In the list of possible approaches to Native American writing I half-deliberately left off religion. This is the most problematic context of relating to autocthonous people. From their side the belief is that religion is cumulative and that one can never have enough systems, so they add outsider religions to their own, sometimes as syncretism (mixing) and sometimes as non-exclusive alternatives, using one and then the other as the situation suggests. Few try to reconcile systems at a much deeper level.
From the other side (outside), especially for people disillusioned with their own religious parameters, the yearning is for something, well, magical. Whole. Heart-deep. (Even though we just spent two hundred years trying to destroy it.) It is assumed that anything “ceremonial” Blackfeet do is therefore religious. No one inquires into whether and in what way they are. The acts might be empty. Consider the following.
Is the presenting of eagle feathers to warriors in order to honor them “religious?”
(The feathers come from the Department of Fish and Wildlife since it’s illegal to capture eagles in the old way, which used to be part of the ceremony.)
What about the “enrobing” with Pendleton or Hudson’s Bay blankets?
(The blankets substitute for buffalo robes, which were a matter of skillful hunting and tanning.)
The annual ceremony that marks the so-called “Baker Massacre?”
(Everyone involved goes to a nearby spot for ceremonies. One family has come to “own” this event and organize it yearly.)
Then what about the annual memorial for the 1964 flood victims, especially poignant because so many children died?
And why is there no annual commemoration of the day that Lewis killed two Blackfeet boys a few miles north of here (Valier, Montana) when the boys tried to steal his guns and horses?
On Good Friday the Church of the Little Flower often sponsors an arduous pilgrimage on foot, following in procession behind a cross carried from Starr School to Browning. (About ten miles.) It that Blackfeet religion? All the people except the priest are Blackfeet.
Then on Easter there’s an Easter egg hunt on the ceremonial campground. What’s that? The origin of Easter eggs is not at all Christian.
My Blackfeet friend Leland struggles with issues of religion all the time. He’s a natural seeker. Lately he’s been thinking about something he calls “the edge of Eternity,” in spite of my remarking that Eternity, by definition, has no edge. He says that’s the point. A good baffler answer from a natural trickster. (He loves to invent jokes and is so sly about their delivery that one often realizes that’s what it is a little too late!)
But he’s serious. He wasn’t in Browning in the mid-Sixties when Bob and I became Bundle Keepers but it was his grandma Mary Ground who sat next to me and poked me with her sharp forefinger if it looked like I might do something against protocol. She was discredited by some because she had blue eyes and they said she was “really” white, but she knew the ceremonies and was entirely devout in the Blackfeet way.
Nowadays the old Bundle Keepers are gone but there are plenty of middle-aged, middle-class people who are Keepers and take it quite seriously, though some seem to think it’s a prestige marker rather than an obligation to The People. Leland sits in that circle now. I do not.
So he asks me, “What is the difference between those who are a little too proud of being Keepers and those who have a genuine spiritual connection with the experience?” Of course, my answer is always “ecological.” That is, the people who are spiritual feel their connection to the land in all its “beinghood,” the animals, the plants, the weather patterns, and so on, and who honor it in order to fit into it. They know that trying to dominate it, wring money out of it, will kill it. He nods.
Then my next step: those who don’t know the land because they are always in houses or cars, never walk distances, never stop to stand and stare, will never be spiritual in the religious sense because they have no connection to the planet. He nods.
Then he asks me if I believe in God and Heaven and I say no. He sighs. For years he was a Christian evangelical missionary, which he interpreted as a matter of helping the poor and protecting the old. (Which is why he brings me deer meat and trout.) But he WANTS there to be a kind God and a good Heaven.
This is a guy who has had to fight with all his being for the last four years to keep his leg because of contamination with MRSA infection acquired in the hospital. He never stopped praying and neither did I. He tells me about a bad man who abused the family when the children were young. His father called them together and said, “We will not take revenge. It is not for us but for God. But I will ask you to stop praying for that man.” They did. A sequence of “accidental” bad luck swept the family of that bad man. Of course, people who do bad things to others often come to bad ends. It’s as much a natural law as any kind of justice.
The edge of Eternity might mean the line between those who are believers in their chosen religious system, whatever it is (the saving remnant, the circle of believers), and those who try to look at all religious systems from the outside -- ideally even their own. The less competent forget that science is a religion in the sense of world-view and ideas about how to live. I’m talking “high” science, not the latest tech breakthrough.
My system is based on the edge of that circle of believers, half-in and half-out. Inside or outside, we are all going to suffer and we are all going to die -- no matter what we believe. No choice. This is not a boundary about good versus evil, one inside and one outside, safe inside and dangerous outside. Well, then, what the heck is it? In the center of the circle is a place of up-welling, where the immanent force of holiness rises and spreads, a source of joy and constant renewal. It is full of grace, whether or not anyone prays. I’ll see what Leland says about THAT.