Friday, March 03, 2017


Scriver Thunder Medicine Pipe

Part of the appeal of indigenous prairie cultures to “outsiders” is that from a bit of distance the whole category of “Indians” in people’s minds is frozen in time and homogenous — there’s very little, if any, awareness of what ecology did to basic survival, like for instance causing fish-based systems to be quite different from bison-based systems, though both will allow for considerable prosperity as did the Midwest corn/squash/bean communities of the Mandan/Hidatsa/
Arikara communities.  Because the latter were sedentary to tend their fields, they naturally evolved into traders, especially since they were at the “top” of the Mississippi River complex so that there was a “road” to their villages.

Because the bison-eaters had to go where the animals went, the people were nomadic, but there wasn’t a lot they needed from traders until metal and glass arrived.  Knives for skinning, pots for simmering, and bright mirrors and beads as markers of extra-prosperous families.  The whites valued skins that had limited usefulness, but their value was accepted if one were a trader, so the effort of carrying them along was worthwhile.

In this time a new religious object developed, a long-stemmed pipe decorated with both local objects like ermine skins and eagle tail feathers and with exotic things like satin ribbons and falconry bells.  They were associated with collections of small animal skins that had symbolic resonance.  So they were complexes of material objects plus memes of song and dance to express their meaning.  This became what we call a “pipe bundle”, emerging from the conflation of cultures and managing to survive because white people didn’t see what they were.

In the mid-Sixties, a time when the last of the buffalo people were aging out and whites were suddenly interested in indigenous spirituality, Bob Scriver (to whom I was married at the time) had dreams meaningful to some people (Richard Little Dog, Tom Many Guns, George and Molly Kicking Woman, Mary Ground, and others.)  They said it meant Bob should acquire a Medicine Pipe Bundle.  Besides, they needed the money.  They had the endorsement and supplementary guidance of John Hellson, an immersion anthropologist — that is, one who had married into the Canadian branches of the Blackfoot Nation and lived there.

Becoming a Bundle Keeper was a two-level process.  On the one hand was the this-world phenomenon of the historical composite object itself, which had persistently and quietly stayed with the People because avaricious whites wanted the flashy war-related beaded buckskin and painted lodge skins.  

On the other hand was the invisible component, the practices, stories and protocols of the Bundle objects.  So there was one price for the “thing” and another price for the power to operate it.  The second part was achieved by a “Transfer,” a ceremony of community-witnessed gifts.  Entitlement was authorized by the dreams, not by written words on paper.

The importance of this second part was that if the actual Bundle were seized by enemies (like fundamentalist converts within a family, who might try to burn it as an act of their Christian conversion), it could be re-created with new materials according to the prototype.  

This was also a necessary idea when a lodgeskin wore out, which was more frequent with canvas, but which — like everything else in their lives — was dream-authorized (indicated by that Maltese cross at the top of the back, which might have a tail attached in the middle) and painted accordingly.

After a few years of being a Bundle Keeper, Bob had another set of dreams that were about a lodgeskin, one that was specific to badgers which he had kept for pets so that he knew their ways beyond sightings on the prairie.  The same old-timers accepted this, but guardedly.  Nevertheless, we paid them to interpret, paint, and devise the ceremony for the lodge.  

When Bob died, the lodgeskin disappeared.  Because I had been Bob’s wife and active in the development of the lodge, the power of it and the entitlement to make a new one of the same design has moved to me.  The problem of Bob’s next wife is solved, since she’s dead.  Bob’s grandkids participated to some degree and therefore are also empowered.  We could transfer this power and ask for money for the “title” to the design.

Part of the ceremony was an exchange of clothing, the previous keepers putting on the new keeper’s clothes, the reasoning being that then the personified power would “follow” the new people, deceived by their clothes.  This was as much practical as ceremonial so that Bob’s new clothes was just a new set of Dickies khaki workclothes from the Browning Merc.  

But I had to have something to put on that came from Margaret Many Guns, who was standing in for Richard Little Dog’s wife who was dead.  Tom had physical custody of the Bundle which he kept in the rafters of his house on Moccasin Flats.  But he was drinking and couldn’t always resist the temptation to sell bits and pieces from it.  So the necessity of transfer was based partly on Richard’s missing wife, since it took a wife to maintain the protocols of its care, and partly to save it from being whittled down to nothing.

But Margaret Many Guns didn’t like any of this.  Her first husband had been a powerful ceremonialist in Canada so she understood the prestige of the Bundle even being in the house, and she did not like white people.  She barely knew me, though everyone knew Bob.  The next problem was that she was shaped like Queen Victoria — four by four — and I (in those days) was more of Queen Elizabeth II’s size.  What she ended up producing was an orange cotton “Mother Hubbard” with some strips of purple ribbon, and a set of high-top moccasins with minimal beading and a rubbing of red ochre.  

We all accepted this.  The idea was not fancy stuff but the reality of the situation.  I kept the dress and moccasins, and after the divorce I took them with me.  I have them now and I believe the power is with them.  When Bob died, the Bundle and the Badger Lodge disappeared.  The right to reproduce them remains partly with me.  What should I do about it?

I could just “secularize” the dress and mocs and sell them or give them to the grandchildren.  They’re pretty humble and might not be valued.  I could destroy them — set them free -- like putting them up in a tree in a remote place and letting them disintegrate.  I could just put it all off until after my death when it would be someone else’s problem.  Few would recognize such plain things.

I talked to Darnell Doore about it, since she is an historian and ceremonialist.  She and her husband, Smoky, sponsor Sun Lodges.  She offered to put the clothing into the top as a formal offering to the Sun.  This is an attractive offer.

There’s another dimension.  For a while I considered attending Thunder Pipe openings as a singleton though none of the original participants I knew are still living.  As a way of extending my plain cotton dress, I thought of creating a fancy “cape” to wear over it.  I’ve nearly finished that now and told Darnell about it.  In her mind she pictured elk-teeth, bugle beads, and other embellishments like the ones on the women in this photo. 

McClintock photo of Blackfeet Women

But mine is mostly star-shaped buttons and a polka dot ribbon on a square of purple cloth with a hole for the wearer’s head and some floating ribbons.  I haven’t figured out how to finish the head-hole yet.  To a naive person, this might make the plain cotton dress from a resentful Margaret Many Guns into something marketable because of the story as much as the appearance.

The value to me is one of participation in the “meme” dimension, but it is not authentic in the sense of being old and produced by indigenous people.  Their materials always have a fringy, earthy, hard-to-see quality because they had to be seen — as though they were 3D movies — through the experiences of prairie people who moved through the land, always dusted and scented.  I never completed that, but have a sense of it.  My cape is too bright, too clean, almost Disney-cartoon.  Nevertheless, it is an object-marker of something more.

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