Prairie Mary (Main blog, daily posts)
Heart Butte School, Montana (Non-fiction, the school and its community.
Valier Infrastructure: non-fiction as it happens.
Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive.

Alvina Krause: method acting.
The Silver Comb: also method acting.

Swan River, Manitoba: Family history.

The Bone Chalice: worship theory.
Holding Open the Universe: also worship theory.
Eagles Mere -- the Playhouse

www.lulu.com/prairiemary: Books by Mary Scriver
ON AMAZON: "Bronze Inside and Out: a biographical memoir of Bob Scriver" and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke: sermons for the prairie."

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Jared Diamond

“The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond is the next book after his mega-popular “Guns, Germs and Steel.”  It’s about the traditional, nearly “pre-contact” peoples he has visited.
Karen Armstrong

“The Battle for God” by Karen Armstrong is about the Axial Age, the historical period from 700 to 200 BCE when the major “world religions” formed:  Buddhism, Hinduism, Confusianism, Taoism, and those troublesome Abramic monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  These two “book-ends” in time mark a period of thousands of years that were powered by agriculture, formed villages, but preceded math, science, industrialism.  Where I live, that period didn’t end until the 19th century.  This world-period has been fascinating in many ways.  I’m going to focus on the eternal human tension between the individual and the group.

I should say groups, because it becomes clear in Diamond’s book that even with only a hundred people in a tribe, each person is a node of what might be called social connectomes spun from genetics, friendship, working partnerships, accidents of wealth, and the mysterious factor called “love.”  Even after the big institutional, hierarchical, liturgical, book-bound religions had formed, the elements that were always present will re-form sub-groups, processes that push onwards through time.  We are beginning a period of connectome transformation: an internet overlay.

Cut Bank, MT, Masonic Hall

To Bob Scriver, religion in the sense of affiliated and therefore "special" men [sic -- women were sent over to Eastern Star] was defined by the Masons.  In Browning it was a filter for respectability (on their terms) that would accept assimilated and prosperous Blackfeet.  Even the occasional Catholic.  Bob was their chaplain, partly because he could play the piano and partly because his father and brother were members.  His second marriage collapsed, he had quit teaching because it was a misery, he hadn’t re-established a steady income, and -- as the saying here goes, he was "tom-cattin' around," so they threw him out.  He suffered from this rejection, which his father and brother agreed with.  Art was considered marginally wicked, or maybe just insane.  For the rest of his life he kept his Masonry book wrapped in silk scarves in his underwear drawer, that intimate place, and never turned against the group -- only the individual leaders who had wanted to punish him.

When he was accepted into the Medicine Pipe Keepers circle, it became his new Masonic Lodge with all the intensity of his earlier belonging.  He probably knew most of the Keepers better than the white shop-owners.   Their version of Bundle Keeping was regular bridge parties, where the women presented little tableaus of dessert on their card tables and the men indulged in a bit of brandy.  Bob despised them.

Pipe Keeper next to his Bundle, 1880 or so.

Being an individual apart from the main group is always problematic.  If one can stay in the group while maintaining individuality, that’s ideal.  If the groups begin to contradict each other or if the group focuses on punishing someone (scapegoating), the consequences force either a new creation (Scriver Studio) or destruction (the recent firing of two reliable family men in Valier for something they couldn’t control).

Diamond tells about several New Guinea tribes who have an informal set of rules about who can be attacked and killed and who must be treated as equals.  Relations must be protected, no matter how distant the family connection may be.  He gives us a vignette about two small groups of men traveling who meet and discover they don’t know each other.  They sit down on the trail and begin sorting families to see if there’s a tie.  Unfortunately, none comes to mind.  Finally, rather desperately because they don’t really want to fight, they discover that there is a man in the distant village group who has the same name as a man in the local group.  He’s not really related, but the coincidence is enough to work.  The groups go on their way peacefully. 

New Guinea

I heard a similar discussion about who was affiliated enough to authorize the painting of a tipi "skin." (Bob was the Keeper and, since I was with him at the time, so was I.)  In the end the connection was someone who “owned” (tipis are transferred like a Pipe Bundle) a yellow lodge, the same color as the one Bob dreamt about.  Since yellow tipis are relatively rare, this was connected enough.   (The main permission comes as a dream, the same as a Bundle.  In fact, this tipi had an accompanying Bundle.  The whole story is in "Bronze Inside and Out."  The twist is that it was a "badger tipi" and Bob associated badgers with his "pop," the loyal Mason !)

In Valier there is always a sort of tribal tightening-up in Spring among those whose ancestors were in the village group from Belgium who immigrated to be the core for a community of irrigating grain growers.  Genetic descent is strong.  A few families control much of what happens but they can’t prevent people from voting or refuse to serve them because they aren’t Belgian enough.  

Near Valier

So in Spring the filtering criteria becomes who keeps their yards up to what are imagined to be Belgian (white) standards.  Since those who don’t have pretty yards tend to be poor, negligent, old, absentee or drunk -- the village is small enough for everyone to know who they are -- it’s easy to pass a town law that says anyone who doesn’t keep their yard up will be warned with a registered letter (like being ticketed) and then the town will contract to have the yard mowed to their standards and the owner will be billed $100 or more.)

The reality is that negotiations go on that are under the table.  Relatives, popular people, and those with major health problems are simply not sent a letter.  One of the most neglected houses is owned -- but not much occupied -- by a town employee.  Someone decided to “crack down” on him a few years ago and the consequences were explosive, pitting the town lawyer against the employee union.  

In fact, a “new broom” town council was elected at one point and only lasted a few months because they refused to negotiate.  They were “good old boys” and all the resentment against that group surfaced.  The guys were blind to the emotional connectome -- they only saw their version of “facts.”  The last straw for them was realizing that if they made any mistakes that cost the town money, they would not be insured.

Near Browning

I’m only picking on Valier because the reservation connectome is too intricate for me to grasp.  Some of it is hidden, some of it criminal, some of it relates to romantic meddlers from other places (like California, back east, and even Germany), some of it is inspired by post-colonial ideas from the academic world, and much is controlled by laws and grants that are federal.   It all morphs constantly and some of these forces contradict each other.

For a quick instance, consider the treatment of armed services veterans, who are much honored on the rez.  When Montana put up a memorial dedicated to Montana veterans, they left off all the Indians.  This meant that the Mayor of Great Falls could join the protest that got the Indian veterans added to the “wall” by means of individual tiles.  

This was such a politically rewarding thing to do that no one investigated the blood quantum or actual enrollment of the individuals and no one raised a fuss about the eagle feather awarded to the Mayor in gratitude.  (It is illegal for a white man to own an eagle feather.)  No one has kept a register of all the eagle feathers awarded for various good acts, including those who went to the veterans themselves, so we don’t know where the feathers go after the veterans receive them.

Some white people welcome an eagle feather and a new Indian name, and become quite emotional about the actual ceremony.  A few assume that now they are a member of the tribe, not realizing that the tribe is defined by law and is organized on the model of the business corporation, meant to preserve and increase the value of the tribal assets, which are massive, hard to monitor, still under the control of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Individuals are lucky if they get an accounting.  This is what Eloise Pepion addressed.

Valier is about to find out over the next few years just how much federal laws and regulations affect them as well as the tribe: the subject will be water.  At present, most of the water issues are administered by the state.  Irrigation, sanitation, original (i.e. since white contact) water allotments, regulation of well-drilling are all involved.  People are getting indignant about frakking saline and chemical water that makes land useless for crops.

taken by Tristan Scott, the Missoulian

This is a line of thought that will be hard to manage and follow, but I’ll give it a shot -- at least around the edges.  Probably I’ll tell a lot of stories about Indians and Belgians. My bias is always towards the protection of individuals and the land itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Bob Scriver, about 1964

It occurred to me yesterday, reviewing the obits, that because in the Sixties I married a man so much older than myself and became so totally absorbed into his life, that my enemies have all died of old age, two of them just last month.   This means that they were mostly Bob's enemies.  It’s not that I don’t have any enemies now or that I’m not vulnerable, but they are of different kinds and ways.  For instance, the political use of ginning up victimhood and using “compassion” as entitlement is fading on the rez.  But not among liberals who meddle with long questionnaires and evaluations.

The most vicious enemies were in the Cowboy Art world which was somehow a class war.  Art was translated to capital which in those days meant rich old men and professionals, because they needed a way to park their money.  People sold art by saying how valuable an investment it was.  But also by creating events where they and their younger wives could show off and play mind games.  This was when the buying and selling moved from galleries to auctions.
Charlie Russell's painting cabin next to his house.

These aficionado people were technical, esp in the worlds of dentistry, medicine and law, but the elaborate machines, the high potency meds, and the highly detailed regimes did not teach aesthetics.   They couldn’t tell good art from bad.  Investors looked at paintings and sculptures without knowing much more than what was being depicted and that their advisors were assuring them the work would rise in value for no reason other than that it already sold well.  They treated it like the stock market. The investment value moved to evaluating the artists instead of the art.  Then the artists were forced to be socially available, to present little flattering episodes in their homes, to become dancing bears.

There were exceptions.  Some people with a lot of money “richly” deserve it and handled it well, like traditional gentry.  They DID know art and were considerate of people who work at creating it.  Somehow they had been educated in the humanities, maybe because their families are sophisticated or because they went to a decent university.

But villains got into power in the Sixties and used their advantages to try to control artists.  A ring of co-conspirators -- mutually suspicious of each other but willing to collaborate at least temporarily -- arose to control the institutions -- at first museums and historical societies and later the auctions.  I call them the Industrial Cowboy Artist Cartel.  There were few Indians -- for a long time, none.

A few Cowboy Artists of America

Ironically, one of the models and sources of power was the Cowboy Artists of America, a kind of cooperative corralling of the big money something like the Oscars.  They were able to curate the art by making peer awards and organizing their own shows.  These guys -- almost always guys -- were echoes of their customers: all about money. 

And status.  Soon interstitiary characters such as dealers, specialty magazine editors, curators, and the directors of related institutions began to take control.  When dealing with status, building reputations esp. the ones about the non-artists, it was necessary to invent awards and titles, many of them coming from gratitude for money -- often given to charities or education.  An artist had to present a tableau of luxury in his home -- or else colorfully dwell in a shack where Cowboys and Indians magazine could send a girl reporter to report how Original and American he was and how he could make apple pie in a chuckwagon.

As the artists aged, some of the wheeler/dealers began to realize there was money in widows and power in female secondaries of various kinds.  The femmes had come into the game at a younger age and knew the secret stuff where the true profit often begins. (Like the silk petticoat belonging to a prostitute on which Charlie Russell had made a little sketch, but they were just friends.)  Mostly the W/D were unburdened by scruples or much education.  Nor the women either. 

I was younger, but a foundry hand rather than a glamour girl.  Also, I zigged off into academic religion which was to them quite invisible -- I mean, ethics and all that.  My enemies always had the problem of not understanding what I was up to.  My problem, if you want to label it that, was that being analytical and virtuous will not make any money and neither will moving among categories.  No one will praise you or thank you for these strategies.

Either my handicap or my reward was not caring about money, which meant I was free to do what I wanted rather than tending some capitalist machinery that I could pretend meant I was a success.  It also meant I had the privilege of being a loner, not having to accommodate someone else.  I’m trying to understand what it means to be a loner in old age when money can make life much more comfortable, but so far it doesn’t seem much different.

Gamers who control people with money, accumulate a circle of admirers, and win gratitude and awards, get sick and die just the same.  One would think that without them and their power, the truth could be told and that revealing their dark little hearts would be rewarding and even welcome.  It has always seemed to me that instead of all the phony praise at funerals, the pockets ought to be turned out in a final confession.  Maybe even restitution.  Blackfeet do that -- they call it a "Giveaway."

You name 'em.  I forgot to write it down.

Without those managers and curators constantly urging and guiding, the game of acquiring art loses its appeal.  Seven/Eleven stores once had a massive collection of fine Western photography.  It’s now dispersed.  Today the auctions that built up collections are being used to de-accession and scatter the assets.  The status indicators for the young are not so much in art and not so much in realism or patriotism, which are the two essentials for Western art.  Paintings are being sold for about what their original prices were years ago.  The elegant and exclusive galleries of the Sixties are now commonplace, cramming some streets in Santa Fe or Taos shoulder-to-shoulder.

Anyway, because Repubs are out and Dems are in, conservatives are seen as power-mongers and progressives are seen as invasive control freaks.  Cowboys and Indians don't sell as well as landscapes and animal portraits.  We’re about fed up with people in general and John Wayne’s world in particular.   Or maybe we're going back to the Fifties.

Saturday Evening Post cover by John Clymer

I really had not been paying much attention to my enemies.  One or two have asked for mercy when I turned the tables and began to write about them.  Others have managed to convert themselves into the kind of affable grandfathers that they imagine Charlie Russell to be.  The growing importance of women, Indians, Mexicans, and -- REALLY surprising -- Chinese realists. When the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers crashed, their comfortable illustrators had to become easel artists in a hurry, moving from Connecticut to Tulsa.  

But the death of slick magazines (probably due to television) helped that source of familiar Fifties art become respectable, because now history was mixed with nostalgia in a safe way. 

John Clymer's easel paintings

The real neighborhood social base of Bob and I in the Sixties was reservation people, mostly Blackfeet but also Metis (which we called “Cree”), with vivid personalities and survival level lifestyles.  We didn’t hobnob with rich people, weren’t very social with anyone because we were always working, and valued decades-long thick-and-thin friendships.  To outsiders the people they recognized were exotic, storybook characters who were willing to act out fantasies for a few weeks in summertime if they could figure out what those fantasies were.  We were a little like that, too.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This undecorated calumet appears jointed, like bamboo.
It might have been adapted from a walking stick.

“Calumets” are far from exclusive to the Blackfeet, but the Amskapi Pikuni had their own versions, as did many of the Plains Indian tribes.

“Calumet is a Norman word (pronounced: [kalyme]), first recorded in David Ferrand's La Muse normande around 1625–1655.  Its first meaning was "sort of reeds used to make pipes", with a suffix substitution for calumel. It corresponds to the French word chalumeau, meaning 'reeds' (Modern French also means 'straw', 'blowlamp').The term was used by Norman-French settlers in Canada to describe the ceremonial pipes they saw used among the First Nations people of the region.”

This bare calumet has been smoked.  
Ours had the same cross-section shape.

“Peace pipe” is another misnomer that emerged from movies and novels.  But certainly peace or a truce is one of the uses of a tobacco pipe (around here normally smoking kinnikinnick but sometimes “twist” tobacco if it can be found).  Esp. for older folks, it’s a soother and an energizer at once, a function of nicotine.  Also, it is a ceremonial implement on first meetings to give people a chance to settle and adjust to each other.  Some cultures use cups of tea or coffee or alcohol.  

This sort of information is just facts.  More interesting is the accumulation of the “Bundle” that was wrapped up with  a Thunder Pipe Bundle along with the felt meanings of the people on the prairies in the spring when the thunderstorms raked the land, just as they are doing today, May 26.  North American Indian Days is a formal modern festival pow-wow with all the giveaways and family business that need to be done, but it is late, AFTER the thunderstorms in July.  This is because Agent Campbell persuaded them to cut hay first, THEN have the ceremonies. 

In those days it was clear that the people couldn’t come together until there was enough grass and water for their horses.  Some agents tried to suppress any such gathering, even the ones by the recent post-Civil War Indian school grads who wanted to convene scholarly discussion.  The white agents were afraid that any gathering would be a plot. If you really want an authentic version of a Bundle Opening, go to "The Old North Trail", which includes photos and instructions of the event around 1900, all by Walter McClintock, who came as a friend every summer. 

I want to talk about the experience, but it’s necessary to give a little background.  The calumet itself is studded with brass tacks.  Smooth and straight, it seems to have been drilled on a rifling lathe.  Our “Thunder Pipe Bundle” and it has a proper pedigree, which was oral when we got it and then was written down and notarized by Wilber Werner, a staunch Catholic who -- I suspect -- thought the ceremony was a naive version of the Mass.  

The Green Parrot

Many of the pipes have a whole bird affixed to the top and ours had a green parrot with taxidermy eyes.  Another rather famous pipe had a colorful rooster on it.  These are not ancient sinew and bone artifacts -- they are mixes of European metal and methods with whatever might come to hand for a tribal person on the high prairie.  Knowing that, it seems likely that the association went from lightning strike danger (which was very real on the prairie) to the danger of battles on horseback and dwindling of the buffalo to a kind of reconciliation of material cultures in hope of finding a way forward.

The Scriver Thunder Pipe Bundle -- the decorated calumet

Unlike the ordinary pipes used for real smoking, the heart of the Pipe Bundle was a yard long and the stone bowl was in the Bundle but not attached.  Fanned and hanging under the calumet was the entire suite of an eagle’s tail feathers, each with its shaft decorated with beads or quills.  Mixed with them are white ermine skins and bright satin ribbons.  On top, at the end for drawing smoke, was the bright plumage of a colorful bird. Ours had a parrot with taxidermy eyes and another had a Harlequin duck with glass eyes.  We were told there was one called “The White Man Thunder Bundle” that sported an impressive rooster.  They were not perched or even stuffed as was fashionable in the 19th century, but more like “study skins” that are kept in drawers for comparisons.  “Study skins” do not have eyes.

Near the “head” end of the calument is a handful of bells, sometimes “jinglebells” and sometimes falconry bells.  They are said to be the Pleiades or whatever the local mythologists made of the cluster of bells.  They show up as a pattern of circles on the smoke flap ears of lodges.   Another tube, the sawed off section of a rifle, decorated with ribbons and so on, is the “woman’s pipe.”  Another historical sign: this was added when the shooter had access to the gun and a hacksaw, but too early to just discard something so powerful as a section of gun barrel, so it was saved. 

This book was published by Bob Scriver through a "vanity publisher."

The rest is animal skins, preserved with handsful of tobacco.  Sometimes there will be iniskim, the little fossil stones that look like buffalo.  Bob documented our Bundle contents in “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  The illustrations of this post are from his book for which Marshall Noice, an artist, took the photos.  The implications of that will be the subject of a future post.

The Kicking Woman family opened their Bundle on Mother’s Day.  Molly, who was Canadian and from an observant family, was the one who really understood the preparations, including sarvisberry soup with its bitterroot inclusion, carrying on the theme of plenty in the face of want.  Like Lent, a ceremony in the thunderstorm season would be late for whatever food had been preserved in the winter, but early for summer’s plenty.  All the families who still had saved dried sarvisberries donated them for the one big pot of soup.  

George Kicking Woman, all dressed up.

Molly was the force behind George and, as the woman always was, the true Keeper in terms of managing it,  but George didn’t mind seeming a powerful patriarch as white visitors usually assumed.  He was a mild and earnest man, unlikely to kick anyone, but white people got a lot of mileage out of the name.  Bob and George were the same age.  George was the youngest of the Keepers at the ceremonies we attended.

What I’m describing happened fifty years ago.  Most people at an Opening were related, but many of them were likely to be from Canada where the old ways have persisted longer.  People were actually speaking their own language.  The smudge is lit in a dishpan of dirt.  Drummers were a “rawhide orchestra,” an assortment of men who knew the songs or can pick them up quickly, since they are a pattern based on a phrase that is meant to describe the particular animal with which it is associated.  Joe Old Chief was one of them and one of the last to "cross the horizon."  They used hand drums.  In the Beaver Bundle openings the drummers pounded on a dry rawhide with rattles.  The smudge was different as well.

Harlequin duck, augmented with pow-wow feathers.
This is from a Last Star bundle.

The Bundle is about the lives of the animals and their powers to help.  The man who is inspired to dance with one of them, takes it up in its funny swaddling of calico or headscarf, meant to keep it intact without shedding bits, and endeavors to dance in imitation of the living animal, moving it in front of him like a little boy making a toy car “go.”  The best dancers evoke the animal with uncanny imitation of its rhythms and wiggles, as though it were a puppet, but also “beconme the animal” with all the skill of dancing or acting.  The collection of animals is like a hymnal, a mnemonic device to act as a reminder of both animal and song.  

For those of us who had handled these animals and watched them out on the prairie or mountainsides they brought back moments and, as humans are “wired” to do, the mood of that memory, which made a kind of trance.   Bob and I had watched the animals as well as bringing them into the shop and skinning them for mounting, giving them glass eyes.  The “permission” to acquire a Bundle comes in a dream, and Bob had the dream.  It also requires a LOT of money, and Bob paid it.  Even if he weren’t paying for a transfer, he would slip hundreds of dollars to Molly a week or so ahead of time to help with the preparations.

The ceremony was a spiritual way to reconcile an individual with the community that had practical benefits for the community itself.  As each man chose an animal and danced with it briefly, his family and friends would stand in place to ululate in support.  Then they would “gift” money to someone in the circle to honor the dancer.  Most went to someone who had lost a family member or someone who was suffering.  The “orderly,” who kept the smudge going and passed the money to the designated recipient, was Young Jim Whitecalf, son of the Old Jim Whitecalf who so captured the imaginations of white outsiders that he's featured in two books.

Double-page spread in "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains

In the portrait, which some call a diorama, of the Thunder Pipe Bundle, are the principals in the first ceremony Bob and I attended.  They posed and are recognizable, real people, except for Charlie Reevis, who was deceased.  George Kicking Woman was the youngest Bundle Keeper, the same age as Bob.  The man with the black face is Louis Plenty Treaty, the most spiritual man I ever met.  I used to say you could seat him in a Buddhist ceremony and he would be perfectly fitting.  The next is Tom Many Guns, who had been the Keeper of this Bundle just previously, but had been drinking a lot and selling bits of it to finance his addiction.  

In fact, we were startled to realize we’d been buying them, but pleased to put them back in.  Next, in a red wool jacket is Richard Little Dog who was the ceremonialist and technically the real owner -- that is, it had been transferred to him properly.  Nearest the camera in a Hudson’s Bay blanket capote is Joe Gambler, who was armed for posing and made the most of pantomiming attacks when posing got boring.

I don’t remember the names of all the four drummers.  I think Joe Old Chief and Joe Young Eagle were there.   The woman in blue, closest to the camera was Margaret Many Guns, who was originally Canadian.  She made my ceremonial clothes, including moccasins, which were very simple but meant to be exchanged with her clothes so that the “power” would recognize me and go with me after the exchange.  Next in pink is Mrs. Young Eagle and then Molly Kicking Woman.  I think the gray-haired woman was Mary Blackman.

These people are all gone now, but the ceremony has been reinstituted.  Like all memories, it is re-constituted, and as in all communities, it has somehow drifted from the hands of the most old-timey and observant people into the practices of the educated and relatively prosperous.  I’m smelling sweetgrass smudge (I grow a little), but you buy sweetgrass on the Internet now.  It’s hard to find on the prairie, poisoned out like most of the birds and animals in the Bundle.  The People are there, but they are changed.

Monday, May 25, 2015


Honey-hunters in New Guinea welcoming a new "man"

Humans are meant to live in cooperating groups of fewer than a hundred people and did that for so many millennia and epochs that our bodies and brains have been shaped into what works for that context.  And yet the group and the individual are both constrained by the ecology of their existence.  Early peoples who lived on grassy plains organized themselves differently than those who lived where there was forest because they were hunter/gatherers and different strategies worked if the prey were different.  Fishermen were quite different from buffalo hunters.

Lately there has been a lot of reflection about the change made possible by agriculture and domestication, which meant that people didn’t have to travel around to find food, esp. in places with seasons, and also meant that they could store grain.  But now the energy that went into moving around had to be devoted to walls for defense or a kind of military specialization for raiding other group’s bins.

In the original basic group, the people knew each other and their skills and temperaments.  Specializing was results-oriented: the best hunter was the go-to guy for bringing in some meat; the best weaver of baskets was the chief of baskets.  But staying in one place caused other kinds of sorting that created what in a flock of chickens is called “pecking order,” meaning who can dominate which others, beak to beak.  One big alpha chicken can peck all the others, while some poor little moulting poultry is on the receiving end of every other bird’s ire.  This is the origin of stigma, based mostly on appearance.  Of course, it’s a loop because the hen that got the most food was the biggest and glossiest. The upshot is that the Big Pecker makes the most new chickens and the little limpies get weeded out.  Until the terms of success change -- maybe the climate or maybe the intervention of humans.

A much more subtle version of both these forces -- skill and appearance -- also shape human communities.  Soon a village begins to sort itself out into best families and those who can be pushed around.  Parallel, the original naively spiritual folks (the ones who loved the dawn, the ones with empathy) begin to form institutions, often around promises of success embodied in sacrifice (bribes).  In the fiercer and more primitive places, the sacrifice might be human, a loser.  Or an enemy.  
Pyraethi: a version of priesthood that suggests the flaming chalice.

In the villages who are prosperous enough that not everyone has to go into the fields or arm-up for fights, a class of people might develop who seem to know more, to be charismatically and then later institutionally entitled to think their way to a priest-like status.  Maybe when writing develops, they are the keepers of the book (er, scroll) or the ones who pray on behalf of all the others.  Of course, it’s good to have an impressive building for them and natural for people to gather -- maybe to engage them with arguments, ask for their help with the gods, or share some kind of experience led by them.  This is so natural it feels like the only way to understand religion.

There are few places on the planet that have not been settled to some degree by humans, but there are edges where they can barely survive.  It is never by being independent individuals and yet it is, because if someone hadn’t been pushed out or cranky enough to want territory of his or her own, the place would never have had founders.  One of those nearly impossible places is the New Guinea Highlands where tectonic drift has pushed the land into high sharp ridges and deep narrow valleys, so separating the people that those whose village are on one ridge, barely know the people on the next ridge, and keep their morale up by aggressively hollering insults across the difficult-to-cross valleys.  The Umeda are one of the most isolated tribes, which made them attractive to an anthropologist who lived with them for a while and tried to psychoanalyze their felt concepts about the world.
Umeda world view

Everything was food, exertion, and children.  The staple food was the pulp of the sago palm which is poisonous unless it is washed and pounded for a long time: hours.  This is done with a big section of wood pounding the starch in a sort of canoe.  The Umeda do not miss that the action of mortar and pestle are like the sex act.  Nor do they discount the apparent similarity of breast milk, semen, and ready-to-eat sago mush.  They wear gourds over their penises, not out of modesty but to make sure no semen escapes.  When it dries into powder, they sprinkle it on food as a condiment.  They think that ejaculate feeds babies before they are born, so the men increase their efforts when a woman is pregnant.

The rest of the menu is yams grown in small clearances, fenced to keep out the elusive pigs (walking feasts), and whatever living protein is in small creatures like fish, lizards and insects.  Some tribes are cannibals.  But the king of the jungle is the cassowary, huge bird we now conceptualize as descendants of dinosaurs, and a very convincing bit of evidence they are.  Very hard to hunt, they live as solitary animals in the highlands, a state that is appealing to old men who have spent their lives in hard labor and combat.  A man too old to work will go into the jungle and built a little hut where he spends his time meditating and dozing.  People bring him food and might even say he was a cassowary.

Cassowary, taller than a man, very dangerous.

"Felt meaning” ceremonies were hard to perceive at first. These ceremonies are strung out through a whole year but climax at about nine months, the period of a human pregnancy.  At the intense liturgical time of eventfulness, song and dance prevail, but the dances are separated according to age classes indicated by animal metaphor masks: very large, scary, and heavy.  For men, the periods of ceremonial dance are ordeals.   Women dance in place, defining the circle of the dance arena, and the male children stay in mobs, like flocks of birds or schools of fish, rushing in and out.

At the very end of the days of exertion, there is a solemn climax that is said to be two cassowaries, two old men who hold hands while dancing.  They are considered to be brothers.  The anthropologist, who is the only solitary human present in the village, interpreted all this in terms of the child rearing pattern for boys.  Babies are carried in a net on the mother’s back until they are toddlers.  Then girls stay around the village near their mothers, but the boys are carried on their father’s shoulders, on-lookers at the times the men sit together considering plans or walking through the jungle to look for animals or signs of sneaking enemies.

Papa and his boy

When the next boy comes, the father puts the older son down and takes up the younger one.  If there have been girls in a row, then the de-shouldered dethronement will be harder because the riding son has assumed an entitlement.  When the set-down boys see each other, they form a group and begin to imitate what they learned from fathers by mock-hunting small creatures, sometimes with success.  They get better and better at it until they begin to hunt with the men, and pretty soon are old enough to be pressed into marriage, which means swidden clearing and sago palm pounding.  The transitions between stages are psychologically painful, as they mean going from comfortable dependence to a scary and perhaps starving status.

To the anthropologist (who has been accused of projecting his own issues), the key to the cassowary dance is the reconciliation in old age between the two resentful brothers.  One of his clues was that the villages were encircled with palm trees, each -- planted at the birth of the boy -- was considered the birth tree of a specific man.  The men and their trees were so closely connected that if a man’s tree were cut down, he would be very sick and maybe die.  The two dancers in cassowary masks didn’t look at all like cassowaries; they looked like the palm trees.

There’s a lot more to the story, but this particular ceremony says nothing about God or Gods, is not linked to a specific historical event, is not verbal, and comes directly out of the lifeway forced by the ecology.  Is this religion?  Not if you think “religion” has to have a book, a bell, an altar, a priest, a building, a candle, a lot of rules.  This is the human substrate of felt meaning out of which formal religions develop.  The key is always survival, that of the tribe (the group) and that of the anthropologist’s career (the individual).  

The book I'm drawing on here is called "The Metamorphosis of the Cassowary" by Andrew Gell.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Of course ecstasy is a physical state, maybe something like an orgasm or a drug high.  Rats crave it.  So do humans and most other mammals, but it’s not clear that other animals get that way.  If it’s something physical, they probably do, since we evolved out of them.  Maybe a songbird in a mating and territory song frenzy.  No one knows whether a bull elephant in musth is feeling anything good -- his actions are outright dangerous and look like rage though the scientists say it’s sex. Even in humans it can be hard to separate sex and rage, down there in the ancient dark brain there are no words for. 

Clearly “ecstasy” (oh, yeah, it’s a drug and all that) is a mental/emotional state, claimed by emotion-based institutional religion as well as “spiritual” individual experience.  Clearly, it is experience-based, not related to dogma except for bookish prescriptions about how to get into that state.  But it’s attractive and impressive enough for people to go seeking institutions and leaders who promise to create the state.  To the individual person it is very real.  It feels privileged.

Pentecostal groups include ecstasy in their meetings, in what could pejoratively be called “self-hypnotism.”   In the Christian tradition “it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and their transformation from frightened and confused people to men who would face martyrdom for what they believed.”  Sounds Islamic to me.  Actually, it is characteristic of any human movement based on intense emotional states, particularly those dependent on drugs like peyote or ayahuasca or psilicibin -- or come to that -- alcohol.  Even adrenaline as in battle or extreme sports or something as risky as walking a tightrope or driving fast or “base jumping.”  Photos of people about to be killed as martyrs or criminals often look dazed and transported, like a mouse confronting a cat, and probably in just about the same blood molecule state.

Pentecost is this Sunday, May 24, 2015.  Rev. Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and journalist.  He says,Pentecost is from the Greek word 'Pentekostos', which means 'fifty'. It's the 50th day after the Sabbath of Passover week and in Judaism is called the Feast of Weeks (Leviticus 23:16).”  It’s traditionally a good day for baptism or joining a church.  Or starting summer.

Some exotic practices are attached to the Pentecostal movement, which is popular on Native American reservations and often expressed in other denominations.  It is the flame on the cross at the entrance of Methodist churches.  Strangely, though it is an individual experience, it becomes a force for joining a community.

A number of phenomena are associated:  one is speaking in tongues, a kind of babbling that’s interpreted as an unknown language (a bit of a contradiction in terms.)  Another is snake-handling which ought to boost adrenaline.  The idea is that God is protecting the handler of the rattlers.  Partly because such things are considered weird and dangerous enough to justify stigma and persecution, they are tagged with scripture quotes but also by claiming that they are from contact with a supernatural world: a great wind, a huge fire, or bones that come alive -- all human metaphors that are exaggerations of the real.  Supersized.  Other.

Clearly, if you take the drug called “ecstasy” but more technically MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)  which is the chemical found in the synthetic "club drug" ecstasy, a drug with stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, you are likely to trigger a flood of serotonin.  The catch is that it’s only borrowed against the future and therefore causes depletion of serotonin which is pretty painful, maybe damaging.  “Drug” levels in the blood are meant to swing back and forth between more and less, not too far in either direction.  If that loop is addled -- either too much or too little -- behavior is affected and may take the person into extremes of high and low that persist, keep rolling though unwanted.

The problem with the ecstasies of emotion or the reciprocating despair is in the tension between the life of an individual and the life of the community, which can also be both intensified or destroyed.  Power and fittingness in the culture must allow the self-regulation that is located in the pre-frontal “ethical” cerebrum.  That is, the ideas and practices that promote survival of self and group, even if a powerful charismatic leader is encouraging everyone to jump into a volcano in order to get to Heaven.  (End of the World Syndrome.)  The fancy of being a “Saving Remnant,” opposed to the rest of a depraved world, is a direct route to terrorism.

Hope makes stigmatized minorities vulnerable to ecstatic states of mind, the ethical/emotional reward for a religious context.  If that can be successfully recorded in dogma, housed in institutions, and rewarded with prosperity, then you’ve got yourself a church at least, maybe a denomination, and possibly a world-changing conflagration people call “religion.”  The political power, as we see, is enormous and can destroy whole populations through violence or sheer disruption, sending masses of people into the “deserts” or seas to starve and die.  

I’m interested in all this, how it happens, and how vivid metaphors change the way we interact with the world and other people.  A denominational seminary is likely to oppose the ideas, because they are disruptive and challenge loyalty.  “Just follow our rules.”  But a university with a strong comparative religion program will be friendly, up to a point.  Many fear that without a boundary, “religion” can become destructive, as history has shown again and again.  Art, I might reflect later, has fewer boundaries because it is considered harmless unless it begins to show icons as cartoons or -- what is “Piss Christ,” the crucifix standing in urine?  Deconstruction, iconoclastic or oxymoron?

Claiming specialness on the evidence of access to another world -- either supernatural or poetic -- can provide a sense of safety that may not be realistic but can satisfy an individual that they need not struggle anymore.  Christians' claim that their access to another world amounts to the denial of death, because those with the privilege will reincarnate -- literally become meat again.  

Making a metaphor this real introduces a lot of problems, as even Osama Bin Laden realized when he told only one wife of his many earthly spouses that she could be his wife in Paradise.  (So much for all those promised virgins.)  Then there’s the “monkey’s paw” dilemma in which a person torn apart by machinery comes back to life in the same ghastly state as he was in when he died.  Someone went to the trouble of figuring out how much physical space each human occupies and discovered we’d have to be piled up in layers if we’re all going to be reincarnated at the same time on this planet.  In philosophical circles, this is called “misplaced concreteness.”

What people know on this planet is what supplies the metaphors of religion with ideas, thought projections.  But in the very beginning, it is pre-verbal felt meaning at the animal level, rooted in ecology, that supplies the emergence of cultures of survival.  Individuals fit themselves into these patterns or, if they can’t, search out or invent new patterns either as a part of the whole or by finding a new basis of community.  It might be small and unique, in which case it is likely to be unknown, or if it responds to a felt need, it might eventually sweep the continents, as a new religion.

We are told, in fancy language, that there are two approaches to the understanding of religion: one is at the level of theories about existence, and the other is a matter of simply “doin’ it:” praxis.  In the best of all possible worlds, the two fit together.  But the human brain is still newly evolved and the planet is full of both limits and possibilities. Some of us get high on ideas, but they aren’t always in words.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Ova:  ballerina

The first ceremony at the beginning of a new life is a dance in which the ovum, clothed in gauze tissues, spins in slow tour jete until she is met by a corps of danseurs, a beady little horde with whipping tails.   

(The Corps de Ballet from "Drake Lake.")

If this seems like fantasy, it is.  A more developed version is in a book:  Birthing Ourselves Into Being, by Baraka Bethany Elihu.

The sperm do their seeking dance in spite of knowing that there will be only one premier danseur who makes his final pas de deux with the prima donna.  Shazam!  Fertilization !!  Creation!!  A new blob!  A new story.

One celled ocean animals.

In what way is this a ceremony?  It is an event with a beginning, middle and end; it is focused on desire; it has meaning; it is a process that confirms something very old that will persist and sustain life for a long time in the future -- we hope.  It is patterned in a way that can be elaborated in acts today, maybe consciously and maybe unconsciously echoing this first dance.

Beginning with this little metaphor -- which is actual except for calling it an art form when it’s biology -- makes the point that each cell in the human body has its own “mind” and seeks its own ends in its own way.  Putting aside for now the knowledge that the first "creatures" developed from substances and potentials becoming patterns on the planet, and were "alive" in the moment they began to choose their own way.

We remember with molecules . . .  somehow.

An artist's version of a hippocampus, imaginary,
neither like the organ nor like the sea creature, both of which exist.

It appears to science that memory and intention originate and are preserved in cells, maybe individually and sometimes in organs, which are organized cells that can specialize, for instance, the hippocampi -- two little seahorses, one just above each ear.  (On the inside of the brain of course.)  When these little organs begin to fail, you will lose your memory.

When a memory is recalled, it doesn’t come whole, but rather is re-assembled from parts stored in cells all over the brain.  Responding to the connectome, the smells and colors and tastes come together into meaning.  We don’t know exactly how it works, but we do know that every time something is recalled, it is not perfectly re-assembled, but may include bits that don’t belong or drop out other bits that actually could be proven actual at the time.  Without knowing this recent understanding, when we enact familiar ceremonies we reassure ourselves of what is there and what we believe to be true.  Memories of repeated acts and sense memories help us be ourselves.

This is the most basic level of human function from which all the rest emerges over time.  It begins at conception.  From then on the cells are responding to the environment -- the inside of the mother through the interface of the placenta, and its flow of nutrients and hormones.  But then as the cells begin to organize into organs, awareness of movement, temperature, and sound expand the level of memory and interpretation.

The question of whether an embryo can feel pain is crucial but puzzling:  “The neural regions and pathways that are responsible for pain experience remain under debate but it is generally accepted that pain from physical trauma requires an intact pathway from the periphery, through the spinal cord, into the thalamus and on to regions of the cerebral cortex including the primary sensory cortex the insular cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. Fetal pain is not possible before these necessary neural pathways and structures have developed.”  This is organ-detected pain, defined by the brain.  If there is no organ, no brain, it's not the same.

We already know that individual cells can move towards or away or be changed by outside forces.   One-celled creatures eat and shit. They go to light and avoid bad "smells."  Early fetuses suck their thumbs as soon as they have thumbs, have erections as soon as they have penises.

We seem to need to know when the baby is “human.”  “Quickening” is when the mother first feels the baby moving, usually about halfway through the pregnancy.  This is taken by some cultures as the entry of the soul into the baby.  They call it "ensoulment."  If the mother drinks too much coffee, the fetus will have the jitters.

Religion, politics, economics, individual circumstances, take over at this point or shortly before.  Technical forces enter into what happens.  The fact of a sonogram, the ability to do surgery on an embryo while it is still in the uterus, the capacity to assay the molecules in fluids in minute amounts so as to change them, the ability to analyze a genome for flaws so as to compensate for them -- all these things are in a vague way cultural ceremonies that reflect desire for survival, an invitation to a new being.  “Baby showers” are such a ceremony.

The baby ceremonies like baptism are only the beginning of a long trajectory of change with recognized points that seem important to the culture.  We are late understanding that a genome is a suite of potentials, like a great cathedral organ, not a script.  A person emerges from the moment of fertilization and begins a series of "births" and celebrations.  Even death does not end the liturgies of memory, the impact of the choices made.

As I write, the radio tells me about a tribal ceremony of “reburial” returning remains collected as bodies of American Indians to their tribes.  They have been in drawers in museums, waiting for study.  New strategies of analysis are always being devised, but the People are determined to put these bones back in the earth now.  There will be more song than dance, drums like heartbeats, making skeletons real for the moment.  A fantasy like the Dance of Conception, but less scientific and more the conviction that place and genome are important to the tribal community.

Old myths establish that one leaves life in a boat with a man named Charon to steer the person across the River Styx.  Perhaps before one comes to be alive, before that Dance of the Ovum, one arrives from a Blue Sea with a woman rowing hard.  Some choose not to come ashore.  Storybook artists depict unborn babies as having little wings, but it's plain from the sonograms that they really have fins.