BLACKFEET WRITERS ARE NOT THE SAME
My belated discovery of the discipline of “Cognitive Architecture” is revealing a way of thinking that I’ve welcomed. In ordinary language, it explains how people develop at the same time as their environment evolves, and how this forms their minds and identities. People are unique in spite of being thought of in categories. My ideas will be strange to some, explanatory to others, and offensive to a few because I’m going to use two Blackfeet enrolled writers to explain how different the lumped-together people are.
When I sketched out the Blackfeet reservation for the sake of visitors and scholars — maybe sometimes for the info of the residents since many of them only live in one place on the 50 mile square and don’t know other parts — I identified two “resort” towns: East Glacier and St. Marys. Both are on the edge of Glacier National Park which draws tourists and naturally are influenced by those people, mostly white and sometimes European — I mean people who are from European countries but work seasonally at resorts. The people have more contact with non-tribal people and develop in relation to them.
The towns are very different. St. Mary’s is at the foot of a valley that extends across the border into Canada and the people sometimes goes there for school, doctoring, and visiting Blackfoot relatives that were arbitrarily cut off by the border. Cardston, a bigger city on the Canadian side, is strongly Mormon and sometimes racist. St. Mary and closely located Babb are the access to Logan Pass, a tourist favorite that is only open in summer.
East Glacier is based on one of the “big hotels” formed by the Great Northern Railway to be a tourist destination but is also the entrance to Marias Pass, a key crossing through the Rocky Mountains that made the Great Northern railway possible. There is considerable “flow” through town, because of business travelers all year round, but has developed into a kind of teacher ghetto where white people found housing in summer places, because most of the housing in Browning is owned and managed by the tribe. It has also become a refuge for “gay” people, partly because of secret gay members of a prominent family and partly because of a gay postmaster. Both people are dead now.
Two people of mixed white and enrolled parents have become prominent in the larger world and present themselves to the white “face” as Blackfeet, though they are markedly atypical of the group we called a tribe. They are very different because of where they live. One is very much into mainstream culture, esp. music and has an off-rez reputation that is helped by the contacts who come as tourists. The other is a lawyer whose work is among his own tribe and council as they interact with the larger world.
There are many kinds of enrolled people, but as was originated by the government agencies that organized the tribe as a corporation with “shares”. At first individuals were inarguably different from whites as to culture and appearance but over time and generations became more and more assimilated. This was inevitable because people become what they know and what they do. Even these two writers — explicitly representing Blackfeet and both living in the most white-influenced towns on the rez — are very different from each other.
The premise of cognitive architecture as to how minds are formed by possibilities for what they learn, how they develop, and what evolves even as it shapes people, is based on material culture, meaning the situation of the place and the nature of the parenting people. Both of these men had white grandparents on one side and culturally and indigenously oriented on the other side. The whites came in from outside as business people and the tribal people were already here. The meeting point was usually at the schools.
Because I came fifty years ago, I knew the white grandparents on both sides — one, the Rinks, managed a laundromat and campground while the wife worked in the Browning bank; the other, the Lester Johnsons, began by operating a café in a tent and expanded to a campground with a restaurant. The two marriages in the next generation, the children of the Johnsons/St. Goddards or the Rinks/Schildts, were the parents of these two literate men. These parents were students in my English classes in Browning in the Sixties. I never knew their children, neither Sterling nor Nathan. I don’t think they know each other. East Glacier people don’t generally mix with St. Marys people.
Except Nathan St. Goddard’s mother spend a lot of time in Seattle fighting cancer and Nathan was partly raised there, exposing him to a larger cosmopolitan world. He became a lawyer and writes professionally rather than producing novels. On Twitter he is a vivid and eloquent descriptor of place, a hunter, fisherman and family man who often videos his children. He speaks to justice, and also runs his inheritance, which is the family campground and restaurant. The St. Goddard family is not located in St. Marys. They are ranchers who participate in the rodeo scene that develops in the people along the rivers. Nathan is actively involved in his community and tribe.
The other, the writer Sterling Schildt, AKA Mr. Holy White Mountain, went the route of a novelist, a role he claims grasped him in his mid-twenties when he read one of Sherman Alexie’s books. Sterling was able to qualify for the U of Iowa’s famed writing workshop where he earned an MFA. Most recently The New Yorker magazine has published his short story about attendance in grad school at the Wallace Stegner writing workshop. The story appears on the Internet as a spoken version read by the author. His earlier essays have presented the standard versions of the tribe, which can be cynical, but he is not involved in changes.
The short story is about a young male student involved with a woman who preoccupies him. Their sexual relationship is usual for young people post-birth-control — that is, with the usual details of nipples and pubic hair. Both are indigenous but from different tribes. The woman, who is political, gets fed up and leaves. The man seems to have no course work at all. I say Sterling “punked” The New Yorker because he evidently convinced them that this is what “Indians” in general are like. Many Blackfeet would find this story pornographic.
Older tribal people try to present to the larger world an image of the people here that is dignified and respectable. In the past the known “Blackfeet” writer was James Welch, Jr. whose early stories struggled with identity and hallucination but until his death he was a respected academic, married and living in Missoula.
Out there beyond any of these people is “Blackfeet writer” Stephen Graham Jones, a Texas man who by inheritance is an enrolled member of the tribe. His speciality is horror stories. One of his books is entitled “My Heart Is a Chainsaw.” Another among many is “The Only Good Indian.” He writes a lot and is married. That’s about all I know.
“Cognitive Architecture” people would not be surprised by the radical differences among all these people who get thrown into the same category as a “tribe” and as Blackfeet writers. The particularities can be worked out by their biographies and what they write about, especially how they describe what is around them and how they think about these things. Going to Google or Amazon will find them in the same category but with quite different audiences.