Sunday, February 16, 2020


Until now these two biographical sketches didn't really fit together.  One is a man I first knew as a teenaged student and the other I first knew as an adult cop ten years older than me.  They really had nothing in common directly, except for a shared pattern.  They weren't related.  Now both of them are long dead.  The pattern is that they were respectable if uninvested kids, then became dangerously violent esp. to the people they loved, and after something hidden happened, became ceremonialists, very serious and taken very seriously by outsiders.  Even some rez people.

Some people here will know who I'm talking about and that's okay.  I just want to protect them a bit from outsiders.  Besides, they may be a novel some day.  They were men who lived in the strange borderlands between enrolled rez people of achievement, often pretty well assimilated and certainly accepted, and other people who had a dangerous edge.  Besides the reality of the rez, they represented the Nitzitahpi old ways to a certain kind of white person who was very curious and worshipful of those ways.

My fav story of the younger one involved an NPR producer who came to find out all about the magic secrets.  X took her on his usual tour, which took all day and for which he rarely charged enough money, and she chattered away, asking a zillion questions, drunk on this reality of being with an Indian on a rez.  Finally X couldn't stand it any longer and turned from behind the wheel of the Jimmy.  "Would you please just shut up for ten minutes so I can think what I'm doing?"

She did, abashed.  Her companion hid his smile.  He never got to say anything.

Both men withdrew from enrolled partners and chose white women who were impressed by their later status as "medicine men," if you want to call them that.  In some ways they are more like the Greek boatman who takes the dead to the underworld.  Charon with his boat, using a pole to cross the River Styx.  Not at all a Blackfeet idea.  Anyway they didn't ferry others.  They just went there.  To death.  At first in alcoholic blackouts, then in realizing what they done to others.  I guess.  I wasn't close enough to either one to hear any stories of repentance. 

I interpret them to entering a boundary country between two cultures, partly created by them, partly the reality of both white people -- even in urban areas -- and partly the reality of the east slope Rockies rez.  It is imaginary and yet it is inhabited and even celebrated.  This vid is an example of that liminal place where two cultures overlap, overlay.  This never existed before.  It is ceremonial but not historic and has nothing to do with "first contact," that shock.  But how vivid this is, how much we are drawn in, how much the original people are celebrated.  What outsider visitors can't see is how much this is about families, how much it knits together a pan-Indian view that has political consequences.  

This is the source of kitsch: dream-catchers, "Indian tacos," but also the source of a new going-forward identity.  About  as real as a rodeo is in comparison to ranching, pow-wows of this kind still present a recognizable "face" to people who have no other contact with what they think are "Indians".  There are no khaki-clad anthros to push French deconstruction theory. (Still, Presentation is so important!)  More New Orleans Mardi Gras than authentic historicism, pow-wow has an authority all its own as a Performance.

Neither of these men I'm thinking about was a pow-wow dancer, but they occupied a similar sort of mystique in a slightly more sophisticated context.  People in the this ceremonial world are deeply serious.  A few are whites, maybe Vietnam vets, who have come to the rez for nothing less than salvation.  They put up Sun Lodge frames, conventional tipis, and hundred-willow sweat lodges and sit together dark and hot, singing and telling stories and testifying.  The effect on these two men was to find a way out of abusive violence and the self-contempt of their earlier years.

The younger female English teacher lover had been badly beaten and she left for home.  The older woman stayed but was a second wife and not exactly welcome.  I don't know whether she stayed after her husband died.

The younger one of these ceremonialists mixed it with speaking for the history and was on several videos.  When I heard him speak, I recognized the indignation and sorrow about the past but it wasn't quite the same set of facts that I had known from books and conversation.  The older one was outside my circle, though I knew his children, who were quite unlike him.  The two men were meant to be outside the circles I knew and they were in fact.  I didn't attend the lectures or ceremonies.  My knowledge of such things was of couples who were in their eighties during the Sixties, nearly the last of the buffalo people.

This liminal borderland, partly fact and partly raw emotion, was known to me, partly in print and partly in conversation, for unique reasons.  It was presented to me, not participated in as had been the earlier ceremony.  I had no role but observer.  But the two men were neither readers nor writers and I don't know any writers who tried to portray them or their secret worlds.  Their worlds are more than a little bit dangerous.  They went in and out of criminal circles, without ever identifying them that way.  Maybe during ceremonies those men (all men) were not criminals for a short time, free from conscience and blame, reaching for something beyond forgiveness, a world unknown.

Some of the people who visit the liminal quasi-autochthonous borderlands are missing the reality of it.  They accept the German meticulous reproduction of artifacts and words they think will take them to a different place of reproduction, a different kind of authenticity.  But it is these two men with violent pasts who found their way to dignity and lived there until the end.  I think about them.

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