HERO QUEST IN A SEA OF GRASS
Sometimes research takes a person places one never expected to go. Whole expanses of terrain open up, demanding answers and suggesting new questions. What surprised me this time was again from the book “WayFinding” towards the end. What I found was a little scary to old anti-tech me as my brain becomes a little skippy. It is a video game called “Sea Hero Quest” which is presented as and was designed as a diagnostic tool for understanding dementia. What it really is amounts to the player’s ability to understand and manage navigation, that is, the ability to know which way is which. I used to test high in this skill.
Where it keys into O’Connor’s book is her identification of two brain abilities to detect and move through space — one way being through the experiences recorded through the hippocampus, which seems uniquely human and evolved in the hunter-gatherer years of the Pleistocene, versus the caudate nucleus which is an earlier, deeper, less conscious manager of movement, emotion, addiction and repetition. The two functions work together with the exception that one turns off while the other is in operation. Being in use causes either function to grow in perceptible ways (fMRI) by increasing gray matter. The difference in styles and the implications of one being used more than the other intrigues O’Connor and suggests many untested things like citizenship style — or, as in this game, diminishment of one’s ability to know where one is, which is an early indicator of Alzheimers.
You can download the game and play it yourself on several different devices:
This video is a discussion about the game and its importance to understanding dementia.
Stay there for the next video which is in German but a vivid display of the images.
When I was researching my bio of Bob Scriver, I located and visited James Welch Sr. who was the father of the novelist and Scriver’s closest childhood friend. I got there just in time because dementia was creeping up on him. Not long afterwards he took the little dog for a walk, thinking that the dog would know the way, but the strategy failed so that neither of them could remember the way to home and they were both exhausted and dehydrated. It had been hours and many people were looking for him because he was a known and loved person. They did find him and the dog as well. After that people were doubly alert.
This dementia game could not have saved James Welch Sr. But I saw in it an opportunity to explore a vital and characteristic dimension of being a Blackfeet — the ability to navigate through the “sea of grass” that is the prairie, though it seems featureless to people don’t know it. The point of O’Connor’s “Wayfinding” book is three studies of peoples who “know where they are” because they have developed the two senses and memories described here (hippocampus and caudate nucleus) through direct experience that built detailed guidance into their brains. The three are the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, the Australian outback, and Oceania, the South Pacific island continent some people suggest might be a source of the first peopling of South America. It is a delightful and sometimes surprising study.
I don’t know how many of today’s tribal people remember what they learned as pre-whites or even what the first whites learned from experience on the East Slope, and I don’t know how much of that information can be revived and recaptured today. Surely it could be recaptured by young people walking the land in all seasons. It would be hard to not think of it in terms of population centers, the little towns, and rather to summon up stream-flows and erosions from glaciers or sedimentation from the PNW volcanoes, but it would be possible. When Scriver was alive (b. 1914) he carried a little of it, but the old people of the Sixties had it in their blood more than any DNA.
The old empire-forcers defended themselves by talking about savages and the ignorant, but that has been obsolete for a long time. Not much effort has been expended in developing unique capacities of the People, but surely wayfinding is one of the most key resources that could be revived, if only in stories that record the places as they did in the old days. Sharon Butala lived near “The Old Man on his Back” which is the name of some hills, but she couldn’t make out the silhouette of a person. So she asked an old indigenous man and he explained that one day when some of them were traveling up that way, they discovered an old man on his back and helped him. It was not a direct sensory impression of a shape, but rather a memory of a human experience. The rez is full of these. There may be time to save them on video.
I would love to see someone Blackfeet — I don’t know whether there are programmers among the People even on the Canadian side in places like the University of Lethbridge who could use “The Sea Hero Quest” as a pattern for a vid called “The Prairie People, Nomads Who Knew Where They Were”. People in both countries are making videos that include talking heads and scenery, even combined into stories.
Knowledge of the landscape was preserved by a recent small team who drove down the East Slope, stopping every eleven miles or so to check out natural camping spots, landmarks of valley entrances or unique peaks, and them photographing them. My memory of who that was, when, and what came of it, is weak. One of the uses of the internet is to reach out for those who DO remember.
The sharing of community knowledge is called “the extended mind” and is an important contribution to the evolution of humans. That’s why the People spent so much time sitting together and sharing. That’s why small pox and out-of-control cavalry imposed losses that were so grievous. They were literally brain damage to the extended minds.
But PLACE is a nearly indestructible way to preserve knowledge that comes from sensory experience with the land as preserved in sweetgrass braids and bundle-opening ceremonies. No need to mess with OPI. Just do it.