PLACE AND COMMUNITY
The two most powerful forces that had shaped the pre-contact tribes of this continent had been the relationship to the place in the deepest ecological sense, meaning participation and impact, and the priority of community over individual, the extended human mind throughout the people who identify with each other. Both of these forces and the skills and knowledge that go with them are largely lost in modern America, the invented-on-paper arrangements that guide us today in what we call a “nation”.
Of the two forces, I understand the relationship to ecology best, though not as directly as I would wish. In this post I will speak personally with examples. When Bob Scriver was a boy with a horse, he rode it cross-country from Browning to East Glacier where the family had friends or up to St. Mary’s where the family had a cabin. He rode out along what is now called the Duck Lake road because he spent the summers on the Stone Ranch where Mr. Stone raised horses, as often big “pullin’ horses” as mounts. Mr. Stone gave him his horse, Banjo, a blood bay five years old. Mr. Stone’s belief was a horse should not be tamed until it was full grown. He showed Bob how.
Elsewhere I’ve described how Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavyhead re-traced the ancient trails of the Siksika before horses. I have yet to locate a source for this information if it has been published though I note a video at the end of this blog. Possibly money was not available to transfer the GPS information to paper. In the old days people would simply have known it, not as maps but as experience. In Australia the indigenous people recorded reminders in what are famously called “songlines” and the Blackfeet had similar mnemonic devices. White people demonstrated in Piegan Institute summer seminars that it was possible to locate and photograph landmarks noted on maps like the one called the “Old Swan” map, little more than the skyline traced down the side of a piece of paper. We sat looking at their projected marks of where certain things could be found: camping spots, paint sources, holy places.
The problem with really knowing terrain now is that it is minced and fenced for the sake of ownership, confinement and exclusion. We use maps and, worse, GPS guides. The seminal book called “Wayfinding” which seeks to understand the ancient ways of taking trails into one’s very bodies — muscles, eyes, and ears — testifies about using a GPS to get to a certain spot, only to find that the satellite-reference did not note a cliff that made the place inaccessible by their route. One could see it from there.
Both forces — a close and experiential knowledge of the land and a felt participation in the larger community — are key to the development of a rational and satisfying way for people to live in the future.
My mother was a “walking woman” when growing up in the valleys south of Roseburg, because there was no other way to get from home to job to school to relatives. She transferred this to me as a toddler, pushing me along the sidewalks from NE 15th to NE 63rd where my grandparents lived. Everyone was astounded, but we were pleased. By the time I was near high school age I had a friend who was inspired when it snowed to walk me from NE Alberta as far as Columbia Boulevard. Then we chickened out and called home for a ride. A little gaggle of us walked to high school along Alberta, saying only chickens rode the bus.
After that I always walked long distances so I knew the Alameda bluff where the affluent built fine houses overlooking what was once a stream, and I know how NW Burnside climbs into the West hills, though I always stopped at 23rd, still an interesting street. When I got to Browning, I walked west out the ridge where the original IHS hospital stands. A mother dog and her half-grown pup often came with me and we walked far enough that the pup was exhausted and flopped. Then I carried him back.
The Heart Butte kids used to walk in a group. Their mothers walked in the evening when the dishes were done, wearing sweaters in the half-light. Everyone knew where things were, though few drove there. Might pass through on horseback. Knew where the grizzlies slept.
Once I taught a little class about knowing where your house was and what had been there historically. One man insisted that there was “nothing” under his house because he lived in a housing development. I imagined it must be floating in the air.
People who have money — esp. in the middle class who counts travel as a sign of culture, like concerts or college or computers — expect to visit Europe. My father, who had no money but a fixation on patriotic sites, drove us from one National Park or Monument to another in two countries: any place valorized by the media and classrooms. Mt. Vernon, Fort Ticonderoga, Concord, Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore — it could be very tiresome. On the other hand when I think of these places they are remembered experiences. To me they define nations. Points, not boundaries.
The feeling of the continent as a community does not work for me. Except for the Blackfeet reservation, all my felt communities are historical and likely to be diasporas of people once bonded by affinities like theatre or the UUA, which are actually webworks of relationships which persist even after the individuals are dead. Last night I read my files of notes from Peter Raible and Davidson Loehr, both UU ministers. If someone were monitoring my physiology they would note that I was responding as if PR were not dead and DL were not on the East Coast.
The people to whom I connect and react are not all in this country. I split between the US and Canada, between Alberta and Saskatchewan. But the Scots namesake town that so fixates my family is only pictures of them visiting there. And like any middle-class person, much of my community is fiction, in books. I could designate email as community (when it works) but not Twitter. It might be a social media but there’s no there there. It’s only words, not experience. Like much of America.
This blog is meant to be a bridge over to the world of the Blackfoot people in Canada. It vividly describes the ideas I’m trying to point out. It takes about as much time as a “class”, about an hour, because it IS a class. I’ll refer to it again as I follow this line of thought about place and community.
Re-learning the Land: A Story of Red Crow College
There is an epilogue: the whole program that produced this video has been foreclosed. Narcisse Blood was killed in a car accident. But the ideas remain. Ryan Heavy Head is on Twitter.