Sunday, June 23, 2019


When the Euro invaders got to the Blackfeet/foot in America, they were not so much Christian as what the idea of Christianity had turned into, which is to say the Roman Empire.  They made it "holy."  That is, they ignored Jesus and went back to the Old Testament about kings and war.  God was simply a king writ large in the sky.

But then the idea of "empire" didn't cross the Atlantic Ocean unbroken, meaning it was unenforceable, so the colonies became a "nation."  A "nation" took precedence over ecologies, as it had in Europe.  Anyway, the idea of an ecology hadn't been invented yet.  Many people still haven't gotten their heads around it.

What some people call "religion" is an aspect of empire, but real holiness/sacrality is ecological.  It doesn't fit itself to the land (human culture) but arises out of the land.  Humans have evolved in stages and experiments over the millennia and built many layers of culturally informed ways of living on the land.  Perhaps it is the Industrial Revolution with its dynamite, railroads, chemistry, aggregation, barbed wire, corrogated tin, and skyscrapers that has left the land the farthest, even attempted its destruction.  (Even the poisonous Butte mining lake -- does it have a name? -- will go back to some form of geology in the end.)

The deepest and most persistent recurring Sacredness is the human family.  The New Testament recognizes that.  That trope had not gotten through to me until I saw small living animals wrapped like babies in order to handle and heal them. 

One amazing photo showed fruit bat babies in a time of fire.  They had been smoked out of trees by the wild fire, gathered and wrapped (swaddled) and laid in rows for counting and evaluating. (This is a different set who were caught in a flood.)  This whole article discusses the image.

In the Pipe Bundle an owl is the most potent and therefore more dangerous animal, but in a modern veterinary clinic, an owl is humorous, a toy. We weigh and measure everything, losing touch with the terrifying "who".

The animals in a Medicine Pipe Bundle are wrapped the same way, with their heads sticking out, but photographing them is discouraged.  Of course, they are adult and they are dead.  In the ceremony they function as a kind of hymnal, each with its own song and dance.  To "perform" the animal, the celebrant takes it in his hands and dances around the circle of the congregants.  This is felt to honor that species and re-energize the wrapped packet, reminding everyone the way a really good hymn gets into your guts.

The not-quite-subconscious concept is that humans are creatures of the place and the animals are our brothers and sisters, or like our children, or maybe even like our ancestors.  It is a ceremony of inclusion, rather than being a marker of exclusive knowledge, entitled only to the baptised the way Christian baptism is supposed to be.  Today's cutting edge science speaks of the continuousness of all life, one boundary pressing up against another with some permeability. The fate of one affects all others.

But Christians have a materialistic grip on objects as the doorknob to God, and tend to worship the communion materials, obsessing over the chalice and platen (which some reduce to cup and saucer), the bread and wine.  Those who are very fundamental and source-confined note that in Jesus' tabletop template, the bread was unleavened "flat" bread and the wine was a kind of watered vinegar for the daily table.  Today pretentious people use risen bread, maybe artisanal, and expensive wine.  Gullible people imagine that the bread, Jesus' symbolic flesh, actually turns into human flesh, scandalizing literalist children who accidentally bite it or get "Jesus" stuck to the top of their mouth.

When the missionaries got hold of any outstanding compassionate person in Blackft mythology, like Blood Clot Boy, they declared him to be Jesus.  When they were offered berry soup at a Pipe ceremony, an homage and prompter for the berry crop, they declared it Communion.  This was easy since they had no relationship to the land, never watched the animals, never picked berries and spread them out to dry on a clean buffalo robe.  The first thing missionaries did was break the relationship to the land because Christianity came from the arid desertified "Holy" land where wells had to be guarded with force.  They were conditioned to ownership, which was decided and enforced by authorities.  The prairie people defined the relationship with objects as being of "use" rather than ownership.

A recent book, "We Are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence", edited by Robert R. Janes also suggested to me the idea of Sacred Objects as being children, as it is the pattern for growing-up children to try their power by leaving, succeeding or failing in the world, and then coming home.  But I'm not sure that everyone understands that it is the objects themselves who are the children who come back, though it is also a powerful calling out to the many tribal members who have scattered off the rez, that they can come home.  The Holiness of the place itself has not been dispersed after all.

This is not a statement of moral or legal truth, nothing to do with treaties or Euro-churches, but merely the recognition of something underlying and constituting reality.  But if a genetic descendant, entitled whether by "blood" or by provenance, wanted to come home the return would not be complete until after many hours of "being with" the land.  Not necessary to go to a high place and starve.  Just sit in the grass, watch the sky, and listen.

One of the chapters in this book is about the return of the Blackfoot Sacred Bundles in all of Alberta's museums to Allan Pard, who was felt to be honorable enough to protect them.  This included the Bundles in the Scriver collection.  When I talked to Pard on the phone, I could hear many child voices -- he was also a receiver of grandchildren.  

I do not object to this decision to repatriate, though I know Bob would have a different reaction.  His name and the Scriver collection are listed in the index and I think some of this writing is influenced by what happened when he sold the collection.  He had some not-quite-acknowledged reasons for what he did.  Much of it just happened over the hundred years his family was on that piece of land.  Some of it was a kind of proof of success, since many pieces were acquired by his dad as gifts or pawn.  A little was to establish belonging, since his lifelong wound was being excluded from the Browning Merc.  Some of it was to stick a finger in the eye of the Sacred Euro Masonics who threw him out.  And most of it, which I shared, was understanding it as a felt connection -- mystic if you want to call it that -- to the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans that rises out of the land itself.  Feeling it.  Embodiment.

PS  When I told all this to a Blackfeet friend, he said he had a relative whose name was "Wrapped Up Child."
Not in a Blackfeet Bundle.  It's an English hedgehog.

No comments: