Both Sides Now (Bundle Opening)

Following is part of “Both Sides Now,” which is what one might call filtered autobiography since it uses me (a 70 year old woman) but as a painter rather than writer, an Indian man (a composite of a dozen Blackfeet I know, often former students who are still friends), and a sort of archetypal anthro/professor who has more to do with my Unitarian world than rez life. This is an argument about the huge shift in academia that left not only individuals but whole disciplines high and dry — a sea change entirely invisible to people on reservations and yet affecting them deeply in terms of how they think of themselves and what resources they might find. The painter is an observer, a conduit. “Clive” is an example of a type. These are all things I think about all the time. I do NOT think of publishers. They are indeed a pain in the ass.


The first time they had gone to a Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening, she had had no idea at all what to expect, what to wear, what to take along. Clive didn’t seem to have a very clear notion either, though he’d read a great deal about it. The accounts were all historical. No one in the Sixties seemed to be aware the ceremony still lived — it was below the perception of even the anthropologists. She had taken a dance shawl, the kind with a long silk fringe on it, thinking that it might be like church where one was supposed to cover up, maybe even cover one’s head. But it turned out to be so very warm and humid — late spring, which is a rainy season, and many people packed into a small house — and they sat so long on the floor that she ended up folding it into a cushion. At least she was against the wall where she could lean her back and there was an open window with air coming in, but the drawback was that restless small children climbed in and out over the top of her, sometimes spilling their pop on her. Once a little girl reached through the window, patted her bright springy hair, then shrieked and ran off. Women sat on one side, men on the other.

They were the only white people there. Clive had been given a folding chair, since he was older, and he was clearly having a wonderful time. What she called his “James Willard Schultz side” was showing, though he usually tried to suppress it as too romantic for a professional anthropologist. Still, it explained his overwhelming love for this particular group of people and his deep desire to understand everything, no matter discomfort or resistance. She herself was not interested in being an active participant in such ceremonies, preferring to devote all her attention to absorbing the sensory richness of faces, light, smudge, drums and voices. She wanted to be what Emerson called “a transparent eyeball” — seeing but unseen. But Clive would be taking mental notes and long into the night would be putting them onto paper. It was, of course, forbidden to write or draw during the ceremony.

The old people, in their eighties, were more inclined to be like her, just present and absorbing, than like Clive’s effort to be both “in” the ceremony and reflecting upon it. He would have loved to have “become” a faux Indian and could probably do a convincing job of it with his beak of a nose and tendency to tan easily, but he was also watching himself and everyone else, trying to be a camera/recorder. He wanted to be part of the “in-group” he was observing while still preserving his status as a professional, his refuge in an ivory tower.

After that first time, they knew to bring old sofa cushions to sit on, bowls for the berry soup, and lots and lots of dollar bills to hand out. Clive was careful to explain to her that these ceremonies were meant to distribute wealth from those who had it to those who needed it. This was not a matter of greed, but there were also elements of compliment — one gave money to a particularly evocative dancer — and competition — the Canadians showed off by giving away more money than the Americans. Little rivalries developed where one man gave another a bit of money, only to have the second man give it back with interest the next time one of his relatives danced. The money exchange was accompanied by eloquent speeches, but they were in Blackfeet. Clive had not mastered Blackfeet so he get an informant to explain in the coming days. There was no way to find out how accurate the interpretation would be.


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