Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2015

The Pearl Button; Bering: Balance and Resistance

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Opening yesterday at the IFC Center in New York, Patricio Guzman’s “The Pearl Button” is my pick for best documentary of 2015 and very possibly the best I have seen in the past decade. Guzman, a Chilean born in 1941, is best known for his documentaries about the Allende period, including “The Battle of Chile” that I saw forty years ago when it came out and the 2004 “Salvador Allende” that I reviewed eight years ago. Since my view of the director’s work was informed by these newsreel-like films, I was not nearly prepared for the astonishing experience of a work of art that combined politics and art and that can be likened to Eduardo Galeano at his best. Narrated by Guzman, “The Pearl Button” is a meditation on the ontological mystery of water, the extinction of the Patagonian Indians who had a unique connection to the ocean, and the persecution of Allende’s supporters whose corpses were often dropped by helicopter into the very waters of the Pacific Ocean that the indigenous peoples regarded as essential to their being.

The eponymous pearl button is a reference to Jemmy Button, as the British colonizers called him. He was a Patagonian Indian that Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle—the same ship that Charles Darwin sailed on–brought back to England in 1830 under circumstances typical of the unequal power relations of the day and that continue now. When the natives stole one of Fitzroy’s boats, he took a group hostage. Jemmy’s price was that of a single mother of pearl button. Christianized forcefully, dressed in respectable garments (his people preferred to walk about unclothed with their bodies painted), and taught English, he was nothing more than a kind of curiosity for the British to gawk at. Once he returned home, he discarded their clothing and sought to be reintegrated with the Yámana people who never quite accepted him. Being lost between two worlds, as we shall see in the discussion of another film below, is generally the fate of indigenous peoples today unfortunately.

When Guzman learned that the Chilean government had commissioned a task force to retrieve the bodies of Pinochet’s victims, he went along to film their work. As was the custom, Pinochet’s goons tied the corpse to a six-foot section of rail to weigh it down in the Pacific. On one dive, the cops retrieved such a rail but the corpse had washed away long ago. The only thing remaining was a shred of the victim’s clothing and a single mother-of-pearl button.

As a kind of prelude to these stories, Guzman explores the significance of water—a part of nature that it is all too easy to take for granted. It turns out that if had not been for the landing of a comet on earth quite by accident billions of years ago, the oceans might not have come into being. The director interviews a number of scientists who appear to be on the same political and artistic wavelength as him. They explain that water permeates everything we see and touch, including our own bodies, the soil, the sky, and the food we eat. Citing scientist Thedor Schwenk who founded the Institute of Flow,a research center on water, Guzman notes that “…the act of thinking resembles water due to its capacity to adapt to everything. The law of thought is the same as that of water, always ready to adapt itself to everything”.

Such observations are accompanied by the stunning images of the heavens, the oceans and the earth as only a gifted director could summon. His words, spoken slowly and clearly in the tone of a seer, the film score and the images combine to both educate and inspire.

The high points of the film consist of a group of elderly indigenous survivals of the genocide including Gabriela Paterito who speaks in her native tongue. They believe that there were eight thousand Patagonian natives in the 18th century with only twenty surviving including Paterito who is described in the press notes:

Gabriela was born near an island called “Calao”, in the Picton fjord. She is about 73 years old. She learnt to row and dive under water when she was just six years old. Gabriela travelled hundreds of miles in a canoe, from Punta Arenas to the Gulf of Penas together with her family. She’s the last descendant of the kawéskar ethnic group, able to recount her life and that of her family with total lucidity and precision. Thanks to her son, Juan Carlos Tonko, who has brought Gabriela’s life into the public eye, it is no longer one of anonymity. She lives in Puerto Eden and earns a living making handicraft. During the filming we met other of her fellow countrymen, Alfredo Renchi, Francisco González and Yolanda Mesier.

The connection between the Indians of Patagonia and the socialists in Chile could not be more obvious. We learn from Guzman that among the accomplishments of Allende was a kind of affirmative action for indigenous peoples, a policy that must have angered a ruling class that like those throughout the Americas considered them to be less than human. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Although unfortunately I am a bit late on this, Lourdes Grobet’s “Bering, Balance and Resistance” that premiered this morning at the Margaret Mead film festival at the Museum of Natural History, is a perfect companion piece to “The Pearl Button”. If it ever shows up in your neck of the woods or on television, grab it since it is very much in the tradition of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” but like many of the films about Inuit today is much closer to the truth.

The film documents the daily existence of the people who live on the Little and Big Diomede Islands who have been there for more than ten thousand years. Modern civilization so to speak has separated them, however. Little Diomede is American territory and Big Diomede is Russian. If Sarah Palin lived in Little Diomede, her comment about being able to see Russia would be true.

Interestingly, the native peoples refer to themselves as Eskimos, not Inuit, thus showing a certain indifference to political correctness. That being said, they are completely committed to preserving their traditions that are under assault from capitalist society. One man in his forties observes that when they had native dances in the local assembly hall in the past, you could not find a seat. Today the hall is half-empty for such events. Children do not speak their native tongue, watch television addictively, eat canned food and talk about relocating to Nome where assimilation can be consummated.

There are elders who are intent on preserving what they call their “subsistence” way of life. They are dubious about Christianity even though that is the only religion in both islands, something that must be reassuring to both the Russian and American yahoos who see eye-to-eye on the church. Those old enough to have lived before “civilization” settled in report that in the old days there was no money. They went out on hunts together and shared what they killed. They made everything they needed and exchanged fur or carvings for manufactured essentials such as knives or guns. You can see a couple of men in their thirties, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, going through the steps of a hunting dance that was probably performed ten thousand years ago.

Their way of life and that of the Patagonians is what Marx called primitive communism. In order to assimilate hunting and gathering societies into bourgeois society, force is necessary as well as ideological pressure. The tragedy of the Inuit, who were separated by dint of the conventions of the modern state system, is that they are caught between two worlds.

But so are we in a very real sense. Our fate is to live in a system based on commodity production that is undermining our very existence as I pointed out yesterday in my review of “Racing Extinction”. The goal is the same as it was when Engels wrote “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: to unite the disdain for money that most people in Grobet’s film share with the modern productive forces that capitalism has forged.

October 7, 2015

Dark Horse; Whale Rider

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

At a breakfast hosted by film publicists this morning I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet Cliff Curtis, the Maori actor who plays Genesis Potini in “Dark Horse”, a film that opens on Dec. 11th in NYC. I will be posting a reminder about “Dark Horse” when it is about to open. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2015.

I reviewed the film in conjunction with two other films about chess for CounterPunch a couple of weeks ago.

In real life Potini trained Maori children to compete in chess tournaments. Despite suffering from bipolar disorder, he made a major contribution to Maori society.

Curtis is not the typical actor. He had a tremendous grasp of the importance of the film as both art and message. He has been in many films over the years, including some that address Maori identity such as “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider” that I reviewed 11 years ago, before I began blogging. He is visible in the image accompanying part one of the film immediately below:

My review:

Whale Rider

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 2, 2004

Considering all the hype surrounding “Lord of the Rings”, one might have missed another New Zealand export that is now available in DVD/Video and whose 13 year old star was nominated as Best Actress in 2004. I am speaking of “Whale Rider”, a Maori coming of age story with a twist–in this case the protagonist is a teenage girl rather than a boy.

Although Keisha Castle-Hughes is an Australian Aboriginal, she clearly has an exceptional ability to make her character Pai come to life. When Pai is born, her twin brother and mother die at the same time. Her grief-stricken father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves New Zealand to pursue a career as an artist, leaving her in the care of her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a chief of the Ngati Kanoahi people.

He is entrusted with teaching Maori traditions that go back for millennia to the 12 year old boys in the village. This consists of lessons in how to chant, dance, wield a club and make fearsome warrior faces. Like any other 12 year olds, their attention span is limited. In many ways, their training reminded me of what it was like to go to Hebrew School in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah.

As it turns out, Pai is much more avid to learn Maori skills than any of the boys. In some ways, she is overly zealous. When she encounters Maori women smoking during a card game, she warns them that smoking will weaken their Maori child-bearing properties. Like Lisa Simpson, her conscientiousness goes against the grain of a village as laid-back as Homer and Bart.

Although she and her grandfather seem to be on the same wave-length temperamentally, he is dead-set opposed to her learning Maori skills. Over and over he reprimands her for eavesdropping on training sessions for the village boys in hopes of achieving a station that her gender does not permit. Despite obvious differences with western industrial societies, it is reminiscent of the kind of sexism a young girl who aspires to be a football player might encounter.

Fortunately, Pai has her grandmother Nanny’s (Vicky Haughton) support, who views her husband as hopelessly backward. She refers to him contemptuously as “old Paka” and intercedes on Pai’s behalf throughout this marvelous story.

The title of the film is derived from the climactic scene in which the villagers struggle in vain to get a group of beached whales to return to the ocean. Since the animals are their totem, this is a matter of life-and-death. Suffice it to say that Pai becomes chief of her people through her heroic intervention.

This Sunday’s NY Times Magazine had an article on “dying languages” that takes a light-hearted attitude toward the efforts of such people to preserve their cultural identity. From a paper on the Northern ArizonaUniversity website titled “Four Successful Indigenous Language Programs”, we discover:

The Maori people of New Zealand comprise 15 percent of the New Zealand population of approximately four million people. At first contact with Europeans, 75 percent of the native population died of disease. The history of the Maori reads like the history of the Native American tribes; land taken without treaties, slaughter, and subhuman treatment (Holmes, 1992). The Maori have a common language regardless of where in New Zealand they reside. The tribes trace their ancestry to Polynesian migrants about 800 AD or earlier and followed by other waves of migration, the last major influx at about 1300 AD. Tribes based on family ancestry were further divided into subgroups that lived in villages. They hunted, gathered, and practiced subsistence agriculture. The public meeting house was the center of village life.

“Whale Rider” is a very convincing account of the Maori people to resist assimilation. The public meeting house of Pai’s village is where most of the dramatic scenes take place. This is a film for anybody with a young daughter who might be encountering confining sexual roles in school or in the neighborhood. It is also for anybody who wants to see fine performances in an uplifting film. Strongly recommended.



September 7, 2015

An exchange about John Muir with Donald Worster

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:36 pm

Donald Worster

For my money, Donald Worster is  the finest environmental historian in the USA, probably the world for that matter. This exchange grew out of a comment by Survival International’s executive director under my article criticizing Jedediah Purdy. Purdy had written an article in the New Yorker Magazine charging Muir with favoring the ethnic cleansing of American Indians from Yosemite and Curry agreed with it.

My email to Worster:

Hi, Donald I am a huge fan of your work and own every book you have written except the one on John Muir. A while back I wrote a critique of Jedediah Purdy’s attack on Muir in the New Yorker Magazine: http://louisproyect.org/2015/08/17/the-racism-of-early-environmentalism-or-environmentalists/ Just today I got a comment on the article from Stephen Curry, the Executive Director of Survival International who agrees completely with Purdy. He referred me to a Truthout article he wrote that stated: “Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go.” I wrote him a note:

I am not sure what you mean by “believed”. Donald Worster’s bio of Muir makes no such reference. I have also read Muir extensively and do not recall words to that effect although he did express racist views common to the period. So maybe you can help me out by telling me exactly where in Muir’s writings do you find support for your allegation.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Thanks, Louis

* * * *

Dear Louis, I am flattered that you are such a loyal reader. But do get the Muir biography, which addresses in many pages this old hackneyed charge against him. There is nothing that I could find anywhere in all the extensive Muir papers that expresses the racist views he is charged with, unless we use a very broad brush definition of racism (ie., to mean any criticism of another group of people. By that standard the world is full of racists, including most Indians, blacks, etc.). If racism means a theory that some races of people, whatever “race” means, are genetically inferior to other races, then Muir was not a racist. I write specifically about Muir’s encounter with a group of Indians, not in Yosemite valley exactly, but on a trail in the nearby mountains, a year or so after he had arrived in California He did find those people dirty and frightening. So might Mr Purdy if he had been in Muir’s shoes, all alone with a group of strangers dressed in animal skins, with strong odors, demanding tobacco and alcohol and pulling at his clothes. Try it on the streets of Naples or Calcutta. But if Mr Purdy would simply turn the page in that journal (My First Summer in the Sierra) he would read contrary evidence—Muir feeling ashamed of his initial fearful and negative reaction, Muir asserting the vision of poet Robert Burns that we will all, including the Indians, come to be brothers one day. Those Indians, by the way, did not live in Yos Valley, they came from the Mono Lake area, and the Yos Indians feared and deposed them (were they also racists?). And it was those Mono Paiutes who massacred the Yos Indians and left the valley uninhabited, except for a lone individual or two. No one destroyed inhabited settlements to make way for Yosemite Park. Muir was a friend of a man he called Indian Tom in the valley, a guy who carried his letters out to civilization. Then there is all of Muir’s experience with Indians in Alaska. There Muir criticized the nation’s treatment of native peoples, etc. etc. Purdy has done no homework, while he recycles worn out, prejudcial, and highly selective charges. He repeats old slanders that a true scholar should be ashamed to pass on. I don’t think his intellectual or moral responsibility rises much higher than Fox News.

Don Worster

August 16, 2015

Racism and the “Overhunting” hypothesis

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

Victim of a paleo-Indian’s blitzkrieg?

This week a study carried out by scientists at the University of Essex in England got picked up far and wide. It purported to prove once and for all that overhunting or some other excessive behavior by prehistoric man such as setting out-of-control fires led to the extinction of many large-scale mammals (megafauna) such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabertooth tigers. Their computer-generated data supposedly now ruled out climate change as the cause. The study is behind a paywall and probably too technical for the lay reader (including me) but the takeaway is conveyed by this graph, which indicates that there is a direct relationship between the rate of extinction and geography. They occur most frequently on islands and the smaller the island, the greater the risk. This should come as no surprise and it would likely rule out woolly mammoths becoming extinct on some South Pacific island.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 3.24.45 PM

I doubt that this study will have much effect on those who believe that climate change was responsible, especially since it is virtually impossible to nail down exactly what happened 15,000 years or so ago. However, the debate is of keen interest to me as someone who has written about American Indian history since I noticed long ago when I first began writing about it there was a tendency for academics I ran into on the Internet to draw analogies between the overhunting of megafauna with modern capitalist despoliation of wildlife and natural resources. They were anxious to label any ex post facto defense of primitive communism as an exercise in Rousseau’s “noble savage” idealization.

Paul Martin is the scholar most identified with the wasteful overhunting thesis. In a book titled “Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America”, he coined the term “blitzkrieg effect” that likens spear and club wielding tribes millennia ago to the Wehrmacht. His case is largely based on the coincidence of the Clovis spear with the beginnings of these extinctions as if it was the hydrogen bomb of its time.

I have also had some discussions about these matters with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of the British philosopher who I got to know fairly well through his time on Marxmail. Guy Jr.’s dissertation was on the overhunting of megafauna in New York State. Looking at mastodon bones from 13,000 years ago certainly has some value but I often wonder to what extent archaeologists project their own worldviews into the distant past. After all, in a world marked by senseless brutality, why not assume that the megafauna were killed wantonly?

While there have been many rebuttals of the overhunting thesis, with Dale Guthrie’s climate change hypothesis gaining the most attention, the most convincing for me is an article titled “A requiem for North American overkill” by Donald K. Grayson and David J. Meltzer that appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003). They are also quite right in linking the popularity of the Paul Martin thesis with the sociobiological tendency to paint early man as a ruthless and scary savage:

It is easy to show that overkill’s continued popularity is closely related to the political uses to which it can be put. Take, for instance, Peter Ward’s recent discussion of the matter. Ward—a superb paleontologist whose scientific research focuses on fossils that are between about 300 million and 60 million years old—is convinced by Martin’s arguments, concluding that “the ravages of hungry people surely were involved in the destruction of many species now extinct” [88, p. 223]. In this conclusion, he finds “tragic validity for times approaching”: “the Snake River salmon is virtually extinct . king crab fishing in Alaska has been essentially terminated because the stocks are gone; the great shellfish fisheries of Puget Sound have been halted because the oysters and mussels are too poisoned by industrial wastes to eat” [88, p. 227]. For Ward, the overkill position is inextricably linked to modern times and to the homily of ecological ruin.

Ward is not alone in taking this approach. In The Third Chimpanzee, ecologist Jared Diamond enthuses over Martin’s argument and ends the chapter with a brief discussion of “the blitzkriegs by which modern European hunters nearly exterminated bison, whales, seals, and many other large animals”. The next chapter begins with a discussion of “the risk of a nuclear holocaust” [22, pp. 347–348].

For these discussions, and others like them, overkill provides powerful political capital. That we may agree with the political goals of these authors is immaterial. Our concern here is that both science and environmental concerns are being done a disservice by relying on claims that have virtually no empirical support. We are not suggesting that those who use overkill in this way do so in disregard of the facts against it. We do believe, however, that they are insufficiently familiar with the archaeological and paleontological records bearing on overkill, and so cannot properly judge Martin’s claims of its explanatory power.

In fact, Martin’s recent writings suggest to us that he is no longer trying to approach this issue within a scientific framework. As we have noted, he explicitly maintains that the North American overkill position does not require supporting evidence. He is unconcerned that archaeologists ‘wash their hands’ of his ideas. He criticizes the search for pre-Clovis sites in the New World as “something less than serious science, akin to the ever popular search for ‘Big Foot’ or the ‘Loch Ness Monster’” [58, p. 278]. As one of us has observed elsewhere, Martin’s position has become a faith-based policy statement rather than a scientific statement about the past, an overkill credo rather than an overkill hypothesis [36,37].

By emphasizing the nature of the problem and by focusing research on the latest Pleistocene archaeology and paleontology of North America, Martin’s arguments have led to a good deal of productive science. Now, however, it has become quite clear that things did not happen the way that Martin has envisaged. Martin’s arguments drawn from islands are not relevant to continental settings, especially given that in every known instance, island extinctions were accompanied by massive habitat disruption. Northern Hemisphere mammal communities saw substantial extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, with or without Clovis and even with or without a human presence. There are no kill sites for 26 of the 28 genera of North American herbivores and only 14 sites for the remaining two. It remains fully possible that the North American extinctions were not confined to the very end of this period, but were scattered across thousands of years, as occurred in Europe. Unless we can somehow accept that the very absence of evidence demonstrates that overkill occurred, it is time to focus on understanding what really did happen. Unfortunately, what did happen is not at all clear. Although a number of climate-based hypotheses have been forwarded for North America [28,41], none have gained widespread acceptance, since none connect particular climate variables with particular organisms in powerful ways. Doing so is likely to be a daunting task, since it is very likely that an adequate explanation will have to be built by treating each organism on its own [27]. Nonetheless, experience in other parts of the world shows that it can be done [18,40]. It is clearly time to begin the task in a North American context.

Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Vine DeLoria Jr.’s take on all this in a chapter titled “Mythical Pleistocene Hit Men” in his book “Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact” that can be read in its entirety on Google Books.

His interest obviously is in revealing the racism that underlies the overhunting hypothesis. I found his write-up most useful when I first began looking at these matters. I am struck by his reference to bison being driven off the edge of cliffs since this exactly what I heard back in 1996 or so when I began making the case for the American Indian:

Since these events, if they did indeed occur, happened some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, why should it matter? It matters immensely because the image which science has given American Indians is such that modem Indians are blamed for the extinction of these creatures. Conservative newspaper columnists, right-wing fanatics, sportsmen’s groups, and scholars in general tend to see the “overkill” hypothesis as symptomatic of a lack of moral fiber and ethical concern for the Earth among Indians. Some people are offended by the thought that many people believe that Indians were more concerned and thoughtful ecologists than modem industrial users. Advocating the extinction theory is a good way to support continued despoilation of the environment by suggest-ing that at no time were human beings careful of the lands upon which they lived.

I can speak here from firsthand personal knowledge. In 1990, I was invited to speak at Stanford University, trumpeted as the “Harvard of the West,” to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. I was asked to speak on the Indian relationship with the land, and I tried as best I could to outline the philosophical principles I thought would be meaningful to the audience and the values I thought were involved in the Indian perspective on the natural world. The first question from the audience when I finished was a person asking whether I didn’t think running hundreds of buffalo over a cliff was wasteful. The tone of the question implied that the previous weekend other invited Indian speakers and myself had destroyed hundreds of bison somewhere in Wyoming. Since the only recent slaughter of buffalo that I could remember was the Super Bowl, I took offense and refused to answer any more questions. I did not think that political correctness, applied retroactively to 15,000 B.C., was appropriate.

July 10, 2015

The Pongo’s Dream

Filed under: indigenous,Peru — louisproyect @ 1:27 pm

The Pongo’s Dream

by José Maria Arguedas

(Arguedas learned Quechua as a boy from servants in the household of his stepmother and his father, an itinerant lawyer. Until his suicide in 1967, the novelist and anthropologist was perhaps more responsible than any other Peruvian for the impassioned defense of the Incan tongue and cultural autonomy for millions of Quechua speakers, challenging the powerful ideologies of “modernization” and “national integration” predicated on the erasure of Peru’s indigenous past. Although there was a strong utopian strain in Arguedas, he was not just interested in indigenous traditions. He also wrote about the challenges of migration and modernity, and proclaimed himself an “hombre Quechua moderno,” a modern Quechuan man, reflecting his desire for a cultural pluralism for Peru that would go beyond a retreat into a narrow traditionalism. An adaptation of a story Arguedas heard from a Cusco peasant, “The Pongo’s Dream” captures the rigidity of the feudal order that still prevailed in many parts of the Andes in the mid-twentieth century. But the denouement, where the world turns upside down as in the Inkarri myth, suggests the existence of a spirit of independence and opposition, which was to fuel the peasant movements of the 195os and the break-up of the landlords’ rule.)


A little man headed to his master’s mansion. As one of the serfs on the 1ord’s estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.

The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion’s corridors.

“What are you? A person or something else?” the lord asked the little man in front of all the other serfs. The pongo bowed his head and did not answer. He stood frightened, eyes frozen. “Let’s see!” the lord said. “With those worthless little hands, you must at least know how to scrub pots or use a broom. Take this garbage away!” he ordered.

The pongo knelt to kiss his master’s hand and followed him to the kitchen hanging his head.

The little man had a small body but an average man’s strength. Whatever he was told to do he did well, but he always wore a slight look of horror on his face. Some of the serfs laughed at him, while others pitied him. “The most orphaned of all orphans,” a cook of mixed blood once said upon seeing him. “His frozen eyes must be children of the moon wind, his heart must be all sadness.”

The little man rarely talked to anyone. He worked and ate quietly. Whatever they ordered him to do was done obediently. “Yes, papacito, mamacita,” were the only words he uttered.

Perhaps because of the little man’s frightened look and his thread- bare, filthy clothes, or perhaps because of his unwillingness to talk, the lord regarded the pongo with special contempt. He enjoyed humiliating him most at dusk, when all the serfs gathered to say the Hail Mary in the mansion’s great hall. He would shake him vehemently in of the serfs like a piece of animal skin. He would push his head force him to kneel, and then, when the little man was on his knees, slap him lightly on the face.

“I believe you are a dog. Bark!” he would tell the pongo.

The little man could not bark.

“Stand on all fours,” the lord would order him next.

The pongo would obey and start crawling on all fours. “Walk sideways like a dog,” the lord would demand.

The little man had learned to run like the small dogs inhabiting the high moors.

The lord would laugh heartily. His whole body shook with exhilaration.

“Come back here!” he would yell, when the servant reached the end of the great hall.

The pongo would return, running sideways, arriving out of breath.

Meanwhile, some of the other serfs would quietly say their Hail Marys, as if their voices were a wind hidden in their hearts.

“Perk up your ears, hare! You are just an ugly hare!” the lord would command the exhausted little man. “Sit on your two paws. Put your hands together.”

The pongo could sit in the exact same prayerful pose that these animals take when they stand still on the rocks, looking as if he had learned this habit while in his mother’s womb. But the one thing he could not do was perk up his ears. Some of the serfs laughed at him.

With his boot, the lord would then knock him to the brick floor.

“Let us say the Our Father,” he would then say to his Indians as they waited in line.

The pongo would get up slowly, but he could not pray because he was not in his place, nor did any place belong to him.

In the darkness, the serfs would leave the great hall for the courtyard and head to their living quarters. “Get out of here, offal!” the master would often order the pongo.

And so, every day, in front of the other serfs, the master would make his new pongo jump to his demands. He would force him to laugh, to fake tears. He would hand him over to the other workers so that they would ridicule him too.

But . . . one afternoon, during the Hail Mary, when the hall was filled with everyone who worked and lived on the lord’s estate and the master himself began to stare at the pongo with loathing and contempt, that same little man spoke very clearly. His face remained a bit frightened.

“Great lord, please grant me permission. Dear lord, I wish to speak to you.” The lord could not believe his ears. “What? Was that you who spoke or someone else?”

“Your permission, dear master, to speak to you. It is you I want to talk to,” the pongo replied. “Talk… if you can.”

“My father, my lord, my heart,” the little man began. “Last night, I dreamt that the two of us had died. Together, we had died.” “You with me? You? Tell all, Indian,” the master said to him. “Since we were dead men, my lord, the two of us were standing naked before our dear father Saint Francis, both of us, next to each other.”

“And then? Talk!” ordered the master, partly out of anger and partly anxious with curiosity.

“When he saw us dead, naked, both standing together, our dear father Saint Francis looked at us closely with those eyes that reach and measure who knows what lengths. He examined you and me, judging, I believe, each of our hearts, the kind of person we were, the kind of person we are. You confronted that gaze as the rich and powerful man that you are, my father.”

“And you?”

“I cannot know how I was, great lord. I cannot know my worth.”

“Well, keep talking.”

“Then, our father spoke: ‘May the most beautiful of all the angels come forth. May a lesser angel of equal beauty accompany the supreme one. May the lesser angel bring a golden cup filled with the most delicate and translucent honey.'”

“And then?” the master asked.

The Indian serfs listened, listened to the pongo with a limitless attention, yet also afraid.

“My owner, as soon as our great father Saint Francis gave his order, an angel appeared, shimmering, as tall as the sun. He walked very slowly until he stood before our father. A smaller angel, beautiful, glowing like a gentle flower, marched behind the supreme angel. He was holding in his hands a golden cup.”

“And then?” the master asked once again.

“‘Supreme angel, cover this gentleman with the honey that is in the golden cup. Let your hands be feathers upon touching this man’s body,’ ordered our great father. And so, the lofty angel lifted the honey with his hands and glossed your whole body with it, from your head down to your toenails. And you swelled with pride. In the splendor of the heavens, your body shone as if made of transparent gold.”

“That is the way it must be,” said the lord. “And what happened to you?”

“When you were shining in the sky, our great father Saint Francis gave another order. ‘From all the angels in heaven, may the very least, the most ordinary come forth. May that angel bring along a gasoline can filled with human excrement.'”

“And then?”

“A worthless, old angel with scaly feet, too weak to keep his wings in place, appeared before our father. He came very tired, his wings drooping at his sides, carrying a large can. ‘Listen,’ our great father ordered the angel. ‘Smear the body of this little man with the excrement from that can you brought. Smear his whole body any way you want and cover it all the best you can. Hurry up!’ So the old angel took the excrement with his coarse hands and smeared my body unevenly, sloppily, just like you would smear mud on the walls of an ordinary adobe house. And in the midst of the heavenly light, I stank and was with shame.”

“Just as it should be!” crowed the master. “Keep going! Or is that the end?”

“No, my little father, my lord. When we were once again together, changed, before our father Saint Francis, he took another look at first at you, then at me, a long time. With those eyes that reach the heavens, I don’t know to what depths, joining night and memory and oblivion. Then he said: ‘Whatever the angels had to with you is done. Now, lick each other’s bodies slowly, for all eternity.’ At that moment, the old angel became young again. His wings regained their blackness and great strength. Our father entrusted him making sure that his will was carried out.”

(From “The Peru Reader“, edited by Orin Starn, Carlos Degregori, Robin Kirk)

July 4, 2015

Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Indian

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

An excerpt from:

“We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, and one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white man and the African.” So spoke Philadel phia’s prosperous black sailmaker, James Forten, thirty-seven years after the declaration first received printer’s ink.7 Was Forten mistaken that white Americans of the revolutionary generation subscribed to the notion that inalienable rights were universal, not limited just to white European males? Many historians believe that men such as Forten were wrong, that the founders really meant all white men are created equal, that only they were entitled to the fabled “unalienable rights.” Conventional wisdom has it that white revolutionary leaders believed Africans–even those who were free—were not endowed with fully human attributes and therefore were not considered to be among “all men” claimed in the declaration to have been created equal.8

To be sure, many white Americans did not intend to include African-Americans and others (such as women) under the canopy guaranteeing inalienable rights and equality as a birthright. But many did. Forten did not misremember the days of his early service in the Revolution; nor did he invent the climate of opinion in his hometown of Philadelphia. Hardly any writer who attacked slavery in the 1760s and 1770s imagined that Africans were not part of the human race. James Otis made this explicit in his Rights of the British Colonists in 1764, and a decade later the Massachusetts Genera Court debated a bill premised on this principle. Abigail Adams expressed the same view in 1774, insisting that black Americans had “as good a right to freedom as we have.” In the same year, Tom Paine insisted that “the slave, who is the proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it.”9 Samuel Hopkins, writing in 1776 from Newport, Rhode Island, the center of New England slave trading, made it his business to keep the matter squarely before the Second Continental Congress. The enslaved Africans, he exhorted, “behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves, [and] are shocked with the glaring inconsistence.” Hopkins warned that if the leaders of the nation struggling for independence did not erase this “national sin,” the American people would never survive God’s wrath. Almost simultaneously, the New York legislature stated that slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the avowed principles in which this and other states have carried on their struggle for liberty.”

In southern as well as northern colonies important leaders acknowledged the universality of rights proclaimed by the declaration. As early as 1767, Virginia’s Arthur Lee stated baldly that “Freedom is unquestionably the birthright of all mankind, of Africans as well as Europeans.” Two years later, Jefferson argued before Virginia’s highest court, in a case involving a mulatto consigned to thirty years of labor, that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own: person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” Nearly all Virginia leaders admitted as much as they began drafting a constitution for the state in 1776. George Mason’s draft, in the very first article of the Declaration ration of Rights, stated “that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty.” Objections immediately arose for fear that the first clause would “have the effect of abolishing” slavery or might be “the forerunner of … civil convulsion.” The language had to be manipulated “[so] as not to involve the necessity of emancipating the slaves.”12

Edmund Pendleton, a shrewd lawyer and expert wordsmith, rescued the Virginia leaders from the problem of making the essential claim of natural inborn rights while not giving slaves an opening. The accepted revision averred that “All men are by nature equally free and independent,” but acquired rights only when they enter into a state of society.” The last clause solved the problem because it could be said that slaves were not in a state of society. Such sophistry would do for the moment, though many Virginians were already on record saying that Africans were part of humanity and therefore as possessed of natural rights as Europeans, Asians, or anyone else. Though Jefferson would use many of the key words in the natural-rights proposition in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, he knew better than to slip in the weaselly clause about “when they enter into a state of society.

Virginia’s crafty circumlocution later proved useful in legal matters, but it did not change the minds of many southern leaders that Africans were born with natural rights, including the essential right to freedom. John Laurens, the son of South Carolina’s largest slave trader and one of the colony’s la slave owners, believed the half-million slaves in North America were justly deprived of the rights of mankind.”13 The young Laurens, infected by study in the Enlightenment hub of Geneva, Switzerland, made this statement in 1778. But most white southerners held negative views of Africans’ attributes, and some, like Jefferson, speculated that such negative qualities were innate. But even in disparaging descriptions of African moral and in intellectual capacities, and even in arguments that abolishing slavery was impractical, the claim was rarely made that Africans—or any other caste or clan people—were born without unalterable rights. The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of the Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majestic beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—”these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.” Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

If Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence blithely absolved American colonists from complicity in the slave trade, he was equally dishonest in his blanket indictment of Native Americans. The charge that Jefferson buried in the declaration among the long list of grievances against king and Parliament must have astounded Joseph Brant, Attakullakulla, Logan, Daniel Nimham, or any other Indian leader whose stories we have followed. They would surely have agreed with the charge that “the king had blocked new appropriation of lands,” since they knew full well that Parliament had issued the Proclamation Act of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 to create a buffer between the land-hungry colonists and the interior Indian nations. But they must have been deeply offended at the assertion that the king had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian sayages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” These pungent words from Jefferson’s hand, “submitted to a candid world” and borrowed exactly from his preamble to he Virginia constitution, were left untouched by drafting committee members Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and by the Continental Congress sitting it as committee of the whole.16 The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922), in Garry Wills’s Inventing America (1978), and in Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (1997), not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.

Jefferson, like most signers of the declaration, knew that this inflammatory charge was duplicitous. The first part of it—that the king had incited Indians against white settlers—had been charged in grievances expressed by several colonies and in Congress’s “Declaration on Taking Up Arms” in 1775. Rut the second part of the loaded sentence—that the known rule of destruction followed by Indian “savages,” where no woman, child, or person of any condition was spared, was Jefferson’s own formulation. To write this, Jefferson had to bury recent memory. Fourteen years before, finishing up his study at the College of William and Mary, the nineteen-year-old Jefferson had been spellbound by Chief Outacite, one of the Cherokee leaders who passed through Williamsburg on their way to take ship to London, where he hoped to find justice for his people. After spending two days in Virginia’s capital,Outacite gave a farewell speech that Jefferson remembered so vividly that he described it in detail, even to the phase of the moon, fifty years later in a letter to John Adams. “I knew much the the great Outacite, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees,” Jefferson told Adams. “He was always the guest of my father on his journeys to and from Williamsburg. I was in his camp when he made his great farewell oration to his people the evening before his departure for England.” It was a moment burned into Jefferson’s psyche, though he buried it while writing the Declaration of Independence. “The moon was in full splendor, and to her he seemed to address himself in his prayers safety on the voyage, and that of his people during his absence, his sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated actions, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, though I did not understand a word he uttered.”17

What had happened to this awe and veneration when Jefferson drafted the declaration, sitting in a rented room looking down on bustling Market Street in Philadelphia? Of course, it was no time for Jefferson to sentimental. In drafting the declaration, he was all too aware that he was writing a propaganda missive, a legal brief to justify American independence from his own experiences in Virginia’s piedmont region that attributing a genocidal urge against “all ages, sexes, and conditions” to Indian more appropriately described the “rule of warfare” practiced by Virginia’s frontiersmen. We can never know how his sleep at night might disturbed by his suppression of the recent atrocities against peaceable Americans, for example the massacre led by the Paxton Boys in 1763 and the slaughter of Logan’s family in 1774. Jefferson knew of these heinous attacks in all their gory details, but in the flush of finding stirring rhetoric to voice the sentiments of an aroused colonial people, Jefferson ignored his deep respect for native people. A few years after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to his remembrance of Outacite’s stirring oratory and noble composure. In summing up his drama-filled years during the Revolution, he decided that nobody could find in the “whole orations Demosthenes and Cicero and indeed in all of European oratory” a “single passage superior to the speech of Logan.”18

Jefferson’s reduction of half a million Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to “merciless savages” had propagandistic value, but many who read the toxic words in the declaration at the time knew that most of the troubles with Indian nations began with white land hunger, unscrupulous trading, and arrogance. The judgment of Thomas Pownall, the governor of Massachusetts only a few years before, was well known and uncontested: that “the frauds, abuses, and deceits that these poor people have been treated with and suffered under have had no bounds.” Nor were Jefferson members of the Continental Congress unaware of the much circulated report of 1755 that proposed a plan for biracial comity. Edmond Atkin, the trader of South Carolina who had years of intimate contact with southern Indian nations, wrote that “In their public treaties, no people on earth are more open, explicit, and direct. Nor are they excelled by any in the observance of them…. With respect to … all ruptures of consequence between the Indians and the white people, and the massacres that ensued … the latter were the first aggressors, the Indians being driven thereto under oppressions and abuses, and to vindicate their natural rights”.19

Many colonists agreed, admiring the Indian traits of morality, generosity, bravery, and the spirit of mutual caring. Indians seemed to embody these Christian virtues almost without effort while colonizing Europeans, attempting to build a society with similar characteristics, were pulled in the opposite direction by the natural abundance around them—toward individualism, disputatiousness, aggrandizement of wealth, and the exploitation of other humans. “As a nation,” wrote John Brickell of the Delawares, with whom, he lived for more than four years, they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. They certainly follow what they are taught to believe more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer.”20

Whether members of the Continental Congress who pored over Jefferson’s draft of the declaration considered the effect the insulting language used to describe Native Americans might have on the Indians themselves is not clear. But as historian Daniel Richter points out, they knew that England, as the war clouds loomed in 1774-75, had neither attempted to make formal military alliances with Native Americans nor encouraged them to descend on iIlicit frontier settlements. To be sure, English ministers were discussing how to mobilize Indian support if the undeclared war mushroomed into a full-scale fight. So was the Continental Congress. In fact, Congress had already enlisted the support of the Christianized Mahicans, Wappingers, and Housatonic Indians living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1775. Seventeen Stockbridge warriors fought with the Americans at Breed’s Hill in June of that year.21 A few months later, commissioners of the Continental Congress met at Pittsburgh with the Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Delaware to secure their pledge of neutrality. Once again, just as Congress was declaring independence, American commissioners at Fort Pitt received a renewed Six Nation pledge of neutrality. Creating a generic, colonist-hating Indian might be useful in kindling ears of a British-Indian conspiracy, but how could it serve to woo Indians to the American side or even convince them to remain neutral? The Ame seizure of Sir John Johnson, son of William Johnson (who was beloved by Mohawks), and the imprisonment of his wife and confiscation of his pro gave the Iroquois further reason to distrust the Americans.

June 7, 2015

Charlie’s Country

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

Opening last Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in NY, “Charlie’s Country” is now the fourth film I have seen that stars Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil who I first saw in “Walkabout” back in 1971 when he was 18 years old. Now 65 he is just as capable of conveying the psychological depth of an indigenous person as he ever was, in this case more essentially since he is the co-author of the screenplay.

Directed by Nicolas Roeg, “Walkabout” depicted the complex interaction of a young white brother and sister stranded in the outback with an aborigine out on a rite of puberty testing his ability to survive in the wilderness. As a perfect complement to his first film, the latest shows him returning once again to the bush but more as someone in the twilight of his life in a search of a more meaningful existence but one that has been destroyed by the white Australian colonizer.

Charlie lives in a native settlement that has all the same problems as an Indian reservation in the USA: drugs, alcohol, unemployment and despair. In the beginning of the week, Charlie gets a public assistance check and then spends it before the week is up. His days are spent wandering about his village aimlessly or shooting the breeze with other village elders.

In a manner that will remind you of Ferguson, Missouri or any other city where poor Black people are policed by white cops in an oppressive fashion, the local cops–all white Australians–treat their subjects with a mixture of paternalism and brutality. After Charlie and a crony go out into the bush to hunt a buffalo, they are stopped by the cops on the way back to the village and have their car, guns and game seized for lack of a proper license. A few days later, Charlie decides that he will have the last word on hunting and fashions a spear in a manner that has been handed down for generations among aboriginal people for millennia. On his way back to the bush for another hunt, the cops apprehend him and seize his spear because it is a “weapon”. I could not help but be reminded of the Baltimore cops chasing after Freddie Gray for carrying a concealed pocketknife.

Throughout the film, Charlie longs for nothing more than a return to traditional life, which the script makes clear is unattainable. This is the tragedy not only of Charlie but an entire race of people who were victims of genocide. As someone who has paid close attention to the anomie and suffering of Blackfoot Indians both through my research and by what I saw in visits to reservations in Montana and Alberta, I was struck by the similarities. When the game wardens arrest Charlie for hunting on land that belonged to his people for ten thousand years, I remembered that the same thing happened here:

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty.

Like the American Indian, Australian aboriginals are facing a daunting task of trying to recapture a hunting and gathering ethos when capitalism has virtually destroyed such a possibility. Ironically, it is exactly a return to a precapitalist ecosocialist balance that will make the survival of both “advanced” societies.

I strongly recommend this film and any other that David Gulpilil has appeared in, including the two that I have reviewed: the 2002 “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the 2007 “Ten Canoes”.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence” depicts the flight of two young girls from a residential school that was intended to forcibly assimilate native children in the same way that took place in the USA and Canada as I indicated in my review:

Since Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie, her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are all “mixed breed” children, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Act, which more properly should have been called the Aboriginal Genocide Act.

Since one of the goals of the legislation was to place such children in residential schools where “primitiveness”, including their native language, will be indoctrinated (or beaten) out of them, it would certainly qualify as genocide in terms of the United Nations. Article II of the UN Convention on Genocide stipulates that “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” for the purposes of assimilation qualifies as genocide. Despite the paternalistic language of the Australian drafters of this legislation, they had much more in common with Heinrich Himmler who stated: “I consider that in dealing with members of a foreign country, especially some Slav nationality…in such a mixture of peoples there will always be some racially good types. Therefore I think that it is our duty to take their children with us, to remove them from their environment, if necessary, by robbing or stealing them…” (Telford Taylor, “Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials”, p. 203. This was cited by James Michael Craven in an indictment of residential schools in Canada.)

In one particularly chilling scene, A.O. Neville, the Australian in charge of removing such children from their parents and played to perfection in an understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh, lectures a group of genteel white women about the goals of the policy. Pointing to three large pictures of Aboriginal children on the wall–a full-breed, a half-breed and a quarter-breed–he explains coolly that in another generation all the “blackness” will have been bred out of them. At the residential schools, not only would they learn proper English. They would be taught useful skills, such as how to clean the houses of their white Australian masters and care for their children.

By contrast, “Ten Canoes” dramatizes aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the colonizers—a time of spiritual and physical well-being even if it lacked the “conveniences” of modern life. In “Charlie’s Country”, Gulpilil’s character does not bother keeping his cell phone charged because he has so little use for it. As he says through most of the film, the old ways were better—a sentiment that inspire “Ten Canoes” as well as I indicated in my review:

The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.

We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.

The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.

“Ten Canoes” can be seen on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqIWW5UGl1s) while “Rabbit-Proof Fence” can be seen there as well for only $2.99 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNbPPVetLCw).

May 16, 2015

In response to Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Makah whalers, circa 1900

Yesterday Paul Watson wrote a commentary on my review of the documentary about Edward Abbey. Before replying to him, let me post what I said about him:

There are also contradictions between some deep ecologists and native peoples over their right to hunt and fish using traditional methods that are often related to their cultural survival. Among the people interviewed in “Wrenched” is Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, a group that carries out civil disobedience to protect whales. Unfortunately, Watson decided to challenge the Makah in Washington State, a small Indian band that traditionally relied on whale hunting for both its sustenance and spiritual identity. One can understand Watson’s brave fight against Japanese industrial versions of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, but couldn’t an exception have been made for people who have suffered genocidal attacks?

Just in case it was not emphatic enough, let me repeat that I value Watson’s activism highly. The fight to protect whales is one that matters a great deal to me as should be obvious not only by what I wrote above but in other articles I have written over the years, including reviews of “The Whale” and “The Cove”. But I must insist that Watson was wrong to campaign against the Makah, as I will explain below his comments.

A Prejudiced Review by Louis Proyect of Wrenched.

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

In the Review of Wrenched by Louis Proyect, he criticized me for our campaign against illegal whaling by the Makah Tribe of Washington State in 1998. He says it was unfortunate that we opposed the Makah although he endorsed our opposition to Japanese whaling.

Proyect’s understanding of the situation is very shallow. He does not understand that Sea Shepherd was not in Neah Bay to oppose the Makah Tribe but to oppose the Japanese fish buyers who pushed the Makah to kill whales. Japan simply needed to use the Makah to further their own agenda of commercial whaling.

We secured documents through FOIA to prove that the Makah along with the Japanese had discussions to use the Makah to set up a commercial whaling operation in the USA for profit and to embarrass the U.S. position of opposition to whaling.

Proyect also failed to see that we were invited to intervene by some Makah Elders who saw the truth of the scheme and it had little to do with reviving ancient traditions and everything to do with money. He ignored the fact that other First Nations people supported us and some supported the Makah. On my crew were Kwakutl, Haida, Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, Cree, Mohawk and Kwakwaka’wakw. He ignored the fact that I participated as an activist with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.

He voiced the prejudiced position that all First Nations speak in one voice about all issues. They do not.

I knew at the time that we would open ourselves up to criticisms for challenging the killing but I also knew that it would be racist of us to ignore a violation of whaling by the Makah and not by the Japanese or Norwegians.

Sea Shepherd represents the interest of the nation of whales and to whales, the color of the skin or the language spoken means nothing. All that matters is the harpoon and it is the harpoon that Sea Shepherd opposes by anyone for any reason anywhere.

Whales are highly intelligent, socially complex, self aware sentient beings and no human has the right to kill a single one of them.

Makah Elder Alberta Thompson spoke to this in 1997 when she said at the IWC meeting in Monaco that “the men who wanted to kill whales had no interest in other Makah cultural practices, they did not even have any interest in learning the Makah language. All they wanted to do was murder a whale with an anti-tank gun. And that” she said, “is not a part of our culture.”

Ed Abbey was a Sea Shepherd advisor and a friend and I know he would have supported our position to go up against the Japanese puppets posing as traditional whalers yet armed with modern technology and weapons to blow away a whale they had no intention of eating themselves.

In fact during the campaign I said if the Elders asked us to leave we would leave. The Elders who invited us replied they wanted us to stay. So we stayed. One whale was killed by the Tribe, and none since, except for one that was illegally killed by Wayne Johnson, a crime for which he was sent to prison.

We will continue to oppose any plans to resurrect whaling by the Makah as we will continue to oppose whaling by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

My response:

On the FOIA documents

On October 9, 2006 Eric Scigliano wrote an article for the alternative Seattle Weekly that takes up this matter. I urge you to read the entire article but will recapitulate his main points:

–One document purports to show that the Makah sought to operate a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano explains that the proposal came from a non-Makah official instead who they disavowed.

–Supposedly the Makah were combining with the Japanese industrial fishing firm Maruha to build a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano states that Maruha was pretty much out of the fishing business when they were approached. The Makah were primarily interested in ship that could process whiting, a fish that they were invested in commercially. As such, Maruha was a likely contact.

On the Makah and wildlife preservation

The Makah voluntarily stopped whale hunting a full decade before it was outlawed in 1937 because they were concerned about their dwindling numbers. It was only when gray whale numbers increased in the 1990s that they requested an exemption from federal law to begin hunting again. Furthermore, they requested the right to hunt up to 5 gray whales a year and no more. Since there are between 20,000 to 22,000 gray whales in the north Pacific, it is doubtful that the Makah hunt would have any impact on their survival even if the meat of all 5 whales were sold to the Japanese.

Paul Watson’s reliance on Congressman Jack Metcalf for pushing through a ban on Makah hunting

This is probably the most troubling aspect of his activism around this issue. Jack Metcalf is a rightwing Republican who has a long history of opposing Indian fishing rights. He was the founder of S/SPAWN, a group that occasionally used violence against Washington State Indians trying to exercise their legal rights to fish for trout and salmon. While Watson claims that his efforts on behalf of whales is part of his overall commitment to the environment, the Sierra Club ranked him as among the lowest in environmental legislation.

Wounded Knee?

Paul Watson claims that he was there. If so, nobody on the front lines has any awareness of this. In an article by Jim Page on Watson at Dark Night Press, he got feedback from Ward Churchill who would have been in a position to know:

…it’s not just that his name doesn’t come up in any of the literature on Wounded Knee. I’ve queried Ron Rosen, who was in fact a medic at the Knee, and he doesn’t remember Watson being there. Uncle Wallace [Black Elk] doesn’t remember assigning any white guys to save a bunch of “buffalo of the sea.” Neither Russ [Means] nor Aaron Two Elk recall Watson as having been there.

More importantly, being at Wounded Knee does not give Paul Watson a license to crusade against the Makah. Nor does the fact that a Makah elder opposed whale-hunting. There is an element of self-aggrandizement in Watson’s use of such tropes that helps you to understand why he has been disavowed by Carter Camp, an AIM leader at Wounded Knee, even if Watson was there: “Whatever he did (if he was there), I am deeply offended by his assertions that he was guided in his misdeeds by a ‘vision’ he was given at WK’73. We who were there would like to re-interpret his vision for him to show him the Makah, not eco-terrorists, are the ones saving our whale relatives. His view is insulting to those of us who fought at Wounded Knee ’73 and more importantly it is insulting to the spirits of those buried there because of people like Watson himself.”

Finally, my own views on wilderness protection and indigenous rights

I first became interested in indigenous rights when back in 1996 or so when I ran into a magazine called Living Marxism that was put out by the people who became Spiked Online. Using Marxist jargon, they essentially came out in favor of forced assimilation. They were also against environmentalism, a cause that I had embraced long before I became committed to indigenous rights.

In the course of expressing my views on the latter, I became friends with James Michael Craven, an economics professor in Washington State of Blackfoot descent who was deeply involved with the right of the Makah to hunt whales. I recommend an article he wrote that came out of that struggle that was also written for Dark Night Press.

As I began researching Blackfoot history, I became aware that the same clash that took place between the Makah and Paul Watson had taken place in Blackfoot territory. This excerpt from an article I wrote for “Organization and Environment”, a scholarly journal formerly edited by John Bellamy Foster until it became hijacked by the publisher and turned over to a more mainstream editorial team, should make this clear:

I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July, 1996 edition of “Environmental History.”

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus–the first invader–arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the “most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe.” “Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe.”

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales.” Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians,” this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man.” When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

“By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

“By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the ‘Red Power’ movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet ‘threat’ as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s.”

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the “wilderness” makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of “Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains.” (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

“The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, ‘We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.’ In Mark Heckert’s view, this could be called sustainable agriculture ‘because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,’ and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison–and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison–would ‘mean a spiritual recharge for our people,’ as Alex White Plume puts it. ‘There’s talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it’s during my time.'”

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

February 5, 2015

Thistle and the Drone

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Islam,Islamophobia,war — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.

Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:

The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.

Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.

“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.

My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.

Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.

The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.

Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.

Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.

The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.

The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.

“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.

However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,933 other followers