Full moon last night and in Heart Butte a person could probably hear the coyotes singing. Here at my house the cats were going out full of curiosity, then demanding to come in when it got spooky. (They rap out “shave and a haircut” on the cat flap so I’ll stagger out in my nightie and let them in.)
I didn’t have to stagger far since I was up until 3AM processing the national political news. The media is no help at all except for Rachel Maddow and sometimes her associates, because this is not much like anything that has happened before — or so they say. That’s probably right in a technical sense, but if a person has much experience with “Indian” reservations, it’s awfully familiar. This is particularly true of the big rezzes: Navajo is the biggest, Blackfeet next esp. if you count the part of the “nation” that is in Canada but keeps alive the historic connections.
I was already thinking about this rez because of a conversation by chance with Walt Wetzel, namesake son of the chair of the tribe and brother of an athletic icon. “Blackie”, the familiar name of Walter Senior, was chair of the tribal council back in the day of oil strikes. There’s quite a bit about him in Paul C. Rosier’s vital book, “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954.”
Repubs and Dems wrestle for the “Indian soul.” There is an uneasy overlay with the fractures of the tribe. Blackie Wetzel was the man who thought up the logo for the “Redskins” and considered it a mark of pride and distinction, something like the Buffalo Nickel. But modern tribal people have taken logos as a spearpoint for demanding political dignity and effectiveness, so they demonstrate to get rid of it.
There are enough tribes in Montana to throw an election one way or the other. But as the “wiseacre” sage Bob Scriver used to say, “The last time they stuck together on a project was Custer’s Last Stand.” Another relevant joke is that you can tell tribal leaders by the arrows in their back.
My father, who was a public relations man for ag co-ops, had a joke about a man drowning just off the end of a pier. A lifeguard tried to save him and grabbed him by the hair, but it was a wig and came off. Then he grabbed the man’s hand but it came off, it was a prosthesis. Etc. The exasperated lifeguard demanded, “How can I save you if you don’t stick together?” Why should someone from outside save them anyway?
But the American problem now seems to be getting stuck together. This new tax bill was passed on the basis of party affiliation and nothing else. We don’t really know what it does, because it was secret, never evaluated, and more decorated with concessions to minor constituents than the White House Christmas Tree.
White House Christmas, 2017
In the meantime some of the actual White House decorations are witchy — bare branches forming a kind of tunnel, very Hans Christian Anderson. We are told there are a lot of mice stirring in that house, as well as cockroaches. (Biological, not elected.)
The Blackfeet just rejected an election for a new constitution that contained the separation of powers, which was not included in the historical reorganization of the tribe into a corporation model, which is what Blackie Wetzel was part of as CEO. They figured that the way to counter the raiding of outside resource corporations going back as far as the fur-trapping days, was to become an equal power. Even today — not just in the tribe — the preference is for some powerful (male) mogul who will be the chief and in father-fashion, protect and guide everyone while giving merciful concessions to the needy. This is a Euro pattern which early Americans countered with the separation of powers as a protection against tyrants and plutocrats.
The original Nitzitahpi were in clans with a genetic core so that many of the members were blood relatives who drew in outsiders through marriage and partnerships. Groups were about a hundred people, which is the natural size of communities who are known to each other as individuals and identify with each other, traveling and hunting together.
Coyote Woman and Louis Plenty Treaty
These days one of the most difficult problems is how to define “us” since there is so much intermarriage, assimilation, and immigration. What was once buffalo culture when Louis Plenty Treaty, one of the last old-timers, opposed Blackie Wetzel, it was easy to tell by looking which was the old-timer full-blood. By now it has now blurred into a kind of class system -- those who have been to college, succeeded in business, understand legal documents, traveled the "outside" world -- are one layer and another major segment is sort of stuck, getting by on contract labor with institutions more than owning small businesses. All the while human sediment sinks to the bottom, baffled and despairing.
There is another constituency of people burned by modernity, now trying to reach back to the past. It’s necessary for them to fight their way through a thicket of anthropologists and a quicksand of New Agers, because the old-timers Walt and I knew in the Sixties, when Louis was eighty, are pretty much gone now. This is the group -- not the old-timers but the venture dreamers -- that interests me most, even in WhiteMan circles. They are liminal, dissociated, “feeling” for new concepts, visceral, thinking in ways so deep they aren’t available except during sleep, full of intense emotion, bearing the marks of failed risk. They are all the things excluded by institutional religion and conventional media-driven culture. I’m not a good enough poet to capture this except maybe as stories. But they might not have happy endings.
Back in the day in Portland during the Nineties, a very painful and dangerous time in that city (Mayor Goldschmidt was screwing his babysitter, armed Hispanic drug dealers were loose in the streets), I was on Reznet by using false pretences. One was supposed to be enrolled. When I ‘fessed up that I was white though a rez dweller, some women set out to convince me that I COULD NOT know what it was to live their lives. All the sympathy I could summon up was not enough to give me insight or feel the flesh-deep understanding they had. What they didn’t know and probably would not admit anyway, was that their children were also lacking that connection.
It was a bondage that the youngsters abandoned, a way to get free of stereotypes. But now they want to know what ties are left and how to use them in their lives. It’s not just a matter of voting or forming alliances. There’s something more needed. “Americans” have the same problem.
What makes the coyotes sing? (Happy birthday, TPB.)