Thursday, November 29, 2012

November Native American History Month thoughts

I have a troubling interest in American Indian history. It is troubling because, it troubles me as a firmly established member of the Colonizing population that there are many things to come to terms with when considering this history. (note, this post has been edited slightly since it's original, to add some formatting, emphasis and explanation, and to correct errors)

The reason for my interest is not crystal clear to me, but it has a lot to do with trying to understand humanity as a whole, and also trying to deal with some inconsistencies in the more convenient narrative I've been taught and the actual, more detailed history. So better said, the interest is, well: interesting.

But the material is troubling.

Along with this interest, a notion as to the purpose of humankind.has emerged.

You want to know what your purpose is? Well, here's what I think it is: you can try it on for size:

It is to reconcile one's beliefs with reality, and to reconcile one's beliefs that conflict with others' with one another, and in turn to reality..A Christian way of saying this is "To love God, and to love others as you would be loved". This way of saying The Purpose will be referred to later with regard to reconciliation with reality, but saying it this way does not change The Purpose: that is, be you atheist, animist or agnostic, The Purpose remains the same..

If you care not to consider this as valid, whether you are Indian or Colonizer, no matter, you can read on. It won't change the history discussion.

The pursuit of this interest and the resulting notion of this purpose has provided a wealth of insight. From conversations and correspondence with Native scholars and teachers online, from some gatherings including some in support of Native sovereignty and talking with people there, and of course reading a lot of books, both by mainstream historians, Native authored histories, older writings by American frontiersman, and even those who were called commie hippies in the 1970s,

So the views expressed herein are not from a credentialed expert, then, but from an amateur both amazed and troubled by the input and conclusions therefrom.

Having said that, the convenient narrative is very useful, because it lends a lot of insight to the narrating culture, the colonizing culture, and it isn't wholly untrue. However, because it is convenient, it does omit a lot of information and has a built-in bias.

If there is something to remember, it is this:
  • The Colonizer history can, and is, viewed through a port hole. 
  • The Indian views history through a wall-to-wall-to-ceiling picture window.
So, our view causes Colonizers to say things like "but that treaty was a century ago" and "why can't you get over it?".

Their view causes the Indians, at worst, to say nothing to people who can't share it and at best they are both understandably tired and mischievously clever at trying to get non-Indian people to at least glimpse it.

Those Colonizers who may have a passing interest in the history of the Colonizer/Indian relationship tend to see two milestones in the relationship "time of contact" and "USA".

Those Indians who have a passing interest in the history of the relationship see thousands of years of "normal", then their individual nation's struggle against a catastrophic human tsunami, with varying outcomes based on the nation, and then a human rights and sovereignty struggle.

Centuries of calm, followed by a massive pan-cultural calamity that still continues in different ways, and at different intensities.

Then, important things to understand that are often forgotten or widely misunderstood, please forgive any obvious points as intended for a less familiar audience.
  • The relationship between Colonizer and Indian is much older than the United States of America. Therefore, the "foundation" for the relationship is firmly set in pre-Independence times, in the absence of any of the ideals regarding equality and human rights established as part of founding of the United States. 
  • There was a single minded purpose to colonizing the Americas: enriching the established European enterprises as embodied by nations and sponsoring companies. To ascribe the settlement of North America to the notion of pilgrims escaping persecution is maybe a noble notion, but more of a sidebar in the overall true arc of history. Canada was the Hudson Bay company before it was Canada Virginia was The Virginia Company of London before it was the Commonwealth of Virginia, and so on. Every settlement a sponsor, and every sponsor a royal government that it was beholden to tribute. Decisions that are made by the Colonizers that seem to favor Indians in the relationship are made strategically in order to ensure the continued enrichment of these sponsors.
  • The number of Indian cultures is at least as vast as the number of European cultures and subcultures. There is no "American Indian language", there is no "Native headress". There are hundreds of Native languagess and Indian clothes, dwellings, practices, religions and cultures. 
  • Europeans, all humans, were just as "tribal" as Indians at the time of contact. Circumstances that did not exist for Indigenous People caused Middle Easterners, Asians and Europeans to become highly militaro-hierarchical hyperpossessors, and adopt all of the behaviors and pursuits pertinent to that schema, as laid out in amazingly well in Guns, Germs and Steel.
  • The convenient narrative goes that when the colonists arrived, they were poor and not very able to feed themselves. The Indians helped them. This is true, but the Indians helped them strategically as well, to serve their own interests. The relationships differed from nation to nation.
  • The Colonists had things that the Indians did not, so once they got over the initial hardships of establishing self-sustaining settlements, they were able to apply the majority of their energy to the harvesting of resources and accumulation of wealth. The Indians "had land". This is widely understood and reflected in the "convenient narrative". However, what is not as plain is that the Indians had other "things", some of them less tangible things, that the Colonists did not, and this is not just the survival knowledge. The freedom to hunt anywhere, for example, was an extraordinary luxury to people who came from a place where hunting on a nobleman's land was a hanging offense. Effective medicines, congress-like governments, innovative means of personal water transportation, all of which were unregulated and freely available.
  • Yes, Indians were decimated by disease, wars, and outright Colonial genocidal strategies.  Unspeakably cruel acts were performed by both sides, but those committed by the Indians tend to continue to color the convenient narrative and the popular stereotype. The mainstream early settler depiction is the Pilgrim, the later settlers are a grizzled but hopeful family in a covered wagon. Not pawns in an imperial game of land grabbing, not village burning squatters and treaty breakers. Stereotypes were a weapon in themselves, a powerful weapon to galvanize a thoroughly racist society. Propaganda readily generated by land-hungry settlers, songwriters, newspaperman, politicians and the writer of  "The Wizard of Oz". They continue today in times of relative enlightenment, and if there is one "hatchet that has not been buried", it is these stereotypes. 
Entertain for a bit the notion of the history of the Colonizer/American Indian relationship as occurring between two people, where at the time of meeting they are both infants, but each embodying the whole of their peoples, and independent of a shared timeline.

One infant, call him Indy,  is in a nursery where as long as he can remember he's been provided for. There are a few things he needs to do to ensure he gets what he needs, but he gets them. From time to time, he has some internal colic and stomach aches (conflicts between tribes) but for the most part he sometimes builds some things with blocks, does the things he needs to get food, and grows. The nursery is large and uncluttered-- really, the nursery is his family, his relations are all part of the environment of his nursery..

Another infant, Colin, is in another nursery. His nursery is crowded with other infants, it is actually rather squalid. Building things with blocks is a very important activity: in fact, if you don't build with blocks, you don't get to eat, so making sure nobody takes your blocks takes significant effort. If someone takes your blocks, you get with others that have blocks, so you can build more stuff for you. The other kids are always knocking over what you build, to take your blocks.

Then, something happens, and Colin gets moved to Indy's nursery.

Because they are infants, there is a genuine innocent curiosity. What does Colin do? He looks for blocks. There are plenty of blocks, but they are a little different from the ones he's used to. Indy sees this, and he shows Colin how the blocks work. This period lasts for a relatively short time, but it changes Colin in subtle ways. It is one of the most important brief periods in Colin's life.

Now, we add some weird magic in the story because they mature as their relationship grows. Up until now, they've been infants forever. Separate, they would have remained infants forever. 

But what causes them to age is the progression of their relationship: the more they interrelate, the more they age.

A peculiar thing about Colin is that he brought some things from the other nursery that allowed him to actually change the blocks into new shapes of blocks. He starts to change the blocks in Indy's nursery into blocks more like the ones he is familiar with. There are so many blocks, more than Colin has ever seen, but his old habit is to make piles of them for himself. 

There is another peculiar thing about Colin. He has to build with blocks to eat, there is some invisible relationship he has with his old nursery where when he builds with blocks, they send him food. Indy eats as he always has, the nursery seems to automatically provide for him. This is clear to Colin, who starts to shape some blocks for Indy that Indy likes, and trade them for the food Indy automatically gets.

And this is why this brief period is so important. to Colin. He sees how life can be different, and:a curious thing has happened. When Colin does some of the same things that Indy does, he doesn't need to get food from his old nursery-- this new nursery takes care of him just fine.

Colin's need to build with blocks causes friction between the two, now rapidly approaching toddler-hood.In fact, they have come to blows. At first, they are evenly matched, but Colin is much more aggressive, and his tendencies formed in his old nursery. He inflicts some terrible physical hurts on Indy. One very bad thing that Colin has brought into the nursery has been some sickness. Some times Colin has touched Indy, whether in friendship or anger, it makes parts of Indy's body very sick. So sick, that some of the parts don't work as well, or at all. What's worse, Colin sees that this can happen, and tries intentionally to make Indy sick. 

When they are not fighting, Colin might give gifts to Indy, and even help him, but Indy knows at this point that Colin usually has a reason for being nice. 

Colin shares some of the food from his old nursery, and Indy likes some of this, Indy shares food that he is accustomed to, and Colin finds that his nursery thinks some of this is almost as good as building things with blocks! He can get extra food when he shares some of Indy's food with his old nursery. This will start to be a very important activity for Colin, getting the new nursery food back to the old one.

They are now well into toddler-hood, Indy has always been able to get around better and is generally still the same person despite the disruption that Colin's presence has brought. But the illnesses he's caught have made him less energetic, and much more wary of  Colin, who has grown surprisingly large. 

Colin, who was once much more amiable and friendly to Indy, has become arrogant and bossy. This isn't helped by severe bouts of colic-like internal illness that cause him to act unpredictably, thrashing about and knocking over his own block constructions.

But, there are still plenty of blocks in the nursery, even though they've become a bit harder for both of them to get to. Despite arguments (which Colin always seems to win) they still share things: Indy, who has never wanted for anything, likes more and more of some of the blocks of Colin's style has, and Colin gives him some of these. Colin, who up until his move to Indy's nursery, has always had to scrabble for what he has, is getting plenty. The have occasional disagreements, but the nursery is also large enough where they don't have to be in each other's way. But, again, if they don't interact, they don't age.

Even so, there is something disturbing: about Colin: through interactions with Indy they is aging at about the same rate, but Colin is growing and growing at an alarming rate.

Fast forward a bit: Colin gets huge, Indy gets more and more pushed to the corner of the nursery and his growth is stunted. 

He still sends food to the other nursery, but now he sends them more food than they return. Then,Colin declares it is *his* nursery and their all *his* blocks, and Indy doesn't even belong in certain places, and his other nursery shouldn't bother him for food, he'll send food if he feels like it.. 

Colin then changes his mind, and lets Indy have some places.. Then, he says that those aren't really Indy's places to have, but he's only just there because Colin *allows* him to be. Colin says Indy is *dependent* on him. Colin has some terrible fights with Indy, calls him names, pushes him into the corner of the nursery, even as Colin babbles strange things about people being equal.  

Colin says this, Colin says that... Colin does what he wants.

Indy hunkers down and gets what he can. He's still the same person, deep down inside, but it's been very difficult. Sometimes, he doesn't know why he goes on at all. 

But he knows one thing for sure about Colin:

He's become the biggest baby ever. 

And those are my November Native American History Month thoughts.

(addendum 11/30/2012)
So I finished an unfinished earlier sentence that left off in the middle, and made some corrections, and in reading through, some questions came to mind:

1) What might have happened if the colonizing powers had negotiated with the Indians fairly in all matters, and made fair exchanges for the land, made agreements that were clearly understood by both parties in a way that they could be adjudged fair and honored today? Because there were some exchanges that were regarded fair and indisputable, as well as wars that were fought with both sides having equivalent equipment and settled by peace treaties. A thought is that we'd have an incredibly wealthy "old money" Indian aristocracy, and that the lands they retained would be as rich as any. But the majority population would still be European immigrants: the westward surge would still have happened, Indian populations would still have been ravaged by diseases, and the same level of discontent that created the United States would have occurred among the colonists, with the exception of the grievance about "savages on our frontiers" not mentioned in the Declaration.

2) In terms of our nursery story, as I was writing the last lines, my thought was, and here I exhibit my complete inculcation in Colonizer culture, "What's a mother to do? What's the daycare person supposed to do with a kid like Colin?".

And, thinking about our current spate of natural catastrophes, I think "maybe she's doing it".