“Ah, kuinel, you see, Injun man ain’t strong like white man!”
—William Gilmore Simms

We are approaching an important centenary, though there probably will be little public notice amid the hoopla over the bicentennial of the Constitution. In 1888 Franz Boas joined the newly formed faculty at Clark University to become the first professor of anthropology in the United States, and in that same year he and a handful of others founded the American Folklore Society. The list of important anthropologists trained by Boas reads like a “who’s who” of American anthropology: Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, Melville Herskovits, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. So it makes great sense to mark 1888 as the founding date of anthropology and folklore studies as academic disciplines in the United States.

That first generation of Boasian anthropologists and folklorists saw as their duty a sort of “salvage operation” consisting of the collecting, recording, and preserving (where possible) of the cultures of native American people. Since it was clear by 1888 that modernization was an irresistible force in the evolution of society, these anthropologists and folklorists rushed into the field to preserve what they could of the premodern cultures close at hand, much as a biologist might rush in to save a remaining few members of an endangered species. The turn of the century saw the creation of the great collections of American Indian artifacts in museums, the publication of hundreds of monographs on American Indian beliefs and customs, and even the use of “Indian Lore” as a pedagogical tool in the programs of youth organizations like the Boy Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Still, it is one thing to save the American bison, and quite another to “save” the American Indian.

Two recent books remind us how much those disciplines have changed. William Farr’s depiction of the Blackfeet belongs in the earlier period, admittedly a “salvage operation” aimed at preserving the photographic record of the reservation experience from 1882 to the end of World War II. Farr assumes that the culture of the Blackfeet of the 1880’s is gone, that what we have to learn from these photographs is something of a lost world. Anastasia y Shkilnyk’s study of an Ojibwa community, on the other hand, shares with a few others a radically new goal for the study of native Americans. We ought to understand the story of the destruction of a Canadian Ojibwa community, says the author, not for what it teaches us about the past or even about the Ojibwa, but for what it teaches us about our future.

This announced goal raises somewhat dramatically the stakes of Shkilnyk’s inquiry and permits us to read her book not as a narrow study of a tiny community, but as a critical test case of the collision of tradition and modernity. The story of the Ojibwa of the Grassy Narrows Indian Reserve raises timely and difficult questions about tradition, meaning, and human rights. These were questions raised in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, so the confluence in 1987-88 of an obscure centennial and a famous bicentennial may not be so inappropriate, after all.

Moreover, juxtaposing the two stories, Fan’s about the Blackfeet and Shkilnyk’s about the Ojibwa, shows us something about cultural change and survival. The two authors, one a historian and the other a regional planner, hold two very different views of what constitutes the essential core of traditional culture, how fragile is that core, what are the dynamics of cultural change, and what is necessary for “cultural survival.” In response to Farr’s central question—”How much could Indian people change and yet remain essentially Indian?”—the two authors differ, and it is in those differences that we can find the issues for a broader discussion of authenticity, tradition, and modernization.

Farr’s text is the briefer and simpler, in part because he and his collaborator, high school teacher Gary Schmautz, believe that the photographs they hunted down speak directly to us, showing “the world of the reservation honestly, without distorting the recorded reality through the prism of language or culture.” Farr admits there are limitations in the assortment of photographs that survived (limitation such as the fact that almost all the photographers were white), but he confidently asserts that the photographs show us in the tiny details of a facial expression or of a modern item placed among the traditional artifacts the story of “Blackfeet people trying to cope with their changing world as Blackfeet.”

The brief chapters and extensive captions for the photographs relate the essentials of the history of these upper Great Plains people. The Blackfeet really were four closely related tribes sharing a common language and similar customs and religious beliefs. The buffalo was crucial to the Blackfeet, not only for their material and spiritual sustenance but also after 1830 for their dealings with American whites through the buffalo robe trade. The first government treaty with the Blackfeet in 1855 followed the familiar pattern, establishing agriculture and reservation schools as the twin agents for civilizing and Christianizing the native people. The demise of the buffalo after 1880 sealed the fate of the Blackfeet, and those who survived the “Starvation Winter of 1883-84” proceeded in 1887 and again in 1895 to sell vast tracts of their Montana land in exchange for cash that the white financial custodians “stole, swindled, or wasted away.”

The Blackfeet never recovered economically, and after 1900 they are not much more than victims of white disagreements over what would be the best economic course for the Indians, farming or cattle ranching. Those advocating ranching as the road to self-sufficiency eventually lost to those who saw farming as the best way to modernize the Blackfeet, but neither experiment worked. By 1920 two-thirds of the reservation population was on government rations. Although Farr does not go into the details of the later period, the reader assumes that not much has changed for the Blackfeet, that they are still bound in a pattern of dependency.

Farr may have been seduced by the visual nature of his evidence, but for whatever reason, he believes that “white modernity arrived via a succession of small and seemingly insignificant things.” Farr reads in the appearance of boots, sewing machines, cloth coats, and a hundred other material things the gradual adoption of modern civilization. Given the choice between two interpretations of this evidence, one seeing a conversion to white ways and the other seeing a realistic adaptation of white means to Indian ends. Fair chooses the latter. The Blackfeet “ingeniously converted white practices to Indian sensibility,” he insists. “There is continuity, to be sure, but it is deeper, more private, and more interior.”

In a two-page “epilogue” Farr brings the story to the present. The young Blackfeet more rapidly abandon the reservation and their “home world”; they marry outside the group; they become more fully Americanized. Yet, says Farr, they remain Blackfeet at some private, interior core. Unfortunately, we have only Farr’s word on that, and these last two pages are filled with the too-familiar romantic generalizations and views of “authenticity” that really beg his quite sensible initial question: How much and what sort of change makes a culture fundamentally different?

The strength of Shkilnyk’s excellent book is that she does not beg the central question. Taking a leave of absence from her doctoral studies in urban and regional planning at MIT, Shkilnyk first visited the Grassy Narrows Indian Reserve (in Western Ontario) in 1976 as a consultant for the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. Six years earlier scientists discovered severe methyl mercury pollution of the English-Wabigoon River system, the river that was crucial to the livelihood of the Ojibwa people on the reserve. The author was unprepared for what she found there. The methyl mercury poisoning, it turns out, was only “the last nail in the coffin” (as her Ojibwa informants liked to say), only the most recent of a string of shocks that began with the flu epidemic of 1919 and continued into recent history with the creation of residential schools, the destruction of traditional religion, and the 1962 relocation of the entire group from the old reserve to the new.

What Shkilnyk found that cold November afternoon in 1976 was a community disintegrating into the most horrible nightmare of “homelessness.” In this small community of less than 600, where everyone was related by blood or marriage, she found a relentless pattern of personal violence, destructiveness, alcoholism, suicide, gang rape, incest, child abuse, child abandonment, and child neglect. The statistics are staggering, but what struck the author most was the “numbness of human spirit” she found at Grassy Narrows. These were, writes Shkilnyk, “a truly broken people.”

The author relies upon anthropology, psychology, sociology, and economics to discover what happened to bring this community to such a state. With the help of native informants and anthropologists’ monographs, Shkilnyk reconstructs what was the vital culture of these Ojibwa until the 1962 relocation. First, these people had a deep attachment to their place and to nature’s rhythms. Second, they held great respect for the dignity of the individual. And, third, they valued the independence and self-sufficiency of the clan-based family group.

The family was the fundamental economic unit of the Ojibwa, relying upon the winter trapline. With few public institutions above the family unit, it was this home world of the family that provided the individual identity and support. The traditional ethos strongly valued sharing and mutual aid. The extended family also provided the rituals—the naming ceremony, the vision quest, the marriage ceremony, the funerary rituals—that sustained Ojibwa identity. There were no social classes or distinctions on the old reserve, no voluntary organizations, no community groups, no organized churches. The traditional Ojibwa valued autonomy and individualism.

All this changed with the 1962 move to the new reserve. The physical relocation stood for the larger public policy, so-called “community development,” sustained by an ideology of modernization and committed to the expansion of social welfare and the integration of native people into Canadian life. White policymakers had already set things in motion decades earlier with the creation of residential schools. For the schools meant that families could no longer be out on the winter traplines, and with the demise of the traplines came the demise of an entire pattern and ethos of self-sufficiency. New rules for trapping, fishing, and the harvesting of wild rice in the late 1940’s altered forever the economic autonomy of the community, and the 1963 building of a road connecting the new reserve with the nearest white town intensified Indian/ white contact and racism.

The responsibilities of the community leaders, who previously were ideal role models of the Ojibwa, changed with the emergence of bureaucrats on the reserve. More importantly, the strong traditions of self-help, sharing, and mutual aid decayed into a pattern of dependency upon paternalistic outsiders. And there emerged social inequality distinguishing those who had steady jobs in the bureaucracy from those who were on the dole. The ethos of sharing transformed into an ethos of individual accumulation. The mercury poisoning of 300 miles of river system by Dryden Chemicals, Limited, destroyed commercial fishing and guiding, the last base for community economic independence, to say nothing of destroying the symbolic meaning of the river to the Ojibwa. Women, especially, were “victims of modernization” in this tragic story. They lost their power as producers and became passive consumers, actually expendable in the new society. The alcoholism, violence, suicide, rape, and child neglect Shkilnyk witnessed on the reserve were the visible evidence of the social pathology of this culture turned topsy-turvy.

Sadly, the Ojibwa knew what was happening to them but had no solutions to their dilemma. The native council repeatedly requested work programs, but the government continued the welfare system largely because it was simpler and cheaper to go with the inertia of the bureaucracy. The Ojibwa had made a Faustian bargain, trading their independence for limited material benefits. Seventy-eight percent of the Ojibwa polled said they were “not happy spiritually.” What is left for them is not only a culture of poverty and dependence but the uncertainty of the medical consequences of the mercury poisoning of their immediate environment. And the Canadian government seems to the author to be fundamentally incapable of dealing “holistically with a shattered society.”

So what is to be done? In her “postscript” Shkilnyk invokes an apt metaphor as she speaks to the Ojibwa: “If the external enabling conditions constitute the firewood for the renewal of a people, then the spark to light that fire has to come from within. The spark is the process by which a human being becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears for his own destiny.” Philosophically, adds the author, “they have come to understand that a slave is also a man who’ waits for someone else to come and free him.”

Shkilnyk as much makes this affirmation of human freedom and responsibility for her modern readers as for her native clients, for she sees Grassy Narrows as a microcosm of the destructive processes of modernization. We modern Americans are experiencing the same pathologies of violence, illness, suicide, family breakdown, child abuse, alcoholism, and drug abuse intensified in that small community that suffered so many catastrophes. These are the costs of modernity: “the loss of our moorings in faith and tradition; the loss of a sense of connection with the earth; alienation from meaningful work; and separation from a nurturing family and communal setting.” Lacking the family or communal base, we tend to go it alone. In a sense, we are all Ojibwa.

Shkilnyk’s final exhortation shows us how different from Farr’s is her view of culture. Authentic Indianness for Farr lies in a private interior that is sustainable even amid the most pervasive settings of modern white society. In contrast, Shkilnyk sees culture as sustained only by a group and by its active performance of the everyday and special rituals of living.

Hers is a more accurate view, I think, one that raises some very interesting questions regarding tradition and modernity. For example, is there a human right (or, at least, a civil right) to a community tradition? Put differently, is it in the public interest to protect and preserve a community’s traditions? If so, what public policies best achieve these goals, and who decides which traditions are worth saving? Finally, what happens to traditions when they are preserved due to extraordinary, perhaps “unnatural,” efforts? Are they the same traditions they were in their natural settings, or have they become sterile shadows of what they once were?

These are very large questions, of course, but there are policymakers who must decide daily how they shall answer them, and the evidence shows their answers have been disastrous. Two interesting movements are worth mentioning as possible antidotes to the prevailing notion that “community development” means commitment to modernization. First is the “Mediating Structures and Public Policy” project directed a few years ago by Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus and described best in their short treatise To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy (American Enterprise Institute, 1977). Berger is the sociologist who has given the most sustained thought to the public policy applications of the sociological understanding of modernity. He affirmed in a 1974 essay on patriotism the proposition that “Every human being has the right to his own tradition” and that “No one may be deprived of his childhood.” The point of the mediating structures project is that it is the midrange institutions in our modern society—institutions such as neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association—that are the modern carriers of traditions, values, meanings, and identity. Berger and Neuhaus recommend that public policy protect and empower those mediating institutions wherever possible.

Another development relevant to our thoughts about public policy responses to the collision between tradition and modernity is the relatively recent movement within the profession of folklorists to preserve and revitalize community traditions through “folklore and folklife festivals.” Often using public funding, folklorists gather traditional “folk” artists and performers for a few days’ worth of music, crafts, dancing, cooking, and storytelling. The public is invited to these festivals, and attendance has been heavy. The festivals and the “living museum” movement (also popular among folklorists) aim not only at preserving folk traditions but even at reviving traditions that have “died.”

Some folklorists raise serious doubts about folk festivals, worrying that “staged traditions” and an unreflective pursuit of “authenticity” do not add up to viable cultures. Traditions preserved under artificial circumstances, these skeptics argue, are not up to the important work living traditions do in terms of sustaining meaning in a community. Worse, these festivals may be merely a new version of Disneyland, where alienated modern tourists can glimpse briefly a purportedly “authentic” tradition before returning to their sterile institutional lives.

This debate among folklorists comes down to the practical question of whether anything can be done in a community like Grassy Narrows. Once traditions die at the hands of modernity, can they be revived? If so, then what sort of public policy would empower the community to pursue this new vision of “community development,” one committed not to modernization but to the recovery of what it means to be Ojibwa? If not, if Grassy Narrows is lost forever, then what shall we learn from this tragedy that will help us avoid the Grassy Narrows disasters no doubt already in the making? Shkilnyk’s book offers chilling witness to the view that the survival of traditions is not only a human right, it is a human necessity. We must sort out the puzzling dilemmas the collision of tradition and modernity forces upon us, certainly for the sake of the members of those future Grassy Narrows, but for our own sakes as well.


[A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community, by Anastasia M. Shkilnyk; New Haven: Yale University Press]

[The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945 A Photographic History of Cultural Survival, by William E. Farr; Seattle: University of Washington Press]