Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 1, 2018

Munsee Democracy

Filed under: indigenous,New York — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

I’ve begun to read Robert Grumet’s “First Manhattans: A Brief History of the Munsee Indians” as background for the segment of the documentary I am working on about the Catskill Mountains. The Munsees were the native peoples who lived in Manhattan (from the Munsee word meaning “the place where we get bows”) and up through the Catskill Mountains, including along the Neversink River that the drone pilot filmed last Wednesday. Grumet’s introduction is a model of anthropology, history and powerful writing as illustrated below:

Sachems [chiefs] like Tackapousha could maintain authority, however, only by demonstrating skill and ability. They were authoritative, not authoritarian. As William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, put it 1683, Indian leaders were moved “by the breath of their people.” Those capable of demonstrating leadership won their people’s support. Those that did not could swiftly lose followers, who were free to vote with their feet and move elsewhere. Relying more on the power of persuasion than on the persuasion of power, sachems worked together with councilors to hammer out community consensus. Consensus in Indian societies in the region did not mean unanimity. Rather, it meant consent, sometimes grudgingly given, from those who elected to stay and relocation elsewhere for those who dissented.

When I read this paragraph, I thought immediately of the scene in John Boorman’s 1985 “Emerald Forest” about a British boy named Tommy who is kidnapped by Indians in the Amazon rainforest and raised as a member of the tribe. When his father finally learns that he is alive and fully socialized as an Indian. When his father tells the chief that he should order the tribe to release the son back to his father, he replies along the lines of Munsee democratic norms. From my review:

Tommy’s father has never lost hope that he can discover his son and organizes an expedition into the heart of the rainforest. He runs into a war-party of the “Fierce People,” who pursue him. He eventually lies exhausted near a river, after having been wounded by one of their spears. There he meets his son, who manages to rescue him from his attackers. The two make their way back to the “Invisible People’s” camp.

After his father recovers from his wounds, he tells Tommy that he wants to take him back with him to the city, but the youth explains that he has been in “the World” too long. He belongs there now. Then the father turns to the chief and asks him to order the boy to return with him. The chief shrugs his shoulders and says that if the boy wanted to return, he would have agreed to do so. Furthermore, he would not be chief any longer if he told members of his tribe to do something that “they did not want to do.” This admission gets to the very heart of the difference between “primitive” society and our own. In our society, it is normal for the state, employer, teachers and religious officials to order us around every day of our lives. The high price of civilization is repression.

 

 

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