Thursday, October 31, 2013


One of my more popular “travel” sermons that I used for pulpit supply (when a person is asked to speak on a Sunday because the usual minister is away) was called “Everybody Poops.”  I don’t know when we all started using the word “poop” instead of the more vulgar “shit” or the more Latinate “defecate,” but even the scientists now talk about “poop.”  I suppose it has something to do with onomatopoiea.  Little kids loved it. 

Anyway, the point of the sermon was to discard the processed and unnecessary on grounds that a) it can get toxic to hoard, b) you will have no space for new stuff, and c) it’s withholding from participation in the processing world, a sign of lack of trust.  Part of the reason I was thinking about it at all was that during my hospital chaplaincy, when I expected to be having serious discussions about God and the afterlife, all the patients (esp. the older ones) could think about was moving their bowels.  Could they?  Would they?

Also, in that setting I learned what happens if a person does NOT ever move their bowels.  All that stuff gets stuck in the intestines.  Maybe past help from an enema.  Hospitals have sets of “spoons” in various sizes designed to pull out stuck feces.  The most extreme case might require surgery to remove what amounts to internal coprolites, the fossilized feces that prove that even dinosaurs pooped.  Or sometimes, when intestines are blocked, a flexible tube is snaked down the nose to the stomach in a reverse of forced feeding, so as to suck out the backed up substances.  Of course, that only works if they’re still liquid.  In fact, one of the secrets to keeping peristalsis moving along is to drink plenty of water.  The nutrition in food is liquified and oozes through the wall of the guts into the circulation system, both lymph and blood.  If THAT process gets stuck or reversed, the result is diarrhea.

The alimentary system, from mouth to anus, is essentially a long permeable tube that lets us take the world into us and, if things are going well, return what we don’t need for the use of other creatures, animal or vegetable -- usually the latter.  If the world cannot be ingested, we will die.  If the world cannot be excreted (feces is only one way -- breath, sweating, metabolism are others), we will die.  We are a pass-through, not a destination.  

But here comes the swerve.  Some time ago a dermatologist looked at my pink cheeks and told me I had rosecea.  When I googled at that time, the posts said no one knew the cause, but a year ago in August an article by Ed Yong blew the whistle.

New Scientist published a story stating that rosacea – a common skin disease characterized by red blotches on one’s face – may be “caused” (more on this later) by “tiny bugs closely related to spiders living in the pores of your face.” Tiny bugs that “crawl about your face in the dark”, lay eggs in your pores, and release a burst of faeces when they die.
Mites are relatives of ticks, spiders, scorpions and other arachnids. Over 48,000 species have been described. Around 65 of them belong to the genus Demodex, and two of those live on your face. There’s D.folliculorum, the round-bottomed, bigger one and there’s D.brevis, the pointy-bottomed, smaller one. These two species are evolution’s special gift to you. They live on humans and humans alone. 

They don’t poo! The mite has no anus, and stores its waste in large cells within its gut. Nutting saw these as adaptations for a life spent head-down in a tightly closed space. When the mite dies, its body disintegrates and the waste is released. 
People with rosacea should look away now
For the most part, it seems that they eat, crawl and mate on your face without harmful effects. They could help us by eating bacteria or other microbes in the follicles, although there’s little evidence for this. Their eggs, clawed legs, spiny mouthparts, and salivary enzymes could all provoke an immune response, but this generally doesn’t seem to happen.
But like many of our body’s microscopic residents, Demodex appears to be an opportunist, whose populations bloom to detrimental numbers when our defenses are down. Several studies, for example, have found that they’re more common in people with HIV, children with leukemia, or patients on immunosuppressive drugs. Perhaps changes to the environment of the skin also allow the mites to proliferate beyond their usual levels.
In dogs, an overabundance of D.canis can trigger a potentially lethal condition called demodectic mange. In humans, these blooms have been linked to skin diseases like acne, rosacea and blepharitis (eyelid inflammation). The New Scientist piece will undoubtedly bring this to many people’s attention, but scientists have been talking about such connections for decades. The rosacea link was first put forward in 1925!
Dermatologists have since repeatedly found that Demodex is more common in the cheeks of people with rosacea.  According to an analysis of 48 separate studies, , people with rosacea are eight times more likely to have a Demodex infestation. Obviously, correlation not causation, blah blah blah, you know the drill.
Kevin Kavanagh suggests that rosacea may be caused not by the mites themselves, but by the bacteria in their faeces. After all, antibiotics that kill the bacteria, but are harmless to the mites, can sometimes successfully treat rosacea. 
The subject of feces is repulsive to many.  The subject of little mites that live on your face and never poop until they die in an explosion of icky excrement is a proper one for Halloween.  I guess the mask would feature a red face with crawly things on it.  I don’t expect anyone dressed as a turd to knock on my door, but you never know.  This is a small conservative town with its roots in a Belgian farming community only a hundred years ago and they are preoccupied with cleanliness, neatness, and control.  They have not forgotten the lesson of the plague that killed a third of the population of Europe.   Strips of stubble are their neatly regimented version of what is discarded to be decomposed.  We wrestle with the problem of our sewage lagoon.  (The muskrats solved one problem by chewing through the electrical wire of the pump and electrocuting themselves.)  All day Corky and I have been reworking my kitchen sink drain and my waste stack valve.  You can't just ignore this stuff.
Halloween is a retention ceremony: the retention of memory of the dead, the retention of skeletons, the retention of the last of the growing season.  Only the root vegetables survive underground now.  The original jack o’lantern was a turnip rather than a pumpkin.  But a pumpkin can survive for a while after frost unless it is carved, which opens the way to rot.

If I use poop as a metaphor for memories that ought to be discarded, it won’t be very useful because we mostly value memory -- at least our own.  The memories of others might not be very welcome, particularly the mass graves of people we have excluded, excreted, considered diseased and unwelcome.  (A few nights ago I watched “A Secret,” a French film about a family denying its Jewishness.   The film includes brutal and obscene footage of the naked skeletal bodies found dead at the newly liberated concentration camps, pushed into mass graves by bulldozers in a danse macabre of arms and legs flung tumbling.)  Too horrible to bear.  But we must.  The plot hinges on a silly little pup toy in a sweater.

What frightens us becomes trivialized, little clawed bits hidden in our flinching flaking skin.  Masks.  Playfully screaming children.  Fires contained in vegetables.  Saying poop instead of shit.  The temperate-zone world of the northern hemisphere is now entering a time of starvation and death for many people.  But first a night of mockery and abandon.  Laugh now.  Weep later.  If you are lucky enough to have an anus, take care of it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head

For anthropological thinkers the meta-concepts of group cohesion due to primal assumptions about life, esp. those prompted by the requirements of survival in a specific place, are always in tension with the divisions that sometimes help define and sometimes cut across those assumptions.  The Blackfoot Confederacy, an organic and dynamic body with very deep roots in the high prairie, is sliced across by the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the US.  A once-unified population has been separated politically for almost two centuries.

Canadian (and British) versus American policies have been quite different in terms of lands set aside for indigenous people when their culture was still distinctively evolved.  In the States either extinction or assimilation was the point while Canada was more inclined to seek protection that might have been paternal, but also was more respectful.  The Canadian Blackfoot people have held onto their language and ceremonies longer and therefore have been a reservoir for modern American Blackfeet and also for anthropologists, particularly the kind who join the circle of believers as well as reflecting about it.  

Ryan Heavy Head is this sort of anthro, an affiliated and functioning member of the community who still keeps a foothold in academia through the University of Lethbridge and Red Crow Community College.  I spent yesterday reading his Master’s thesis, “Feeding Sublimity: Embodiment in Blackfoot Experience.”  It’s a free download.,%20ryan.pdf?sequence=1  I knew to look for it because of a presentation he and Narcisse Blood made at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana.  Before I can cross into Canada (I am an American citizen) or to be more accurate, before I can return to the US after crossing into Canada, I must renew my passport, so I was grateful to BCC for bringing them to this side.  

Specifically, Narcisse and Ryan were talking about Abraham Maslow’s pyramid schema for understanding human priorities for survival, beginning at the bottom with the most basic needs: air, shelter, food, water, and then building layers up through safety, affiliation, and so on to the pinnacle which he generally called “self-actualization” or “peak experience.”  The idea is that Maslow got this notion while visiting the Blackfoot reserves near Calgary just before WWII.  This converts the pyramid into a tipi which works out rather well.

Ryan’s formal thesis is not directly about that.  He uses George P. Lakoff’s idea that “lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena.”  If you believe life is a battle, a journey, a search or something else, that will govern your decisions and desires.  Lakoff’s discipline label is “cognitive linguist” which puts him in loose association with those French philosophers who have dominated so much thought.  He’s important enough to have his own website:   The splash screen alone, which is the fronts of his books, is worth contemplating.  The book Ryan uses -- and that I’ve also used gratefully since seminary -- is “Metaphors We Live By.”   Johnson, Lakoff’s co-author, “maintains that image schema are regularly recurring embodied patterns of experience that are acquired during the course of early child development. Such schemata are image-like in that they are analogic neural activation patterns which preserve the topological contours of perceptual experience as a cohesive whole.”  This is highly relevant to the thinking about brain neurology that I’ve been doing.  They are Damasio’s deep patterns.

Ryan’s thesis begins with an explanation of “aistomatoo’p” (accustomed body), the self-embodiment of Blackfoot people indigenous to the high prairie east of the Rockies and derived from a plenitude of buffalo.  His double use of language throughout (supplying the Blackfoot words with his own translations) comes from speaking both as someone inside the believing and ceremonially participating circle and from outside that circle in a “meta” or analytical way.  He uses the ceremonies themselves to explain his concepts and is personal about it, doing a kind of “body check” to make it clear where he “is” as he speaks.

First, he explains the key image:  amopistaanistsi (bound-together-by-wrapping-around) which is commonly called a “medicine bundle.”  This is the kind of image that I use when I speak of “the bone chalice,” hoping to combine the idea of the skull containing a brain and the Unitarian device of a communion chalice with a flame in it.  He also uses a three-step progression of thought that I use:  personal understanding, community understanding, and what he calls “the sublime,” a literary concept that approaches “holiness” or “sacredness” but manages to dodge the Christian institutional dogmas.

The first ceremony considered is the “sweatlodge,” which has suffered from popularization among the New Age crowd to the extent of killing people who try to copy it without knowing what they are doing.  In it’s “pure” historical form it is meant to be an ordeal of cleansing specifically for men, supported by women.  Feminism has disrupted this.  Ryan begins by using the translation:  “steam-making” and investigating it in terms of being “enwrapped” by the affinity group (the women) and their protective nourishment of those in the lodge.  Being sheltered is described as being “taken into a mouth” and there are many poetic stories about such a thing that then transfers to a house or home.  Many animals on the prairie take shelter in a cave or burrow with a mouth-like entrance.

If a person has spent much time on the open prairie exposed to sun and wind -- dazzled, scorched, abraded, and even deafened -- then the shelter provided by a lodgeskin over the ribs of poles or even the protection of a robe or blanket wrapped around the head and shoulders becomes a kind of embrace.  So the next pattern of nurturing is specific to Ryan’s wife within the shelter of marriage and family, but suffering from arthritis so in need of healing.  How this comes about exposes them to self-search and change.  The idea of spiritual ceremony as dynamic and changing is quite different from the Roman Catholic emphasis on inerrancy and permanence pushed by missionaries.  Survival among nomads on the prairie is a matter of constantly adapting and seeking.

Another example is in the life of Alan Pard, a noted ceremonialist who now protects Bundles including those that were once kept by Bob Scriver, except that when they were with Bob they were inactive except for his own, now missing.  Ryan came to this world by accompanying repatriated Bundles from prestigious American museums.  This was considered dangerous, attracting evil spirits (tell me about it!), but necessary in order to avert the greater danger of having one’s essential, ontological, epistomological life-support -- one’s identity -- destroyed by absorption into the great world-eating mass of commercial popularization that slurps up everything.  Pard’s challenge was heart problems due to the usual modern middle-aged male cardiopathy.  Beyond just changing his diet and quitting smoking, his case emphasizes the great value of “backing someone up.”  His friends joined him in kicking cigarettes, sitting with him to distract him with good company.  In the old days they might have joined him on a hunt or a raid -- backing him up as one does in a fight.

Ryan writes so clearly and uses these concepts so deftly that in spite of these concepts being subtle, the power of them comes through.  All the quarrels about what’s “real” and “authentic” fall away when these ideas take hold.  The issues become more personal than political.  Ryan’s bibliography is going to keep me busy all winter as I go into my “cave” to shelter from prairie blizzards that have already begun.  The nourishment is named.  Words can be a warming shelter.

Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Norma Ashby

It was the early Sixties when Norma Ashby,  Great Falls media star in a purple cowboy hat, showed up at the Scriver Studio in Browning.  In the next half-century I’ve been and gone and returned again, but she has stayed at her post, never flagging in her efforts to keep things moving and improving.  Stopping through the other day, she was as full of plans and ideas as ever, but we also had a little time to review the past in the ongoing attempt to understand what happened.  Some people would say that was pounding sand down a rat-hole, but for a writer, even that enterprise can be a subject.

So reflecting on jealousy, which I’ve been doing since her visit, might not seem an entirely masochistic thing to do.  She, like everyone else, is always interested in my relationship with Bob Scriver, that warm, woman-embracing, flirtatious, driven man, partly because of the age difference between Bob and I.  Also, at the time Bob was hailed as the New Charlie Russell.   But the personal -- even secret -- life of Bob and I was based on jealousy that had nothing to do with art -- just sex, what else?  I was 21, entirely innocent -- he was 47, quite experienced but not as sophisticated as he thought, mostly informed by his time in Alaska and Edmonton with a collection of randy musicians during WWII.  No regrets about this on either side.

Mary and Bob Scriver

The regret was on Bob’s side and not about me.  His second wife, Jeanette, had left on her departure a space that was briefly occupied by a little blonde ringer for Brigitte Bardot.  Badly abused since childhood, she got from Bob much-needed respite and protection. Nearly young enough to be jail bait, she was tough and desperate but had such a strong hold on him that he gave her money, bought her clothes, built a room for her in his studio, tolerated her other relationships, and finally married her off to another artist.  That didn’t work out.  Continuing her long story of abuse, she had to be rescued from that guy.  But she wouldn’t stay in Browning and she wouldn’t marry Bob.  She just dive-bombed us with an emergency now and then.  When I was working on the bio of Bob, his second wife send me reams of email, but I couldn’t find the Bardot-clone.

Tenacity is my strong suit.  I lasted five years without marriage, four years with marriage and then a few years in an ambiguous state before leaving.  (Norma asked.)  During this time period, mostly in Bob’s fifties, he worked ferociously hard and I tried to keep up.  By the time he was really beginning to be famous (and exhausted), his second wife’s sister showed up -- so fond, so French, so elegant, so eager to renew old relationships.  She trilled,  “Oh, Marié, you’re so WHOLESOME !  Like a peasant!”   I reverted to being a sullen twelve-year-old.  Finally, I gave it up and left.  But she wouldn’t live in Browning or marry Bob either.  The alcoholic wife of a neighbor moved in and is counted as the fourth wife.

Bob working on the Fort Benton monument

Her jealousy of my shadow and her desperation as an alcoholic to be secure, have messed up a lot of what should have happened to Bob’s estate.  (Norma asked.)  She was easy to confuse and turned out to value the money much more than the reputation of the New Charlie Russell.  She only lived a few years after Bob died.

So now we come to the last exhibit: a curator with a wife who saw me as a threat, assuming that my life is motivated by sex and that her husband was irresistible.  That derailed another line of development of the reputation of Bob Scriver.  It’s a madness.



So I’ve fought jealousy from both sides now, less so as time goes on and I have less attachment to the past, less interest in old wars, and less respect for fancy profit-making schemes.  If people can’t see the value in Bob Scriver’s work -- and I grant that it’s been obscured by a lot of pirating and exploitation -- then that’s too bad.  Now I begin to see how much any creative person is at the mercy of relationships both personal and cultural.  How much is the Old Charlie Russell a product of mythologizing and promoting?  And why do I have to be defined by fifty-year-old events that weren’t about me anyway?

Bob Scriver made a bust of that original little blonde, a little icon of an innocent and pliable child/woman (which she was not), and gave her a hydrocal casting of it as his great tribute and honor.  Only a few years ago I got a query about it: she had given it to a boss of hers on the West Coast before leaving and the boss had died.  The widow suspected there had been an affair and wanted to know what I knew.  And could the bust be sold for a lot of money?  When I researched the bio of Bob, I was surprised to realize that the girl was only three years younger than me.

So I played the “if” game for a while.  “If” I had stayed with Bob, would he have become more famous?  Would he have avoided some of what I see as major pitfalls from where I am now?  I don’t think so.   Would I have been a better writer sooner?  Not.  Jealousy served the purpose of keeping me attached a lot longer than I ought to have been, but it wasn’t dwindling until I left.  It was a madness.  An obstacle.  He kept trying to tell me that one human relationship has nothing to do with any other but I didn’t believe him.  Maybe I do now.

When Bob had a stroke in 1987, I came back briefly because the fourth wife was blotto and holed up, not dealing with it.  They both needed help.  If he had asked me, I’d have stayed, but he didn’t.  I did move back to the rez and teach for a few more years. Things got a little better for him for a while, seemed stable and then after I left, got worse.  Too late.  This was more rathole than I had sand for.  I got back in 1999 when I bought this house, just months after he died. What I really bought was time.  People think I’m poor, but that’s because they are time-poor in order to have money.  I’ve turned the bargain the other way.  

The Aesop story of the dog-in-the-manger who won’t let the cow eat hay because the dog thinks it belongs to him, is matched by the story of the dog crossing a bridge with a bone in its mouth who sees in the water his reflection and thinks it’s another dog with a better bone.  When he grabs for it, he not only loses his own bone but also falls in and nearly drowns.  Madness.

Bones come and bones go. But time?  Time is beyond price.  Norma wanted to know when I’d write my autobiography.  I’m not sure there’s time.  Anyway, she left me a copy of her own autobiography, nicely dedicated.  Movie Stars and Rattlesnakes: The Heyday of Montana Live Television” by Norma Beatty Ashby.  Bob’s in it.  I’m not.  That’s okay.  Norma and I remember and we know that not everything can be put into a book.

Monday, October 28, 2013


I’ve already said that sometimes and in some ways I was a good teacher and in other ways I was not.  Since all but a few months of my sporadic career were on the Blackfeet reservation, the essential nature of that place and the people shaped by it is the main criterion of what was good and what was bad.  But we didn’t agree.  Since I was an English teacher, and since everyone presumes that means reading and writing far more than speaking and listening, my biggest failure was not knowing how to teach people to read, which is the most crucial skill for assimilation education, but almost irrelevant to being Blackfeet.

Blackfeet is an oral language with inflections and pronunciations adding meaning to the plain sounds.  A key problem is that most school materials are written and on paper (as compared to onscreen) and they are English.  The English alphabet does not even have letter symbols for some Blackfeet sounds, so how could it represent true Blackfeet?   If one could read Blackfeet, there’s so little published, what would you read?  Radio and video are the media for an oral language -- video even more, since gestures are woven into sounds.  But it’s really meant for people talking to people.

My preparation for teaching was mostly in theatre and speech with the emphasis on understanding individuals and their culture and on group discussion skills rather than one-against-one debate. What the community wanted then -- and still wants today -- is formal presentation skill: good pronunciation, compliant usage, the rhetoric of business success, computer skill in the Microsoft spreadsheet way -- not Apple graphics.  (I’m aware this exists powerfully because of seeing so many online wild-child kids whose spoken language is likely to be Spanish or French -- a moot point since they talk in street slang and song lyrics.  Not about money so much as love.  They speak YouTube.)  Sometimes modern Blackfeet kids, the high achievers in classrooms, strike me as sort of Japanese.  Other times, they style black urban ghetto.

The theoretical and practical knowledge of how the brain learns to read is just now coming to usefulness.  It appears that there are a number of different ways brains perceive these little strips of markings, left-to-right eye scans that translate into meaning.  Partly it depends on sound associations.  This means that pronunciations and the way they are “seen” by the brain might be different from one person to another.  One of my brothers couldn’t learn to read until a teacher drilled him in phonics.  I sight read, mostly taught myself.  Sometimes I pronounce words funny because I’ve never heard them spoken.  Some people are dyslexic, meaning that it is extraordinarily difficult for them to learn to read, though they are fluent and powerful in oral thought.

Beyond the symbolization of spoken language is what a person thinks reading “is.”  What forms in the head while reading might be like a movie, might be diagrams of how concepts fit together, or might only be a dark blur of shadows.  Some of us “inhabit” what we read.  For others, it remains a wall with graffiti.  But Writing-on-Stone is part of the original indigenous culture and the impulse of kids is to draw is underneath any writing.

Propriety rather than intelligibility is the focus of much "English" teaching, so I was always urged to “drill, drill, drill” the students.  I see the point of this.  Once I was with a bunch of white kids when a Blackfeet leader in his nice suit came to visit.  He was a politician and he had been a student of mine.  His “grammar” was very bad.  The kids’ faces were full of contempt.  I’m sure he thought it was racism.  It was, in a way, since he had failed to assimilate “proper” English, but the kids would have been equally scornful of a white person with bad grammar.  It’s a social marker.

A small part of my preparation for teaching was speech therapy.  I didn’t do it, but I read the theories and observed them in action.  When the problem is the forming of sounds, a trained person sits across from the client and looks into their face to see what they are doing when they talk.  There are games and encouragement while the client learns to do something like make his or her tongue fit just along the ridge behind his or her upper teeth tightly enough to allow only a straw’s worth of air to hiss through.  That makes “sssss” -- too much air and you’ve got “shshshsh” which people describe as a “slushy s" and which makes the speaker harder to understand.  One of the spelling handicaps on the rez is using “non-standard” sounds, so that “saddle” becomes “sattle.”  Kids have fought me over this, insisting on “sattle.”  It’s as though I were challenging their identity.  THEY knew sattles, not me.

Many Blackfeet sounds are made in the back of the throat and some English call it “guttural” which has pejorative connotations: animal-like grunting, a German accent which was a nasty accusation after WWII. “Gutter.”   But English was originally that way and some of the minorities of Britain retain the blurring, back-of-the-throat sounds as well as glottal stops.  It’s a much softer sound.  The melody of pronunciation, the rhythm and emphasis, is also a little bit different.  Having an accent is sometimes considered charming and other times considered “low class.”  The Anglo-Saxon battle against the French includes language in every aspect.  Using four-letter Anglo-Saxon words is still stigmatized.

All this is about the mechanics of speaking and reading, which are so interwoven with culture and nurture.  We all know that the best way to learn reading is sitting next to someone who reads to you, close enough that you can follow the words with your eyes and ears at once and build the associations.  But there is another European dimension that doesn’t quite translate and that is the great romantic notion of what it means to be a writer.  When the “roman” -- the novel -- was invented in Europe, it was associated with exciting adventures that were often a little bit naughty and sometimes full of the individual’s defiance of their society in the name of righteousness and the protection of the innocent.  To Blackfeet we're talking Napi and Scarface here.  Not humans.

The creation of narrative and poetry has been a mixed experience for Native Americans.  On the one hand it often takes up their issues and experience, but on the other hand it seems always to be from a white point of view.  Even if the writing is written by Indians, it won’t be praised unless it fits white assumptions.  Anyway some of the meaning will always elude readers who have never experienced a sweat, a midnight pow-wow drum, hot frybread with Karo syrup on a cold morning.  But there’s a great “romantic” need to know on the part of many whites (and blacks even more so) that makes it intoxicating.  Toxic just enough to make them yearn and crave something they think they can find there.  They’ll fight over the “truth” of it, but without ever looking at the truth of the reality of rez life, which is not what it used to be no matter how romantic buffalo hunting might be.  This blunts the moral demand to support today’s people, who then lash out politically.

Galen Upham once wrote a story about a man who wanted to be a chief and believed that the way to get there was to capture an English teacher and keep her in a cave until she had taught him to read.  Galen has been gone a long time now and I stopped telling people about the story because it’s both romantic and scary -- the Indian captures what the white man has, reversing the pattern.  But it wouldn’t have worked in reality, because it’s no use knowing “how” to read if you don’t read all the time.  It’s a skill (like running), not a body of knowledge.  There would have had to be a library in that cave.  The problem with reading Blackfeet is that there are so few books written in Blackfeet.  It’s STILL an oral language.  But writing can be an mp3.  It doesn’t have to be on paper.  You can listen on your iPod while you run.


Sunday, October 27, 2013


Shepard and Dark” is a book and movie project (an increasingly popular pairing since one sells the other) that explores the relationship between two men, Sam Shepard (actor and playwright) and Johnny Dark (hermit and deli clerk) through the letters they sent each other over many decades.  If I were inventing this story, I would switch their names: Sam is dark; Johnny is a shepherd. 

They met in Greenwich Village about the time I came to Browning, which is to say the Sixties, just at the beginning of the Big Paradigm Shift into the Aquarian Age.  They formed a hippie family with a mother and two daughters, easy-going and accepting, which shocks our present rigid cultural standards.  For one thing, sex was not the major premise, though Dark married a woman named Scarlett (who was not a scarlet woman) and Shepard married one of the two daughters and produced a son.  (The not-married daughter is not represented or discussed.  The son appears only in photos of early years.  It’s not at all clear that Shepard divorced this wife.  Who needs documents, except for these letters?) 

Shepard and Lange

But then times changed (this time a Paradigm Slide into capitalism) and Sam’s participation in the glamour culture of fame and fortune led him into obsession with “this blonde.”  (Since she was Jessica Lange, we tend to understand.) The money was big and he didn’t hoard it, sending much back to the original family and ending up with less security than Dark, who lives happily with his two dogs now that Scarlett has died of the brain hemorrhage that crippled her through much of her life.  (Shepard had participated tenderly to help with her rehabilitation, though no real recovery was possible.)  The idea that Dark lives in the middle of “nowhere” is a cultural stereotype that shows just how arrogant cities can be.  Shepard (who had moved the family into ever nicer homes as his income grew) agonized over leaving when he did.  It’s not that he’s unfeeling or even angry -- he just finds himself unmanageable.  Dark is willing to accept that.  His idea is that Sam should “go find out what it’s about.”  But he stays where he is-- not idle, simply self-sufficient.

Clearly the relationship at a deep level is mostly about the fathers of the two men:  overwhelming, high-achieving tough guys who may be heroes or villains, depending on how you look at it.  The fathers are exactly the kind of man that Shepard often plays so convincingly.  But now, in this documentary, he says he feels as though he were eighty, and that’s the way he looks as well.  His agent must have been in panic mode.  Even he is in panic mode: “My life is falling apart,” he says, though he has negotiated a sweet deal and they are staying in a fancy residence.  Dark takes no responsibility.  He just goes back home.  He's not mad -- just uncomfortable.   He loves to soak part of the day away, but the fancy bathtub is clearly designed for showers.  He’s a “Stays Put.”  Without Dark, Shepard resumes his mad torrent through life, setting up one event and project after another, always on the move.  He sends all project materials to Dark.  Letters in clear sleeves in binders, photos in albums.

Johnny Dark and Treva Wurmfeld

There’s a good interview with Treva Wurmfeld , the director, on  She is a feminist who sees that these two boys' fear they might become their fathers has prevented them from really growing up.  (Whatever that is.)  Shepard says, “I watched myself carefully for anything that was like my father and worked to get rid of it.”  I’m not sure Treva understands how much she has fit into the early Scarlett niche, a sort of mom, an accommodator and enabler, which is not a bad thing.  (I don’t give a damn what the present culture says.)  I think she is the kind of feminist who can accept all the roles women play, which is a lot easier than accepting all the roles men play.  These crowbar fathers were the products of WWII and the American West (where the grandfathers may have been Civil War veterans), a “type,” which is probably why Shepard’s plays speak to so many people.  It’s culture-wide PTSD.

In fact, I've had a friendship with a man like Shepard.  It was a modern email correspondence and we never met in person.  If we had had to live together for a few days, the friendship might end.  Other friendships of mine with people living the Hollywood life have been destroyed that way.  Since the Sixties I’ve been as “stays put” as I can and always preferred living in a place some call “nowhere.”  Even now, a woman in what passes for glamour culture in Montana came through and invited me for coffee.  Clearly she was frustrated with my Johnny Dark attitude.  It’s a cultural heresy.  Being heretics is not a bad foundation for a friendship in some ways.  But I like my supper at five o’clock, the way Johnny Dark does.

Lange says this about the character she plays in “American Horror Story”:  “The spine of the character is that thing of a wasted lifeThe idea that this woman has gone through life basically like a bulldozer, in the most selfish, self-centric fashion. Things just falling by the wayside. Now, she’s at a moment in her life where she’s confronted by all these things — her mortality; the fact that maybe she’s alone and what did she discard on the way, like her daughter, that could bring something meaningful, but it’s too late.”   Gender-switching is a conventional novelist’s strategy for disguising real life.  We’re learning to be a little suspicious.  Her father was evidently very much like the fathers of Shepard and Dark.  Sam is not the only one who falls into repetition -- it’s so seductive to think that this time you’ll figure it out.  Dark (and I) are sitting it out.  Less “in the dark” than Sam.  

But just being aware of the problem and seeing how it works is not always enough.  It’s like naming a disease in Latin -- same disease it was in English, so what is gained?  Time runs out.  Anyway, there are new characters with new agendas.  Sam had a son with O-Lan who was raised by Dark -- which means he will not have his father’s pattern in him (maybe) -- and two children (a son and a daughter) with Lange who were probably raised mostly by Lange.  But with Shepard for a father, an even more glamorous version of his own father, how will they work their way through life?   

The American Indians, at least in “pan-Indian” terms, are said to consider what will affect the next seven generations -- quite unlike American commerce lurching along from one holiday and crisis to another.  Has it been seven generations from Sam’s father down to Sam’s grandchildren?  Only four, I think.  In that sense, there’s still time.  One of the things Sam has done “right” (I’m guessing --  how would I know?) is that he hasn’t fought over money.  That means he’s turned out broke now and then but with relationships un-cracked by court battles.  He and Lange never formally married and neither has invoked common law marriage, which means they’ve ducked issues of who owns and owes what.  The kids with Lange are in their twenties.  Johnny Dark evidently had no children.  His two daughters had a different biological father.  I don’t expect he lets that get in the way.

What my Sam-like friend taught me about being the son of this kind of father is that such fathers are hated, but also they are loved intensely.  In an unreasonable and unmanageable way, the intimacy of such a relationship cannot be matched.  In fact, after childhood it leaves a yearning loneliness at the heart of everything.  These two guys, with their raggedy handwritten letters on paper torn out of small notebooks, have at least kept in touch.  That’s enlightening.  They read and joke.  But it breaks Sam’s heart.  “I can’t talk about just now,” he says, turning away.


Next weekend we shift to Daylight Savings.

Today I turn 74 years old.  Therefore, I'm too old to stay up until midnight so I can post on the next day.  I don't get enough sleep, since the cats and I often get up at 3AM to eat and write for a while.  (They eat, I write while they pile into the warm place on the bed.  Sometimes I get so deep into the writing that I never get back to bed anyway.)  In theory I sleep until 9AM, but the rest of the town gets up a lot earlier.

Since so many readers are in different time zones around the planet anyway, I guess it doesn't matter.  But I'm always fascinated that a dozen people open the blog within a half-hour of me posting.   Maybe they're in Paris.

Next post at 10 PM  Mountain Standard Time.


This week I went back to Blackfeet Community College to hear Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head.  The topic was again Abraham Maslow’s visit to the Blood Reserve and how that appears to have triggered his “actualization” pyramid schema, probably as much prompted by tipi designs as anything else.  Blackfeet designs are very stylized, different heights for different depictions (hills and potholes at the bottom, four stripes near the top for the four directions, the spirit-animal on either side of the door, 7 stars on the smoke flap, the dream moth at the top of the back) that to the uninitiated may seem to be only stripes and dots.  These two Blackfoot teachers have given this talk many times and have a graceful way of trading off the speaking between them, guided by a series of old-time photos on a projection screen.  They’ve taken it to Oxford in England.

(You can find the presentation online:,-presented-narcisse-blood-and-ryan-heavy-head-university-mo   These speakers are conscientious about using the Internet to include everyone with a device that can access it.  Until recently, the infrastructure to access the materials was not necessarily present on the Blackfeet Rez.  Computers, yes; smart phones, maybe not.)

Always shadowing this sort of thing is the tension between the traditional academic approach (white European) and the traditional indigenous approach (red North American).  The problem in this setting is that for an institution like BCC to exist, providing useful credits for future academic work or for related employment, one doesn’t dare get too far off the trodden path.  Credentialing bodies are essentially conservative and often weighted against minority approaches.  But there is always ALWAYS a great need on the part of the people in the class (who are of all ages, but mostly women) to testify about the attacks, the grievances, the injustices, the weirdness of not being seen for who they are.  They are desperate (I’m not exaggerating) to hear explanatory principles, particularly coming from those like themselves.  

Actually, I was butting in, and though I was treated well, it was not for me and I should have bitten my tongue more.  Here was I, a person who has lived on the fringe for fifty years and built a pretty comprehensive library about Blackfeet, but both my genetics and politics are wrong.   Three of my former students were present, each of them vital, authoritative and great successes in their fields: Mary Margaret McKay Johnson, the newly retired Superintendent of School District #9 who miraculously was able to lead the district through building a new high school, a most risky and rewarding accomplishment; Debbie Magee Sherer, a world-class art beader and quillworker who wins major prizes and was accepted in England as equal to Narcisse and Ryan; and Gail Hoyt, a mainstay of the Methodist Church and a tackler of impossible projects in school humanities.  We were all young together. They’ve been far more successful in life than I have. 

They said nothing in class.  In spite of talk about how women “don’t get no credit,” when the organizer (female) asked for promising other authorities to address this class, none of the three was suggested.  Well, it happened to Jesus, whatever that means.  People don’t recognize their own resources, always looking for outside experts.  Though Narcisse and Ryan are not exactly outsiders. In fact, I failed to recognize Debbie until after the class, so I’m the most guilty of all.

Who are these Europeans?” Narcisse asked.  “What makes them so anxious to come to our land and take what we have?”  He might have also asked, “Why are the Americans less able to recognize and accept indigenous people than the Europeans in Europe?"   I suggested white Americans are tumbleweeds who have lost their roots, so blew across the continent until they came to something that stopped them -- like gold or oil or the Rockies.  Ryan had a better idea: reverse cargo cults.  Cargo cults formed on the South Pacific islands where the people witnessed war-time airplanes landing to unload huge piles of good stuff.   They invented ceremonies to make them come back.  But in this case, the planes landed when they saw something good to load INTO the airplanes and carry away.  

Both Red Crow Community College men talked about interviewing academics who work on Blackfoot issues and discovering that if they stuck with it long enough and questioned closely enough, the toughest guys would tear up and reveal their deep-hearted attachment ever since they, for instance, read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.”   Narcisse asked, “What is it that makes them feel like that?  What are they searching for? Why do they think we have it?”  It’s a question at the intersection of anthropology and psychology -- maybe even geography or theology.  What is the GPS of happiness?  Of "self-actualization"?  That’s  where we ought to locate Maslow and his buddies, all those Third Force guys like Erikson, Perls, Rogers, May, and a host of others. Discipline boundaries sometimes interfere.  

Today the borders of disciplines and departments are all in question anyway.  On the humanities listservs that I monitor (environment, animals, indigenous peoples, and a little bit of literature), there is always a thread running about dumping out the old categories and reorganizing the territory.  When neurology and psychoanalysis are in fervent dialogue, why separate them?  When humans are dominating the environment, isn’t it time to seriously add the Anthropecene Era?  We just reclassified Pluto as a non-planet.  God has been replaced by a Higgs boson.

But these students do not ask such questions.  Anyway, they have enough to handle trying to figure out the traditional categories -- not all of which make that much sense.  There’s a sense of an unfair bait-and-switch game going on that might keep them struggling with classes and debts for the rest of their lives.  When do we get to the gainful employment anyway?
Ryan Heavy Head

Oh, joy!  Ryan Heavy Head has a blog.   It’s about Kainai issues but also the land that supports them and the beings that inhabit it.   (Birds, bugs, snakes!) I took along a print-out of last week’s prairiemary essays prompted by the last workshop and handed them to Narcisse.  I think he couldn’t figure out what I wanted -- did I think he was a publisher?  Was I trying to seduce him?  (Fat chance!  I’ve heard him talk about his honey!)   Or just riding his coattails?  But I feel as though blogs are replacing textbooks if you know how to bring up the stuff you need and want.  It’s a time for scouting.  Blogs can be trails and track reports -- not just personal opinions, but maps of the information out there.  

The white tumbleweeds, by leaving their places of evolution, have lost their feeling for the survival of the larger group.  They have become so committed to themselves individually -- and possibly their own immediate families -- that they will happily sacrifice and crowd out all others.  This is why they are weeds, by their own standards, which industrial farmers and teakettle politicians want to eliminate with poisons and knives.  They fear wilderness, life going along on its own terms.   Instead of learning from it, they want to wall it out and end it.  Survival of the individual without the survival of the supporting and sheltering group is impossible.  But survival of the group at the expense of the destruction of individuals is evil and, in the end, self-destructive.  The question is:  are our family and education structures creating a kind of person who will destroy us all?  Sometimes I think so.  But Narcisse and Ryan give me hope.  Also Mary Margaret, Debbie, and Gail.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Once years ago I was taking a workshop around the Unitarian circuit that was about “place” and the importance of knowing the place where you lived.  A man pondered this and objected, “But there’s NOTHING under my house!  I live in a housing development and there is nothing there!”  This produced an image of his house floating in the air.  But -- just like every other place -- there was plenty of history and geology under his house -- he just didn’t have a consciousness raised enough to get past the bulldozers.

Indigenous and autochthonous and First Nations and aboriginal are all about the place where the people found a way to survive that melded them together into a tribe.  The values, the “ethical space,” of those conditions is what has made them what they are.

I don’t know how I failed to meet Candace Savage when I was in Saskatoon and visited Eastend.  A woman who kisses giraffes is fairly memorable!  It appears that I just missed her, coming after she left for a few years and leaving before she returned.  She is ten years younger than I am, which means nothing, really, except that time is always a part of place.  Stan Rowe, a soil scientist and also a Saskatoon person, talked about “slabs of space-time.”  Our slabs didn't coincide but they echo. 

Here’s a quote from Candace’s generously illustrated photo book, “Prairie: A Natural History.” It’s the epigraph to the preface in the second edition:  “There is no way to hold back the future.  But we can shape the course of events by engaging -- fully, deeply, and passionately -- with the present. . .  This approach is sometimes referred to as a strategy of “no regrets,” because the work is worth doing now, no matter what happens next.”  The accompanying photo shows a huge moon hanging over prairie where faraway cows graze in what is called “wolf light,” when the sky is dark purple and the land is shadowed.  It is liminal time, but especially on the prairie where there is nothing to block the horizon.

This book makes an excellent “bible” for those who are autochthonous to this place in the rainshadow of the Rockies and a little farther east.  It includes the point of view expressed by a scientist when we stood in a group near Eastend at a site where a dino skeleton had been found.  He said,  “You must understand that at that time here was not here.”  He meant that the continents had shifted radically so that this point on the planet had moved far away from where it had been at the time, and the skeleton came along for the ride.  So ancient a land is revealed by the constant erosion that exposes new bones from the past around Drumheller and the Tyrrell Museum which some people exclaim is a temple to evolution. “Features ten signature galleries devoted to paleontology, with 40 dinosaur skeletons with more than 110000 fossil specimens.”

One of the great grasslands of the world, though seemingly inexhaustible to the First Peoples, has suffered from constant resource exporting, the limits of water use, and inexorable climate change that have certainly altered and are exhausting the great resources left by the glaciers who ground across the land ten thousand years ago and then melted, leaving a huge underground aquifer.  The wind blows away and storms run off topsoil, so that carcinogenic chemicals must be added in order to achieve ag goals.  Now the land is criss-crossed by railroads, pipelines, highways, high tension electrical wires, drainage canals, and wind farms with their red night lights that drown the stars in blood.  The profits do not stay on the rez and, in fact, do not even stay in the United States or Canada, since the investors may be in Japan or Europe.

Eastend, Saskatchewan, where Wallace Stegner’s early years were spent (for the specifics, see his memoir, “Wolf Willow”) is now a writer’s retreat, thanks largely to the efforts of Sharon and Pete Butala.  The ranch that Sharon writes about so eloquently in "The Perfection of the Morning" is now a refuge where the original grasses are grazed by today's buffalo.  Stegner has been an object of love/hate for some people because they feel he ought to have given more attention to the indigenous peoples.  The truth is that in the years Stegner was there, the Indians had been extirpated: removed to reservations.  He never knew any -- but he knew the land in much the same way they did, and came to about the same conclusions.  In a way, his love/hate relationship with his wildass father is something like the struggle of the indigenous against the empire builders.  Stegner’s desire to be a proper academic, more in the frame of his mother’s world view, took him to universities and New England which separated him from indigenous tribes even more.

Those who remain are divided between lovers and opportunists.  I will say that opportunists' pyramids are somewhat shorter than those of lovers.  They will not reach as far up as transcendence, nor do they touch the ground.  The same division exists on reservations among the enrolled tribal peoples.  All those people who thought the key to life was getting a degree from a fancy university were not wrong, but it’s not enough.  If they want to be Real People, Nitzitahpi, they will need to return and walk all day through the grass like Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head, just as the ancestors did.  You could take your dog along.

When all those children, sent away at great cost in both dollars and emotion, come back to the high east slope -- which they have been doing for years now -- they have a lot of questions and a lot of new ideas.  They will not be backpacking mountain climbers who try to get higher than everyone else, but rather prowlers of the sliding shale where one can find the old dream beds.  They might even try lying down in them for a while.  The songs up there are not from meadowlarks, those operatic carolers, but rather the harsh and incisive “grawk” of ravens that may remember the old timers who came to fast and hallucinate.  (Well, maybe YOU think it’s hallucinating -- but maybe it’s something else entirely.)  Consult a raven.

In sci-fi vids and movies we often see floating islands of cities and even jungle and that can give us the illusion that our lives can separate from the planet, escaping from all the pitfalls of history and the bedrocks of geology.  But it can’t be done.  Shouldn’t be done.   Instead my advice is to deepen and intensify your own “sensorium” so that no matter where you are, you really hear the rustlings, smell the dust, taste the wind, feel some big boulder erratic pressing against your back when you lean there to rest, and possibly stoop to pick up a buffalo stone from the grass, somehow hearing its small seductive chirps left over from when it was part of a sea creature long before here was even here.  Then you’ll have something to dream about.

Quoting Stan Rowe:  "The reality of the world is not people and separate 'other things'. . . it is -- beyond all understanding -- an integrated ecosphere of marvelous creativity."

Friday, October 25, 2013


When I first got to Saskatoon in 1986 to serve the Unitarian congregation, I joined a circle of professional women counselors.  I was surprised that they all still traveled to workshops at Esalen in California, which the States-side people by then thought was passé and even laughable.  If the subject came up, you’d hear only jokes about what Fritz Perls did with his big toe in the hot tub.  Still, those smart, engaged Canadian women found the work useful.  Recently, when I began to hear about Abraham Maslow in Alberta, I was afraid it was going to be some time-lag anachronistic sort of situation.  It is not.  They are making the ideas work the way they are supposed to.

Cindy Blackstock is a social worker and an academic who is developing a new way of helping aboriginal kids because the old way just isn’t effective.  Sometimes called “Breath of Life,” it is a humanistic approach that does not start from a prescriptive premise about what should be done.  Rather it looks at the tribal origins of the child and develops a Maslowian pyramid of needs and ways of meeting them that come out of the aboriginal background.  All it takes is money. To get money, one must tell one’s story.  Maybe in a movie like this one:

Shannen Koostachin

Alanis Obomsawin

Hi-Ho Mistahey!” is a documentary film by  Canadian director Alanis Obomsawin, which was released in 2013. The film profiles “Shannen’s Dream, an activist campaign first launched by Shannen Koostachin, a Cree teenager from Attawapiskat , to lobby for improved educational opportunities for First Nations youth. . .The film's title is Cree for "I love you forever." Obomsawin has said she heard about Koostachin's story from childrens' rights activist Cindy Blackstock.

Six years ago Blackstock accused the Canadian government of financially short-sheeting aboriginal students.  The government (which is NOT the soft and ladylike entity that many Americans envision) hammered her for her audacity.  They eavesdropped on her computer and kept her under surveillance.  She turned them in to the governmental monitors for that -- I’m not sure there’s a decision yet.  Whether her brilliant breakthrough ideas about child welfare came out of that experience or were in spite of them, they certainly look worthy to me.  But if the simplest appeal for money is met with such suspicion, it’s no wonder that little progress gets made for rez kids in any country.

Cindy Blackstock

The Emergence of the Breath of Life Theory” by Cindy Blackstock, PhD.  First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, University of Alberta.  Published in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, Volume 8, Number 1 (2011) Copyright 2011, White Hat Communications.  This online article does a good job of laying out the basic concepts and justification.

For a vivid sample of how formidable she can be: .

Terry Cross

Terry Tafoya

The equivalent in the States might be Terry Tafoya.  Another admired and creative person is Terry L. Cross, MSW, ACSW, LCSW (Seneca Nation of Indians) director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association.  All the people above have worked in the Pacific Northwest area where the New Age has never been abandoned: plenty of gray pony tails.  On the Blackfeet rez Theda New Breast is a standout leader.  That’s who organized the workshop I attended last week that kicked off this series of posts.

I’ve just found this complex of theories, so I’ve only begun to do the reading, though some of the materials are familiar already.  Blackstock is frank about saying that they are still developing and sharpening.  What I see as still needed is the acknowledgement that tribes arise from human biogeography, each according to what is necessary for the survival of people in that ecology, and valuing what arises from that place.  It’s the land that forms indigenous people. This is why it doesn’t work work to lump all Indians into one movement, even though Pan-Indian organization is good politics because it produces critical mass of voters.
Breath of Life is clear that each tribe has its own ways, but has not gone deeper to how the relationship to the land determines what the economic base will be and therefore the qualities that need to be encouraged in those children.  I think this is because the education and development of social work is traditionally rooted in the cities where it has emerged from helping immigrants become adjusted to this country, or maybe adjusting country people to city life.  Theda’s advantage is being local as well as native.

American Indians are in the paradoxical situation of being displaced in their own country, on their own land, even held captive in front of television screens that let advertising from Manhattan or LA be their “assimilators.”  This is understood by many.  Programs exist and grow every year to teach traditional skills, get involved in the natural history of the place, open up to the metaphors that come out of earth and sky, the unique sensorium of each tribe’s material culture.   Now -- with electronic tablets that even a small child can operate -- it’s possible to roam the planet and come back home again, while never leaving one’s chair.  But it’s necessary to get out of the chair so as to participate.  You’ll never learn to prairie chicken dance while sitting down!

These principles, this point of view, is not just relevant to tribal kids.  There are other categories of kids trapped in syndemics: illegal immigrants, street kids infected with HIV, trafficked kids, child soldiers.  And, oddly, many kids with parents who never interact with them because they work several jobs to survive.  They amount to landless tribes, no place to go, no safety, no belonging.  But they do have one “place” where they are together:  online.  They speak one language: video.  They have one foundational requirement: visibility.  To the general public, they are mostly invisible.

Native Americans know how that feels.  Unless they’re on a horse or wearing feathers, the public thinks they’re maybe Italian.  Even knowing someone is tribal doesn’t necessarily help if the only thing the person knows about Indians is Tonto.  Recognition is a little higher on the pyramid than safety, shelter, food and water, but not by much.  So the dilemma has been how to become educated and even “hip” to the modern world of mixed-but-still-mostly-white world without losing identity as an indigenous person of a particular place on the planet, especially when moving to the city. 

Focusing on kids is not just idealistic in terms of giving each of them a better life, but also practical in terms of improving the lives of everyone.  Less confusion, less dysfunction, more energy, more creativity.  The status quo, often because they fear change will cost them power, try to withhold money in order to stop time.  This is true on the family level, the local level, the national level, and the global level.  It is true in the larger society and also true in the covert counterculture and underground societies that always accompany what is known and public.  Highly principled and devoted individuals who inspire others can make changes happen in spite of social inertia.  But it ain’t easy.