Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Heather Devine’s book, “The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family 1660-1900,” manages to combine two forces: the story of a new people in a “strange empire” and the story of her own family. By focusing on the Dejarlais line of her ancestors, she has found the artesian force (I’m tempted to say “green fuse”) that drove her ancestors through times of such confusion that most people didn’t even know it happened. Some people are not very anxious to have you find out either.

With the clarity and careful footnoting of a competent academic and the warmth of a family member, Heather traces how the bringing of Euros and Iroquois onto the prairie parklands (potholes and poplar bluffs) to manage the fur trade collided with the first peoples already in residence, gradually created a new people called Metis/metis. (There are political and grammatical implications to the capitalization, but those are for hair-splitters.)

The first force is the most basic: the Euros needed women and took the ones available who were indigenous in the “fashion of the country.” No need to be coy about it. It was more than sexual: a household needs to be maintained. This connected the relatives of the woman, but not those of the man who were back in Europe or on the east coast. Sometimes the men discarded their wives when they left for home or moved on. Sometimes they went on to marry them in the Christian way, which meant living in a frontier town with a mixed population. In a generation, the children of mixed heritage chose whether to identify with their mother’s people or those of their father who were on the frontier: uncles and cousins. If they went back to their mother’s birth group, they were absorbed and continued as “Indians.” Some were left in between, “mixed,” but still had connections to both sides of their heritage. In time they intermarried with each other, forming a people. None of this was very easy, though it must have been inevitable, and the Hudson’s Bay Company stood over the whole economic picture, concerned with profit and forcing allegiances.

We forget much of the history of those times. As always, the Mississippi River stood as a boundary. On the right side of it, the country was French. On the left side of it, the country was Spanish. A decade or so before the American Revolution, England managed to rout the French from Quebec. Then the American Revolution drove a wave of English loyalists into Canada. This transformed Canada into an English Empire, but the western part, then called Rupert’s Land, was put into the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Many of the residents remained culturally French; many of the Quebecois went west. When Jefferson “bought” Louisiana, it became part of the United States. In the southwest the criollo and mestizo people were forming as New Spain.

Closely following whatever records she could find, Heather traces out the story of her Quebecois ancestors who went west, formed alliances through marriage, became a mixed people, and then were confirmed (the right technical term!) by Christian missionaries asked to help to impose order on the unruly and sometimes suffering people. Hudson’s Bay, faced with the scarcity of furs caused by their own rewarding of overtrapping, cut loose anyone with weak ties to the management.

By the 19th century the term “The People Who Own Themselves” had come to mean those independent Metis bands with their strong sense of who they were. With the visionary leadership of Louis Riel and his cousin Dumont, the Metis resisted Canadian ownership by trying to form their own country. This was suppressed harshly -- Riel, Dumont and others captured and hung -- which sent the remainder out across the northern prairies to form, inform and energize people on both side of the 49th parallel, an arbitrary boundary unlike a river.

This story that mixes family ties with economics and idealism is of considerable concern in Canada because of the felt need to sort out people as indigenous versus immigrant. Are the metiz a people who need a reservation or should they simply be considered citizens? In the end many of the people decided for themselves, going back to blend in with the maternal tribe or accepting their fathers’ world.

All of this happened so recently and is mixed with so many other battles and yearnings that it has been hard to understand, particularly for the people themselves. I vividly recall a grandfather telling me about trying to explain to his grandson that they were not Blackfeet -- this was on the American Blackfeet reservation -- but neither were they Cree. “But then what are we?” asked the boy and the grandfather didn’t have the facts in order to explain. The emotions about his kind, called “Cree” here, ran high, both defensive and scorning, The boy really NEEDED to know. It was no vague itch about origins but an immediate social issue.

In the changing terms of what was powerful, what was economically viable, and what the signs and meanings of their lives were, strange anomalies appeared. A metis man who worked as a servant to a priest took to wearing a cassock and, away from the priest, imitated the “magic” for his people. One idea was that a suit of proper British clothes became a sign of near-supernatural power, because the Hudson’s Bay Company gave such a three-piece suit to their valued employees. On the US side, this was called “citizen’s clothes” and not so empowering. But I was impressed by my own observation that many white man’s imports became taboo to traditionalists, for instance, forks. Bundle Keepers were told not to turn their meat with forks.

Such uncontrollable elements as the ability to borrow to buy trading stocks or the means and distances of transportation were the real determiners of success. Against that, family loyalties, alliances by marriage, and skills learned on the land were all valuable but sometimes limited. Yet the people’s identity survives in stories, names, songs and attitudes. The MATL international corporation chose their first land seize victim without realizing he was Metis. Their mistake. And this Salois understood the big picture. He quickly found allies. And new enemies. That’s the way of history. Even though the international corporations have new names.

Monday, January 30, 2012

"THE LIBERTINE" -- Review and Reflection

So now, after waiting for it to come from Netflix for more than a year, I have “The Libertine” in my hand and have watched it twice, once “raw” and once “cooked” by the director’s comments. I think just about everyone felt cooked by the end of this production for a lot of reasons. Film is always about the script, the acting, the lives of the actors, the crew as a community, the community where the film is being made, and the political climate -- in this case not friendly. The film lost a third of its funding, arbitrarily and just as shooting was about to begin -- not because of morality issues, but because of government economizing. Several films were simply scrubbed. This one was a passionately enough desired project for private money to be found.

So why were the investors passionate? The casting was sublime, the subject was “hot,” and so on. But I think one of the keys is in the similarity of the times of Charles II, the Restoration, and echo in the political and religious issues of today. Briefly, at the time all four kingdoms of Great Britain had just been suffering war, their monarchs had been lost (some executed with the beheading axe), and Hobbs was telling them that this is what life is about: a short brutal struggle with no meaning to it at all. “Red in tooth and claw.” Fight, fuck and die. The Puritanism of Cromwell, who had just been thrown out of power, persisted in the background, blaming. Several versions of Christianity had been contending, confusing everyone with their dogma fights. What is the bottom line? Which brand of morality does one accept or -- since they can’t agree -- is there any Divine law that must be obeyed? How low can one go and still come back? I have to say that the famous and much discussed debauchery is pretty mild compared to what goes on these days. Nighttime orgies under a tree in the park seem almost innocent.

Charles II, like any smart king on a wobbly throne, needs most of all someone who is blunt in an eloquent and trustworthy way -- that’s Rochester’s job. A kind of court jester. That he gets carried way with his mockery might be due to the alcohol or might be due to getting tired of being owned like a King Charles spaniel, like the one that spangled the marble floor while the camera watched over the king’s shoulder.

Much criticism of this film related to the murkiness and muck of the scenes, the candle smoke and dun colors. I vote with those who found them fitting, though the heat of that many big candles made me nervous. I think young fans of the movie are reacting to the intense emotion as well as the implied permission, even approval, of doing anything one wishes. There’s not a lot of bare-naked-fucking, mostly “eye-fucking” at which Johnny Depp is mighty adept. No drugs, only booze. The pattern of women is beautifully clearcut; the casting director (who died during the movie shoot, alas!) did a masterful job of rhyming the faces of the women with Depp’s face. Francesca Annis as his mother, Elizabeth Malet as his faithful but outraged wife, Kelly Reilly as his enabling whore, and Samantha Morton as the pivotal actress are each studies in difference versions of co-dependence. (Is co-dependence a bad thing? Is it wrong to “enable” a genius?) Each fights him but needs him and in the end survives him. The men, who are different, more assorted, provide the platform for a man of the theatre who moves in a coterie that feeds on him and occasionally falls victim to him. I kept thinking of Caravaggio. Or a modern rock star -- but everyone thinks of that.

For me, the key to Rochester’s character comes early in the script. He says he cannot feel anything in ordinary life so he needs theatre. But he doesn’t just mean speaking the speech, treading the boards. He means (in this version anyway) what Marlon Brando, Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp mean: the inner ransacking and challenging that actors and writers do. Laurence Dunmore, the director, in his commentary tells about what amounts to a near-sexual threesome: Depp and Morton thrusting into each other’s emotional guts while Dunmore, strapped into a handheld camera, watches from inches away, circling, probing their faces -- Depp often in half-shadow, Morton against a bonfire of candles. Dunmore says he has not had much to do with actors until now, but Depp took him in hand in much the same way as Rochester takes on Barry -- forcing and provoking and frustrating until all carapace is broken through and raw truth boils out. This is a generosity, an inclusion in Depp’s world, and it pays off for everyone.

Rochester’s final speech, staggering around the court with camera focus going in and out, is a plea for the standing order at a time when some were inclined to start up the same chaos of successions that had already done as much evil to the country as Rochester’s overindulgences had done to himself. His influence is a benefit to Charles II but Rochester claims to do it for his own reasons. The script doesn’t spend much time dithering over the political issues.

The movie is transparent in terms of the Sixties and Seventies great revolution of behavior, but more subtly I think it has a lot of similarity with the disruptions we’re sweating our way through now. How much can art compensate for -- well, I hate to say “immorality” since the “rule-breaking” here mostly seems to be alcoholism and sexual frankness. There’s nothing about corrupt diversion of wealth, starving people, or rampant violence. There are no drugs. There are no children except in street scenes. Syphilis is presented honestly as horrible but Rochester doesn’t seem to infect anyone else. It doesn’t seem to signify AIDS. Just punishment.

There are THREE deathbed scenes. One at which he discusses heaven with a chaplain but may or may not have repented, one which is real and one that is a stage version. This is theatre through and through, with all the meta- dimensions of being in it, watching it, knowing what is staged, knowing that acting is more real that ordinary life, and escaping Hobbs by entering a different dimension than the people out there in the muck living quiet lives, maybe desperately.

So what’s the bottom line? Take care of each other.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


To most Euro-assimilated, media-guided people, “religion” is a matter of institutions. This idea is encouraged and supported by the institutions themselves, each trying to establish that they are the pivotal, central, “true” religious believers while the others are mistaken, heretical, uninformed, or insufficiently evolved. Therefore dogma is crucial. But every institution tries to maintain itself and in the interest of keeping water flowing into the pond will make compromises in order to stay timely and appealing. This leads to “mission drift” in denominations just as it does in political parties.

Recently the current head of the UUA, Rev. Peter Morales, sent a message noting that the latest survey (like political surveys) had noted that not a lot of people are naturally suited to the UU point of view, but many more of them exist outside the denomination than are signed up in congregations. The idea was to ask us why that was and what should be done about it. http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/officers/president/moralespeter/192145.shtml Morales already knows what he wants: a mission statement that will attract and unite more people. Like publishers, he wants to find out what sells. He hopes to organize the UU diaspora, all the people who sympathize and even donate but who do not want to join a congregation or worship in a group. They WILL go to an annual regional conference for a week with great enthusiasm.

Looking back a few hundred years, the American Unitarians formed around the idea that the Trinity was illogical. In their emphasis on theism as an issue, they became quite intellectual and then were open to the new ideas coming in by ship from the far East: Hinduism and Buddhism. But the Transcendentalists, who explored those most, were technically a heresy. (It was one of those Apollo/Dionysis splits.) The American Universalists formed around a different heresy: the idea that a good and all-powerful God (who would have any other kind?) would save everyone: universal salvation. This latter turned out to be such an appealing idea that it escaped the denomination into the general population and most of the other mainstream Christian churches.

Both denominations had a sociological dimension as all institutions must. The Unitarians tended to be urban, educated, and prosperous. Bankers, insurance companies, resource developers, educators. The Universalists tended to be rural, more accepting of Jesus as at least a remarkable person, and farmers. In 1961 the American Universalists, their lifestyle diminishing, were more or less forced to join the Unitarians or die.

Since that time some sociological issues (the Vietnam War, black power) have cracked the institution open and new sociological issues (GLBT, hispanic, feminism) have tried to mend and grow it. In the process the UUA has become identified with political liberalism, populism of the elite (yup, contradictory), and has actively sought racial inclusion. More people, right? They have been aided by right wing Christians who try to say that only Christians like them are dependably moral, which means that atheists need to somehow prove they are moral and “religious.” UU’s have always benefitted from enemy attacks and scorn, which drive the denomination together.

The catchwords (literally meant to catch new UU’s) Morales uses are “compassion” and “justice.” These are meant to attract, include and protect outliers whether because of sexuality, nationality, heredity or thinking. Very nice. Not much fire, not much depth. The usual do-gooders. How do you make outliers form any organization or pay any dues, even if they are not compelled to come sit in pews on Sunday? If they are vulnerable, they are needy; if they are defiant, they won’t sit down anywhere.

Worldly issues of power, success, and control overtake everything else. Don’t tell the Emerson Avenger (Google him only if you must) but the sexual revolution has never really been addressed by the UUA except in terms of teenagers -- NOT the ministers, much less the congregation. (My rule of thumb: If the minister thinks he or she should sleep with any members of the congregation, then they are obligated to sleep with EVERY member of the congregation. It’s not the sex, it’s the favoritism.) Money is still a secret topic among us, let alone major fortunes some of our people own. Concentrating on urban issues, domination by some regions, the withering of our seminaries, the arbitrary separation of the US and Canadian congregations -- all practical, troublesome stuff. Everyone fighting for their own private charity or issue. The remedy is often reverting to traditional Christianity, or so it seems from the outside where I am now.

The principles that supposedly ARE our uniting document http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles/index.shtml are fine but they don’t open up the hot issues. They’re about as stirring as the Golden Rule and hardly distinguish us from Bahai. I much prefer the non-anthropic ideas of the Bioneers: everything is connected, everything is “alive,” everything changes. We must find the courage to face a world that may not include human beings and the possibility that all our ideas about “meaning” are situational, not eternal. Which is NOT unreligious unless you are anthropocentric.

One of the diasporic elements the UUA has in abundance is ministers who have left for one reason or another, often institutionally related. They can’t get along with others, or they are bullied by authorities in or out of the congregations, or they just lose interest. We don’t really KNOW what the causes are because we act as though they were former spouses in the Victorian Era, shutting them out. There is no mailing list of them: I asked. Yet it would seem as though they know better than anyone else why people don’t come into the institution. Some of them are highly charismatic people.

I do not say this because I had trouble with authority figures. (Though I always have.) I left because I loved this geographical place (high prairie east slope of the Rockies) more than any institution and there was no way to form a UU congregation here (a village of 350 next to the Blackfeet reservation) that could support a minister. In retirement I don’t have much to boast about, but I have freedom. Even more so now that publishing has collapsed so I don’t even have to conform to them.

UU’s privilege wealth, power, and allegiance, the same as any political institution. Probably UU’s admire and will unite behind education more than anything else, but the trouble with education -- I speak next to a reservation -- is that education is the same as assimilation. Education usually means persuasion to a point of view, a way of thinking and living, and -- ultimately -- a faith conclusion. Probably what the media calls a “lifestyle.” If it doesn’t, then we don’t have a unified movement, do we? If there’s no advantage in terms of wealth, power, allegiance and education, why join up? Pot lucks?

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Some historians say the 19th century didn’t end until WWI when the newly developed industrial capacities of Europe and America took a developmental leap in the name of war. They might also say that the most apt symbol of the industrial steampunk revolution was the railroad trying to find its way over the Rocky Mountains so it could be the Great Northern roaring and wailing shuttle that held the nation together along the High Line before any highway system was built. To help pay the way for that rail line in its last phase approaching Glacier Park, the US government gave the railroad a strip of the Blackfeet land on either side of the right of way plus wood for ties and grass for the horses still used for building. And the railroad magnates used horses to build huge timber resort hotels in the newly designated (1911) Glacier National Park and Waterton Peace Park. The Blackfeet managed to become feathered marketing motifs and to skim off a few horses.

The Blackfeet still live in the tumultuous “surf” along the east slope of the Rockies, where the various machineries -- engines and combines and 18-wheelers and pump jacks -- surge up to settle among the horse herds and the buffalo. Not the last of the buffalo -- the re-established buffalo. Tony Bynum, photographer, documents this in images, working from his studio not far from the Big Hotel in East Glacier. I can't clip photos to post so go to www.tonybynum.com to see his iconic old bull buffalo standing in front of Chief Mountain. It will do you good to look at ALL the photos. Or find out about the gallery at WWW.glacierimpressions.com

The enviro people have begun muttering about “environmental pornography,” meaning that all the pretty pictures of nature suggest that there’s no dark side to it, that it’s meant for escape from reality, and that it needs no help from humans because of being so ethereal. Anyway, with your cell phone in your pocket, what’s to fear? (They wrongly assume such gizmos will work in the mountains.) Tony has beat that rap by picturing oil rigs in the foreground of his landscapes. As backup, he includes photos and videos with a map of where the rigs are. http://tonybynum.com/oil-map/

This IS what the environment needs from humans: attention to their own actions, esp. when profit is involved. Not so much more laws or regulations, but simple citizen monitoring, especially in places where people are not likely to be passing by. (A few decades ago the backside of the Sweetgrass Hills had a big bite taken out of it by mining until some rancher went looking for missing cows.) The aerial videos are particularly striking. In the hands of a skilled photographer, oil rigs on the long landscape are not necessarily ugly and are always interesting.

East Glacier is not an easy place to live. It is cut in half by the railroad and in the old days feuds used to explode between the two sides, partly because the side with the Big Hotel has the ranger population for the Park, which is different in style from the tourist businesses along the highway. By spring, I’m told, one side had stolen the other side’s wives and the other side had set the houses of the first side on fire.

In fact, fire is a touchy subject. In the years I lived there (1970 to 1973) the volunteer fire department had a few embarrassments. One was forgetting to assign someone to dig out the doors of the fire truck garage and the other was not realizing that the water in the truck was going to be frozen solid if the temps stayed below zero long enough. In those days John Clarke, the famous ancient Blackfeet woodcarver, lived in the bottom of a two-story house with the top burned out of it. Before piped gas, heating was always risky. I got through one winter with Prestologs in a flimsy little tin stove that danced if it got too hot.

The most spectacular fire was a service station receiving a truckload of fuel. The static control failed somehow and the tank caught fire, sending up a thirty foot pillar of flame. We could see it from Browning. There was really no way to save the office and service bays, which added a column of black smoke when the motor oil cans exploded.

Tony is pretty active with today’s more organized fire department. When a person has put down roots, they become invested in things like the water system and the fire department. East Glacier is one of the three resort communities on the Blackfeet Reservation (the other two are Babb and St. Mary -- I suppose one could include Kiowa.) That means that the population expands greatly in summer and then empties for winter. (The weather is too tough for winter sports except snow shoeing on good days.) East Glacier has become a bedroom community for teachers, which helps somewhat, and an interesting phenomenon is an international cadre of resort workers who return every season. In fact, some of the tourists return faithfully to a standing reservation with their favorite motel or bed-and-breakfast.

Long before I read Deleuseguattarian philosophy, I knew the value of rhizomes (centers from which growth can come) and nomadism. It’s the way of nature and also civilization. But a philosophical head trip is different from an actual demonstration. I refer not just to Tony’s photography but to his participation in the community, both local and planetary, which is what gives him the eyes and brain that guide the camera. In one week the GF Tribune has brought up Tony Bynum, David Trexler, Darryl Flowers, and violence connected to the Bakken oil boom over east, which hasn’t reached us yet. It’s a pattern, an ecology forming, a rhizome drawing on nomadism.

Ecological awareness is as important for humans as fire and water infrastructure -- in fact, it’s the same thing. The understanding and support of how things fit together is what will create long-term profit and long-goal morality. But it is best done from the inside -- participating -- not from some academic or urban setting. Daily I read on the enviro listservs proposals and conference themes that are laughable in their distancing from reality. The real danger is that they don’t KNOW they are relating to nothing at all, that no statistics are in the end reliable, that too much fantasy is toxic. That’s the definition of psychotic; often dour and depressed as well. Tony Bynum is sane. And joyful!! Check out his naked rejoicing at the bottom of a Rocky Mountain cirque, a regular ampitheatre!

Friday, January 27, 2012


The kind of books that are booming now, especially on ebook gizmos, are “immersive” -- strong narrative theme, maybe fiction and maybe not. The kind of book that sweeps you into a forcefield, another world, that holds your attention so strongly that you forget all about the time and have to go out for dinner because you didn’t peel any potatoes early enough to boil. Non-readers sink into movies the same way, but they will not remember long ago being called by their mothers to do chores and begging for “just one more page”!

I don’t quite know how to describe the kind of books I read, partly because they are an assortment. Non-fiction that is research, like the brain function books I’ve been exploring; “high” literary Western writing of many kinds including Native American books; deliberate but limited forays into genre writing like pulp Westerns; sci-fi of some kinds, and -- oh, I confess -- Maeve Binchy. Plus censored and verboten books. I started reading every Montana writer’s book I could find and still do that some, especially the women, but the category has sort of dissolved. Now they’re all over in Portland. Or don’t write anymore.

It’s only logical that people should “write what they know” because what choice do they have? Whether anyone would want to read it is another question entirely. To publishers that’s the crucial question: will people buy this book? They care nothing about any other dimension or quality. If immersive sells, that’s what they buy and promote. If scandal sells, THAT’s what they buy and promote.

To the reader it’s a matter of personal taste. Do I “like” this? Do I want to keep reading? Do I want to read other books like this?

To the writer a book could be almost anything. A shedding of ghosts. An analysis of survival. A scrapbook of lost things. The seeds of tomorrow. If you’re a writer, people will ask you “have you been published?” To them it is the dividing line between amateur and professional. If you’re not published, you’re not really a writer. It’s the criterion for a lot of memberships in organizations, as though it were a college degree. It says, “someone more important than you thinks this is a worthy writer.” That’s what people THINK it means, esp. if the book has won prizes. But in fact it only means that the book sold, it made money for the publisher. Or if it didn’t, there’s one pissed-off publisher somewhere.

Self-published puts all that stuff in the whirling machine. Some things are too good for any publisher. Some things are just fine being published for a defined group: proceedings of conferences, repair manuals, family memoirs, porn.

The point of some writing is the actual procedure of writing which can be a kind of self-education or auto-psychoanalysis or growing process or safety valve. If a person I care about is doing this kind of writing, I’m very much absorbed in it, because it’s a window to a soul, but I probably get too interested in the writer and so do others. It radiates passion-vibes.

Most people don’t know “how” to write which is why they get writer’s block. All they know is how to spell (with a little help from spell-check if they think of it) and string words together, but they don’t know how to access their sub-verbal being, which is really where the writing lives. Down in there someplace is the fuse and the bomb and the debris. What one writes is the debris. You have to figure out the rest. But no two people write the same way. Despair, revenge, true love, bad habits -- they all get into the mix.

In 1961 when I first began to teach public school, I signed up for the Famous Writers course. It was a LOT of money, which mostly went for stuff you didn’t need, like special paper with a Famous Writers logo at the top. That outfit made a mint for decades until someone finally uncovered the scam: the idea was to sign you up for a contract you couldn’t escape and then give you uninspired assignments. If you doggedly sent them back, there was a panel of supposed experts (meaning people who couldn’t make a living writing) who tore your writing into shreds. The bloodied endurance champions who kept on with it didn’t learn a damned thing, because all the criticism was grammar, usage, and stock remarks like “don’t be pretentious” and “show don’t tell.” What the hell are those supposed to mean? It depends on what you’re writing, doesn’t it? And who you are? The goal of these hired critics was to kill your ego. They were good at it.

Confirmatory writing is quite the opposite, more like the teacher who tries to be encouraging by strategically praising what fits a general consensus of what writing ought to be like. Which means establishing what sort of writing is in hand. I mean, if you are writing something that confirms the ideas of a suburban liberal, that will be quite different from writing a story about small town set-in-their-ways recently-immigrated populations. If those two “kinds” are pitched against each other in a story, one faction will want the green horn slicker to be showed up and the other faction will want the rural guy to look like a hick. (And maybe a convincing story about the two types collaborating and becoming friends would sell pretty well.) I will tell you this: I met very few teachers besides myself who would allow the kids to write about their real lives, and with good reason. I sometimes wondered whether I should call the police.

Confirmatory writing always has a happy ending. Everything turns out all right, meaning that it meets with the approval of the person reading. Presumably the writer wanted it to turn out that way as well, but consider Debra Magpie Earling who could not sell “Perma Red” for ten years until she finally buckled and wrote an ending that falsified the reality she had wanted. And she’s Native American which for a while was supposed to be a guarantee of saleability.

Confirmatory writing sticks to what is expected, so Doig “must” write pinafore stories about cowboy country and Hillerman “must” write cop tales about the SW. Territory too new, too much shock, and the book won’t sell. I always wonder what it would be like to read what these well-established writers REALLY know.

PS: Two of my self-published books are available as ebooks for the Nook. Go to Barnes & Noble and look for Mary Scriver. One is the story the 7th grade in Heart Butte composed collaboratively in 1989 and the other is about my exploits in Portland as a lady dogcatcher in the Seventies. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they are confirmatory.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


When people aren’t cautioning us about following Rome into the crash of civilization, they’re warning us about going extinct like the dinosaurs. They’re just trying to scare us, right? Well, right and wrong.

I first met David Trexler when he was about nine or ten years old. We often stopped in Bynum to check out the rock shop because Bob and the Trexlers were long-time tourist business owners. In the Sixties one night Bob Scriver and I went down because David’s mother was selling her skeleton with an arrow embedded in it. (Not HER skeleton, but she owned it, kept it in a case to show tourists.) Marion, widowed, needed some money fast, but Bob decided against the skeleton. In the Sixties we didn’t know about the dino eggs but they were probably in the buckets around the room.

Here’s a media account of the dino egg story.


Now David Trexler is all grown up, a full-blown paleontologist with a Master’s degree from the University of Calgary. And he has written a book: “Becoming Dinosaurs: A Prehistoric Perspective on Climate Change Today.” It’s both reassuring and scary. Reassuring because climate change is not as cut-and-dried simple as the media makes it out to be. But there are still a lot of variables out there and some of them -- the most scary one, in fact -- have not been considered until only a few years ago. You ever hear of “methane clathrate”? Me, neither, but if you did, I’ll bet it was in the news coverage of the big ocean oil rig explosion and spewing. One of the problems -- maybe causes -- relates to this material of methane clathrate clogging the pipes and valves of the rig.

Methane clathrate is basically ice that burns, even explodes. It forms in cold water and there are huge deposits on the “shelfs” of land under the ocean along the coasts. If the ocean deposits -- or any other methane clathrate deposits -- get to a certain temperature, they will be released as gas and rise to the surface. There could be enough released to sharply increase global temps to unendurable levels or even to smother nearby oxygen breathers.

Methane, you know, is the gas that cows and frat boys contribute to the atmosphere at the literal end of their part of the food chain. But the amount is trivial compared to what comes out of smokestacks, cars, and various natural processes. It is part of a molecular dynamic that shapes what life can exist on this planet. Only a few centuries ago humans figured out that “air” was actually something, that it had constituents, and that they changed -- much less found ways to understand how the proportions of gases have varied over the millennia, why, and how that affected living beings. We still know a very limited amount about these unseeable gases.

If we keep on with global warming, it will not just mean that you can grow plants farther north. (Today the Great Falls Tribune had a story about changing the boundaries of the growing zones.) Mostly people are thinking in terms of gradual change, gradual enough to deny. But global warming could easily heat the ocean, which is our moderator of temps planet-wide, enough to release a LOT of methane ice at once which WILL create an actual apocalypse, a sharp rise in planetary temperature over a period in between one and two decades, which will kill a very high proportion of humans and other living things. This has happened at least once in history, according to the records preserved in geology.

Most of the thinking about global warming has been in terms of a household thermostat. We like gradualism -- so we have time to adjust. Our understanding of evolution has also been that it was gradual. But lately there has been new willingness to consider sharp changes -- for instance, genes that relocate or precipitate a cascade of changes. Likewise, there has been a new understanding of geological processes. It’s hard to envision a mountain jumping, even as one looks at photos of Mt. St. Helens erupting, and harder to think about its impact on the atmosphere once the effects are very high.

Much of the thinking about the effects of methane ice melting is described by D. Dorritie on a website called www.killerinourmidst.com and there are other sources of information, but David Trexler’s book is a colorful, thoughtful, deeply informed description that will have you pondering how to take action. The OTHER and quite bright side of understanding methane clathrates is that the deposits are holding energy (methane is natural gas, right?) in amounts that dwarf any oil or coal deposits on land. Now that we know it’s there, and if we can figure out how to “mine” it, we will have a source of energy that can last a very long time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “short term” morality, which is expedient and can bring in quick profits -- maybe at very high cost, like borrowing against payday at an exorbitant interest rate -- as opposed to “long term” morality which might mean saving or waiting because of the future benefits and resources. It’s also the difference between a few people “making a buck” now and everyone profiting in the long term on a dinosaur scale.

People like David Trexler who work daily, hands-on, with the bones of life forms long gone, while living on the east slope of the Rockies, knowing that those mountains are the THIRD cordillera thrown up by plate tectonics and then worn down to a peneplain, feeling the sense of embeddedness and participation that one gets from living here under high winds and relentless cold, can step away from the greed and markers of success in the cities and corporation board rooms. Grounding in science becomes infused with a kind of mysticism, a protective merging with the land. Okay, it’s religion. It supports a morality.

I’ll go even farther and say that industrialization -- world-wide -- has resulted in a kind of “frakking” of the heart, but this landscape and awareness of its long history since it was part of Gondwandaland, the unified first land mass, will restore you. “Becoming Dinosaurs” is an excellent meditation manual.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Sexual morality is not based on sex at all. It’s based on money and power, the same as everything else. Those two forces, which are two sides of the same thing which is economic survival, stay potent in human life as they have since evolution popped up the neocortex and the skull over it so that people had foreheads. But in the last hundred or maybe only fifty years, sex has suddenly changed.

For one thing, there are far more people -- so many that there are TOO many to support and you can buy a little boy in some places for less than the cost of a puppy in other places. For another thing, it’s far easier to move children around from a place where they have little or no value to a place where they have a high value; from a place where most children are at least snoopervised, to a place where no one cares or the child who is a different color is unsee-able.

For another thing, in the industrial world conception, gestation, birth and rearing are entirely different than they used to be and different from one place or one class to another so that the memes almost overpower the genes. This is changing the role of women in the world, though it’s more often doubling up than change. Another difference is that one part of the world can see what it’s like in other parts of the world -- even talk to people there. So a Manhattan reporter (Thomas Friedman) can go to a brothel in SE Asia, buy himself a woman, and re-define her life, "free" her, to suit his standards (maybe from prostitute to shop-keeper) -- sometimes with success and sometimes not.

Disease patterns are changing along with all the other patterns. Places which are losing major parts of their population plus major parts of their generational culture transmission (just the same as happened to the North American Indians two centuries ago) are tumultuous enough to become pirates preying on the cream of society in luxury liners. Food is also a force that acts almost like disease (even in America) except that diseases go from person to person without reference to class or education. Or do they?

Just now I’m thinking about questions like what difference scale makes: systems form in terms of large scale phenomena, so something like child trafficking is not profitable enough to maintain itself unless systems can develop, the same as drug systems: producers, distribution, consumers. When the population being drawn on is planetary, so that humans are produced on one continent to be consumed on another, the systems will be big and tied into politics in order to protect themselves.

We tend to think of the problem as one-at-a-time, this kid and this kid and this kid. This unwanted pregnancy and this unwanted pregnancy. This freak who consumes kids and then this other freak who consumes kids. What about the systems that one-by-one accretions feed into? What about the countries, mostly Asians, who have seen that too many kids can lead to disaster and have mercilessly stepped in to limit pregnancies. I say mercilessly. And with unintended consequences like the female babies adopted in the United States who now form a body of people, usually wealthy and educated like their adoptive parents, who are emotionally tied to their genetic origins as well as their adoptive country. Are they a bridge or a breach? Or the unintended consequence of too many young Chinese men with no access to women, no way to marry, no reason to settle down. Where will their restlessness go? What if they import women of another culture, like American rednecks importing Phillipinas?

What about the African lack of social maintenance which has allowed famine, destruction of human communities and cultures, destruction of the flora and fauna that supported life, mutilation of souls, collapse of nations. In both of these extreme national reactions the economics of survival through power and resources include sex. Sell yourself, sell your child, sell your willingness to do the unthinkable: meth in one pocket, viagra in the other.

“Civilized” cultures are more subtle, using sentimentality and romanticism to convert individuals into pawns in the economic system: women who will betray each other by replacing aging wives, men who will use women and then discard them, men who want to own their genetic children, women who will get pregnant to keep a relationship. Once the basis of wealth was inheritance and therefore sexual allegiance on the part of women was the guarantee that children were really one’s own and therefore a continuation of one’s self. Even the ruling of countries depended on inheritance. But now inheritance can be proven or disproven by genetics. There are no more mysteriously fatherless children.

And increasingly it begins to be clear that simple biological inheritance does not mean that a child will become like the parent. What if the throne is limited to male inheritors and the only child able to replace the parent is female? The likely preventative of female kings was the high possibility that pregnancy/birth would kill the queen. That doesn’t happen often now. But then later, with irony, it turned out that the urge to knit political systems together through family relationships became a genetic throttler that made royalty unable to produce any children at all.

Most of our moralities that have to do with sex have close horizons: what will it do to our lives in the next few years? Because who knows what will happen in the next decade? Sequential relationships have their impact on the emotions of the persons passing through them, but what happens to the children produced accidentally or on purpose? What about the stray men in the house? More sentimentality and practicality working against economics. Vocations -- locking people into jobs. War -- destroying the men, blowing their balls off. Careers -- preventing pregnancy until fertility is expired. One by one, they are maybe tragedies. Taken altogether, they are marketing opportunities. (Now the docs are saying it’s better not to implant triplets.)

What happens when the script changes quickly? I once had a conversation with a man who was enraged because he had played by the rules and been faithful to his wife, with some pain, but now discovered that he could sleep around with impunity -- if he had the ability. Maybe viagra saved him. But I hope he had his tubes tied first, since many babies with disabilities result from old sperm. The US with its prosperity and its sentimentality about people having babies “no matter what” and “saving” marginal babies is now burdened with huge costs and in danger of a reactive flip of sentiment that will make it morally acceptable to kill all “substandard” people. (And some only worry about abortion.)

Commodities, even children, can be made profitable in two different ways: one is dealing with whatever in terms of standard units: kid, kid, kid, qua kid. The other is by producing high quality unique whatevers. In terms of kids, that means health, intelligence, the ability to form relationships, curiosity, courage, etc. etc. etc. But kids are commodities that change daily -- they get better and they get worse. Kid by kid that’s all-absorbing. When it is a trend, throughout an entire country with many kids following some unforeseen pattern, it is world-transforming. Both better and worse. It begins with coitus.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Yesterday at the Valier library I checked out the winter issue of “Montana, The Magazine of Western History” without looking at the contents. When I got home I was delighted to find an article by Heather Devine, whom I met years ago on a list serv of indigenous people. She is the author of “The People Who Own Themselveshttp://people.ucalgary.ca/~hdevine/ which was published by the University of Calgary Press at about the same time as they published “Bronze Inside and Out,” my own book about Bob Scriver. We’re border-jumpers, who find the 49th parallel a nuisance because we have roots and interests all over the high northern plains and relate to that ecosystem rather than political divisions. Not that there isn’t a price to pay, especially now that US Homeland Security is trying to swallow both the Blackfeet reservation and Glacier National Park in the name of controlling the border.

The article in “Montana” by Devine, called “Ahead of his Time,” is about Joseph Kinsey Howard and his book “Strange Empire.” A life’s work, the book was not quite finished when Howard died of one of those mid-life heart attacks while driving a publisher’s rep to the airport in 1951. His life was almost as much an illustration of the Metis predicament as it was an accounting of the cost to a people created when European men took indigenous wives, forming what nearly became a separate nation. Reconciled within their own world, they were estranged from both their culture sources which tried to maintain controlling boundaries by enforcing stigma and restriction. Remarkably, the Metis are still with us, only invisible until you learn to recognize them and then everywhere around here. At the edges of frontier there are always mixtures, creoles, as rich in life as any shoreline.

Because I’ve mentioned Howard now and then in this blog, I get inquiries about his life, though I’ve never systematically worked through the material about him. Neither have I made a study of Riel or Dumont, who echo Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in their relationship and style. Riel and Crazy Horse were the mystics. Dumont and Sitting Bull were the practical strategists. Howard was a little of both but maybe more visionary than academic, though he worked hard to meet academic standards, which is the point of the article.

There is currently another of those evolutionary academic discipline crises erupting between scholar-historians with all their trappings of footnote, citation, bibliography, index and so on as contrasted with the story-tellers who pick up dreams and tales of intense passion and symbolic images. Consider that the Western History Association http://www.westernhistoryassociation.org/ has just given birth to an offshoot, the WILD Western History Association. http://wildwesthistory.org/ The stiffened collars of the professors smash into the open-necked flannel shirt guys. There are phonies and martyrs on both sides. Even a few women. Damn few minorities.

Like Heather, I count Howard as a martyr but not a saint. He was a wonderfully charismatic and seductive man in the style of Clark Gable, mustache and all. His and his agent’s hope was that “Strange Empire” would finally become a movie. (It’s still a good idea.) His publisher, William Morrow, made the choice stark: do you want to produce an admirable but unread academic book or do you want to sell books? The same untenable choice persists today, but in 1951 with an ailing mother and health issues of his own, Howard was so paralyzed that he was advised to seek psychiatric help. Since he was in Great Falls and considering that post-WWII psychiatry was about conformity, I doubt that it was good advice. After Howard’s death Bernard de Voto tried to reclaim the not-quite-finished manuscript. Just this last few weeks arguments about de Voto have been going back and forth on the Western History listserv. This is an unfinished issue. Devine’s book about Howard is maybe more relevant than ever.

Now that we are post-modern and some of us are even post-post-modern, meaning that one has to actively decide how to read and reflect rather than simply accepting the consensus wisdom, there is a lot of thinking and meta-thinking to do. Can we accept the experience of people actually IN the subject matter, with full emotion and moral emphasis? Is the white academic Euro-defined scholar any wiser than the rest of us? Is there any such thing as a fact? What does gender and sexuality have to do with it, especially when there is an ethno-divide that runs between partners but not their children, who must create a new culture? Why do we privilege paper records over real speaking people in the landscape that shaped them? Why is love excluded?

Some have tried to read between the lines of Howard’s partnership with his mother instead of a wife. They don’t seem to get the reality of money, both the cost of his mother’s bad health, of his own bad habits (alcohol and tobacco), and the expense of travel and correspondence when doing historical research. This was all before the Internet which has at least cut down on the cost of copying and mailing materials. But Howard was basically living on the profit from his earlier book, “Montana, High, Wide and Handsome,” plus being paid for managing the Regional Arts Roundup, which must have been a predecessor of the contemporary Montana Festival of the Book. It had just concluded when the killer heart attack struck.

While at the library I also checked out a Peter Bowen novel. Bowen lived in Choteau for a while. A small Metis community persists there as well as at Heart Butte. St. Mary’s and other quiet corners, partly because the Cree-Chippewa-identified Red River people were assigned to this reservation and their descendants still persist. Bowen restores all the passion and excess of a proud Metis, along with the French fiddling and dancing that show up at Valier parades. In Choteau there is a replica of a Metis cabin.

The US scholars wrote off both Howard and Devine as Canadians, and vice versa from the other side of the border, but Devine had a validation not available to Howard. She won an award from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The $1,000 cheque prize was immediately spent on the Christi Belcourt pointillist acrylic painting that is the cover art for her book. The pattern is of Cree-Chippewa floral beading on black velvet.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Oil on the Blackfeet rez has been a hot issue for more than a century. From the beginning it has driven a wedge between the older, more traditional people who thought the US Government would protect their interests in a context they could not hope to understand and the younger more activist people who felt competent to learn whatever was necessary and take charge of their own decisions. This split was an opportunity -- as all splits are -- for wheelers/dealers/sneakers/traitors to increase their webwork of inside info and sweet deals. The antidote is knowledge, so I was delighted to see the GF Tribune add a regular feature, an Oil and Gas Report written by Darryl Flowers, who is the publisher of the Fairfield newspaper, The Sun Times.

I did not know that oil wells have names, but that’s how Flowers lists them. Here are some of the local wells he has mentioned so far:

Anschutz Exploration Corporation:

SW Browning 1-35H-32-11 in Glacier County, aiming for a depth of 11,725. It is a horizontal well, meaning (I suppose) that it is drilling sideways, one of the new capacities that seems likely to restore old wells.

Paisley 1-4-37-13 in Glacier County.

Rosetta Resources

Brandvold 3509-25-05, completed at 7,502 feet.

Glacier Farms 3207-22-12, 6,200 feet.

Benton Bench 16-5-28-4 is a vertical well by Primary Petroleum Company USA that is aiming for the Duperow formation at 5,000 feet.


New Miami 42-20H (west of Dupuyer) is using horizontal drilling to get at the Sweetgrass Arch and is actually producing oil. They expect to place as many as 17 wells to tap the Sun River Dolomite pay zone in the Madison formation.

Newfield Production

Peacemaker 1-5H (NW NW 5-33N-6W) in Glacier County went to 9,038 feet, shooting for the Nisku Formation,

Flowers contacted companies that provide the drilling rigs and they claimed there are about a thousand of them out there. I don’t know how many jobs that represents. One must count clericals and community impact like cafes and motels. The real boom is over on the Dakota border where the Bakken formation promises major strikes. Those small towns have now discovered the dark frontier side of boomtowns: a teacher out jogging as she was accustomed to do has disappeared, evidently into the tar pit of a couple of violent floaters who had come looking for work. People in Valier are salivating over the prospect of oil field money but not thinking much about having to start locking their doors and hire more peace officers.

Throwing such a big rock into our small ponds has a lot of impact. Rings of waves go out and out. One faction is insisting that we must provide more rentals to prevent boom-town trailer ghettos, and suddenly there are people trying to map out subdivisions and others figuring out whether their deceased grandma’s house might be rentable. Maybe the Panther Cafe or the motel might finally find buyers -- or maybe the present owners will take them off the market.

Here’s my amateur English teacher version of origins. Once upon a time there was a continent-wide not-very-deep ocean covering the whole prairie from here to the Midwest. At some point, due to plate tectonics, the continent tilted up along the Rocky Mountains and creased at the Mississippi River, which drained off the water. But the bitter alkali and salt remains in our soils and the water itself is in underground pools called aquifers, some of them sealed over with limestone formed by the zillions of years of tiny shells of animals that died in that shallow water.

Much of what we see now as land formations were once underwater and began life as reefs and atolls, home for little squiddy things as well as shelly things. All along the water’s edge or where bumps stuck up, there was vegetation and, to take advantage, browsers and then carnivores to eat the browsers. It was tropical here then, and there were no mammals because they hadn’t been invented yet. We’re talking dinosaurs and giant ferns.

When the weather or the meteorites or whatever killed all these carbon-based creatures -- plants and animals alike -- and then crushed them under millennia and millennia of geological developments, they became oil. So there are pockets of oil, of gas, and of water under the surface. Our small towns exist because of those water pockets or else because of the run-off from the mountains that at this point accumulate snow all winter. The snow load seems to be diminishing enough to stop creating glaciers or even maintaining them. So the pockets of water under the ground are more crucial and more non-renewable.

One of the ways to get more oil and gas out of the ground is to inject water into wells to make the pressure break up the solid rock formations into fractured, cracked rock. (Frakking.) This injected water is loaded with chemicals. There is no real way to tell whether this undrinkable and harmful water will seep over into the pockets of water we’re using at wells and watering ponds for livestock. In some cases the frakking has opened pathways for gas to get into water dramatically enough that one can set fire to what comes out of the kitchen tap. Also, the injections are highly pressurized and there is some evidence that they can trigger local earthquakes. All these consequences are irreversible: no backing out of frakking.

Here’s where the rez comes back into the picture. Oil companies started contacting people early to get contracts before the bad publicity got around. They hired people to comb the records for people who didn’t live here any more, to find and call them. And they hired older people with some education and a big need for money to get to the more traditional tribal members who might be susceptible to a pitch about how harmless frakking is.

As statewide pushback, the Montana Farmers Association has begun offering workshops on leasing that are drawing big crowds in sub-zero weather. A category of people called “landmen,” who had mostly cleared out when the last wave of drilling ended, are now back. Sort of like the “locaters” who helped the homesteaders find good claims. Some reliable, some not. It’s hard to tell when the laws and regulations are complex.

Flowers’ articles are hard to read until one has a little experience. It can’t be harder than the sports analysis or politics, can it? In many ways it’s the same thing: winners and losers, the inevitable split everywhere.