Friday, July 31, 2009


I have no real academic art training, so in this field I’d have to be classified as an autodidact or amateur -- maybe both. If, as my dictionary suggests, being an aficionado means being an “avid follower or fan, as of a sport or activity, a devotee,” then I’m not an aficionado though many Scriver customers were exactly that. They didn’t look at the actual work so much as they looked at the other collectors and the value of what they collected. Usually aficionados stick to one genre or category -- in this case it was Western art.

For a long time Western art was below the radar, not quite “real” art -- for kids and the naive. This seems to be because from the time the Parisian “Roman block casting” (think Rodin) replaced marble as the monumental media of choice, Paris naturally was the center of that particular medium. The “Beau Arts” school of painting and sculpture was the pinnacle of sophistication and desirability.

Then it was displaced when war brought so many sophisticated and experimenting “modern” artists to New York City where Abstract Expressionism and other vigorous but less accessible schools of work came to dominate the media. “Real” art was Picasso and Pollock.

The Sculpture Review, which is published by the National Sculpture Society, posted itself on the boundary to defend representational art throughout human history and they’ve done an exemplary job. Bob Scriver was burstingly proud of being a member of the Society. It’s the one magazine I make sure to subscribe to when I’m out of reach of libraries that carry it. Here’s the newest issue.

Each issue has a theme, which for this one is restoration, cleaning, reconstruction and even copying in the interest of recapturing the original. The story keys off the Elgin Marbles, the friezes around the eaves of the Parthenon, shattered but recovered and sort of jigsawed back together in a new museum next to the actual Parthenon in a frame that preserves the gaps as well as the fragments. In another famous example, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue was in 118 pieces which were re-situated where they ought to be and then a replica was made that restored the missing parts according to the best guesses. Only one wing survived, so it was copied in obverse for the second wing. The head was lost.

The latest trick in bronze cleaning and restoration, just in time to save some of the Beau Arts bronze monuments -- so familiar and dear to so many of us -- is lasers to remove corrosion. I argue that these are the true precursors of “Western” art, celebrating brave men and valiant horses in action. It’s the context that I tried to recapture for Bob Scriver’s work, though his subject matter was usually local to Blackfeet country.

This is a detail from “The Virginia State Memorial” by Frederick William Sievers (1872-1966) . It’s a figure from action clusters at the bottom of the forty foot column that supports a serene officer on his horse. The monument is at Gettysburg. Sievers was educated at the Academie Julian in Paris, part of the Beaux Arts context. What I love about Sculpture Review is that you’re never in doubt about who the sculptor was, so you can do a bit of research. I’d love to find out who his model was. It seems to be the same man most of the time and he has a truly noble face.

What I love most about Sievers’ work is a quality hard to describe: just enough evidence of the clay work -- esp. that brass serrated loop tool or the curled steel hook in several sizes that pares away clay, leaving subtle tooth lines that somehow make the sculpture realer than real -- something like fine brushwork in a painting by Sargent. With Rodin it was his finger marks in long lines clear enough to imagine the sculptor’s strong hands. For me, one of the best parts of fine sculpture is the strong kinesthetic empathy I can feel, as though I had my hands on the clay myself. Look at the clothing and hair, how real they are and yet “artistic.” No need to make a choice between the two qualities.

But I started out to talk about this issue of Sculpture Review. I love it in part because I’m a snob and like knowing about these fine public bronzes that no one “collects.” Of course, all snobs love anything Parisian and I value the French influence on America, which is why I love Jefferson (among other reasons).

I also like this issue because I understand the “hands on” things about bronze like patining or molding or, indeed, restoration. Modern Art Foundry in New York City, which was Bob’s main foundry other than his own, was one of the leaders in alerting the public to the danger threatening these hundred year and two hundred year old works, esp. in these times of acid rain.

In short, my snob’s refuge from the aficionado-overrun Western art world has always been the National Sculpture Society and Sculpture Review. Therefore it was a shock to open this issue and find a Vogue or Vanity Fair-style whole-page snaphot layout featuring a bunch of aficionados and collectors Western Art-style! An invasion from the pop mags called “Southwest Art” and “Art of the West”!!?? I mean, they’re fine and I read them, but when I was with Bob, cowboy artists were sort of an oxymoron. Now they’ve evidently not just joined the mainstream but have become the cash cows, as exemplified by a Herb Mignery corny cartoon joke about where the grass is greener. Full-page, no less.

What does it mean? There’s not much text. Most of the photos include sculptors. In fact, as I look closer I see that there are few aficionados and collectors after all, so this is still a gathering of true artists -- it just happens to be in Loveland, Colorado, with a cowboy band. Nothing wrong with that! They all seem to be having a good time.

I suppose that when it comes to sculptors, as with their works, what doesn’t stay open to new trends will stagnate and die, but what lets go of the old raison d’etre will become something else, which is also an obliteration. This new phenomenon seems to be an energizing force, so how can I object? After all, they bring their own horses.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

COCO CHANEL: Reflections

This is my first suit, dark green tweed, which I bought at J.C. Penneys at Walnut Park, a little shopping cluster in NE Portland within walking distance from us. I put it on layaway and paid on it all summer long while I picked berries and beans. I forget how much it cost, but I felt enormously stylish when I wore it with gloves and, often, a hat, which I borrowed from my mother. I was in high school (graduated in 1957) and had a fairly ambivalent self-image because even as a young girl I was definitely barrel-shaped.

I just went to check my glove box to see if I still have those apple green gloves, but
I’ve only kept the orange cotton ones, the hot pink leather ones, a black cotton pair
with rhinestone cuffs which I’ve never worn and some leather ones including my white kid wedding gloves. I don’t remember why I bought them since no photos show me wearing them.

The Fifties were a good time and a bad time for fashion. On the one hand women were supposed to sport “the New Look” that Dior invented: pinched waists, crinolines, and torpedo bras that you were supposed to dream you were wearing with nothing else at gala events. I never dreamt that. I was over on the Coco Chanel side: trousers, jackets that reached the hips, soft fabrics -- maybe pearls and a straw hat.

So I ordered “Coco Chanel” from Netflix with high hopes. Alas, it’s just another bodice ripper. A fairly good one as such and what did I expect from a television project meant to be for the lowest common denominator? But I’m still hungry for the real Chanel. Shirley Maclaine did a fairly offhand impression, mixing herself with what we think Chanel is like and showing off her age spots, but there’s still room for someone tough and not at all pretty or wide-eyed to pair up with an Indie script and director who are not afraid of the less-than-savory side of Chanel.

This one undercuts her character entirely with the idea that she got ahead only by seducing a handsome young rich man and was feminine because of a love affair with a half-Jew who was killed in a car accident, thus preventing marriage. It dodges the accusations of collaboration during WWII and never confronts Chanel’s relationship to women, esp. in the erotic dimension. Nor, indeed, does it explain her relationship with sexually ambivalent men.

There are off-hand references to Chanel’s break-through construction tricks, the chain sewn into hems (in the NU costuming workshop we used bb’s encased in long strands of fabric -- you buy it by the yard), the tape at the edges, either hidden inside or frankly applied as adornment, the luxurious linings, the constant hint of military in metal buttons, undercut by the strings of pearls, or HOW jersey was used. This movie referred to the actual clothes even less than the BBC’s beloved “House of Eliot” with its devoted sisters.

The House of Chanel went on after the death of Coco, of course, and this is the way the clothes look this fall: small jackets cinched at the waist, full-length layered skirts, chiffon over something, as we’re accustomed to seeing in evening gowns or even nightgowns. thus we have Chanel’s tailoring on top and nightwear on the bottom. It might be difficult to translate this into something an older woman could wear to the office, since shortening the skirt would mean losing the contrast with the jacket and the long flowing line.

What will probably catch on will be the ruffled chiffon wrapped throats, but Chanel also offered a version with a scoop neck. The small hair -- either cut short or wrapped tight -- is essential and jewelry is not there -- nude ear lobes. Post-party: to bed. Are those bed jackets?

It’s fascinating that Ralph Lauren, that barometer of snobbism that I find hard to resist, is showing a version of this look that is probably more like the original Chanel, though more pale and tweedy. At least it keeps the trousers and jewelry. An older woman with a long neck could carry this off and be comfortable, esp. if she had managed to keep a nice crisp profile and high cheekbones. Winter is coming and one would like to stay warm. Also, I can’t really see traipsing through the muddy snow of cities in those floor-length chiffon skirts.

We post-colonials know that all clothing has strong political implications. Consider Hilary Clinton’s covered-up looks, her mono-color pant suits versus Michelle Obama’s bare arms, so strong and free. These newest Chanel clothes do not swing free and easy the way Coco’s clothes for active women did -- they just blow in the wind. They only need a raised waist to be almost Empire in line, a time which led to see-through dresses and exposed breasts -- very courtesan-friendly. Jane Austen’s time, actually. The Austen movies are always using vignettes on the need to tuck something across one’s decolletage for the sake of propriety vs. removing it to attract a man. Coco would sneer.

I’ve always been taken with Elizabethan ruffs of various sizes and styles, partly because I learned to make them for costumes but also because if they are worn with something dark and plain, they suggest a clerical collar, since that was the period when Protestant clerical dress became formulized and formalized. I once attended King’s Chapel where the female UU minister wore a white stock with her black academic gown -- very stylish and becoming. The Browning Catholic parish has a summer intern, a bearded handsome young man from a seminary in Denver, who wears a clerical shirt -- a bit more a blouse than a shirt -- with a high black collar that encircles his white clerical dog collar. Don’t tell him, but it’s very sexy, suggesting an old painting in a way the more common dickies can’t do. He’ll have to come to terms with that.

As it happens, I’ve saved a couple of blouses from my preaching days that are chiffon (or some approximation) with ruffled collars and ties in front. I might have lost enough weight to wear them, though I’m still very much a barrel-shaped woman and now an old one at that. We see these fashions with pale, bony faces -- what will they look like above a ruddy, round face? Quite possibly like a pig’s head on a plate.

Still, if I dress up in them for some occasion, will my self-image (which has a weak connection with my actual image, alas) be improved and make me feel safer, more elegant, more prepared for the public onslaught? (Which may consist of being ignored.) I think Coco Chanel would answer yes. But I would not want to wear Chanel No. 5. I want my Estee Lauder Aliage back.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Catching up with William T. Vollman’s writing output is hard to do. Even as I was finishing up his condensed version of his seven volume series called “Rising Up and Rising Down,” he himself was just seeing into publication his fat new book, “Imperial,” about the illegal immigrants crossing the border in the Imperial Valley of California and Mexico. He is a poetic journalist, if you can accept that category, who mixes his fact-finding and interviews with evocative images. There’s an excerpt at the NYTimes today if you want to see for yourself.

“Rising Up and Rising Down”
is an attempt to come to terms with some kind of moral rules that will help us make decent [sic] decisions about violence, mostly based on relationships. He has gone into war zones and ghettos to see what is there and has not been a fellow in a lab coat but rather a companion to those in trouble. He leans on the lip of the great maw called “Violence” that swallows so many and counts its bloody teeth. I was wondering how I could make any of this new when we stare at so much banal violence in the daily newspapers and television. What reference point can we share?

Netflix to the rescue, as so often. Last night I watched “The Proposition,” a so-called “Western” but set in Australia, an even harsher and more ancient frontier than the American Desert. It directly confronts these kinds of moral boundaries: spouses/protection, family/allegiance, races/oppression, settlement/disorder, colonialism/genocide, and righteousness/punishment. The story is balladic: there are brothers, the youngest can only be saved by sacrificing the oldest, and the outcome hinges on the decisions of the middle brother. The point is not really how the plot ends: it is all in the getting there and like Vollman, the writer (a song writer of considerable stature) sees poetry everywhere. As the actors commented, the intensity is increased by the fact that people went to America willingly and in search of a New Eden. The founders of Australia were felons deliberately banished to Hell.

BILL’S OBSERVATION: “Give me a soldier anytime. For straightforwardness a soldier cannot be beat. Like cops, doctors, mothers and whores, they’ve been through it and they cannot be fooled.”

Therefore, the real pivot of this story is the Captain who is supposed to protect the settlement and dearly wishes to protect his wife. He suffers over ends/means as he tries to obey Vollman’s SHEPHERD’S MAXIM: As authority enlarges itself, its obligation to protect from violence the individuals it controls increases, and the ability of those individuals to defend themselves from violence correspondingly decreases.

The self-appointed mayor and “owner” of the town obeys CAESAR’S MAXIM: Should I extend mercy beyond expediency, then I have the right to commit whatever aggression I please. Though I didn’t notice much mercy as he orders the youngest brother to be whipped to death to satisfy the blood thirst for vengeance in his town dwellers. He’s also a believer in TROTSKY’S MAXIM: No one who disagrees with me is allowed to judge me.

The Irish Murphy brothers’ principle is THE AMERICAN MANTRA: Because the right to self-defense remains inalienable, each of us can and should maintain a self-reliant distrust of authority. This idea was undoubtedly born in Britain where England and Rome struggled to control the pre-existing tribes but Robin Hood always wins over the Sheriff of Nottingham. Because of the colonialism of this little island, Australia shares this conviction -- at least in the Outback -- and no displaced population more so than the Irish who arrived in chains.

So the Brit attitude has been governed by CORTES’S MAXIM: In order to secure and defend my ground, I have every right to conquer yours.

That quickly drifts over from land ownership to people ownership, as blacks of both America and Australia know, so then operations are governed by THE KLANSMAN’S MAXIM: If I believe your race or culture threatens mine, I have the right first to threaten you back, then to remove your threat by violence.

This in turn triggers in both America and Australia (and oh-so-much in Ireland) THE VICTIM’S MAXIM: If any members of your side harmed any members of my side, then your side is in the wrong.

There are other assumptions like this buried in the minds of voters, politicians, businessmen, teachers, and so on -- none of them dug out, defined, examined and either rejected or reformed. All of them can lead to horrendous violence, if only the slow self-destruction of drugs and alcohol.

There are two interacting assumptions that Vollman doesn’t directly define but that I’ve been pondering here in Montana. They both come from sports violence, which seems to be increasing regardless of lip-syncing about “sportsmanship.” They are particularly strong in the small towns and reservations of this high prairie or maybe I just think so because I see it first hand.

One is that Winner takes all. The other is that Being the “last man standing” is the same as winning. In a place where survival is tough, the idea of controlling everything is a very attractive one. Not only does it protect the group to which you have allegiance, whether family, tribe or town, but also it increases power because other people will have to come to you to beg for survival.

That’s when the other rule kicks in: if winning depends more on the weakness and neediness of others than it does on true excellence of leaders, then it is always a temptation to cut the minority losers down, regardless of what they deserve.
Weak persons then begin to turn to the victim’s maxim and the Klansman’s maxim, keeping track of offenses against them and waiting for a moment of weakness in the winner, which always comes sooner or later.

Aside from the Golden Rule, worthy religions oppose the “winner takes all” idea with the principle that if the weakest among you are protected, then also the strong can prosper in peace, because there will be no need to accuse and suppress them.

Would someone please write out this idea on paper, wrap around something heavy enough to be thrown, and heave it over the wall into the Republican party? I don’t think they are enough in the modern times to read a blog. Or particularly books as fat and frequent as Vollman’s. Anyway, if you drop Vollman on them, they’ll be squashed. Maybe they would sit through “The Proposition,” but they might not get the right message.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


So many things that we use as ordinary daily rules of “thumb” are averages or means or norms, which are mathematical concepts and “derived” from a set of accumulated data which might or might not actually include all the possible figures. Take for instance, IQ’s or Intelligence Quotas, which are simply test results from a specific population which are arranged in a standard bell curve. At the midpoint is the score of 100 and then the edges go out to maybe 200 on the high end but can’t go too far down on the low end without reaching into nonverbal intelligence, even nonhumans.

By varying the population tested or the kinds of questions asked or the ways of scoring, a person’s IQ might be almost anything, veering all over the place. And yet we are always speaking of IQ’s as though they were something real, immutable. The concept is so powerful that imitators speak of one’s Numerical IQ or Emotional IQ. And yet it never measures capacity -- only achievement on terms the testing society values. Dominant societies don't want to look at minority alternatives.

These days people are looking for physical evidence of thinking capacity: how fast can a neuron network? (How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?) How many neurons per cubic centimeter does a smart person have? We’ve gotten over the idea of size -- which the men really liked because men’s heads are bigger (ahem). There are tests of response times when asked a question or given a stimulus. (Once I tried out a reaction time mechanism that recorded how fast you could step on car brakes if something dashed out in front of you. I’m dangerously slow. Watch out.)

None of this has anything to do with wisdom or empathy or compassion or creativity or a host of other qualities that we consider valuable in a human. Like tenacity or a sense of humor. But mostly the trouble with IQ is that it only measures one society’s bell curve, which doesn’t fit a second society.

Now I’m going to take a big swerve. Lately I’ve been running into the phrase “best practices” which seems to come from practical occupations like building or plumbing or making something. There is sometimes a third word like “present best practices” or “recommended best practices.” The implication is that there are a variety of ways to approach a problem, but that some are better than others and the present consensus is that the described protocol -- indeed the PREscribed protocol is as given in “best practice” descriptions. Until developments in the field come up with something better.

Now I may surprise you with a new acronym: “evidence based practice” EBP and its context -- troubled post-colonial indigenous people like American Indians. I’m working from an article by Joseph P. Gone, another of the speakers coming up at the August 21 history seminar sponsored by Piegan Institute. “A Community Based Treatment for Native American Historical Trauma: Prospects for Evidence-Based Practice.”

Here's the approach:

1. Some aboriginal people “in pain” and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol were identified. They had come for help.
2. The helpers agreed with the idea of the “talking cure,” which assumes that if one recognizes and understands emotional pain, it will be at least made bearable.
3. Once a person has learned to reflect on and manage one’s inner life, further damage will be prevented.
4. An important part of this introspection is a reclaiming of one’s “indigenous heritage and spirituality.” This seems to be in part because it rejoins the connection to a life that was broken by colonialization when a big powerful outside force crushed a way of life that was centuries old. Not only was it made impossible by the changed circumstances (no more buffalo) but also it was labeled as shameful, punishable, worthless -- qualities which the individual felt applied to them. And there were many tragedies: families smashed, starvation, disease, death everywhere. The grieving was never complete.

So “evidence based practice” (EBP) and “evidence-based treatment” (EBT) are an approach to ordinary counseling that might include something like a sweat lodge or drumming, to lift up such a traditional practice into a re-ordering of a person’s inner world. This is NOT the same thing as some troubled third-generation Italian Vietnam vet from Brooklyn showing up and wanting to be spiritual as a way of escaping his own culture because he has become ashamed of it. Nor is it magic. It is EVIDENCE-BASED -- it has to show that it works and produce a theory about why.

Once I read about a feminist mental-health clinic in England where the counselors worked with struggling women all day and then had tea late in the afternoon to compare notes about what worked. Not gossip, but real effectiveness. A very civilized version (and culture based, too!) of this approach.

The next step is not just getting to healing but figuring out what specific principles or ceremonies of a specific people might be. Native Americans, for instance, are quite different in different tribes in spite of their having a common cause with their cultural distress. A sand-painting might work for a Navajo but not for an Eastern Woodland person. In a way this is a thing one might call “anthropological healing” where either a very informed outsider or a very trained insider could figure out the right moves. The rest of the paper describes one “healing lodge” in Canada and how it worked.

I love these short lists people come up with. I put them on 3X5 cards to carry around for a while and think about as talismans. Here is the short list of primary themes when these people had their own version of “teatime.”

1. “Emotional burdens” The pain of grief over early deaths and losses of family and reassurance often leads to substance abuse, loss of control in violence and a life that is just a big mess.
2. “Cathartic Disclosure” Recovering suppressed memories, letting out denied emotions, telling the secrets, confessing the rage and terror, will purge the pain and greatly diminish the energy drain.
3. “Self As Project Reflexivity” is learning to sort and recognize one’s inner dynamics. Journaling, group sharing, talking to one’s relatives about family patterns, art forms of every sort are all excellent practices when the goal is keeping one’s insides from getting in a knot.
4. “Impact of Colonization” is most dramatic when an individual is jerked out of one set of assumptions and forced into another. It’s not just a problem for Indians. Going into the army or off to college might do the same thing, but those will hopefully have an element of choice and consciousness, which is totally unlike having someone kidnap a child out of a yard and transport him or her off to a boarding school in an attempt to make the child white.

In a sense, our technological world is moving so quickly that we’re all feeling as though we’re colonized by the future. The evidence on which these protocols are based is useful for everyone.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Because of Vicki Santana’s funeral, where I heard interesting remarks during the service and afterwards, I did a little googling and came upon a whole new category of thought about reservations. This is not “how to enforce the treaties,” or “who is entitled,” or “how it came to be.” Rather it is a body of thought I’d call “philosophy of reservations,” though someone else might call it “how stuff gets so gummed up.” Actually, the principles apply to almost any category of government, but the examples and consequences given are in terms of reservations. The single most helpful article I’ve found so far is by Robert L. Bee, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut with a lifetime of work with reservations.

This series of statements which may have been for a class, are described on one website this way:

Structure, Ideology and Tribal Governments by Robert L. Bee

The "sovereign"-cum-trusteeship status of Native American groups is under increasingly strident attack by federal, state, and local non-native interests. Huge revenues of several native-operated casinos have fueled the move even as they have increased the political leverage of some native groups. To counter this threat, tribal governments need both stability and effectiveness. Stability might well come from reform of native governance structures to better reflect prevailing grassroots governance ideology. While not challenging the need for such reform, this essay describes the difficulties of accomplishing it and suggests that working within the imposed governance structure and strengthening tribal judicial systems may be a more immediate means of meeting the non-native challenge.

Bee has many books out, but this is the article I found:;col1

is ten years old. I suspect this body of thought is the drum some people on and off the rez can’t hear, while a few are taking it very seriously. Maybe if a napi-yaki (white woman) like me pays a little attention, it will help. I hope it won’t prompt some people to exclude the thoughts, but I fear it will. On the other hand, non-Indians in abutting communities should ponder these ideas.

Anyway, Bee starts right off with the four “ideal objectives in the context of reservation politics:

1. Effectiveness
2. Broad representativeness
3. Stability
4. Fair and effective distribution of tribal assets.

These are not the sort of objectives that are usually discussed, let alone the motivations that actually power action.

So here are some obvious problems:

1. Lack of congruence between “traditional” or “tribal” ideals of leadership provides exploitable issues for constant challenges.
2. Economic assets being distributed unequally provokes endless resentment and distrust of leaders.
3. Stagnation comes from leadership that doesn’t do much of anything for the sake of “keeping the peace.”
4. Constant pressure from the outside context: state, federal, and so on.

Bee sees two aspects to a successful reservation government: one is maintaining a strong “palisade” around the rez so as to protect the tribe from meddlers and looters. The other is to use that protection to shelter the ongoing vital struggle for a consensus inside that “palisade.” Most analysts I’ve read in the past have chosen one or the other as an issue, rather than the reconciliation of the two considerations into a harmonious system.

The issue in the newspapers at the moment is about keeping law and order on the reservation. Statistics will reveal a roller coaster of times when violence, theft and disorder go up and other times when they come down. Many remedies have been tried, like bringing in federal police from other reservations or the town of Browning creating its own island of jurisdiction with its own officers and judge. But outside forces -- waves of drug peddling, illegal immigration of people who can pass for Indian (indeed, might BE Indian!), religious movements, changing law enforcement practices, and jurisdiction decisions in the high courts -- all mess with the status quo. Mysteriously, something always restores the lawless frontier on the broad distances and tiny communities. The palisade fails to keep predators out and also fails to reconcile the community. Nasty alliances form as though no palisade were there. Some use it as a reason to eliminate the palisade by eliminating the reservation.

Is there no law and order because Indians are bad, either genetically or because of the way they are raised? Is it because they are post-colonial, no longer supervised by white officials? Is it because they are too poor and good law enforcement is costly? Is it because the tribal council is incompetent? Is it because of Original Sin and pagan practices? Is it because those who sell enormous amounts of drugs and alcohol don’t want their market disturbed? All of these get suggested.

I think that Bee would be more open than most to my on-going question, which I ask over and over: “Who benefits from this disorder?” Clearly it is not the women, the children, the elderly and the disabled, which any Blackfeet would tell you ought to be protected and supported. My answer would be that the beneficiary is that lumbering monster called “The Status Quo.” The people who don’t want change.

Bee’s philosophy is a way of starting to answer the question: Who inside the “palisade” doesn’t want change? Who outside the “palisade” doesn’t want change? Who is invested in The Status Quo?

My opinion may surprise some folks. For instance, I would finger those who want to preserve the 19th century, all that picturesque suffering, violence and poverty that fuels art and romantic admirers. As Bee points out, when tribal people enter the ground of traditional practices, they do not agree on which tradition they are observing or even are conscious that there are differences among them. I do not think that many want to live in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing like Adolf Hungry Wolf. I do not think that (STILL!!) enough people know their own history.

The post-colonial thought -- that I see many whites are totally oblivious to, a revolution that never crossed their horizon -- that has empowered today’s ceremonialists by privileging people with educations who have been exposed to this body of very subtle but incendiary thought without realizing the Marxist context. There are problems with it that have not been solved: the vengeful aspect, the discarding of families with a history of traditional practices, the broken connection with the original life on the land that shaped it, and the simple fact that all scholarly theories have a shelf-date, which may be approaching.

Bee spends a lot of time on “casino politics” which reveal that the question of “who gets what” is only aggravated when there is more “what” unless careful and transparent distribution is part of the deal.

Evidently Bee’s sort of thinking is the context within which Vicki Santana and others explore ideas. It is so different that the uninitiated might have trouble deciphering it, which leads to the remark I’ve often heard about them: “I can’t tell where they’re coming from!” This is where. It’s not that complicated. Bee is good at principles in groups of three or four that anyone would digest, even those who are used to responding only to greed or ideology. It’s a beginning rather than a goal, a means rather than an end. In the U of Chicago context I would call it a “method.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose.

The order of titles is of no significance whatsoever.

Well, the first 15 that come to mind... and leaving out the ones I have worked on or the ones about my tribe... I know there are lots more, and maybe some even more important, but this is what comes to mind right now:

1. The Bible (I read it still pretty often)
2. Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat)
3. Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold)
4. Ceremony (Leslie Marmon Silko)
5. The Sacred (Anna Lee Walters and Peggy Beck)
6. The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss)
7. Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse)
8. Hostage to the Devil (Malachi Martin)
9. Dialogues with the Devil (Taylor Caldwell)
10. Grimm's Fairy Tales (complete)
11. The Findhorn Garden: Pioneering a New Vision of Man and Nature in Cooperation (The Findhorn Community)
12. Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey)
13. Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
14. Black Elk Speaks (John Neihardt)
15. Little Big Man (Thomas Berger)

Lance Michael Foster

Today I’m going to cheat. In lieu of thinking up a subject, I’m going to use Lance’s meme. Normally I don’t like memes, because they come from that pesky approach to blogging that treats it like a parlor game and assumes that the whole point of writing is creating a “friends” network as though the world were Facebook. I’m developing a real hot button about people who assume blogging is not really writing and publishing. Not disciplined, not necessary, not paid and therefore not worth anything.

There’s an additional problem with this particular meme, which is a list of memorable books from over the years, because it is so easy to say, “Omigod! You read THAT? You value THAT piece of shallow trash?” I’ve never gotten over a telephone conference call interview from the Unitarian church in Davis, CA. It was a “first cut” for a candidate list for their pulpit. One of the members asked what my five most favorite books were. I told him (what choice did I have except to say I wouldn’t?) and his response was “Oh, no, you shouldn’t read THAT! Read THIS!” At that point they came off MY candidating list. Just another set of bullies.

But I like Lance and my guest just left, so it will take me a day to recover my train of thought and catch up on sleep and find all the misplaced things. To compromise I won’t tag others -- tag your own darn self.

Here’s my list:

1. Parlicoot: An English storybook for kids about a little creature who is unique but lonely for a playmate just like himself.

2. Riders of the Purple Sage: I love the Ed Harris movie, too. And even though Zane Grey turned out not to be (ahem) shall we say, not exactly Lassiter, the whole genre, but particularly that first book, deeply influenced me.

3. The Boy and his Dog Are Sleeping: Nasdijj turned out to be Timothy Patrick Barrus. I’m not shocked and, in fact, Tim has become a close friend and co-writer.

4. Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (William Bryant Logan): This is a sort of foundational set of essays about ecology.

5. Doing Local Theology (Schreiter): Catholic theology at its best, demanding deep thought about just what the symbols and liturgies are REALLY about and then finding the same in other traditions.

6. The Sacred and the Profane (Mircea Eliade): A dependable war horse that one can always ride into battle.

7. This House of Sky (Ivan Doig): Hey, why do you think I’m living in Valier? (There are other reasons as well.)

8. The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen): Perceiving the unseen in what is there.

9. Biography of a Grizzly (Ernest Thompson Seton): Did I tell you the working title of “Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver” was “How I Slept with a Bear and Found God”?

10. The Princess and the Goblin (George McDonald): McDonald was a Universalist minister so marginalized by his beliefs that he had to write fairy tales to support his family. Too bad that’s no longer possible. In the meantime the princess was my model for ministry -- except that the thread didn’t go where I thought it would at all! Which was the point.

11. Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maude Montgomery): The story of that idealistic redhead is for me now suffused with the idealistic persistence of a woman who had a trapped life and finally escaped through suicide.

12. The Old North Trail (Walter McClintock): My favorite book about the Blackfeet. In the eyes of critics, sometimes it’s politically correct -- some times it isn’t. But it’s always authentic.

13. All the Little Live Things (Wallace Stegner): More autobiographical that some of Stegner’s other books, though all his novels are a little bit that way, mostly coming to terms with his father. (I should send one to Tim Barrus.

14. When the Legends Die (Hal Borland): I’ve read this book out loud to classes maybe half-a-dozen times. They remember it long after they’ve forgotten everything else. Me, too.

15. Any Wendell Berry poem, essay, novel. Sure, I know Patrick Burns ( got after us for thinking this stuff was realistic when it’s clearly fantasy to think we can all live happily with forty acres, a mule, and a good literary agent, but I love it all anyway. Except he really DID have to change his attitude about obliging wives meaning you don’t have to buy a computer.

That’s only 963 words, but sod it. Good enough for a July Sunday morning with the lawnmowers snarling everywhere.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


100 Winters -- Kiipippo (100) stoyi (winter) -- as in 100 years ago.

Friday, August 21, 2009
10am to 4pm
Cuts Wood School, Browning, MT
Free and open to the public.


Shawn Bailey, Ph.D. student, Department of History, University of Montana. Mr. Bailey will discuss how the effort to create Glacier National Park included a class struggle between a small group of wealthy, upper-class, East-coast conservationists and lower-class, local Montana citizens who relied on the natural resources of the western lands of Glacier for subsistence.

David R.M. Beck, Professor of Native American Studies, at the University of Montana, will discuss how the Great Northern Railroad utilized the newly created Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet it employed to both market for the creation of new towns and settlements along its railroad and to promote tourism in the Park at the United States Land Shows of 1912 and 1913 in Chicago.

Joe Gone (GrosVentre), Assistant Professor of Psychology and American Culture, University of Michigan, will discuss how Native Americans suffer disproportionately from higher degrees of psychological distress. Many professionals associate this distress with historical trauma which originates from depredations of past colonial subjugation and historical experiences of colonization.

Louis S. Warren, W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History, University of California at Davis, and the author of “The Hunter’s Game: Poacher’s and Conservationists in 20th Century America” will discuss the part of the history of the contentious relationship between Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet.

For much more information and background, go to

“Saokio is a Blackfeet term that describes the prairies as a space that is large, open and flat. At one time the Blackfeet called themselves the Saokio-tapi or the prairie people. On the prairies they used their creativity to change this wide open space into a unique place.

“Saokio Heritage was created to enhance the appreciation of the wealth of prairie peoples creativity. Our goal is to stimulate and preserve the history, language and traditional knowledge of prairie peoples.

“Saokio Heritage acknowledges the U.N. definition of traditional knowledge which encompasses cultural, technological, scientific, and artistic knowledge that originated from a connection to a specific territory or place which is transmitted from generation to generation within a group of people. “

When addressing Native American history, there are many splits that separate useful information across disciplines, across consumers, and across styles.

Disciplines, determined mostly by assumptions about method (researching old documents, analysing material culture, investigating the inner life of humans, belonging to professional groups, re-enacting and re-creating the life) are opaque to most ordinary persons.

The biggest split among consumers -- those who take a lively interest -- is probably between general history and specialized identity-defined history. Some historians are trained university products and others are amateurs, often investigating their own communities or maybe becoming collectors in a straightforward or naive way. The Western History Association rarely addresses Indian issues from an Indian point of view. The Western Literature Association rarely addresses Native American literature. Western art in the context of Charlie Russell and Frederick Remington rarely look at Native Americans except as action subject matter or portraits, always from the 19th century. Western “Indian” art tends to be about pots, jewelry and abstract paintings, often startlingly contemporary.

A large contingent of populations across the planet relate to Native Americans on a spiritual basis, trying to understand their point of view and ceremonial practices. Some of these can become a little unmoored from reality. But others keep their connection to the land that birthed the cultures.

Ironically, perhaps some of the most unaware Americans are some of the Native Americans themselves, whose grandparents and great-grandparents were forced into assimilation so harshly and thoroughly that they’ve felt that even learning the old languages was dangerous or “backward.” In contrast, the young ‘uns have become enthusiasts, hungry for information.

And then there are the bureaucrats, passing and enforcing legislation, trying to sort out claims and indignations and compensations against a great tide of re-assessments and realizations. Much of what seems highly theoretical turns out to have real-world consequences, sometimes unintended and unexpected. The tension between the abstract and concrete can be intense.

For instance, the definition and separation of Glacier Park had the immediate effect of feeding a starving people and satisfying the ambitions of the railroad magnates. Today the Park is a source of income in the border communities and employment by the Park Service itself. A contingent of park rangers, in uniform, showed up last week at Curly Bear Wagner’s funeral. One of Curly Bear’s most pressing issues was returning what is sometimes called the “Ceded Strip” just south of Glacier Park to the reservation in order to prevent spiritual grounds from being developed for gas and oil. That bit of land, sometimes called the “Badger/Two Medicine,” ended up so badly defined in documents that no one is sure what its legal status might be.

Thus the importance of conferences that include people across the full spectrum of thought and feeling from local to national and international. They will learn about themselves as much as others.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"ELEPHANT" & "GERRY": Two by Van Sant

Every art form exists in a tension between the means of producing the image, whether of sound or sight, surprise or familiarity, means or ends, and the actual image. Paintings don’t normally have sound tracks (why not?) and symphonies don’t usually smell except for those folks who have synesthesia, the displacement of one sensory system into another. Okay, we’ve got that now.

In my 1950’s undergrad philosophy of religion class, no less, Paul Schilpp used a definition of art that went this way: “art is the expression of the relationships between man and the universe.” (He was sneaking up on religion as art, eliminating the theos.) Of course, the “man” word got shot down in a few decades, but my struggle was with the idea that art should not just be an “expression” but a “communication.” That is, it should convey the meaning to someone else, an audience, a reader or listener. The context was that I was taking acting classes where some recreated the characters they were portraying in such an interior way that they were just boring. Maybe they were having a great “method” experience of the character, but wasn’t that just therapy or self-indulgence?

Now, of course, none of that matters because the preoccupation is with making money, which means a conflict between what was done profitably before and what one can reasonably predict will achieve that again: repetition or innovation? Gus van Sant takes advantage of that dilemma by going back and forth: one hugely popular movie for the market and one deeply felt movie for himself.

Some people find that both “Elephant” and “Gerry” are of that latter kind, just plain uncommunicative. I myself find them poetry in image, universal in message. That is, they have something to say and they say it in a way that speaks to me and -- I’m betting -- most perceptive others. Both films affirm a relationship between the artist (us) and the universe that is characteristic of our philosophical problem: “what does it all mean?” Or “where is God”?

These movies are not about just “waiting for Godot.” Anyway, Godot or God may turn out to be a terrible monster who comes with a flame thrower, as in “Elephant,” which some interpret as being the joke about the elephant in the room that no one will talk about (violence?) and others think is about the blind men feeling the elephant and arguing over its nature. A certain amount of ambiguity is good artistic strategy, allowing room for interpretation. The plot is horribly familiar: students who flip out and shoot a lot of people, a repeated phenomenon that people try over and over to take apart with the compulsion that if they can just get a kind of psychological autopsy right, they can prevent the “disease.” This movie will not give you much hope, except in the counterpoint of the boy who is trying to save his alcoholic dad. The hints are (mail order assault weapons, violent videos, bulimia) that the causes are society-wide. So this movie has a polemic dimension.

The script and shooting strategy are looped: we see the same thing from different angles, recognizably repeated -- then a surprise as a new dimension is revealed. Our attempts to figure out chronology and motives are helped, then dead-ended. The powerful black “other” figure looks to be a rescuer, but he is not. The class “discussing problems” literally goes out the window. The boy with the camera doesn’t see anything. Lovers become meat. The administrators who might have insight say nothing meaningful.

The setting, those long locker-lined halls, make perfect shooting galleries, looking very much like simulated environments in a video game. Since I was a little kid, I’ve had nightmares about them with their chemical smells, strange light, echoing sounds, and “trapdoors” all along the way where anyone might pop out to say “you’re late,” “you’re unprepared,” “why aren’t you wearing any clothes?” This movie was filmed in Portland where the park-like environment is also familiar to me, though not quite so color-hyped as this.

“Gerry” was shot in a dry environment but Utah has never looked more beautiful, even when it’s just a salt flat. Beginning innocently, two guys park and walk where there is brush and trees. Other people are around. As often happens in the West, innocence becomes inadequacy and a trail becomes a labyrinth. They follow the strategy of “keeping on keeping on.” Both have the same name and seem about equal in other ways, so the relationship between them is that of companions or possibly of two inner selves in dialogue. This story is also based on a true event full of ambiguity where two friends went into the desert and only one survived. There are no explosions, no bandits, no accusations, no rattlesnakes. A few mirages, mistaken perceptions.

Viewers of these two movies are best off not struggling to “figure them out.” They are experiences: stay open, let them happen to you as they unfold on the screen. Save the intellectual arguments for later. I found it helpful to look at the films at about the same time so I could keep both in mind to compare. And contrast. That old routine.

Many of the comments on are eloquent and wonderful. They point out that some viewers became very angry, which is a tip-off that something is being touched that they don’t want to acknowledge. They speak of the threat of becoming separated from each other and the echo of the famous campfire scene in “My Own Private Idaho.” They testify to their own desert experiences. Impossible predicaments like being stranded on top of a natural monolith -- there must be a geological name for it. Remember those car ads with a jeep up there?

It has been proposed that in our time we have killed God in the sense of a big person in the sky and have relocated sacredness in creation rather than the creator. God is absorbed and subsumed into nature, which we nearly worship as “beautiful” and “restorative.” But this film reminds us that even the creation can make a terrifying judgment.

If one grants that this is a version of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a cautionary tale about salvation, then the DVD “additional” short piece about the making the film makes the discussion even more interesting. A huge crew, a sci-fi contraption of camera, boom and track, an all-terrain vehicle delivering people and supplies (no trudging), and the human element is STILL dwarfed and threatened by the turning of the planet under a blood red sun. There is no sound track. The people are nearly whispering.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Curly Bear Wagner and Vicky Santana could not have seemed more different: Curly Bear like his nickname and Vicky a slender friendly woman. The two died within days of each other and Vicky’s funeral mass was the day after Curly Bear’s. Curly Bear’s foundation board had flown in to try to understand what to do without their guru and there were other bigshots in attendance. Things went differently at Vicky’s mass, though the ceremony was the same. Most people were local, though some of her friends flew in from Oklahoma where she had worked in a major Indian Law library for many years. There were more women and old people.

These two were part of a remarkable cohort of “boomers” who stuck together all through their years. Even when some of them were gone from the rez for decades, they never forgot their roots and came back again and again. Eloise Cobell is part of this group. Darrell Kipp is another one. Dorothy Still Smoking, Woody Kipp, Mary Margaret McKay, Mary Lynn Luken, Jackie Parsons -- there are quite a few, more than these, and they were mostly present in the last two days. They were able to interface with the larger world in quiet ways that local people, even Blackfeet, were simply not aware of -- except maybe when the newspaper reported on whether the US Government was going to cough up the trust fund millions they squandered instead of protecting. Each of these strong people chose a different field and became effective in it. Many of them are totally unknown to county, state or even federal officials. They work quietly. Except maybe Curly Bear, who was always being interviewed by the media, which was his job. They didn’t do a lot of shaking -- but they did a lot of moving. Outsiders rarely know more than the one person they happen to have encountered.

Vicky Santana’s parents met and married at the University of Chicago and she was born there. I hadn’t known that, but it gives me a special little link with her mother because of my sojourn there. People in Browning were sometimes puzzled by the way she thought, but there is a special approach to issues there, as President Obama knows, based on analysis and community consensus. Rita must have conveyed it to her daughter, though Vicky was educated by Catholics in Spokane and by law school in Oklahoma. Exasperatingly, she was probably seen by some as a nice little lady librarian, instead of the brainiac she really was, and by others as a solitary eccentric because they didn’t know she’d been married to an Edmo and was a pleased stepmother to his children.

In recent years she lived alone in a manufactured house on the main street of Browning and let pickups park in her yard. Next door were two tiny cabins and sometimes she went back to the one she grew up in because it was warm and familiar. Forget the white middle-class suburban markers of success and safety. Quietly, alongside her deep thinking about knotty international indigenous law, she helped with the small practical but life-shaking issues of adoption, divorce, and inheritance -- sometimes for free.


From the Great Falls Tribune obit (There’s a photo and you can post thoughts online:

BROWNING - Victoria Adele "Vicky" Santana, 64, of Browning, whose Indian name was Sak Oon Is Taah Saa Kii, meaning "Last Calf Woman," and who served the Blackfeet Indian Tribe as a tribal attorney, judge and tribal government advisor, died of natural causes Friday at her home in Browning.

Survivors include cousins Carmelita Brown Hoyt, Marie Croff, Billy Brown, Patty Treadwell, Mary Jo Walters, Delores Hagerty, Don Brown, Keith Brown, Chico Brown and many more.

Victoria A. Santana was the daughter of Rita Brown Santana of Browning and Arthur Santana of Puerto; she was born Aug. 31, 1944, in Chicago. She grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and always introduced herself as Vicky Santana from Browning, Montana. Like her parents, she became a scholar, earning a sociology degree, Juris Doctor and Master of Library Science law degrees.

Vicky served the Blackfeet Indian Tribe as a tribal attorney, judge and tribal government advisor, and was engaged in community legal work on the reservation at the end of her life. She was both an attorney and a policy analyst for the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico, where she earned her law degree, and she was part of a US-Canada Native policy exchange between the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Brotherhood of Canada, advising First Nations on international policy and on the founding meeting and establishment of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Vicky directed the American Indian Law Center's review of federal policies under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and was a contributing author of the President's Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom (1979). She served as Reference Librarian/Native American Resources for the Oklahoma City University Law Library and taught Native legal research and other subjects at the OCU School of Law. She was a longtime member of the Board of Directors for Americans for Indian Opportunity.

Vicky provided legal services to Native peoples and organizations in matters including constitution revisions, legal codes, tribal court development, cultural property, domestic violence and child welfare.

She was policy advisor to the Morning Star Institute's 2004-2005 Native Languages Archives Repository Project of the National Museum of the American Indian and the administration for Native Americans, whose report, "Native Language Preservation," was distributed to tribal leaders on CD in 2007.

Before returning to the Blackfeet Reservation, she lived in Washington, D.C., and worked at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall as the community services manager. She also was an active volunteer in the Obama for President Campaign. One of Vicky's greatest accomplishments that she was most proud of and humbled by her involvement with the repatriation work of Blackfeet Elder Buster Yellow Kidney.

Vicky is remembered by her myriad friends nationwide as a kind, generous, brilliant professional and community woman who was devoted to her extended family, her tribe and all the Native people throughout the hemisphere.

She was preceded in death by her parents, grandparents, and several aunts and uncles.

A memorial fund will be set up at the Blackfeet Community College, Education Department, Dee Hall, chairperson.

Vicky’s priest noted that, like Curly Bear and Darrell Kipp and others, she was a faithful Catholic and attended vespers at the end of the week. Darrell said that the 6:30 PM meditative mass (which this priest makes it a point to reconcile with Blackfeet spiritual views) was particularly moving over the year because of the light changing. In deep winter at that hour it is solidly dark, people huddling their coats around them. In summer it is still broad sunlight. The Blackfeet know how to live through both and these two losses do not mean sundown, partly because their work has always been focused on the future. The children might not remember them, but they will live in the light of their work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


At the back of this lot is a decrepit old garage/workshop where bats live this time of year. Bats separate by gender for the summer, the females creating a nursery and the males finding smaller hiding places, maybe in a tree hole. I’m not sure whether I’ve got a nursery out there or not, but it’s my suspicion that I do because sometimes there are very small bats dead out back on the old carpet where Squibbie mauls her prey. This year I laid all the ladders over on their sides, hoping that this will prevent bat assassination, but I’m not entirely successful.

In fact, a couple of nights ago I took an allergy pill so I could breathe through my nose while I slept -- I know, it would be simpler to boot the cats out of my bed, but I need a little cuddling in my life almost more than breath. Anyway, it meant that I slept heavily so when Crackers started batting something around that kept flying up the open window inside the screen, I thought it was a miller moth of which there are a lot right now. When I use the computer at night, they come as though magnetized. (That might really be the case. Have to read up.)

The next morning, this poor creature-toy was wadded up on the floor. I spread it out, but I didn’t look at it too much or too closely. I just put it on the scanner. I tried to put the cat on the scanner but she wouldn’t stay there and cat belly fur is not that interesting anyway. (Jokes.) So maybe someone out there knows much more about bat genitalia than I do and can make a diagnosis.

The first summer I had the cats they brought in bat after bat. What I hated most was when their silken wings were torn so badly they couldn’t fly, but they were still alive and making a sound so high one could barely perceive it. Once, as taught by animal control, I had scooped up the little creature in a paper cup with a bit of cardboard over it and could hear the scuffling in there. So I took it out of town to a creek with tall grass where bugs were flying around and dumped it out. When I looked back, it was crawling up the grass stalks. I hoped a predator, maybe a fox, would get it.

Back at animal control the veterinarian would have killed it and sent it in to be checked for rabies. He was a little cavalier about bats and kept leaving bat corpses on our lunch sandwiches in the fridge until I gave him an old under-the-counter fridge for his meds and critters. But when I got rabies shots for these cats, the veterinarian here wasn’t just cavalier -- he was almost resistant to the whole idea of checking for rabies, even though we were under a rabies quarantine at the time. A dead rabid raccoon had turned up. But evidently little brown bats rarely carry rabies, though they do carry bedbugs and tapeworms. Wait, BEDBUGS???

In Portland someone ran a check in the West Hills which showed that ten per cent of the bats from the caves up there (I had no idea there WERE caves up there) were rabies carriers. We officers all got vaccine shots, but only the young and the healthy had titres that went up, which led to a lot of teasing of the old guys. By now I doubt that I have any antibodies left. They tell me that if I’m bitten by a confirmed rabies carrier, the treatment is enormously expensive but fail-safe and that in most states, the health department will pick up the tab. I hope that’s true.
But that’s not really about the bat. Back east the bats are falling prey to “white nose,” a fungus that kills them while they hibernate in caves, dropping dead from the rocky ceiling. Little brown bats are the most common kind but now they are killed in such great numbers by this predatory fungus that they are beginning to be endangered.

Among “myotis lucifugus,” the formal name, the bats mate in the fall, the female receiving more than one inseminator and holding the sperm in her uterus until towards spring when she releases an egg and begins to grow it. She migrates back up north to my workshop attic and the babies begin to grow, for three weeks staying attached to the nipple whenever the mother is present. No rooting around or shoving to get a better nipple. In the fourth week, mom brings bugs to junior. In the fifth week, mom and junior go hunting together, just as mama cats teach their kittens. After that, the kid is on his own.

Here’s some interesting stuff from the website called “,” a terrific site. I ought to pretend I discovered all this from carefully studying my specimen, but it was someone else.

“The skull has some distinguishing characteristics. Myotis lucifugus lacks a saggital crest, has a shortened rostrum, 38 teeth, and a upslope profile of the forehead. In addition, the braincase is flattened and subcircular when observed dorsally.

“Myotis lucifugus
does not possess a keel on the calcar and has a short tibia relative to the length of the hind foot (~55% of the tibial length). Myotis lucifugus lacks choroidal papillae and folded retinas, and therefore does not exhibit eye shine.”

It’s eyes don’t shine -- that’s kinda sad. But it can hear a gnat burp at a hundred feet. Here’s some stuff for cocktail parties but probably not dinner parties: “Mating occurs in two phases: active and passive. During the active phase, both partners are awake and alert. In the passive phase, active males mate with torpid individuals of both sexes; passive phase mating is approximately 35% homosexual. Mating is random and promiscuous.”

“Upon female struggle, the male may emit a copulation call to ease the female.”
“Trust me!” he shrills in his tiny voice. (Not really.) “Males play no role in parental care.” (Is any bat surprised?) “Where’s my support check?” she shrieks. (They call this anthropomorphism.)

Little brown bats are fond of my yard and buildings (they use the attic of the house, too) in Valier because I have a lot of trees and I let my grass get long, so there are a lot of bugs. Of course, the bats are not fond of the cats. But they like to eat mosquitoes, which makes me like bats. Just not in my bed, please. And hold the bedbugs. There are limits to this web of life thing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Now and then someone expresses the desire “to enter your life.” Mine. It’s a little scary. They imagine that if they come into my house and ask me questions, they’ll be able to figure out what it is “to be me.” But this is an impossible goal. It’s taken me my whole life to be me, as I am today, and I’m still working on it. It’s not a matter of “life-style:” diet, clothing and interior decoration -- though the advertisers of better things than I have would like you to think so.

The way my life "is" consists of a way of thinking, but not according to advertising glamour. This way of thinking probably cost me and the UUA about fifty thousand dollars at seminary and the U of Chicago Div School. (I’m not counting undergrad. And the cost would be much greater now.) And yet any interested journalist or high school student assumes they can think about theological and churchly matters as well as I or others educated this way can. It’s not a matter of being smarter or “having more education,” both of which lead to the accusation, “You think you’re better than the rest of us.” It’s more like learning to speak a language.

It’s more about stepping inside a circle -- not a circle that encompasses faith-based believers -- but a circle that accepts a certain way of thinking and a certain body of assumptions. It wasn’t just a matter of money, but a matter of time and access, which can both be very expensive. So much so, in fact, that I think there is some argument to be made that all this “fundamentalism” in third world countries (Including ones internal to the US) is essentially about the lack of time and access to do what it takes to become a true theologian or ethicist or comparative religionist. Under straitened circumstances -- both censorship and poverty -- one can only repeat what one was told, without questions.

The response from the ordinary person might be that religion understood as requiring an elite education is a different kind of fundamentalism, that is a lot like snobby gate-keeping, creating an artificial priestly caste.

Theology (okay, and philosophy, since some argue that theology is always about the theos, which doesn’t interest me though I can talk that language) is about questions, but not idle or random questions. Rather, what one learns and uses is a range of protocols, what the U of C called “method,” as in, “what is your method?” Every argument is on two levels, one of which is the “method” (basically a justification and defense of why this specific method should be used for this particular inquiry) and the content, which is what the method turns up. My content never includes much about “theos” because it doesn’t start with any method looking for a big “Guy in the Sky.” If you start with “who is God?” naturally you end up with a description of God. “He” takes up the whole foreground.

So now I’m going to jump over to a different “discipline,” that of writing fiction, which we normally think of in terms of the novel. Maybe I’m going out of the frying pan into the fire.

For some reason we popularly privilege novels above almost any other kind of writing, though memoir -- which is supposed ambivalently to be a kind of novel that really happened -- runs a close second. In fact, lately we seem to be obsessed with the line between novel and memoir, that purports to be a difference in method, but which I would propose keeps slipping over into an argument about content. The key questions seem to be “did that really happen?” and “are you really who you say you are?” One is allowed, as a memoirist, to write only about one’s own certifiable ethnic, economic, gender, educational, and geographical self. If it’s fiction, though, anything goes.

These thoughts came to me in part because of Sunday’s review in the New York Times of a book called “A Happy Marriage,” by Rafael Yglesias who is capable of considerable eloquence on the problem. He chose to write “fiction,” about the actual fact of his marriage. There’s a link to a podcast interview. His thirty years of marriage ended with the death of his wife.

I called my book about Bob Scriver a “biographical memoir,” in an attempt to signal that it was fact-based, but filtered through my own experience. Some readers were “surprised” (as they put it) and covertly sneered that “so much of this book is not about Bob -- it’s about YOU!” Other readers were shocked that I told stories that did not contribute to the “legend” that so many expect when they read about “Western artists.” It’s a kind of dream that they feel I denied them. In other words, expectations rule. Readers are also tyrants.

The U of Calgary Press called it “uncensored,” but in fact I didn’t put in the worst things I could have included. And the U of Oklahoma Press wanted to exclude anything but the monetary value of the bronzes, the prizes it won, and praiseful gratitude to B. Byron Price and Charles Rankin, both of whom make their living as parasites on artists and writers. (Publishing, editing, institutional management) They also wanted to eliminate all four of Bob’s wives and the other “cloud of women,” for their own reasons. They would particularly liked to have eliminated me. Still would. This is not ivory tower stuff, elevated idealism.

All of which is funny/ha-ha, in a lot of ways, but also illuminating. Value in the arts and in many of the “soft” sciences like psych, anthro, sociology, and the like, depend upon reputation and popularity. Therefore, certain parties -- writers or not -- are always interested in enforcing their view because it affects their income which is based on their prestige. When memoirs sell better than fiction, they tout memoir. When fiction is selling better, they make the pitch for “brilliant” fiction. So these distinctions have real consequences.

But Yglesias was thinking about something different. As he said, he didn’t want readers to be dissecting analytically what happened in the past. Rather he was trying to create an experience (well, okay, the illusion of an experience) so that what the page told made it “happen” in the mind of the reader as he or she read. THIS seems to be the real power of good fiction: that for a little while one really IS inside that circle of consciousness shared with the author. Maybe this is one of the key premises of what is called “modernity,” which includes stream of consciousness and gritty reality. Post-modern, then, tries to occasionally step out of the circle of constructed reality into a constructed UNreality (magic realism?) or into a disillusioned analysis, a political point of view. Or just aesthetics, in which the prettiness of the writing adorns a story that is meaningless. The way some theology can be.

I don’t care a whole lot about the above, except that I want to increase my skill in managing the experience of the reader. I respect Barrus, who writes to create or re-create an experience for himself and leaves his readers to “try to get it.” It seems to me that this draws another narrative circle, an even tighter one, right on top of the boundary between fiction and memoir -- almost like story in search of an explanation, or an easing, even a therapy. It has cost him a lot, in time, money and pain -- and has taken his whole life so far.

It's not over yet. The basis of our ability to collaborate may be our interest in a method that is still being defined, neither fiction nor memoir. Strangely, the new element that has entered the circle is videotaped narrative, both stream of consciousness and surreal. It is a growing edge, possibly a new genre of what we used to call “writing,” meant for a new generation of readers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"WILLOW CREEK": How I Wrote the Story

So, the English teacher says, let’s look at “Willow Creek” the story, in terms of method and content.

Content: Very simple. Two pre-pubertal Indian boys go fishing along Willow Creek, which is a real stream that really runs through Browning, Montana. On any summer day you’re likely to find kids fishing and wading, though it’s too shallow for swimming. They come across the alcoholic, passed-out uncle. They walk on, see a horse and a heron, and return the way they came. They try to protect the uncle from sunburn by putting branches over him. One boy releases their bait.

This is reality based: things I have smelled, tasted, touched and so on. No fancy games. No abstractions.

Writing method: summoning up memories.

Incident: In one of the Blackfeet videos that float around here, Darren Kipp and his camera crew stop at the bridge over Willow Creek and hail some boys who are fishing. They’re out of hooks and Darren promises to bring some.

Incident: When I was living in Don Schmidt’s little mother-in-law house, there was a bunch of drunks who had been used to drinking in the yard when the house was empty. One of them passed out in the shade of the caraghana hedge. When the sun moved, I went out and made him move into the shade.

I started with the first incident, remembered the second one, and in the combination the story happened. I used to walk out along this creek all the time and drunks were always a worry since a person didn’t know what attitude they would take. I often scared up that heron. The horse was one that hung around next to the highway for a while when I was driving back and forth to teach a class at BCC. That was decades later.

The third incident I needed was a little fishing expedition I took with Bob Scriver on the same creek but farther towards the mountains, at Skunkcaps, where the beavers work in the water all the time. Bob’s method was “hook, stick and line” from his boyhood and he’s the one who subdued the bait this way.

The fourth concept came from the mustangs on Laurel Scriver’s former ranch which are supposed to “save” the local kids. We spent an afternoon with them a few years ago.

Point of view: I’m not Indian and everyone will have a hizzy fit if I pretend to be one, so this has to be omniscient or from inside the boys, though I suppose I could fool around with being “inside” the horse or heron. I’m an Indian sympathizer and have a long history with these people. I’ve heard grandfathers say what I put in the mouth of the boy and I consider it wisdom. But my real tie to the Indians is NOT political, NOT genetic, NOT romantic or grieving, NOT generic (I care much less for city Indians or Indians of other tribes), and NOT missionary but personal and locational. I care about THESE people in THIS place as I’ve known them for fifty years.

So this method is simple narrative about three specific people and two creatures in one specific place. It is the place that controls the story, which was the point of undertaking it. My goal is a set of stories, each written about specific people on the Blackfeet reservation, something like what I did with “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” though they were controlled by time rather than place.

Theme: It often happens that I don’t know what the theme might be until I get to the end and feel around for a “snapper.” It pops up from my subconscious. In this case I didn’t know until the boy says “things ought to go free, no matter how damaged they are.” Suddenly the uncle becomes clear: damaged but free. Or is he enslaved by alcoholism? Some people would actually imprison him to “cure” him. It’s not that the boys don’t care, obviously. They do what they can. So are the boys free? This is what makes the story worth thinking about. Are they free like the mustang (she liberates herself) or the heron (free as a bird)? They can wander up and down the creek at will, but are they captives of their circumstances, Indian kids on the rez? The reader, like the author, shouldn’t be thinking about it until they get to the snapper.

The “two boys” genre is an endlessly fascinating one. As a kid I began with “Two Little Savages,” went on to “Penrod and Sam,” and finally Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are all rural stories, or at least small town, but for me they were always counterpoint to the tales of unhappy little girls who try to save adults. (“Anne of Green Gables,“Girl of the Limberlost,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”) I get the impression that modern kid or “YA” stories are far more grim and urban.

Anyway, it was esp. funny (both meanings) when one of the Association of the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) listserv members cooked up a plot to say I was only a front for two gay men who lived in a straw bale house near Choteau so they could indulge their penchant for hunting. I don’t know why he came up with that, but maybe I should write a story about THEM. There are still people on that listserv who are confused.

The next story my subconscious is cooking up is deliberately different. A young Blackfeet woman has come back to the rez after a high powered education in Portland that has made her either a nurse or a doctor -- haven’t decided yet. Her main patient will be an ancient Blackfeet woman who turns out to be her great-great-great-grandmother. I think I’ll tell the story through the eyes of a white male doctor who witnesses the young woman's readjustment to the rez with sympathy and exasperation.

The great-great-great-grandmother can be the snapper. Maybe we think she’s dead and her eyes snap open, glaring fiercely at her descendant.

This is fun. Why don’t you write a story?

Sunday, July 19, 2009


“You got any hooks?” asked Tad Pinfeathers.

“I think I got three. You got any line?” said Elmer Arrow Hits.

“Lotsa line. And I saved a really good fishing pole I cut last time. Let’s go down to Willow Creek.”

The creek meandered through the town, wandering under a bridge and into a culvert before coming out on the other side of the east boundary. It was a wet year with lots of late snow and the grass and brush were thick and tall. July poured down on the boys’ ball caps and t-shirts as they crashed along, heading for the part of the creek beyond where people had dumped in old tires and bedsprings. They caught grasshoppers as they went, giving their heads a good squeeze to make them behave and stuffing them into a plastic bag that had been waving from a bush.

“What you gotta do,” the boys always claimed, “Is think like a fish!” Look for the deep water, the shelter, the eddies that would keep things like bugs moving past their noses. Pass up the shallow wide water warmed by sun. Though that was very good for wading. They sent the blue heron who lived along there up out of the water and he went lazily flapping on big wings on towards the mountains, legs trailing, easily getting way ahead of them.

“What’s that?”

“Where you lookin’?”

“Somebody’s legs in the grass.”

“Must be a drunk.”

They became very silent and slipped around to where they could see the rest of the person. It was a man. With braids.

“It’s my uncle,” said Elmer. “He’s a wino.” Sure enough, there was a bottle of Thunderbird, almost empty. “Must be passed out.” Elmer liked to point out both the obvious and the more subtle aspects of life. “Don’t wake him up. Sometimes he wakes up really mad.”

“What if he’s dead?” Tad liked dramatic possibilities. Elmer cut a long strand of grass and held it under his uncle’s nose where it pulsed with breath.

“He ain’t dead.”

“Yet!” added Tad. The uncle was certainly deeply passed out.

“Aw, forget him. Let’s go fishin’ -- that’s what we came for.” The boys went on along the bank, testing the water now and then but not catching anything. Pretty soon they felt sweaty and settled under some willow brush. There were few trees out this far. It was the gravel flood-plain of Willow Creek, mostly grass if you got away from the water. Their minds kept wandering back to the uncle.

“My dad threw him out the last time he came over drunk,” reported Elmer. “He was yellin’ and cussin’ and throwin’ stuff around. My mother tried to calm him down because he’s her baby brother, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“What was he so mad about?”

“Flunked the fire fighting exam. Can’t go make money this summer.”

“He might’ve gone fire fighting and hurt his back or something. Like that guy last summer that the tree fell on. They say he’ll never walk again.”

“Yeah, but now he’s got disability. He’s got it made!”

“Can’t fancy-dance no more, though.” They weren’t really old enough boys to consider what the injury might do the unfortunate man’s love life. “Wonder if he could still ride a horse.”

The boys would love to ride horses, or so they thought, though the only time they’d even been on a horse was when that guy was trying to start a program for keeping boys out of trouble by teaching them to break wild mustang horses. They got to sit on some of the tamer ones then. The horse’d put its nose around and blow snot on them, which made them laugh hysterically. They were at an age when all body fluids struck them as funny. They sat remembering the smell of horses. It was really strong.

That’s because there was a real horse on the other side of the willow brush. In fact, it was one of those mustang horses. They were really good at escaping and going wherever they wanted to. This one was mouse-colored, kinda speckled, with a very long black tail and mane. The front of the mane fell over its face and it gazed at them with big eyes like a girl looking through her bangs.

“Should we catch it?” asked Elmer. He liked a consensus opinion. His grandfather always said that if the tribal council could just reach a consensus once in a while instead of pulling in every direction, they might get somewhere.

“Might get kicked or run over. Besides, no rope.” The horse looked at them mildly and chewed a big bract of yellow sweet clover, letting it hang out of her mouth where she hadn’t sucked it up yet. The honey scent of sweet clover mixed with the incense of sun-warmed horse hide. The boys were content to watch and smell. Pretty soon the horse went off and the heron came back along the creek, now heading east.

“Better start home,” said Tad. “Don’t want to miss supper.”

“You know, Tad, we’re gonna remember today all our lives but we won’t remember what we had for supper.” His grandpa often said that. They laughed as they ambled back along the crushed trail they’d made.

Pretty soon they came to the uncle, still passed out and now in full sun because the shade had moved away from him. He was still breathing. “How long does he usually stay passed out?”

“I don’t think he’ll make it to supper.”

“He’s gonna be reeeeeallly sunburned.” Tad looked at the uncle consideringly. “I think we should help him out. We could cover him with branches. I saw elephants doing that on the nature channel. They rip down leafy branches and cover up an elephant on the ground.”

“That was a DEAD elephant! My uncle is not dead!” Elmer suddenly felt panic rise within him. But Tad was already breaking off branches and laying them gently over the uncle in a kind of bower. He was sort of leaning them so there was space under them. Elmer got to work, too. The uncle muttered a little but didn’t wake up. “We should get rid of that bottle, too.” He poured out the last dregs of Thunderbird and threw the empty in the creek.

“Won’t he be mad?” worried Tad.

“He won’t remember.”

“I’m gonna set the last of these grasshoppers loose.”

“They won’t live now that you’ve squeezed their heads.”

“I think they should be free, no matter what.” His hands had “tobacco juice” on them, but he didn’t care.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

PARIS J'TAIME! A Review & a Suggestion

“Paris, Je t’aime!” is great to watch on a DVD because you can stop between the episodes to savor and reflect. Eighteen vignettes on the theme of love, each limited to five minutes and assigned to a specific neighborhood of Paris, and all directed by exceptionally outstanding directors using actors they love and admire, this anthology is remarkably lovable. Usually projects this grand fall flat on their faces.

Not that everyone likes every piece -- in fact, the comments on are interesting more because they are from such different points of view than that they are particularly insightful. Some directors were being utterly practical: for instance, “Tuileries” was shot underground in a subway station so that shooting wouldn’t be interrupted by rain -- as “Quais de Seine” was. But the results were totally different as well: “Tuileries” was directed by the Coen brothers with their usual violent, sexy action and weirdo characters caught up in impossible situations. They managed to refer to the famous gallery without marching us up and down the spaces, dollying past paintings.

Gurinder Chadha (You have to be really into the global scene to know her, I guess) was the director interrupted by weather, but she kept the focus on her delicate and idealistic cross-cultural love-at-first-sight scene. Gus van Sant’s bit, “La Marais” was a sort of same-sex version but when one of the couple took off running as fast as he could, I was unclear whether he was running AFTER the interested party, AWAY from him, or just running to use up energy he had been suppressing. Maybe the ambiguity was the point.

Two episodes depended on knowing the actors and both were for older watchers who could enjoy the reflexivity. One was “Quartier Latin” with Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, waited on by Gerard Depardieu in a pleasant little cafe while they sparred over a divorce, clearly way overdue. Their ambivalence over each other is matched by our own ambivalence at seeing beloved actors, but so old! So old! Then Bob Hoskins plays off against Fanny Ardent in the Pigalle, the most English actor ever -- squat and pugnacious -- against the most French actor ever -- elegance embodied.

There was love for children: Juliette Binoche, a bereaved mother, is given one last reunion with her dead son while Willem Defoe, a horseman of death portrayed as a cowboy, stands by. In another tale largely in the subway, an immigrant mother wakes her child and leaves him in a nursery, singing him a little song, then travels to her job as a nanny where she sings the same song to the child she is caring for.

Some tales were nutty, one in a traditional way with two white-faced mimes who are parents to a sturdy little boy, and one in a goofy frantic hair-dresser extravaganza that’s philosophically fuzzy, but fun just the same. And the obligatory vampire tale with the reddest blood ever catches up “Frodo Baggins” in another unreal adventure: Frodo lives...forever.

The one I loved the most was very simple: an immigrant parking attendant, Seydou Boro, sees a beautiful girl -- love at first sight! Then later he gets into a quarrel on the street, through no fault of his own,and is fatally stabbed. The girl, Aïssa Maïga, returns as the responding EMT. He begs her to have a cup of coffee with him “later,” but she already knows there will be no “later.” Nevertheless, she asks someone to bring two cups of coffee, in case he lives long enough to share them with her. He does not. Oliver Schmitz is the director, a South African, who tells his story with great simplicity and tenderness. The actors are black. I don’t know about Schmitz.

The wind-up story is the love affair between a solitary tourist and Paris itself. Margo Martinda, an actress you'll recognize but not be able to name, is Carol in the "14ème Arrondissement", walking, walking, walking which she doesn’t mind a bit since normally she’s a letter carrier in Denver. Nor does she mind being alone in a city full of lovers -- she loves her two dogs and will be happy to get home to them in spite of this “affair” in Paris.

The potential for using this DVD is enormous. It is a course in cinema all of itself. It gives lots of material for a philosophical discussion of love. One could analyze style and cinema tricks like making vampire blood practically glow in the dark or the mimes putter through the streets without moving anything but their feet, which are blurred with speed. One could address nationality: French, English, American, Islam, South African -- or class.

But what I think would be most fun would be to divide one’s own town into neighborhoods and write a story for each of them. Maybe I’ll try it. In McKinley, Montana, the imaginary town that’s geographically on a website: A railroad neighborhood, a growing suburb, the mall, the main street, and so on. Or maybe Valier: along the lake, on a modest historic street, in a block of old houses versus a block of new houses, the “field” of grain bins, the trash roll-off.

Or how about a series of stories on the rez. I did one in terms of time, “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” Now maybe I’ll do one for each town, maybe an old-timer town like Heart Butte and then a “young tourist” town like St. Mary. Moccasin Flats would have to be a memory piece. East Glacier a plan-for-the-future piece?

Or it would be possible to write a story for each “arrondissement.” I think I’ll try it: a fishing story by Willow Creek interrupted by a drunk; a one-hundred-year old Blackfeet woman at the IHS hospital, so white and clean it looks like the inside of a spaceship, and a young nurse who is slow to realize that this old woman is her blood ancestor. An espresso barista in the big old concrete tipi who is fascinated by a young black man who arrives in a Porsche, hoping that maybe HE’s Blackfeet. A playground drama on one of the elementary school grounds. A library discovery at the high school, maybe a note found in one of the books that was written by his grandfather. See how easy it is?