Monday, September 30, 2013


This post is highly technical and drawn from another website that is even MORE technical.  Hard as it is to read, I thought it was important because it is so basic to behavior we would like to control: not just DEcrease, but also INcrease.

Addiction is something that happens in the brain of mammals.  First there is the lighting up of pleasure centers over food, sex, a substance, something else that’s pleasant, and then something -- repetition?  Another brain function? -- converts that into an uncontrollable craving that punishes the body with bad consequences if it isn’t secured.  One can become addicted to something painful, destructive, and altogether unpleasant. 

Most of the research is about illegal substances.  From   Two major lines are pursued:  the actual molecules involved and the neurostructures affected.

The stages of addiction are defined as:
(a) compulsion to seek and take the drug,
b) loss of control in limiting intake, and 
(c) emergence of a negative emotional state (e.g., dysphoria, anxiety, irritability) when access to the drug is prevented.

Then there is a small cycle within the act of taking the drug:  
1.  preoccupation/anticipation, 
2.  binge intoxication, 
3.  withdrawal/negative affect

These distinctions work for non-physical addictions, such as addiction to love or praise, emotions that affect the complex of the brain both chemically and through nerve action.  Defining “reinforcements” that make these into addictions is part of the task of understanding.  These can be explored as studies in animals, but not the emotional mechanisms of human beings, which were evolved later, esp. the functions in the pre-frontal cortex.  Clearly, addiction is a matter of “operant conditioning” -- the link formed when two things coincide, like Pavlov’s dog hearing a bell ring every time it was fed and finally getting so it salivated if you rang the bell.   But until now we haven’t had the ability to detect what happens to the molecules and neurons when two things become associated.  You might want to look up the phrases that I colored red: I did.

“. . . animal models of addiction focused on the synaptic sites [the little spaces between the ends of the neuron strands] and transductive mechanisms (how these sites convey changes in excitability [how the signal gets sent across]) in the nervous system on which drugs act initially to produce their positive reinforcing effects.”  So the idea seems to be that drugs make the neurons more sensitive and the signal more intense.

Drugs self-administered by animals correspond well with those with high abuse potential in humans, and intravenous drug self-administration is considered an animal model predictive of abuse potential. [If the animal will go get the substance willingly, even if it’s intravenous, then people will do that, too.]  Other validated measures of the acute rewarding effects of drugs of abuse include brain stimulation reward and conditioned place preference[If the drug’s effect on the brain pleasure center shows as strong on brain activity detecting machines and if the animal keeps going to the place where it normally gets the drug, then people will get hooked easily.]

“. . .ingestion of the drug itself, cues associated with the drug, and exposure to stressors.”  These are the three factors that make addiction more likely:  1)  the process of taking the drug, esp. intravenously which means a little ritual; 2)  things like where the drug is taken, with whom (welcoming friends?), what the atmosphere is like (safe, hidden), and  3) whether they are under pressure or in danger some way (beaten up, having to do unpleasant things).

I left the blue Wiki links in for these anatomy names.  “Drugs of abuse have been [detected to affect] the origins and terminal areas of the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system”   This means the “middle of the connections between the cortex (outer layer) of the brain and limbic system.  “ From Wikipedia:  “The limbic system includes the olfactory bulbs, hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, fornix, column of fornix, mamillary body, septum pellucidum, habenular commisure, cingulate gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus, limbic cortex, limbic midbrain areas and pons.  It supports a variety of functions, including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction. It appears to be primarily responsible for our emotional life, and has a great deal to do with the formation of memories.”  In short, functions of identity and choice.

Specific components of the basal forebrain have more recently been identified with the hedonic [pleasant] neuroadaptations to acute drug reward and have focused on elements of the extended amygdala (Koob, 2003). As the neural circuits for the reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse have evolved, the role of neurotransmitters/neuromodulators also have evolved, and four of those systems are discussed below: mesolimbic dopamine, opioid peptide, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin. 

Now I’ll summarize a bit.  If signaling molecules have been sent through the neurons and then stop, the ability to feel good will go away, even if the addiction has nothing to do with taking drugs.   Epinephrine, which signals alarm and danger, will increase. Food tastes bad, hugs are uncomfortable, etc.  In fact, the symptoms can be like flu.  When the signaling molecules the drugs send through the neurons is returned, it will take MORE to get the same effect of pleasure as before.  

“These results suggest not only a change in function of neurotransmitters associated with the acute reinforcing effects of drugs (dopamine, opioid peptides, serotonin, and GABA) during the development of dependence, but also recruitment of the brain arousal and stress systems (glutamate, CRF, and norepinephrine) and dysregulation of the NPY brain anti-stress system. These changes would represent a “between-system” neuroadaptation. Reward mechanisms in dependence are compromised by disruption of neurochemical systems involved in processing natural rewards and by recruitment of the anti-reward systems.”   Not only does the high go away without the drugs, but also the body signals all sorts of alarm.  The article names the bits of anatomy that do this: a whole complex.

If animals are weaned off drugs and then pushed back into taking them, there are differences in the brain bits that activate to reinstate the addiction.  What’s interesting is that when this is done to humans, there is a fourth route of brain response.  It is in the most highly evolved part of the brain, behind the forehead, the location of empathy, morality, and self-control.  In human imaging studies, another common element of drug dependence is decreased function in the orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex as measured both by neuropsychological tests and imaging.  That’s the part of the brain behind the forehead.  The same as the part often damaged in a concussion.

So the neurons are running a deficit that’s uncomfortable, molecules that signal distress and anxiety are triggered, every cue associated with taking the drug urges it be taken, and the part of the brain that would ordinarily override urges with rational thought is disabled.  Things that would ordinarily be pleasant and comforting have no effect.

Another piece of the puzzle is biosynthesis, which means that opiods (the earliest and most thoroughly studied molecule) are made in the body, with variations in the amounts, sources and impact of them on body function.  “All of them are made via three large precursor proteins, called opioimelanocortin, proenkephalin, and prodynorphin. Opiomelanocortin is of particular interest because it is the precursor for several important and seemingly unrelated biologically active molecules, namely, b-endorphin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and several melanocyte-stimulating hormones.”  (Since melanin, the dark pigment in the skin, seems to be involved somehow, I will not be surprised if the reputation of redheads is connected to these molecules, maybe through mutation of specific genes which are now identified, cloned, and studied.  So far as I know there are no red-headed lab rats.)

Maybe the most cutting edge studies are the ones trying to find and change genes that don’t code for susceptibility but code for turning those susceptibility genes on and off.  The day when an addict can be “vaccinated” in a way that changes his or her essential genetic structure so that addiction is not possible is still over the horizon.  But we think it’s there.

The important insight is that addiction is in the addict, the susceptibility of their own biological systems.  It is something real, molecular, working at the cell level, inherited, and then triggered by something in the environment.  It over-rides rationality and stress due to danger will over-ride resistance.  But both something as powerful as sex or as reduced to an empathic second-hand experience as pornography can be addictive.  Something as powerful as violence or as reduced to an empathic second-hand experience as violent video gaming can be addictive.  Any operant conditioning that connects even an innocent pleasure to these internal molecular and neurological loops can become addictive.

Got time for Starbucks?  I love your guitar playing.  I need a hug.  Human behavior.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


On 12-7-11 my post on this blog was a list of names from a card file I’d been keeping for years.  On each card was the obit from the GF Tribune for some person either on the Blackfeet reservation or related to it somehow.  I had noticed that the cause of death was unknown for some of these people.  There are always complaints that murders and other criminal deaths and violence on the reservation are going unprosecuted.  This is not unrelated to the number of people who just disappear.  This morning a comment was submitted on this post that was about just such a case.  I don’t want to use the person’s name and it came in anonymously anyway, but I’ll quote the part that is a reference to the Bible.

When Cain slew his brother Abel ...God the creator heard Abel's blood that was crying from the ground all the way to heaven.  

When King David saw another man's wife, he made arrangements for that other man to be on the front lines of the battle. To make sure that he would get killed. And he took that man's wife and when the man of God came he exposed what King David did. God has forgiven you ....but the sword (or Judgement) would never leave his house. Jesus taught ..nothing would be hid ...any said or done in secret would be shouted upon the roof tops.

There were enough clues for me to find an article about this case in Indian Country Today, where the reporter emphasized that the Blackfeet rez is considered a lawless place that tolerates murder and she attributed much of this to drug use.   (Oh, thanks, Paul Harvey!) This is a very tangled and emotional subject and I want to pull it apart in a slightly different way.

First, the Judeo-Christian religious/governance world is one that attributes the highest judgement to a harsh God.  (Jesus encouraged mercy.) It is a world dependent on written rules and laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi.  The intent is not just to prevent bad things happening, but also to prevent justice from disintegrating into raw revenge that continues violence.  It is punishment-centered.

The Blackfeet culture was oral -- nothing was written out in negotiated or dictated rules until the Euro people arrived and imposed THEIR standards.  The Nitsitahpi used social pressure or simple departure to keep order, which worked fine so long as they were in small related groups where everyone knew what was happening.  Even after the US government drew a boundary separating the governance of the reservation from the rest of the territory, the Blackfeet people continued their old ways alongside the new.

Today there are three kinds of disorder on the reservation:  those that are crimes of bookkeeping and asset diversion (what is called corruption); those that are crimes of violence emerging from the use of drugs and alcohol; and those that are cold-blooded amoral criminal behavior.  I acknowledge the first kind but won’t address it here.

The second kind results from brain damage, either temporary (drugs) or permanent (trauma), that is partly a matter of emotional syndrome and partly actual destruction of tissue resulting in loss of control: extreme over-reaction, rage attacks, inability to curb damage to the weak and innocent.  In all, the result is something like a demolition derby because the body has no brakes, no steering, and a stuck gas pedal.  When I was first teaching in Browning in a classroom that overlooked what was then Moccasin Flats, I looked out one morning to see a woman in a pickup trying to run over a man rolling around under it.  They had been drinking all night and she was trying to kill him but she didn’t have enough control to get a wheel to go over him.  It was lucky that the pickup was old and had a lot of space under it.  I know what uncontrolled alcohol-fueled violence looks like.  Meth is worse.  MUCH worse.  After parties that turn into brawls, no one is a reliable witness.

There is no way a written law can prevent such a thing.  It can only set the punishment and even then it is almost impossible to judge in terms of intentions because there was no thinking involved.  This is the kind of murder that -- like that between Cain and Abel -- was based on emotion and loss of control.  (Maybe they were drunk!)  The Issksiniip Project, by providing ways to kick addiction and deal with strong emotion, can address this sort of crime.  Cops hate mindless brawling because they are likely to be hurt or killed when trying to intervene and because when it gets to the cool logic of the court, there’s really no way to apply principles of justice.

But this sort of situation provides a cover, like King David using war to get rid of Bathsheba’s husband.  Illegals from south of the border who have Indian genes don’t stand out on the reservation.  Legal immigrants are often exceptionally family-loving and hard-working, but there is a small fraction of illegals who engage in drug distribution, child and woman trafficking, gambling crime, and other behavior that laws are meant to prevent.  Today there are about 8,000 enrolled Blackfeet on the reservation.  They do not all know each other and may have relationships with people whose motives are shady.   This is the third category,  which is violent organized crime: cold-blooded, calculated, and obscured by the constant whirlwind of gangs, drinking, drugs, and family abuse.

The FBI would love to be able to come sort through people’s lives to discover and extradite national criminals.  Replacing trust with force has become the pattern since Wounded Knee (actually from the beginning of white/Indian relationships or neither Wounded Knee 1or 2 would have happened), no one from the outside can occasionally visit the rez expecting to understand what goes on.  When I say “outside,” I mean outside the rez boundary, but the FBI keeps withdrawing farther and farther.  They are an urban organization.  Even in Valier I rarely know what’s happening a few miles away across the line.  Court testimony is unreliable, partly because of threats against witnesses and partly because of family loyalties.  Blackfeet naturally try to protect their own.

There has been a movement among the police that originated in cities, notably New York City.  The idea is that if the police crack down on trivial disorder -- trash, broken windows, derelict cars -- that the larger crimes of murder and violence will diminish.  This seems to be true and is beginning to be put into practice in Browning where the old buildings that shelter addicts are coming down. (So now where do they go?)  One can eliminate predators by destroying their habitat, but sometimes that also destroys the innocent.  And the result may be very profitable to people who don’t seem to be criminals at all, just merchants and developers.  (Always follow the money.)

The Great Falls Tribune pointed out to me that I could get death certificates that list the final decision about death for anyone: $10 fee from county and state records.   It would cost several hundred dollars to get certificates for everyone on my short list.  Now they have stopped publishing obits that weren’t paid for and didn’t originate with the families.  For instance, no obituary appeared in that paper for Joyce Clarke Turvey, despite her connection to an historically significant family and her contribution to the Glacier National Park complex.  (It was in the Cut Bank based newspapers.)  Her death was natural -- she was in her eighties.  But not telling her story is a loss of history to a larger community than the rez.  The impulse to secrecy and avoiding trouble is a strong one, but dangerous in a democracy because it reinforces our rising suspicions about what’s going on.

So, three sources of crime:  1)  The bookkeeping crimes of embezzlement and theft that are encouraged by huge blocks of money arriving without anyone following up to inspect its use because the rez is just too scary and far away.  2) The often lethal damage of drug and alcohol fueled rage and trauma.  3)  Criminals taking advantage of the confusion of behavior and the inability of the law to deal with it.

Maybe someone is looking for an excuse to close down the rez.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


The list below is by Nassim Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan.”  I appreciate it and find it effective.  “Antifragility” equates to survival.  Why would I spend time reading things I can’t put into practice?  Other things?  Well, for the fun of it, I suppose, and but some things are pathways rather than destinations, and this particular list is very useful.

An antifragile way of life is all about finding a way to gain from the inevitable disorder of life. To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result of running into this disorder.
First, here are some principles that come from “Antifragile”:
  1. Stick to simple rules
  2. Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  3. Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  4. Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  5. Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  6. Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  7. Don’t get consumed by data
  8. Keep your options open
  9. Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  10. Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

The general underlying principle here is to play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.


My own simple rules are not likely to suit anyone else.  They are not based on convention.  Many women have a rule that they can’t go to bed without cleaning up the kitchen -- dishes washed, everything put away.  My practice, which is not a rule, is to let things soak overnight.  But my rule is to write a post for this blog every morning even if means there’s no time for housework.  My practice has been to post it just after midnight that same night so posts will indexed by date in a regular sequence.  

I’m thinking about changing this because now I have to stay up until midnight and I get too sleepy.  The “old” I must respect is me, though I resent getting older, weaker, more forgetful, and all that.  It’s not a tragedy -- just a nuisance.  But something I learned as a young person is very helpful -- I learned to do-without and to not want things that aren’t possible.  This was a product of a marriage where the uneven partnership (Bob much older and both of us devoted to his sculpture) meant that my reading, my time in general, and my taste in food and furnishings were simply impossible.  By the time I started an independent life again, I had absorbed much of his.  But not all.

Always I thought about what I needed to survive -- a table, a chair, a bed, bookshelves, a way to write.  Then the things that were luxuries:  books, cats, clothes I like, beautiful bedding, bowls and spoons, the pickiup, and a little shelf of odd things I’ll talk about another time.   The telephone is an ambivalent thing.  The television is not attached to broadcast or cable, just DVD’s.  Netflix is a wonderful luxury.  This computer is a GREAT enabler and luxury, but having to learn too much technology interferes with the writing.  I don’t have a cell phone, the same as I don’t have a radio in the pickiup.  I could do without television, telephone, even computer, if I had to.  So long as I had pencil and paper.  Even then, I could learn to memorize what I wrote like a person kept in the dark in solitary confinement.  

I could not do without my mind.  That’s the cruelest diminishment of old age, that I can’t remember names or where I put things.  Some memories I can do without because if I can’t remember that I once could remember them, then they don’t matter much anyway.  Between photos and my own bulging files, I can recover most things.  But now I wish I’d bought a yearbook every year that I taught, that I had a photo directory of the whole Blackfeet tribe through the Sixties when I knew them.  Now they are the grandparents of the adults I talk to.  These present adults didn’t exist yet.

Secrecy and privacy are things I wanted to discard, but now I find it impossible.  Not because I have anything to hide but because other people need to be let alone.  I can’t praise them publicly though I passionately (not carnally) love them.

Security is one of the things I risk losing daily but not in the usual way.  I lose when the neighbors come over to chainsaw limbs off the tree that is such a joy, or when I turn on the computer (like this morning) and find another pay-wall.  iTunes wants a LOT of information and legal agreement to their terms or I won’t be allowed to proceed !!!   Whaaaaaat?  The only thing I use it for is to stream my NPR station because their land broadcast fails so much -- it’s tough to maintain translators and relays in this country.  Fine.  I’m already learning that silence in Valier is free.  (You have to pay for it in other places.)  But I have to buy drinking water.

The biggest threat to security is ironically the efforts of people to guarantee THEIR safety by constant vigilance and the imposition of rules that suit them.  They become more and more over-reactive, more inclined to regulate and impose fees, more suspicious of everything different, more inclined to carry firearms and drive faster in bigger vehicles.  They have never heard that story about how armor was not so much destroyed by the invention of firearms as it was by the nibbling of the leather hinges by mice.   They seem to think they can only get rich by executing some major coup or scheme, like striking oil, not through the simple diligence of showing up for work every day and getting things done.  Nevertheless, people here are kind and practical, more than some places.

I’ve kept a little woodstove in case both electricity and gas fail in winter.  I hoard branches.  So far the gas has never failed (though we’ve all grown suspicious of pipelines and there have been catastrophic explosions from leaks, like the one in Bozeman on the main street).  Just last week the electricity here was off for more than an hour at 4AM.  We never found out why.  My internet feed shuts down my keyboard whenever there is a lot of local web traffic, but no one seems able to fix it.  They’ve stopped even telling me they’re trying -- just deny that it has anything to do with them.

When I was in college as an undergrad (1957-1961) the world was hopeful in spite of catastrophic assassinations which someone evidently thought would make things go their way.  We see that happening again today, though mostly it’s our government doing the dramatic killing in other people’s countries, while merely killing our own citizens with non-funding.  Instead of killing Obama, they kill all he suggests.  By the time I left Browning (1973) the response to the deaths of JFK and MLK Jr. had boomeranged into a new vision of what life was about.  My soul was seized then and is still gripped by it.  In fact, because I have access to news and conversation among thinking people through the Internet ( and TED Talks and all the H-humanities listservs, plus a host of other online organizations) my hope is robust.  Antifragile.  I do not despair.

My practice is to shop for necessities once a month at a county seat, which makes me dependent on my little freezer.  My rule is to eat according to diabetes guidelines: no sugar, few carbs, high quality meat (no sausage), no sodas, lots of green stuff.  That means less dependence on meds and possibly eventual freedom from them.  Just now I’ve started a pot roast with no potatoes -- just carrots and onions.  It’s beginning to smell pretty good.  I enjoy the immense wealth of the senses.  It’s opera day, if iTunes will let me stream WFMT.  If not, I’ll sing to myself -- though it worries the cats.  NOT.

Friday, September 27, 2013


The concepts and language of people who study spirituality and religious experience are not very well-known to the general public.  There are a lot of reasons for that, but let’s put them off for now and just look at some terms that are useful.  Most of them are terms used by scholars and then popularized to some extent.   These terms are considered investigations into mysticism as well as spirituality, but the definitions overlap.  Another term for experience-based feelings is phenomenology, which concentrates more on the actual internal state of the person than on the “phenomenon” that caused it.  The slightly condescending term is a way of belittling human experience so as to capture the “magical" quality of it in an institutional dogma that explains the source.  The institution then claims to be the only route to that source.  But there are many ways up the sacred mountain.

Mircea Eliade talked about the different “feel” of the sacred as compared to the profane and described the sacred as “valorized,” means valued but also something like “energized” or "charged."

Freud spoke of the “oceanic feeling,” the sensation of having no boundaries and merging with the cosmos in acceptance, beauty and the way things ought to be.

Literary scholars speak of the Sublime,  "the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation."  It is associated with the Romantics.

Otto used the term "the Mysterium Tremendum and Fascinans" -- which would translate in English to the “tremendous, fascinating mystery.”   It can be consciousness of overwhelming Otherness, maybe an entire different world, quite supernatural.  The term captures the mystery of contradiction: being both attracted and fascinated, but also terrified and repelled.  In the Bible there’s a story of a man who wanted to see the face of God, but God told him it would destroy him and warned him to hide in a crack in rock so he couldn’t see.  The man looked and got a glimpse of God’s backside, which had a powerful effect on him.  This little story mixes the incredibility, the secrecy, the blindness, the danger and the near ridiculousness of some mystic experience.  The revelation has to be on human terms, but humans don’t have the ability to perceive and understand the overpowering Other.

Abraham Maslow spoke of “peak experience” which was at the tip of his pyramid, or as Mike Lafromboise would have it, the top of a tipi, which means his diagram locates peak experience right where the Blackfeet put a “dream moth” which is thought to bring the spiritual inspiration of the dream.

Numinous is a useful world that comes from the Latin “numen” which means spirit, but the word also has a nice echo with “luminous,” meaning giving off light.  In movies and plays, the spirit is often portrayed as a shaft of light shining on the upturned face of the perceiver.

Two terms refer to the source of religious energy:  the Transcendent is that which comes from “across” (trans) to us from the Other realm of power and light.  The Immanent is that which unfolds from within the world and the person.  Institutions like the idea of Transcendence because -- again -- they can claim to have privileged access to the Other world.  They like to imply that Immanence is a lesser form of mysticism, a kind of nature worship and a temptation to worship “things.”

Tillich tried to speak of “ultimacy” as a way of leaving earthly ordinary preoccupations behind.  He meant the BIG questions of whether we exist at all, whether there is a God Power in any sense, in any way "Other" than the humans, and what we must do to be fully human.  Ultimacy is not about prosperity, happiness, domination, or even love.  

One description of the mystic state is being ecstatic, filled with light, lifted up.  But many accounts of mystic states are contradictory, saying that they were lifted up but also felt they were falling; warmed but also frozen; suffused with light but also in the darkness, and so on.  It may be that the contradictions are due to the limits of human perception of something inhuman.  Bernini portrayed Saint Teresa in the grip of what she described and to us it looks like sexual orgasm, which some call “the little death.”  The overwhelmed brain shuts down.

A specific kind of mysticism is kenosis, the emptying out.  It is related to the “dark night of the soul” that we now know drove Mother Theresa.  It was not her faith, but her doubt that she lived with.  The “dark night of the soul” is punishing, suffering, confused and questioning.  Kenosis is nothingness.  Just no concepts at all, no feeling, just space.  It is often a valuable emptying out in order to allow something new to arrive. 

One of the most useful concepts for designing liturgy has three parts and comes from two anthropologists: von Gennep and Victor Turner.  They looked at ceremonies and found that they were organized around the beginning (getting into the proper frame of mind by going to a special place, singing, smudging, and so on);  then, while in that special state experiencing in a different way than daily life, more intensely and in a way susceptible to changing one’s convictions; and third re-emerging to ordinary life, but changed.  They described this metaphorically as going over a threshold (limen), being in a liminal space, and then returned over that same threshold.  Baptism could be seen this way, esp. adult immersion baptism.  One is changed, transformed, converted.

The Blackfeet put a high value (valorized) on mystical experience and sought it out, but they had no tradition of ingesting substances whether alcohol or peyote.  Instead they went to that liminal “place” through ordeals: sweatlodge, torture (Sun Dance), thirst/starving and isolation (the coming of age “dream bed”).  Their immanence was from the land itself and their transcendence was in the classic terms of the Sun, Natoosi.  Their worldview saw life and death as a continuum, only divided by a kind of dissociation, which they thought of as being in the Sand Hills.  But they worried about the dead coming back across the divider and meddling in living human lives.  This was not about morality -- punishing evil-doers -- but more about intense human emotion: jealousy, resentment, revenge, and love.

The land of the Blackfeet is high altitude grassland with deep coulees and mountains.  Relating to this land by knowing it, traversing it on foot, drawing one’s food from it, and symbolizing one’s life in terms of its animal fellow-dwellers is the essence of their religious systems, but they were not written out in books.  Doing so makes a lot of translation necessary and finding equivalents in English means that most of the translation will be into Christian terms since the English speakers involved are likely to be Christian.

Until the continents divided to create the Pacific Ocean, the land mass of the American high plains and the land mass north of China (Mongolia and Siberia) were connected enough that many of the plants and animals are the same: peonies and grizzly bears, for instance.  Scientifically, the indigenous People of the Americas carry the basic genome of Asian people rather than Europeans.  There’s not much difference.  The cultural “memes” of Asians are also basic to what is now called Blackfeet spirituality.  That is, closer to Buddhism or Shinto (which is based on veneration of ancestors and family) than it is to Christianity as it developed in the Middle East and then was carried through Europe by the Roman Empire.  I don’t know of scholarly works that address this, but I’m on the lookout for them.  I don’t even know of any Buddhists who have visited the Blackfeet.

This quote is from Wikipedia.  “Spirituality can be sought not only through traditional organized religions, but also through movements such as liberalism, feminist theology and green politics.  Spirituality is also now associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping.  It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.”
The danger of seeing spirituality or mysticism this way is that it gets reduced to “feel good” optimism and warm fuzzies that neglect the necessary skeleton (often broken) within the bloody flesh.  (This has what has happened to many liberal Christian denominations.)  People who work with contemporary mental health issues need to be tough and real.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


There are three disciplines or categories of thought that I’ve been working on for decades.  The one in which I have the most -- and the most formal -- training is “religion” including spirituality, personal devotion, ritual design and so on.  In that field I am neither conventional nor dogmatic, though my diploma says MA in Religious Studies and my formal focus was anthropology.  

Instead I’m starting from the basic design of the human body, including the brain, and how it experiences life so as to translate it into survival.  This is not about being pretty or virtuous -- it’s about staying alive.  It's an approach that is only just now possible.

The second category is environmentalism which interfaces with spirituality through its supply of material culture and its role in forming basic human concepts which eventually mesh into a culture and a language.  Consider that the three Abramic religions came from the desert and now they are helping to render the planet into a desert.

The third category is animals and the place of humans in the animal kingdom, both as sources of survival and as spiritual concepts and guides.  The arts and sciences are crammed with new ideas about this.

In support of these ideas I subscribe to a lot of environmental groups and animal-thought people.  All three of the above categories are huge, world-wide, and sophisticated beyond anyone’s capacity to keep up with them.  I heard almost nothing about these ideas at Issksiniip Symposium, which is GOOD, because that means that there is an amazing of array of things to bring to this specific group of People.  It is the equivalent of discovering a new world.

There is a fourth category which I’ve only been exploring for a short time: that’s neuroscience which is now working at the cell-by-cell level and suggesting powerful explanations and strategies.  Issksiniip confronts the issue of closed skull trauma, a clear factor in mental health on the rez.  I’m using neuroscience concepts, played off against ecological principles, to draw all these ideas into one circle that begins to make sense.  I want to discover and invent ways to weave the sacred into this.

It’s important not to get muddled or shallow.  We need to think carefully and consolidate as we go.  I begin my theory sequence BEFORE language in what I call “the sensorium,” which is a fancy way of saying everything the body can detect through its senses, not just the five senses but also one’s sense of gravity, movement, pressure and so on.  The key book is “The Sacred and the Profane,” by Mircea Eliade, not because of any fancy ideas about shamans, but because he points out that somehow we can feel a difference in the quality of space that is related to sacredness.  Some places feel holy:  a place of transition, like a doorway in a house; extremes like a mountain peak or deep in a canyon gorge; or like dawn and sunset.  Those are natural examples, but also there may be a space that is built to feel holy or a place that is holy because of some crucial event.  Learning to feel that is the first step.

Connection to the ecology of the place gives rise to the material culture.  The grasslands feel different from tropical jungle, but also there are different things there to eat, one must dress differently, one needs different tools.  Too much of our lives is trucked in from someplace else, including our religious institutions.  Too much is piped in on gizmos, and yet human connections are also sacred and can be maintained on the gizmos.  If one’s sensorium is aware of the sky-world of prairie, the seething sound of grass in the wind, the smell of bee balm and mint by the creek, one’s feeling of fitting in is stronger.   One needs to hear beloved voices and see their faces. 

“Fitting in” means surviving.  At this point I go to Roy Rapaport’s ideas about survival of the individual and survival of the “tribe”, which ideally fit together but for the Blackfeet has been divided.  Ceremonies of the sacred that contribute to the fittingness of either, and particularly the ones that put the survival of group and and individual in harmony, will support and guide success.  Harmony does not mean pretty.  It means real and honest.  When Darwin said “survival of the fittest,” he did not mean the biggest and strongest:  he meant the ones that fit the best.  When the dinosaurs were dying because they didn’t fit anymore, it was little mammals down around their toes that survived.

Back to the symposium, where Janice Hamrick, who is the CFS Program Manager for the South East Alaska Health Consortium, told us that she would train her Yupik first-line mental health people in the necessary concepts for understanding trauma, addiction and abuse and as long as they were in the main meeting place, everything was fine.  When these people got back to their tiny communities, only accessible by bush planes, they would send back reports of interviews that made no sense at all.  Hamrick asked what was happening.  The field people said that when the Yupik-speaking people told them about their troubles, there were no words for the problems in English.  When they tried to translate, the meaning escaped .

There is much contemporary thought about all this.  In the first place, mental health is a field that uses a lot of jargon.  PTSD is an acronym for “post-traumatic stress disorder” -- but to the Yupik, all of life is stress: there is no “post” and what order is “dis” in their village?  It’s simple necessity and often hard.  What is “trauma” when everyone is abused and addiction is a constant emergency?   So much of language is an attitude, one’s first concepts formed in infancy.  To the Yupik those are entirely different from the ideas of the shrink’s couch.

Working with indigenous people means facing the dilemma that education IS assimilation.  UNLESS educated people learn how to get under the language and assumptions so as to find a way to say convincingly to a Yupik, “It is not good for your husband to beat you.”  When Benjamin Whorf figured out that the Hopi language is based on actions rather than “objects” with edges that can be controlled, he was working at the deep level of the brain where those earliest concepts form.  Whole bodies of thought address this.  One can go to YouTube and find excellent talks.  TED Talks often address this.

We have talked about the opposition between Euro and Indigenous and many essays and books explore that.  Recently I read about the Siege of Paris in which Prussia held Paris in its grip so tightly that 6,000 citizens of Paris died of starvation.  At about the same time 600 people on the Blackfeet Reservation died of starvation because their commodities weren’t sent.  The U.S. government had to think about both in a time when few Blackfeet even spoke English, so could not advocate for themselves.  That got me thinking about Euro folks.  

The mid-continent of Europe was forming into nations and leaving feudal ways about the same time that the American east coast indigenous peoples were forced out of their life-ways.  We tend to think about the Euro/Tribal split in terms of photography, which was exploding just as the plains tribes were at war.  At the treaties, Indians were vividly depicted in their feathered buckskins alongside Victorian men in three piece suits and top hats or uniforms, which lends itself to the idea that one is of a higher culture than the other.  (At least they sat on chairs!)  This was in the 19th century, when the US had just fought a disastrous tribal war between the north and south over African people who had been dragged there against their will.  Yet they claimed to be civilized.

At the Symposium was said that if the tribe could be more like the Hutterites, they could make a lot more money.  They are a very focused group of people.  But the Hutterites fled Europe in order to escape from the 19th century "new" German nation and its innovative, capitalist, individual ways.  Hutterites are nothing like the tribal plains people were.  Their struggle has been to avoid education in order to defeat assimilation because they wish to preserve a FEUDAL way of life, a medieval pattern in which men dominate women, land is held in common, change is opposed, rules are unyielding.  To the Hutterites, the “Euros” that the Native Americans oppose are “the English,” the empire-builders.  All the nations of that period were empire builders, which gradually engulfed the Americas along with India and Africa.  Everything was trade and profit, sucked out to send back across the Atlantic.  For the Canadian Blackfoot tribes, the country was the same thing as the Hudson’s Bay Company for many years.  It was a time when religion and nation reinforced each other for the sake of profit. 

(to be continued)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ISSKSINIIP: Addressing Mental Health

It always takes a while to process an experience as rich as this Symposium at the Blackfeet Community College.  Maybe I can sum it up by telling you I struggled to remember the names of people I knew and to connect the ones I didn’t know to their grandparents who were in the English classes I taught in the Sixties.  When I came to Theda New Breast, she simply put her arms around me and said,  “Thank you for coming to be with us.”  Suddenly I connected her to all the good things that have been happening on the rez, entirely obscured by the media reportage of Council doin’s.  I’m talking about “walks”, feeds, and a host of small consultations and interventions.  They were often seen as “women’s stuff,” and therefore not important, even when Theda’s mother was on the Tribal Council, where she was a strong force for good.

To understand me, one must imagine that the Amskapi Pikuni is a long procession coming across the prairie out of the past.  At first they walk with their dogs, then they begin to have horses, then wagons, Model T’s, and finally an increasing stream of modern cars up to the f250 Ford pickups of today’s ranchers.  A few miles away, going along a ridge, is a little old Ranger pickup (my pickiup) with me peering intently at the People, trying to understand and be “with” them over the distance.  When I first came in the 1960’s, I joined Bob Scriver who traveled between two streams of people, trying to belong to both, with his white family pulling him away from the Pikuni and his heart pulling him towards them.  All his friends in childhood and many in adulthood were Blackfeet and he longed to be truly one of them.  But he was blue-eyed and he was hairy as a grizzly.  He hated that.

Quietly, not quite secretly, in the Sixties the two of us became Bundle Keepers because of a dream Bob had and then he had another dream that became his Badger Lodge.  In the process we were taken into the not-quite-secret circle of old-timers who mostly lived on Moccasin Flats.  Richard Little Dog was the officiant and gave us our names.  Later, when everything became politicized, Bob did not give up his practice but was isolated further.  When he died, the Montana Historical Society took everything.  The Thunderpipe Bundle disappeared.  The badger tipi with its bundle was transported to the Historical Society but they will not admit whether they have it or not.  They understand NOTHING about any of the materials they acquired from Bob.  It would be an excellent mission of the BCC to become friendly advisors on Blackfeet materials for the MHS.  They are terrified of seizures, legal proceedings, repatriation, and other diminishment of their holdings.  They have always been vulnerable to secrecy and under-the-table transactions.  Consult with Loren Rattler.

Technically, as Bob Scriver’s only living wife and as a co-participant in the ceremonies of transfer and creation, anyone who uses those materials or tries to “own” them would be legally required to get my permission.  Richard Ground has already said that he and Elsie would like to become the proper keepers of that Little Dog Thunder Pipe Bundle if it ever re-surfaces and I’ve agreed that I like that idea.  We also agreed that ceremonial objects with great power have their own intentions and that the Bundle will do what it thinks is right.  (This is called “personification” which is a figure of speech and in this case something like “fate.”)

I'm told the scanned program was impossible to read, so I'll push my post schedule up a little bit.  I have a lot to say as a result of this Issksiniip symposium -- many ideas crowding to be sorted and shared.

When Indian Empowerment came to the Blackfeet, it had an academic overlay, a Vietnam political overlay, a Christian Pentecostal overlay (besides the more clearly recognized Catholics) as well as the crux of this symposium which is meant to address the human suffering of a rez: poverty, alcoholism, trauma, broken families and so on.  This means that it has been cloaked in specific conventional language drawn from each of these contexts, plus a mixture of sources that haven’t really been reconciled.  I’ll write more about this in the next few days.  

The major insight I have from fifty years of contact with all these elements is that there is a language shortage and it is on the “white” side, but it is not because English has no words for some of the spiritual values of the Blackfeet.  Rather the English vocabulary for spiritual matters has been pushed aside in order to let the dogma of Christianity take its place.  The main modern Christian tradition that deals directly with the deep experiences of spirituality is Pentecostalism, sometimes mocked as “holy rollers.”  (Catholic Cursillo is similarly intense.)  Because Pentecostal "inspired" people talk about Satan and seem to go into another world, they are both respected and feared -- magnetic.  I have been studying how to get at these concepts in a universal way.

Another source of spirit needing greater recognition is music and dance.  Physical life in general has not been drawn into a context of spirituality.  At lunch I sat next to a young man who had just arrived in Browning to start work on a degree in physical conditioning.  He was Navajo, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet and a Wyoming state champion runner.  I pestered him with lots of questions and he showed me on his smart phone a short video of his best friend shooting hoops in an echoing gym.  The friend was only 5’8”, the young man explained, but so vigorous and smart that he was an excellent competitor.  

Mike LaFromboise is a prominent Indian singer, so he can testify that it is literally "spiritual" since it takes so much breath!

Most of the time I was the only white person in the room other than staff.  But I forget that I’m white -- maybe they don’t.  These are upwardly mobile tribal people, those who managed to get their feet under them and walk towards achievement.  The part that impresses me is that this is the first time that I’ve seen willingness in them to turn back and help those who are still tipped over in the dust.  In the past it was so hard to go forward and it depended so much on the belief that the successful were exceptional, that they were anxious to separate from all those abusive, degraded, diseased, dirty old sprawled and staggering people that throw stigma on everyone else.  Now that they sit in a beautiful building (the new math and science building) with confidence in their right to make their own decisions, they can be more generous.  I am glad for this because in the Sixties, Bob was the city magistrate and hired many of those dirty old sprawled and staggering people for occasional labor because he had known them for decades, dealt with them in court, and understood that when they were sober, they were skilled.  I worked alongside them for the same pay (dollar an hour) and knew them as People, even friends.  

Two who were both sober and skilled were Jack Heavyrunner and his son, Tom Heavyrunner. Tom was Tiny Man’s father.  Tiny Man was one of my high school students and later so was his son Josh.  I kept in touch with Josh while he served his first long sentence in prison.  There was a strong spiritual craving in both Tiny Man and Josh and it has been dangerous.  People, not all of them Indian, have paid a high price. I have not forgotten Marie and I won't.

Once embarked on the journey of “redemption” (a Christian term for social work) as the Blackfeet are beginning now, the confusion and conflict come tumbling out and send us all sprawling in the dust.  Outsiders do not understand the driving anguish that needs the sort of first-line response this symposium was about and those still gripped by demons (a pre-Christian idea) can be terrified to finally break the wall of silence.  There will be tears.  I hope not blood.  But if these women, wearing their straight-up warbonnets, will walk ahead of the procession, many will follow into a far brighter future.



Instead of writing a post tonight, I'm going to post the program so you'll have it as a resource in case you do this sort of work or are just interested in it.  My understanding is that this is a kind of kick-off for a degree-granting program that will train first-line emergency responders for mental health crises.  As they say around here, "I can't take it anymore.  Help me."   The idea is to train people how to respond and how to pass those who need more than "bandaids" on to the next level.  Of course, now the problem becomes training enough of that second level to go around.  At present the supply is almost nonexistent when one factors in the cultural dynamics.  I'll post more tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


When a Blackfeet has ideas about writing a book, which they have no doubt will be published and earn lots of money, they almost invariably say they’re going to write the true version of the Napi stories, which they learned from their grandparent (usually about my age by now).  Though the stories were originally oral, there must be a dozen versions of printed Blackfeet Napi stories out there floating around, not counting other tribes. Why add to the pile?   When I ask these would-be authorities, they just look confused.  In their minds it is clear that a book about Blackfeet should have Napi stories in it, that there are definitive versions that are more valuable than the others, and that everyone in the greater world will fall on them with great delight and tons of money.  (They have not gotten the news about the collapse of the publishing industry, but that’s beside the point.)

If you speak to a white person over sixty about a book about Blackfeet, their minds will turn to James Willard Schultz -- dramatic horseback adventures of hunting and war.  If the white person is a little younger, the book will be about post-colonial misery and injustice: alcoholism, lousy housing, drugs, broken families.   If the white person is female, it will be about a cross-race romance.  Everyone thinks of their little sub-category as representing the whole.  They never question this, never investigate, and even if they come to the rez, they will see it on those terms.

Star Boy

Let’s go back to Napi stories.  The anthropologists like Wissler, Ewers or Kehoe had a great interest in them and scientists recorded them as accurately as they could in the early days of contact, hoping to understand the culture better.  Anyway, in those days it was salvage anthropology: save what they could.  At the same time the missionaries were looking for equivalents to the Christian stories so they could say, “You see?  These are universal elements.”  So Starboy or Blood Clot Boy became versions of Jesus.  And there WERE correlations, but they became an argument something like genetic purity: kill all the buffalo that have domestic cow genes.  (An old Aryan idea: variation as pollution.)  

The general public saw Napi stories as more like Aesop fables or the Greek myths.  Entertaining.  Suitable for children.  (Which they were, since they were meant to socialize the tribal children with tribal values like generosity, courage, and willingness to experiment.)  But trivial, non-threatening.  So James Willard Schultz, Frank Bird Linderman, George Bird Grinnell, the Demings, Walter McClintock did pretty well selling the stories.  None were Blackfeet.  None got rich.

In the Sixties local people began to pick up the idea of Napi, Natoosi (Sun), and others.  For instance, Napi's Lookout; The Story of Willow Rounds by Dorothy M. Hamaker (1964)  (A white rancher’s wife.)  And not long after that the Blackfeet themselves were chiming in.  Percy Bullchild’s “The Sun Came Down,” was commercially successful.  

Napi and the Bullberries (The Indian Reading Series Stories and Legends of the Northwest, Level II Book 17) was by Joan Kennerly, Carmen Marceau, Doris Old Person and June Tatsey (1978)  (Four Blackfeet sisters, “the Bullshoe girls,” who were all involved with education.)   Darnell Doore  (Rides at the Door) (1979)  Blackfeet Heritage Program, Browning Public Schools, put another turn on the wheel.  There are others, I’m sure.


Brer Rabbit

Napi is a trickster figure and a universal in stories around the planet.  Here he’s Brer Rabbit and there he’s Loki.  He’s the guy that thinks he’s so smart, but gets carried away.  On the other hand, because he’ll try anything, he’s creative and makes contributions. 

A few years after I left the reservation for a while, I earned a degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School with a focus on anthropology.  There I learned about revising sacred stories or writing parallel new ones in order to make a point. 


In part I learned this in a dark way from a student who combined the Baker Massacre with Dracula, a figure from European vampire lore, very much like the cannibal figure of the Windigo, the woodland tribes’ starvation horror figure.  (There’s a modern movie version spelled “Wendigo.”)  On the other hand I tried playing “what if” with traditional teaching stories of the Gospels.  Sometimes this was pretty enlightening.  What if Jesus had turned all the wine at the wedding party into water instead of the other way around?

What Napi story might I invent for the situation of today’s Blackfeet?  I’ll give it a try.

Napi’s neighbor, Striped Skunk, was experimenting with the white man’s way of building a house.  First he wove one of grass, but the wind soon got rid of that.  So the next one was made of logs, which stayed and looked good.  

Napi was jealous, but he didn’t get upset until he looked over one day and saw that Striped Skunk even had lights on in his cabin.  How did he manage that?   

When he went over and demanded to know the secret, Striped Skunk showed him that he had captured a Farting Horse, which emitted a gas from under his tail that could be set on fire, making a pretty good light.  It was warm, too, which is a big advantage in a prairie winter.  So Napi went over one night and stole the Farting Horse.  

Indeed, the gas burned bright and warm, but Napi kept Farting Horse picketed next to his lodge so it wouldn’t run away.  Pretty soon the horse had eaten everything nearby and stopped farting.  This made Napi very indignant and he decided to find out where in the horse the farts were coming from, so he cut the horse open.  It didn’t work.  No clue.  

Napi was pretty sure the horse was getting something from the ground -- it was always going along in the grass with its nose down.  So he went to look for whatever it was.  All he found was horse dung, which would burn, but nothing like farts.  However, he did find a lot of shiny black rock, something like obsidian.  Thinking about Striped Skunk’s log cabin, he decided he would make a house of this black rock, which would be very beautiful and strong.  So he did.  In it he burned buffalo chips and horse dung, because there was never enough wood on the high hilltops where he liked to live because of the view which made him feel important.

Then came spring and the thunderstorms.  Lightning struck everywhere.  Striped Skunk was always careful to open his Pipe Bundle at that time and to give away what he could to his family and friends.  One day in spite of this his cabin was struck by lightning and would have burned but all his friends and neighbors came quickly and put the fire out.

Napi’s lookout house up there so high was also struck by lightning, but he had thought,  “Ha!  Nothing will happen to me!  I don’t need to do any ceremonies because this house is made of stone.”  Alas, it turned out that the black shiny stone was coal and it burned very well.  The tribe tried to get up there to help, but it took a long time to climb such steep slopes and the house burned completely.  Napi spent the rainy season huddled in front of his smoking, smelly fire of dung.  He couldn't even afford a canvas lodge.

I tried to get oil into this story but failed.  Maybe you can do it.  This is a creative story -- anyone can add to it or change it.  Just like life, especially tribal life.  I don’t recommend this music, but it IS very windigo.  Maybe it is sound from a windigo who thought he could eat oil. Or was that drinking frakking liquid?