Sunday, May 31, 2015



We’re all pretty clear that somewhere around 12,000 BCE or 10,000 BCE, maybe because of the weather which was warming (up to that point it had been very cold), humans in various places began to invent agriculture, each with the plants and animals of their place.  Jared Diamond suggests that the locations with easily domesticated animals (cows, pigs, donkeys, camels, horses) were propelled by more ability to use animal power both to travel and to work.  The places with plants with seeds that could be stored, like grain of various kinds, could produce enough food to keep everyone fed plus a surplus to use for trade.  None of this happened all at once, but gradually.

The next step was hierarchies and specializations.  Some people toiled in the fields, some people had little shops, some people were artisans, and some were priests.  Copper smelting begins in 5500 BCE.  Around 3200 BCE, in Mesopotamia writing had been invented, then in Mesoamerica separately around 600 BCE.  People were in towns, and trading paths had been established.  Northern Africa was drying up, with one of the largest lakes draining to the north. All this increased sophistication and awareness of far places that had previously only been possible in sea ports.  Once writing is established, history begins.

Karen Armstrong’s argument appears to be that when the Axial Age arose, defined by the formation of the big religious systems between 700 and 200 BCE, it was prompted by two things.  One was compassion for the suffering of all the peasant classes who did the labor in the fields, and the other was a failure of "paganism".  I disagree with both of these.

I do see that the Axial Era was a time of systems forming, reflecting on the “long history” of humans through the lithic eras.  Infant versions of the great dominating professions formed and grew to be called Western Thought.  Law, medicine, and theology formed thick nodes of population and luxury in some places, all joined by travel-ways.  Pilgrimages.  The Silk Road.  (The original one.)  But truthfully, in any time period I don’t see anyone with much compassion for peasants, esp. in a time of slavery.  I think there was probably more worry about revolution, internal war.  Or why would Jesus and hundreds of others have to be crucified to maintain control?

Many were crucified along the roads.
This image shows up in "Game of Thrones"

I have a lot of respect for paganism, which I don’t interpret as “worshipping” self-indulgent gods of this and that.  I see it in the much older Eliade way, a felt pattern of what is sacred and what is profane.  The idea that a lot of people were being oppressed and this made them yearn for transcendence just doesn’t work for me.  More likely they yearned for freedom, comfort and progress.  Or just went blank.

It seems to me that medieval Europe had plenty of peasants, oppressed, bullied, taxed, and required to attend the local religion which was fused with the local government and justice system.  The transcendence part may have migrated to romantic narratives like the King Arthur myths.  The church was competing politically and thoroughly.  The transcendence seems to apply to the cathedral architecture.  But there IS an ability to imagine virtual systems built on abstract thinking.  

Peasant life

Commerce was the engine and commerce was the corruption, the source of all profit and many alliances.  I don’t see evidence of Heaven as transcendent.  It looks like another seaport to me -- escapism.

My interest is not in going back to the Axial Age as an imaginary Golden Time when everyone was unconflicted and kind nor before that to the Stone Age which Jean Auel half-explored and half-exploited.  I want to know more about the time before writing, even before agriculture.  Call me Esau, the red and hairy hunter.  The Axial Era was a later time when all the systems and hierarchies were just forming.  Our time now is growing pot-bound and still rewards the few at the expense of the many, which Armstrong feels is what triggered the Axial Era.  I think she’s suggesting a new shift is happening.  I agree.

We skipped a few steps in our shift to agriculture, perhaps didn’t make a complete transition from hunter/gatherer, because there’s a LOT of difference between stalking game and plowing.  Things that had to change were the organization of family, the allotment of gender roles, child-rearing, and education.  The new life removed the advantages of one kind of person, replacing it with people who had entirely different characteristics.  Lately there has been a lot of fuss about the diet changes, moving from meat to wheat.  But maybe the invention of writing in 5,000 BCE  (the beginning of history) has been a more subtle and profound change.  Literacy still separates whole populations from everyone else.

I’ve never heard anyone discuss the psychological consequences of switching from hunting/gathering to agriculture.  Part of it is like the difference between television and the internet: television is passive receiving and the internet is active seeking.  (Big institutional and liturgical churches ask the believer to receive.  Active seeking is more the function of the university, but they also establish limits and don’t allow pre-verbal thought unless it is in written description.)  Hunting/gathering is responding to what is really in the world and trying to figure out what the other creatures are doing.  This is like internet exploring.  Gathering means studying the responses of the plants to the climate.  But agriculture means taking control, whether by weeding, planting or watering.  This is more like academia.  In fact, seminary means "seed bed."

Another change is a loss of privacy since in fields and settlements everyone can see what everyone else is doing, in contrast to small groups or individuals going off on their own into forest.  And maybe a change in the order of the day, since hunting is done on the schedule of the animals, usually diurnal and sometimes nocturnal, unless they are in large herds.  To work with plants is to be awake and active through the day.  Cooking would also be changed, with plants often needing shucking or chopping and then boiling or baking.  Meat needs much less fuel which means less wood gathering.  Fermentation and leavening appear: bread and wine.

These changes would be reflected in ceremonies.  For instance, burnt offerings of meat  -- modeled on sharing meat from hunting with family and band -- converted to vegetable crops, pottage, and finally wheat bread in the Christian communion -- seems to have been hard emotionally, considering that Jacob and Esau’s rivalry was probably a narrative meant to persuade men that the change was right by bringing in the previous generation, the old blind father.  (Aside from its function of justifying succession and animosities.)

Hunting is not so far from war.  Where does the aggression go when the culture shifts to working fields?  Raiding and defending crops is probably not enough action.  It’s hard to imagine that the energy goes into the stone buildings and streets that persist today.  Maybe it goes into violence against women, children and domestic animals.  For hunters, reflexes and complexes from their dark and animal brains are quite fitting and find their uses.  No animals do agriculture on any scale.  The neolithic psyche is explored today in terms of adaptation or lack thereof in the modern (using metal and writing) world, which is once again a conversion of patterns and energies left from the “Axial Age”.  World religions at that time did urge empathy and compassion.  Not that it made much difference.

The human ability to adapt to different contexts is, of course, what keeps us from being trapped in one environment which extinguished some animal species, but ability is not willingness.  People distribute themselves through classes and places according to their adaptations.  Maybe the lighthouse keepers and fire tower watchers are reacting to a primal arboreal life.  The walking gene is still strong in many people and still good for our basic physiology.  People thrown out of mainstream culture, maybe for lack of literacy, form their own tribal groups.

In every culture, but particularly in ag-based communities, there is a strong will to keep things the same.  The overwhelming variable for farmers is the climate, which is totally uncontrollable.  Weather comes from overhead and is occasionally as destructive as Noah’s flood.  By the time prayers and hymns are written down, the evidence of weather as a deliberate religious act by a god or Gods is certainly there and gets carried into the Axial thinking, possibly through things like studies of seasons and the creation of systems like irrigation to manage fields, to compensate for the arbitrary reward and punishment.

The other big ag variable is the market, which exists if there is enough food left over to sell.  In some times and places, greed has taken the people’s food to sell for profits that the elite can grab.  We feel this is happening now, and that the major religious systems devised in the Axial Era have been sold out to major commercial corporations, partly because they have become religions themselves and the religious institutions have become corporations.

The “Axial Era” was a long time ago.  Something new is forming, something granular, coded, and differently limited by cosmic physics and our own brain function.  I don’t think it will be writing-based; I think it will be arts based and that we will recognize technology as an art form.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Ceremonies and rituals have a number of functions that are helpful to human beings.  One is the management of the individual in tension with the community, which can overwhelm persons, give them identity (good or bad),  throw them out or protect them.  Only after these patterns non-verbally exist in some kind of resolution -- instead of constantly re-organizing -- can they be usefully expressed in words, though exploration in words can help define the patterns.  

One of the forces that keeps patterns in motion is that of globalization and that is closely related to values.  “Ethics” and “morals” are always framed as being permanent and as-high-as-you-can-go (God), but they are not.  What seems moral in one place is immoral in another.   The example here is genital mutilation.

 In parts of Africa concern over whether a “wife” might bear another man’s child is so entrenched and vicious that women have their vagina sewn shut, except for a tiny aperture for menstrual blood.  In other parts of Africa, worry about a wife becoming sexually turned on enough to stray from her proper behavior, is so strong that a female child’s clitoris is cut out of her at a young age.  This is done without anesthetic or ordinary cleanliness with the mother holding her screaming daughter down while an old woman with a rusty razor blade does the cutting.  Everyone accepts this as "just the way it is."

This is enforced in part by the economic value of marrying off a daughter.  If these things are not done to her, she is not worth as much.  Often, in any place, what are considered to be moral or religious issues are really about money.  The overwhelming issue of virginity -- is again about guaranteeing that a man’s progeny are really his own since inheritance is based on blood lines -- has controlled the destiny of whole countries when what is required in succession to the throne is true blood inheritance.  It has created the problem of inbred, and therefore faulty, aristocracy.  Sterility can cost lives.  Ask the wives of Henry VIII.

Now that births, esp. in the inbred royalty of Europe, could involve multiple parents, which challenges even DNA analysis, the value of blood inheritance is under scrutiny.  This affects even Montana reservation legalities, again controlling the transfer of money.  The value of being a full-blood Indian is quite real in terms of membership in the tribal corporation.

This girl in India was told by elders she was cursed, 
but could escape by marrying a dog.  She didn't love the dog and he couldn't make a living.

But romantic values set up a competing, iconoclastic and disruptive set of ideas: that people should marry for “love” or at least compatibility, that parents should not interfere in the love lives of their children, and that children should not be “trafficked” for the sake of linking to wealth or power.  Love is seen as a higher morality than money.

Science sets up yet another system: that people should not marry unless they have a genome check to see if there are worrisome matches and a body check for diseases, esp. something like HIV/AIDS that can simmer for years, then explode into devastation or at least a lifelong burden.

And governments meddle by insisting that people have more babies (Russia is de-populating) or only one baby (China).  These practices throw off demographic gender proportions.  We know that an excess of young unmarried men always leads to trouble.  The excess of unwanted girl babies means international trafficking, legal or not, and a class of adopted children who are unique.  Native Americans who are adopted by white families are one category; Korean girl babies are another.  It seems there is no market for orphaned black boys except for immoral purposes.

Consultation before labiaplasty

Every middle or upper class American person will be shocked and horrified by the African practice of cutting out the clitoris of a young girl.  But in American now it is accepted and desired to cut off the labia, the flesh “ruffles” around the opening to the vagina.  There are plastic surgeons in Montana who specialize in this, as well as “restoring” virginity and tightening the vagina.  At least we assume they use sanitary measures and anesthetic, which are also moral issues at some level.  

I’ve seen a video of a woman being operated on while her best friend (instead of her mother) holds her hand.  Both women have very expensive long false nails and full makeup including extravagant false eyelashes.  There was no information about whether they were prostitutes, and one would be criticized for suggesting it.  In truth, these women were doing these things to impress and “top” other women.  It never occurred to them that they were making a religious choice -- the religion being salvation by winning competitions like beauty queens.  

Very rarely there is medical necessity to remove labia, which one assumes evolved for a purpose, maybe as a protection.  Somehow the idea has taken hold in young women who wish for more sex that a vulva with no labia is more attractive to men.  Why or what kind of men is a mystery.  Some say it makes a woman seem more childlike.  Is she trying to attract pedophiles?  The hymen is now revealed as just tissue to be taken away or restored, not a marker of having "saved oneself" for Mr. Right.  But then wearing modest white wedding dresses, which were supposed to sign the same thing, have become passé.  Now one dresses in a strapless but extremely extravagant gown.  Money overwhelms purity.

As the act of fucking becomes an obsessive marker of desirability, a woman’s value of her body as a unique and personal expression of her identity is radically reduced. Vanity surgeries are radically affect emotional and physiological desire.  Scar tissue interferes with feeling.  Removing the hood over the clitoris (something like male circumcision) can create super-sensitivity that interferes with love-making, to say nothing of one's sense of self.

Then there is trauma damage that genuinely needs surgical repair, fistulas that destroy the wall between the intestines and the vagina so that elimination can’t be normal and infections take hold easily.  They may be the result of rape or some other kind of damaging force.  Again, in Africa there are neither the resources nor the skill to repair a fistula.  If they did exist, incomes are too low and the value of women too low, to get these women repaired, so they live as pariahs, valueless.

All this sort of information has been cloaked in the past, considered too personal and too medical to be decently shared.  Yet it’s basic to our lives.  At present not enough people have a background to understand their own genitals, much less their drives and assumptions.  We get most of our information about such matters from media, either fiction or so-called non-fiction, often written by reporters who are young and romantic or out to shock, supervised by editors and producers who are old and cynical -- perhaps like Denny Hastert, twisted by their own secret lives and yet controlling ours.

Because religion is represented as something all-powerful handed down from above, we evade many value issues by obsessing over the nature of God, the hander-downer.  But in fact, religion is something that rises up from the roots, and is then shaped by the forces of survival.  Either conform or you die.

I wonder how this went.

It’s not just individual persons who are subject to these forces, but also whole cultures.  Economic viability is a matter of ecology.  The more intricacy and ways to fit into the larger pictures, the more survival.  The more life survives, the more it finds the resources to adapt to each other, to become more than isolates, not through domination but through symbiosis.  Love is a kind of symbiosis.  We should celebrate that in the heart of our morality.

Friday, May 29, 2015


This is not going to be a post dependent on fine writing, but rather a matter of shoving ideas around in crude and fuzzy ways.

Karen Armstrong did not think up the idea of the Axial age.  The premise was that the “Axial Age” or “Pivotal Age” lasted from 800 BC to 200 BC, so what happened to the “C”?  One would expect it to be the axis or pivot!  It was Karl Jaspers’ idea.  He was a German psychiatrist/philosopher/theologian (1883 to 1969), part of a cohort of big shots from about that time and place.  Nietsche, Wagner, and Goethe were there.  I think you could make a case that these are Grandiose Narcissists in quite an impressive way, and also that they could be accused of underlying if not contributing to two world wars.  Certainly, the ideas inflamed Hitler.

Further, my suspicion is that Jaspers, assuming that he and his cohorts were the newest wave of world-changing religious theorizers, looked back to Jesus and earlier and saw a mirror, identifying with them.  Here’s the short list, the people who came to be considered “Western Thought.”

Jeremiah by Rembrandt

Judaism: founded over 3500 years ago.  The Old Testament.
Christianity founded over 2,000 years ago.  It’s supposed to be the C.  It emerged from Judaism.  The New Testament.
Islam began in the 600’s and uses many derived ideas from Christianity.  The Koran.

Zoroaster:  maybe 1,000 to 600 BCE.  Yasna Haptanghaiti as well as the Gathas, which are hymns.  We don’t think about these folks much these days, but if you know where to look, they’ve left clues everywhere. 

These four traditions, which have many similarities and are from about the same area, the institutional survivors of a swarm of ideas that seem to have fascinated the Big Guy shrinks/philosophers/theologians.

Here’s a longer list:




The Eastern and Middle Eastern religions and thinkers are on another list that you probably won’t recognize in total.  I don’t.  I looked up Mo-Ti.  c.472-c 391 BC.  A Chinese philosopher who preached universal love and who split off from Confucianism by challenging parental authority and loving simplicity.  He’s either Thoreau or a hippie.  Was Ho-Ti his cousin?  That jolly dancer with the round belly?  I’ll leave the others for another day.



One person looking at this list suggested that these folks came from a new “elite” class of religious leaders and thinkers in China, India and the Occident which began a tradition of traveling scholars, pilgrims in search of ideas, following the nodes and connections of marketplaces and long distance commerce.  Cross-pollinators.

So there’s a flowering of subtle and beautiful schools of thought into institutions that Jaspers may have hoped his own group echoed, though life in Germany was more industrial and mathematical, which may have made them yearn for the romance of humanities, even as it was pushed aside into France.  Maybe Jaspers was trying to re-access the dark limbic parts of brains and looking for justification in the lives of the people on this list, which turn out not be confined to the Axial Age at all.  

Baths of Neptune, Ostia Attica

It looks to me as though the invention of agriculture 10,000 BC  took several millennia to consolidate and standardize enough for people to look up from their fields and flocks and wonder what it was all for, in a way that the hunter-gatherers never considered.  There was probably a period of terrible epidemics carried in by the domestication of animals and then relief when everyone who was susceptible had already died.  Judging from the beauty of material remains, some must have been prosperous.  It would have been a hard winnowing that raised a lot of questions about suffering and evil as a cause for punishment.  But the reward is the blooming of prosperity and the city with a granary and a temple where people are beginning to write hymns instead of invoices.

By the time the temple has become a stage and the kings have begun to consider their own actions, prompted by the chorus, something has changed.  The brains are different, handling abstract concepts on human emotional terms, thinking through people in an observing group.  We are beginning to understand that aside from organs, there are over 200 kinds of brain cells, each with it’s own way of dealing with information.  Rather than a new organ having evolved, maybe a new kind of brain cell had mutated.  It could have happened quickly.  We know that each individual has the potential for a stage of maturation in early adulthood that means a capacity to think in abstractions.  Not all people reach that stage.

Kinds of brain cells.  Who knew?

Beginning in about this “axial” time (which I still don’t understand, particularly in terms of being a pivot -- what did it turn from and what did it turn to?) it seems to me the intervening centuries until now are better seen as part of the “Guns, Germs and Steel” story explored in Jared Diamond’s book.  It was a time of expansion and competition, hard on those crushed beneath the wheels of progress, but leading to a brief moment of balance quite recently.  

Now the guns are domestic. Family members shoot each other.  Powerful viruses emerge from the vestiges of jungles and sweep through the huge vulnerable populations who are displaced, starving, and traumatized, challenging our commodified “compassion.” The planetary weather systems change everything.  We look out into the cosmos from our space station telescopes and again ask the Big Questions.  Some of the people on the Axial list above made some pretty good guesses.  

None of the Germans operating from a Victorian understanding of Christianity have much to say about it, except that a lot of people are wondering what happened to Jesus’ simple idea.  Why is it that the theologian who is meaningful and has a name starting with B (as so many theologians do) is not anyone trained by fancy institutions, but rather Bibfeldt, who was invented as a joke.  He’s the “both/and” guy responding to Kierkegard’s “either/or.”    

Rumored to be Bibfeldt

I suggest that NOW is the Age of Axis.  Or maybe Karen was talking about the back axle and we’re on the front axle.   Or vice versa.   I’ll wait for her book.  Diamond’s book, “The World Until Yesterday,” skips over all that grandfathery stuff and goes back to the early days, the first hunter/gatherers in their little wandering groups.  Some of us do feel an affinity.

According to Wikipedia: “Either/Or is the work of the Søren Kierkegaard. Appearing in two volumes in 1843, it outlines a theory of human development in which consciousness progresses from an essentially hedonistic, aesthetic mode to one characterized by ethical imperatives arising from the maturing of human conscience.”  If you watch Ingmar Bergman movies, you’ll get the same concept, which is essentially that growing up means being grimly duty-bound, never having any fun or beauty.  Kids around here have told me the same thing.

Paul Rorem, reviewer of Bibfeldt's book:  "The Unrelieved Paradox."

Well, screw that.  I’m with Bibfeldt.  “He” writes now and then, channeling through U of Chicago Div School, esp. the students of Martin Marty. If you manage to spend any time with true hunter-gatherers, I think you will discover that they love to laugh, esp. at blunders and tragedies.  This would cause Kierkegaard to accuse them of being children.  But Rousseau would ask,  “What’s wrong with that?

Strangely, this new layer of Internet communication is adding BOTH fun/aesthetics and a new take on ethics that includes all humans, all animals, all life, all existence, and right on out as far as you can imagine.  It challenges exclusions and elaborates on the two sidedness that can stop being a binary in order to create a spectrum.  And as T constantly remembers, the New Physics says that a particle can be both here and there at the same time.

So what are you going to do about it?  Read a book?  Write a book?

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Jared Diamond

“The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond is the next book after his mega-popular “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  It’s about the traditional, nearly “pre-contact” peoples he has visited.
Karen Armstrong

“The Battle for God” by Karen Armstrong is about the Axial Age, the historical period from 700 to 200 BCE when the major “world religions” formed:  Buddhism, Hinduism, Confusianism, Taoism, and those troublesome Abramic monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  These two “book-ends” in time mark a period of thousands of years that were powered by agriculture, formed villages, but preceded math, science, industrialism.  Where I live, that period didn’t end until the 19th century.  This world-period has been fascinating in many ways.  I’m going to focus on the eternal human tension between the individual and the group.

I should say groups, because it becomes clear in Diamond’s book that even with only a hundred people in a tribe, each person is a node of what might be called social connectomes spun from genetics, friendship, working partnerships, accidents of wealth, and the mysterious factor called “love.”  Even after the big institutional, hierarchical, liturgical, book-bound religions had formed, the elements that were always present will re-form sub-groups, processes that push onwards through time.  We are beginning a period of connectome transformation: an internet overlay.

Cut Bank, MT, Masonic Hall

To Bob Scriver, religion in the sense of affiliated and therefore "special" men [sic -- women were sent over to Eastern Star] was defined by the Masons.  In Browning it was a filter for respectability (on their terms) that would accept assimilated and prosperous Blackfeet.  Even the occasional Catholic.  Bob was their chaplain, partly because he could play the piano and partly because his father and brother were members.  His second marriage collapsed, he had quit teaching because it was a misery, he hadn’t re-established a steady income, and -- as the saying here goes, he was "tom-cattin' around," so they threw him out.  He suffered from this rejection, which his father and brother agreed with.  Art was considered marginally wicked, or maybe just insane.  For the rest of his life he kept his Masonry book wrapped in silk scarves in his underwear drawer, that intimate place, and never turned against the group -- only the individual leaders who had wanted to punish him.

When he was accepted into the Medicine Pipe Keepers circle, it became his new Masonic Lodge with all the intensity of his earlier belonging.  He probably knew most of the Keepers better than the white shop-owners.   Their version of Bundle Keeping was regular bridge parties, where the women presented little tableaus of dessert on their card tables and the men indulged in a bit of brandy.  Bob despised them.

Pipe Keeper next to his Bundle, 1880 or so.

Being an individual apart from the main group is always problematic.  If one can stay in the group while maintaining individuality, that’s ideal.  If the groups begin to contradict each other or if the group focuses on punishing someone (scapegoating), the consequences force either a new creation (Scriver Studio) or destruction (the recent firing of two reliable family men in Valier for something they couldn’t control).

Diamond tells about several New Guinea tribes who have an informal set of rules about who can be attacked and killed and who must be treated as equals.  Relations must be protected, no matter how distant the family connection may be.  He gives us a vignette about two small groups of men traveling who meet and discover they don’t know each other.  They sit down on the trail and begin sorting families to see if there’s a tie.  Unfortunately, none comes to mind.  Finally, rather desperately because they don’t really want to fight, they discover that there is a man in the distant village group who has the same name as a man in the local group.  He’s not really related, but the coincidence is enough to work.  The groups go on their way peacefully. 

New Guinea

I heard a similar discussion about who was affiliated enough to authorize the painting of a tipi "skin." (Bob was the Keeper and, since I was with him at the time, so was I.)  In the end the connection was someone who “owned” (tipis are transferred like a Pipe Bundle) a yellow lodge, the same color as the one Bob dreamt about.  Since yellow tipis are relatively rare, this was connected enough.   (The main permission comes as a dream, the same as a Bundle.  In fact, this tipi had an accompanying Bundle.  The whole story is in "Bronze Inside and Out."  The twist is that it was a "badger tipi" and Bob associated badgers with his "pop," the loyal Mason !)

In Valier there is always a sort of tribal tightening-up in Spring among those whose ancestors were in the village group from Belgium who immigrated to be the core for a community of irrigating grain growers.  Genetic descent is strong.  A few families control much of what happens but they can’t prevent people from voting or refuse to serve them because they aren’t Belgian enough.  

Near Valier

So in Spring the filtering criteria becomes who keeps their yards up to what are imagined to be Belgian (white) standards.  Since those who don’t have pretty yards tend to be poor, negligent, old, absentee or drunk -- the village is small enough for everyone to know who they are -- it’s easy to pass a town law that says anyone who doesn’t keep their yard up will be warned with a registered letter (like being ticketed) and then the town will contract to have the yard mowed to their standards and the owner will be billed $100 or more.)

The reality is that negotiations go on that are under the table.  Relatives, popular people, and those with major health problems are simply not sent a letter.  One of the most neglected houses is owned -- but not much occupied -- by a town employee.  Someone decided to “crack down” on him a few years ago and the consequences were explosive, pitting the town lawyer against the employee union.  

In fact, a “new broom” town council was elected at one point and only lasted a few months because they refused to negotiate.  They were “good old boys” and all the resentment against that group surfaced.  The guys were blind to the emotional connectome -- they only saw their version of “facts.”  The last straw for them was realizing that if they made any mistakes that cost the town money, they would not be insured.

Near Browning

I’m only picking on Valier because the reservation connectome is too intricate for me to grasp.  Some of it is hidden, some of it criminal, some of it relates to romantic meddlers from other places (like California, back east, and even Germany), some of it is inspired by post-colonial ideas from the academic world, and much is controlled by laws and grants that are federal.   It all morphs constantly and some of these forces contradict each other.

For a quick instance, consider the treatment of armed services veterans, who are much honored on the rez.  When Montana put up a memorial dedicated to Montana veterans, they left off all the Indians.  This meant that the Mayor of Great Falls could join the protest that got the Indian veterans added to the “wall” by means of individual tiles.  

This was such a politically rewarding thing to do that no one investigated the blood quantum or actual enrollment of the individuals and no one raised a fuss about the eagle feather awarded to the Mayor in gratitude.  (It is illegal for a white man to own an eagle feather.)  No one has kept a register of all the eagle feathers awarded for various good acts, including those who went to the veterans themselves, so we don’t know where the feathers go after the veterans receive them.

Some white people welcome an eagle feather and a new Indian name, and become quite emotional about the actual ceremony.  A few assume that now they are a member of the tribe, not realizing that the tribe is defined by law and is organized on the model of the business corporation, meant to preserve and increase the value of the tribal assets, which are massive, hard to monitor, still under the control of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Individuals are lucky if they get an accounting.  This is what Eloise Pepion addressed.

Valier is about to find out over the next few years just how much federal laws and regulations affect them as well as the tribe: the subject will be water.  At present, most of the water issues are administered by the state.  Irrigation, sanitation, original (i.e. since white contact) water allotments, regulation of well-drilling are all involved.  People are getting indignant about frakking saline and chemical water that makes land useless for crops.

taken by Tristan Scott, the Missoulian

This is a line of thought that will be hard to manage and follow, but I’ll give it a shot -- at least around the edges.  Probably I’ll tell a lot of stories about Indians and Belgians. My bias is always towards the protection of individuals and the land itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Bob Scriver, about 1964

It occurred to me yesterday, reviewing the obits, that because in the Sixties I married a man so much older than myself and became so totally absorbed into his life, that my enemies have all died of old age, two of them just last month.   This means that they were mostly Bob's enemies.  It’s not that I don’t have any enemies now or that I’m not vulnerable, but they are of different kinds and ways.  For instance, the political use of ginning up victimhood and using “compassion” as entitlement is fading on the rez.  But not among liberals who meddle with long questionnaires and evaluations.

The most vicious enemies were in the Cowboy Art world which was somehow a class war.  Art was translated to capital which in those days meant rich old men and professionals, because they needed a way to park their money.  People sold art by saying how valuable an investment it was.  But also by creating events where they and their younger wives could show off and play mind games.  This was when the buying and selling moved from galleries to auctions.
Charlie Russell's painting cabin next to his house.

These aficionado people were technical, esp in the worlds of dentistry, medicine and law, but the elaborate machines, the high potency meds, and the highly detailed regimes did not teach aesthetics.   They couldn’t tell good art from bad.  Investors looked at paintings and sculptures without knowing much more than what was being depicted and that their advisors were assuring them the work would rise in value for no reason other than that it already sold well.  They treated it like the stock market. The investment value moved to evaluating the artists instead of the art.  Then the artists were forced to be socially available, to present little flattering episodes in their homes, to become dancing bears.

There were exceptions.  Some people with a lot of money “richly” deserve it and handled it well, like traditional gentry.  They DID know art and were considerate of people who work at creating it.  Somehow they had been educated in the humanities, maybe because their families are sophisticated or because they went to a decent university.

But villains got into power in the Sixties and used their advantages to try to control artists.  A ring of co-conspirators -- mutually suspicious of each other but willing to collaborate at least temporarily -- arose to control the institutions -- at first museums and historical societies and later the auctions.  I call them the Industrial Cowboy Artist Cartel.  There were few Indians -- for a long time, none.

A few Cowboy Artists of America

Ironically, one of the models and sources of power was the Cowboy Artists of America, a kind of cooperative corralling of the big money something like the Oscars.  They were able to curate the art by making peer awards and organizing their own shows.  These guys -- almost always guys -- were echoes of their customers: all about money. 

And status.  Soon interstitiary characters such as dealers, specialty magazine editors, curators, and the directors of related institutions began to take control.  When dealing with status, building reputations esp. the ones about the non-artists, it was necessary to invent awards and titles, many of them coming from gratitude for money -- often given to charities or education.  An artist had to present a tableau of luxury in his home -- or else colorfully dwell in a shack where Cowboys and Indians magazine could send a girl reporter to report how Original and American he was and how he could make apple pie in a chuckwagon.

As the artists aged, some of the wheeler/dealers began to realize there was money in widows and power in female secondaries of various kinds.  The femmes had come into the game at a younger age and knew the secret stuff where the true profit often begins. (Like the silk petticoat belonging to a prostitute on which Charlie Russell had made a little sketch, but they were just friends.)  Mostly the W/D were unburdened by scruples or much education.  Nor the women either. 

I was younger, but a foundry hand rather than a glamour girl.  Also, I zigged off into academic religion which was to them quite invisible -- I mean, ethics and all that.  My enemies always had the problem of not understanding what I was up to.  My problem, if you want to label it that, was that being analytical and virtuous will not make any money and neither will moving among categories.  No one will praise you or thank you for these strategies.

Either my handicap or my reward was not caring about money, which meant I was free to do what I wanted rather than tending some capitalist machinery that I could pretend meant I was a success.  It also meant I had the privilege of being a loner, not having to accommodate someone else.  I’m trying to understand what it means to be a loner in old age when money can make life much more comfortable, but so far it doesn’t seem much different.

Gamers who control people with money, accumulate a circle of admirers, and win gratitude and awards, get sick and die just the same.  One would think that without them and their power, the truth could be told and that revealing their dark little hearts would be rewarding and even welcome.  It has always seemed to me that instead of all the phony praise at funerals, the pockets ought to be turned out in a final confession.  Maybe even restitution.  Blackfeet do that -- they call it a "Giveaway."

You name 'em.  I forgot to write it down.

Without those managers and curators constantly urging and guiding, the game of acquiring art loses its appeal.  Seven/Eleven stores once had a massive collection of fine Western photography.  It’s now dispersed.  Today the auctions that built up collections are being used to de-accession and scatter the assets.  The status indicators for the young are not so much in art and not so much in realism or patriotism, which are the two essentials for Western art.  Paintings are being sold for about what their original prices were years ago.  The elegant and exclusive galleries of the Sixties are now commonplace, cramming some streets in Santa Fe or Taos shoulder-to-shoulder.

Anyway, because Repubs are out and Dems are in, conservatives are seen as power-mongers and progressives are seen as invasive control freaks.  Cowboys and Indians don't sell as well as landscapes and animal portraits.  We’re about fed up with people in general and John Wayne’s world in particular.   Or maybe we're going back to the Fifties.

Saturday Evening Post cover by John Clymer

I really had not been paying much attention to my enemies.  One or two have asked for mercy when I turned the tables and began to write about them.  Others have managed to convert themselves into the kind of affable grandfathers that they imagine Charlie Russell to be.  The growing importance of women, Indians, Mexicans, and -- REALLY surprising -- Chinese realists. When the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers crashed, their comfortable illustrators had to become easel artists in a hurry, moving from Connecticut to Tulsa.  

But the death of slick magazines (probably due to television) helped that source of familiar Fifties art become respectable, because now history was mixed with nostalgia in a safe way. 

John Clymer's easel paintings

The real neighborhood social base of Bob and I in the Sixties was reservation people, mostly Blackfeet but also Metis (which we called “Cree”), with vivid personalities and survival level lifestyles.  We didn’t hobnob with rich people, weren’t very social with anyone because we were always working, and valued decades-long thick-and-thin friendships.  To outsiders the people they recognized were exotic, storybook characters who were willing to act out fantasies for a few weeks in summertime if they could figure out what those fantasies were.  We were a little like that, too.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This undecorated calumet appears jointed, like bamboo.
It might have been adapted from a walking stick.

“Calumets” are far from exclusive to the Blackfeet, but the Amskapi Pikuni had their own versions, as did many of the Plains Indian tribes.

“Calumet is a Norman word (pronounced: [kalyme]), first recorded in David Ferrand's La Muse normande around 1625–1655.  Its first meaning was "sort of reeds used to make pipes", with a suffix substitution for calumel. It corresponds to the French word chalumeau, meaning 'reeds' (Modern French also means 'straw', 'blowlamp').The term was used by Norman-French settlers in Canada to describe the ceremonial pipes they saw used among the First Nations people of the region.”

This bare calumet has been smoked.  
Ours had the same cross-section shape.

“Peace pipe” is another misnomer that emerged from movies and novels.  But certainly peace or a truce is one of the uses of a tobacco pipe (around here normally smoking kinnikinnick but sometimes “twist” tobacco if it can be found).  Esp. for older folks, it’s a soother and an energizer at once, a function of nicotine.  Also, it is a ceremonial implement on first meetings to give people a chance to settle and adjust to each other.  Some cultures use cups of tea or coffee or alcohol.  

This sort of information is just facts.  More interesting is the accumulation of the “Bundle” that was wrapped up with  a Thunder Pipe Bundle along with the felt meanings of the people on the prairies in the spring when the thunderstorms raked the land, just as they are doing today, May 26.  North American Indian Days is a formal modern festival pow-wow with all the giveaways and family business that need to be done, but it is late, AFTER the thunderstorms in July.  This is because Agent Campbell persuaded them to cut hay first, THEN have the ceremonies. 

In those days it was clear that the people couldn’t come together until there was enough grass and water for their horses.  Some agents tried to suppress any such gathering, even the ones by the recent post-Civil War Indian school grads who wanted to convene scholarly discussion.  The white agents were afraid that any gathering would be a plot. If you really want an authentic version of a Bundle Opening, go to "The Old North Trail", which includes photos and instructions of the event around 1900, all by Walter McClintock, who came as a friend every summer. 

I want to talk about the experience, but it’s necessary to give a little background.  The calumet itself is studded with brass tacks.  Smooth and straight, it seems to have been drilled on a rifling lathe.  Our “Thunder Pipe Bundle” and it has a proper pedigree, which was oral when we got it and then was written down and notarized by Wilber Werner, a staunch Catholic who -- I suspect -- thought the ceremony was a naive version of the Mass.  

The Green Parrot

Many of the pipes have a whole bird affixed to the top and ours had a green parrot with taxidermy eyes.  Another rather famous pipe had a colorful rooster on it.  These are not ancient sinew and bone artifacts -- they are mixes of European metal and methods with whatever might come to hand for a tribal person on the high prairie.  Knowing that, it seems likely that the association went from lightning strike danger (which was very real on the prairie) to the danger of battles on horseback and dwindling of the buffalo to a kind of reconciliation of material cultures in hope of finding a way forward.

The Scriver Thunder Pipe Bundle -- the decorated calumet

Unlike the ordinary pipes used for real smoking, the heart of the Pipe Bundle was a yard long and the stone bowl was in the Bundle but not attached.  Fanned and hanging under the calumet was the entire suite of an eagle’s tail feathers, each with its shaft decorated with beads or quills.  Mixed with them are white ermine skins and bright satin ribbons.  On top, at the end for drawing smoke, was the bright plumage of a colorful bird. Ours had a parrot with taxidermy eyes and another had a Harlequin duck with glass eyes.  We were told there was one called “The White Man Thunder Bundle” that sported an impressive rooster.  They were not perched or even stuffed as was fashionable in the 19th century, but more like “study skins” that are kept in drawers for comparisons.  “Study skins” do not have eyes.

Near the “head” end of the calument is a handful of bells, sometimes “jinglebells” and sometimes falconry bells.  They are said to be the Pleiades or whatever the local mythologists made of the cluster of bells.  They show up as a pattern of circles on the smoke flap ears of lodges.   Another tube, the sawed off section of a rifle, decorated with ribbons and so on, is the “woman’s pipe.”  Another historical sign: this was added when the shooter had access to the gun and a hacksaw, but too early to just discard something so powerful as a section of gun barrel, so it was saved. 

This book was published by Bob Scriver through a "vanity publisher."

The rest is animal skins, preserved with handsful of tobacco.  Sometimes there will be iniskim, the little fossil stones that look like buffalo.  Bob documented our Bundle contents in “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  The illustrations of this post are from his book for which Marshall Noice, an artist, took the photos.  The implications of that will be the subject of a future post.

The Kicking Woman family opened their Bundle on Mother’s Day.  Molly, who was Canadian and from an observant family, was the one who really understood the preparations, including sarvisberry soup with its bitterroot inclusion, carrying on the theme of plenty in the face of want.  Like Lent, a ceremony in the thunderstorm season would be late for whatever food had been preserved in the winter, but early for summer’s plenty.  All the families who still had saved dried sarvisberries donated them for the one big pot of soup.  

George Kicking Woman, all dressed up.

Molly was the force behind George and, as the woman always was, the true Keeper in terms of managing it,  but George didn’t mind seeming a powerful patriarch as white visitors usually assumed.  He was a mild and earnest man, unlikely to kick anyone, but white people got a lot of mileage out of the name.  Bob and George were the same age.  George was the youngest of the Keepers at the ceremonies we attended.

What I’m describing happened fifty years ago.  Most people at an Opening were related, but many of them were likely to be from Canada where the old ways have persisted longer.  People were actually speaking their own language.  The smudge is lit in a dishpan of dirt.  Drummers were a “rawhide orchestra,” an assortment of men who knew the songs or can pick them up quickly, since they are a pattern based on a phrase that is meant to describe the particular animal with which it is associated.  Joe Old Chief was one of them and one of the last to "cross the horizon."  They used hand drums.  In the Beaver Bundle openings the drummers pounded on a dry rawhide with rattles.  The smudge was different as well.

Harlequin duck, augmented with pow-wow feathers.
This is from a Last Star bundle.

The Bundle is about the lives of the animals and their powers to help.  The man who is inspired to dance with one of them, takes it up in its funny swaddling of calico or headscarf, meant to keep it intact without shedding bits, and endeavors to dance in imitation of the living animal, moving it in front of him like a little boy making a toy car “go.”  The best dancers evoke the animal with uncanny imitation of its rhythms and wiggles, as though it were a puppet, but also “beconme the animal” with all the skill of dancing or acting.  The collection of animals is like a hymnal, a mnemonic device to act as a reminder of both animal and song.  

For those of us who had handled these animals and watched them out on the prairie or mountainsides they brought back moments and, as humans are “wired” to do, the mood of that memory, which made a kind of trance.   Bob and I had watched the animals as well as bringing them into the shop and skinning them for mounting, giving them glass eyes.  The “permission” to acquire a Bundle comes in a dream, and Bob had the dream.  It also requires a LOT of money, and Bob paid it.  Even if he weren’t paying for a transfer, he would slip hundreds of dollars to Molly a week or so ahead of time to help with the preparations.

The ceremony was a spiritual way to reconcile an individual with the community that had practical benefits for the community itself.  As each man chose an animal and danced with it briefly, his family and friends would stand in place to ululate in support.  Then they would “gift” money to someone in the circle to honor the dancer.  Most went to someone who had lost a family member or someone who was suffering.  The “orderly,” who kept the smudge going and passed the money to the designated recipient, was Young Jim Whitecalf, son of the Old Jim Whitecalf who so captured the imaginations of white outsiders that he's featured in two books.

Double-page spread in "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains

In the portrait, which some call a diorama, of the Thunder Pipe Bundle, are the principals in the first ceremony Bob and I attended.  They posed and are recognizable, real people, except for Charlie Reevis, who was deceased.  George Kicking Woman was the youngest Bundle Keeper, the same age as Bob.  The man with the black face is Louis Plenty Treaty, the most spiritual man I ever met.  I used to say you could seat him in a Buddhist ceremony and he would be perfectly fitting.  The next is Tom Many Guns, who had been the Keeper of this Bundle just previously, but had been drinking a lot and selling bits of it to finance his addiction.  

In fact, we were startled to realize we’d been buying them, but pleased to put them back in.  Next, in a red wool jacket is Richard Little Dog who was the ceremonialist and technically the real owner -- that is, it had been transferred to him properly.  Nearest the camera in a Hudson’s Bay blanket capote is Joe Gambler, who was armed for posing and made the most of pantomiming attacks when posing got boring.

I don’t remember the names of all the four drummers.  I think Joe Old Chief and Joe Young Eagle were there.   The woman in blue, closest to the camera was Margaret Many Guns, who was originally Canadian.  She made my ceremonial clothes, including moccasins, which were very simple but meant to be exchanged with her clothes so that the “power” would recognize me and go with me after the exchange.  Next in pink is Mrs. Young Eagle and then Molly Kicking Woman.  I think the gray-haired woman was Mary Blackman.

These people are all gone now, but the ceremony has been reinstituted.  Like all memories, it is re-constituted, and as in all communities, it has somehow drifted from the hands of the most old-timey and observant people into the practices of the educated and relatively prosperous.  I’m smelling sweetgrass smudge (I grow a little), but you buy sweetgrass on the Internet now.  It’s hard to find on the prairie, poisoned out like most of the birds and animals in the Bundle.  The People are there, but they are changed.