Sunday, August 31, 2008


I was interested in the Great Falls Tribune Sunday story (8-31-08) about the proposed acquisition of the David Humphreys Miller collection. Actually, they say it's worth 1.4 million. (Inflation, you know.) With the Miller collection in mind, let’s take a look at what makes collections of Indian artifacts (and portraits) valuable.

First of all, let’s be blunt. Indian artifacts were often the trophies of the wars that cleared the prairies for white development. A scalp, a quiver, a shield, guns and bows and so on might have been actually collected off the field the way my uncle acquired Herman Goering’s tableware and stationary after WWII. This collection is in part made valuable by its connection to the Battle of the Little Big Horn or the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand. Naming rights to the event is part of the dynamics.

Second, Indian artifacts were often sold because the People were pressed into need by the loss of their former economy and the graft of the US government, from agents to railroaders, who constantly skimmed tribal wealth. (One might accompany this point with the CMR portrait of the Indian mother selling a buffalo horn hat rack, trudging down the sidewalk in front of an elegantly porched Great Falls house where a prosperous but oblivious white woman rocks her child.)

Third, Indian artifacts are based on the 19th century assumption that Indians were doomed as a separate people, that the death of their previous culture would mean NO culture at all, so they would stop existing. The idea is that we killed them, but we saved their good stuff as curiosities or maybe “works of art” or for a veneer of scientific research.

Fourth, religious artifacts are laden with the “magic” quality that many attribute to the American Indian of the 19th century and that contemporary Indians use to accrue value and status to themselves. But it’s my understanding that the value and status of ceremonial objects and their allocation to the stewardship of individuals, though they were connected to prosperity (both bringing it and necessitating it for the expensive performance of the ceremonies) actually belonged to the tribe itself. That is, the elders of the tribe determined worthiness to manage ceremonies, because the "magic" affected the welfare of the whole.

Yet this is problematic because the “tribe” was an assemblage of independent bands whose leadership shifted according to the task at hand so as to put capable people in charge. There was no “tribe” as a whole until the US Government began to impose the requirement so as to have a coherent entity with which to deal, who could sign treaties in the European manner. Many problems have been created by their failure to recognize that in the best of times (even now) the bands never universally assented to decisions. The tribe’s most powerful portion, not necessarily a majority, is associated with a lot of small groups who go along only if they must and often with a great deal of noisy objection. If two factions are about evenly matched -- well, watch the newspaper.

Even in the case of Lyle Heavyrunner, who is a good man and a capable leader (as well as posing for one of the buffalo hunters in Bob Scriver’s major bronze called “Real Meat”), is only a member of one branch of the Eagle Calf (John Ground) family and the branches are not unanimous among themselves. Add the complication of several different tribes intermarrying and interacting (or parts of tribes since no two tribes merged -- certainly not traditional enemies like the Sioux and Blackfeet) and the fact that some of these artifacts (Black Elk’s) possibly represent a synergy with Christianity, and entitlement becomes very cloudy.

Sioux are not a prominent tribe of Montana, are they? Aren’t they a South Dakota-based tribe these days? Or maybe Hollywood-based? (The pattern has been that Sioux play the parts and Blackfeet do the dangerous stunts and provide the horses.) Are the Sioux willing to let these materials stay in Montana or are they going to come over and claim them back the way the Blackfeet went up to Edmonton and demanded back the materials Bob Scriver sold up there?

As long as we’re talking about the Scriver artifact collection (which included a gun collection and a RCMP uniform collection), it should be noted that the materials defined as “Sacred Bundles” soon left the Royal Alberta Museum as “loans” to the Blackfoot groups in Alberta and possibly a sale to a Montana Blackfeet person. Also, Scriver artifact materials that were NOT in the sale to the RAM, were impounded at the border when they were sent north by Lorraine Scriver and/or returned to Lorraine Scriver by the RAM curator. They were left for safekeeping at the Montana Historical Society, but impounded by Fish & Game, and went from there back to individuals in the Blackfeet Tribe not representing the tribe as a whole, who has no suitable secure repository anyway.

The Museum of the Plains Indian remains the property of the US Government, who has tried to give it to the tribe, who will not accept it because they also want enough money to maintain the Museum. As standards for museums keep rising -- climate control, access, insurance -- and because the Museum is built on a flood plain (like much of Browning), this is problematic. The damage from the 1964 flood, which destroyed much valuable material plus damaging the foundation, has never been repaired. (This was a war-time no-frills build financed by the Crafts Association of the US Government and the Lions Clubs of America.) The bottom line is whether the university system is capable of guarding and preserving the Miller collection.

The nature of institutions is that they have very weak memories, especially since the people with expertise often come from elsewhere and don’t know the local history and culture. Institutions are political animals and if anyone thinks that the “white” population of Montana is less divided than the historical and present Indian population, they haven’t been paying attention. In an era when institutions are never properly funded -- partly because of so many competing needs like poverty, crop failure, wildfire, and weather disasters and partly because of resistance to taxes and regulation -- institutions are far more tempted than usual to deaccession materials to fund salaries and maintenance. It has been a scandal everywhere.

In this Miller case, the anonymity of the selling party, masked behind representatives, is traditional. It is unclear how the legal owners acquired the collection. Also unclear is how much compensation those representatives are expecting: the honor of it all? Friendship? A percentage? It also worries me that the appraiser is nameless: he could be anyone, maybe the present Museum Services Manager of the Montana Historical Society, an expert on Native American materials who was let go from the Portland Art Museum. (The reason for parting was temperament, not irregularities with his work.) Appraisers are normally paid, sometimes a percentage of the value of what they are appraising, a practice that probably needs to be rethought.

Another factor is the copyright issue in regards to such materials as Miller’s 1957 book: “Custer’s Fall: the Indian Side of the Story.” The law has been changed so much in the past few years, sometimes with retroactive inclusions, that an expert would be needed to confirm that indeed the materials were still under copyright rather than public domain. (Someone is recasting Scriver bronzes copyrighted in the Fifties, I assume because they think they are public domain.) Beyond that, copyright rests on the absence of challenges from the persons who are rightfully entitled to the materials. Who would try to declare standing in the case of Miller’s writing and photographs? Does he have descendants? Why are they not identified?

My last point is a bit of a niggle, but I’m going to put it in just the same. Adolph Hungry Wolf (some people will quit reading at this point) personally and at his own expense, both money and effort over decades, has published a four-book compendium of photos and documents specifically about the South Piegan Blackfeet in every aspect. Anyone can buy it for $400 and have a lot more on hand than the Miller collection.

Unless one is looking for war trophies. Maybe the wars have continued, but more subtly than just killing an enemy outright. Oh, and since it seems to have dropped out of institutional memory, Bob Scriver played an important part in the Exalted Ruler effort by creating a small bronze that was sold in large numbers.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


In order to write to write coherently about worship/ceremony/liturgy across the category lines of religion, I am concentrating in part on the characteristics of the ecology in which the cultural religious concepts were formed and in part on the management of consciousness in the individual mind as it goes from the profane to the sacred. This is a new way of thinking that wasn’t available when I was in seminary because ecology itself wasn’t so well understood and the research through fMRIs hadn’t been done yet. So, much of the thinking was through personal reflection in that person’s own culture. Though it was self-serving, that seemed inescapable.

There is another dimension, which is just what this management of consciousness was supposed to “do” anyway. Compel conformity? Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Give us a rest or even renewal? Impress us with the power of the officiant? Earn you a scouting badge?

I pick up really great ideas from strange places, one of them being book reviews and advertisements for books. (Saves the time involved in reading the whole book!) I found three words in the Daedalus (book remainder house) squib for a book commenting on the Gettysburg Address. “The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows,” by Gabor Boritt. [Daedalus is at or 800-395-2665. I’ll take my 10% cut in books please. ;-) ]

So let’s see what these three words, which I’m sure were carefully chosen (by Ken Burns), not thrown together, and see what they can suggest to liturgy, church services. The three words are UNITY, CONSCIENCE, and MEANING. Let’s say good liturgy has all three of these characteristics.

UNITY in liturgy has meant the cohesion of the faith community held together by its common goals and usually a kind of social cohesion that comes from being educated similarly, having the same income level, speaking the same language (like English), and taking for granted certain things about how life really “is”.

There are two kinds of congregations in the Christian tradition. One is the parish, which is based on territory and means that everyone within a certain area belongs to that district’s church. In the USA the only systems like that now are schools and voting districts, political areas. The Catholic church once was like this, but the system requires that everyone belong to the same basic religion (as it was in medieval Europe) and, often, that they don’t even realize there are alternatives or are prevented by law from seeking them out, like early Protestants or in the USA early Quakers, except by leaving. The strength of this idea is that the priest becomes invested in the well-being of the greater whole: even the heretic is his business. Even the impoverished. Even the diseased. You couldn’t just exclude people you didn’t like. (If they were really awful, you could burn them at the stake.) Some of the early frontier Protestant ethnic congregations, separated from the larger world by speaking a different language and preferring different food and clothing, became parish congregations. Maybe Hutterites are a little bit like that now, albeit their parish is only the size of their colony.

Protestantism resulted in the “gathered” congregation, where people who were like each other in some compelling way, maybe in their belief in a major idea like “following the light” (Quakers) or freedom of thought (Unitarians) or universal forgiveness (Universalists), came together -- but they went to this church on their own, out of choice, and could exclude others. In a city where there is enough population density, like seeks like (Black with Black, Greek with Greek, gays with gays). Also, a congregation, regardless of denomination, may form around the personality of a minister.

The trouble with a “gathered” congregation is that it may include people looking for something but who are inclined to keep looking. Or who are simply -- in the USA -- always on the move. This led the Alban Institute to suggest that a congregation is no longer a group that comes in and sits down in the church together, but more like a “passing parade” where people join the march, carry the flag a while, then take a different direction. The UNITY of such a group can be fragile, particularly when the larger culture -- which is quickly becoming a global culture -- is morphing so rapidly that a major and worthy idea may simply collapse. What does universal salvation mean when no one believes in hell anymore? What holds a Finnish Lutheran congregation together if no one speaks Finn anymore? What do you do when “Christian” means minority?

CONSCIENCE is one of the most unmanagable parts of religion, because there are such different ways to internalize what we must do to be saved. The Old Testament depended upon rules. The New Testament is supposed to depend on principles, mostly those of love for one another. Not so long ago, we went to “situational ethics” in an attempt to figure out what to do if neither rules nor principles really works for an individual. Now that our understanding of conception, gestation, birth and marriage have all been so thoroughly changed, how do we blunder through the production and sheltering of children? But the truth is that we learned as little children a certain “way” and this is what feels “right.” Hard to change.

And how do we do the right thing when so much with devastating consequences happens where society can not get at it: international corporations with more power than the United Nations. We make legal rules but they’re easily undercut by simply not enforcing them or funding their enforcement or moving the headquarters offshore. What do we do about African chaos and starvation? Our attempts to suppress drug use, like our earlier attempts to suppress alcohol use, have simply created a whole separate underculture where the ethic is quite different than ours.

The people who can step out of this underculture generally do it only through religion, something to believe in. This is what people mean when they say that the pen is mightier than the sword: they do NOT mean that writing laws can stop wars. They DO mean that a huge magnetic idea can pull everyone together and overwhelm individual advantage or hopelessness.

Then MEANING. People who do not want to go on say that life has become meaningless. People may have had a bad goal, like getting rich, salvation by prosperity. Oh, how that grips our country and is fanned by advertising! Religious liturgy ought to give life gravitas, significance, worthy goals. If it can confirm what’s already motivating people, great. If it can call them to a greater purpose or restore lost meaning, that’s truly inspiring, breathing hope into them.

You can use these three words, UNITY, CONSCIENCE, and MEANING to test political rhetoric. As Abe Lincoln knew, sometimes politics and religion are marching together in the passing parade. When it happens, it’s mighty powerful, a true Grace. That’s when a few well-chosen words, like the Gettysburg Address becomes a liturgy, an act that binds us together.

Friday, August 29, 2008

WE LIKE 'EM TOUGH: Scotty Zion

Yesterday I was in Great Falls for an early-in-the-day eye exam, so I dropped by the faux Starbucks in Barnes & Noble in the middle of the morning. There was Scotty Zion, starting another book, though his daughter, Candy, has said she’s not up to formatting a fourth one. Well, she’s young. Scotty is over ninety now though he had a stroke last spring (he’s about recovered) those old guys just don’t know how to stop.

I’ll give you a little sample of his writing, so you can see why I like Scotty. (One reason is that I know he won’t sue me for doing it!) in his books are lots of photos, but I’ll stick to the covers. This is a good subject for writers: PENS.

“I just got a new writing pen. A nice fat one that fits in my big mitt pretty good. A drive-up bank teller was nice enough to give it to me. It’s sure a lot better than the pens I grew up with with the self-fed on ink.

“Now, the pens we had in the old Zion School were all equipped with a slightly upturned point made of steel and split down the middle from a hole a quarter inch up from the point. You dipped the point into your inkwell, which was an inch deep, and one and one-half inches across, with a hinged lid. The teacher kept a bottle of about a quart capacity on her desk to fill the inkwells as needed. I remember when the weather turned cold, inkwells, bottles of ink, drinking wataer, along with everything thing else, frozen up. Probably because the coal fire left at the end of the day wasn’t usually tended until rekindled next morning.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have a longhaired girl in the seat ahead of us discovered that little girl’s hair soaks up quite a bit of ink, especially if their hair was braided. The trick was to dip their braids without getting caught by the teacher or the victim. At least not immediately.

“The old-time pens were pretty useful for things other than writing, too. They made great spears to throw and stuck in almost anything, including children’s butts! I can just imagine in later years one of those kid’s spouses asking, “Honey, how did you get that little blue spot on your ass?”

What makes this good is the specificity, the measurements and the timespan both remembered and imagined. Here’s another couple of paragraphs from a later page:

“Ever wonder why the farmers in the early days sat on a stool that did not have two, three, or four legs, but rather one? Well, the answer is simple. Much of the milking was done in the corral which, of course, wasn’t very level or suited for more than one leg.

“That meant you had to hold the milk bucket between your legs, and by holding onto the cow’s tits, balance yourself and pull at the same time. There was always a certain amount of squeezing involved to get the squirt of milk to come. As kids grew older and more adept at milking, some of the squirts ended up in the gaping mouths of cats that surrounded the milking site. That is, until the nearby parent heard the squirting sound in the pail stop and instead yelled, “Forrest! In the bucket, not in the cat!”

He describes a few disasters, then says, “Boy when I grew up I found that moving houses was a lot easier than milking a bunch of wild cows by hand!” Alongside a few other little projects, Scottie built and moved a whole lot of buildings around North Central Montana. In fact, his brother Bob built my back garage and so-called bunkhouse in 1964 for the crew rebuilding Swift Dam, but I forgot to ask whether he moved them down here after the rebuilding was finished. The original dam is the one in Ivan Doig’s book, “The Whistling Season.” Until a few years ago, most people knew each other and the history of their buildings as well. Now a lot of buildings don’t seem to have histories. They were just built a short while ago.

But the mountains stay and the back cover of this book shows Scottie and his daughter Candy, with their faithful dog “Arm rest.” (I forget his real name, but he’s a Kelpie, a working dog.) This view is about twenty miles directly west of me, where Scotty grew up near Choteau. That’s A.B. Guthrie, Jr.’s Ear Mountain over Scotty’s left shoulder. You have to include the “junior” when you talk to Scottie, or call him “Bud,” because Scottie remembers the “senior.”

Scottie is looking Mr. Death in the eye now, like Max Van Sydow (whom he resembles) playing chess with the Grim Reaper in "The Seventh Seal," and he figures he and his wife’s mingled ashes will become part of this landscape. Mine, too, wind willing. This little “butte” where the three are sitting has dino bones embedded in it and probably if you looked, you’d find evidence of Indian burials.

Gettin’ old ain’t easy, but the hard part int decidin' where to be scattered. It’s witnessing as the others slip away and the life across the country changes both for better and worse. Neither Scotty’s nor my books are for sale in Barnes & Noble, which is managed from Manhattan by a corporation boss. (My theory is that they’re thinning out the local books because they’re getting ready to bail out of Great Falls.) But we both carry copies of our books in our pickups, so we fetched them and exchanged money. I came up short by a dollar, which I’ll mail to Scottie along with a print-out of this blog. I guess neither of us ever imagined a coffee shop in a bookstore, but we ain’t above enjoyin’ it while it lasts.

If you want a copy of this book or the two earlier ones, “Been Any Bigger, I’d Have Said So!” or “Piece of Cake, Scotty, Piece of Cake”, contact Scotty Zion at 460 McIver Road, Great Falls, MT, 59404. 406-454-3394. He don’t do Internet. When I gave him my bookmark, he carefully tore off the little stub with my mailing address and put it in his pocket, but threw the rest with the blog url’s away. But if I showed him some of my actually printed Blackfeet books, he’d whip out his money. If he wants me to, I’ll format his #4 book and get it onto Lulu.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A F250 four-wheel-drive diesel crew cab pickup towing a huge horse trailer pulls up in front of my house. They do it all the time, but for once I know the driver -- my niece! Well, I mean, I’ve never met her before, but I’d know she was my niece no matter what she was driving the way I’d know my brother, her father, if he rose from the dead and walked into the room. She came with her mom, also a first meeting. Such events can be a little tense and I’d worried that they might feel sleeping in my dubious “bunkhouse” would be just a little too much of an adventure, but their plan for the previous night had been to sleep in the horse trailer, so I needn’t have worried. (They were transporting llamas rather than horses, so that did make such a choice a little less problematic.)

The three of us turned out to have a whole lot in common and why wouldn’t we? Genetically, culturally, ethnically, and every other way but age, we weren’t that different. I’m almost seventy, Adrienne is twenty-seven, and her mother Susan is fifty-five. All of us are artsy, all of us read, all of us love animals, all of us can drive a stick-shift pickup, though I’ve never driven a four-wheel drive. I’m the shortest, too. They’re five-nine with feet like Jackie Onassis -- long. I’m only five-six-and-a-half, probably shorter by now, but my feet are longer than the size seven-and-a-halfs they started out. Wider, too.

We’re emotional but not demonstrative. Adrienne and I like boundaries and Susan likes to take care of people and things. We’re all three both romantic and idealistic, which can be problematic when the principles don’t match up. I mean, we’re people who expect a lot and attempt a lot.

I’ve always made my living by being on a salary until now. Adrienne is a modern hunter/gatherer who does artificial insemination on cows, shears llamas and alpacas, runs county fairs, and works in a biological research lab while she continues towards a Ph.D. in Animal Studies or something like that. Her mother was a graphic artist, then bought a ranch and raises llamas and sheep, but lately her ram got “rambunctious” and bashed her headlong into a wall. This came too soon after a couple of fractious llamas ricocheted her head off the inside of the trailer. Since my brother’s life was tragically (Is that too strong? I think not.) altered by a head blow in a fall, this makes us nervous. (It’s not what killed him -- he died of a heart attack years later.)

We had a lot of discovery to do, as they say. Time-lines and old photos and genealogy charts and speculation about patterns. Susan accurately noted that I have the same mild paranoiac assumptions that started out mild in my brother and became full-blown wild tales in the next ten years post-concussion, his convictions about conspiracies preventing him from getting both medical treatment and welfare support, because as soon as they started filling out paperwork and asking questions, he imagined they were up to no good and announced he was in the secret employ of the CIA assigned to check up on them. Once, they were ready to arrest him for impersonating an officer, but he stormed out.

Adrienne and I have the same nose and she has her father’s unibrow, which turns out very nicely when properly plucked. A sort of Brooke Shields effect. (I have a few four-inch hairs in mine which hide when I get out the scissors.) She has Paul’s fair skin, which flushes even rosier than mine, which is more ivory. We sat there looking at each other and analyzing. Adrienne has more booty that either me or her mother. We're bosomy babes. Hair is a continuum: my white scrazzly thin stuff, Susan’s elegant straight gray bob, and Adrienne’s titian riot, enough to make Anne of Green Gables turn, well, green.

We counted up the closed-skull head traumas: too many -- and years ago no one realized what they were. We just thought people were being ornery. It’s only now that the Iraq veterans are beginning to tell their stories that we know to even think of it. We talked about terrible burns and foreign expeditions and menopause.

Then we changed gears to tell funny stories and Crackers came to walk around looking at everyone in case they had a can-opener in their pocket. Finally the cat zeroed in on me and mentioned in a little voice that no one had FED her for quite a while! Squibbie failed to come in until everyone was tucked in asleep. Adrienne showed me two cartoons on YouTube of cats taking desperate measures to get fed -- both involved baseball bats. (Put in stuff like "cat food" + "cartoon" to find them.)

We went through the old family albums from back in the days when my father was a wool-buyer for Oregon Wool Growers and took many a snapshot of sheep and sheepdogs and sheepherders. Susan and Adrienne lit up like Christmas trees, admiring the photos, so I pulled them out of their little black corners and gave them over. That neatly solves one of MY problems: what to do with this careful archive that doesn’t interest anyone anymore -- or so I had thought.

When it was time to get back on the road, out came the cell phones. My old eMac fired up and messages began to fly around. A guy with a mule wanted a ride for the two of them from Columbia Falls to Corvallis, the same route Adrienne was taking. She voted for picking up the unknown guy and his unknown mule. Her mother was opposed. I stayed out of it. David, dad and husband, was expecting them for a family reunion. Many opinions, much information. Check the weather. What about a motel? Are you sure that’s the right mileage? Is this cheese too old to take back on the road? Where to buy ice?

Way back at the beginning of time, the Pinkerton girls (my mother and her sisters who are Adrienne’s grandmother and great-aunts) took a road trip to the beach and up to Washington. They stayed in cabins so primitive that they looked just like my bunkhouse and didn’t even have beds, so it was like sleeping in a horse trailer. There were more of those women: seven. The end result was a photo album I still have. Family, especially for women, is a kind of warrant for adventure. Can’t know what to expect, bound to make discoveries, and relying on the enormous comfort of female relatives.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Today (Friday) the Piegan Institute presented “Si’naaki,” the images of the Blackfeet people. First some time-lines. This is the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Piegan Institute. It is the fourteenth year the Blackfeet Immersion School has existed. (Eighty percent of the students on the Browning High School honor roll have been students in the Immersion School.) And this is the eleventh of the these mid-August history conferences organized by Roselyn LaPier.

The first speaker was DAVE BECK, who is delighted to be married to Roselyn, esp. in view of their terrific daughters who always get pressed into service at these events in the same way that Blackfeet kids have always been aides to hospitality, even at old-time ceremonials, though these girls do not keep tobacco pipes lit, which used to be an important duty of the orderlies. Dave was addressing the famous Edward Curtis photographs, which are now available online at and other places. The question is “Was Curtis presenting cultural images or was he reinforcing stereotypes?” The answer is both.

Curtis lived 1868 to 1952.
In 1898 he met George Bird Grinnell, a “scientist” with connections to Indians.
Through Grinnell he was on the Blackfeet Reservation to photograph the 1900 Okan or Sun Dance.
In 1906 he was scrambling to get funding for a twenty volume work that would include photos of ALL Indians “before they vanished.” 227 people signed up for subscriptions to all the volumes. J.P. Morgan was among them and helped with a little extra funding. They were particularly interested in the Piegan religion.
In 1910 Curtis made another visit to the Blackfeet and this time there were many artists and anthropologists around.
In 1930 the final volume of the set called “The North American Indian” was printed and distributed.
This sort of pressing documentation of what is thought to be disappearing is called “Salvage Anthropology,” because it is felt that perhaps some crucial information can be permanently recorded. The Smithsonian is sponsoring a parallel “Handbook” but has finished only 15 books of 20 planned. The Plains Indian book is done. The editor has been Frederick Webb Hodge.

Here are the Federal Indian Policy Periods:
1. Treaty making/removal: 1778-1871
2. Forced assimilation: 1887-1934
3. Reorganization: 1934-1950’s
4. Termination/Relocation 1950’s to the 1970’s
5. Self-determination: 1970’s to the present.
(Sol Tax, anthropologist at the U of Chicago, said, “there has only really been one federal Indian policy: “to figure out how to get out of the Indian business.” My own comment: ordering the BIA to make itself unnecessary is ineffective.)

Curtis -- along with Grinnell, Ulenbeck, Wissler, and the artists who came through on the railroad -- was part of a great flurry of activity in the forced assimilation period when people believed that Indians were doomed. The characteristics of forced assimilation were:
* to outlaw tribal religion (though some sympathetic authorities looked the other way)
* to outlaw tribal governments
* the allotment of lands (1887 Dawes Act)
* boarding schools
* population decline (1883 is the Starvation Winter)
* belief in “social Darwinism” which grouped “races” hierarchically with the white Euro males at the top and NA’s or blacks (labeled "savages") at the bottom. (The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had demonstration village groups arranged to show the progression. My own comment: At the same time, this was the first World Religion conference that included Indians such as Simon Pokagon.)

Impacts of Edward Curtis’ work:
* preserves a connection to the past
* helps to convince Americans that Indians are disappearing
* sometimes contradicts the community knowledge base

The Curtis technique:
* photos were staged
* props from trunks were provided, more colorful than accurate
* romanticized Indians and their lives
* preserved likenesses of people and places, though they were sometimes misleading.

There are two new digitization projects:
NU and the Library of Congress
Washington DC and the U of Montana (documents)

Criticisms, some from the audience:
Despite their flaws, the photos are a valuable resource.
The Indians’ names were rarely recorded! The accompanying notes often put the names down, but they were dropped out of the captions. They became just generic “Indians,” though the white people were named. Indian clothing became “costumes” as though they were not real. They were “dress-up” best.

Beck’s calm presentation was free of demonizing and accusations of evil intent. Neither did he excuse anyone. What was, simply was, and it’s our job to figure out what to do with it. The photos speak for themselves.

These presentations would not have been so richly rewarding or even possible without the projector laptop throwing the pictures up on the wall. Darrell told about opening up Bill Farr’s photo book of the Blackfeet (“Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945”) and finding in front of him a photo of his own grandmother! He did not OWN a photo of his grandmother! Later he took some budding tribal college historians up to the Glenbow Museum library. They were all intent on hitting the mall, but Darrell managed to make them agree to stay an hour. Then one girl, going through a big pile of images, came upon a likeness of herself! Except that it wasn’t her -- it was her great-grandmother, who looked just like her. Heck with the mall! They stayed until closing.

BILL FARR’s presentation was about Walter McClintock, but he listed some other early photographers: Charles Stevens (or Stephens?) in the 1890’s, Fred Kresler (sp?), Roland Reid, and Thomas B. Magee who was local.

Walter McClintock came in 1896 for the first time as an artist accompanying a survey of forest lands. He fell in love with the place and returned every year until the 1912’s. From 1912 to 1940 he came often, but sometimes missed a year. Between 1903 and 1912 he took more than 2,000 photos that are extant. No one knows how many discards there were. He was particularly interested in the Sun Dance and came early so that he could record the preparations. He valued the remote and the old-timey. Then for many years he toured and lectured, showing his photos. He had pretty much one version, his first one, and didn’t revise it. His great gift was “intimacy,” being accepted as one of the family so that people relaxed, sort of forgot he was there, and just let things be, so that sometimes stuff like an alarm clock in a tipi gives away the true period and has to be airbrushed out.

Why was this eager, absorbed young man given such access? He came in July, 1896, just as the Blackfeet were beginning to emerge from thirty desperate years. The first Whitecalf described the tribe as being “lost in the fog” and Curly Bear remarked that a “dim mist was clearing.” What turned the tide was the arrival of the railroad, which suddenly gave access to the outside world. People stepped off the train from Chicago and Seattle every day. The center of gravity on the reservation shifted from the south along the traversable rivers to alongside the railroad. And stuff began to arrive as the Mercantiles replaced the old Trading Posts. The alarm clocks were here! The people pored over their Sears Roebucks and Monkey Wards catalogues. (Insert joke about the old chief who ordered a good sturdy woman from the corset section, only to be heartbroken when he opened the package and discovered she had escaped, leaving only her underwear!)

McClintock’s success was due in part to his close partnership with Siksicogwan (Blackfeet Man) AKA Billy Jackson and his nephew, Alex Fox (Yellow Bird) who ranched on the Milk River. There McClintock appears to have imbibed Hudson’s Bay rum in quantity and to have found a “fat and sassy” girl friend (sans corset). In those days, 1898, he had to get a pass to visit on the reservation which provides a bit of detail, but his personality remains a bit of a mystery. He was present but not deep into the reservation innards.

Siyeh (Mad Wolf) took the next step by adopting him and naming him White Weasel Moccasin. Adoption in those days was a formal strategy for creating bonds and bestowing obligations: there is a record of a chief who adopted an Eastern man and sent him a letter asking him to get a red bird (cardinal) to wear on his hat, because it is the obligation of a good son to make his father happy. Adoption of this sort was not an idle formality. It was more like a marriage that ties two families together so that there is greater access to knowledge and power, explanations and advocates. McClintock brought boxes of goods when he came.

Siyeh had never adopted anyone before (at least not whites) so why did he do it now? Probably it was the example of George Bird Grinnell being adopted by Four Bears and named “Fisher Cap.” Whitecalf also calls Grinnell his son. Sometimes “the Father of the People.” Tearing Lodge calls Grinnell “the shield of my people.” In other words, they sought to make Grinnell responsible for the tribe and it worked pretty well to the extent that Grinnell had power, but he sometimes got caught by conflicting motives, as when he helped to force the selling of Glacier Park.

By 1895 Mad Wolf was disillusioned and said “the old leadership is unraveling.” Many older men retreated to ritual lives. Mad Wolf may have hoped that McClintock would be a new and younger Grinnell. The two had more in common than he knew, since both were Yalies. Mad Wolf wanted to push the claims for the common hunting grounds that had never been satisfied.

McClintock was a political zero, but did record many things at a time when the younger Blackfeet were wanting to move on, to be modern and participate in the world. They wear “citizens’ dress” to the Sun lodge. But the old people want a record of their own time and these photos become a “weapon of the weak” self-evidently showing those ready-to-abandon children what the truth was. The photos were direct, intimate, local and forceful, and confronted the identity issues that always plague Indians.

After lunch of buffalo meat and fry bread, DARNELL RIDES AT THE DOOR presented what she called “Indians in a Box,” which was a wonderful overview of her own family from the early days via a box of photos. We saw a portrait of John “Grover” Ground (1890 -1953) at Carlisle Indian School. (This was the grandfather of my friend Leland, who uses the name of “Eagle Calf,” John’s name.) We saw William Langdon Kane’s painting of Old Painted Lodge (1833-1930) the father of John Grover Ground, who was sometimes called “Go to Ground” -- Leland says “Jumps Down to the Ground” because he got off his horse to fight. He was an interpreter and interlocuter.

Darnell skillfully guided us through the years: photos of famous and beloved old Mary Ground who lived to be more than a hundred years old and was a key ceremonialist in spite of having blue eyes. We saw Leland aged maybe four and his older brother John. There was a funny photo of young Gene and John, Mary’s sons, as teens, leaning on their mom and putting their hands on her head like a hat. No one ever did that to the ancient but VERY dignified Mary Ground most of us knew! This is what Farr meant by intimacy, the relaxed joking of related people.

Darnell’s presentation ended with her grandmother, the first Miss Blackfeet, a beautiful young woman who was painted in a borrowed buckskin dress by Winold Reiss. Years later the picture was on the cover of a magazine called “FATE: Witchcraft in Britain Today,” in which she was supposed to be a Crow maiden, her true identity completely lost until her face was recognized.

The last presentation was the most marvelous of all: an overview of the life’s work of VALENTINA LAPIER. Much of her work can be found in images on the Internet by using Google, but it was moving to hear her tell about the pain and despair in her life and how she had found her way back out by painting and other art work. Her work is abstract but iconic, using patterns from traditional clothing and decoration, and stylized horses and trees that have personal meaning for her. This is skillfully done, so that the images are suggestive to anyone and don’t have to be explained. She spoke about going to France and sitting alone in Monet’s garden on a slightly rainy day, totally absorbed into the living colors and shapes. These days she has a gallery and workshop in East Glacier and seems totally confident about what she is doing and who she is.

Those horses will be stampeding through my head tonight as I sleep, along with the horses I saw along Highway 89 on the way up and back. One field held a band of old-time wild mustangs, grey and dun with long tails and manes. In another place a paint horse had ended up outside the fence but was sticking with his band by moving alongside the barbed wire. Two youngsters were running and bucking in the morning, as though playing tag, but had settled into grazing by afternoon. There is a wild flower I’ve never seen in such profusion. It’s purple. I should have stopped to pick a sample, but the most likely candidate seems to be “Silky Phacelia” also called Scorpionweed or Purple Fringe. It’s a little late for it, but everything is late this year. Nora Lukin’s fingers were still stained a little bit purple from picking sarvisberries. She said only about half of them are ripe. Good things still to come.

It’s important to see things and also important to name them. That’s how people know who they are. Best of all is creating new images.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


What we have here is either a slippery slope or an entering wedge. I’m not sure which, but maybe I can get the slant right.

When the first Euros encountered the Native Americans they got them wrong straightaway by calling them “Indians,” because they thought (hoped) they were in India. So the first Euro writing was about Indians, to let everyone back home know what they were like.

When some Euros learned Indian languages and Indians learned Euro languages, the Euros reported what the Indians said, but they were translating so they might have gotten it wrong. Indians who could speak English or French or Spanish might not have said quite what they meant either.

Simon Pokagon
wrote what is identified as the first book by an Indian, but some say his lawyer’s wife helped quite a bit. When Black Elk told his fabulous tale to Joseph Epes Brown, he began a genre, the mystical as-told-to.

For quite a while as anthropology began to take shape, there was an absolute craze for authentic Indian myths which has never quite abated. Some collectors of these stories, like Ulenbeck, were careful to get them in the original languages so they were “right.” The idea of natural variants was not appealing to these scientifically minded folks, so the pattern that developed was “you write something and then I’ll tell you whether it is right.” First the stories were meant for children, so they were expurgated, but then authenticity became important so the “colorful” stuff was restored.

Then along came the enthusiasts like James Willard Schultz who never heard a story too good to touch up a bit, and that led to the “rural myths” that involved Indians facing new-fangled stuff in a blundering way, like building a fire in the oven of an electrical stove. Then came the wild picaresques, prompted in part by the effects of alcohol.

There was a romantic movement in which hippies and traumatized veterans went to the rez to be inspired and healed, writing about their close relationships to Indians as a sign of their initiations and deservingness.

In the Post-Colonial Theory period everyone had a great hunger to read stories by “real” Indians who had presumably been suppressed all this time, prevented from writing novels. But then along came purists who said novels were a Euro-invention and “real” Indians could produce only traditional tribal orally-transmitted stories or maybe their own experiences, tragic as they indubitably were.

After that it was considered that any non-Indian who wrote an “Indian” book was stealing bread from Indian writers because there was only so much market and a non-Indian crowded out the Indian and prevented him from winning prizes. Telling his story (clearly there was probably only one: like, fighting one’s way on the rez) better than he could would keep him from selling his own version. The exception might be the genetically-white person raised by an Indian family.

But it was all right for non-Indians to critique non-Indians who wrote Indian books, even though it would be pretty hard for them to judge what was authentic and what was not if they’d never been around Indians. The judgments became increasingly harsh, justifying scorn and maybe some retribution, in much the same pattern as PETA, the people who defend poor helpless animals by encouraging folks to throw paint on fur coats.

Critics split about non-Indians who grew up on reservations. Maybe it comes down to whether a person is more shaped by genetics or by environment, but a genetic Indian might argue that a white person on a reservation was privileged and therefore didn’t have an Indian experience. Why it would be a privilege to be white on an Indian reservation, why Indians wouldn’t privilege themselves over whites, didn’t come clear for a while. Now we know: Indian are husbands, white people are wives. It used to be the other way around. There were some exemptions for people like Tony Hillerman, because criticizing him makes one very unpopular.

So now the ground rules are laid out:

Only Indians can write Indian stories, unless they are myths. Then they can be written down by white anthros, esp. if they are written for children and prettily illustrated but absolutely the definitive version.

Whites who write Indian stories but admit they are white are better than whites who pretend to be Indians and write Indian stories. No Indians pretending to be white and writing white stories have been detected, nor Indians pretending to be white and writing Indian stories. Maybe there’s potential left here.

But the best thing to be is a white professor who writes about why white writers who write stories about Indians are very bad. In fact, such writers should be exposed and put out of business. In fact, they should be persecuted [sic] and prevented from ever writing again or ever teaching again. In fact, they should be stalked on the Internet, and their families as well. In fact, if you ever meet them, you should punch them in the nose. Because what a white professor of Indian literature should oppress is white people who write about Indians -- because Indians have miserable lives and only the privilege of telling the story themselves to compensate them.

This might not work if Indians get good enough to write as well as white folks and compete on a level playing field, as they say, but a white college professor can control that playing field by ghettoizing Indians, insisting that only Indians can write Indian literature. If there are a bunch of liberals hanging around, insisting on an Indian professor, hire a “ringer” they way they do in Colorado: a guy who SEEMS to be an Indian but isn’t academically qualified. Then if he gets to be a nuisance you can express shock and horror as you wave goodbye. If you accidentally hire a REAL Indian who is REALLY qualified but becomes troublesome, you have two choices. Either put so much pressure on him to produce that he buckles and maybe even commits suicide, or just find that your budget has come up short and eliminate his department.

If all else fails there’s always the death threat: jihad. It works for the Muslims. They can drive famous people into hiding, take books off the market. Why can’t it work for Indians? Don’t go too far. Shooting a phony Indian would be like shooting an abortion clinic doctor for destroying life. Someone might think it was terrorism. The law might finally get involved. Just dink around on the Internet and made yourself a stalking shadow.

The above is satirically stated but I could name real life examples of every sentence. It would make this post too long.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


This morning, mixed in with the night spam, was a questionnaire from one of my alma maters, or however one forms the plural. The questionnaire, from Northwestern University, makes assumptions as all questionnaires necessarily must do. This one assumed that by now I was rich, honored, and grateful -- therefore would write a check to NU if they could find the right button to push.

Most of the questions (besides income) were about which organizations I might belong to within the NU realm (I had not realized there were so many!) and through which media I got my information. There was no allowance for alternative newspapers or radio or 'zines -- just the category as a whole. I did not check ANY organization. (A surprising number were based on athletics -- well, maybe I’m not surprised: this is NU asking.) I’m probably the only alumn this side of Tahiti who doesn’t watch television, doesn’t HAVE television. They wanted to know my major, but it doesn’t exist anymore. The School of Speech is renamed and reorganized. They didn’t ask whether I ever went to any other universities.

They did ask me whether my classes prepared me for my vocation. I had to say no, but it wasn’t their fault -- no place to mark that. I was educated to be a nice upper-middle-class high school dramatics teacher in a city east of the Mississippi. When I asked the placement bureau for jobs west of that river, she informed me there was nothing there. But while crossing the "Big Nothing" through Montana on the way home I bailed out and took a job teaching Blackfeet on their reservation. What I discovered that I needed was to know how to teach elementary reading to high school kids.

There was no place for me to mark which courses changed my life: Alvina Krause’s acting class, Paul Schilpp’s philosophy of religion class, three weeks of a physics class before the faculty discovered I couldn’t do math. I loved them all passionately and they have equipped me to wrestle with human and cosmic issues ever since. None of it was of any use in a high school English class, at least not if the principal and parents had anything to do with it.

The assumption behind these questions was that if the pr folks knew what my organizational affiliations were (and they were careful not to ask about any political organizations or religious allegiances) and where I got my news of the world, they would be able to coax me into sending them money. Not for any specific purpose but for the further benefit of one of the richest universities you could find, assuming you could discover its true worth. We KNOW that any corporation (no matter that its purpose is high minded) would be considered derelict if it didn’t hide its assets as deeply as, say, the Catholic church or the Wilderness Society. The point of view was simply commodified education, not for the good of the nation but for the good of the institution. (Warren Olney asked for tomorrow's "To the Point," "Can capitalism without democracy succeed?" I have a feeling we're already finding out that capitalism kills democracy, so we'll know shortly.)

Somewhere these question askers must have information about what difference it makes if people get their news from TV (though there must be radical differences among the various channels and networks) as compared to blogs (though again the whole spectrum must be out there). No allowance was made for the huge decline in the value of newspapers as a source of info or a check on the cynical chaos of the nation. They are no longer clams, digging for news; now they are oysters, clinging to the pier and grabbing whatever floats by. I mean, I read newspapers because of what they used to be. Maybe I’ll stop pretty soon.

One of my several other alma maters is the University of Chicago, also well-heeled, but very conscious of their elevated reputation as progressive intellectuals. (Maybe conservative when you get to politics or economics.) Still, they could NOT have given me the education of an Alvina Krause, which was “Method” acting -- a plunge into the depth of passion and crisis that the U of Chicago confines to student health, though it ferments all around the campus (in both students and professors) and is addressed by a ring of helpers and therapists, usually either Jewish or black and therefore not afraid of emotion. U of C money-raising is far more subtle. And the “Criterion,” publication of the Divinity School, actually contains valuable essays, not just boasting. They do still call it “Divinity School” though maybe that’s not as inclusive of religion as some would like. (Not all religions are based on a divinity.)

I predict Meadville/Lombard, my denominational alma mater, might change its name pretty soon. They can spot a trend. They’ve sold the old building, will move to modern space, and have loaded the faculty with black professors in anticipation that Obama will raise Hyde Park to new heights so the “liberals” will reign. They’ve kind of given up asking me for money.

All my other alma maters (almas familias?) are far more plebian and service-oriented. Anyway, they’re state universities. In fact, all the Montana universities are now merged into one big administrative blob, so what does that mean in terms of alumni allegiance? Mostly I think it means that people in Montana are Montana-centric and that’s all they think you need to know. Which campus is irrelevant. What matters is whether you went to school in-state or outta-state, because that will break handily between the Old Montanans and the New Montanans, separating them out without any more enlightenment about what it means than the fact that one sociological side has an Australian shepherd in the back of the pickup and the other side has a golden retriever. Well, maybe the New Montanans have pricier pickups. Which means they get better gas mileage and probably pledge to their alma mater.

The newspaper and radio (That’s the Great Falls Tribune and Billings NPR/PRI) are saying that the national college entrance exam test results show that only about a fourth of the people taking the test are ready for college. What will happen to the other three-fourths? NU and the U of Chicago will say, “Go away.” The state colleges will organize remedial classes. Meadville/Lombard will say, “What important UU’s do you know?”

Does this mean that the people who scored in the low 75% can’t get a decent education? Heck, no. In the Sunday paper was a story about a kid who hated high school and refused to attend. His dad, who was a film reviewer, made the kid go to movies with him and write about them alongside him, after much discussion. (Remember how Norman Maclean's dad taught him here in Montana?) At the end of three years the kid passed his GED and college entrance exams. This is the way people used to learn: alongside their parents at work. They called it “apprenticing.” So this kid had an alma pater, I guess.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is touring to get people braced to hear the news about the results of the No Child Left Behind tests this year, which come out at the end of the week. They will look ghastly, but authorities are quick to explain that it’s not the fault of the kids -- the people who administer the tests are “raising the bar.” Therefore the kids are actually doing just as well so not to worry. (Marriage is just a piece of paper, kid -- like your diploma.)

Another of these surveys says that college has now devolved into what a lot of people thought high school was, a sort of respite before the real world, except college is for rich people’s kids so they can enjoy it even longer. The idea is that youth is precious, admirable, bursting with joy and beer and sex and oh-how-can-you-deny-it-to-them? And that’s just the girls! These kids can do homework later alongside their own kids.

Why was I so serious! I shoulda lightened up! The survey asked me, "What was the worst part of your NU experience?" I answered honestly: Trying to learn to swim. I nearly drowned. If I'd lightened up, I might have floated!

Sunday, August 17, 2008


It’s Sunday morning and all over the Xian world, people are preaching sermons. But not about the same subject at all, though they might think they are. Some are angry, some are ecstatic, some are reassuring, some are boring. The trouble with religions is that they are ineffable. They just can’t be pinned down, nor can their morality.

Some examples:

A woman called me yesterday. I like her and she likes me. She’s older and is remarrying a widower. They have every indication of a successful marriage and want me to be the “officiant” because I was an ordained Unitarian minister. I said no. I no longer do weddings. I suggested that since one of their close friends in a geologist, they get HIM to be an officiant because “cleanliness is not next to godliness, but geology is almost theology.” (This is the title of one of my favorite sermons as well as one of my most sincere guides to life.) You can register the governmental legalities at the county seat before or after. The law just wants to know who’s going to own what and who will be responsible for the children. The law wants order, not spirituality.

Most people are paying no attention to the law’s wishes these days, even though the laws were written by “most people.” Some people are asking why the state should use religious authorities (assuming you think a minister has any authority at all) to enforce a legal requirement. (My guess is that the state simply can’t enforce their law and wish to rub that off onto religion.) But the idea that lingers from theocratic states that colonized this continent is that a “real” or “proper” marriage has to be authorized by a church. (I’m going to have to use a lot of quotation marks. In a more formal context, I’d have to supply definitions for these words.)

This morning in the GF Tribune there is a description of a symposium called “A Return to Indigenous Beliefs” which was organized by “Long Standing Bear Chief.” (Harold Gray.) Included were Xian, Celtic and Buddhist people (self-identified), though none with formal credentials from institutions so far as I know. Probably the main crediential was a checkbook. LSBC comes from a family of boxing promoters, a connection he doesn’t wish to emphasize which is why he uses his Cree "Indian" name. I don’t criticize his religious beliefs, because I am cynical about what they are and admit it, but I think anyone would doubt his business methods. I hear complaints best taken to the Better Business Bureau.

Using the words “indigenous” or “autochthonous” are ways of escaping the theocracies of the world, which are quite properly seen as colonizers. If it’s “indigenous” it’s seen as “free,” because Xian authorities never even saw such beliefs as “real.” Small atypical and iconoclastic religious groups -- even or maybe especially the ones that tout vague concepts like “peace” or “unity” -- often draw in “seekers” from someplace else who have little or no grasp of that group’s legitimacy or practices. Not only religious groups but also “non-profits” that claim to be saving the environment or little children or -- a recent phone scam here -- the police chiefs of Montana, fall into this pattern of inventing something semi-real that is profitable to someone, usually the organizer. Even an institution as venerable as the Unitarian Universalist Association or Amnesty International or the Humane Society of the United States has a hard time defending money used to sustain leaders and offices in a privileged manner rather than financing the actual work.

A Blackfeet leader, a person I like and respect and would defend, presented me with a moral conundrum this week. It didn’t involve money and my opinion was the only thing asked, though the person didn’t like the answer. The situation was that someone much respected and “old-timey” was diagnosed with cancer by the Indian Health Services hospital. The family responded with prayer, smudges, ceremonies of blessing, and reconciliation of old quarrels. Then the cancer diagnostee was sent to a specialist who would do surgery if necessary. But tests showed that he didn’t have cancer after all. The leader would like this to be interpreted as the actions of the family actually curing the cancer. I strongly reacted against that, but have had to backtrack to understand why.

Part of it is that to my mind this is endorsing “magic,” but magic IS a big part of traditional Blackfeet beliefs. Part of it is that the leader felt that this family “deserves” the feeling of empowerment since they are sometimes criticized by Xians as useless, so the idea may used to promote conflict. Part of it is that I know, I KNOW, that someone will claim this cure and use it to empower themselves, not a family or the tribe. The potential for scams when offering to heal others is pretty high, esp. if the others have a fat checkbook.

My own training is ALWAYS to look past institutions and purported events to as much reality as can be achieved. (Not a lot, I’m afraid.) But also to look at the dynamics released by an specific event like a “miracle.” Often they are used to justify hope, but also they are soon turned to the uses of power. Nothing is more seductive than this combination, esp. in a place where people don’t have a lot of money and very little connection to the world at large. They don’t read. They pay no attention to anything outside their small reservation world unless it comes along and waylays them. Their educations don’t include critical thinking.

One of the recent “waylayers” has been Scientology, a huge movement with giant financial resources and very little global credibility. When I tell people away from here that Scientology has gotten to the Blackfeet, they are aghast. “Oh, tell me it’s not so!” they beg. Scientology is known for twisting and victimizing people, using showbiz celebrities as fronts. It sure works on some Blackfeet, esp. since the entering wedge comes through drug rehab groups on the rez, where people have already established that they’re not exactly hard-headed realists. I mean, drugs aren’t even a good business opportunity since one’s customer-base constantly self-destructs. Drug users are dancing with the devil and not just the Xian one.

Going back to the beginning, which is my frequent strategy when preaching, I know a lot of ministers of many denominations who make a nice little bit of money off performing marriages, often for people who are not even of the minister’s faith but who want their wedding in a “pretty” church because they want the ceremony to be “perfect,” like the cake and the bride’s gown. The more dubious the actual marriage, the more money one can make. Parallel, many people want to somehow participate in the Blackfeet tribe because of the scenery (“so beautiful!” they say and they don’t mean downtown Browning) and the “perfect” experience of seeing themselves as friends or even adoptees of the Blackfeet. They’re buying charisma and prestige. I don’t think it should be for sale.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


By now we know a lot more than we ever wanted to know about the debt industry: how some manipulation made dubious debts acceptable through redefining the collateral, bundling bad bets, reselling the portfolios, building-in balloon interest, and all that stuff. It was quite a heads-up that put some people on the streets.

And some of us know how to make a "career" academically by always being a doctoral candidate, starting a thesis here, then finding some compelling reason to move there to a different university, being delayed by the death or retirement of an adviser, slightly changing the defining terms so that more coursework is necessary and so on. Bundling oneself as a “doctoral candidate” can last for decades before bankruptcy. Sometimes the subject itself, not just the scholar, simply ages out, becomes irrelevant.

When I first was cruising along on the Native American literature listservs in the Nineties there was a lot of excitement. The NA Literature Renaissance was in full swing, or so I thought, and it was exciting to be buying books by Indians at Powells for $5 each. I’d buy three copies (I was working for the City of Portland then) so I could keep one, send one to Browning for the town library and another to Heart Butte for the school library. They were wonderful and I read them as quickly as I could. Everyone loved Louise Erdrich and her partner, Michael Dorris, for their mix of legend, romance and reality. I loved Jim Welch’s first two books, “Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney,” because he was Blackfeet and even these bleak high-line stories rang true. I’d been raised in Oregon to believe that Dr. John McLoughlin, the “white-headed eagle,” was near-royalty so I read Janet Campbell Hale’s “Bloodlines” as the scandal it truly is: a direct descendant of that man pushed out as not belonging. Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday wrote classics: “Ceremony” and “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”

Then the Portland bookstores began bringing in the NA writers to do readings and I began to see them in person: Sherman Alexie, very tall and droll; Greg Sarris, very handsome and kind. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, so patrician, sat and visited with me for a half-hour. Vine Deloria overwhelmed the Portland City Club with his erudite challenges. Sidner Larson, Jim Welch’s cousin, organized an NA lit conference in Eugene that was a total blast. Joy Harjo played her saxophone and recited her poetry. I went back to Portland and posted to the NA Lit listserv in the way that I’m still doing on this blog. On the listserv I got into a tussle about running traplines with Rolland Najiwan and Carter Revard played peacemaker. (Rolland is still a good e-friend, though he’s up in Canada and we’ve never met.)

The books couldn’t be written fast enough! Historic people from when the Indians spoke their own languages were brought to the front and translations were made. Old translations were rediscovered and there were arguments about how authentic they were. Who REALLY wrote Chief Joseph’s surrender speech? Maybe that’s when the backlash began. The literary stock of Native Americans was rising like a leaping salmon. The critics moved in like derivative bears. Those who can, do; those who can’t, criticize. Those who are Indian just ARE Indian; those who aren’t, can pretend. So the critics added another layer: criticism of Indians who aren’t Indians but assume that persona. Critics didn’t quite dare to criticize “Ramona,” cherished love story; “Laughing Boy,” which won a Pulitzer; “When the Legends Die” which I’ve read out loud to Indian classes five times. I still love it. Sometimes they took a swipe at Hillerman.

Then there was the hair-splitting over who was an Indian and who was not. The truth is that the “most” Indian authors, Ray Young Bear maybe or maybe Adrian Louis, were less appealing to many people (even Indians) than David Seal (“Pow-Wow Highway”) or Dan Cushman (“Stay Away Joe”) -- and what about “Billy Jack?” The real bonanza would be when a “real” Indian book was made into a movie, though the movies that really struck it big were “Dances with Wolves” by a white man about a white man and maybe “The Deerslayer” by a 19th century white man. Those were far better tales than the nasty little movie called “Warparty,” made here on the Blackfeet Reservation by supposed “Indian lovers” who admired Japanese fatalism. When the absolutely authentic Inuit movie, "The Fast Runner", was made, few Indians watched it.

The idea of the genetic Indian, the hereditary Indian (going by pedigree of ancestors), the cultural Indian, the voluntary Indian, the legal Indian got all mixed up. Phonies included Black Wolf (Ernest Thompson Seton) or Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) or Tonto (oops, a real Indian, Jay Silverheels) or Iron Eyes Cody (Italian or something). The whole idea of literature per se got lost and everyone went hareing off after identity politics, much of it powered by jealousy and the need to “know more” than the next guy. Some Indians made a career of starting flame wars to finger people who were “too white.” Other were gumshoes of the wee smalls, keyboarding away like beavers. There were two tragic suicides of Indian authors.

Then came the collapse. Everyone just got tired of it. No one could understand all the complicated theories. What I hadn’t realized was that the NA lit books were so cheap and so available because they were being remaindered: the last copies no one wanted being dumped for the printing cost.

I love remainders. So often the BEST books were the least bought, mostly because they weren’t promoted or sold in the right place. (A publisher assured Vine Deloria that there were no bookstores on reservations, so there would be no effort to sell his books there.) The Internet and Print on Demand would soon resolve this problem. Now anyone with access to a computer can order a copy of almost anything. Publishers don’t have to make “print runs” of thousands of copies that have to be stored. They just make what’s ordered.

Remainder houses, like Daedalus and Hamilton, are still selling books of which too many copies had been made (luckily not pulped) and I still buy them. That’s how I came to own “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping.” The author claimed to be half-Navajo, but, hey, sometimes Bill Clinton claims to have a Cherokee grandmother. I don’t pay much attention one way or the other. Being an Indian wasn’t the point of the story, which was really about a victimized kid dying of AIDS. I thought it was a good book, which is how I came to be email corresponding with Tim Barrus, who was quite frank about being Tim -- not Nasdijj anymore, his nom de plume for the book. He doesn’t write books anymore: he teaches video to at-risk boys in Paris.

One lone scholar was still toiling away in Britain, obsessively writing and writing on his thesis about people who pretend to be Indians: Forrest Carter, author of “The Education of Little Tree,” who turned out to have a history in the KKK; Jamake Highwater, long ago identified and investigated; Ward Churchill, laid bare by his own university; and Ruth Beebe Hill. Huh? Ruth Beebe Hill who wrote “Hanta Yo” expecting it to be much more than a little mini-series on TV? Those were the days! Sasheen Little Feather accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar with a speech about injustice to Indians.

Ruthie only knew a couple of stunt Indians in Hollywood, but they were real enough genetically. Nevertheless her gimmick was to import a big ol’ Sioux-speaking guy into her household. (Her house was Ayn Rand’s house in LA, which she was supposed to be taking care of. It was mostly a matter of cleaning glass since it was built for Marlene Dietrich and had a LOT of mirrors and windows.) Ruthie and her Sioux spent all day with their heads together translating her whole book into Sioux. Then they translated it all back into English. Ruthie felt this “cleansed” it of all Euro concepts since if you don’t have a word for a concept, it’s gone. Evidently there’s a Sioux word for cunnilingus, because that concept triggered absolute outrage among the tribal people who read the book. Personally, it triggered a lot of laughter, but that’s because Ruthie was always making a play for my husband. (He wasn’t Indian -- neither am I, but we lived on a rez and she would announce a royal visit now and then.) He used to roll his eyes behind her back.

So years after this was all water under the bridge, one lone scholar in Britain, toiling away at his thesis year after year, sometimes deriving enough material from it to make a presentation at a conference now and then, discovered Internet stalking and zeroed in on Tim Barrus. It’s always fun to target Barrus because he fights back in such an outraged, profane, over-the-top way on video and then all the nice polite scholars pull back and say, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” I suspect that the stalking became more fun than the thesis.

This scholar/stalker of not-Indians-who-don’t-write-anymore knows who he is and now so do we. And where he lives. See, technology, like literature, moves on and the thing about Internet stalkers now is that you can make them ping. Remember those old submarine movies where the sonar pinged all the time? This guy moves across the green screen while a periscope scans the horizon and every time he types “Barrus,” it pings.

Actually, I guess this scholar is trying to write science fiction now. Anyway, he sorta drifted off his faux Indian rant or even faux Martians and got hung up on child trafficking in Cyprus. I guess I don’t have a penny to spare for his derivative thoughts.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


An older Indian lady who has spent nearly her entire working life in big cities doing office work for government agencies calls me up occasionally and tells me all sorts of lies and half-truths about people she doesn’t like, most often white people but also competitors. I let her rave on, though I often feel as though I were trapped in a Louise Erdrich novel. One day, one of the few times I ever lost patience with her, she gave me hell because she claimed Bob Scriver was “stealing” the faces of the Blackfeet. “Just look at the faces of his sculptures,” she said. “Those are Blackfeet faces! He had no right to steal those faces!”

Evidently in all her city days and education she never encountered the idea of the “portrait,” which is SUPPOSED to look like the person one is portraying! Evidently in her time back on the rez she never picked up the information that the faces looked like the people who posed for the sculptures because Bob asked them and paid them to pose! A few were portrayed using the old photos of Blackfeet that are all over the place in this part of the country, taken when it was still believed that Indians would soon disappear.

To be honest -- by that time the people were no longer living in the old way and had to scrounge around for their grandparents’ gear so they would look “authentic” to the photographer. Anyway, the photographer’s portraits have been used over and over and over again by painters, sometimes with considerable skill and other times not. One of the more vivid recent versions has been the work of Tom Gilleon ( whose signature is the division of a canvas into nine equal parts with a grid and then filling each square with a vivid sketch of an Indian’s face or an Indian artifact. (He is also famous for his many variations on the theme of a single tipi or lodge on a mystical landscape.) The classic portraitist of the Blackfeet was Winold Reiss ( who painted the Blackfeet from life.

Where did this old lady’s objections come from? She is certainly a genetic Blackfeet and she is certainly somewhat aware of a body of theory that developed in France, Algiers, and then Berkeley, California, about how indigenous people are exploited by colonialists, though I doubt she could name those thinkers. Rather than taking the practical and legal approach of Eloise Cobell and Earl Old Person, who are suing the U.S. Government for the money the USA brazenly diverted from the Individual Indian Accounts over the years, money they were supposed to be holding in trust to protect, these theory-based critics were saying that any depiction in any arts were taking money out of their pockets, because THEY should be the only ones entitled to write about themselves or paint their portraits or take their photos. Whether they could do it well is beside the point, to their minds. They remember being tipped a dollar for permitting their picture to be taken by a tourist at Indian Days. Some go so far as to say that since the novel is a literary form that developed in Europe, it is an “un-Indian” art form and no Indian should be depicted in a novel. Any Indian writer who writes novels (they’re after Erdrich and Welch because of their success) is un-Indian. Of course, they constantly comb tribal rolls for evidence of legal status.

Non-Indians come at this from a different angle. Often they claim to have a special affinity for Indians, a compassion that gives them unique insight and entitlement to act on their behalf. (Some animal lovers also claim this.) Or maybe they take the position that only anthropologists know the “real truth” about a specific tribe and since they know the anthro lit, they are entitled to decide what is or isn’t authentic. (The only Indians who count are the ones at first contact, uncontaminated.) They are even willing to tell old-timers that they’re going about being Indians “all wrong,” though no one ever issued handbooks as though Indians were Boy Scouts. Anyway, these people take no account that we are now in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, even the spearhead of the whole radical theory movement as it worked out in the Red Empowerment organization (some say DISorganization) called AIM, as fronted by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, was quick to sell out to go act in romantic Hollywood inventions like “The Deerslayer” or “Dances with Wolves.” They were a bit nonplussed by a gritty and more accurate movie like “Skins,” which was written by Adrian Louis, one of the most realistic and eloquent of NA authors. They never seem to know what to think about the fine professional actors Graham Greene or Tantoo Cardinal, also authentic. But a lot of whites wondered why those two would act in a movie made from a book by a nonIndian former KKK member, “The Education of Little Tree” by a man named Carter. (Maybe they needed work?)

Certain scholars set themselves up to sort the “sheep” from the “goats” with the usual binary black-and-white thinking that characterizes Euros, though some of the scholars were Indian. This created a climate in which “permission” was granted to savage whichever people were designated as “fake.” This baggy, incoherent, emotional and inconsistently enforced category included a multitude of artists and writers. People like Howard Terpning were given a pass, because he made it a point to come to reservations, spread around some money and praise, give key people some prints, and then leave before anyone got mad. People like Richard Lancaster were given a pass because he was too scary in person and because unmasking him would have meant bringing unpleasant things about families out in the open.

Some of the people who were thought to be irreproachable by whites not on the rez, like Jim Welch, were criticized by his “fellow tribesmen,” but Adolf Hungry-Wolf, who is frankly white but devoted to the 19th century life of the Blackfeet (I know of no rez people who live as Adolf does or who knows and practices the ceremonials as completely as he does or who has preserved photos with more devotion), is constantly assailed for being a phony. Clearly, “phoniness” depends largely on who’s on the payroll and which tribal contingent they belong to -- because it’s VERY clear to anyone who lives here for a while that a tribe is fractured in every which way: blood, provenance, feuds, family allegiance, wealth, leadership offices, location on the rez, and a hundred other directions. Yet people refer to them as “the Indians,” as though they were one lump.

In fact, all this quarreling and name-calling is so time-consuming and potentially expensive (ask any lawyer what the fees might be) that many producers and publishers are reluctant to have anything at all to do with Indians. Even universities, tired of lawsuits, have quietly shut down their departments of Native American studies and the once-hot professors have retired. The once brilliant Native American Renaissance of literature is over. One might suggest it committed suicide.

The latest source of indignation is tourists who take photos of Chief Mountain in Glacier Park without asking permission from the Blackfeet Tribe, since it is a sacred mountain. Clearly these people are taking the French as role models. The French recently embarrassed themselves by demanding that no tourists take photos of the Eiffel Tower without asking permission. They stopped short of claiming it was sacred.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


When I was planning to write a book on animal control, like twenty years ago, I started watching for books about dogs and stashing them to read some day. One was a little paperback originally written in the Seventies by a pair of English authors, David Anne and Anthony Fowles, called simply “Rabid.” I’ve never read “Cujo” by Stephen King, which I think is a later book. I sometimes wonder how many times American writers get their ideas from English or Canadian books. (I can think of several echoes.) Before the Internet came along, it was hard to get books from both countries plus Australia because of trade agreements. Economics can raise barriers more effective than border inspectors. Or could.

The basic idea of “Rabid” is very simple: that people simply lose or never grasp why some laws are made and feel free to evade or ignore them to suit their own convenience and preferences. In fact, my own concern about rabies (because my cats catch bats which are “presumed to carry rabies unless otherwise certified”) is brushed off by local officials, even veterinarians and even though we are officially a rabies quarantine area because of other rabid wild animals, like raccoons. If one wants a bat tested, one will have to pay for it. At first I was very worried and certainly got rabies shots for my cats, but then I gradually sort of absorbed their attitudes and needed the money for other things. Anyway, the cats are hard to catch if they see the carrier cage come out and they wail for the entire thirty mile drive to the veterinary office.

The heroine of this novel called “Rabid” is even more self-centered and willing to cut corners than I am. The plot of the story entwines rabies with sex. I don’t think they meant to imply that rabies IS sex, but they may have meant to say something about selfish, narcissistic behavior. (I read that narcissism is again popular as a pop diagnosis for uncooperative people, but does it ever really become irrelevant?) A rather insecurely married couple, unable to have children, are very attached to their dog, which dies. Another, very ugly but “woofly,” mongrel shows up in their summer vacation villa in France and the woman wants it. Then they are presented with the problem of getting it through the relentless quarantine that has kept England rabies-free for many years. (Yellowstone bison with brucellosis being the opposite problem -- keeping them IN.)

The couple has a friend, a childhood dear friend of the husband’s, who is a bachelor with a boat. The wife sees that if he nips across the channel, they can send the dog back with him. She goes along for the ride. Yes, a “double-meaning” ride. Of course, the dog DOES have rabies and the ensuing pandemonium and destruction is ghastly. The writing team low-balls the story by killing off sympathetic characters, children, and sweet innocent dogs. Some rats also die and, by the end of the story, some human rats. It’s all excessive and pathetic.

Descriptions of the progress of the disease are gruesome but, as far as I could tell, fairly accurate. When people in the book are slow to understand just what rabies means, the authorities bring in a movie to show them in which a man from a Middle-Eastern country where there is still rabies in the dog population dies strapped down on an examination table. When our Multnomah County dog license sellers became over-lenient about making sure every dog was licensed, I showed a similar movie. Dog licenses require proof of rabies immunization, because a high percentage of immune domestic dogs not only protects the individual dog but also is a buffer for the community as a whole. One of the strong reasons for licensing dogs is to get them inoculated, as well as returning them home and helping to finance animal control.

The movie I borrowed to show was from a doctor affiliated with the Oregon Health Sciences University research hospital in Portland who had acquired it in hopes that it would help him understand how to treat a boy afflicted with rabies. It’s an oddity that it’s wealthy people who breach the quarantine laws. In this case a man with a private plane flew his son and his son’s dog up from Mexico. The dog was rabid and bit the son. The situation wasn’t realized soon enough for effective early treatment and the boy became one of the first and the few to survive the full onslaught of the brain virus, because of this doctor. The boy was on full life support and I never did hear whether there were permanent consequences to his mind. (The book never addresses the need to kill a suspected rabid animal without shooting it in the head, which prevents proper diagnosis.)

The movie had been made in the Thirties in Chicago (when the new movie industry was centered there) and the victims were several toddlers who craved and cried out for milk from the nurses -- wearing rubber gauntlets up to their elbows -- held for them in cups, but then attacked and struck the cups away. The movies were silent, filmed on the roof of the hospital for the sake of the bright sunlight. The children were black. Children are more often bitten and rabies is more common in low income parts of town.

By the end of the book, not only people had died but every animal in a twelve mile radius had been killed -- including a famous pack of fox-hunting dogs and a fine race horse plus many beloved pets. About the only leavening element is the loving relationship between the original offending man and his father-in-law, who blames himself for raising a girl who could not think of anything but getting her own way.

No doubt about it: this is a sensational book, but it certainly does have a point to make about human irrationality about both pets and disease. It could have used a bit more rational discussion but it is certainly a good entering wedge for such a discussion. Often, politically, it is the sensational, sentimental and lurid that finally gets people’s attention enough for them to react at all.

This book has several other titles, such as, “The Day of the Mad Dogs.” August reading, I suppose.

Monday, August 11, 2008


A "white male body" properly clothed and equipped. This is my father.

This quiet internet-supported life in a village surprises me sometimes with the synchronicity it can pull in. I’ve been preoccupied with issues of preparation for the end of my life -- not in a morbid way, but in the practical consideration for dealing with all these books and papers I’ve hoarded “for retirement.” If I don’t do something with them, they’ll eventually just be chucked into the dumpster but it’s hard to know how many coherent years I have left. There’s no one else willing to take them on, mostly because people with the same interests have their own piles of books and papers to address. And they aren't particularly significant in the big picture.

Luckily, part of the technological revolution is that I can aggregate parts of the material into blogs and then blooks, which will at least be orderly whether or not they’re valuable. Clearing out my so-called bunkhouse for a visit from my niece and her mother, I spotted the history of Unitarianism in Montana stuff I’d been saving and brought it inside for a bit of sorting and review. (These poor guests may end up making their own beds! But at least I got the roof tarped so they won’t get soaked if it rains.) Among the papers was a xerox of a book: “Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman” by E. Stanton Hodgin, who was the minister of the Helena Unitarian congregation when it still owned the building it built and where I was ordained (now the Grand Street Theatre). It is his wife to whom the memorial Tiffany stained glass window in the theatre was dedicated. He left after her death and served Minneapolis, LA and New Bedford, Massachusetts -- all with honor for many years in each place. Raised a Quaker, he was not a pacifist and thought that WWI had to be fought, but was devastated that afterwards Teddy Roosevelt would not support the League of Nations, which Hodgin saw as the key to peace. I read the book yesterday. You can buy it on for about forty bucks.

Another outstanding character is Lewis J. Duncan, a socialist, the Unitarian minister in Butte as well as the Mayor of Butte, and then the Governor of Montana. Alan Deale used to advise me to get a handle on him. So I googled and one of the references was to Duncan’s consoling letter to the widow of Victor Berger. This led me to a Master’s Thesis by Dustin A. Abnet called “Radical Union: Gender, Personality, and Politics in the Marriage of Meta and Victor Berger.” It's online, so I downloaded and read it this morning with considerable profit, because it explicated some matters I didn’t know about in gender politics, since I always resist them. I tend to deny there ARE gender differences. You know, Annie Oakley’s theme song: “Anything you can do, I can do better!” and then the line in “Kiss Me, Kate!”: “He may have hair upon his chest, but, sister, so has Lassieeeeee!” As it turns out, “White Male Body” is not a porn classic, but a “term of art” among the gender politics people.

Abnet’s thesis is that Victor Berger was caught in the surf between two strong definitions of masculinity in contention at the turn of the 19th century. Of German Jewish origin, he was a strong believer in a man’s right to own property and get ahead through his own efforts and virtues. But as a defender of the working classes, he could see that they were easily victimized by those moguls of the Gilded Age and that they needed protection through the socializing of the means of production: the raw materials and the big industries. He trod a fine line between communism (which means everyone owns everything with the practical outcome being a dictatorship of those who get hold of the power to make decisions) and capitalism, when those who have access to money can oppress the others and impoverish them further. Very relevant right now. Maybe I should send this thesis to the presidential candidates!

But Abnet’s analysis is not about economics, but rather how Victor Berger’s confused sense of himself affected his marriage to Meta, a genteel gentile who met Victor when she was nine years old and he, fourteen years older, stepped in to protect her family after her father had died. The two paradigms of masculinity, what a “ white male body” should be like and what entitlements that meant, were partly “Father Knows Best” (dominating, possibly violent, erratic and self-centered, expecting total obedience from family) and partly Professor Baer from “Little Women,” (kind, protective, wise and nurturing). Partly privilege and partly obligation. Physically the ideal man was supposed to be like Teddy Roosevelt, robust and well-exercised, an outdoorsman of bravery like Ernest Hemingway; but on the other hand refined, graceful, and capable of enjoying the high art of opera and so on.

Victor himself was a big beefy man with a red face, who could not stay on a diet. Friends seemed to find him rather like Santa Claus, rosy and comfortable. Those who felt his anger might have thought him simply choleric. He was a little scary and confessed that he had the potential to commit a murder, though he mostly deflected actual violence. Acquaintances would not have found him “unmanly” in the sense of being a sissy, but rather in the sense of not having left off being a boy. Lesser classes (like non-whites or poor people) were more identified with children than women. (One sees this is the rhetoric about American Indians, who are considered proper “boy” subjects. Childish. Not feminine. Thus the association with scouting.)

Abnet is astute in describing how Victor controls Meta, who is after all, much younger -- and equally astute at identifying the role of Victor’s dominating matriarchal mother who tells him what to require of Meta. He sees that Victor’s willingness to put Meta down, to mock her and control her, comes from his very real fear of his overwhelming mother. (Hey, do I recognize this!) And Meta fought back by slamming doors, etc. (Oh, yeah!) Once Victor criticized her lousy dressmaking (she made it for a daughter who was actually wearing it at the moment). Despite the presence of company, Meta stripped the dress off the child and threw it into the fireplace! (One wonders about the poor kid!)

Victor also demands sexual access in spite of being gone a great deal and having other lovers (once taking a little twirl with the family maid!). He rails against contraception and never quite figures out that Meta is using a diaphragm. (Her pregnancies made her miserably ill, which some researchers claim is the result of a rich female hormone supply!) She had two daughters, both of whom knew about that diaphragm. (No information about their own marriages or children is provided.)

More than anything else, Victor insisted that Meta share and support his political life, just as Bob used to expect me to do that for his sculpture career. Victor harassed, pressed, demanded and provoked Meta into standing up to him, and then claimed he did it on purpose for her own good. Both men created monsters. We used what we learned to strike out on our own. But Meta never left the marriage and Victor never quite cut her off. When it was time for retirement and the challenge of learning to live together again, Victor fell in traffic and was fatally run over. Meta was able to manage widowhood competently and was well provided for, though Victor (mostly because of his mother) had never felt he made enough money, but he did (mostly because of his mother nagging him to get into insurance).

Other people’s lives are never quite as fascinating as our own, but they are certainly explanatory. Maybe John Edwards could profit from reading this thesis. (Or maybe his wife!) Maybe I should read more historical gender politics. Might there be a potential companion book: “white female body?”

Part of being a white male body in a certain era is having to scrape one's face every day.