Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Families rather than warriors.

As I prowl around Google et al in search of posts about how to promote a book, I’m really thinking about how School Dist #9 (Browning, MT) can promote their goldmine that is four volumes of archives on the Blackfoot people as accumulated and formatted by Adolf Hungry Wolf, who made this a lifework.  

This is what I’m thinking so far.  I’ve been following Native American books for half a century.  It just happened that during the NA Renaissance of novels in the Seventies, I was in Portland and haunting Powells, where they were remaindering the books for $5 each because they just weren’t selling.  Of all the NA people who thought they might get rich if they wrote a book, only a very few were able to make a little money and it was the most white ones.  The most white ones were book readers.  The most white ones had a little money to buy books.  The most white ones knew to use libraries.  The most white ones were the ones who could leave an historically oral culture to accept the terms of a written culture.

And the most accessible books were the whitest ones.  They succeeded the best because it was white people who bought the books — they had the money and they hoped to find out the most authentic secrets, the true heart of the indigenous person — as they imagined them to be.  It was a total mismatch between the category of writers and that of readers.  No one could understand it because they felt that looking too closely would reveal racism, but publishers go with sales and as far as they were concerned NA books didn’t sell.

So some people figured it was racism anyway and made a big fuss, demanding that  the books sell — to ??  White people.  And the publishers didn’t like big fusses, so they stopped even reading the manuscripts from rez people.  Guilt and headaches don’t sell books.

Who benefits most from “The Blackfoot Papers”?  Some might think that because the materials are absolutely authentic they are indispensable to anthropologists;  they are thinking in terms of “salvage anthropology,” the conviction that indigenous cultures are doomed, that they only “real” ones are pre-contact and every adaptation to a changing world after that is a loss, a degradation, a dilution of a vanishing people who are like an animal species that will go extinct.  (I did NOT say indigenous peoples are animals because all human beings are animals.)

But people are not like other species BECAUSE of their culture, which is meant for survival by adaptation and anthropology realizes that now.  That’s why all genocides are stupid— human cultures are always changing because they are a process.  If there is an attempt to kill all the people of the culture, the killing becomes part of the cultures of BOTH the killers and the victims.  Modern American culture is a culture of killing.

So what is the point of these books, which present pre-contact as well as more contemporary parts of Blackfeet life?  Who needs to know the lives of these old people who’ve gone on ahead?  Their descendants, that’s who.  Their survivors.  These are the people who need these books to exist, whether or not they can afford to buy a set.  The descendants need to be motivated to use libraries, to go online and look for the material on websites, and to talk about it.  The sales will be mostly those who serve the descendants: schools, libraries, museums.

So the most natural promotion for sales, even to white people but also to the NA people who make enough money to put a couple of hundred dollars into books, is THROUGH THE DESCENDANTS.  Say that photos and quotes about a specific old person described in the biographies could be replicated for projection on a screen in an auditorium?  The school owns the copyrights, correct?  Say that the descendants of that person are found and that they go “TED style” to a platform where they can talk about that old person but ALSO, their own lives and the lives in the generations between that old person and themselves.  The moms and dads as well as the grands and the great-grands.  This is taking a printed written thing and transforming it into a living oral event.  Videotape the presentations and put them on the website: now there’s a permanent bridge from oral to written.

Publishers love to publicize the authors instead of the books because they want to make money and that takes time, which means no time for sitting around reading.  But print can also be read out-loud and then it’s a book for earbuds.  If kids read parts of these books onto sound media, that would expand the possible audience and allow them to be put on the Blackfeet radio station.  It would also motivate good speech skills.

Promoting the editor of “The Blackfoot Papers” is problematic because Adolf Hungry Wolf has been so politicized by people trying to play the race card.  To his credit, he never let that stop him.  In fact, much of his life has been among the people who care the least about blood quantum:  full-blood Native Americans.  He might be attacked at some author event, but when he is able to attend the funeral of an important tribal person and present all the songs he has learned (hundreds) no one gives him grief.

It’s wrong to get mad at white people for writing about Indians because at first there weren’t Indian people who could write and there weren’t iPods that could pick up on oral versions.  But because there was written materials that could be stored and saved until the iPods were invented, now possibilities open up.  Now the right thing to do continues to be supporting and providing venues for “Indian” people, not shutting down those without that provenance.

At one time it was thought that the world was in categories and the categories didn’t change, but that’s because the changes were so slow that no one really felt them happening.  By now everything is moving so fast we can hardly comprehend.  Still, we’ve learned to expect change.  It’s just hard to keep up.  When I search through websites like those of schools and towns, they most often have not gotten their heads around the idea that a website is a process — it requires maintenance and change.  The whole idea is that you can use a website for reference about calendars and changes of policies and personnel, but then no one is assigned or the person leaves or there’s too much to do and the website might as well be blank.  What remains frozen in time is what was put there when the website was originally made.

It’s like that with book promotion.  Most people put out a flurry of announcements and maybe try to get some reviews and speaking engagements, but then the newness wears off.  Old news is no news.  So you have to create new news.  Maybe a long hiking trip on one of the ancient dog trails that some researchers found and mapped, and the campsite is shown photos or stories in “The Blackfoot Papers.”  Maybe the valedictorian at BCC or BHS is given a set of “The Blackfoot Papers” or the books are a prize for someone who gives a speech entirely in Blackfeet.  The contents of the physical books remain whole, on the rez, as a window to the past in which the alert can see signs of a future culture.

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