Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 18, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 11:51 am

Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson


Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machinasurprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

read full

March 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Counterpunch article paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Cormac McCarthy

In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.

I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”

That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.

Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:

There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.

Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.


Cormac McCarthy.

As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.

Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.

This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.

However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.

In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:

These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.

Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.

It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.

December 25, 2013

John Ford and the origins of the Hollywood Western

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

John Ford

From Glenn Frankel’s “The Searchers: the Making of an American Legend”:

As John Ford liked to point out, movies and Westerns grew up together, a natural marriage of medium and genre. The first moving picture in the United States was a series of still photographs in 1878 of a horse racing down a track south of San Francisco on the grounds of what became Stanford University, stitched together by Eadweard Muybridge to prove that horses did indeed gallop with all four feet off the ground. From that time on, horses and pictures seemed to go together, as Ford himself once noted: “A running horse remains one of the finest subjects for a movie camera.”

The official end of the American Frontier, solemnly announced like a death in the family in 1890 by the Office of the Census, virtually coincided with the birth of motion pictures. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis—that the West had provided a safety valve that had defused social tensions and class conflict during the American nation’s adolescence—became a template for the Western film, which was from its beginnings a form of elegy for a time and place that had already vanished.

After The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the genre slowly took shape over the course of a decade, overlapping with genuine remnants of the past. Ford himself befriended the legendary lawman and gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who spent his final years loitering around Hollywood film sets. Buffalo Bill Cody, Frank James, the surviving Younger brothers, the former Comanche captive Herman Lehmann—all appeared in various cinematic accounts of their life and times, adding a dab of color, showmanship, and faux authenticity.

The first moving pictures of Indians were likely made by Thomas Edison in 1894 for a small kinetoscope called Sioux Ghost Dance, an immediate hit on the penny arcade circuit. The early films were makeshift and improvisatory. They used real locations and real Indians. One of the first was a short called The Bank Robbery, filmed in 1908 in Cache, Oklahoma, in the heart of the former Comanche reservation by the Oklahoma Mutoscope Company. One of its stars was the former Comanche warrior turned peace chief, Quanah Parker. After outlaws rob the bank at Cache, Quanah rides with the posse that tracks them to their hideout in the Wichita Mountains. Quanah is involved in a shootout in which all of the robbers are either gunned down or captured. The money is restored to the bank and the outlaws are hauled off to jail. Despite his Comanche ethnicity, Quanah Parker is undifferentiated from the rest of the volunteer lawmen—just a good citizen doing his duty.

But that notion of the Indian as ordinary community member was quickly supplanted. As the Western film and its storytelling evolved, it quickly adopted a fixed set of ideas and images about Native Americans from nineteenth-century literature, theater, and legend. There were two dominant stereotypes. The first was the Noble Savage: the Indian who appreciated the benefits of the white man’s civilization, wished to live in peace, and was often more heroic and moral than the craven whites he had to contend with. This was the role Quanah Parker had sought to play after his surrender in 1875, both to protect his people and to enhance his own stature.

In Hollywood’s first full-length feature film—Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, made in 1914—an English nobleman journeys to the American West to create a new life for himself after taking the rap back home for a crime he didn’t commit. He falls in love with a beautiful Ute maiden who kills an evil rancher to save the nobleman’s life. They marry and have a child, but when a determined sheriff comes to arrest her for the killing six years later, the doomed maiden kills herself to protect her family and prevent an Indian war. The Squaw Man, which was remade several times over the next few decades, presents two enduring social lessons: consensual sex across racial lines is almost always fatal to the Indian participant; and the Noble Savage is far too noble to survive in the modern world ruled by whites.

Over time this stock figure was pushed aside by a frightening and dramatically more potent stereotype: the treacherous, untamable, sexually voracious Cruel Barbarian, abductor and murderer of white women and children, and obstacle to civilization. This Indian was a much better fit for the needs and imperatives of feature-length films. And just as Indian characters helped shape movies, so did movies help shape our modern image of the Indian. The old myths about Indians from frontier days were readily transferred to the new medium of film, writes Wilcomb E. Washburn, a cultural historian with the Smithsonian Insti-tution, “because the characteristics that define American Indians are all dramatically conveyed by film. In violent, exotic and dramatic terms—savage, cruel, with special identity, villain, hero, worthy foe. Objects of fantasy and fable.”

One of the first films of D. W. Griffith, founding father of American cinema, was The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913), a twenty-nine minute short starring Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, in which a band of drunken Indians launch a war against white settlers after a misunderstanding leads to the death of an Indian prince. The Indians kill a white woman and murder an infant by crushing its skull. Marsh’s character saves an-other white baby by racing onto a battlefield to take the infant from the arms of a dead settler and crawling back to safety. The Indians then be-siege a small cabin of settlers and the end seems near; one man aims a gun at the head of Gish’s character to spare her the classic Fate Worse than Death of rape by savages. But the cavalry arrives in a nick of time to save the small band of settlers, mother, baby, waifs, and puppy dogs.

Almost from the moment he got off the train at Union Station in Los Angeles in 1914, the young John Ford worked in Westerns, first as a stuntman, cameraman, and actor. Tornado (1917), the first film he directed, was a Western, and he once estimated that perhaps one-fourth of his total output of movies were in the same genre. He groomed and cultivated Western film stars like Harry Carey, George O’Brien, Henry Fonda, and, of course, the greatest of them all, John Wayne. His entourage included wranglers, stuntmen, and Native Americans, and he eventually came upon Monument Valley, a remote and breathtakingly beautiful corner of Utah and Arizona, and used it as the setting for a half dozen of his finest films. His greatest silent movie, The Iron Horse (1924), was an epic Western, as was Stagecoach (1939), the film that revitalized the genre artistically and commercially after a decade of stagnation and helped make a star of Wayne. These films were rip-roaring adventure stories, with good guys and bad guys, Indian attacks and gunplay. But they were also fables about how America became great.

“A director can put his whole heart and soul into a picture with a great theme, for example, like the winning of the West,” he told one newspaper interviewer at the height of his silent-film career in 1925, and you can hear the enthusiasm spilling out from the page. Movies like The Iron Horse, he proclaimed, “display something besides entertainment; something which may be characterized as spirit, something ranking just a little bit higher than amusement.” The heights that film creators can achieve, he added, “are governed only by their own limitations.”


December 4, 2013

T.R. Fehrenbach dead at 88; wrote history of the Comanches from a white perspective

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

T.R. Fehrenbach

Today’s N.Y. Times reports on the death of T.R. Fehrenbach at the age of 88. Fehrenbach was a historian and journalist specializing on Texas, his native state. He is the author of “Comanches: The Destruction of a People”, a book that despite its title has little to do with Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and others that see things from the Indian perspective. The review gives you a flavor of Fehrenbach’s approach:

His concern was real people, and he pulled few punches. He wrote: “The moral, upstanding Comanche who lived by the laws and gods of his tribe enjoyed heaping live coals on a staked-out white man’s genitals; a moral Mexican, for a fancied insult, would slip his knife into an Anglo back. The moral Texan, who lived in peace and amity with his fellows, would bash an Indian infant’s head against a tree or gut-shoot a ‘greaser’ if he blinked.”

 It also takes into account what more enlightened historians have to say about his work, in this instance a book titled “Lone Star”, a massive history of Texas:

Light Townsend Cummins, who was the Texas state historian until last year, said in an interview on Monday that “Lone Star” had “reawakened a zeal in the state for the study of Texas history” and, in fact, had persuaded him to take up the subject, too.

But Professor Cummins, who teaches at Austin College in Sherman, Tex., acknowledged that “Lone Star” had come to be seen as a period piece written in “the context of his times.” He said, for instance, that Mr. Fehrenbach placed far greater emphasis on white frontiersmen than do today’s historians, who give considerable weight to the roles and contributions of women, Mexicans, American Indians and blacks.

To say the least.

I read Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches in an effort to understand the historical background to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel based on the exploits of mercenaries led by John Glanton in 1849 who were to be paid for each Comanche scalp they turned in. Glanton’s gang is depicted as psychopathic killers but the Comanches fare just as poorly, being depicted as wanton murderers after the fashion of a 1950s cowboy movie but in overwritten prose. Here’s a sample:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Mind you, “Blood Meridian” has been compared to Melville, and because the Glanton gang is depicted as little more than a death squad, some left-minded academics view the novel as an assault on American imperialism. Horsefeathers, I say.

Supposedly, McCarthy read hundreds if not thousands of books and articles to get his historical background right. First among these works as an influence was T.R. Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches.

More recent scholarship on the Comanches eschews Fehrenbach’s good old boy tendencies but share his aversion to their violence. For Pekka Hamalainen, the author of “Comanche Empire”, the Indians ruled Texas in the same way that the Mongols ruled most of Asia under Genghis Khan, using horse-mounted violence against peace-loving peoples. Hamalainen does try to put their violence into historical context, as a means to acquiring horses that were traded for guns and other goods from the “Comancheros”. It is a little bit like explaining the British Empire in terms of its need to use slaves in Jamaica. It was “rational” but cruel.

Around the same time that Hamalainen’s book came out, you had Brian Delay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts”, a book that tries to connect the Mexican-American war with the need to seize territory and make Texas safe for capitalist development. The Comanches might have been integrated into the capitalist mode of production as horse traders (the Model-T of the 19th century) but their control of the plains for bison-hunting was inimical to the needs of the farmer and the rancher. As is the case with the other books, Delay’s is filled with gruesome details about Comanche depredations.

I dealt with Fehrenbach, McCarthy, Hamalainen, and Delay in an article titled “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” for “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The article is unfortunately behind a paywall ($37 for my stupid article!) but I don’t think the editor would sue me for theft of intellectual property for citing the portion that deals with Fehrenbach:

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War” (Fehrenbach 1974, 60). These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who included this epigraph to Blood Meridian:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

Recent scholarship on the Comanche has departed from the quasi-sociobiological ruminations of Fehrenbach but remains committed to the view that they were the southern Plains equivalent of Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people.” But in contrast to the Yanomami, there is little question that the Comanche wreaked havoc on anybody who got in their way: rival tribes, Mexicans, and Anglos. History judges that there were genuine reasons to fear them. The notion of a “fierce” Comanche poses a serious challenge to the picture of indigenous peoples that emerged through works such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Stannard’s American Holocaust, and even more importantly works by native scholars such as Vine DeLoria Jr. and Jack D. Forbes for whom the Indians are always victims of settlers encroaching on their territory, mounting a fitful resistance until finally being vanquished and herded into reservations.

But the Comanche were different. They were the powerful preying on the weak, showing no mercy to indigenous and non-indigenous alike. Through their mastery of the horse and their access to guns, they could impose their will on rivals throughout the southwest, so much so that historian Pekka Hämäläinen wrote of a “Comanche Empire” in 2008. He made the case as follows:

Comanches reached the zenith of their power. They had revived their defunct trade and alliance network and expanded it into a vast commercial empire, which allowed them to integrate foreign economies into their market circuits and control the flow of crucial commodities on the lower midcontinent. They had halted the expansionist Texas in its tracks and carved out a vast raiding domain in northern Mexico. They held several nearby peoples in a state of virtual servitude and their market-oriented and slavery-driven economy was booming. (Hämäläinen, 2008, 142)

Comanche Empire was published in the same year as Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, another attempt to demonstrate Comanche domination. For DeLay, the Comanche were a powerful force that held Mexicans, Texans, and other Indians in a virtual state of siege. Ultimately DeLay explains the Mexican War of 1846-1848 as killing two birds with one stone. By driving Mexico out of lands it held from Texas to California, the United States would be able to unleash the productive forces of a developing capitalist system without challenges from either the “decadent” Spanish-speaking enemies or the savages. By using the excuse of Comanche anarchy, Washington would be able to secure “law and order” and protect both Anglo settlers and Mexican ranchers, who had been victimized by Comanche raids for a generation.


November 12, 2013


Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

While most of my readers understand that the environmental crisis threatens humanity’s survival, that understanding revolves generally around issues that effect us as a species. This is typified by the loss of foodstuffs and the increase of catastrophic flooding such as demonstrated by the typhoon that just wreaked havoc in the Philippines–very likely the result of the wanton production of greenhouse gases.

But there is more to the equation than that. The environmental crisis also threatens the extinction of many animals, whose loss also affects us in a material way. When predators like the eagle disappear, carcinogenic chemical pesticides become the rule. But the extinction of animals such as the polar bear, the raptor, the orangutan, and the tiger also lessen us culturally. What would our world be if it is left with the pigeon, the rat, and us? It is the same as burning Rembrandts.

“Musicwood”, a documentary that plays at the Quad in NY through Thursday (the film is also available on ITunes and DVD), poses the question of what our world would be like if the great guitars became extinct as well. It turns out that the sounding board of a Gibson or a Martin (the top of the line of which can cost close to $200,000) relies on the Sitka Spruce tree that can be found in the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska on land that is owned by a First Nations corporation called Sealaska. Although I referred positively to the Inuit and to the tribes resisting the tar sands extraction of Canada as examples of the ecological Indian, I now realize I was being somewhat reductionist. In reality, native peoples have frequently made deals with oil, mining and lumber companies to profit from unsustainable practices on tribal lands. Sealaska unfortunately is one of the most egregious examples, allowing clearcutting of trees ranging from 300 to 600 years old with the raw materials shipped off to Asia where they become furniture or construction material. In the grand scheme of things, it is not much different than burning Rembrandts.

The film makes it clear that the beneficiaries of this wasteful practice are the tribal elite who serve on the board of directors of Sealaska with a couple of non-native men who have spent their careers in the lower 48 states supervising clearcutting operations. They are the moral equivalent of those who are responsible for mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

The two First Nations people on the Sealaska board who are featured in the documentary are hostile to Greenpeace since it has made preserving Tongass a priority. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit who serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, sets the tone by referring to Greenpeace as the outsiders who want to “save the whale” at the expense of native peoples. As someone who has stood up for the right of the Makah to hunt whales against the interference of the Sea Shepherds, I might have been sympathetic to her objections but there’s a huge difference between a whale or two being killed by a tiny band of Indians desperate to maintain their cultural heritage as opposed to an entire rainforest being turned into coffee tables for sale at Pier One.

The ordinary Indian, who is a shareholder in Sealaska, has no problem seeing through the elite’s pretensions. One native woman shrewdly observes that not a single penny of the corporation’s profits has filtered down into her pocketbook. She and her family, like most other ordinary folks, survive by catching salmon and hunting deer while the Rosita Worls of their world go to cocktail parties in Washington and receive handsome salaries for serving on the board of Sealaska.

The nominal heroes of the film are a Greenpeace lobbyist and a group of guitar industry presidents who understand the need to preserve Tongass through the auspices of Musicwood (http://www.musicwood.org/), an advocacy group that is supported by world-class musicians such as Steve Earle and Ya Lo Tengo who are seen in the film. Unfortunately the guitar companies can be as easily seduced by the dollar as the native elite. We learn that the FBI raided Gibson Guitars for using unlicensed rosewood and ebony from Madagascar.

The struggle to preserve Tongass is ongoing. Like the equally essential “People of a Feather” I reviewed for Counterpunch last Friday, the film’s website points you in the direction of valuable resources. I strongly recommend the purchase of the film for high school and college classes since it poses the question of how capitalism pits people against each other without bludgeoning you over the head in didactic fashion. It challenges the student to think about how justice can be served in a period of declining expectations—mostly a function of the need to preserve corporate profits.

Director Maxine Trump has done an excellent job of making her material appeal to anybody concerned about the planet’s future. In the press notes, she states:

Working with our editor, we simplified the politics as much as possible without doing disservice to anyoneʼs issues, and let the passion, the music, and the spiritual essence of the film take over. We had to make sure we werenʼt taking on anyoneʼs agenda; we let the facts speak for themselves, and got to the truth of the situation.

She has succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.

November 8, 2013

People of a Feather

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

While nothing could surpass “Nanook of the North” in its place in film history, Joel Heath’s “People of a Feather” that opens at the Quad Theater in New York on Friday, November 8th is certainly more accurate on the realities of Inuit life. This is a film that eschews the exoticism of Flaherty’s film and many like it in the early days of cinema that amounted to National Geographic on celluloid. You will see Inuit on snowmobiles and using rifles, if not watching television and performing their own hip-hop music. But throughout it all, they are the Inuit who know how to not only survive but also flourish in conditions that most of humanity would find intolerable.

Read full review

August 29, 2013

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Comanche man, photo taken in 1892

I just got a copy of the latest Capitalism Nature Socialism journal (Volume 24, Number 3, September 2013) that should be available on JSTOR before long. I was somewhat dismayed to see that a single issue of CNS costs $121 and that a purchase of my article on “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” is $37. I used to get upset over Historical Materialism’s price but was startled to see such an escalation. In any case, if you do have JSTOR access, I urge you to look at this special issue on “Bridging Indigenous and Socialist Perspectives” that includes a piece by Hugo Blanco as well. In the section on “Cleansing and Renewing”, you can find an article by David Bedford and Thomas Cheney on “Labor, Nature, and Spirituality”. I am not familiar with Cheney but I regard David Bedford as one of the sharpest scholars in the field of Marxism and indigenous society. You can read his Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress on the North Star website for free.

I will be including an excerpt from my article below but want to preface it with some background on how I came to write it.

In November 2007, after seeing the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”, I was left deeply unsatisfied by the movie’s ending. When I learned that it followed the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I decided to look further into his work, especially “Blood Meridian”, a work that some of his boosters in the academy compare to Melville. I wrote:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

In early 2008 I got around to reading “Blood Meridian”. The best way to describe it was a marriage between McCarthy’s patented overwriting style and a portrayal of the Comanches that is a mixture of George Romero and early 50s cowboys and Indians cliché. You almost expect the Comanches to come lurching across the plains with their arms outstretched hungering for human flesh.

Then, a year after I read McCarthy, Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Comanche Empire” came out. As the title implied, the author argued that in the decades before the Mexican-American war of 1847, the Comanches ruled over what amounted to as a pre-state empire. Not only did whites live in fear, so did other Indian tribes including the Apaches who were driven out of Texas into the lands now coincident with the state of New Mexico.

So what was the truth about the Comanches? Were they part of the “myth of aboriginal victimization” or were they victimizers? I felt the need to get to the bottom of things.

I was moving closer to writing something but I needed a bit of a kick in the ass, something I received from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, the new editor of CNS who took over from Joel Kovel. Salvatore had sent me email early this year inviting me to write an article for the issue that finally came out. I told him that I was reluctant to write for any academic journal, particularly CNS since James O’Connor had decided not to publish an article that he too had invited me to write. My wife has to put up with refereed journals but as a public intellectual I enjoy the freedom to say what I want when I want.

Fortunately, Salvatore broke down my resistances and I spent a good three months writing a 7000 word article that in my not so humble opinion is one of the best things I have ever written on indigenous issues. I invite you to track it down on JSTOR as soon as it is available. Here’s how it starts:

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Louis Proyect

Despite Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s affinity for Lewis Henry Morgan’s pro- indigenous studies, Marxism has had a troubled relationship to native peoples. As hunters and gatherers were they destined to be superseded, a tragic but ineluctable function of their economic backwardness? Despite Engels’ admiration for the Iroquois, he deemed them doomed because of “an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area” (Engels 1902, 119). Similarly, José Carlos Mariátegui’s later related attempts to reconcile Incan institutions with socialism are widely admired (Mariátegui 2011), but evidence of a lasting impact on revolutionary theory or organizing in Latin America is mixed. In the current context, despite Evo Morales’s commitment to indigenous rights, there have also been clashes between the revolutionary left and the Awa, the Maya, the Miskitos and other Indian nations in years past.

Meanwhile in North America the record is worse. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party submitted a paper to a conference organized by the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1980 in which Russell Means was charged with adopting a “noble savage” stance geared to the “insipid fantasies” of the bourgeoisie (Churchill 1983, 39). They probably spoke for most of the left, which despite its sympathies for AIM’s struggles tended to view factories, cattle ranches and wheat farms as progressive in comparison to the Indian’s “extremely undeveloped state of production.” For example, in “America’s Revolutionary Heritage”, the Trotskyist philosopher George Novack wrote that the bourgeois revolution had to “rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery)” (Novak, 1976, 250). It probably never occurred to Novack that the Lakota resistance to General Custer was worthy of support, just as was in turn Custer’s to the rebel army. Cruder readings of the work of Engels (1902), based on the schema of social development proceeding through discrete linear stages like a larva being transformed into a butterfly, continue to haunt the movement. It probably never entered Novack’s mind that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development could be applied to the United States with slavery and capitalism coexisting organically until the contradictions that heightened in the 1850s made that impossible. While Eric Williams (1994) drove home that point, it is safe to say that there is no counterpart to his study that pays attention to the role of the Indian in the earliest stages of American capitalism. Without indigenous peoples’ participation in the fur trade, the merchant capital of a Hudson Bay Company might not have led to the industrial capital of the 19th century.

Comanche Imperialism?

And perhaps even more importantly, the role of the American Indian in procuring horses for agriculture and commerce has never been fully understood until the publication of Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire in 2008. The portrait of the Comanche that emerges in this study is no noble savage. If anything, it echoes sociobiology’s claim that the Indian was just another player in a Hobbesian drama pitting one vicious tribe against another, including the greater Anglo-Saxon tribe that ruled America.

If Hämäläinen errs on the side of perpetuating the myth of an “ignoble savage”, then at least he is more scrupulous than most scholarship or than the more egregious demonizing attempts by such novelists as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Acclaimed in the May 21, 2006 New York Times as one of the most important novels of the past 25 years, Blood Meridian was the product of the author’s extensive research into Texas history of the pre-Civil War period, when the Comanche Indians were still a force to be reckoned with. When the Comanche make their initial appearance, the effect is ghastly:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (McCarthy, 2008, 52)

This is a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in a sinister costume party: “one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil” (McCarthy, 1985, 52).

While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War.”

August 20, 2013

Thinking about the Aztecs

Filed under: indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Back in the late 90s, when I first began to research indigenous societies with an eye toward applying Mariategui’s writings to the contemporary world, I received stiff resistance from leftists—particularly on PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network mailing list. There were two talking points heard over and over again. The first is that there was no such thing as an ecological Indian, the proof being their role in fomenting bison stampedes that supposedly left hundreds of animals to the vultures (thus begging the question of the role of carrion in sustaining raptors and other predators, not to speak of the virtual inability of hunting-and-gathering societies to make a real dent in the animal population.)

The other point was directed more toward the class societies of Mexico and Peru, with the Aztecs taking the brunt of the attacks. This was typical, coming from Barkley Rosser, a post-Keynesian:


     Ah, but then we have the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs.  Next we shall hear about the “light rule” by the Germans at Auschwitz.

Barkley Rosser

With this in the back of my mind, I looked forward to my vacation in Mexico City last May since it would enable me to see the ruins left by this “savage” race with my own eyes. Upon my return, I read volume one of Alan Knight’s 3-part history of Mexico that ends with the arrival of the Conquistadores. I had major problems with Knight’s analysis but in retrospect found it useful as a source of basic information as well as an example of the difficulty of fully “understanding” what motivated the Aztecs, particularly the controversial practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

sun_pyramidThe Sun pyramid in Teotihuacan

sun_pyramid_halfwayHalfway up the Sun pyramid

Despite the impression that many tourists have that the great pyramids in Teotihuacan were built by Aztecs, they were actually built by Indians whose ethnicity remains indeterminate. At its peak, Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world in the early 10th century. When you go to Teotihuacan, you can see the two great pyramids that will be there until the end of time, as well as small groups of buildings that illustrate how ordinary people lived and worked.

Just north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was in effect the capital of the valley that coincides with the modern state of Mexico, within the country of the same name, and that refers to an Aztec subgroup, the Mexicas.

Knight attributes Teotihuancan’s rapid growth to the advantage it enjoyed over control of obsidian that it traded near and far. Obsidian is glass formed by volcanic eruptions that can be transformed into a weapon, including the daggers that were used in sacrifices.

Knight sums up the Teotihuacan economy as follows, with an obvious bid to define it in terms of basic Marxist categories.

Mesoamerican exchange, being both ancient and extensive, embraced many forms. It involved both subsistence and ‘exotic’ goods; it was dictated by ecological endowment and local craft specialization; and it was governed by principles of both reciprocity-whereby groups exchanged mutually desired goods, sometimes along chains of actual or fictive kin – and redistribution, whereby chiefs and elites, enjoying privileged access to the supply of goods, were responsible for collecting and distributing them among their people. Such forms of exchange were not premised on considerations of profit-maximization or capital accumulation. ‘Use-values’ rather than ‘exchange-values’ predominated. [G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History is referenced here.] There was no profit motive to serve as a spur to greater production. To the extent that (modest) accumulation occurred, it did so for reasons of insurance: agricultural surpluses could not be banked, but they could, to a limited extent, be converted into durable exchange goods which, when times were hard, could be traded for consumption goods. Pots or jade were the Mesoamerican equivalent of the French peasant’s cache of louis d’or hidden under the floor.

Inexplicably Knight, who is certainly erudite in the Marxist canon, does not refer to pre-Columbian societies as tributary, a term that encompasses European feudalism as well as far more primitive societies such as the kind that existed in Teotihuacan. John Haldon’s “The State and the Tributary Mode of Production” is key to this understanding but not referenced in Knight at all.

Haldon suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form of tax or rent through “extra-economic” means. In other words, the state itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the ’possessor’ of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor to a mere tributary relationship. [Haldon’s emphasis]

As our tour guide explained in our day trip to Teotihuacan, the Aztecs simply took over abandoned buildings almost like squatters in Detroit taking over luxury buildings abandoned early on in the financial crisis.

But the one site that we saw in Mexico City of Aztec origin is as impressive as Teotihuacan even if much smaller in size. I am speaking of Tlatelolco, today a working-class neighborhood in the west of the city that was the heart of their civilization.

tlatlelocoIn Tlatelolco

The Aztec empire was centered in today’s Mexico City that sat upon Lake Texcoco and which they called Tenochtitlan. After the Spanish conquest, the lake was drained in order to make way for capitalist development with dire environmental consequences. There was room now for textile mills and plantations at the expense of fresh water, a general consequence of the creation of many modern cities like Los Angeles.

Tlatelolco was the site of the Aztec’s last stand against the Spanish in 1519 as well as the site of the massacre against university students in 1968. If you visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures, you will see monuments to both massacres.

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés defeated the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma, taking advantage of resentment toward Aztec rule. Tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs in terms of crops, labor, and skulls were more than willing to ally with the Spaniards as would happen in Peru with the Incas. In both cases, the indigenous subjects of these native empires ended up far worse.

In Knight’s chapter on the Aztecs, there’s a lot more substance because the scholarship is grounded in first-hand accounts of Aztec society. This much is pretty well established. The people who eventually constituted Mexico’s most powerful empire started out in the north of the country as primitive warriors. As they moved south toward Tenochtitlan, they grew more powerful and more sophisticated economically and socially but always ruling through force more than consent. Their reign was relatively short-lived; for the two centuries prior to the arrival of the Spaniards they were the Romans of Mexico with subject peoples both benefiting and suffering under their domination.

Despite Knight’s tendency to create specious analogies between the Aztecs and European elites such as the Bourbons or the Prussian gentry, he does make some useful points. Since he is not a specialist in early Mexican history, his scholarship rests understandably on secondary sources.

According to Knight, the Spaniards were “horrified” to discover 100,000 skulls in Aztec temples. Although human sacrifice predated Aztec civilization, there is general agreement that the practice accelerated in the period of their ascendancy during the 14th and 15th centuries. Explaining such a bloodbath is a major challenge to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Knight raises the possibility that mass sacrifices were linked to cannibalism. Despite the religious role such institutions played in Aztec society, there was a more functional explanation for their growth and persistence, namely a need to get adequate amounts of food due to population pressures in the context of unfavorable ecological conditions. In other words, human flesh was devoured for the same reason the Mormons in the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism. Either consume human flesh or die. This theory was advanced by Marvin Harris in “Cannibals and Kings” but ultimately rejected by Knight.

Knight does give credence to the idea that sacrifice and cannibalism served “materialist” ends but finally subsumes it under the generalized needs of a warrior/priestly caste to maintain its hegemony:

Domestically, the latent function of sacrifice was to legitimize the role of the tlatoani and his immediate entourage (a role greatly enhanced with the revolution of the 1420s). Constant sacrifice attested to the political virility and social indispensability of the new ruling class. It linked rulers and ruled in a system of rewards and sanctions which underwrote the revamped, imperialist Aztec state. Warriors won promotion by hauling in prisoners of war for sacrifice (even though this might be militarily counterproductive in terms of battles won and territory subdued); merchants bought prestige by offering up slaves for the slab. In the massive redistribution of goods which the Aztec empire undertook (which, in a sense, was the Aztec imperial economy), sacrificial victims were a basic commodity. Rulers ruled by redistributing such commodities, and their (better-off) subordinates gained preferment and honour by playing their part in the great re-distributive system. This system was so pervasive and – in terms of certain economic principles – irrational, that the Aztec state has, with justice, been termed a gigantic ‘potlatch state’, a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.

Once the Spanish established their rule over the indigenous peoples, they abolished sacrifice and erected cathedrals over the demolished ruins of Aztec temples. As Christians with a firm grasp of scientific principles, the Spaniards adopted a missionary zeal in pursuit of civilizing the savages. The net result was an end to ritualized murder and its replacement by the normal attrition found through starvation wages in the silver mines of Mexico or through disease. When the Spaniards arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, there were 14 million inhabitants of the Aztec empire. By the end of the century there were 1 million. No Spaniard would have been “horrified” by this since it was simply the expected outcome of the natural world governed by the laws of property.

Although Knight’s scholarship is trustworthy for the most part, it is utterly bereft of any discussion of the benefits of Aztec rule. If the Romans were cruel, they at least were the source of Virgil’s poetry and temples galore.

Even Cortés was forced to admit how impressive Tenochtitlan was, starting with the palace of the ruler: “Motecuhzoma had a palace in the town of such a kind, and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

The Aztec capital city was literally a great work of art that people lived in. There were flower gardens everywhere, including those that hung from the roofs of government buildings. The Aztecs loved birds as much as they loved flowers and public aviaries dominated the center of the city. After the conquistadors overthrew the Aztec monarch, they torched the gardens and the aviaries.

That was the Tenochtitlan described by Jacques SoustellesS in “The Daily Life of the Aztecs”, a book published by Stanford University Press in 1961 that I recommend highly. Soustelle has no qualms about calling the Aztecs a “ruling class” and explains how their power rested on the sort of tributary extraction of surplus product from peasants that typified all such societies. Keep in mind that indigenous peoples in the New World were not exclusively communalist. If the North American Indians adhered to a strict egalitarian sharing of bison, seal, corn, etc., their Mayan, Incan and Aztec cousins to the South had already evolved toward a highly sophisticated class society with all the full-time specialized occupations: officials, tradesmen, warriors, artisans, peasants, etc.

What we learn from Soustelle is that even the lowliest peasant in the Aztec empire had a right to retain the land he lived on for his entire life, a right that modern-day Mexicans do not even enjoy. Furthermore, unlike tributary societies in Europe and Asia, an Aztec commoner could rise out of his class and become honored and wealthy, especially through accomplishments on the battlefield. Finally, he could vote in the election of local chiefs, a right that indigenous peoples lost as a consequence of colonialism.

Does European colonialism usher in a “higher stage” of social development? Before jumping to any such conclusions, one should examine Soustelle’s “Daily Life of the Aztecs”.

April 1, 2013


Filed under: Education,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

I am working on a piece for Counterpunch on Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” that was made in 1921 and generally considered the first documentary ever. I saw it for the first time at the Smithsonian American Indian Museum downtown a couple of weeks ago, with musical accompaniment by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut, the newest Canadian province and home to both Nanook (not his real name) and Tagaq.

While getting up to speed on the background to this movie, I remembered that we had a Marxmail subscriber early on who was working on a computer science curriculum for Nunavut’s first university. I was pleased to discover that his messages to the list from 13 years ago were archived. Here’s one of some import:

Nunavut: A permanent land for nomadic people

Nunavut Arctic College is not a single campus. It is a series of Learning  Centres in 20+ communities serving a population of about 29,000 in the new  territory. There has been tremendous growth here since the Territory became  independent on April 1, 1999. The influx of people represent government people,  diamond and gold mine managers and workers, and criminals from the Vancouver  area who want to establish a claim to organising an exchange of diamonds for  drugs with those who will be hired to work in the new mines.

I’ve been in Kugluktuk aka Coppermine since August last year. The community is  situated on the edge of Coronation Bay that flows into the Arctic Ocean some  distance north. There are islands in sight, and people drive out on their snow  machines to hunt caribou or check their fishing nets for Arctic Char or other  fish. For reasons that I don’t understand I learned that the Char in this area  are the ‘biggest’ in the north. I’m not certain if that is a northern ‘fishing  yarn, or if there is any truth to the story.

Becoming the stewards of a huge chunk of ice and tundra means that culturally  there will be the political assertions of being able to ‘go back to the old  ways’ but what does that mean? Arctic communities are not so different from  other communities overseas that have been ‘left behind’ as the rest of the  country moved on and so we might begin with the question, “What language should  we use”?

In Nunavut there are two ‘principle’ languages Innuktituk and Innuinaqtun. The  minister for education visited my class and began speaking in dialect and nobody  in the class understood a word he said and asked him to use English. In the  government offices the principle language is English but the country is  bilingual and so business also has to be done in French, which only a relatively  few people speak. The outcome for the new territory is that all official  documents have to be prepared in English, French, and the Inuit dialect of  choice.

The Territory is divided into three regions: Baffin Region in the East,  Kitikmeot (meaning Central), and Keewatin, which is to the south of us.  Kugluktuk is in the Kitikmeot Region and we are the most western point on the  Nunavut map, next door, so to speak, to Northwest Territories (NWT) and for  administrative purposes the government is already going through a  ‘decentralisation process’

Just to complete the identification of the land to the west, on the other side  of NWT is Yukon Territory, while beyond that again is Alaska. In the northern  strip of Canada to the east Nunavut has territory close to Quebec but no  territory was ceded to Nunavut from that province.

As you know the land mass of the north is massive and sparsely populated. For  example, we in Canada are just about 10% of the US population at approximately  30-35 million people. Indigenous groups exist in all parts of Canada except  Newfoundland where they were exterminated some years ago. Except for Quebec  which has its own northern and aboriginal programme other native groups are  ‘looked after’ by the federal government Department of Indian and Northern  Development. When I worked in the northern part of Quebec 30+ years ago the  government person was called an Indian Agent. Names change but the history of  the years of exploitation remains.

There is a lot going on socially, politically, and economically but the ordinary  Inuit sees very little of the benefits. I’ve mentioned other aboriginal groups  deliberately because the lives of all of them are intertwined, if by nothing  else then by the forms of exploitation and history of oppression. Among these  number members of the invading, trading and praying brigade who moved like  locusts across the land sucking the living spirit out of those it exploited and  leaving the debris of abused people in their wake.

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the  usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the  wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the  coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridghead. There have been  many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to  residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own  languages and mistreated in different ways. Much the same as ‘disowned’ children  from England who were cleared out of the orphanages and shipped overseas to  ‘colonise’ different countries at the age of five years and up. The Christian  Brothers in Australia were the same Catholic group who did a great deal of  damage to the kids here in Canada. Quebecers suffered until the late 1960’s with  the domination of the church because the church dictated all aspect of life in  the province.

The Inuit here were nomads and they still went out ‘On the Land’ until about  fifty years ago when the federal government ordered them to be in one place. For  the people here Kugluktuk used to be a summer meeting place for a few weeks of  the year. Scattered communities, family groups lived along the coast for many  miles but the Inuit had no sense of everybody living together. They had hunting and survival skills a-plenty but they had no written language. Although they  stopped moving around, and I don’t yet know how the government compelled them to  stop their migratory traditions, people still go away for extended periods of  time. As a result of the continued extended trips on the land I’ve had men and  women in my courses that have only been to school for a few weeks when they were  very young. One 24-year-old man, a hunter, could read but he could not write and  like two or three others in the class he had no idea how to approach math.  Putting numbers down in order to perform addition of tens, or hundreds proved to  be a complex operation.

Although I was here in the north 27 years ago I was moving around more working  with people who wanted to establish retail co-operative stores. This time, being  in the classroom I have learned a little more about the impact of education on  particular individuals. The white mans education doesn’t serve too many white  people very well and yet governments impose a lousy system on people of totally  different cultures. Certainly Inuit people within their own community boundaries  have not fared too well. I am informed that the successful people who are  currently in government, or who are in business were sent ‘out’ for their  education. That does not necessarily mean to the Residential schools, but to  say, Yellowknife, NWT to stay in a hostel for a number of years before returning  home or going on to university. For the people I’ve had in my class there is the  difficulty of ‘thinking things through’. I’m a supporter of the concept of  critical theory and I like to bring to different learning groups a critical  approach to whatever we are doing. For my students here thinking in the abstract  was foreign. The stock answer to me requesting ‘some idea’ of the problem was  universally ‘I dunno…’ This was not an adult student recalling the practice of  avoidance of his or her school days. This was an honest answer; there was no  sense of connecting two separate things to create a third. Let me give a very  simple every day example. I didn’t know where we could begin because I have  learned that when a person tells me they have completed grade nine I wait to  make my own assessment because they do not have the associated thinking or  problem solving skills that should accompany that level of accomplishment.

I soon learned that three or four people had difficulty with their  multiplication tables. I had prepared a block chart, do you remember the kind of  thing, from 1 to 12 along the top and from 1 to 12 down the side and in each  square intersecting two numbers (top and bottom) the appropriate result of multiplying both those numbers. Yes, they said they understood. We were talking  later about a math problem that required multiplication. Instead of using their  new chart, they were trying to determine the answer by scratching in their  notebook the ‘many different’ possibilities to find the correct answer. Not a  single person had thought to use the multiplication chart and did not understand  me when I told them that it was a tool to assist in solving other problems. The  difficulties are many. And there is the need for employment.

I’ll write again.  Peter

February 17, 2013

The Comanches and the Yanomami

Filed under: indigenous,Jared Diamond,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Napoleon Chagnon

Almost five years ago to the day, I resolved to begin researching the Comanche Indians of the southern Plains after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel that was committed to the idea that this tribe (for lack of a better word) was no better than the white settlers who would eventually slaughter them into submission and drive the survivors into reservations. “Blood Meridian” is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Now, after having read between 4 and 5 thousand pages on the Comanches, I am finally putting together an article for a special issue on indigenous peoples in “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The last book I am in the progress of reading that will help me finalize my thesis—namely, that the Comanches were bit players in the capitalist transformation of the southern Plains—is David J. Weber’s “Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment”.

On page 76 he gets to the heart of the matter, whether kin-based societies (ie., tribes) were warlike and violent and that “primitive man is a…warrior”. The scholars who defend this view go so far as to say that war is an expression of “human biology”. Other scholars, according to Weber, view warfare as “a response to material conditions in general and to European influences in particular.”

As it turns out Weber’s footnotes mention Brian Ferguson as a leading authority defending the “material conditions” outlook. Just three days ago I had emailed Brian to see if he could recommend any material on the Comanches. I knew of his prior work on Yanomami “warfare”, alluded to in Weber’s notes:

Brian Ferguson offers some of the most compelling arguments that Western contacts generated Native warfare. See, for example, Ferguson, 1900b, 237-57, and Ferguson, 1995, where he makes a case that Yanomamis (Chagnon’s “fierce people” who inhabit a remote mountainous country between Brazil and Venezuela), were not fierce or warlike until European manufactured goods altered their trading relationships with neighboring peoples.

It is more than coincidence that the Chagnon story came up twice this week, once in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine section. Both articles are geared to the 74 year old anthropologist’s new memoir titled “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists” [Chagnon uses "Yanomamo; other anthropologists prefer "Yanomami"].

I first learned of Chagnon in 2000 when the Chronicle of Higher Education began reporting on a huge controversy that had erupted over the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that charged Tierney with a number of crimes. Chief among them was  a genocide based on the supposed administration of a faulty measles vaccine designed to support an experiment on native resistance to the disease.

The Tierney-Chagnon wars are reviewed in considerable detail in the article titled “Who are the Real Savages?” by Emily Eakin that is surprisingly objective. Given the NY Times’s tendency to side with the establishment, I fully expected a whitewash of Chagnon. He instead comes across as fairly despicable even if he is cleared at the end of the article as being mostly wronged by Tierney. In my view, Tierney’s biggest mistake was the measles vaccine accusation that was far too much an expression of conspiracist thinking. Most of the damage that Chagnon did to the Yanomami was attributable to his own bullheaded insensitivity rather than conscious evil. This excerpt from Eakin’s article will give you an idea of what he was up to:

He spent his first few months trying to learn the villagers’ names and kinship ties, a standard practice at the time and a particular challenge in this case, given the Yanomami’s name taboos: to call someone by his name is often an insult, and the names of the dead aren’t supposed to be uttered at all. Chagnon rewarded informants with fish hooks, matches and, for men who really dished, knives and machetes. (The Yanomami made no metal tools themselves.) Then, on a visit to another village, Chagnon cautiously mentioned the names of the Bisaasi-teri headman and his wife. The residents burst out laughing. He realized that he’d been had: the names he’d been given were slang for genitalia.

I actually prefer Chagnon’s telling of the story in a 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population”. It is almost enough for me to feel kindly toward the elderly sociobiologist:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

The title of Chagnon’s memoir should give you a good idea of where he is coming from. “Noble Savages” is the term coined by Rousseau that people such as Napoleon Chagnon hoped to debunk through an empirical study of a tribal people who made war in order to take women as booty. By having access to multiple sexual partners, the “savage” had a better chance of propagating his genes as Eakins puts it:

Chagnon believed that biology was essential to understanding the tribe’s warfare over women. After all, more women meant more opportunities to pass on genes through reproduction — a basic tenet of evolutionary thought. But biology had no place in the cultural-materialist paradigm. And explanations of human behavior that relied on evolutionary theory were typically met with suspicion in anthropological circles, a legacy of the American eugenics movement, which invoked Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory,” Chagnon told me, “are organized religion and cultural anthropology.”

The article cites Steven Pinker as an expert for the defense:

Scientists have since endorsed Chagnon’s Science article. “It shouldn’t be a shocking finding,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist who cites the paper in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” told me. “As a pattern in history, it’s well documented.” Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others. “This whole tactic is a terrible mistake: always putting your moral action in jeopardy of empirical findings,” he told me. “Once you have the equation that the Yanomami are nonviolent and deserve to be protected, the converse is that if they are violent they don’t deserve to be protected.”

For those who haven’t kept track of the science wars, “evolutionary psychologist” is just another way of saying sociobiologist, a term that has become tarnished over the years for its obvious connection to social Darwinism. Pinker’s views about the warlike character of pre-class societies have been echoed by Jared Diamond, whose new book “The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” will likely repeat the points he has made in the past.

On February 3rd the Guardian reported on the reaction of Survival International to Diamond’s new book:

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”

Of course Diamond raises the “noble savage” canard as if his opponents think that indigenous peoples lived in a Garden of Eden. In reality the primary focus among Marxists, or their closest relatives cultural materialists like Marvin Harris, is on the social and economic factors that lead to peace or violence. To invoke the term “noble savage” is tantamount to a kind of essentialism that people like Brian Ferguson are anxious to eschew at all costs.

Like the Yanomamo, the Comanches of the 19th century have become poster boys for those who would line up with Pinker, Diamond and Chagnon, even if they are not so committed to evolutionary psychology. Two recent scholarly books “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are replete with descriptions of wanton Comanche violence. Reports of scalping, rape, kidnapping, and murder appear on every few pages.

While the authors of “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are unknown to the average American, a recent book by a journalist that obviously draws from their scholarship was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a best seller. This is how author S.C. Gwynne described the Comanches in “Empire of the Summer Moon”:

Thus some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether; others, particularly historians who suggest that before white men arrived Indian-to-Indian warfare was a relatively bloodless affair involving a minimum of bloodshed, deny it altogether.16 But certain facts are inescapable: American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. They fought over hunting grounds, to be sure, but they also made a good deal of brutal and bloody war that was completely unnecessary. The Comanches’ relentless and never-ending pursuit of the hapless Tonkawas was a good example of this, as was their harassment of Apaches long after they had been driven from the buffalo grounds. Such behavior was common to all Indians in the Americas. The more civilized agrarian tribes of the east, in fact, were far more adept at devising lengthy and agonizing tortures than the Comanches or other plains tribes.17 The difference lay in the Plains Indians’ treatment of female captives and victims. Rape or abuse, including maiming, of females had existed when eastern tribes had sold captives as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that practice had been long ago abandoned. Some tribes, including the giant Iroquois federation, had never treated women captives that way.’ Women could be killed, and scalped. But not gang-raped. What happened to the Parker captives could only have happened west of the Mississippi. If the Comanches were better known for cruelty and violence, that was because, as one of history’s great warring peoples, they were in a position to inflict far more pain than they ever received.

Most important, the Indians themselves saw absolutely nothing wrong with these acts. For westering settlers, the great majority of whom believed in the idea of absolute good and evil, and thus of universal standards of moral behavior, this was nearly impossible to understand. Part of it had to do with the Comanches’ theory of the nature of the universe, which was vastly different from that of the civilized West. Comanches had no dominant, unified religion, or anything like a single God. Though in interviews after their defeat they often seemed to go along with the idea of a “Great Spirit,” Comanche ethnographers Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel were extremely skeptical of any creation myths that involved a single spirit or an “evil one.”19 “We never gave much consideration to creation,” said an old Comanche named Post Oak Jim in an interview in the 1930s. “We just knew we were here. Our thoughts were mostly directed toward understanding the spirits.”‘

The Comanches lived in a world alive with magic and taboo; spirits lived everywhere, in rocks, trees, and in animals. The main idea of their religion was to find a way to harness the powers of these spirits. Such powers thus became “puha,” or “medicine.” There was no dogma, no priestly class to impose systematic religion, no tendency to view the world as anything but a set of isolated episodes, with no deeper meaning. There were behavioral codes, to be sure—a man could not steal another man’s wife without paying penalties, for example. But there was no ultimate good and evil: just actions and consequences; injuries and damages due.

Enemies, meanwhile, were enemies, and the rules for dealing with them had come down through a thousand years. A Comanche brave who captured a live Ute would torture him to death without question. It was what every-one had always done, what the Sioux did to the Assiniboine, what the Crow did to the Blackfeet. A Comanche captured by a Ute would expect to receive exactly the same treatment (thus making him weirdly consistent with the idea of the Golden Rule), which was why Indians always fought to their last breath on battlefields, to the astonishment of Europeans and Americans. There were no exceptions. Of course, the same Indians also believed, quite as deeply, in blood vengeance. The life of the warrior tortured to death would be paid for with another torture-killing if possible, preferably even more hideous than the first. This, too, was seen as fair play by all Indians in the Americas.

What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. (As in the Old World, nomadism and hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside the higher civilizations.) But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind. Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp—as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel. Celts of the fifth century BC were described by Herodotus as “fierce warriors who fought with seeming disregard for their own lives.”‘ Like Comanches they were savage, filthy, wore their hair long, and had a hideous keening battle cry. They were superb horsemen, inordinately fond of alcohol, and did terrible things to their enemies and captives that included decapitation, a practice that horrified the civilized Greeks and Romans!’ The old Celts, forebears of the Scots-Irish who formed the vanguard of America’s western migrations, would have had no “moral” problem with the Comanche practice of torture.

The civilized Greeks and Romans? Only someone steeped in the imperialist and racist ideology of a republic borne from the savage Greco-Roman bowels could ever make such a statement.

The best antidote to this way of thinking is a BBC documentary narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones that can be see in part here:

Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

 To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Chagnon’s memoir was eviscerated in the Sunday Times Book Review.

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