Tuesday, February 27, 2018


It seems clear that the overriding common denominator of all cultures is survival, which is socioeconomic, which means what counts is whatever sells.  Money is the solvent that will dissolve all the boundaries.  And all the cultural nuclei as well.  

Beyond subsistence, prosperity is a 19th century value of the bourgeois, the famous Middle Class.  While living controlled, walled, standardized lives enforced by rigid morality and relieved by underground wickedness, the Middle Class loved little adventures into the “wild” (like climbing mountains or exploring other people’s countries or religions), and always wanted souvenirs.  When people come to the rez and ask for a tour, I take them up and down the roads and valleys, pointing out the history, and at the end they say,  “Yes, but I really want to buy something.  Are there no shops?”  A dream-catcher maybe?  Or something authentically beaded with glass beads?

When Euro culture first confronted indigenous culture, there was immediately a juxtaposition, a confrontation, between the two peoples.  They dressed differently, they spoke differently, they interpreted the world differently, and they smelled different because they ate and sheltered differently.  But underneath all that they were the same species and so it didn’t take long for the organic but culture bound differences to begin to blur.  One anthropologist, describing the Blackfeet (Macfee, “Modern Blackfeet”), spoke of four cultures: whites, indigenous, whites who lived like indigenous and indigenous who lived like Euros.  He talked of the 150% “man” who incorporated elements of both cultures — not building “scare walls.”  Or pay walls.

Like all discontinuities, money for bridges and gates is a great way to make a little money by charging toll for people and materials.  Part of the wealth of Malcolm Clarke came from him owning a narrow access canyon north of Helena.  In contrast, the Blackfeet never realized that they could charge toll for Marias Pass, the only way for a railroad to get through the Rockies.  When the concept of “intellectual property” came into law, the tribal people were a little more quick to claim exclusive entitlement to their own stories and knowledge, though the Jesuits and the anthros wrote down a lot of it.  Good thing, because otherwise there would be no record now.

There were two steps to getting money out of Napi — one step was writing things down and the next step was publishing it, so that it was in a form that was a “thing”, a solid object that could be exchanged for money.  In The beginning there were no tape recorders and, anyway, only the Blackfeet understood Blackfeet, which was an oral language, which is why the written spelling never settles down.  Gradually certain people made themselves into bridges by translating an oral language into a written book.  Sometimes they had help.  Maybe missionaries or progressive ladies who couldn’t bring themselves to consider some human things of a more intimate nature.  This meant that others could promote the “unauthorized, unbowdlerized real versions.”

The “first” of something tends to dominate everything afterwards, so the main genre of “writing” about indigenous people was recording the myths the way the Greek playwrights and the Grimm brothers did.  In oral traditions there are always variations, so then there was a marketing opportunity advertising true authenticity, the one true and only version, which is a Euro preoccupation.  

Because the category of indigenous people blurred and melted around the edges, the criteria for ownership of “intellectual property” kept morphing.  Does a person have to be a recorded tribal member with a provenance based on a list made by a conquering military?  What if the tribe is not recognized by the federal government, but on its own recognizes the author’s membership?  What if a person, esp. people relocated to cities or sent to government boarding schools at the age of “falling in love,” ended up with membership in a number of tribes?  Are the rules like those for people whose parents belong to a number of nations?  Is a Pan-Indian like a United Nations citizen?  What does the world do about people born in a country not recognized by the other nations as a real nation?

Where did we get the idea that only tribally enrolled people can write about  tribal matters?  (Hint: it was probably either from a lawyer — or a publisher trying to promote a book.)

I must confess that I’m not genetically or legally a Native American.  If one accepts participation in old-timer’s ceremonies, with their consent, then that’s worth something.  If one accepts living on a reservation, that counts for something.  But it’s possible to live on a rez like an ex-pat in a little enclave of others from elsewhere, without ever really feeling or participating in what goes on.  

Every rez is like a raspberry with many drupes, compartments, protected groups organized around centers like a spiritual conviction or within boundaries, like illegal drugs compelling secrecy.  So writing about one will be inspirational and writing about the other will be muck-racking, exposé.  The words, characters, plot and environment might be in the same place but quite differently described. 

Autochthonous people, tribal people, are hard to confine once they understand that there is a much larger world out there — except for those who can’t wait to escape the rez.  Can’t both these folks write about their lives?  Some people never go farther away from their homes than they have to and are content.  Couldn’t they be poets?  Like Emily Dickinson?

I wrote a book I call “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.”  It was written very schematically, starting with a time-line list of the history of the Blackfeet that I developed in a course from Darrell Kipp.  I divided it into generations (twenty year intervals) and wrote a story for each generation based on events of that period.  I buried in each an “Easter egg,” an artifact from Bob Scriver’s book called “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains”.  The first story is about the coming of the horse.  The last story is about a contemporary boy trying to recapture the old time spirituality by fasting in a dream bed in the Sweetgrass Hills.  

But then twenty years went by and I had to write a thirteenth story, so I made it about coming back from Great Falls in a blizzard, like right now.  It was about a guy coming back to his home rez after being raised in Texas.  I based it on and dedicated it to a guy named Linden who was on RezNet, an Indians Only internet bulletin board in the Nineties.  He’s dead now.

Don’t tell Sherman Alexie.  He was on Rez Net, too, but someone said something critical of him and he left.  I was on the bulletin board under false pretenses, so I left.  Not long ago I asked about going back since RezNet is still going after passing decades.  They said, “LOL”.  When my mother died, the people on that bulletin board reached out to comfort me, even though some of them had figured who I really was.

Everything is a story.  No publisher offered to make “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” into an object that could be copyrighted and sold as merchandise.  Anyway, it was hijacked off my blog so you can just download it from pirates.  And I put it on www.lulu.com/prairiemary who will print it, bind it and sell it to you.  There’s not much point in copyrighting it because nations enforce copyrights and what is a nation now?  What is the center of the internet?  Where is the boundary?

The "Twelve Stories" are written in way that could be told as oral stories.  "There was this old woman who hated progress and that meant she hated horses . . . "  "There was this basketball player who joined AIM . . ."  "There was this man who finally went home but hardly recognized it. . ."  There is no wall.  You'll have to find the center.

No comments: