Saturday, December 31, 2016


I have a story to tell, a story about freedom, and a wild society we call the Sentineli.  In an age of big craziness, they inspire pleasant daydreams.  It’s almost impossible for me to imagine how perfectly free they are, or to comprehend just how far modern society has drifted from the freedom enjoyed by my wild ancestors.

The Andaman archipelago lies in the Bay of Bengal.  These tropical islands are part of India.  North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentineli, a society of negrito pygmies who have short stature, dark skin tone, and peppercorn hair.  Outsiders can sometimes view them from offshore boats, or from helicopters, but the Sentineli want nothing to do with outsiders.  Intruders who get too close are showered with arrows, rocks, and rude comments. 

North Sentinel Island is 14,700 acres (5,949 ha), a bit smaller than Manhattan.  The interior is forest, surrounded by sandy beaches, surrounded by reefs.  [Aerial photo]  Treacherous currents make landing on the island impossible for ten months of the year, and extremely dangerous for the other two. The island has neither valuable timber nor minerals.  For these reasons, the Sentineli are still free people in the twenty-first century.  Unlike the societies on nearby islands that have been ravaged by the diseases of civilization, the Sentineli are “clearly extremely alert, healthy, and thriving.”

Flyovers have noted the existence of several villages with clusters of small huts.  No evidence of agriculture has been observed.  There may be 50 Sentineli, or 500, nobody knows.  They survive by foraging, fishing, and gathering shellfish.  They may also hunt for turtles, birds, and yummy invertebrates.  Their small canoes are used in the lagoons, but not for open-sea travel.  They fish with spears and nets.

Long ago, two expeditions were able to land on North Sentinel.  They brought along folks from a nearby island to serve as translators.  In the brief and hostile meetings, the Sentineli spoke a language that the translators did not understand.  Obviously, they have been living in isolation for a long time.  They may very well be descendants of the folks who first settled in the Andaman Islands 60,000 years ago.  North Sentinel Island is a time capsule, the Sentineli still live like humans during the warm interglacial before the last ice age.

In 1974, National Geographic sent an expedition to film the Sentineli.  The director was promptly hit in the leg with an arrow, and immediately lost interest in the project.  In 2004, when a ferocious tsunami rocked the lives of tens of millions in the region, the Sentineli made it to high ground and survived.  Some believe that they have a sixth sense, because of their elevated sensitivity to the winds and waves.  In 2006, rogue fishermen got too close, and two were killed.  A helicopter sent to fetch their bodies was driven away.

Between 1967 and 1996, a number of contact expeditions were attempted, for the purpose of anthropological research.  Anthropologists are highly educated scientists.  They were certainly aware that successfully making contact would have exposed the natives to deadly diseases for which they had no immunity.  Like modern missionaries in the Amazon, they didn’t care if making contact would result in numerous deaths.  On the bright side, anthropologists actually had sufficient intelligence to understand the strong message being sent via volleys of arrows and rocks.

In 1996, the Indian government banned further contact expeditions, for any reason, in order to protect the natives from disease.  The natives were clearly not begging to join civilization and enjoy the pleasures of shopping, taxpaying, cell phone addiction, and wage slavery.  So, the Sentineli enjoy complete separation from the modern world.  In an amazing demonstration of respect, wise leaders decided to leave these people alone, and allow them to live in wildness and freedom (unlike the other 1.3 billion Indians).

Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that was not at war with the planet and the future — a genuinely sustainable way of life, a tropical culture with a year round supply of food, where your wardrobe consisted of a g-string, headband, and a couple leaves.  Imagine a life without money, clocks, calendars, automobiles, airplanes, sirens, internet, locks, fences, bosses, salesman, presidents, police, classrooms, guns, dogs, nuclear weapons, taxes, racism, billionaires, and intolerant proselytizing religions.  Imagine a paradise where the diseases of civilization were unknown.

Contemplate the enormous load of information stored in your brain, accumulated during a lifetime of existing in a highly complex society, and your constant struggle to keep pace with competitors in the endless race for status, wealth, and power.  Imagine being blissfully unaware of absolutely everything happening in the outside world — and the entire outside world knowing almost nothing about your society.  Imagine having a healthy, simple, sane life — living in a manner very much like your ancestors did 15,000 years ago.

Imagine living on an island where there were no strangers, where the soundtrack was waves, birds, breezes, and the voices of your friends and family.  We weren’t meant to live like consumers.  There are better paths.

Here are some links:


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Old North Trail

In 1891, Walter McClintock graduated from Yale, with plans to join his father’s prosperous carpet making business in smog-choked Pittsburgh.  Luckily, he was spared from a dull job by getting very sick with typhoid fever.  To recover, he took a trip to North Dakota, where he fell deeply in love with the west.  He worked as a photographer for a forest survey project, and became friends with the team’s Blackfoot scout, Siksikakoan.  Later, Siksikakoan introduced him to the elderly chief Mad Wolf.

Once Mad Wolf came to trust McClintock, he adopted the young lad as his son.  Mad Wolf hoped that if his people had a white leader, they would receive better treatment from the incoming settlers, many of whom were not skilled at behaving with common decency.  McClintock spent lots of time with a number of elders, listened to many stories, and several years later wrote The Old North Trail.  He also took more than a thousand photographs, many of which illustrate the book.  Today, a century later, Amazon lists his book as a best seller.  It’s fascinating and easy to read.

The Blackfeet lived on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains, from Montana up into Alberta.  When the painter George Catlin met them in 1832, he said they were the happiest Indians or all.  The Old North Trail was an ancient footpath that passed through their territory.  In places, old ruts are still visible.  Today, some suspect that it may have been 2,000 to 3,000 miles long, linking Canada and Mexico.  Because many tribes used the trail, travel was dangerous.  It was a common place for ambushes and tribal wars.

In the old days, the Blackfeet used dogs as beasts of burden.  Sometime before 1750, they acquired horses, triggering radical change.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, wage war, haul trade goods, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.  Corn farmers became highly vulnerable to horse-mounted raids by neighboring tribes, forcing many to abandon their fields and become nomadic.  After 1780, the Blackfeet were hammered by wave after wave of deadly diseases.  Their population dropped by maybe 90 percent.

By 1883, white folks had succeeded in nearly exterminating the buffalo, and this made the traditional Blackfoot life impossible.  The tribe was forced onto reservations, given ration tickets, treated like dogs, and were not allowed freedom of travel.  Missionaries introduced them to sin, hell, damnation, guilt, and submission.  Teachers taught youths the ABC’s of civilization, using the English language.

By the time McClintock arrived, many young Blackfeet were disoriented victims of cultural genocide, largely indifferent to their tribe’s customs, traditions, and religion.  During important ceremonies, many would be drinking, gambling, or horseracing.  Only the elders still remembered the traditional ways, and their days were numbered.  McClintock wanted to record the story of these people, before their culture ceased to exist.  The Blackfeet people fascinated McClintock, and he described them in a respectful manner.

His book is a magical 500-page voyage into another time and place.  Readers can soar away from the spooky nightmare world of automobiles and cell phone zombies, and imagine living in wildness and freedom.  The Blackfeet elders shared fond memories of a way of life that was far more in balance with the circle of life.  In the good old days, “the mountain slopes abounded in beaver, wapiti, moose, mountain sheep, and grizzly bears, while immense herds of antelope and buffalo roamed over the plains.”

One night, McClintock awoke to discover a huge grizzly bear stepping over him to finish off his dinner leftovers.  Grizzlies were still common.  Wolves and coyotes often howled passionate serenades under the stars.  Humans were not the dominant species; they were delicious two-legged meatballs.  Modern folks, obsessed with glowing screens, would not have lasted long in a reality where man-eating carnivores were never far away.  To survive, folks actually had to pay careful attention to reality, and behave in an intelligent manner.  Imagine that!

The people wore clothing of animal hides, and lived in tipis, in an ecosystem of scorching summers and long blast-freezer winters.  Powerful storms could race across the plains at astonishing speed.  On a pleasantly warm November day, McClintock noticed distant turbulent clouds that were rushing across the plains in his direction.  Danger!  The temperature sharply dropped, howling winds pounded him, and a whiteout blizzard commenced.  He lost all sense of direction, and freezing to death was a strong possibility.  He managed to return to camp.  The storm lasted ten days.

McClintock wrote, “The Blackfeet subsisted mainly upon buffalo meat, when it could be secured.  They also used sarvis berries, wild cherries, buffalo berries and vegetables such as camas, wild turnips, wild onions, wild potatoes, bitter root, and wild rhubarb.  They secured wild ducks and geese by striking them over the head with long sticks.  Beaver tails were considered a great delicacy.”

A vegetarian would soon starve on the plains.  The Blackfeet survived by killing and eating their animal relatives.  When natives died, their corpses were returned to the circle of life.  The dead were placed upon scaffolds built in trees, called death lodges (like THIS or THIS).  The Blackfeet did not arrogantly interrupt the circle dance of life with buried caskets or cremation.

McClintock was amazed by how well the Blackfeet lived without thrashing their ecosystem.  Whites did amazing things with science and industry, but the Blackfeet were superior in terms of their personal integrity.  In no Blackfoot community could you find the “depravity, misery, and consuming vice, which involve multitudes in the industrial centers of all the large cities of Christendom.”  By thriving in a lifestyle with few wants, they did not deteriorate into infantile consumers.

The last chapter in the book has pissed off many reviewers.  The preceding thirty-eight chapters did not provide, in any way, a flattering impression of settler society.  In 1910, respect for savages was politically incorrect, and publishers were not fond of risky projects.  The Blackfeet were hopelessly screwed.  Whites were here to stay.  Happy endings sold more books.

So, the story concludes with a jarring shift.  McClintock praised the integrity of the Blackfoot people, and was proud of their heroic advance toward Christian civilization.  “The industrious are rapidly becoming self-supporting.  Some of them live in well-made and comfortable houses, and own ranches, with large herds of cattle and horses.  They wear white men’s clothes, purchased from the trading stores, own high priced wagons and buggies and make use of modern farming implements.”  Hooray!

Anyway, the book provides readers with a wonderful peephole into a way of life that was not insane.  Children were raised in a land that was wild, free, and thriving — grizzly bears, not teddy bears.  The good power (Great Spirit) was everywhere, in everything — mountains, plains, winds, waters, trees, birds, and animals.  Everyone was on the same cultural channel, free from the friction of diversity and wealth inequality.  They grew up in coherent communities where it was rare to see a stranger.  [Cool excerpt]

McClintock’s book described how a healthy culture disintegrated into incoherence over the course of just one generation.  Beliefs got us into this mess, not genes.  I’m very optimistic that the coming decades of resource depletion, climate change, and the collapse of our economic system will provide a miraculous cure for consumer fever.  Survival will require paying careful attention to reality, and behaving in an intelligent manner.  Radical change in one generation is not totally impossible when the time is ripe.  Think positive!

McClintock, Walter, The Old North Trail, MacMillan and Co., London, 1910.

A free download of the book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of McClintock’s photos are HERE (click “View all images”).

Sundance Excerpt

Below you will find a passage from Walter McClintock’s book The Old North Trail.  It describes a portion of the ceremony performed on the first day of the Sundance.  Note how it honors many of the other animals that inhabited the ecosystem.  The ceremony was born in an era prior to the settler’s war on wildlife, and before the arrival of the cult of human supremacy.

The relationship of the Blackfeet to the other animals was one of profound reverence, respect, and adoration.  McClintock presents us with a magnificent example of a culture that was nearly the opposite of ours.  It was not insanely self-destructive, surviving at the cost of unborn generations.  It was a way of life that could have continued for a very long time.  All of us have ancestors who once lived in a similar manner.  We carry their blood and genes.  Here is McClintock:

Ceremonial Transferring the Medicine Pipe

The ceremonial transferring the Medicine Pipe from Lone Chief to Mu-koi-sa-po began just as the sun rose from the plains.  Its bright rays streaming into the open lodge, fell upon the priests chanting the seven Thunder songs, beating on their medicine drums, and burning sweet pine as incense.  After the Thunder songs, Lone Chief, as the giver up of the Pipe held it in his arms singing:

“I am now moving around.”  The Pipe was laid down during the tenth song, all chanting in unison: “I will sit down.”  In the eleventh, or buffalo song, all chanted: “I will take away the Chief’s (Pipe’s) robe,” and made the sign of the buffalo with their curved forefingers, while Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife opened the outside cover of the medicine bundle.

They chanted the Antelope song and imitated with their hands the motions of an antelope walking, while the strings of antelope rawhide were being loosened.  It was explained that the antelope is supposed to be opening the bundle with his hoofs.  While loosening an inner wrapper, bound by strings of elk hide, they chanted an Elk song and made the Elk sign, holding their hands open on either side of the head with fingers extended to represent antlers.  They imitated the actions of an elk as if loosening the wrapper with his hoofs. 

The time had now come for the dances to be held over the skins representing the spirits of the birds and animals included in the medicine bundle.  Only members of the society danced with the Pipe, although it was customary for anyone, who made a vow, to fulfil that vow by dancing with a skin provided for that purpose.  Whenever a prominent chief arose to take part, or an Indian who had performed some unusual feat, he was applauded by the spectators.  Mu-koi-sa-po, as the recipient of the Pipe, did not rise to dance, but remained seated beside the medicine bundle, receiving the skins as they were turned over to him by those taking part in the ceremonial.

For the Grizzly Bear dance, the drummers chanted “I begin to grow restless in the spring,” representing a bear making ready to come from his winter den.  Lone Chief drew his robe around him and arose to dance, imitating the bear going from his den and chanting: “I take my robe.  My robe is sacred.  I wander in the summer.”

Placing both hands upon the Pipe, he chanted, “Sacred Chief, (Pipe)!  Every one, men, women, and children will now behold you.”  Slowly raising the Pipe, he sang, “The Great Mystery beholds our Chief arise.  The Chief is sacred.”  He shook the Pipe in imitation of a bear, but was careful not to handle it roughly, lest a storm should come, nor to make a misstep in his dance, nor allow a skin, or feather to fall, lest some misfortune would befall him.  He again laid the Pipe down, with the chant, “This lodge is sacred; the ground, also, where the Chief lies is sacred.”

While Lone Chief danced with the Pipe, the drummers beat time and chanted Bear songs.  He imitated with his hands a bear holding up its paws, and, placing his feet together, moved backward and forward, with short jumps, making the lumbering movements of a bear running, breathing heavily and imitating his digging and turning over stones for insects.  Then he blew shrilly upon his medicine whistle, representing the sounds made by the wings of the Thunder Bird, which comes forth in the spring at the same time that the bear leaves his winter den.  He held the Pipe in his right hand, spreading out the fingers of his left in imitation of the wings of the flying Thunder Bird.

During the Swan song, Bear Child danced alone, representing the chief Swan, the leader of the flock.  He made the Swan sign, with both hands held before him, palms out and fingers spread in imitation of a swan sailing through the air with extended wings.

In the Antelope dance, Red Fox made motions with his hands, in imitation of an antelope walking, moving the Pipe in the same manner and looking keenly alert, as if watching for an enemy.

During the singing of the Crane song, the dancers imitated the motions of flying Cranes and gave the crane call.  There were no dances for water birds, but the people remained seated, while songs were sung for the ducks and geese.  Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife were painted, during the four Horse songs, sometimes called Resting songs.  It was necessary to sing all the words and notes of these four songs accurately, because, if anyone made a mistake, misfortune would surely come to his horses.

After a short rest, during which a pipe was passed around for a smoke, seven Owl songs were sung.  They were followed by seven Buffalo songs, in honor of the power that went with the band of sacred white buffalo skin, which was to be worn around the head of the Pipe owner.  Seven songs were also sung to a water bird called Good Rusher, because it runs so fast along the surface of the water and is believed to possess great power.  It is said to drown people by dragging them beneath the water.  The muskrat skin was used by its owner to wipe the paint from his face accompanied with the song, “All the water birds and little water animals are my friends.”

The Bee songs are sung by the owner of the Pipe as a warning, when he is angered, because anyone that angers a bee will be stung.  The Bee songs are also believed to possess, not only power for making the owner proof against any spell, or evil charm, but also to cause the evil power to react upon the enemy that is trying to injure him.  The woman’s pipe, which goes with the Medicine Pipe, has a plain flat stem and is not decorated.  During the ceremonial, it was unrolled by Etomo-waki and was smoked only by the women.

The Medicine Pipe is decorated with feathers and weasel tails.  The owner begins smoking it by blowing a whiff first towards the sky and another towards the ground.  The closing song of the ceremonial was the Good Luck song, which should bring good fortune to Mu-koi-sa-po.  Whenever he might wish for anything, as owner of the Medicine Pipe, it would only be necessary for him to sing this song to have his desire fulfilled.

At sunset, Lone Chief led Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife, Etomo-waki, from the lodge and, facing in turn the four directions, chanted first towards the West, “Over there are the mountains.  May you see them as long as you live, for from them you must receive your sweet pine as incense.”

Then towards the North, “Strength will come from the North.  May you look for many years upon the star that never moves (North Star).”

Then towards the East, “Old age will come from below (East) where lies the light of the sun.”

Then towards the South, “May the warm winds of the South bring you success in securing food.”


My review of The Old North Trail is HERE.  A free download of McClintock’s book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of his photos are HERE (click on “View all images”).