writers make everything into a story everyone can remember so they can tell it. But as Greg warns, some stories are told in the evening, some are told at midnight, and the most dangerous (and true) ones are told in the darkest hour when everyone has gone to sleep except the oldest grannies, who sit by the campfire embers and review the plot points and try to figure out who is whose biological child and whether it matters anyway. When the sun comes up, they draw their smoky blankets close and dream.
Do you see what I did here? It was writing tricks. Take ‘em low, take ‘em high, take ‘em to some place they want with all their hearts. Just take ‘em. They want it.