BECOMING WILD AGAIN
Truth is a pathless land.
We spend our lives hurrying away from the real,
as though it were deadly to us.
But the soil is all of the earth that is really ours.
--Wiliam Bryant Logan
A culture does not stand still, but is always moving and changing like a river, responding to what is around it and within it. The Amskapi Pikuni culture cannot be frozen in time, put in a box or a book or a movie or a museum. There will never be a definitive description of what it is to be Pikuni, because that changes over time.
Blackfeet, Neetseetahpee, are more than frybread, stickgame and beads. They are not just the remnants of warriors who once lived in tall lodges set up in circles on the prairie. Fundamentally, these are people shaped over the centuries by the prairie. They know how to endure, to laugh, to love babies, to aspire to walk in the sky and marry stars, and to fear for their future if the rules are broken. Now that the world has changed so drastically, the problem has been sorting out the rules again. It is a problem we all share.
What is non-assimiliated autochthonous culture? First of all, historically it was "wild," in the Gary Snyder sense of "self-regulating." If we are moving to this new meaning and away from a Euro-centric view of Native American culture, then it is necessary to move to an eco-centric definition of "wild."
"Wild" alludes to a process of self-organization that generates systems and organisms, all of which are within the contraints of -- and constitute components of -- larger systems that are again wild, such as major ecosystems or the water cycle in the biosphere. Wildness can be said to be the essential nature of nature. As reflected in consciousness, it can be seen as a kind of open awareness -- full of imagination, but also the source of alert survival intelligence. The workings of the human mind at its very richest reflect this self-organizing wildness. So language does not impose order on a chaotic universe, but reflects its own wildness back.
It is not that a certain kind of human beings were in control in the old days, but that the culture was constantly supported, guided and sometimes severely edited by the land itself. The words were there to say how to live on this land. No other culture from some other land intervened in an overwhelming way, though influences were felt, particularly after Europeans arrived on the continent. Because of natural ecological forces over thousands of years, equilibrium had formed and feedback consequences existed to keep extremes from swinging out into destruction. Being "Indian" was not a matter of race so much as sharing a culture that had developed over millenia and blossomed, even mushroomed, when enriched by the horse and metal. The Pikuni themselves used their language as a marker: if you could speak like them, it was more important than how you looked. The criterion was cultural, not racial.
The difference between the ancient Blackfeet culture and the modern reservation culture is that today things are changing too quickly for a harmony, a natural feedback system, to form. And yet the first impulse most people have is to suppress change, to restore control. Things are "on the boil," a phrase which happens to be a European root for wildness as a word. "Wilding" is what delinquents say they are doing when they rape and destroy, thinking that predation is all there is to ecology. In fact, it is the Euro-American colonialist conviction that Indians are "wild" and therefore will run out of control if not governed by "civilized" people that has set up the false opposition of "assimilated" to "unassimilated."
Today Euro- and Afro- and Asian- and every other kind of hyphenate genetic group in the United States is as much on the boil as the “American Americans.” It is not that one elite group must teach the rest of us the "right way," but that we must all find a new way. To succeed, as Gary Snyder points out, we must find that new way within the larger planetary "wildness" of weather, geology, ecologies, and cosmic forces we hardly realize exist. (In the 1800’s there was a sunstorm so violent that its electromagnetic impact made the telegraph lines melt. What would it do to our communication satellites?)
More than that, we each must find our way back to the self-regulating "wildness" of independent, open awareness -- not for the sake of aesthetics or even personal satisfaction, but in order for human beings to survive on this planet. "Alert survival intelligence," Snyder calls it. I feel sure that part of that will be the strengthening of tribal community wovenness.
A new Pikuni culture is coming into being, one that participates in world culture. It is the retrieval and articulation of millenia of stories, religious philosophy, and artistic distillations in many media. Of all the forces that go unseen and yet ferment into energy, this is the strongest. It is here that people get the courage to start new institutional forms and to look for money boldly in other places than Washington, D.C. Libraries need to be built and maintained: on computer with Internet access. Scholarly sophistication that is not confined to one or another discipline can find new ways to retrieve and understand very old concepts. Because scholars around the planet can agree on methods and respect ideas that are heuristic, this is another way that Pikuni can claim standing as "Real People," a nation.
So far this effort has had to be separated from the schools, even at the level of the community college, because it is destroyed by the kind of opportunism that targets public instutions. Schools on the reservation tend to exclude the very white people who know how to recover nearly lost silent cultural languages. They are seen as a threat to the existing order who take jobs that would otherwise support a local family.
EDUCATION AS EXTINCTION
Education is obviously a great cultural force, not only sustaining culture, but also changing and even extinguishing it. The sharpest question of all has been how to reconcile conflicting cultures without genocide. There are two kinds of genocide: that which causes the physical death of people and that which slowly snuffs out their way of life by displacing it with our own. Like the appalling extinctions of species through the displacement of habitat, it is the slower way that is the more deadly and final. Contemporary materialism, media-driven, eliminates more Native Americans than the U.S. Cavalry ever did. Darrell Kipp says wryly, "If these kids were to have Sacred Bundles, the contents would be athletic shoes, VCR's, and the keys to a pickup." [This is already out of date -- surely an iPod ought to be in there!]
The dilemma seemingly presented by the task of educating young tribal members is whether to let them be what we think of as "Indians"-- and therefore crippled economically, even second-class citizens -- or to assimilate them so that they are "white" except for their appearance. But this is a false dilemma. By going back to the source of the culture -- which is always the land and always preserved in the language -- and by opening up to the new future that all human beings must find on this planet, "Indian" education can be freed to be both inspiration and tool. None of us will be the same tomorrow. We must create a new culture.
People of the land should be leading us. All our cultures are challenged by our increasing detachment from the sources of our food and fuel. Ultimately our teacher is the planet itself. Reservations, because they are still circumscribed and have a potentially self-regulating polity, can become cutting-edge cultures: the old folded into the new in the way that has always meant human renaissance. Almost secretly, this has already begun. [There are wind turbines whirring in Browning.]
A psychiatrist once said to me, “I don’t see why you would even want to live in a place like Browning. You tell me how dangerous it is, how difficult life is. Why stay there when there are better places?” His question released an answer I didn’t know I had: “If something happens to me in Browning, I know who did it and who his people are. I can be angry at a known individual with a face and tell him so. In fact, I can tell his grandmother on him and then he’ll be in REAL trouble!” The grandmothers aren’t so powerful as they once were, but community pressure still exists and no lives are secret. The reservation world is a human-sized one. There is no need to resort to television personalities to create the impression that we don’t live among strangers. Someone once remarked that human beings have probably evolved to handle true relationships with a hundred people, maybe a few more. The reservation is that kind of world.
At the other end of the scale, when people recommend reforms to schools, they rarely take into account the broadest political, historical, geographical, and ethnic factors. No one wanted this book to include talk about the Cretaceous Era, though that prehistoric eon still affects the high prairie in the form of weather, soil types, fuel sources and valuable fossil bones now being "rustled" off Blackfeet lands. Such broad ideas are considered dangerous, likely to entangle everyone in unmanageable problems. But this is because of limited educations that have provided no coherent framework for big ideas. We have been stuck with too many unconnected facts and concepts. We know a lot, but there is no ordering principle.
Over time, communities form some kind of habitual way of seeing "school." But the schools, particularly when they pursue goals that will change the community, can be a disturbing influence. Communities don't want the schools to be troublesome. The educational establishment does not want change that will displace those now in power. Kids don't want change -- they don't even want to grow up. Parents want school to be what it was when they were kids. All these groups conspire without realizing it to prevent change. Schools that don't change become destroyers, chains, suffocators, but as someone has remarked, “Change has no constituency.”
People do not get elected to school boards by being unpopular, so only popular changes are supported by the board. This is why athletic programs so easily dominate schools. The most popular platform is always the Status Quo, because change necessarily means that some of those who are now powerful will lose, and some of the present weak will become strong. Only if enough people feel they are losing can change begin. We are getting close to that point now. And all the time the small world tries to be consistent, the larger context is slowly evolving.
In most communities, tax payers are effective monitors who want results for their money. Specifically, they want graduates who can be successfully employed so as to share the tax burden. A school that awards at graduation empty boxes with no real diplomas inside is a scandal. A town that cannot sustain ordinary businesses because of burglary and disorder from unemployable young men cannot grow and succeed. Mothers who are children cannot shelter their babies. Families sustained only by welfare checks cannot function.
If the school is not supported by local tax-payers -- as in the case of federally subsidized local reservation schools -- but is only guided by local vote-getters and family heads, the school staff has a formidable task of education. Leaders must educate the community to do what is unpopular -- like maintaining universal high standards no matter whose child gets flunked -- in the interest of a long-range benefit. At the very least they must present a coherent plan and goals that are truly helpful to the community rather than to themselves, the employees of the school. Most of all, they must resist acting as parents who let the true parents remain children. This is a lot to ask. It can only be asked of leaders who will stay and share the outcomes. Leaders need to be allowed time to build-- not discarded at the first sign of conflict. A culture accumulated out of broken beginnings is no culture at all.
Heart Butte people don't look any different from other Amskapi Pikuni The prejudice against them that comes from the reservation is not racial, but micro-cultural. Heart Butte is a community that is twice-stigmatized: once by the surrounding white community and again by the larger reservation which calls it "inbred." The people become overinvolved in defending themselves but still accept a bad self-image. They invest in secrecy, denial, a show of material goods, and putting down other people. These strategies only lock them more tightly into their isolation and self-criticism. On the rest of the reservation the same strategies have the same effect. In the small towns around the reservation the same pattern repeats. No one sees the uselessness of reassuring oneself by putting others down.
Culturally assimilated Native Americans on reservations preserve their racial genetics and entitlement to affirmative action. But some have converted to "white" culture, hoping to be seen as more "responsible," "just like whites." Their reward is economic preference, because the most "white" are still the first to be hired. Those who wish to taunt them call them "Apples" (red on the outside, white on the inside) or "Uncle Tomahawks." Many stay within a Native American context on reservations or in Bureau of Indian Affairs jobs, because they preserve their advantages there in a way they could not in the white mainstream. Moving from one reservation or job to another as troubles develop, the "Apples" never really leave a hybrid culture of mock assimilation -- partly mainstream and partly Native American. Lately -- because being culturally authentic has increased in value -- people want to hire “real Indians” for one reason or another. These adaptable Indians have suddenly taken crash courses in the most obvious cultural markers. Then we have the very scrubbed, very arrogant, marvelously dressed pow-wow princesses. Few of them can sustain interest and energy long enough to learn the language, which is its own reward.
This limited experience erodes their confidence. They never experience success and acceptance without the shield of being "Indian," and yet they are excluded from the traditional Indian community. The price they pay came clear to me when one of the Apple school administrators I had fought with dropped dead of a heart attack. He was younger than me. He had lost his way.
All rhetoric aside, what practical measures should this small village school address now that it has a new building? How will it withstand the constant withdrawal of federal funds? How will it find and keep excellent teachers? When will it shape a curriculum for young people with aching hearts, no longer children but reluctant to become adults? How can the Nitzitahpi keep hold of their pasts while not being trapped in it?
One of the most basic issues for Heart Butte to address is the quality of administrators. Idealistic and school-wise administrators like Phil Ward seem to have disappeared and, frankly, he was an assimilationist in the same way as my Scots grandparents. That is, his effectiveness came in part from his conviction that a good education was universal, basically European and meant to provide economic viability. Far too many white administrators today not only have bad educations but, more seriously, don’t even know they are poorly educated. They own paperwork that says otherwise.
One winter the Native American administrators-- all of them men I knew as youngsters-- were in a celebratory mood and went drinking as buddies. Out of boozy generosity they decided to pull a white administrator into their circle so they came to his house. Seeing that they were drunk, he refused to come out. (He was a person of stiff religious scruples.) So the men began to throw snowballs at the house, harder and harder until they broke a big picture window. Then they ran off guffawing. They were lucky not to have been shot by a panicked outsider flashing back to John Wayne movies. If those same men had been pelting my house, I would have grabbed up a broom and gone out to do battle, converting it all to comedy. But never in a million years would those men have gotten drunk with me. I could walk into any of their houses -- often have -- and had coffee, but not liquor. In those days I was seen by them as local, unlike the luckless white administrator who soon moved on.
The school can hardly leave the state education system and one would not want to recommend that it did, but state-level authorities need to give special attention to reservation schools. In the past, the people in the Office of Public Instruction assigned oversight of "Indian" schools have been neither boat-rockers nor change-makers, nor has anyone wanted them to be. In order to preserve correct politics, the overseers of reservation schools are often assimilationist Native Americans, old buddies with the people they ought to be disciplining, anxious to look good for whites, completely out of touch with truly indigenous people. It is not a case of a fox watching the chicken-house, but of the high status chickens being given formal permission to peck the low status chickens while sparing their friends. Whether administrators are Indian or not counts less than whether they are competent or not.
There are alternatives to total administrator control. Robey Clark, a former student of mine who now works with the Northwest Education Labs in Portland, tells me about a program called "Onward to Excellence" that is a process for calling out vision. It involves the entire community in setting goals, staying research-based, and redefining success by creating a school culture. In short, the model is ecological and self-governing. The program sets up short-term goals, like getting as many students as possible attending in the first ten days of school (which are often the most crucial for success) or running a refresher scholastic camp in late August at the same time as the athletes begin their training. These strategies create long-term success in school. Still, such programs will only soak up cash and energy unless the community and the administration support them-- insist upon them in the face of long distances and bad weather. Otherwise, they will tucker out like so many other ideas from the past.
Amskapi Pikuni need to know their own reservation. At a recent Tribal Council meeting, some action was proposed at "Palookaville," but no decision could be made because no one on the Council knew where or what Palookaville was. It was the place the sheep-shearers ("palookas") camped when the south reservation was full of sheep flocks -- when Ivan Doig and his family ran sheep there. Decades ago, when the corrals were still upright, Bob Scriver showed me where it was-- near Heart Butte where the “inside road” branches off to East Glacier. I daresay that the same Tribal Council member who couldn't find Palookaville would be well able to guide himself around Washington, D.C. to the better restaurants.
If the Pikuni hope to keep their identity, one of the highest educational priorities I could recommend would be the creation of a geography of the reservation. I would accompany it with a heavily experiential natural history class. By experiential I mean classes going out to look at the land, walking around on it, getting an old person to tell what happened there. Find the tree that was once a grizzly and, before that, a fierce warrior. Find Red Blanket Hill, a place so loaded with power as to be respected, even feared. The rancher who uses that land keeps his cows off it. Learn that story. Find the locations of the burial houses and the great boulder erratics considered holy by the Old People.
Some of this is already being done. A teacher in Browning has written a natural history of the reservation to be used as a textbook. Now, beyond knowing the stories of their land, the local people can learn the science of what is there. Where are the mineral deposits and how did they get there? What are the grizzlies feeding on? Where are the fossils exposed? What is the depth of the water table? Can giardia be controlled? Every study of the reservation land, water, weather, plants or animals should be archived accessibly and taught to the young people.
Former students often remark that because they look "Indian," people expect them to know "Indian stuff." The very least the schools ought to supply is a simple history of the last four hundred years in the tribe's life. Research and materials are vital, exist in quantity, and only lack publishing. People have been coming to the Reservation to study the tribe for years, but not until the past decade -- when Piegan Institute began to build an archive of scholarly work -- has there been any way for local people to read this work or even know that it existed. The material now only found in a legal brief prepared for a lawsuit against the United States ought to be expanded, balanced, and shaped into a book. It is a close accounting of two cultures pitched against each other.
The third need is for a civics course that addresses Native American government and law. Partly this is a matter of understanding treaties, and partly there should be resources for wise organizational design in the coming years. The experience of all authochthonous peoples needs to be compiled and analyzed. What are the safeguards against corruption, the doors to innovation?
The fourth need is for a grounding in economic theory on reservations. When contemporary Heart Butte people speak of being a "sovereign nation," they tend to see the concept as meaning "we're the boss." They do not expect any drop in federal support. In truth, until Blackfeet as individuals and as a tribe develop a sustainable economy that fits the givens of North Central Montana--which is a place of harsh climate, varied soils, difficult transportation, mineral potential, and majestic beauty -- they will always be a client people, a "third world." No one will really respect them until they can pay their own way. This is not an easy task, even for white men with good bankers. Ask the many ranchers along the High Line who exist only through federal support as expensive as that given to the reservation. And yet when the locals think of providing jobs, their first impulse is a factory with people filing in the door, a model from the urban Fifties.
The people most likely to sabotage economic development are assimilated people who have lost from their hearts the old cultural obligation to support the whole tribe. In its place some keep the prideful family obligation to elevate their own relations, especially if they have enough powerful relations to keep them in their offices. Some care for no one but themselves. Next most dangerous are those who collaborate with the State of Montana to breach the borders of the reservation, eventually erasing it. Yet it is unrealistic to expect the reservation to exist without reciprocity. These are puzzles that outsiders can't solve.
The libraries of the reservation schools ought to be packed with the high quality Native American literature. Videos of the best movies, particularly the Canadian ones with serious themes and Native American actors, ought to crowd out the images of drugs and perversion sold by Hollywood. Young people need stories and role models that help them to understand and to grow, markers for truth and courage.
Add more training in media literacy (particularly resisting materialism and breaking the soap-opera myths of violence and sex), fund the study of video-making with the reservation ecology as the subject, and all kinds of computer skills including the Internet. Chuck Jonkel, the famous expert on bears, has always said that kids could make excellent nature videos. They don't have to go out looking for grizzlies. Weather, grouse, lichen, geology -- the laboratory is all around them. The Nature Conservancy would love to help if they could figure out how. It's only a matter of time before someone provides a go-between. Often this is the sort of thing an informed outsider with a grant can do.
COMING OVER THE HORIZON
Change cannot be prevented. After the blizzard that sealed off Heart Butte for more than a week, a local citizen group formed. They began to petition for practical changes: a snowplow stationed at Heart Butte, satellite clinics for dental work and babies, satellite BIA agency offices as they once had in the past. I would like to see them insist on a Pondera County Library branch, like the one the East Glacier Women's Club maintains in Glacier County. A few strategic snowfences, or maybe some bull-dozing, could get rid of the three or four bad places in the road that still make them impassable when the wind blows in winter. If this citizen group can keep from squabbling and splitting up, they will find many solutions, some from outside and some they can do for themselves.
Heart Butte might consider petitioning to be included in Glacier County, instead of existing as a tiny part of Pondera County which plainly does not intend to be of help. The trouble with that strategy is that Heart Butte could be seized upon as a minor appendage to the School District #9 empire. There has been talk of making Heart Butte School into a special "remedial" school, a separate track for trouble-makers. The forces of basketball load Heart Butte with kick-outs from Browning and Valier who thirst to play ball but don't qualify because of scholastic or discipline problems. The Heart Butte kids tend to come from "full-blood" -- some would say "backwards" -- families. Browning, in some minds playing second-class to Cut Bank, likes to turn around and look down on Heart Butte. These dynamics don't make for good teachers, good students, or satisfied parents.
But what if Heart Butte were a magnet school, a truly experimental school that specialized in Amskapi Pikuni culture? What if the new high school facility were used by the Nature Conservancy or the Boone and Crockett ranch just to the south to present world-class conferences about the issues of the surrounding wilderness? What if Heart Butte contracted to educate tribal members who are now growing up off the reservation in cities? What if they even accepted white students or European students in order to teach them the Old Culture, the ways of the high eastslope mountains, "drumhead earth." Include a physical conditioning program: track, hiking-- okay, even basketball.
Somehow Heart Butte has got to find a way to be its own school without playing second fiddle to anyone else, white or Blackfeet. This means study, reflection, inclusive conversation over a long period of time, and probably some occasional imported experts of one kind or another. It would be a rare superintendent who could visualize the process alone and persuade everyone to follow it out. People are used to wanting instant results, cutting whatever corners are necessary. Contracts are too easy to break. Maybe some outside agency that the whole community can trust would be able to guide the process: some university education school or even the Canadian Treaty 7 (Blackfoot) Education Committee, the Grandparents from the North.
But nothing is really going to work for Heart Butte, until the village gets real about its future. For such a small community it is remarkably complex and contentious. Every major family will have to be included somehow. The churches, which have been faithfully willing to stand side-by-side, must continue to work for family communication skills, noble goals, and simple trust, and the more charismatic religious groups need to be brought into the picture. Citizen skills need to be encouraged and supported. There must be a better way to communicate than picking up gossip at the post office.
The tendency in Heart Butte is for the townspeople and parents to decide what sounds great, assign it to someone else (like teachers), and not come back until it's time to pick the whole effort apart. To change this, everyone local must at least know what's going on, and hopefully be part of it. Let everyone risk. Teachers are hard pressed to create meaningful lesson plans, keep a classroom on task all day, monitor lunch, grade papers, build curriculum, participate in professional organizations, continue to educate themselves, run the athletic programs and other extra-curricular activies -- and still preserve their own family life. If so many parents are unemployed and without money, let them donate time, knowledge and caring.
Heart Butte is in one sense a very old place, but in another sense it is also a uniquely post-modern place where the issues are the same as those that concern the whole world: the impact of drugs on society, ecological integrity, the reconfiguration of labor and economics, the nature of family, interfacing cultures, the proper uses of institutions, and the healing of residual trauma from history. The location of Heart Butte on the threshold of the Rockies uniquely qualifies the school for a re-valuing of the land.
One of the most crucial questions of our times, in my opinion, is whether human culture is something that merely happens in spite of our intentions or whether it can be deliberately formed to be both sustainable and just: "self-regulated." The Blackfeet are a people already deeply changed by the impact of outsiders determined to eliminate their culture. When smallpox-contaminated blankets were given to them, they became victims of deliberate biological warfare. Today they know they are still at the economic mercy of a government once willing, even eager, to kill them. Even if the legally owed payments to the Blackfeet were maintained, other subsidies--"welfare" even-- is the only way that many can survive. Though the letters to the editor in the local paper speak defiantly of self-determination, the Blackfeet remain a client people controlled by bureaucracies, some of them internal.
In the face of the Baker Massacre and the Starvation Winter, Heart Butte has basically adapted to a rural white context -- that is, prosperity and propriety are what counts and all the effective models are in the past. In fact, the whole village is fundamentally committed to a small-town, nineteenth-century view that may be as close as this country has come to having a unified culture -- a dream many still yearn for. It was in WWI, which some say was the end of the nineteenth century, that the United States first became a World power and in WWI that the Blackfeet were able to fight alongside citizens, though they were still technically only wards of the government until they were granted citizenship in 1924. Times were good in a modest way until the Great Depression. It is exactly this concentration on a nineteenth century world view that makes the reservation an attractive place for white people uncomfortable with the rate at which we are hurtling into the future. This is the same view shared with the small white towns around the reservation. But is it realistic?
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
By the time I left Heart Butte, if you had gotten me drunk (and I was and am careful not to drink), you would have heard rage focussed on white administrators. The object of the rage is different for different folks, but very few people can suffer the frustrations and tragedies of a reservation -- partly prison camp, partly colony, partly time-capsule, partly ghetto -- and not feel rage. This can be healthy -- rage is energy for change. It got this book written. But it can go out of control.
At a literary conference in Eastend, Saskatchewan, boyhood home of Wallace Stegner, I "facilitated" a conversation between James Welch, Jr. and Rudy Wiebe, a writer from Edmonton, Alberta. Welch is a gentle and conciliatory person, but Rudy Wiebe is not afraid of rage. (Ironically, since he has a reputation for being contentious, his major work has been a biography of Big Bear, a pacifist patriarch of the Cree who was finally hanged by the government.) "I'm sick of all this talk about healing," said Wiebe. "We are not healed and we should not claim to be healed." To him, we are doing too much covering up and not really cleaning out the wounds. The audience, mostly local ranchers, was shocked-- but I agree. We settle for the appearance of healing.
When about 1977 Dennis Banks and others of the AIM group were arrested in Oregon for transporting dynamite in a Winnebago, my minister at the time, Alan Deale, agreed to be Banks' release monitor. Wounded Knee was recent, and liberals were quick to align themselves against the FBI before they even had any facts. Banks took our pulpit one Sunday and made a fine speech. But afterwards a little old lady expressed to me her worries. "Do you think they're innocent?" she asked me. "I wouldn't want to obstruct justice. But if they're really innocent, it's all right."
The point, of course, was that the trial had not begun, so what we were protecting was the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a key concept in our democracy. This was particularly crucial because South Dakota wanted Dennis Banks back to be tried for Wounded Knee. In a South Dakota prison at that time, Banks might easily have been killed. Probably none of us, even Banks, could really sort out the tangle of intentions, deeds, accidents, and victories. But the little old lady wanted privileged knowledge, a God's eye view, to judge before the trial. If we wait to be irreproachable, nothing will happen. (Banks jumped bail and went to California where Governer Brown refused to extradite him.) We must be willing to make mistakes.
Leonard Peltier has been in jail these many years over an unproven crime. Instead of addressing whether the man got a fair trial, everyone wants to be omniscient enough to know what really happened. The energy for trying to free him comes mostly from those who believe he is innocent of murder. When I talk to people about teaching on the reservation, the attitude I hear in their questions is, "Well, what do they deserve? After all, they were savages. Now they're a bunch of drunks. Why should we do anything for them?" This is why Native Americans are afraid to be honest about their problems: they become the justification for turning away.
If the village of Heart Butte is interpreted in historical terms as once being a Blackfeet band or coalition of bands who travelled together through the hunting/gathering cycle, generally returning to this easily recognized and comfortable spot for much of the year and finally staying there, then underlying this "white-style rural village" are patterns hundreds of years old. Mountain Chief, Young Running Crane, Heavy Runner and Little Dog were chiefs -- patriarchs -- in the earliest contact with whites and their names endure as European-style patronyms. The band system was an elastic one that allowed dissenters to go apart to cool off or to turn their aggressions outward on hunting or raiding out-group peoples. At the same time, community pressure mostly kept abusers and thieves in check. The harshness of weather, the difficulty of obtaining enough food, the need for a dependable social support system, were all order-keeping forces that wove the ecology through the people, creating a culture that succeeded.
The farflung coalition of tribes that ended up split by the U.S./Canada border has not yet been dispersed. The Treaty 7 Blackfoot education committee came en masse to visit Heart Butte-- not pushing any agenda, but just getting acquainted. In their midst was an Alberta reservation business owner who was Japanese. The committee was secure enough in their identity and goals to include him without a fuss. (In Browning people who were our enemies in World War II are still vilified in letters to the editor. There is no awareness that the senator who has done most to help Native Americans recently is Senator Inouye, a genetic Japanese.) In Canada education is regulated by examination. Long ago the realities of class distinctions were accepted, though mitigated by a strong sense of fairness and of excellence as an entitlement. The larger Canadian context is sensitized to culture differences, adamant about educational standards, and inclined to leave reserves alone. The reserves themselves have been maintained communally, rather than divided into homesteads. This has proven to be a more fortunate combination of forces.
The Alberta Blackfoot educators are outside the career remuda of assimilated Native Americans in Montana, who swap inside jobs through recommending and hiring each other. Canadians compete with a different circle and therefore can be more frank. Admirably, they remain tactful, but what they say is taken seriously. No one can accuse them of not being entitled by culture, since they are still the main reservoir of Blackfoot ways and language, nor race, since they are less intermarried with whites than the American part of the coalition. The weak Canadian economy has begun to push Canadian Blackfoot into School District # 9 and Blackfeet Community College jobs.
A broader source of help has been Pan-Indian organizations, particularly when they have connected educated members of tribes across the country. To their credit, Turner Enterprises has produced a series of tapes, each centered on one large area of the United States, which investigates contemporary, scholarly, tribal thought. When they had gathered a circle of racially and culturally native leaders and thinkers, the producers simply asked them to talk about their history and ways. Educated, articulate, and in mid-life, the speakers are completely outside of any stereotypes and firmly grounded in their own experience. When watching the tapes in sequence, differences from one ecology to another sharpen. Though every speaker is intense -- and after the talking has continued for hours, tragedy darkens the faces -- many are funny, joking in the tribal way. Few whites ever get to know this kind of person intimately. Educators headed for reservations should watch this set of tapes.
Beyond that, a world-wide network of native language speakers and original peoples has formed. I hear tribal people expressing concern for the “reindeer people,” and was rather startled to see on the news that the native Laplanders live in structures very like a Prairie Indian lodge. The nomads of the high Tibetan plateau often look Native American. In New Zealand the Maoris began to develop methods for preserving their old language, which they taught to the Hawaiians, who are Native Americans who never were allotted reservations. It is the Hawaiians who encourage and guide the Blackfeet Immersion Schools. Then the Blackfeet reach out to other tribes across the West to repeat the pattern.
I believe that the New Blackfeet will come in part from new technology and the ability of the students to achieve through it. When the genius computer expert arrived at the Moccasin Flats Blackfeet Immersion school, I was surprised that he turned out to be one of those Browning study hall renegades. Then I reflected on his good grades, his reliable mom and dad, and his hard-working grandmother. He was always intelligent-- he just needed some way to apply it that held his attention and let him grow. American Indians in Science and Technology is one of the most effective Pan-Indian organizations and their publication, Winds of Change is an eye-opener.
Head Start, the one federal program that has gone through crisis after crisis without losing sight of the goal, has endured on the reservation. In the earliest years the children of white teachers dominated the groups, but helpers became more and more resourceful about finding the kids who weren't coming because no adult was getting around to making it possible. Instead of getting mad and giving up, volunteers went to the homes, washed the kids' faces, tucked them into t-shirts and jeans, and fed them at the program. Slowly, slowly, the kids became more confident and skilled. These first Headstart people are the ones graduating from college now.
Not all white people are oppressors. There is a small contingent of white "granolas" and craftsmen who have quietly settled in on the Rez to edit the weekly newspaper, run motels, raise organic crops, offer massages, and operate cafes. They are romantic, all right, but they aren't afraid of work or thinking. Powerful people from beyond the reservation take an interest and become increasingly deft at putting money where it will help. The churches have always worked hard and are still a source of parenting classes, 12-step groups, devotions of all kinds, and food co-ops -- to say nothing of bringing in work camps during the summer to improve housing and learn about Blackfeet. It's hard to think of a better exchange than a mid-western city kid getting to know an old Amskapi Pikuni person by weather-proofing and painting their house. Both are enriched by stories to tell. The old people do not find it demeaning. In their view the youngest have always been obligated to help the oldest.
In large part the Pikuni are benefiting from the energy of the generation I taught in the early Sixties when post-war confidence and the seeming unity of the larger culture allowed enough consensus to stay organized. In the Phil Ward years we were steady-- we got the job done day after day, year after year. Many of those students have earned multiple degrees and have succeeded in the wider world. Now in midlife they often return home and, after their first shock at the changes, hunker down to work on the problem. Sometimes the first problem is figuring out what it means to them to be Blackfeet.
One of the most remarkable people from my first seventh grade class is Mike McKay, who has developed a comedy routine by impersonating reservation types such as "Sister Girl," an outrageous old woman with her stockings falling down who tells it "like it is." Poking fun at social stupidity and contradiction is as old as human beings and a way to tell the truth to people's faces. I take it as a sign of maturity.
In the end, countervailing forces and competing images will play themselves out within the overarching ecological metaphor. Those who survive will not be the wealthiest, the strongest, the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most assimilated-- but rather the ones who are adaptable, "fitting," and able to find new paths. Then people will sort themselves out into patterns with niches for many types. But it will take many years and some people will be lost. I'm fearful that some of them will be people I deeply care about.
The Blackfeet as a microcosm should be intensely fascinating for the planet. We all ultimately face the same challenge. If the Blackfeet can find a way to fit their population to their windy, sun-bleached land, to preserve the integrity of their east-slope rawhide environment, and to weave a new self-regulating Wild Way that includes and guides all the people regardless of race, then they will not only have saved themselves, but also will have become the heroes for the rest of us that we yearn for them to be.
The newest Amskapi Pikuni school is The Moccasin Flat Blackfeet Immersion School, Amskapi Pikuni I Pausin Eskenimatoyis, The South Piegan Language School, The Speaking Language (Sound) of the Piegans. There has never been another school like it on this reservation. In fact, only a few years ago, before Senator Inuoye's new law was passed, teaching the native language was technically illegal.
Founded by grant writers working through Piegan Institute, Moccasin Flats Immersion School is incorporated by them as a non-profit organization able to administer funds specifically for Blackfeet language. The students pay tuition, fortified by scholarships. During the years at Heart Butte and afterwards I kept in touch by mail with Darrell, addressing him as Apenake Peta (Morning Eagle) Kipp, one of the members of the Piegan Institute, wrote back his own reflections as he made his own discoveries. We joked about the letters being published someday, so I saved them.
His first letter was written on April Fools' Day a number of years ago. He found the administrators of his bilingual program in the schools were unreasonable. They were clinging to meaningless workshops, avoiding the actual doing of anything but pushing papers around-- probably for fear of failure or maybe because they didn’t know how to make theories real. Fed up, Darrell simply walked over to the primary school, asked for time in a classroom, and started teaching them to speak Blackfeet.
A very old Nitzitahpi technique of educating little kids while sitting around the fire on winter evenings is making one's two hands into puppets and having them talk to each other. Darrell wrote:
"I brought two puppets to class (Tsiki [boy] and Kokonowa [girl]) and found myself amazed... [In one session] the kids learned the following words: the names of all the towns even remotely close to original territory, five rivers and creeks (cricks), plus in the best tradition of mimics spoke crystal clear at least two active voice sentences (no "them things...") and internalized: nisto, kisto, Pikuni, Siksikawa, Kainah, Tsiki, Kokonowaw and Oki. Signed themselves crazy for all the words. Words, words, words were flying around the room. Once in a while the kids got excited enough to run towards me, hopping up on their little chairs to get closer, and I put my big number ten shoe up in the air to hold them off. Who said anything couldn't be done? It still works. Just do it."
Later this is what he said:
"I really felt some sharp-edged insights and blazing truths were floated in front of me during the last few months as I sat in a tiny chair in front of fifteen or so children, and used every sign and Blackfeet word I knew to make them electric. Several times I just turned my head and spoke to myself quietly, 'Wow. This is brainy, heavy stuff happening and for a fact hardly anybody knows as well as me this one moment."
During this same time period Darrell and his wife, Roberta, had moved into Darrell's mom's house, because he had promised his mother she would never have to go to a nursing home. He continues in the letter: "Today, earlier, I sat at the table upstairs and ran through one of my favorite patters with my mother and her aunt, Annie Running Wolf, ninety plus, and a long-time resident of your fine village Heart Butte. I treated them young and they responded amazed with good laughs and Wow looks of what a treat this is. Roberta said, 'They think and hear better in Blackfeet.'"
Sometimes he got frustrated and went outside to rake up trash, "the highest trash pile outside a garbage dump" or to cut down the knee-high grass: "I have this fantasy that I'm revealing the golf course that once existed under Browning, but I go around any mint, sage or other plant that looks as though it might once have been native."
In another place he says: "Last year I did five twenty-minute TPR [total physical response] workshops with fifty kids each... We did 'nistowa, Amskapi Pikuni' [me, South Piegan] and 'saukumapi [boy] ki [and] akikoan [girl]... All I really did was couple the words with the Indian signs. By switching back and forth between the boys and girls: 'saukumapiks; aniwa nistowa amskapi pikuni' and using the sign; then 'akikoanix..' etc. Last week I stopped at a friend's home in the evening and immediately two small-faced, dark-haired girls holding blonde Barbie dolls ran towards me, stopped, cupped their right hands against their cheeks and, in unison, said, "Nistowa, amskapi pikuni." I am a South Piegan. Proudly.
When construction had barely begun on October 21, 1994, the Institute members and the builder gathered at the empty lot on Moccasin Flats, faced the sun of the autumn equinox, and held out their arms to the sides. That became the alignment of the east wall of the school, a little offset from what was expected when the foundation was poured, so that the east wall is slightly jogged from square. On the south side is a heat-sink wall of sand. In back is room for supplies and the archives of the Piegan Institute. This is not just a program. This is a long trajectory through time and space.
The summer after I was forced to resign from Heart Butte, the Methodist organist rented me his tiny yellow "mother-in-law" house behind his photography studio, separated by a hedge of caraghanas so old that the trunks were as thick as my wrists. In the wind at night they knocked together like warriors' staves and on the long hot afternoons the pods dried and exploded open, making soft fusillades of tiny dry peas against my screen door. I kept the screen door hooked. I was just down the hill from the School District #9 administration building.
First thing in the morning, against the stone retaining wall behind my little house, old men would gather to welcome the sun. They sounded like birds out there, telling stories and laughing. I would stand at the window with my cup of coffee, trying to overhear. Sometimes they spoke, Apikunipuyi.
In the middle of the day middle-aged drunks came to sit under my shady hedge and share Big Bear Bear, fortified malt liquor in quarts. Around lunch time younger men, just out of high school, would come with fast food in sacks to eat and hoot at the high school girls going downtown on lunch break. Cars would speed in and out and dust would settle on my rooms.
Late at night when things had quieted down, a very few older men came to the empty lot next door. They sat at the foot of a big security light pole and "sang Indian," sometimes keeping the beat on a log with sticks. They were my lullaby.
One night at the end of summer, after even the singers had gone and dawn getting close, I woke up and looked out the window. One man was sitting out there, silhouetted against the white stucco hardware store across the street. He was just sitting and gazing, as though he were on empty prairie, one knee drawn up and his arm out straight resting on it. He was autochthonous, indigenous, of the place, the land, and many long times running into each other-- always going on. It was easy to imagine him long ago, relaxed in some high place, watching for a vision or perhaps just watching, wondering if there ever might be a time of no more buffalo.
One of Darrell's recent letters began with quotes from Emerson:
"Everything teaches transition, transference, metamorphosis; therein is human power." "We dive and reappear in new places."
The little yellow house where I stayed belongs to Blackfeet owners now. It is occupied by a young mother and her child. Next door, where the photography studio once housed the negatives of portraits of old-time Blackfeet, the Piegan Institute has a workroom, a think tank. Dorothy Still Smoking works on her Ph.D. upstairs. I wonder if the men drinking in the caraghanas ever look up at her window. I wonder if she ever sees that lone dreamer just before dawn.