Monday, May 21, 2018


This post will be controversial in several different ways.  The first is that I’m not genetically Native American and there is a school-of-thought that only people like the subject can legitimately speak from their point of view.  So be assured that I’m not writing from the point of view of an enrolled Blackfeet/Siksika.  I'm just old and I was there.

Another attempt to control writing about NA’s is the Chamber of Commerce notion that any criticism will hurt the reputation and increase the stigma of the people written about.  This runs headlong into the idea that if a situation is truly dire, meaning people need help, and esp. if the general public has such a low consciousness of their reality, then it’s vital to publish the truth no matter how ugly, to impress the suffering on other people.  The split between these two notions gives rise to the image of NA’s as either saints or sinners, with no portrayal of the earnest and conscientious people who go through their days with honor.  These days honor is often considered boring unless it’s dramatic or even life-threatening.

Attempts to recover and bring life to ancient languages preserved only in writing go back to early Hebrew and have been evidence of the possibility since then.  But not many think this through.  The Plains Indians did not use writing in the sense of ink on paper.  Their language was spoken.  In fact, an alternative in use was “gesture language” which still persists.  We call it “sign language.”  In the Sixties when my students spoke of death they almost unconsciously made the gesture with their arm of something upright falling over.  

Under every written language is an oral language: people spoke Hebrew before it was written down.  But the natural milieu of the Siksika (their name for themselves) parallel to printing is radio and video.  Windspeaker is a radio station in Canada — not a publishing house.  If you explore YouTube, there are many videos.

A spoken language must be learned by speaking with others.  The Piegan Institute Cuts Wood Academy was founded as an immersion school for primary grades in 1987.  Darrell Kipp, Dorothy Still Smoking, Thomas Little Plume and Roslyn LaPier were at the core of the founding.  (I regret that I don’t know the names of the teachers, all Blackfeet speakers.)  They were helped by the earlier indigenous language movements in New Zealand and Hawaii.  One of the first insights was that bodies are as much involved in speaking as any sounds, so the words are taught with movements.

More than that, under the gestures are the images.  When one says “tree” in English, one imagines an English tree, so it is necessary to imagine a Siksika tree.  One cannot do such a thing without being there to see the aspen copse, the cottonwoods along the streams, the alpine twisted but persisting bull pine.  This cannot be learned from a book, no matter how subtle and complex one’s knowledge of the proper grammars and compositions of the people.  When “Dances with Wolves” was screened on the Sioux rez, the old people burst out laughing.  The woman hired to teach the actors had taught them women’s Sioux: in that tribe the people lived in gender-role separation and each developed their own versions.

Such emotional and implicating ideas are held in languages and behaviors.  The first task of the Piegan Institute people was overcoming the instilled fear of speaking their own language because the government punished them for doing it.  This past week in Havre, MT., a border patrolman challenged two women for speaking their own language.  Havre is close to a reservation and there is stigma about that.  But the two women were speaking Spanish.  They were American citizens with a Mexican background.  The patrolman was racist.  The law often is because under it is an unconsidered idea that sameness is good. ________________________________

This is from "Heartbreak Butte", a book I wrote after teaching in Heart Butte, Montana.  You can download it from Google.


To get out of history, get into geography.
--James Hillman


At the end of the Eighties, members of the Piegan Institute did a language inventory of children ready for Head Start.  When they had screened the children for English, half a dozen were left in a category marked "non-English speakers."  Surprised that so many children had Blackfeet as a primary language, they did something no one had thought of before:  they screened the children to see how much Blackfeet they knew.  And the appalling truth was out:  the children didn't speak Blackfeet either.  

They didn't speak any accepted language, but only a kind of family-specific set of indicators for the basics:  water, food, sleep, the bathroom.  True babytalk.  The only people who really understood them were the slightly older children who had the duty of babysitting them.  This is not a circumstance peculiar to the Blackfeet or to native Americans or even to poor people.  It is something that happens whenever adults are too busy, numb, drunk, angry, depressed or otherwise "out-of-it" to pay any attention to their own children.  If the kids are lucky, the household will not be too chaotic for them to watch Sesame   Street.  Then they have a chance.

There is no way to know if there were children in the Sixties who spoke no language at all.  No one tested for Blackfeet speakers.  Some say that the children have come upon hard times because the boarding-school-educated grandmothers are gone-- already frail from old age in the Sixties.  Others say it was allowing alcohol to be sold to Indians on the reservation after the WW II veterans came back.  That was when the women began to drink.  In the Sixties I never saw a fetal alcohol child. (The Sixties was also a time when certain doctors felt entitled to sterilize Indian women with little cause and no consent.  Adopting Indian babies to white families was seen as giving the babies a chance.)  Some would point to the efforts to move Indians to the cities, where they lived in ghettoes and acquired the culture of despair.  They stopped living for the future and therefore stopped valuing children.

Human speech develops between specific ages of the child.  If the window of opportunity passes without language being learned, the brain closes down that option.  Children can be raised by wolves, but they will not speak.  They will not read.  Their culture will be the culture of wolves: eat, sleep, greet the known, fear the unknown.  This is why the early years of the children are the most crucial of all if the Blackfeet Nation-- or any other-- is to survive.

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