2005-11-08 - 10:28 a.m.
Sorry so little from the home front lately. Kinda busy, but that�s no excuse, so here goes.
My annual trip for the Air Force this year took me to the Blackfoot Reservation in northwestern Montana this July and August. I had heard all manner of horror stories about working on the �Rez�, some of which turned out to be justified (alcoholism does indeed run rampant on the reservation, and all of its associated impacts were seen: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, low birth weights, diabetics further compromised by a nearly �liquid-diet�, and domestic violence, to name a few choice ones).
I also saw a community that had been crushed: utterly, repeatedly, internally as well as externally. The need for adaptation to change is a natural trait among Homo sapiens sapiens and it continues to this day for all involved. If a situation changes and an adaptation in behavior is required to survive, those who do not change will die.
Simple enough, right?
The modern world has both embraced Native American culture and left it far behind. We �advanced� peoples have realized that all work and no play makes John and Jane very dull, indeed. Fresh air and an intimate rapport with the world and universe beyond not mediated by an artificial human �hierarchy� are indeed good for you.
The descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of this continent face a daunting task: Survive in the rapidly changing culture that surrounds them and simultaneously ensure the vitality of their own culture, which often dictates diametrically opposed values of the society that borders theirs on every side.
On the reservation, there were still families that observed the traditional celebrations and dietary guidelines: Fasting for days on end, constructing a tipi without power equipment, sweat lodges with little water, and hours of prayers and chanting while inhaling the sweetgrass smoke, their most sacred smudging plant. The celebrations end with a feast of bison (VERY expensive) boiled with hot rocks in a water-filled, leather-lined pit in the ground.
No cell phones, no cappuccinos, no cable television, no PC�s (no, not Apples, either), no SUV�s, no central air, no Wal-Mart, no Blockbuster, no �Bed, Bath, and Beyond�, no �Barnes and Noble�.
Alcoholism. Parents too intoxicated to look after small children. Limited council budgets as dictated by Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not enough schools. Schools that are too far away. Lack of interest from the outside world. Handouts from the outside world instead of respectful trade arraignments. Polluting outsiders that do not understand your ways and have no intention of understanding your ways, so long as they can buy their souvenirs, their Mountain Dew and pork rinds and be on their way out of that backwards hellhole that doesn�t even have cell-phone reception! Etc, etc, etc.
And it is often wondered why �Native Americans� seem a little chilly and distant.
I must, however, reflect as much of my experience as accurately as possible. I met the most gracious, most humble, most proud and most courageous people on this brief little jaunt. The hospital staff were open and kind beyond anything I have ever seen in a �modern� hospital. They were very appreciative of our coming to volunteer at the hospital. And they were infinitely patient with us when we expressed curiosity about their culture. Many of them asked us to return, and a few of those offered to open their homes to us when we return, which I intend to do.
Among the many things that I learned was that sweetgrass is sacred and should not be sold to �outsiders� (like me). Some people still adhere to this. I learned this while I was in a quaint �Native shop� with my fellow outsiders. I had picked up a small length of sweetgrass to study it. I had considered purchasing it and had asked how much it was (I was in uniform, by the way). The cashier told me the price and I considered it. I then felt a tug on my sleeve. A Native woman sternly shook her head at me.
�Don�t buy that! We will give you some at the hospital!�
I quickly put the sweetgrass down and thanked the woman. She worked in the tiny radiology area and I had seen her several times as I had elected to work in the Emergency Department at the hospital (big surprise!).
At the hospital, she found me in the ER and presented me with a strand of hand-woven sweetgrass quadruple the length of the small switch I had seen in the shop!
�Sweetgrass is sacred to us and should not be sold,� she explained. �It should be either given or received freely, not traded for money.� I thanked her profusely, probably causing her a little bit of embarrassment. but I was nonetheless sincere. I had nothing to give her in return and that bothered me. I expressed this to her and she waved it away.
She was dead-on about that. I had a fantastic time on the reservation and in Glacier National Park. I will always have a warm recollection of that trip and eagerly await another opportunity to return.