Friday, April 20, 2018


The beginning of American "merch" was here.

The value of American water lay in its use for transportation and the demarcation of areas, just as in Europe, but on a different scale.  In South America, for instance, the Amazon was overwhelming.  But on the North American continent the problem was the direction it ran.  Hudson’s Bay was key to the northern part, since rivers fed into it, but farther south the fractal “crease” that the Mississippi River followed ran North/South.  The new dominators of North America longed to connect the two oceans they knew — Atlantic and Pacific — just as the Atlantic had connected two continents.

The oceanic connection between “America” and “Europe” was perilous.  It took so long that food was a major problem (salt beef and rancid water) and scurvy killed sailors.  Years went by before the voyages were anything approaching safe or dependable.  But the American rivers were mostly navigable, as the indigenous people knew.  Early maps were based on rivers.

Early merchandize concentrated on fiber because reliable preservation of food had not been invented yet.  (In the case of Africa, people themselves became cargo.)  Northern America and Canada offered a silly source of material for anomalous hats, “top hats”, with stovepipe crowns and narrow brims, made of the underfur of beavers which was shaved off the hides and compressed into felt.  This strange use persisted until silk became available.  

The hats signified prestige, wealth, and respectability, rather like the topknots of exotic birds.  A scientist once experimented with tall headgear in birds, harmlessly gluing on exaggerated feathers to see whether the potency would persist.  It would, until there was so much added to the birds’ heads that they tipped over.  Thus, there seems to be some kind of biological key to the fashion, DNA never stipulated.

The Hudson’s Bay company was happy to exploit this, building forts and trading posts everywhere they could, radiating out from the Bay itself which was the way of shipping the materials to the hat makers far away.  It took a while for indigenous people to register the value, until they realized it meant access to metal and, much later, guns.  Blankets and pots, then alcohol, played into the equations.  Hudson’s Bay mercantile company was essentially Canada and a force south of the boundary for a while since that line was only theoretical for a long time.

Horses, incoming rather than exported, were valuable and persuasive on the prairie.  It took a while to learn how to prevent them dying every hard winter, but they were a means of travel on the high and dry prairie.  Because they fit into the niche of dogs (and were even called “elk dogs”) their use was natural.  They did change the nature of the seasonal web of trails, because horses need grass and more water than dogs.  And they changed the hunting of bison so that it was much less communal, as the "buffalo jumps" had been.

Blackfeet were not happy with the idea of killing and selling beavers.  They didn’t like the mechanics of wading around in cold water and ice, but more than that, to them beavers were people who worked, who made things.  Some say that the Siksika were more interested in selling pemmican (dried buffalo meat pounded up with with berries) than beaver pelts.  (If the sailors had had pemmican, they would have lived, saved by a recipe.)

Bison hides were too big to be shipped by canoe to ports.  It was the advent of industrialization in the form of railroads and steam ships on the biggest rivers that was a deliberate death warrant for the major herds who circulated the prairie, leading the following Blackfeet.  It is said that their pelts didn’t go for hats but rather provided leather for the conveyor belts of merch-obsessed factories, an early version of what became rubber belts.

Once the white people pushed the indigenous darker ones onto reservations, they set about merchandizing the prairie itself.  Paris Gibson was one of the earliest to realize that the Great Falls of the Missouri River were as good as a dam, a source of power for the new electricity as well as for milling and turbines.  He knew a city would grow here and it did, until now it turns away from industry to military.  The ores that needed refining have diminished.

Paris Gibson was a sheep-rancher and so were many of the first incomers.  Blackfeet managed herds of their own sheep along the foothills and across the prairie.  Then the sheep        were replaced by cattle.  There wasn’t enough water for garden crops.  Again, it was industrialization that brought the ability to raise dryland crops with huge machines for plowing, sowing and harvest.  The season wasn’t long enough for corn and much of it was too high for wheat, but barley was a little hardier and became another crop keyed to alcohol (beer).

Among the earliest businesses was what we would call “trucking,” except with teams of horses (or oxen or mules) pulling wagonloads of building materials and household supplies as people arrived to set up housekeeping.  Of course, whisky and dynamite were included next to the plows.  It wasn’t until later that clocks and pianos began to arrive.  Like glass windows.  

Homesteading was the accelerant of the infiltration, but also forces far away:  the Irish potato famine that pushed thousands west across ocean and midwest; the War between the States that many fled; an end to slavery that was the keystone to the economy of the South.  These forces determined what kind of white and black people arrived, their life-risking efforts, their willingness to displace or kill the indigenous.  

Then the rez itself was divvied up and assigned to individual families with the federal government declaring much of it “left-over” and therefore taking it.  In their zeal to make everything conform, they established residential schools back east and tried to co-opt the young Blackfeet into being literate but low-ranking employees.  Only later did they realize that this value, ideas, exceeded all others.  They tried to suppress and disband the Young Man’s Literary Society, but too late.  Education was a value no one could contain, though many would resist.

With education came the realization that irrigation increased the value of land, if one could capitalize on the natural engine of gravity pulling water down the mountains.  Once reconciled to intervention in nature, the Blackfeet supported the digging of irrigation canals.  Then they got distracted by oil.

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