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Arapaho Dislodged
Jeff Anderson (anthropology) writes on a tribal culture in conflict with modern life.
   
 

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Arapaho Dislodged: Anthropologist Jeff Anderson finds tribal culture squelched by modern life

By Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97

Over the past 150 years the Northern Arapaho, who have lived on the Wind River Reservation in west-central Wyoming since 1878, have experienced upheaval in their cultural order, values and rules. Jeffrey Anderson (anthropology), who lived with the Northern Arapaho for five years, learned their language, "watched on" (a reservation term) at social events and consulted with knowledgeable people. In his book he shows how old forms have broken down in the last generation as the people have been increasingly exposed to Euro-American "white ways."

The Four Hills of Life: Northern Arapaho Knowledge and Life Movement
by Jeffrey D. Anderson (anthropology)
University of Nebraska Press (2001)

For hundreds of years, the Arapaho followed the buffalo that foraged and sought shelter over a vast area of the North American plains and Rocky Mountains. Arapaho life was attuned to the cycle of the seasons and to ascending and descending the mountains of Colorado. These movements, Anderson writes, are central to the Arapaho ordering of space and time and to what he calls "life movement"-the trajectory or course of an individual life.

Life movement, corresponding with the four points of the compass and the four seasons (spring/east/child, summer/south/youth, fall/west/adult, winter/north/elder), is represented figuratively as four flat-topped hills or buttes separated by valleys. An individual climbs a hill, surveys the world for a time from the top, then descends the other side to a valley before ascending to the next hilltop.

Proper movement through life's stages depends on "doing things in a good/correct way," which depends on the acquisition of knowledge. Three key values-pity, respect, quietness-shape relations with both the human and other-than-human (supernatural beings, animals) in the Arapaho quest to acquire knowledge and promote life movement.

Pity, unlike the Euro-American understanding of the term, is the origin of knowledge and proper action. An attribute of leadership, pity-giving or doing something for the person or group in a pitiable state-is not an emotion but an action and a relation. It activates kin relationships that bind the recipient to humanity, thereby advancing knowledge and the course of existence. In return, the cosmic, natural and social processes harmoniously facilitate the individual's life journey.

To the Arapaho, the inability to receive knowledge is "craziness," or putting oneself into a crooked motion rather than "walking the straight path." "Modern life," Anderson observes, "with its competition and factionalism, is too fast, too loud, and thus crazy, in Arapaho terms."

Movement in modern life occurs over roads, Anderson says in his study of the problems that Euro-American society imposes on reservation life. Houses are scattered, and people visit infrequently. Competition for money, jobs and other resources intensifies social and cultural stratification among Arapaho families, creating conflict with the symbolic forms that traditionally united the group. Roughly one person in eight remains fluent in the native language. As language is lost, communication between generations diminishes; as the young lose respect for elders, conflict obstructs political decision making.

The problems that plague the young Arapaho are the same that plague young people in all impoverished communities. The white world promises greater freedom, education, upward social mobility and self-realization but often delivers racism and bourgeois conformism-contradictions that foster chaos and confusion, Anderson writes.Education to one man is colonization to another.

Anderson studies the empowered responses of the Northern Arapahos to these problems and considers how myth, language, art, ritual and identity have endured and changed over time. Members of the community, both past and present, talk about photos and records, buildings, art, stories, literacy and education, the land and their experience of everyday life.

The Four Hills of Life fills gaps in the literature on North American Indians. As a sociocultural study, it offers "knowledge" to the general reader who is willing to "listen."

 


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