My Soi Disant Life

Several years ago the anthropologist/philosopher Jonathan Lear wrote an fascinating book (excellently reviewed here by Charles Taylor) about doomspirals’ fav topic: kultural devastation.

Lear explores this theme through an account of the Crow Tribe’s forced relocation to a reservation in the 19th century—& how this uprooting deeply undermined Crow society. Before displacement, the Crow were a nomadic people of the Great Plains whose way of life was intimately linked to the buffalo. The movement of the buffalo dictated the movement of the Crow; the social status of Crow men hinged on their relation to the hunt and the courage displayed protecting the tribe’s hunting grounds; the roles of Crow women revolved around facilitating the hunt and managing its bounty; and Crow women derived great pride in the ability and courage of their kinsmen. In this way, the hunt influenced the rhythms and rituals of the tribe, influencing marriage selection, social hierarchy, burial honors, as well as daily activities.

The central text through which Lear tells his story is a recollection of Chief Plenty Coups, who led the Crow through the transitional period into the confinement of the reservation. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again,” Chief Plenty Coups recounts. “After this nothing happened.”

Lear’s book takes great lengths puzzling over the words “after this nothing happened”. Plenty Coups, presumably, does not mean that nothing transpired after the tribe was confined on the reservation. But the motivating purpose of the tribe had been suddenly removed; the acts of greatest importance and symbolic value ceased to hold meaning, and the very roles that constituted a Crow being a Crow ceased even to be possible.

[The Crow] problem, then, was not simply that they could not pursue happiness in the traditional ways. Rather, their conception of what happiness is could no longer be lived. The characteristic activities that used to constitute the good life ceased to be intelligible acts. A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood.

A principal example of this dissolution of cultural meaning was the transformation of “coup sticks” from elevated cultural object to inert ornament. On the Plains, it was the practice of Crow warriors to plant a stake (a “coup stick”) in the ground, which marked a boundary that if the enemy crossed, the Crow warrior would defend to the death. It was of supreme status in society to be a man who could “count” many “coups”. Thus, the significance of the chief’s tribal name: Plenty Coups. But, with life on the reservation, after the buffalo, all significance was emptied from coup sticks. Old virtues were no longer possible. No more coups could be counted.

Was this morning reading an crazy story of a Montana man who was killed attempting to stage a Big Foot hoax. Stalking along a wooded highway in a full-body Chewbacca-type camouflage outfit, the man meant to spook passing motorists, but was instead struck by a passing car. It was one of those sad, weird ephemeral stories that float across our internet radar screens and pass as entertainment(?) in our nonsense culture. But what caught mine eye was a comment beneath the story by “BonzoDog1”:

“Highway 93 is notorious for being one of the most deadly roadways in Montana without any hijinks.  At least only the fool died. The two young women could have easily died or been seriously injured, too.
I thought too of several young members of the Crow Tribe who died in the 1990s trying to count coup by slapping the fenders of passing 18-wheelers going 80 mph on I-90 through the rez.

I don’t know if “count coup” is a phrase in current/regional circulation, or if any Crow actually used this phrase to describe the horrible event, or if this internet commenter is merely a royal butthead trafficking loaded phrases. But is it not vastly sad how the old rituals have been made low, profaned? Not that these young men profaned the old rituals but that there is no possibility to practice them? (As when Aristotle tells us that happiness is the function of exercising noble virtues, and we think: ‘I can’t really do those in junk-house trash-life 2012′?) Though Lear paints a devastating portrait of the reality of culture death, he does so to tell another story. After all, the book is titled Radical Hope. Lear writes of the continuity of the Crow people. He discusses how, through mobilizing Crow imagery and history, Chief Plenty Coups was able to re-imagine Crow values and rituals, transplanting them into the new context of the reservation, ultimately helping the tribe adapt and persevere. But… the slapping-truck-fenders story is a discouraging sign of the grim state of Plenty Coups’ project, and of, y’know, the centripetal tug of ye olde Boschian gyre. [&BTW, TanFin tells me that “counting coups” is the source of the band name “The Counting Crows”. Ugh/Ack, Modrn Lyf = Long December.]

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