You Otter See the Whales in Sitka


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23154906_10214694818949192_3124333924529284067_oSo, I flew out from Barrow a couple weeks back to spend a few days at a conference (Whalefest) in Sitka. I don’t get to spend much time in southwest Alaska. When I fly out, I generally go through Anchorage and then down to the lower 48. I can visit the villages of the Northslope about as often as I care to, and I can often spend extra time in Fairbanks or Anchorage, but a chance to veer off into the southeast is a rare treat.

To say that Sitka is beautiful is putting it more than a little mildly. It really is gorgeous. In the end I found myself plotting various schemes to stay longer, or to come back. Moni couldn’t be talked into spending Thanksgiving down that way, something sensible about money and inconvenient flight times, but I’d still give up a turkey for a few free days in this town, preferably while the humpback whales are still in town.

Which reminds me, whalefest did (oddly enough) include a chance to go on a whale-watching cruise. Grumbly me, wasn’t all that eager to get on a whale-watching boat. I get seasick easily and the last time I did that with my family in Hawaii, we barely saw a tail come up out of the water. This time was different, though, remarkably different!

So, yeah, that was cool!

DSC04103My accommodations were at the old Sheldon Jackson College. The campus itself was beautiful. I wandered into the Sheldon Jackson Museum a couple times and found myself spending way more time in there than I originally planned. I also got to the totem park (otherwise known as the Sitka National Historic Park. I definitely needed more time in both those spots.


The conference itself was a fascinating mix of presentations on a diverse range of subjects. Oh yes, whales were the dominant theme, but speakers also addressed issues such as climate change, biology of other sea mammals, and sundry things-oceanic. The keynote speaker, Jacquelyn Gill, gave a wonderful talk on climate change and extinction, or rather persistence.

At some point I took a longish walk and found myself watching a sea otter playing in the harbor. It’s an oddly calming thing, just snapping amateurish pictures of an otter, waiting for him to do something interesting, like bring up another shellfish.

…just like the last one.

Damned cute, these little buggers!

It hasn’t escaped me that this is the Alaska that most people think of when I tell them I live in this state. They imagine trees and mountains, and moose, and bears, and all-manner of different forms of wildlife. My own experience of the state is very different, but that’s to be expected. Alaska is a whole buncha cool states.

Ah well, I really must get back to Sitka some time.

And to Whalefest!

Anyway, click to embiggen!

Fundamentalism by Proxy and the Guilting of the Godly


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A general suspicion of religion comes to mind easily enough. Hell, even religious people frequently exhibit this suspicion (tempered as it is with whatever thoughts they’ve assembled into their own beliefs). There is something about the whole range of religious beliefs as such that invites a degree of doubt, even contempt. It would be easy to believe religion could be refuted.


Just like nailing jelly to a wall.

What makes this seemingly easy task so frustrating is the sense that any generalization one might make about religion will most certainly have its counterexamples, and most of these exceptions are anything but marginal. Even belief in God or gods which seems such a no-brainer falls apart when we consider various branches of Buddhism. Belief in the supernatural is rather complicated by those who think of spirits as part of the natural world. Some of us may regard the notion of spirits in a mountain top as falling outside the natural world, but it doesn’t really work to maintain that belief in a supernatural world is a defining feature of religion if that belief itself isn’t all that universal. The particulars just don’t rescue the narrative. …and so-on with any other effort to sweep the lot of religious beliefs into the same been-there-refuted-that bin. What is religion? Hard to say. Harder still if you’re answering that question in the midst of a polemic moment.

Luckily, this problem is easily solved by focusing on one set of religious traditions instead of trying to drop a truth bomb on the lot of them. Can’t nail down every faith out there with one stroke of the hammer? No problem. Just pick one. Specificity will save us all!

…except that it won’t.

Let’s say you think the God of Abraham is a right cruel bastard, and so that’s your main objection to the whole of Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism). You can even throw in a few scriptures to back this up (cause that seems to be how the Biblical game is played), and we non-believers are often happy to play along, arguendo, so to speak. The godless corners of the net are filled with various references to God’s more dickish behavior, all documented nicely in the ‘Good Book’, and wielded well, these can form the basis for reasonably compelling arguments. We can even extend the critique into any number of horrible things Christians have done in the name of the great big bastard in the sky. We can work up a real parade or horribles and say ‘that’s it1’ That’s why the God of Abraham isn’t welcome in our lives and our thoughts. We can do this. Hell, I have done it. I”ve made this argument quite a few times since going godless many decades ago. And I will say, that I think this approach can be used to skewer a particular brand of believer, one I’m pretty sure I’ve met in person more than a few times.

But what about those Christians who seem to find in the Bible a story of hope, love, and kindness? No, I don’t mean the footnote kind of godly affection that accompanies homophobic politics, paternalistic family norms, or just plain idiotic theodicies. I mean the kind of compassion that actually does put some believers in the streets fighting for the rights of others and defending the dignity of all manner of people. Those Christians do exist and they have their scriptures too, their theories, their angle on God, the universe, and even that annoying wasp nest under the front porch.

What are we to make of these Christians?

The Christian left was once a powerful force in American life, and we could do worse than to see it rise again. Don’t get me wrong; at his best Jesus is an ambiguous story for me, and not one containing a lot of factual weight, but if i was to pick a fight it wouldn’t be with the peace-love-dove set of Christians. When it comes to the things that matter most to me, I am as likely as not going to count them as allies. Damned good ones at that!

For the present, though, the question is what to make of the Christians who don’t fit the yer-a-jerk-and-so-is-yourGod narrative? How do we sort their significance in relation to the buggers who actually make life hard for those ‘sinner’s they claim to love after all. If the notion that God and his fan club are all a bunch of jerks is your go-to argument when explaining active resistance to religion, then these guys are actually kind of a problem.

…which is ironic to say the least.

A believer may have an out for this problem. She can tell us one version of Christianity (presumably her own) is genuine and the other is just bullshit. How we may ask? And scripture, she may answer, which theoretically means the whole issue stands or falls on those passages Christians are find if quoting at each other and the rest of us. A believer can insist that the right answer is contained in those scriptures (or something else in her faith), and that the rest is simply noise. Whether she is right or not about the nature of that correct view is another question, but so long as someone affirms a particular faith, this approach isn’t glaringly inconsistent. But as a man who denies the authority of scripture (among other religious authorities) I’m not really in a position to do that. Sure, I can formulate ideas as to whether or not any given interpretation of scripture is plausible given the text and its historical significance, but I can find no authority with which to say anyone oughtta give a damn about that assessment.

More than that, I see no reason to believe there is any consistency to scripture with which to settle questions about what is and what isn’t a truly Christian take on the subject. Really, I think it far more likely, that the whole mess of scripture really is just that full of contradiction because what the hell else would you expect if a giant text cobbled together from a vast range of different authors writing at different times and places?

…which reminds me of one of those teachable moments a high school student once handed me. (In this case, I was the teachee.) I can’t remember how the subject came up, but I asked an orthodox Jewish kid something about how he viewed some particular theme in the Bible. He responded by telling me that there is no ‘the Bible’. To him, that phrase denoted an odd collection of texts, some of which might bear some relation to those his own people valued and some clearly didn’t, but the notion that the whole collection could be meaningfully referenced as though it were a single book seemed rather foreign to him.

It should have been foreign to me too.

We unbelievers give up far too much ground by speaking about ‘the Bible’ in this way.

This is of course a very incomplete account of the variation, even within Christianity. The whole mess gets meta-messy when we start adding differences of opinion as to whether or not scripture is the sole source of authority on what is right and what isn’t. What do we make of those who recognize the authority of the Pope? …of the Mormon Prophets? …or even the notion that one must be filled with the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture properly? All of these can turn the tables on any attempt to arrive at a fixed notion of just what it is we are rejecting when we say ‘no’ no God.

In any event, I see no reason to believe we can find a consistent message in the myriad scriptures folks are prone to cite in the effort to decide what a Christian ought to believe. For me, there is no ought to the matter. There is only what different believers do in fact believe and the mix of reasons and choices that go into their professions of belief. (Hell, I’m not even sure how much to make of beliefs, to be honest. What counts as doctrine on Wednesday is easily forgotten on Thursday. …on Friday it r-emerges as the subject of debate.) Anyway, I don’t see any hope of resolving questions about which is the true nature of Christianity.

…or of Islam.

…or Buddhism.

…or even pastafarianism for that matter.

I’m not saying the critique of Christian cruelty is a straw man. I am saying its relevance to any given believer depends on assumptions any given Christian may or may not hold.

This is often frustrating for an unbeliever. We have the goods on Tom and Jack, so to speak, so it just seems unfair to let Alice and Eric slide on account of a few disclaimers. But of course mere disclaimers aren’t the issue. It’s the very real possibility that someone’s faith may genuinely differ from that for which we have a ready critique. Of course we can ask any number of questions to see if someone really does envision Christianity in positive terms (as opposed to those who merely parrot the rhetoric of love and compassion all the while wielding the Prince of Peace like a well-balanced weapon, but at the end of the day? Some folks escape the criticism. Some folks really do seem to see in Christ a message that genuinely inspires love and compassion.

So what’s a godless bastard to do?

Unfortunately, I think the temptation exists to force the issue, to pretend we have some way of sorting the real thing from the imitation believer after all. It should come as no surprise that this rhetorical strategy usually means declaring the least defensible version of Christianity that we can imagine to be the real thing. All other variations, and in particular the more palatable variations on belief are then the product of personal whim. The kind Christian, so this narrative goes, is the one who really hasn’t read her Bible. She is the one who hasn’t really thought her doctrines through to their logical conclusions. I expect this kind of narrative from conservative Christians, but it’s a little more odd to hear it coming from the godless. It’s odd, yes, but it’s not rare. Unbelievers often take the view that Christians liberal in theology and politics aren’t the real ones.  Thus, we turn virtues into vices and snub allies away into likely resentment. (Who could blame them?) At worst, the effort to delegitimize moderate or liberal believers may well nudge one or three of them the other direction. It’s a kind of proxy-fundamentalism, a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of people whose views don’t fit the vision of Christianity we mean to attack.

A variation of this approach can be seen in the oft-repeated refrain that the only real Muslims are the militants. Those Muslims (indeed, the vast majority) who seem to get along with the rest of us haven’t got their own faith right, so the argument goes. And thus peaceful Muslims and violent extremists all falter beneath the weight of the same criticism. We can treat every Muslim as a would-be terrorist, so it seems, because those who haven’t come around to it simply aren’t doing their religion right.

Once again this approach assumes an objective limit on the range of legitimate variation within the faith in question. And once again, no such objective limit exists. You can haul out whatever quotes you want in support of it, but once again, the significance of those quotes rests on a number of assumptions, assumptions that just aren’t uniform throughout the Muslim world. So, why advocate for the bastards when we could support decent folks who just want to get through the day.

There is simply no way around it. If ever there was a term for which ‘family resemblance’ provided a more suitable account of its meaning I don’t know what that is (maybe ‘culture’). Religion as a whole can take many different forms, as can just about every individual religion. We can respond to each individual variant as we like, but there is no use shoring up the authority of those who serve as the main targets of our criticism. We certainly shouldn’t be helping the greatest assholes in God’s many fan clubs to marginalize decent people. The plasticity of religion is itself a potential objection in itself, at least to those who think it a bastion of objective morality, but that too is just another subset of believers out there. My point is simply that the variation is there, and that those of us who say ‘no’ shouldn’t be too quick to add our own voices to those seeking to impose orthodoxy on the faithful.

Taking off from Barrow.


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Apprapos of nothing, but I flew out of Barrow this Wednesday. I’m in Sitka for a conference (Whalefest). I’ll have more on that later, but for the moment, I thought I’d leave this little video of the up-and-away. The ocean back home is still in liquid form right now (or at least it was when we took-off), but it sure does look a little frosty around the edges.

Yep, that’s all folks.

A Helpful Message that Ain’t


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Sure am glad I noticed this safety warning.

…while driving down the road in the middle of a snow storm.

Thank you anonymous person behind this message. Without your efforts, I never would have taken my eyes off the road to find out what necessitated this urgent warning known that I should take my eyes off the road while driving.

The Message in Itself


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From the Mission District in San Francisco

I’m beginning to think that left wing politics is the object of a higher grasp, so to speak, or at least that this is how it must appear to its critics. There are those, of course, who simply reject left wing politics outright. Hell, there are those for whom scorn of left wing politics is a favorite sport. But what really fascinates me about the response to various left wing messages are the number of people who can’t quite bring themselves to say ‘no’ outright. Instead, they have all sorts of advice for the lefties among us. You’d almost think these critics were down to help, assuming of course that help means something else.

And by ‘something else’, I mean, something other than anything actually requested at any particular time. The ‘else’ in this case is that ineffable thing in itself. Whatever thing, a lefty actually wants to see done today, that is surely out of the question. But something else? Some other request or demand, made by some other person in some other way…

I expect the folks in the not-your-mascot movement could write a book about all the helpful suggestions they’ve gotten over the years. Instead of protesting a football mascot or opposing a team name, so the thinking goes, y’all should be fixing the reservations, feeding the hungry in Native American communities, and just generally doing practical things to help indigenous people. Rarely do those offering such advice take stock of the actual efforts of such activists to help out their communities, and these critics don’t seem at all impressed by the many Native American activists who say that issues like derogatory sports teams may have something to do with the larger problems facing their people. No, the response is as simple as it is common. Stop protesting and go do something more helpful.

I hope I’ll be excused for suspecting that the ‘stop protesting’ is a little more important to those offering such advice than the “go do something more important.”

Those taking a knee at football games have certainly received similar advice. People just want to watch the game, so they are told. This isn’t the right time to protest, and when the National Anthem is playing, well then, that CERTAINLY isn’t the right time to protest! Anyway, this is all much too divisive. You’ll only alienate people. The players protesting are rich and pampered anyway, so what do they have to protest? If they want to help out more, then they should donate money and do charity work in their own communities.

You read all this stuff, and you might be tempted to think some of these critics aren’t open to concerns about possible police abuse at all, but surely that isn’t the case! Those criticizing protesters couldn’t be more clear about their willingness to consider the issue.

On another day.

In another context.

With a different messenger.

After that messenger has done a certain number of other things to earn their respect.

On this last point, you might be tempted to suggest that people like Colin Kaepernick have indeed given to charity and actively worked to help those in need, but of course this is missing the point. Clearly, he and those with him need to do more. If they do more, then people will listen to them.


…just not during the Anthem.

Every major mass-shooting seems to trigger a wave of similar advice. Don’t politicize this! It’s too soon! Now is not the time to raise questions about gun control. Nope! Not now. Not yet.

…maybe later.

So, it seems that America might one day have a serious talk about gun control. It will have to be scheduled during an intermission of indeterminate length between actual mass shootings. This will of course require the cooperation of mass shooters, because they will have to create a pause in the carnage of sufficient length to allow the keepers of the conversation to make the call. It’s not clear just how long we must all wait between shootings, but presumably when the time frame is reached, the keepers of the conversation will proclaim the moment and we can begin to deal with the issues in a serious manner. Surely, they will tell us, when it is time! This whole too-soon thing couldn’t just be a stalling tactic. They will tell us when it is time. Until then, well, it is just to soon.

Hell, it’s too soon to ask if it’s to soon.

Shame on you for wondering about it!

Of course, one might be excused for thinking that the moment any of these conversations could take place (when the issues aren’t in the news and at events people aren’t paying attention to) would in effect constitute precisely the sort of time when the public finds the whole topic easiest to ignore, but such thoughts are far too cynical! Surely, all this advice is sincere. Surely, all these people telling us its the wrong time and the wrong message mean what they say.  If only the right version of any of these messages reached their ears and eyes, they would happily consider the whole thing.

But that never seems to happen!

The actual left wing politics that we see in America is just just a little too human to be worthy of consideration. The real message, the ones so many keep saying they would consider, always seem to rest out there somewhere in the world of possibility, just a bit beyond the grasp of mere mortals. If only we could ever confront that message in itself, the real message, the properly timed message, phrased in just the right way, and put forward by the right person with just the right presentation to be worthy of consideration. Hell, I don’t know that the left wing messages could or even should win out in such an event (a lot depends on the particulars), but that’s rather academic at this point, because the time is not yet right. Under the right conditions, so it would seem, we could at least consider those lefty messages. Until then? Well, we all seem to have better things to do.

You know, like sitting on our couches watching other people do stuff.

And drinking beer.

Map Ain’t Time Either.


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indian_tribesI often see maps of Indian territories pop up on the net. I like them. And then again, I don’t. I’ve seen also some of these same maps in classrooms and academic papers. In such cases, the narrative usually does a bit more to put the visual presentation in context, but on the net, that visual is often all you get.

…along with a couple hashtags, and sometimes a catchy title.

The specific subject matter varies a bit from map to map. Sometimes they purport to show linguistic variation. Sometimes, they show the culture areas used by anthropologists or the general divisions of Native American peoples into related peoples. Mostly, these maps purport to show the specific locations of various tribes.

…whatever that means?

Don’t get me wrong. The basic idea isn’t entirely off base, and it’s a lot better than silence on the topic, but the notion of an Indian tribe carries a lot of baggage, only some of which goes away if we replace the term ‘Indian’ with ‘Native American’. We can also replace ‘tribes’ with ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’.

…we still end up with plenty of baggage.

There really isn’t any vocabulary that just works here. You really have to pick a term, and just bear in mind the distortions it imposes on the subject matter. But my point here today isn’t so much to work over the vocabulary as it is to focus attention on the maps themselves. It’s great to have them, but they too can distort the subject matter, all the more so when the map circulates as a meme-in-in-itelf, so to speak, just an image without a narrative to go with it.

So, what’s the problem?


Well, we have a few of them actually. One of the first things going through my own mind is the other half of the contextualization schema. The maps give us a where. That leaves me asking when? These maps purport to show us where different Native American peoples lived, but they rarely give us a strong sense of when they lived there. This goes hand-in-hand with common assumptions about the timelessness of Native American societies. Folks are only too happy to imagine that most Indian peoples had been living in the same place since time immemorial, just waiting for the rest of us to show up and kick-start the history machine. All the timely-changey stuff must have come after Columbus, so the thinking goes. Before that, Indian peoples just stayed put, living in harmony without any real need for big changes like a major population movements.

All of this is of course, nonsense, and I think most people know it is, at least when the question is put to them directly. I repeat, they know it WHEN you put the question to them directly. Until then, I think folks fall quite easily into the assumption that Indian peoples rested in a kind of temporal stasis. Hell, sometimes Native Americans themselves fall into this assumption.Don’t be too surprised. Stereotypes often come in a user-friendly version, an ever-so-inviting role to play, for those who are willing. The noble savage may be a cliché, but it’s not one without its charms, and it’s easily as timeless as any of its less PC counterparts. In any event, folks often seem to imagine Native American societies as timeless communities.

Case in point?

These maps.

DJdFnI-W4AI9LXEI found this little gem to the left on twitter, at least I believe that’s where I got it. It’s pretty cool, really. It definitely matches my general sense of where various people should be. But then again, my general sense of where everybody should be rests on a skewed timeline. I expect them to be in certain places when the stories I read or tell about them in history class take place. So, if the different natives peoples are in the right place on cue for the historical narratives I expect to feature them, then the map matches my initial expectations, and I end up saying stuff like “it’s pretty cool.” The whole thing almost works, but it doesn’t take too many questions to bust up both those expectations and the maps that go with them.

When did everyone get where they are in the map above? It’s controversial question, and one that I may regret raising here, but still… See the Apacheans down there in the Southwest? You might think they had been there since time immemorial, right? Well the archaeological evidence suggests this isn’t the case. As I recall, the earliest evidence for Diné (Navajo) placement in the four corners area predates the Spanish by a little over a hundred years. They came along with the other Apachean peoples by means of a hotly debated route. Of course archaeological finds happen every day, so the historical evidence may change, and I may have missed a recent find or three, but the point is that these people arrived in the area within comprehensible time frame. This placement on teh map isn’t from time immemorial; it begins at the cusp of the 1400s, give or take a bit, and that enables us to place their entrance into a sequence of events for the region. They were still settling into the total territory on this map when the Spanish began exploring the region, arriving well after their Pueblo neighbors. Knowing that helps to put the map in perspective. Not knowing that invites an a-historical reading of the map.

Now look at the plains. The peoples placed there seem right to me, but it’s worth considering that many of them didn’t get there until well after the beginnings of the colonial period. Specific migration routes and the scale of ground shifted are of course open to debate, but I think it is fair to say that a great deal of the population on this portion of the map filled in after the beginnings of the fur trade, and even more importantly, after the horse began spreading through the plains in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt.


From the New Mexico Museum of Art

That would be a war the Indians won folks, not simply a battle. a war. But that’s another rant…

…anyway, the point is that the population of the plains as we now understand it changed a great deal during the colonial period. So, if the southwest takes on roughly the territories represented in the map just ahead of the colonial period, the great plains takes its apparently map-worthy shape during that very period. We can point to a time frame sometime on down the road that reflects this mapping, but by then other things have shifted. Case in point? The eastern seaboard. By the time the plains looks like it does on this map, the settler population is already pushing a lot of people out and away from the coasts. By the time Lakota, Comanche, and Kiowa have reached their positions on this map, the eastern seaboard should already be looking a bit white-washed.

These are just the areas I think I know something about (and admittedly, I am often wrong). The rest of the map is full of movement too. Some areas may be more stable than others. The amount of movement is itself variable.

So, what does the map represent? It really isn’t a clear snapshot of any particular time-frame. We really can’t locate a specific time in which all the territories assigned to various indigenous peoples really were under their control. Rather, it seems to be a representation of the territories controlled by various peoples during something like a period of peak cultural autonomy. …as perceived by white people. In a very real sense, each of these territories is set onto the map in precisely the locations at which we non-natives really became interested in the regions and/or first became aware of the native peoples in question. Fair enough as far as it goes, but to say that this leaves out a lot of information is a Hell of an understatement.


Speaking of non-native perceptions. Names are a bit of a problem here as well. I hope it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the names appearing on these maps are not those used by the people to refer to themselves. ‘Navajo’ was for example a Tewa term for open fields. ‘Sioux’ is usually described as a shortened version of an Ojibwa term (it has something to do with snakes). As I recall, there is a competing narrative for that one, but the point is that the name DID NOT come from the Sioux themselves. ‘Eskimo’ was a Montagnais term often translated as ‘raw fish eater’, though it is more likely to have meant ‘snow-shoe netter’. Each of these origin narratives is a complicated story in itself (information is problematic all the way down), but for the present, the point is that the names typically appearing on these maps generally come from the neighbors of the peoples in question. They made their way into the popular lexicon after European colonists asked some other tribe who lives over there. The answers to those questions then made their way into our history books and onto our maps.

tribal_nation_map_custom-973eefab3541e8d2c23056100549ac543e59beee-s1600-c85This is one reason I like this map by Aaron Carapella. He makes an effort to identify the native names for themselves and get them onto the territory. That’s a big improvement. Of course, we still have the timeline problem mentioned above, but at least the names are a bit more authentic. I should add that they are more authentic because they are the names the people in question use for themselves, not because they are ‘original’, as folks sometimes suggest. ‘Original’ alludes to a timeless beginning. Talk of an original name just points us back to the timeline problem, but there is definite value in using the name people prefer to use for themselves. We may have to switch back and forth, or introduce a topic using the more popular names, but working with materials that provides the native terms helps to normalize them.


imagesOne additionally interesting feature of Carapella’s maps is the fact that he leaves off the territorial boundaries. The names of each people simply appear on the  map without any clear sense of the boundaries around them. We are left to imagine the full extent of each native territory. This avoids one of the larger problems one commonly finds in maps of Indian territory, their tendency to construe that territory in terms comparable to that of nation states. We all know the convention, color-coded spaces with clear boundaries between them. This conveys both a sense clear boundaries between different Indian peoples and a sense of homogeneity within those boundaries. Every part of Cherokee territory on such a map is just as Cherokeeish as any other part. They are all equally blue, or yellow, or mauve. One gets the sense that someone could pinpoint the exact moment they stepped into (or out of) Cherokee land, or that of any other tribe. We can practically see someone stopping on a dime, just like the cops in an old outlaw trucker movie do when they reach state lines. That’s how modern nation states work. It isn’t clear that this is now native territories work(ed).

It isn’t that native peoples didn’t have territories. They certainly did claim specific lands, and even defend them from others, but this system would have worked without the benefit of a scientific grid defining the exact moment one would step over the line from one territory to the next (much less collection of maps to represent them). Of course, natural features such rivers or mountains, and so forth would be used as reference points, but thus too leaves open questions as to just where the boundary rested. Did a given people claim both sides of a river or just one? The answers would vary. The end result was of course a lot of overlapping claims.

I often wonder if some of these maps could be improved by representing the overlapping territories, Venn diagram-style, at least where such instances do occur, but of course, this leaves open questions about timelines and the adequacy of information as to how the territories on these maps have been assigned to begin with. It’s not as though the historical record is entirely silent on these matters, but there is something about the way these maps fill in the details with a little too much precision. Judgement calls have been made on these maps, and the way they have been made is erased by the nature of the maps.

The problem isn’t really unique to Native American territories, but at least as applied to modern states and nations the techniques used by the map-makers matches those of the powers that be a bit more. People who live in and around important boundaries may or may not live life in a way that bears out the conventions of cartography, but the powers that be will likely support the notion that we can pin-point exactly where one state leaves off and another begins. They will also support the notion that we know exactly who belongs on one side or another, if necessary with guns or walls. The trouble here is that these maps purport to describe the territories of a different world altogether, one which reckons turf a bit differently.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to have these maps, but they distort even as they inform. I’m always curious about the prospects of improvement. In the interim, I am reckon the best cure for the distortion is to be aware of the problems.

…of which, I hope I have at least scratched the surface.

Sundry Maps (Click to embiggen)…


Taking a Knee?


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Institute of American Indian Arts (Photo compliments of Moni)

Not everyone really appreciates just how powerful the ritual of standing for the National Anthem really can be. I got a real sense of this when I was 14. My Jr. rifle team won the Wyoming-state BB-Gun finals, which earned our way to the International BB-Gun Championship in Bowling Green, Kentucky. …on July 4th. As the child of a career military officer, I was always happy to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but standing there during the final ceremonies, the whole thing took on a whole new layer of meaning for me. That time, I had my heart in my throat. That time, the whole ritual moved me nearly to tears. I loved my country so much, and at that moment, putting my hand over my heart for that beautiful song was absolutely the most perfectly meaningful expression of that love I could possibly imagine doing.

There was something extra meaningful about the whole experience that came with doing it in the context of a sporting event. Granted the International BB-Gun Championships were really more of a national context with Mexico and Canada thrown into the bargain, but being 14 and all, I was happy to go along with the rationale. In some sense, I was representing the country whose National Anthem we stood for. That gave the whole thing so much more power. The ritual lent extra meaning to the contest, and the contest gave more meaning to the ritual. On that day, for me anyway, the National Anthem was a deeply spiritual act. So, I can definitely understand the power that ritual must carry for many as it is done in sporting events all across the nation.

I can only imagine what the Anthem must mean for professional athletes who stand for the anthem before great audiences in the course of their career, but I do imagine the sense must be a little bit like the one I had at 14. I really cannot imagine what it must mean for servicemen who stand for the Anthem in the service of our country. Full stop. I really cannot imagine what it must mean to them. It must be a very powerful experience. What could one possibly do that would express their love of country more than standing for the Anthem?

…except perhaps taking a knee for it instead.

Seriously! Is it just me? Am I the only one who finds the whole protest oddly dignified, almost deliberate in its respect? Taking a knee could as easily be a gesture of fealty as one of protest. I can think of way more vile ways to disrespect the flag than kneeling respectfully and waiting patiently for the the completion of the Anthem. This protest almost seems like a gesture of respect in itself. Watching Colin Kaepernick and the others take a knee instead of standing, I always get strange sense that this supposedly anti-American gesture of contempt for America is at least a little bit like a gesture of love in itself.

But that’s just my sense of the gesture. Neither the iconography of the protest, nor the love of country are really the point of course, but the real point is hardly one that ought to threaten anyone’s sense of patriotism. Hell, I don’t see any reason why those standing with their hands over their hearts should be the least bit ashamed to do so beside someone who was taking a knee.

Unless of course they chose to ignore the reasons for taking a knee in the first place.

It’s not as though Kaepernick has been silent about his reasons for doing this. It’s not as though, he has been just trolling the nation along with those who love it. I don’t see the man laughing at our collective discomfort. This same is true of others who’ve taken up the practice in his absence.

This protest was always about police violence, about the unnecessary deaths of black men at the hands of police, and that’s as good a reason to protest as any that I can think of. It’s the sort of thing people ought to care about, and those who choose to ignore it are far from proving their patriotism. With or without a hand over their hearts, those who insist we ignore the issue demonstrate little love for their nation at all.

It’s important to realize that those who insist on treating the protest as an insult to the nation are far from showing healthy love for it themselves. The likes of Tomi Lahren or the Manchurian Cheeto castigating the protesters for disrespecting the country do little but show how easily love can be confused with abuse. Right wing nationalists love their country in much the same way that an abusive husband loves his wife. Their professions of love always come in the form of demands, demands that others do their bidding. Those talking about how ungrateful (black) celebrities are when they protest demonstrate little but their contempt for the actual successful of African-Americans who have worked every bit as hard for that success as anyone else. And there is something perfectly appropriate about the pledge as they understand it. It is an obligation to the underprivileged among us to shut up and love the nation without complaint. This is not patriotism. It is abuse.

And abuse wrapped in a flag is still abuse.

I am well aware that folks have good reason to be skeptical of those who’ve brought the issue of police violence against minorities to public attention in recent years. Some terrible things have been done in the name of Black Lives Matter and other left wing protesters. I also expect that some of the cases of alleged police abuse reflect instances in which the police in question were doing their job as best they can, their very difficult and very dangerous job. I can definitely understand a desire to support police against undue attacks from radical protests. And yet, I keep coming back to this one question; with all the footage and news reports of various cop shootings, beatings, etc., are there none that merit genuine concern? Are there no instances in which the actions of the police seem excessive? Even when the decision to pull the trigger seems justified in the heat of the moment, are there no questions about how it got to that point? Are none of these worthy of reconsideration? No police practices or policies worthy of reconsideration?


I expect most of us can think of at least a few instances in which the actions of police officers on the street or correctional officers in the prison system are indeed questionable. It is precisely those instances which the right wing response to Black Lives Matter and/or protests like that of Colin Kaepernick are intended to keep from public scrutiny. Th right wing leaders are not saying that we should take care to distinguish actual police abuse from sensationalized instances of cops doing what cops do. What the right wing echo chamber has consistently done throughout the media curve on this issue is to demonize the protesters and insist that we support the police, categorically, across the board, with no damned exceptions. In effect, the likes of Sheriff Clark, Joe Arpaio, or the pathetic traitor who now disrespects the White House with his every breath are demanding that we refuse to distinguish actual police violence from proper execution of the job. These people are not defending good cops. They are defending bad cops. And they have been doing everything in their power to make sure that the rest of us cannot tell the difference.

It’s not a coincidence that the same people who don’t want us to put much scrutiny into the actions of cops on the beat are also big fans of civil asset forfeiture and private prisons. By means of the first, police steal from private citizens. Let me repeat that, by means of civil asset forfeiture, the police steal from private citizens. By means of the second, government cronies steal from the rest of us to line the pockets of those manning these prisons, the same prisons holding countless people on unnecessary drug offenses. Hell, these are the same people who want to arm more of the police with military grade weapons. This too costs money, money spent on both serious crime and frivolous crime (which are often much easier to prosecute). The police state is big business. And Americas right wing hacks do NOT want the rest of us messing that business up. They don’t want the public to sort their crimes from the actions of law enforcement genuinely serving the public interests. They want the public to buy their policies and fund their budgets in the heat of a fever, Hell-bent on getting more law-enforcement, law-enforcement of any kind.

This is why the right wing wants to silence the protesters. This is why the wanna-be dictator in chief is demanding the NFL do something about those taking a knee. It isn’t because those taking a knee at a ball game are unpatriotic. It’s because those demanding their silence are themselves without a public conscience. It is because they are working very hard to make this country more dangerous for all of us, starting those of darker skin.

The right wing response to these protests has been a calculated attempt to turn those standing with their hands over their hearts against those taking a knee. They want those feeling the surge of straight-laced patriotism in all it’s apple-pie glory to mistake public conscience of those those taking a knee for something sinister and disloyal. It is a perversely ironic response to the protests. It simply isn’t those taking a knee here that betray their country.

Quite the contrary!


Moar Rez Murals!


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Power Plant

It’s been a very long time since I worked in Navajo country. The last couple years I’ve made a point to take Miladydebennet through a lot of my old haunts, and this summer that meant a trip through the Navajo Nation. It was great to see some of the old sights again, and to see them a little bit through the new eyes of my girlfriend. It was also great to see some new things in the old places. One of my favorite new things (new to me anyway) is the addition of street art all around the rez. These had me smiling all the way from Page to Santa Fe. I had even more reason to smile when I learned one of my former students had been involved in painting one of these murals.

It seems that these have been part of an ongoing project, called Paint the Desert initiated by a doctor who goes by the name, Jetsonorama. You can find a few articles on his project here and here, here, and here. I’ve previously posted some of the murals from along Highway 89, so I was very happy to catch some more this summer.

As always, you may click to embiggen. (In fact, I highly recommend it.)

These were in Kayenta, just south of Monument Valley.

These paintings were all at the Crossroads Trading Post.

Saw this somewhere along the road from Kayenta down to Chinle.



Found this piece on the road between Many Farms and Chinle.

These (and many more) were all painted along a wall in Fort Defiance. It would have been walking distance from my home for a few years. Kind of a surreal experience to get a soda from the old convenience store and walk around checking this out. Surreal, and very cool.

For me anyway.

Hope y’all enjoy the pictures.

Of Ringers and Runts: An Experimental Exercise in Geeketry!


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Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…

img450fd49cc8adeI think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.

One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.

If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.

Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.

I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.

img452cb6a3c0f00Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.


Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?

Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?

In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.

How to go about it?


img450fd04546e89I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.

One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…

Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.

Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)

What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.

What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

img4547cd6d641b0Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.

This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.

Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.

On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.

I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.

img4577093b04e3cFive: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.

I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.

Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.

For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.

Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.

The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.

No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.

SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.

…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!

An Uncommon Liberty


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Statue of Liberty Doll Sealskin, velour, cotton, rabbit, simulated sinew, thread, wire, Cup’ik, Maker: Rosalie Paniyak, UA 2001-008-0003

Back in May, I made a stop at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but this one piece in particular caught my attention. The information card next to Miss Liberty had a nice note from the museum director. It reads as follows:

“I’m a Native New York who 13 years ago left the big city for the paradise of Alaska. Rosalie Paniyak’s Statue of Liberty doll is, for me, one of the funniest works of art in the entire museum, and the embodiement of what I left and what I have now.

“When I lived in lower Manhattan, my dog and I would walk along the Hudson River.There was Ms. Liberty, tall, strong, and noble, an image that took itself very seriously. Moreover, it welcomed people to a Very Important City.

“Rosalie’s Statue of Liberty is soft, with a face that is anything but dignified. She holds her torch askew. She is the Cup’ik version of an American icon, humorous and irreverent.

“After I enjoy its visual irony, what does this doll say to me? On the lighter side, that New Yorkers’ sense of self-importance is a bit silly. And more seriously, that this privilege of liberty has not always been enjoyed by everyong, such as Native Americans.”

Aldona Jonaitis

Museum Director