Sunday, January 31, 2016


Callan Wink

Callan Wink checks all the boxes:  catchy but rather strange name (Is he Irish or Chinese or both?), handsome young male (high cheekbones, quirky mouth),  MFA, lives in Livingston, MT (home of the REAL Montana writers, though he’s not really from there, but few of the others are either), fly fisherman, barefoot runner, admirer of violence.  In a world where what one writes doesn’t matter, because everyone just wants to know about the writer — they don’t have enough time for reading books. They read the reviews, in the same way that I read about the calls for papers issued by specialized elite groups since I can’t travel to the constant conferences where they are presented and even if they issue transcripts, they are often very expensive. 

So here’s a review of Wink’s novella in the New Yorker, which is the first of a projected series of intermittent and unscheduled on-line-only novellas.  The New Yorker is not the first to experiment with this, but the others have all withered away, so far as I can tell. 

Red Longhorn

Interestingly enough, Wink’s story is not about the seductive figure that HE is, but about an observed neighbor, an old woman (sixties) who had a lot of animals, keyed in his story by red longhorn cattle.  In reality his neighbor had llamas.  Llamas are not uncommon in Montana since they are used for packing while hiking.  In fact, one lives in Valier though it’s not used for anything, not even it’s fur, which is a fine version of wool.

The story is in a form I call “one thing after another,” incident following incident in the prescribed MFA way until it comes to a turning point and resolves.  The accumulation of problems reveals that the key to this woman is taking care of others who are needy, whether animal or human.  This is the way women in the West are socialized and often it pulls them into romantic or marital difficulties.  I say that on the authority of the old woman who lives in my mirror.  

Cover for "Dog Run Moon"

Wink's first book, "Dog Run Moon", is published by Granta Books in the UK.  It draws more directly on himself.  It’s a weird truth that the USA publishers are so degenerate that they turn away from anything that isn’t based on sex, bling or violence.  Their template has become procrustean and eliminates anything but what they’ve already done.  This is partly because of a cloud of stinging lawyers, vectors for micro-brain.

Deluxe hunting blind.

A relevant short story, “Exotics”, is also in Granta, the Magazine of New Writing.   (I think this magazine IS -- and has been for a long time -- what the newish social writing website, Medium, aspires to be but never quite achieves.  That is, global and unpredictable.)  “Exotics” also answers to Wink’s demographics — it’s about a young man who is presumably having a hard time finding his proper habitat — and the story is told in the same one-thing-after-another strategy, though it’s also a faint version of a road trip.  In this one the young man is a one-room specialty schoolhouse version of a recurring Ivan Doig character, but from the years when Doig wrote semi-poetry, not the last years of quips.  

Granta magazine

Tim will hate that I’m putting labels on this writing, but it’s necessary because the stories have the disconcerting problem of being familiar enough to group with other writing, all the while trying to be unique and surprising enough for Granta, the Magazine of New Writing.  One would think that to highly educated editors in London, anything about the American West would be surprising.  But maybe these stories feed into exactly what such editors think is “true” about a place so unlike wet green thickly-populated urban islands.  My life might surprise them.  

Still, the writing is clever and appealing.  And it’s published, which is usually the goal — necessary for the reader.  But there are a lot of writers who really don’t give a damn about being published -- like me.  Blogging is as close as I want to come and I’ll just give away the results.  I’m not writing all fiction and I’m not writing to explain much about me — more about explicit issues like the management of water or the vast new understanding of the evolution of hominins before they could even speak.  

I do spin off a short story now and then and I’m slowly accumulating them (mostly by moving them from at a different provider to see what it’s like.  I’d like a secret blog, only available to chosen people, so I could get truly shocking and wild.  One of my problems is writing too close to people who could be affected.  I tried self-publishing through and it was nice to have actual books, but they were immediately pirated as soon as a PDF hit the Internet when transmitting to Lulu.

Callan Wink at work

Callan Wink is past all that.  His problem now will be having to promote his work, which will be a lot easier because he is young, handsome, and exactly whom everyone expects and would love to host.  If he doesn’t travel, speak, keep a steady stream of work coming, possibly hire a publicist — all the things publishers used to do — publishing will fade.  The “new writer” gloss that gets fellowships and prizes ages out just like everything else.

Even if it doesn’t he can’t expect to make a living so he should not give up fly-fishing and maybe should not catch-and-release so much that he has nothing to eat.  But on the other hand, some guys do well at the “hook and bullet” men’s markets.  They aren’t as glamorous or prestigious.

There is another problem.  He is competing for space with major writers at Granta — old dead folks with big names.  (Saul Bellow, for instance.)  So he is wise to broaden out to New Yorker.  Maybe he has an agent who lunches and makes connections.  His sort of writing has academic roots, so maybe the MFA track will help.

Jim Harrison

His admiration and friendship for Jim Harrison can’t hurt.  Here’s a local interview with Harrison, more helpful than most of the near hagiographies.  If Harrison says he admires one’s writing, one is IN.  Of course, he uses Wink's guiding services.

Russell Chatham

Living in Livingston is also helpful, though Russell Chatham (born the same day I was) whose atmospheric tonalist covers got me started on Harrison, has gone back to California to get warm.  Maybe Wink is starting a new generation, but mostly they come and they go.  I shake my head over all the “Montana” writers who have now become “Portland” writers.  Of course, it’s easier to make a living where the population density is thicker.  Young women can find low-pay service occupations easily.  But too much writing about writing is really about the author, a fantasy of relationship.

But there are some who go to the actual writing.  This surprising website is far more astute than that.   Kenneth Nichols is younger, but I couldn’t find a photo of him, so I can’t tell whether he’s as cute.  He is certainly acute, which is also important for a writer.  He teaches writing.  I've marked both Wink and Nichols.  They're worth watching for and reading.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


Before and after: 1883


by Harry Barnes

I often wonder how we as a people would look today if the Boarding School (Resident School in Canada) experience had not been a reality.  Of course, we as Native people know the purpose of those government institutions.  The vast majority of the white population has no understanding that these schools were designed with the goal of enculturation.  That is the nice way to say “Destroy the Indian and recreate a new good citizen.”

Having gone to Cut Bank Boarding School for two years, I had no idea what was going on.  I guess back then I was just a slow learner.  The older boys tricked us into putting our tongue onto a frozen handrail.  What more did we need to learn?
About Cut Bank Boarding School

These schools were just a part of our movement away from our roots and culture.  Today there are good positive remnants of that society that roamed this area for over 10,000 years, given by the Creator for us to flourish and go beyond existing.  We have the land that has not disappeared to the federal government.  We have an abundance of wildlife, no longer enough to sustain ourselves the way we had.  We have some amazing people that hold onto our old ways and carry it forward.  Not as many as we had, sadly.

If you study the history of the Jews as related in the Bible you will see they were twice taken into captivity.  They could have lost their culture, but some held onto it and cared for it knowing it could return.  For those who hold our old ways, Creator’s blessings on you.

The 2014 Audit has been finished and posted to the Federal Audit Clearing House website.  Please go there and do a search for Blackfeet.  We have made a commitment to fiscal accountability and transparency.  We will now start the 2015 audit, and then we will stay current.

A Washington DC senator

As I type this article I am stuck in Washington, D.C., where people have no idea or concept about travel in snow.  I have been here with a contingent from Blackfeet on issues of Tribal concern.  There has been much concern raised on Facebook about why the Chairman takes so many travels when we have such financial difficulties.  A fair question, and if it is seen on Facebook, it must be true.

The entire cost of this trip was funded by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).  The cost is only one part of the answer.  WCS has partnered with the Blackfeet Tribe to help grow our buffalo herd.  They bring scientific research and funding for our efforts.  With a limited herd size, we are limited on what we can do.  With 450 head we can meet cultural requests, and with buffalo meat from the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council we can distribute to elders.

How do we expand our herd size without money?  It is through strategic alliances with those who have resources and believe in some of the same things we do.  WCS founded the Bronx Zoo and has the first Yellowstone buffalo created by embryonic transfer.  It was carried by a surrogate cow at the zoo.  It is a really big bull!  Their genetics is not to create a Jurassic Park, but to study ways of preserving the DNA purity of the buffalo.  We are not looking for created buffalo, but natural buffalo.

We found original buffalo from Blackfeet country that were captured in the 1870’s and moved to the Salish/Kootenai reservation which became known as the Pablo/Allred herd.  In 1900, because of encroachment when reservations were opened to whites, the surviving Pablo sold them to Canada as the US was not interested in saving buffalo or Indians.

Elk Island Park is just east of Edmonton, and when I heard that they must cull their herd every two years, we began the conversation.  Parks Canada likes to support conservation efforts and has a genuine heart for these animals.  (Some staff, of course, would prefer to send them to auction where they can fetch up to $3,000 each, program money.)  They agreed to give them to the Blackfeet for $350, and Blackfeet must cover transportation.

This is where WCS came in.  Through various funders the Tribe will not have to pay anything!  We met and thanked some of those funders in New York, New York City Trust and Lindeen Foundation.  This will be $40,000 plus in buffalo to the Blackfeet herd expansion towards sustainability.

This opportunity has opened the door to Blackfeet Buffalo Restoration becoming a Field Project with the Oakland Zoo.  We will have intern opportunities at the Oakland Zoo for our college students, and exchange trips for younger students in both directions.  Their animal specialists will travel to Blackfeet Country to work with our program and college, and our people will travel there.  The cost will be covered by the Zoo!  We are talking with the Bronx Zoo about expanding the same opportunities in New York.  The gain of buffalo is a great accomplishment.  The chance for our young people to be exposed to an incredible career option is even greater, not in New York or Oakland, but right here in their homeland.

In New York’s Museum of Natural History there is a fantastic display of Plains Indians.  Our Blackfeet way of life is portrayed in a very credible way.  Contained in their collection are objects of a sacred nature.  The Museum has agree to fund a trip for the Blackfeet to start the consultation process of repatriation.  They are very accommodating.  We also met with staff at the Cultural Research Center of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian for the same purpose.  John and Carol Murray were there as respected elders with transferred rights and John’s role as Tribal Historic Officer.

John Murray, I presume in the Badger/Two Med

Tyson and I met with the state delegation on the Water Compact issues as it heads to Senate Markup  on Jan. 27, a major step in a very long process.  We met with the National Park Service over grazing our buffalo in Glacier National Park, and we met with the US Fish and Wildlife officials to make them aware of our intent and to assure the definition of buffalo as wildlife.

It has been a dead run since we got here.  A lot of meetings.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely!  I am meetinged out.  Elders say until the buffalo returns, we will drift.  This trip and these buffalo will not fix everything.  They are a step in the right direction.  I may still be a slow learner, but the numbers add up.

Friday, January 29, 2016


Rocky Mountain cirque, cut by a glacier now gone.

This has been an easy open winter — so far — which is what was predicted.  But we watch the mountains nervously to see how white with snow they are.  And we squint at the news when they show us that the glaciers are disappearing.  We already knew that Glacier National Park was not named for its many glaciers, but for the great scoop of geology that was formed by glaciers.  Repeated glaciers, putting down layers carried from wherever they started, inconsiderately putting the rocky sources on top of the fertile soils.

Valier sits alongside -- and because of -- what’s now named “The Pondera Canal Company” which was founded when Swift Dam was built on reservation land owned by Major Steele and his Blackfeet wife, and partly funded with federal money but never legitimated legally.  In 1964 the dam collapsed and killed over thirty people.  I was here then.  Sid Gustafson was a kid or maybe not born yet, but this event was so local and deep that it takes someone from here to get it right and he’s from here. 
Out in April, pre-order now.

Now owned by the Pondera Canal Company, and Cargill, a worldwide grain business, this irrigation system supports Valier and other villages at the center of a wheel of ranches, strip-farms using high levels of oil-derived chemicals, a huge monoculture.  The federal government is demanding the realignment of water allocation first defined mostly by habit.  Since the Blackfeet are at the headwaters, they have the first legal claim, which they have not used over the years.  Many plans have been laid and even some canals dug, but everything always dwindles off to nothing on that side of Birch Creek, which is the southern boundary.  On the south side, off the rez, ranchers press hard to get as much water as they can.  Water is profit.  If the federal government forces reallocation, some ranches will fail.

We all look to the mountains.  That’s where the water begins.  This east slope country is in the center of two great atmospheric forces, sky forces.  One is the wind that comes from the West, laden with ocean water.  It must pass over several mountain ranges, the last and most serious being the Rockies.  Water is heavy.  The air drops it as rain or snow, until it is light enough to pass.  That's where trees grow tall. 

Chinook arch

We look up at the mountains and see a storm shelf — in winter a snow shelf — of clouds forming a kind of higher, rounder range behind the Rockies.  If there are clouds on the east side, they are pushed back in a great curve of blue called the Chinook Arch.  It means that there is wind up high, pushed by the jet stream from the West, and things will warm up fast.  Go to bed with feet of snow under the window, wake up with water traveling fast over bare ground.  And the Rockies turn dark blue.  The snow pack sinks.  The water master at the Canal Company rethinks how much water he should impound behind Swift Dam or in Lake Francis, a secondary impoundment.

On a little stream that runs through Heart Butte, the beavers in their round house rouse and consider that there is more water running.  They rush to raid the willow brush so as to poke more sticks into their dam.  Not all of them manage to evade the traps set by the local Blackfeet in hopes of making a little money for Easter bonnets for their daughters.  Beavers are too busy to worry about it — they’re not thinkers.  They DO and what they do is impound water.

A beaver lodge

The trouble with global warming is that it throws off timing that has been calibrated by millennia of weeding out whatever doesn’t work.  That goes for water, vegetation, crops, and snowpack.  If the weather is already warm or too warm too early, the snow pack can’t melt slowly over the summer, keeping the trout as chilly as they like to be.  The water is gone by late summer when the cottonwoods need to suck ground water. 

The second wind stream comes down from the Arctic.  It’s not so violent as the 100 mph Chinooks and it is not katabatic because it is not decompressing when descending a mountain -- that's what creates the famous hot katabatic winds.  There are only single volcanic buttes to the north.  So the air comes cold and hard, more of a bulge than a wind, an erratic pattern in arctic air pressure, possibly caused by melting polar cap.  If cold air meets wet west coast air, which it often does over this place, we get snow.  If the arctic air is not so cold, we get rain.  

Even Texas gets the shivers.

Rain washes away snowpack.  Nothing stores the water then — except beavers.  A zillion busy beavers equals one big heavy snow year.  Recently it has been discovered that when smallpox killed so many indigenous people, the North American weather was changed.  The people had set fires, cut wood, even planted crops.  Without them, the vegetation started storing carbon.  The same thing happened in Europe when the Black Plague wiped out the majority of the people.  On the other hand, one vigorous volcano spewing filtering dust and rising to float in the atmosphere was able to make the weather so cold that no crops grew that year and people starved.  It’s not radioactivity that makes the atomic bomb so dangerous, nor even the ghastly immediate effects of the explosion — it’s the ability to throw so much dust into the air.

Kids are like beavers — they are always busy.  If a beaver doesn’t gnaw all the time, its teeth will grow and grow until the beaver can’t eat.  They need to gnaw.  The same with kids.  They need to think all the time and ideas are their willow banks, the raw material for the impoundment of knowledge. 

Tony Hartshorn with kids

This message from Tony Hartshorn arrived via email:  “I’m a soils scientist interesting in applying for federal funding to co-develop (with folks at the Blackfeet Community College) educational materials that might reignite interest in Blackfeet soils, patterned at some level along the lines of Les Carpenter's "Natural history of the Blackfeet Reservation" or the NASA astronomy tutorial "Blackfeet Skies" that Leo Bird helped with.  I've tracked down this 1969 soils map, discovered that some libraries will not share maps of the reservation (or apparently share scans of those maps), and most recently learned that CH2M Hill ran backhoes all over the reservation about 10 years ago to measure soil water-holding capacity (though those results are somehow not public).  This effort loosely aligns with ongoing ideas to lead a "Drought planning workshop" in Browning close to the end of March; that effort is mostly being led by Lea Whitford.  I am eager to figure out a way to harness soil stories for greater student engagement.”

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  Tony said there were 150 attendees at the meeting !!  He’s on the faculty at Montana State University in Bozeman if you want to find him.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


When I was a kid (b.1939), vitamins were such a new idea that the Cheerios box featured educational comics with little pixies, each representing a different vitamin, and a girl named Cheery.  Today Honey Nut Cheerios have had to be taken off the market because people are allergic to nuts, and the new recipe for the dough is announced to be “gluten free.”  We have gone from looking for good things to add to looking for bad things to remove.  

I remember having measles, scarlet fever, and chicken pox.  One of my brothers had rheumatic fever, which can affect the heart.  He did develop a bit of a heart murmur which obsessed my mother ever after, though he was cleared to compete in wrestling in high school and had no problem.  Now people in small towns nearly force their boys to play aggressive football, even knowing that it will probably at some point cause brain damage from concussions.  Our ideas about what is dangerous, esp. for children, change all the time.

Other ideas about what to do will persist without anyone even noticing.  Here’s a benign example:  people know I have a lot of books and that I write all the time.  Their assumption is that it’s like the reading they know, which was mostly in school.  They ask, “How many books do you read in a week?  Three or four?”  The number of books read in a time period is the way schools and libraries try to encourage reading.  You read it, then discard the book.  It’s over.  Consumed.  Consumer thinking.

But I read half-a-dozen books at a time.  Sometimes I only read a few pages, put the book down, come back to it months or even years later.  I read by chasing themes in content, or because there’s a side-issue that’s suddenly gripping.  On the shelves I try to keep general subjects together, which means the contents may be separated in the writing by years.  My grandmother’s books mix with what came in the mail today.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday” is living in the bathroom where I’m working my way through child-raising practices in self-contained tribes away from “civilization.”  More focused on coping with trauma and predation (tigers) than on diseases, there are strategies so negligent that adults often have burn marks from getting too close to fires.  No one intercepted them or taught them not to get close.  Compare with modern fire-retardant chemically treated child’s pajamas which turned out to get into the child’s system with damaging consequences.

On the other hand, children growing up in the Amazon rain forest where dangers are everywhere, are on their mother’s backs at first, then within her reach, then within her eyesight which is close in a jungle.  Lifelong, they go in groups.  But in safer places, like the Australian outback, Diamond assures us that the infamous deadly snakes are rare and there are no big mammal predators.  Children go on “walkabout” alone.

My copy of Gambles’ “Origins and Revolutions” is traveling through the house everywhere.  I have to hunt it down because I read short bits, need a quote, or am ready for the next bite.  Then I’m distracted and put it down in a new place.  I need Diamond’s information about tribes, in that constantly on-going dialogue we’re all having about whether things are getting better or worse and what changes we should make.  Once we accept responsibility for ourselves and our lives, how they evolve, we have a lot of research and thinking to do.   

Are isolated change-resistant enclaves, like the upscale mothers of Marin County — who refuse vaccination and thereby start epidemics — right to so emphasize what’s “natural”?  There are tribes who leave their children almost entirely unsupervised.  Child mortality is high, but those who survive are the ones with brains, gumption, and confidence.  The adults are admirable, except not very compassionate. There is an isolated group that cherishes their babies, refuses all abortion, tolerates handicaps.  The gene for club feet is in this closed population and the rate of affliction has risen to 15% of the babies.

Clearly the way we raise our children is an interaction among morality, danger, attachment, and all sorts of other contingencies.  Now, as this new plague traveling with the mosquitoes expanding their territory across oceans because of airplanes and climate warming, and the first horrific cases of babies with tiny heads are beginning to hint that there are other consequences due to the same virus (possibly paralysis), the best we can do is to warn women not to get pregnant.  As though that ever works!  Women have been warned not to get pregnant for centuries. Might as well warn mosquitoes not to bite.  And I’m not looking forward to the mosquito-phobes (who also tend to be bat-phobes) insisting on intense spraying of Valier this summer.  (Dandelions are also a target.)

When I was a kid, childhood diseases were considered inevitable.  We were all vaccinated for smallpox.  A classmate died of tetanus because her father wouldn’t get her the vaccine because they were poor and it was costly.  About the time I was born, the daughter next door died of polio.  Luckily we never got mumps or whooping cough, since there were no vaccines for them.  Now there are, but people still resist.  Vaccination was a group experience when we lined up in grade school, but now in the US it is likely to be a private experience, which makes it easier to refuse.

I got pneumonia and had a penicillin shot.  Since my bed was up against one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined our house, I found “Riders of the Purple Sage” and read it in a fever haze, my first grownup novel.  Earlier, when my brother had rheumatic fever, I was put to sleep on the couch downstairs, which was very exotic to me.  I had the idea that people only slept on the second floor.  I had found “Biography of a Grizzly” which was a small book with little drawings, so I read it all night while the mantel clock struck away the hours.
That's a geyser, not a volcano.
The story happens near Yellowstone.

Engulfed in grief for poor Wahb, dying old and alone, I finished about the time the others got up and had to convince them my fatigue and red eyes were not a symptom.  When I discovered that my mother, on medical advice, had burned my entire paperdoll collection, a village that lived in a suitbox under the brothers’ bed, it seemed to me related to the death of Wahb.  

Holocaust, natural death, disease, and care-taking were combined.  Every bit of fabric was washed with bleach or Lysol.  All surfaces in the room were scrubbed.  Somehow my father’s books were ignored.  It was as though books were a kind of privileged status, protected and protective.  They made your brain big.

When I googled for information about Zika, what I got was advertising for an amusing video game called “Tiny Brains”.  So here’s what we’re teaching kids:  you are entitled, privileged and smart BECAUSE of adults helicoptering your lives and emphasizing amusement.  The adult bargain with fate is that if they pour every attention and expense into the present happiness of their children, other people’s children can go to hell.  They don’t even need school lunches.  And if you don’t obey the adults, they will withdraw that support and kick you out, the same as your boss treats you at work.  What this kind of attitude creates is genocide supporters and gated cities.

By Jim Kirwan

But the planet is relentless.  Mosquitoes, viruses, climates — old age.  No one gets out alive.  What matters is what you do until then.  There are two kinds of survival: individual and group.  Your life is shaped by how you define your group, and to what degree your group helps you survive.  So now what shall we do about Zika and the other plagues coming out of Pandora’s box?  Personally, I don’t eat boxed cereals anymore.  I get my info from books.  And the occasional website post.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


An elk skull showing the ivory remnant tusk.
It's up by the snout, above the other teeth.

At Saint-Germain-la-Riviére, which is 30 kms east of Bordeaux, France, there are many Paleolithic burials.  A young woman in a stone box formed by slabs was buried curled on her side and painted with ochre.  Her hand was over her face.  An inventory photo of what was buried with her showed the ornaments below:

The 71 Red Deer Teeth from a Paleolithic grave

My mouth fell open!  Elk teeth!  A favourite addition to fine Blackfeet clothing!  But these were in France, collected from elk killed 19,000 years ago!  I temporarily abandoned the Paleolithic woman while I looked for an explanation of those elk teeth.  We didn't mount many elk heads during the time I was connected to the Scriver Taxidermy shop, but when we did we used a hollow paper maché blank with the hide glued on and discarded the skull, except that the antlers were bolted back onto the form.  I never saw the teeth taken out, just rattling around in a little box later.

I knew that elk teeth were valuable and treasured by members of the "Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks" as an addition to watch fobs or cuff links.  I knew that they were equivalent to eye teeth.  I did NOT know that they are evolutionary remnants of what were once tusks or that they were as ivory as elephant tusks.  Maybe I should say "DE-volutionary remnants.  Most big deer, "red deer" in Europe and elk in America, have these ivory teeth.  Sometimes whitetails or other European deer will have small versions or a tooth on only one side.

A narwhale with his tusk tooth.

The premise is that a primordial common ancestor had tusks, an ancestor that eventually fanned out into elephants, narwhales, and pigs (you know how boars have tusks in circles, good for bracelets).  That's REALLY old, before whales took to the water.  On a narwhale the tusk is long and spiralled, so that in Europe it was often thought to be a unicorn's horn.  These "tusk" teeth are striking enough that meat-eaters noticed because they were hunters and hunters notice everything.  Today hunters still save them, but it's also possible to buy them from wild meat processors or, for the faint-hearted, to buy plastic imitations.

This child's dress has "teeth" carved from bone.

This more fanciful modern cape mixes teeth with beadwork.

Of course, the more elk teeth the better, because it means a good hunter in the family.  Crow people are very fond of elk teeth, and I deduce that this because there are many elk where they are settled.  Some say "too many" elk.  They are also raised domestically.  Elk hide would make a lighter, more supple dress, though some women preferred antelope, esp in summer.

Elk teeth, drilled.

Cowrie shells, drilled.

Cowrie shells, which are just about the same size and color as elk teeth, make good substitutes.  Not unlike baroque pearls. The abstract anthropological idea is called "accumulation," when similar objects are used together.  If there were one string through all the holes, they would be an "enchainment."  It's revealing to archeologists to study the trade routes of these shells which stretched across America.  Later Euro traders offered thimbles and falconry bells, which were often used in the same way.  Jingle dresses respond to the same impulse, with the addition of sound when the snoose can lids jangle.  Of course, the Pacific Northwest tribes have used buttons in sequences.

This cowrie shell cape is almost Victorian, suggesting lace and tassels.

Several sculptors have become interested in the people of the Paleolithic, which were very close to us except for their material culture.  We are curious about their minds since their brains look like ours.  Did they see the world the same way?  Or were their connectomes wired differently?  Reconstruction artists who specialize in ultra-realistic portraits have been commissioned to create people like this woman with all the elk teeth.

This is what Elizabeth Daynes suggests the woman found at
Saint-Germain-la-Riviére may have looked like.  Her work is esp. appealing.  Google "Daynes Atelier."

The skeleton as it was found on the left.
Elizabeth Daynes' forensic reconstruction on the right.

WIKI:  "The Paleolithic AgeEra or Period is a prehistoric period of human history distinguished by the development of the most primitive stone tools discovered, and covers roughly 95% of human technological prehistory. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

"The Paleolithic era is followed by the Mesolithic. The date of the Paleolithic–Mesolithic boundary may vary by locality as much as several thousand years. During the Paleolithic period, humans grouped together in small societies such as bands, and subsisted by gathering plants and fishing, hunting or scavenging wild animals.The Paleolithic is characterized by the use of knapped stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibers; however, due to their nature, these have not been preserved to any great degree. Surviving artifacts of the Paleolithic era are known as paleoliths."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


The Bullshoe Sisters: a force for education
when they grew up.

One of my chief pleasures and a driving reason for me to read is finding new ways to look at old things.  This is not widely shared around here.  People like to find the BP (“best practice” which is an interesting phrase linked to technologies, including health care and enforced by insurance) and then stick with it, even though new discoveries and goals develop.

Writing about historical indigenous people is often a matter of rehearsing the same old scripts and assumptions, some of them mistaken interpretations imposed by the oppressors of the times: missionaries, cavalry, railroad magnates, Euro adventurers and the like.  Even today the academics arrive with their heads full of romantic factoids which the local tribes are happy to exploit. 

So I’m pleased to be reading “Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory,” by Clive Gamble.  Gamble is English and thinks about the two major “revolutions” in the three million year history of hominid evolution: one is the sudden (in archeology years) explosion of creativity that created art, music, religion, language — the whole realm of metaphor that some believe is the real beginning of modern humans — the second is the development of agriculture and the relation to sedentary life.  (Not sitting down but settling in one place and building an environment that can be defined as containers, like houses.)

For instance, there is a lot of difference between a hearth and a fire.  A hearth is a place specially occupied by the fire, a “fire place,” which is related to crucibles, blacksmithing, and other technologies of metal that demand high heat over a short period of time.  This is different from the “fire place” that is used for cooking, even baking, because a camp fire can be improvised and baking can be done in a hole with a fire built on top of it, the way Blackfeet prepared camas roots.  People who do metallurgy are sedentary and repetitious.  People who only use fire as they travel are improvisers.  

This is one major difference between tribes.  The people of the Pacific Northwest lived in cedar plank long houses and built hearths, erected totem poles, created shell middens of considerable size.  The people of the prairie used technologies of tanning, cording, flintknapping, and left evidence of camps along streams where cottonwoods grew in predictable favored spots according to the seasons.  Since most of their materials were biodegradable, they are invisible to us now.  

Blackfeet kids at Heart Butte used to complain about getting more light-skinned as though it were yet another incursion of “pale faces,” but it was clear that they don’t go outside much these days.  This is windy country so it is a temptation to stay indoors by the TV, a kind of hearth, and they keep the light out for the sake of viewing screens.  In the days of lodge-dwelling, people were mostly outdoors, even maintaining a separate cooking and smoking fire outside the lodge.  They were good at rigging shade with pieces of tipi or leaned together leafy branches, but it was bright shade.  Photos that record skin ordinarily covered by clothing reveal much paler areas.  So having an “indoor hearth” has changed the people and what they do and what they think of themselves.  

Gamble talks about what he calls “scapes”, the environment one is aware of and uses, so there is a landscape of habit which for early Blackfeet would have meant trails more than “bushwhacking” which on the prairie would mean something more like “grass crushing,” the social landscape meaning how the people are distributed and connected, and the task scape which might mean hunting patterns or might refer to special sources of materials like the yellow clay used for paint.  He discusses the “childscape” as the territory and the pattern of knowing it through travel and work that shapes and limits the raising of children.  This is one of the uses of story which always includes the sky for Blackfeet children. 

When I was still teaching on the rez, I took a photo of the Rockies and used it to learn the horizon line of the peaks until I could “write” it like a cursive sentence.  I’d walk to the blackboard and “write” it or put it at the top of a page.  The kids always recognized it, but were surprised that it could be learned, which means that they had lost the map-drawing skills of their ancestors.  But there was a fascination with “white man’s maps” in Atlases and highway guides.  

Reciprocally, whites who come to the rez get very frustrated with the lack of street signs because people here (even whites) go by the social landscape and the task landscape, which are learned and repetitive, often anchored by landmarks like the location of community dumpsters.  People whose garbage is invisibly collected don’t register such objects or the logic of their location.

The Rockies at sunset

Anyway, white man’s maps are drawn as though from a satellite, looking from the top down. Indian maps, especially along the Rockies, are from the side and mark distinctively shaped peaks as well as the erosion valleys and canyons with uses.  The criteria for most things is experience — reacting to what one has learned through living with the sensory characteristics that translate to usefulness.  But other things known have been arrived at by analysis or implication, more often recorded as narrative than as abstract ideas.  

“Fittingness” becomes the criteria for something persisting unless it is an exceptional or "counter" practice or object that grabs the imagination.  The wheel was not invented by Blackfeet because it is mostly useless without roads, esp. in gumbo country where a “stone boat” — a wooden sled — or a travois can go places where a wheel would soon be bogged down.  In some ways glassified stone that could be knapped to an edge was more useful than metal.  But mirrors were fascinating, unique.

A childscape doesn’t just provide knowledge of materials and territories.  It teaches how to do things, how to learn, how to tolerate failure or even pain.  Missionaries and other Euro-taught and now-teaching people have pressed most rez kids NOT to rely on themselves but to ask for the “proper” way to do things.  They are punished if they do the wrong thing, which teaches them to do nothing without permission.  Guided by social opinion from the very beginning, they can be crippled by confusion and double-binds.  Pretty soon there is rebellion.

Since the Sixties, living territory has become even more treacherous because of political counterculture resistance to “best practices.”  In fact, the generation breaks introduced by new technologies and coalitions of same-aged kids — supported by music waves, the internet, and the media’s fondness for labeling — mean that kids don’t look to adults anymore but depend on each other, even when it comes to risky stuff like mind-altering substances, sex and reproduction, criminal matters, and precautions in a dangerous environment.  These are all part of the childscape, which patterns the child's thought into adulthood.

Gamble demonstrating how to butcher a sheep.

Clive Gamble is hard to read, partly because of anthropological neologisms for concepts that are uncommon and partly because of more classic jargon.   But far more than having to learn vocabulary, it is necessary to reframe one’s childlike from-the-outside perceptions -- as though “Other” people were dolls -- into the world-as-perceived-with-the-senses and the assumptions about them that are experience-based.  We are used to filtering, skimming, reducing to materials that can be marketed.  We are not used to being submerged in a landscape.  Sub- merged.  Land- scape.  Judging from computer games and videos, we want these experiences, but don't know we're IN them.