Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Having tired of explosions and fist fights strung along mindless plots and unwilling to sink into a morass of saddles and beaded buckskin in print, I’ve been exploring the documentary films available on Netflix.  For the last two evenings I’ve watched a half-dozen hour-long explorations of contemporary artists, grouped loosely into concepts like “structure” or “oppression” or “transformation.”  Very abstract.  Each artist explains their work.  Sometimes parents or children talk as well.

by Kiki Smith

Some are pretty well-known:  Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial; Richard Serra who makes giant cor-ten steel shapes; Kiki Smith who makes body-centered images.  One has to go to specialty publications to find others, unless you live in New York City or Taos.  None of these works will ever show up at the Charlie Russell Auction, I guarantee you!

Gradually one becomes very aware of several aspects.  One is the materials, of course, which range from very elaborate electronic gizmos, like a wall-size segmented face that changes its expression by moving the parts via little servomotors that are guided by images on an old black-and-white TV that has a grid of suction-cup light-sensitive monitors attached to its glass.  A Korean man, lonesome for his parents’ timbered home where he grew up, duplicates it all in silk, an exact three-dimensional replica that can be hung up -- then folded into a suitcase.  A man challenged to fill up a huge space the size of a football field, creates inflated shapes captured in nets and then goes on to make them play music in the same way as a player piano (intervals on tape), using pressurized air.  Another man creates his work out of trash on the street which he brings home, piles up, then rakes through to find the shapes and colors he wants.

The artist explains the thinking behind it.  Paul Pfeiffer explains his wavering, tapered ladder by describing primitive ladders that were only a split sapling with rungs of wood or rope between the two halves.  There’s more but he doesn’t talk about the axis mundi of Eliade and the anthros which relates to the ladder that reaches down into a SW Indian Kiva.  He could.  On the other hand, it is absorbing just to look at the tapered floating ladder.   Vija Calmins explains her canvas of stars in terms of how it makes her feel, her hunger for the interaction while she makes it, sands everything off, then makes it again.  Some of these works are accessible to observers, but some of them are only interactions within the person, something they are working out neurologically or psychologically.

by James Turrell -- not the cow, a building attached to the crater.

James Turrell does earthworks and has been working for decades to get the sun to act on a constructed space next to an asteroid impact crater in order to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.  This is an ancient art form.  There are prehistoric works that depend upon sunlight piercing clefts or casting shadows around a circle, many more everywhere in the world than the famous Stonehenge.  Since he had to buy a huge swath of land in order to work on it, he raises cattle which -- in the better years -- pay for the art.

Marina Abramovic casts her own body and uses the molds to make a classic bust of herself in soap and another in chocolate.  She washes with the soap and licks the chocolate to blur the image.  At one point she is visiting a ranch with old bathtubs for watering troughs, so she gets into one to see if the cows will still drink around her.  In one photo the cow appears to be nursing from her, reversing the usual pattern.  Following this idea, she casts her body on hands and knees, takes the hide freshly skinned off a cow so that it’s still malleable, and drapes it over the form she made, tightly enough that it shows her body.  One cast foot sticks out at the back.  When the hide has dried stiff, she takes the form out “so both the cow and I are missing.”  

By Walton Ford

Walton Ford paints in conventional, colorful, realistic representations -- in fact, imitating Audubon’s giant double-folio books of birds, except that the birds are doing things that are QUITE unColonial: killing, screwing, dying in agony.  (When we look at Audubon’s elegant depictions, we forget that he acquired his models by killing them and they lay on his table grotesquely distorted until disemboweled, skinned, and mounted.)  Birds extrude eggs which are seized and broken by other birds, all crowded together as the 19th century passenger pigeons were when they came in such numbers that they broke limbs off trees.  An avian Hieronymous Bosch.

by Maya Linn

Some of these artists work on an industrial scale so that they need industrial machines and a crew of people to create and place them.  Maya Linn’s Vietnam memorial was so memorable that she has occupied an ambiguous space between monuments and architecture, though in her video segment she was cutting up old atlases in see-through circles so that turning the pages directs one’s attention.  Every artist was a person capable of intensely focused attention on something not everyone even notices, and then somehow expands that point of focus.   

Asked to create a “monument” for the neglected corner of an old decade urban park, Lin began with the idea of the pre-existing ice skating rink and then added to “ice” the idea of water vapor and a pool -- the latter two as fountains among trees.  The new round ice rink was embedded with stars.  She had to work around requirements imposed by the city:  a rest room, a warming shed.  The sequence of development began with the reality, analysis developed the idea of the three stages of water, and then these abstracts moved back into existence through practical requirements.  In the end, skating at night on these stars among the trees and fountains is inexpressibly magical.

Kara Walker
The minority artists who had been sharply compressed by prejudice, poverty, militarism, and injustice, were often the ones with the more striking and vital works.  Kara Walker, beginning from “Gone with the Wind,” has developed a vocabulary of silhouettes that are shockingly outrageous: sex, infanticide, murder, torture and cannibalism mixing with bonnets and hoop skirts, top hats and handlebar mustaches.  Ranging around a room in a cyclorama, they are enough to give anyone nightmares.  Reread “Gone with the Wind” carefully.  The horror is there.

No one talks about prices or galleries or sales to individuals.  The context is always museums, spectacle and size, often spacious enough to walk through, sometimes with opportunities to participate somehow.  In these hour-long episodes we enter the worlds of the artists in that way people now seem to crave: intimacy with artist’s lives, though it can only disrupt their work, which is art at the level of obsessive painting deep in a cave, art at the level of primal constructs in the brain most people are unaware exist at all.

Art.21 turns out to have a website:  where all the episodes are archived.  You don’t need Netflix.  Go to  There are some I want to see again and I want to see all of them eventually, but I’ll have to ration myself to one a day.  And now, inspired by Louise Bourgeois who cast her own forearms and hands and mounted the resulting bronzes on black stone plinths for a park in Chicago, I’m going to make me some miniature forearms and hands of Fimo, some pink, some dark.  Maybe some striped.

(It was difficult to find images that would download because following these names will take you many mysterious and image-laden places, often protected by copyright.  Use your search engine.)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The following is from Paul Wheeler, who grew up along the High-Line and in Great Falls, but now lives near Bonners Ferry, ID.  This interested me, not just because memoir is always interesting, but also because it is a reminder how how “survival class” families manage to keep eating by inventing small entrepreneurial enterprises at the interstices of the “big business” or “high pay wages” that most people aim for these days.  This is about a string of popcorn wagons and dispensing machines.

I don’t know how much I can remember. I must have been pretty young. The only stepping stone I have is the earthquake that formed Quake Lake for a time reference I can date at Aug. ‘59, meaning I was only three. I don’t know how long they’d had the concessions prior to that, but my sense is at least a few years because of the numbers of stored empty pop bottles in the house and various sheds about the place. I grew up climbing sticky bottle mountain.

Seems like it was almost a part time family operation. My mom, dad and a teen gal named Vickie were the main operators, but Uncle Glen and Aunt Joyce apparently got pressed into service from time to time as well. Even my mom’s sister Elsbeth has popcorn wagon memories.

The main base of operations seemed to be an old garage/shop right behind the old fish hatchery in Giant Springs. That’s where the popcorn wagon lived when not in use, along with a couple various soda pop dispensers. Heh, I think I was most fond of that shop because it was right next to an old backwater slough that was chock full of big carp I liked to throw rocks at. They’d roll out weekends to work functions between Giant Springs and Glacier. Besides popcorn and soda, there must have been hot dogs. Heh, I didn’t eat a hot dog until I was well into my 40’s because my mother’s dire warnings about what the things were made of.

In addition to the wagon, there was a route of coin operated popcorn dispensers scattered all over the country with the big glass dome cover. You’d stick your nickel in grab a bag and stick it under the dispenser for filling. The machines didn’t actually make the corn, just kept it hot, so they needed constant filling. There’s probably a few still in a shed behind the old mercantile in E. Glacier.

When I was looking into them a few years ago, I found that people collect and restore the things and you can even buy new precut labels for them.

I have no direct memory of it, but apparently the popcorn wagon blew up and burnt. I think it was either my mom or aunt that got burned in the accident, but it must not have been really serious. A few years ago Uncle Glen mentioned that Aunt Joyce had run across a current article in the paper about the popcorn fire, but by the time word got to me, she wasn’t able to recall where or when she’d seen it. I did archival searches through the GF Tribune without success.

That must have been the end of the popcorn empire. I think my mom was thankful in a way because her memories mostly surround tripping over me in the narrow confines.

I’m pretty sure that I told you about my mother’s method for chasing off my nightmares at that age, where all those stored pop bottles in my bedroom played a part. I wrote it down and kept it after my mom fell off her chair laughing about that and putting our two memories together all these years later.

I woke terrified one night to fluttering ghosts trying to get up my nose and in my ears. My mom came into the room with a broom and opened the window and swept all my ghosts into the night, yelling at the beasts to NEVER come back and promptly slamming the window. She was my hero!

I used the same method successfully with my own children when they had the occasional bad dream and have shared the technique with lots of other parents over the years.

When my mom was here for Christmas several years ago, I was relating to her how I'd spread her method far and wide...She looked at me and couldn't believe that I remembered the story since I was not much more than two years old, although it seems that I didn't have all the information.

My dad used to run a popcorn and soda concession at a national park on weekends and there were always empty bottles stored in odd places around the house. It seems that they were the perfect breeding ground for a large variety of moth that hatch out at night en-mass.

My mother's tale is far different from the time of my remembering... She heard my screaming, walked into my room to be confronted with huge moths she initially thought were bats. Screaming in horror she grabbed a nearby broom and frantically beat the livin' heck out of the moths and flailed the rest out the window.

She said she would have stayed around to comfort me, but she had to go calm herself down with a bottle of adult beverage.

Apparently, folks had to do without their popcorn fix for the next couple weekends, 'cause dad was busy building a new shed to house the empty bottles in.


I met Paul Wheeler in the Sixties when he was a small boy and brought money into the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife where I was the receptionist.  I’d convert his dollar bills to change so he could operate the mounted rattlesnake in a glass case that had an aquarium aerator in its tail so it would rattle.  The money slot was originally to cut down on uses so the mechanism wouldn’t wear out too quickly, but then it turned out to be a pretty good little money maker.  The last time I saw it, the machine was in the storage warehouse of the Montana Historical Society.  Over the years there were experts among the many visitors who informed us that it was NOT a Montana rattler but a Texas rattler and that its eyes were in sideways.  No one but the experts ever noticed because they only looked at the tail end.

The problem with a “homegrown” museum like the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife is that it’s sensational stuff that brings in the customers, but credibility is lost if the place fills up with albino skunks and two-headed calves.  Bob’s purpose was in part to provide excellent models for artists who portray animals.  But the real kernel of the museum was a mount of a huge grizzly bear rearing up with claws out.  The tourists loved to pose in front of it as though being attacked.  Paul and many others vividly recall the rattlesnake and the grizzly bear -- even have nightmares about it!

Monday, July 29, 2013

"THE SILENT CALL" by Edwin Milton Royle

If an interesting historical character has not left much writing, it is often revealing to see what they read.  Therefore, I bought a used copy of Helen Clarke’s favorite novel:  “The Silent Call” (1910) by Edwin Milton Royle, better known as author of “The Squaw Man,” which became a movie.  “The Silent Call” is about a half-English-aristocrat-and-half-Indian man who is living on the American frontier without anyone knowing his heredity.  He’s acting as a sheriff and running a ranch, but is in love with an Indian orphan girl.  The death of his father calls him back to England where he has an inconvenient wife.  There’s an evil renegade Indian.  On the frontier the plot hinges on the boundaries of the rez and the discovery of “asphalt,” which seems to include both coal and oil.  Everything turns out all right, but it’s surprisingly modern.  

The main anachronism is a saintly old minister who is dying.  It’s the “saintly” part that’s totally out-of-date.  Harold Bell Wright and other popular novelists of the period often included men like this.  A famous “for instance” is “The Shepherd of the Hills,” (1907) Wright’s most famous work, which was lifted up by a movie (1945) starring John Wayne.  It is now presented as a pageant in the Ozarks.  The issues are still alive: art, madness, class, who may love whom, the nature of ministry, and so on.  It’s in our national subconscious.

Edwin Milton Royle is better known as a screenwriter and this book is nearly a screenplay -- it is written as scenes full of dialogue and action.  The illustrations are posed by actors.  His “cultural assumptions” are Edwardian, which is to say full of the Empire lure of the small, beautiful, obedient, dark, ethnic woman as a wife and the conviction that highly bred white women are likely to be neurotic and susceptible to bling and drug addiction.  When I was growing up, I read my grandmother’s books from the same period, full of Edwardian convictions about honor and natural nobility -- mixing it up with desire, class aspiration and romantic ideas about individual superior specimens.  This is just before the Roaring Twenties, a great surge in wealth among the privileged just like now.  

Pretty easy to see why Helen Clarke would identify this stuff, though she was tall, stubborn, and fortune-less.  She was “half-caste.”  Except for that lone San Francisco love-letter writer, she never found anyone worth marrying.  Royle wastes very little time on exposition or philosophy, but the quotes within quotes below are notable and would certainly be endorsed by Helen Clarke.

Page 118:  ‘. . . the best he can say for himself is that he’s a half-breed.’

This irrelevant appeal to prejudice was so crude, raw, and unblushing as to be obvious to a child, but its effect was instantaneous.  Every vestige of restraint, of irresolution disappeared in the faces of the mob.  Human equality!  There is no such thing even theoretically.  There are differences which separate human beings and will always separate them, but they are moral and intellectual differences.  No one admits the principle of human equality because: “the principle of human equality takes away the right of killing so-called inferior peoples, just as it destroys the right claimed by some of dominating others.  If all peoples are equal, if their different appearances are only the result of changing circumstances, in virtue of what principle is it allowable to destroy their happiness and to compromise their right to independence?”  -- Louis Finot

Page 119:  That some criminals were also half-breeds, that many half-breeds were undesirable citizens has crystallized into the conviction in most Western communities that all half-breeds are worthless and dangerous.  This has nothing to do with any ascertainable facts.” . . .  “If the word half-breed was strictly applied to the progeny which has really issued from a mixture of varieties, it would be necessary to include under this denomination all human beings. . .” -- Louis Finot
(Louis Finot  1864 - 1935) was a French archeologist and researcher.   A former director of the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient.)

Perhaps the Edwardian period could be seen as a compensation for the Victorian period, a necessary moderation of British Empire oppression and exploitation, just before plunging into WWI.  It would take a more informed and powerful mind than mine to make a case, but certainly on the Blackfeet reservation -- where my father-in-law came in 1903 -- there was a clear sequence of cultural evolution.  Industrialization, the Great Northern Railroad; resource exploitation, the first oil boom; turmoil as the “Indians” and the “whites” mixed and collided; war lifting the spirits of warriors; the Roaring Twenties when Glacier National Park was a platform for the rich and daring; Depression which was the status quo anyway; WWII which wised up a lot of men and unified the women as they tried to support them; the post-war chaos when Indian veterans struggled with alcoholism and white veterans came to marry Indian women who had land; the Sixties and Seventies of corporate development; and the growing middle class and diaspora of the last part of the century.

Helen Piotopowaka Clarke (1843-1923) lived from the time of massacre and international Civil War to the glitter flappers in the Gilded Age.  Our lives didn’t overlap, but Bob Scriver (1914-1999) knew her and I knew her nephew, John the wood carver, and now know his daughter much better, because of our common interest in art.  (Joyce is a photographer.)

Many concepts and assumptions have come and gone, each leaving a shadow to distract us.  Some are local and others are national or planetary.  We are questioning what a “tribe” is, what wise old men are good for anyway, the nature of wealth, our relationship to the land, and so on.  Many Indians, influenced by missionaries a hundred years ago and military service recently, are more rigid about morality than the mainstream white society.  But the younger generations have learned to do research and they aren’t reading Napi stories -- they are reading historical atrocity reports in graphic detail and contemporary newspaper accounts of corruption and oppression.  The bookkeeping of morality does not balance.  We fall madly in love, we desire, we rescue, we support, we try being outrageous or being rock-solid dependable.  It all works, nothing works, it’s all related, it just goes on and on and on.

The most important thing is to keep talking about it, which is precisely what some people are trying to prevent because, transparently, they want to preserve their own profits and access to the “asphalt” benefits.  Even if dissenters are duct-taped to their chairs with bags over their heads, change will happen anyway.  I do not think it will come about because of outside interventions.  Only when consensus develops among the majority of afflicted people to defy oppression will the world become something like orderly again.  But rez people ought to think about what the outsiders are seeing and the possibility that pressure from uproar could develop enough energy to simply end all reservations.   In the meantime, let’s fall in love and rescue each other.  Getting rich can come later.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


This is in my Kahil Gibran mode, so be warned of portentous epigrams.  A little too facile, a little too marketable, a little too self-conscious.  But earnest.  I was delighted to discover that Gibran did portraits of centaurs, so I threw them in here as well.  When I looked for Gibran's portrait, I found them at  You can think of some metaphorical relationship if you want to: why should I do all the work?  


The trouble is that we’re not talking about the same things at all.

The original source is a feeling of holiness, a FELT thing that comes to a person and is simply that, not even share-able with friends.  You just FEEL it.  The trigger might not be the same for any two people.  It’s effect on you would be measurable by instruments like a lie-detector: it is physical as well as mental and emotional.  Holiness is not.  It is ineffable.

You might feel it when you’re drowning, when you’re getting married, when you’re being tortured, when making love, when summiting a mountain, while dancing -- it just happens.  It is a whole body experience -- in fact, maybe that’s what we really feel: a wholeness, a harmony, an embeddedness in existence, when the entire body is focused and alive.

It doesn’t seem controllable, though one can prepare for it.  And one can turn away from it.  It has nothing to do with race or nationality or state of wellness, neither youth nor age, gender or any other of the distinctions we make.  Some will claim other species can feel it, but it’s unproven.  How would you?  Still, it’s pre-language, though language can reach it, touch it, possibly even call it -- as can any other art.  Possibly this is the underground spring of neanderthal art.

by Salvador Dali

If several people feel it -- let’s say while standing on a ridge overlooking the sea at sunset -- then the sharing is a new dimension.  It’s felt, it’s communal, some would say it was aesthetic, it just is what it is -- no explanation needed.  But sometimes at that moment a group needs movement and song, if only simple percussion.

Ecology is what sustains life, presses variety into it, for sea people are different from mountain people, those on fertile land are not like those on desert.  This is the engine of evolution because it changes what is necessary for survival -- not more aggression or force, but more fittingness and more ingenuity.  When things are going well, there is gratitude and joy and well-being.  When things are going awry, there is worry and seeking and maybe suffering.  

The business of how to act can be codified in books or can be structured by childhood when adults had the answers and the strength.  This is NOT the same as holiness.  It is a moral structuring, a plan for what should be done.  This is the part that get mixed into politics and government and called “religion” but it has nothing to do with holiness.  It’s about “authority” and the REAL authority, which is -- as it was among tribal peoples -- a matter of success.  If stuff works, that’s its own self-generated authority.  But people try to assume and defend that authority to themselves, even if they fail.  

If some people are pretty good at knowing the practices that bring success, they can become leaders.  Often part of leading is telling stories, so they do.  When writing was invented, people wrote down stories, but actually the first use of writing was accounting and that is the dominant use of writing.  It’s a form of morality, describing rules and boundaries -- what is fair and who is owed.  Soon authority and power become part of this.  Punishment stops being natural consequences and starts being imposed by the group in degrees: stigma, bureaucratic regulation, criminalization, death sentence. 

Leaders like to have a place from which to lead and it helps if that place is impressive, so now there are palaces, which have nothing to do with holiness (indeed, often the opposite!) and temples which try very hard to seem at least imposing but may or may not convey holiness.  To be awed or overwhelmed is NOT to feel holiness.  To be impressed by wealth destroys the feeling of holiness.  Institutions that identify themselves as religious have little or nothing to do with holiness.  The possible exception might be the kind of Quakers who sit quietly waiting for the Light, their word for the feeling of holiness.  Asians do better than we do.

“Civilization” as we know it is only ten millennia long, coinciding with climate change (which means ecological change) that pushed people into new regions where they had to learn new things, like domestication of animals and growing of crops.  For only two millennia the Western version of civilization, based on writing to record commerce, has followed trade routes throughout the planet.  It has proven to be destructive because all construction must be accompanied by deconstruction in order to get the materials.  This culture is profit-based, which means seeking sources of wealth for itself at the expense of everything else.

Holiness had nothing to do with it until civilization accrued enough wealth to take humans into outer space.  As soon as we could see the planet from space, holiness returned in a new way.  Still immanent through the Earth, the sacred is now also transcendent if we open ourselves to the spangled surging galaxies.  The most important realization is that we are pinpoints in existence.

The next most important realization is that we exist at all, and that’s not a reason for despair but for celebration because we are there, participants, transformations passed through by time, creating time. Something will come after us that doesn’t look like us.  

But whatever it is will undoubtedly feel the same holiness.  Because this is the third most important realization, that we are aware, conscious, able to know that we are feeling at all.  This is the cutting edge of human evolution.  Call it art.  Holiness calls us to reach out for even more awareness, more participation, better fittingness to a limited planet.

But this opens us up to more pain, more suffering -- both of which are awareness.  Holiness does not remove them.  In fact, pain and suffering will try to shut down awareness and a sense of the holy.  They tell you what to brace against, to oppose, to diminish.

If an institution, which includes both the body of dogma and the bureaucracy that supports and maintains it, will take on this duty of reducing suffering and let universal awareness guide its morality (see above) then the institution is “good.”  But if it varnishes over whatever damages the planet, then it is “evil.”  But only from a human point of view because of the destruction of ecologies where we can survive.  The planet does not care.  It loves the moon, not us.  (Love is a metaphor for attraction.  Planets do not have emotions.  They have gravity.)

If an institution claims “compassion” but in fact merely alleviates immediate suffering without addressing the dynamics that cause the suffering, it is NOT necessarily compassionate and may simply be courting prestige and approval.  See  On the other hand, a fully human person cannot tolerate suffering humans.  Because the next realization is empathy, feeling in our own minds and bodies a mirroring of others.  

This means we can share the feeling of holiness.  It is a capacity, not an inevitability and it is not done by institutions, which have nothing to do with holiness and cannot recognize it.  For individuals to mirror any of the feelings of other human beings, it is necessary to encounter others directly and in detail.  There is no such thing as generic suffering, though holiness seems to be only one universal thing, but easily mimicked and often claimed illegitimately.  We must be open to the world and our connection.  It is our only future.


When I started teaching in Browning, Mt, in 1961, Sylvia Ashton-Warner with her intense and scary ideas was very popular.  She was teaching illiterate Maori kids with wild home lives, not unlike those on the rez.  At the start of the day, she asked each kid what word they wanted to learn and printed it on a card for them to carry around.  It was THEIR word and through the day they said it, copied it, reflected on what it meant.  At the end of the day they took their word home and explained it to their folks.  So what words were they?  Murder.  Knife. Skeleton.  They read fast and hot, they wrote the same way, and Ashton-Warner was right there with them, urging them on.  They cared.

So when my discussion class could hardly be persuaded to talk at all, much less reflect on how they interacted with each other, I asked them for their “word” topic.  It was that the town police were beating them up. I knew this was true.  One of the students had a bedroom window upstairs where she could see across the way to the jail.  She witnessed the beatings.  Her parents told her not to tell.  I was keeping company with Bob Scriver, who was the city magistrate and he did indeed bawl out some city officers for beating drunks and kids, but the tribal cops had no restraint.  At home they beat their wives.  Everyone said, “Don’t get involved.”  

So we began to talk about it and pretty soon there was a polite knock on the classroom door.  It was the chief of police, who was also the head of the school board, and he was writing me a ticket for slander.   So we went together to the superintendent’s office, who explained that the defense for slander was simply proving that it was true.  If it was true, you could say it.  Even if no one liked to hear it, if it was true, it was legal.  I could prove it was true, so the case was not slander.  After the cop left, the superintendent and I had a little talk about surviving in hostile territory.

Much, much later when I was off the rez, the tribe felt that children taken into custody were being abused because they were taken to jail with adults, so they set up a special safe house.  The kids were not nice.  Abuse does not make people nice.  They treated the adult staff the same way they treated their abusers: cursing, hitting, taunting, provoking, etc.  Soon the adult staff that was supposed to be protecting them was caught duct-taping them to chairs with bags over their heads to keep them from spitting.  It takes a lot of personal security and confidence to withstand rage and revenge from kids.

In the Seventies when I returned to teaching, the kids were constantly indignant at adult behavior.  They demanded that things change.  One day they gathered in the library/auditorium and started a near-riot, shouting and overturning chairs but not harming the books. We had a brilliant counselor who was not afraid of kids and though they wouldn’t allow any other adults in the room, he was able to go in and talk it through.

When I briefly taught in a nearby white town not so long ago, there was a phalanx of athletic boys who had gotten out of hand.  The idea was that I would somehow dominate them because of the fantasy that the rez was a tough place and since I had taught there, I could crack the whip.  They WERE crazy and obscene and argumentative.  I asked the librarian and the computer teacher what they thought was the secret to controlling these young men -- drunks, sexually active, “red-meat-eaters,” who consistently won games.  The answer they gave me was “kill them.”  They meant it.

Murder was not practical, so I went back to the Sylvia Ashton-Warner kind of approach, the walking in with the lions thing.  These guys -- and some of the gals -- felt that the world was going to smash, that adults were hypocrites and abusers, the town was a pit, and etc. etc.  As soon as they had permission to talk and it seemed as though I were listening, emotion came pouring out.  One boy drew diagrams of it on the whiteboard.

Basically, they were neglected and abused.  Not that they were starved or didn’t have clothes -- not those things.  But that they were being used by an ignorant community that would abandon them as soon as they weren’t useful anymore.  For me it was summed up by “extreme fighting” matches in back alleys that adults set up and attended  for betting, no different from dog-fighting.  These were mostly white kids, some with professional parents.  So far as I know, disease was not a problem but injuries were, drugs were (steroids), alcohol was but no one thought so.   Some of their behavior was criminal but there was no proof, no witnesses.   Denial.  Suppression.  Force.  Don’t even THINK about gay.

Bryon Farmer

So I wasn’t surprised at the reaction when over the weekend of North American Indian Days, Bryon Farmer said on Facebook that he was going to sponsor a float in the parade that would challenge the Tribal Council.  The police walked into his family’s group meal on the camp grounds, and took him to jail.  He was there four days.  No float appeared.  The best discussion I’ve found so far was at  quoted below.

How can such an ordinance — or any prosecution premised on it — stand, under the First Amendment? . . .
The United States has made gestures of contrition and correction, including a half-century effort to give surviving tribes sovereignty. That sovereignty includes jurisdiction over criminal charges against tribal members on tribal lands.  [And now charges against whites on tribal lands.]
Does that mean that members of Native American tribes have no right to free speech? No — in theory. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 says that tribes can't "make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for a redress of grievances." But here's the rub: sovereignty also means that the tribes get to enforce that right. The Supreme Court has ruled that, in general, only tribal courts have the right to decide whether tribal practices comply with the Indian Civil Rights Act. Bryon Farmer and people like him can't sue in state or federal to invalidate Ordinance 67 – they have to rely on a tribal court, connected politically and culturally to the tribal council. Mr. Farmer could seek a writ of habeas corpus in federal court to get out of tribal custody, but that's a painfully slow process, one that allows the tribe to harass dissenters with short-term incarceration with effective impunity.

In the Sixties Bob would sentence someone to jail, the cops would take them there, and within an hour -- released by a relative on the tribal council -- they’d be back (still drunk) to argue about the case some more.  Hard not to lose patience. The whole law and order concept needs a good airing, not just on the rez.  IMHO the Cut Bank cop who pursued Shannon Augare onto the rez and then tried to reach into his car to take the keys was being overbearing and provocative.  A different sort of drunk might have gotten so angry that he had to be tazed.   By driving off, Augare DE-escalated.  It was easy enough to serve him a ticket the next day.  How the FBI figures into it is beyond me.  More escalation.
The first rule of governing and restoring order -- much neglected these days -- is not to make a fool of yourself.  Maybe we should hand out cards with that written on them.
Tribal Chairman Willie Sharp
Willie Sharp --  Senior Class of 1972

Friday, July 26, 2013


In 1961 when I graduated from Northwestern, I could have stayed and taught in the high schools nearby.  I wanted adventure and so ended up in Browning, Montana.  But I carried with me all my notes from acting class as well as other classes.  There have always been boxes of papers under my bed.  Fifty years later, they are my compost.  But also, others are interested.  So at the Montana Historical Society, though they don’t much like my attitude, they do have a box with my name on it.  It’s at the end of a long row of boxes labeled “Robert MacFie Scriver” which contain his papers.  I’ve spent a couple of days in the past going through Bob’s files, finding things I never knew existed, and the old family photo albums I made myself.

The bossy young librarians, who clearly considered me an intruder, constantly gave me directions and watched me closely.  They were afraid my emotional attachment would convert to physical ownership by stealth.  My identity seemed bogus to them because Bob Scriver belongs to the ages, historically significant and part of the long ago.  I’m not in any of the photos (I took most of them) and Bob never mentioned me.   We had agreed that he would not because some customers only bought hoping to have an intimate relationship with him and because it diluted the idea that he was a genius who somehow drew bronzes out of a thundercloud.  Indians were okay because everyone knows they are sorcerer’s apprentices.  
But life goes on and the book about Bob, “Bronze Inside and Out,” was published by the University of Calgary in a cat whisker before publishing crashed.  No one made any money, but as an archive it exists -- not just a record of Bob’s work, but also of the times in Browning, Montana; the formation of the whole genre of Western Art including the beginnings of cowboy art auctions; and the Blackfeet reservation in its multiplicity on the land.
I did the same thing with my job at Multnomah County Animal Control in Portland, Oregon, collecting data (my boss had me keep graphs), doing research, taking notes, trying to figure out root causes and options for better ways to protect animals and people.  The same thing again at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and the University of Chicago Divinity School where the former is little more than an archive now that the building is sold but the latter is as rock solid as any institution can ever get.  

Now that I’ve been in Valier for a decade, attending most town councils, I have a file drawer of notes.  When I told the former mayor I would probably convert them into a book, she blanched, thinking that it would be an exposé, more destructive muck-raking to blame whatever target seemed most likely to sell books.  NOT.  Anyway, if you have a printer and know about blogs, you can print out a book about Valier today, simply by downloading the relevant posts from  and getting Kinko’s or Staples to bind them.  Books aren’t what they used to be, and yet they are -- at the same time.  Both/And.

I was in the Great Falls Barnes & Noble yesterday because it’s down the block from where I get my monthly groceries.  A woman was stocking the long magazine shelves and we got to talking.  She was a former English teacher and many of the zines she was putting up were Manga -- that is, graphic (drawn) stories, often with intensely romantic (and sexual), fantastic, sometimes subversive tales.  I googled and discovered that the genre is seen as a Japanese response to the post-WWII occupation by the US, whose soldiers packed around misnamed “comic” books.  They frame the destruction of the world and yet the determination of small heroes, even those sunk into “emo” culture.  (Depression, unworthiness, inability to frame the future.)  Very meaningful to elements of American culture where economic oppression has young people by the throat.  
Though she was doubtful about Manga, this woman saw the wall of magazines as evidence of culture, a good thing.  To refute that notion, I held up a series of them that were nothing but advertising: cooking, body-building, interior decoration, computer news.  Ways to keep oneself busy while the world crashes soundlessly around your ears.  Like restocking shelves in a chain bookstore on the edge of bankruptcy because it can’t seem to get ahead in the commodification of electronic print.
Driving to GF and back (it’s eighty miles away) is a happy task for me, because it means passing sensuously through the land: I have a small pickup and drive with the window open, elbow out.  Manning suggests that the prairie is so overpoweringly vast that it is dangerous, because it seems inexhaustible but it is not.  I pass missile silos, some empty, some armed.  I am passed by million-dollar RV’s with little cars worth more than my house attached by tow-bars to their backsides.  And am nearly knocked off the road by barreling 18-wheel trucks.  The railroad spur used for shipping grain runs parallel.  Huge irrigation wheels are at work.  Winter wheat is ready for the custom cutters working their way north.  Chemical fallow fields stretch over many acres: deliberately blasted so nothing will grow in order to get rid of weeds.  (Also pheasants -- too bad.)  The highway has four lanes and this time of year one is shunted from one side to the other because crews are doing the constant maintenance and rebuilding necessary to keep them passable.
And yet the land has archived seeds and climate forces that left the Mayan civilization smothered in jungle, that made the Middle East into barren arid land before we bombed it flat, eliminating traces of how all this got started.  The quick way to understand is the National Geographic video version of  “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  (Google it.)  “Park Avenue”  is a complementary documentary version of how the culture world has constricted to highly moneyed people in high-rise buildings in Manhattan.  We all understand that this eventually will be demolished by angry masses unless it falls of its own weight.
A manager of Northwestern University’s archiving program has contacted me to ask for permission to preserve my two blogs about Alvina Krause’s teaching of acting: and  Of course, I was happy, thrilled, in fact.  While universities go about commodifying the real purpose of study in order to erect [sic] edifices and fill in lakes, the scholars so often described with a sneer as “academics,” are quietly networking real lives.  It’s hard to commodify humanities but, like Manga, ideas and arts can’t be controlled.  By the time they’re commodified, the real action has slipped away to something out there on a farther edge.  The accumulation of small lives (emo) woven together create a fabric of new beginnings.

I see this time as one when boundaries we took for granted (gender, nations, and today’s TED talk for subscribers deconstructed “money”) are disappearing but new ones are forming.  Boundaries are exoskeletons -- they constrict growth.  I’d even skip over bone and go straight to hydrostats, like octopus tentacles  -- cultures as octopuses that can squeeze into a beer bottle or spread thin and flying as a parachute.  An archive may be an aquarium, but ideas are the creatures.  When they say, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” what they really mean is that ideas cannot be suppressed by force. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


1942, South Deer Creek, near Roseburg, OR
My mother on the far left, then my Aunt Allie, next my Great-Aunt Florence and some neighbor.

I got caught a little short on blogging today, so I’m going to reblog with some editing and comments.  For five years I sweated out rabies in Portland, OR, as an animal control officer in the field and then research and education coordinator.  One of my most effective tools for motivating the college kids who sold dog licenses door-to-door -- which meant the dogs got rabies shots -- was a movie of little kids in south Chicago dying of rabies.  No cure then, no cure now.  But we had preventive vaccinations.  No one knew whether they would work for sure.

By Nancy Walsh, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Reviewed by Robert Jasmer, MD; Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco

A third instance of rabies transmission following organ transplantation has occurred, with a patient dying 18 months after receiving a kidney from a deceased donor who was not known to be infected with the rabies virus, researchers reported.
The extended incubation period was an unusual clinical feature because in the two previous episodes of transmission, all unvaccinated recipients developed symptoms within 6 weeks and died, according to Matthew Kuehnert, MD, of the CDC in Atlanta, and colleagues.
Also distinctive was the fact that three other individuals who received organs from the same donor remained asymptomatic and only developed rabies antibodies after post-exposure prophylaxis, the investigators wrote in the July 24/31 Journal of the American Medical Association.
Those previous cases had suggested "a high infectivity rate and an incubation period of approximately 6 weeks in unvaccinated immunosuppressed recipients of solid organs from donors with rabies," according to the investigators.
However, in the present case, that pattern wasn't followed. The organ donor was an apparently healthy male who had returned from a fishing trip and developed symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and paresthesias, and then seizures, altered mental status, dysphagia for liquids, and hemodynamic instability.
The presumed diagnosis at the time of death was ciguatera -- a marine toxin found in certain reef fish -- poisoning.
Family members reported no known exposure to rabies, and examination of the cerebrospinal fluid found no evidence of infectious disease. . .
The recipient initially was diagnosed with sciatica when seen for hip pain radiating to the leg, but was subsequently hospitalized with symptoms including fever, diaphoresis, and abdominal pain in the region of the transplanted kidney.
Encephalopathy followed, along with hemodynamic instability, and death occurred 3 weeks after admission . . .
It turned out that the donor had a history of exposure to wildlife, including trapping raccoons in North Carolina, and had been bitten twice by the animals, which were not available for rabies testing.

Only one previous case of rabies contracted from a raccoon bite has been reported, but they are the most commonly infected animal in the U.S.
Testing of retained serum and central nervous system (CNS) samples from the donor revealed encephalitis, necrosis of neurons, and intracytoplasmic inclusions in the cortex suggestive of rabies, along with viral antigens and RNA.
Gene sequencing of tissues from both donor and recipient revealed a 99.9% match of the N gene, and phylogenetic analysis traced the source as a single county in North Carolina, "confirming organ transplantation as the route of transmission," the researchers reported.
None of the three asymptomatic patients developed rabies, which has raised questions "about mechanisms of rabies virus spread within a host, the cells and tissues in which the virus resides during lengthy incubation periods, and how the virus evades the immune system," the investigators noted.
They suggested that contributing factors could include different immunosuppressive regimens in those patients following their transplants, the type of organ, and quantity of virus present, although the precise reasons remain uncertain.
Viruses are the code of life, but they could be considered either alive or not alive.  Raccoons are definitely alive, unless you’re some kind of frontiersman who needs a hat.  When I was an animal control officer there was a big old boar raccoon in my beat who was a pet, but sometimes got the idea that the humans were the pets.  Or pests.  Then maybe he’d bite them.  I took repeated reports and cautioned them to quarantine and watch the beast for symptoms of rabies.  The vet had given him dog immunization but no one knows whether it works on raccoons.  None of the people who were bitten developed rabies.  
No dog that has been vaccinated has ever developed rabies.  The people who do rabies research work with dogs let them have access to sunshine because rabies virus is killed by sunlight.  So it’s mostly carried by nocturnal animals, but a cow that has been bitten by a rabid animal can carry it for three years without developing symptoms -- and what if the cow bit you in those years?  No one knows.
The world is so full of complex codes, some of them in molecules and some of them in behavior patterns engraved on neurons, that on the one hand it seems impossible to even grasp what’s going on, much less predict.   And then you discover that CSI resources can not only discover that a kidney donor was carrying rabies but also track it to the species and the very county of the state where it lived.  But the key was knowing that the donor hunted raccoons.  Should that be on every organ donor questionnaire now?  “Have you ever hunted a raccoon?”   The veterinarian cautioned we who worked directly with dogs not to give blood, because we had undoubtedly picked up some strange “bugs”.
Few animals are as appealing to humans as dogs, but raccoons certainly are.  In childhood my brothers and I were exploring an old barn and found a couple of half-grown raccoons who were pets, though no one was around.  They climbed on our shoulders and searched our pockets and didn’t offer to bite.  We didn’t think about rabies or any danger at all.
There is no proven 100% effective vaccination for humans exposed to rabies, but there is a nearly 100% effective antidote developed in Israel where street pariah dogs still carry the virus.  The only problem is that it costs $5000 for a course of treatment and not all insurers will pay for it.  Recently some sources noted that a single veterinarian had taken on the task of keeping a supply of the med on-hand, which brings the cost down some.
There are several diseases that develop into dog epidemics, sweeping through the streets, and in fact raccoons are susceptible to dog distemper and whole populations can be wiped out. It is a single-stranded RNA virus of the family paramyxovirus and thus a close relative of measles and rinderpest.  Despite extensive vaccination in many regions, it remains a major disease of dogs.  
As far as I know, people don’t catch it, but when the puppies born under our studio got it and died, I burned their bodies.  I’ve had measles.  Maybe that protected me.  If dog distemper mutated in a way that allowed the dog distemper virus to infect humans, we might be looking at something very ugly indeed. 
(Don't worry -- photoshopped.  I hope.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY" by Richard Manning

“It Runs in the Family” is a memoir by Richard Manning, a hard-hitting, prize-winning, well-married, intelligent, dynamic, handsome man who is hitting middle-age a little later than most.  When I called him on the phone, he was siding an addition to his house in Helena but was expected to start cooking dinner for incoming relatives.  The temps in the desert valley are fierce and I suspect he has a helluva tan since he did the roof last week.

In 1990, just after I abandoned the ministry and returned to the Blackfeet rez hoping to write, there was a workshop in the Bitterroot Valley led by Peter Matthiessen.  It was juried -- one sent in a sample of writing in hopes of qualifying.  I forget what I sent, but it had buffalo in it.  Manning’s sample was full of trees: he was just producing the early drafts of what became “Last Stand,” a Pulitzer prize winning exposé of lumbering practices that used both eye witness photos and deep analysis of statistics.  The crosshairs of these two journalistic methods have been his practice, always informed by close relationships with initiated friends like Rick Bass and Peter Bowen.   His wife, Tracy Stone-Manning, is the head of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The second time I ran into Manning was in Waterton International Peace Park where he was a speaker at another writer’s workshop.  Before he could speak he was called away because his mother was dying.  The memory of his face as he turned to go was just under every page of this memoir as I read.  It was neither sad nor happy but a kind of crucifixion at the center point of the axis and a steely determination to deal with events.

Much of the memoir is the struggle to escape from the disastrous punishment of a woman so damaged by early life that her only refuge was a Procrustean understanding of Fundamentalist Christianity.  Manning, in turn, escaped from that to a religion of work: men’s work.  Since he was growing up in Michigan, that meant the gleaming industrialism of machines like cars, which were a doorway to sex.  He obeyed the culture: married a high school sweetheart, had a baby, bounced from job to job, and finally pulled up stakes to light out for the territories.  As usual, that destroyed the marriage: one person changing, the other one not. 

Manning is one of the few kids (besides myself) who loved diagramming sentences, but he was also great at math until he overestimated and got himself to a college level too rarefied for his nerve, then backed off.  (I did the same thing with physics.)  This was not a waste, but a simple change of plan.  The kind of writing he does requires a mind that works in structure, closely related to hands-on building.  (“Measure twice, cut once.”)  He begins his story with a downturn in his fortunes, but the real story extends back through his family, labeled “working class” but in fact “survival class.”  People who turn their skills to what’s at hand because they must -- and that doesn’t always work out very well, esp. when times change fast.

In the end he comes to a strategy of investigation that arises out of the study of trauma survivors.  It’s kind of way of diagramming disfunction that was devised by Robert Anda.  The “pot-handle” for the inventory he uses is “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.”  What’s IN the pot, cooking up fate, is what Manning writes about in this memoir: abuse, poverty, over-religiousity, neglect, and so on.  The actual questionnaire is at  There’s nothing very mysterious about it and it’s not even very long.  (It omits war and ghettoes.) Anda’s insight (actually one of many) is that a high ACE score is the PRODUCT of social forces and also CREATES those same destructive forces and PERPETUATES them through the generations.  Poor people are often abusive and angry people, imposing damage on each other.  That keeps them poor.  Being treated with contempt and neglect by the society in general creates CREATES CREATES the petri dishes where crime, hatred, disease, starvation, addiction and early death flourish and even prevail over the larger society, invade the larger society.

This is not a new idea, but now it is undergirded with research about what a human being is, how brains form, what really constitutes emotional and cognitive impairment, and maybe the beginnings of what to do about it.  How much of the damage done to a pre-schooler can be reversed in adolescence or in that young adult time when most people are having babies, and how much do those individual stories affect the quality of all our lives?  Not just by needing money for treatment or incarceration, but in terms of creativity, safety, and the blossoming of culture.  Manning sent in a cheek swab for a read-out of his genome: no surprises, except that his are sturdy old genes.

It’s possible that we started going wrong ten thousand years ago when we stopped being hunter-gatherers who carried their babies on their backs and were free of the industrial burdens that have distorted modern life by making everything into separations and conveyor belts, conformity and criminalization.  As I understand it, this is what Manning is working on at present, with his background in industrial agriculture.  His eight books include “Food’s Frontier” and “Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.”

Manning used reporter’s skills, family informants, plus the safe space created by an intelligent healthy wife and increased clarity as time passed, to develop a new view of life.  He and I are both anchored in the grasslands on both sides of the Canadian border, though he’s far more of a mountain worshipper than I am, but I had the benefit of a long family tradition of humanistic progressive thought.  When I left my mother’s sometimes bitter Presbyterian roots, I already had an entwined fast-hold on the prairie through my homesteading father’s side -- the kind of thought that has led both Manning and I to the work of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and their precursors, Rodale and Schumacher.  Their living and vigorous eloquence are cherished by many.  The mainstream rushes past them, but they go back to the very beginning:  Jacob and Esau.  (I side with the hairy man.)

The benefit of mortal pressure on generations of families is that only the strong survive, though the necessary strength may not be merely physical.  They may have to struggle with guilt because of the friends and relatives who died, but this is best addressed by working constructively, as Manning does.  Drive the roots deeper, read the signs more carefully, keep a notch stick to note numbers.  This is NOT the same as the high theory of universities where people speculate about mythic and mystical things like Gaea or God or souls, all sitting around a table in an air-conditioned room with no windows.  Manning takes a hammer and shovel approach to problems more than I do, and I admire him for it.  

At an age when many are retiring, he still has stamina for hunting and climbing mountains.  I have a feeling this memoir is merely clearing the way for his best work yet.