Friday, October 28, 2016

Blackfoot naturalist calls pit oven removal unethical

Chris Davis - In a self-published video (posted above) titled "Archaeologists Steal 1,600 Year Old Blackfoot Offering", Blackfoot naturalist and educator Ryan Heavy Head gives a detailed critical response to the recent encasement and removal of an intact pit oven from the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump site, as reported here and elsewhere.

After seeing stories in the press about the excavation, Heavy Head felt the need to speak out about it.  He agreed to an interview about the subject earlier this week.  "As soon as I saw them, my trained thinking, based on my experiential history was that they had taken an offering out of the ground, and taken it to the University of Alberta. They are going to carefully autopsy it, deconstruct it, and learn about how earth ovens were made here a millennium and a half ago."  According to Heavy Head, his excitement about learning more about pit ovens and history is tempered with concern over how the site has been treated.

"I am very much a naturalist, I am very aware of what is going on in the environment around me, locally."

"The problem with this particular instance is this; with the pit oven intact with the food, the meat, still there...  right away, from having the history of traditional knowledge of Blackfoot, and indigenous North American ways in general, my instinct told me that this was an offering that was made for the deceased. This was a meal that was prepared for somebody that was very beloved, who had passed away. Maybe more than one person."

"There are certain things in the Blackfoot tradition which have been lost or significantly corrupted through the 150 years of colonization. One of them is funerary practises. We know that Blackfoot funerary practises, you give the body back." He said traditionally Blackfoot people did not bury, encrypt, or burn the dead. The dead would be left out for the insects and birds to pick clean, to be returned to the Earth.

He explained cremation is the least likely of mainstream funerary practices chosen by those who follow traditional Blackfoot practises. "To burn any part of your body in Blackfoot means you are giving it to the sun, which means basically you are giving yourself up."

Heavy Head said modern medicine considers everything from a body to be a toxic bio-hazard.  "There is a mainstream distance between biology and culture, a cognitive distance for some reason..., in the mainstream you are not allowed to give anything back, you are not allowed to give any part of your body back." 

"My opinion was I think that food was left there for either departed loved ones, or for the spirits of that place, the buffalo jump itself."

"It wasn't that someone prepared a meal in a pit oven, and accidentally left it. It was there on purpose."

"My perspective is that it should not have been taken away from there. You have got a foreign culture that's here, that doesn't know what that is. It's not bad that they don't know what that is, but they don't have any right to take it away.  It's definitely not an ethical process."

"For me, what they have done is they took an offering. They took something that was left there for spirits, for people who are departed, or the spirit of the place itself. All of them are considered living still in a way that mainstream culture doesn't have a category for."

"There is not a respect for the ancestors living in the same way, for the Blackfoot culture. There is a separation from the life system which is very foreign to these thoughts."

"In Blackfoot places like Head Smashed In... they are places with a living presence... they are alive. There is no word like scared place, that is a western concept. It's an alive place."

"For me, although I cannot say it was an offering, 100%, I have a lot of reason to believe that is what it is."

"I am involved in the traditional, spiritual complex. My perspective is that autopsy approach is systemic to archaeology is not culturally appropriate to any Blackfoot site."

Related story:
1600 year old dinner unearthed at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

1 comment:

  1. Phil Burpee30/10/16

    Ryan Heavy Head makes a solid case – well-argued and on point. Digging this thing up and packing it away, notwithstanding its obvious enigmatic appeal from an empirical viewpoint, was perhaps not the smoothest move. Things are not always as they might otherwise seem. Back in the day I was a wandering young white man with his head somewhere up where the sun don’t shine and fell in with some old time Similkameens way down in southern B.C. They were members of the Okanagan Nation and had taken up ranching as a means of surviving in the colonial economy. I guess they felt sorry for me and took me into their family. We rode the high hills and life was good. The matriarch was a deeply wise and powerful woman named Theresa who became my mother when my own Mom was three thousand miles away. One fine spring day we were out on the sagebrush flats around an old corral doing a bunch of branding. Theresa showed up with some food and we fell to it. I was just sitting down with my meal when I noticed her filling up a plate with beef stew, potatoes, carrots, butter and fry bread. She took it and went out a couple hundred feet or so and placed it on an old stump. Then she came back and got some food for herself and sat down. I looked and scratched my head and pushed my hat back and looked some more. There was nobody else around and everybody had a plate. “Theresa,” I said. “How come you put that food out there?” She looked at me over top of her glasses the way she would do and simply said - “It’s for the other ones.”
    And there it is. Things are not always as they might otherwise seem. We are taught to believe that there is this and there is that. There is now and there is then. There is alive and there is dead. But, of course, it is not that simple. So maybe there is a time for rightful curiosity, and maybe there is also a time for stepping back and recognizing that certain things at certain times are just best left lie. Maybe the other ones are not in a hurry and 1600 might as well be sixteen minutes. Maybe they’re planning to get that meal in their own good time – just as soon as they’re ready. I don’t suppose they’re running on a clock. Yes, Ryan Heavy Head makes a solid case. - Phil Burpee


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