Thursday, April 19, 2018


When the Siksika (Blackfeet on the US side and Blackfoot on the Canada side) were finally reduced on the US Piegan side to about 500 people, maybe half of them children, and cornered to one place in Montana, up against the Rockies, they were fortunate in several ways, though it didn’t seem like it at the time.  Until that time they had been able to pursue an existential* way of survival.

Once the Euro-derived economy broke up the culture and deleted the buffalo, this land had never been an easy place to live, but it was understood in an existential economic way, simply by existing.  The resources that were there — grass, wind, sun, water and the fact that the land was an ecotone that slanted from high on the treeline in the Rockies down and out to the major rivers of the flatland which dug deep coulees from west to east across the prairie— amounted to a strategy.  The jetstream brought in catabatic winds that dropped moisture and created occasional relief from winter because they were warm.  Winter moisture that fell in the mountains was stored by cold and beavers until the growth season, then gradually released.  

In winter the people lived among the cottonwoods along the coulee bottoms.  In summer they moved out through the grass to where the camas grew and the buffalo grazed.  They followed the berries from where they first ripened along the summer rivers to where the last bushes up high ripened last and sometimes freeze-dried before being picked or found by bears.  When the bugs became fierce, they moved to the ridges where wind blew the winged ones on their way.

One of the early archeological signs of modernizing is “settling,” staying in one place so as to build shelter and even dedicated buildings with uses like granaries or churches.  Permanent construction was a sign of value and introduced "ownership."  Tribes who grew crops -- even the pastoralists (early-contact Navajo who kept sheep and late-contact nomads who took horses with them as they moved through their network) -- seemed more “civilized” because they were less existential people, whose resource needs were almost always spread out around them.  If not, there was trade, swapping real existing things.  No IOU's, no layaway, no mortgages.

By the time “venture capitalist” systems— which are a form of literacy in that they are written records of what exists and what might exist in the future or has existed in the past, and can be recorded in order to “own” and hoard -- it was as hard for the Siksika to see how the coding of marks on paper could stand for real things as it was hard for Euro-coding types to understand nomadic wealth and culture.  They did not see a lifestyle as an investment.  Investing with one’s skills, understanding, and practices with a landscape as a "bank" was too far out to understand.

But the new venture capitalists themselves, the Euros, were still struggling to understand the industrial systems which were dependent on that “venture” of rich people’s investment gambling in railroads, factories and ownership.  It was all dependent on the concept of ownership and of “interest” which meant loaning money at a certain optimistic rate, expecting a future return.  These were unknown to the prairie tribes.  It was all code to them, but not one they knew or that even seemed possible.

The venture capital understanding of land was that it could be used to produce, like a factory; that it could be collateral to secure a loan; and that it might contain unknown raw resources worth a lot of money if they had the venture capital necessary to industrially dig it up.  They did not know that land, untouched, was itself a great provider of the resource of water, or that water could be industrialized as a source of power, as a tool for digging, or as a part of land’s ecological machine of renewal.

Nor did they know that changes to the earth’s patterns could be major enough to shift or even turn off the major planetary forces of air and air-borne water.  There was not much thought about the continental glaciers that had plowed the land repeatedly, sometimes leaving fertilizing ground-up mineral contributions from formations they had passed over and sometimes carrying giant boulders for long distances or forming lakes deep enough to persist into a second year.  

The People recognized the volcanic tall hills as refuges, but only as present realities in times of hunting or oppressive heat. They knew that the aromatic evergreen grew there, suitable for smudging, but didn’t know it had persisted because the ice passed lower along the hills.  They were exquisitely aware that chance could intervene, that the unexpected could blast everything, that bad luck could plague a life.  In preparation for the emotional toughness necessary to survive, they played stick game/hand game to hone their alertness.  If they lost and cried about it, no doubt they were mocked or told to try harder next time.  Anyway, the core was the group rather than the individual.

But maybe this white man's bookkeeping code game of capital and debt didn’t seem enough the same to be protected.  Where was it?  You couldn't see it or hold it.   It wasn’t even as “real” as a treaty on paper instead of marked on the land by some surveyor.  Maybe that’s why the tribes didn’t realize that some treaties were never signed by Congress, the same as Trump failed to sign his nondisclosure agreements.

There is one source of value that continues to exist wherever there are people of any kind: art and story, which are closely related.  In our newest times during which information has become the most crucial capital, these sources remain unindustrialized.  Their origin is human.  With some investment, they can become capital.  But we are running a little short.  

Arts are an information economy but not everyone is equipped to profit from it.  The modern infrastructure is not complete.  (Computer access.  Internet transmission.)  The coding skills (literacy) are still missing in many people.  Some people still think you have to buy the resources.  Others only respond to requests and demands from others — they aren’t self-propelled.

More than anything else, images and stories are in the existential economy.  They exist — if you recognize them.  You must exist your own self before you can find stories and art.  Some have forgotten how it is to do that.  It has nothing to do with money.  But you could invest time.  Most Blackfeet remember how to do that.

(*I'm using "existential" as a way of indicating ways of managing objects and transactions in a "real" way -- the things themselves as objects.  Barter, trading, uses, rather than equivalent monetary value.  It is a difference as significant as using oral language with no writing.  Direct, observable, real. )

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