Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2019

Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, and the American Indian

Filed under: art,indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In the past couple of months, I have begun to work intensively on a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that is inspired by an article in the leftist PM newspaper from 1947 with the same title. It celebrated Woodridge, NY, my hometown that had a thriving co-op movement inspired by the Rochdale principles and a Communist Party cadre that was based in the poultry farms in the next village.

Originally, I had intended only to focus on the southern Catskills that was the home of Woodridge and the mostly Jewish resort industry. I decided to include some material on the northern Catskills in order to put Woodridge into context but soon figured out that the Utopia theme was just as appropriate to the northern Catskills, where the mountains can actually be found. By the time you get to Woodridge, the only mountains to be seen are those of the Shawangunk Ridge that is connected to a range in Pennsylvania.

The segment on the northern Catskills will deal with the mountain lions and their extinction since the question of species extinction looms so large today. It was the mountain lion that the Catskills are named for, after all. The word for cats in Dutch is Kaaters and for river is Kill. When Henry Hudson’s crew explored the mountains when the Half Moon was docked near Bard College, my alma mater, they saw mountain lions in profusion. By 1900, they had been hunted to extinction. It will also deal with the ethnic cleansing of the Lenape Indians who made the Catskills their home—the Mohicans and the Munsees.

I also decided to include something about the Hudson River School artists since I had fond memories of Olana, the castle at the top of the mountain overlooking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that I visited in 1962 with a classmate. About 5 minutes after walking around, we were approached by a caretaker who asked us politely to leave since uninvited visitors upset Mrs. Church. This was Frederick Church’s daughter-in-law who still lived in Olana and was in her 90s by then.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was a better match to the theme of Utopia since he was an early 19th century Romantic who believed that wilderness was the salvation of the world. Now that de-growth has become a major issue dividing the left, it made sense to see Cole in the same terms as re-wilding the Catskills, a project that would re-introduce the mountain lion.

In the course of researching Cole, I discovered that his best friend was William Cullen Bryant, a poet, journalist and a key figure in the Democratic Party that first came to power with the Andrew Jackson presidency between 1829-1837. Both Bryant and Cole were preoccupied by the major changes in American society under Jackson. They were ambivalent about the growing commercialization of the country that threatened the wilderness depicted in Cole’s paintings. To give you an idea of his work, compare his painting of Kaaterskill Falls with the drone video immediately beneath it.

Born in Lancashire, England, Cole developed a great animus toward the industrial revolution for what it was doing to traditional life and to nature. He read poetry in great depth and identified with Oliver Goldsmith whose “The Deserted Village” that contained the lines “But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, When once destroyed, can never be supplied.” He also loved Wordsworth who had the same love of nature and hostility toward a “progress” that was turning England into a collection of “satanic mills”, to use William  Blake’s immortal words.

In his “Essay on American Scenery”, Cole expressed his unease with the direction the USA had taken:

It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature’s beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

In the same essay, Cole celebrates “primitive” nature but shows a certain wariness about the primitive peoples who called it home:

A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies.

At the time, there was widespread support for imposing “civilization” on the wilderness. As a leading Democrat, William Cullen Bryant gave his support for Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy that forced the Cherokees to embark on a “Trail of Tears”. Despite both Bryant and Cole’s adaptation to the colonizing system, they still admired the American Indian to a large extent because their Romantic aesthetic and ethical values made them partial to the “Noble Savage” mythology that can be found in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper who loved the Catskills as much as them.

Cole was an admirer of Cooper’s novels, so much so that he drew upon “Last of the Mohicans” for several of his paintings. Below is “Landscape Scene From the Last of the Mohicans; The Death of Cora”:

In keeping with the sense of inexorability of Indian decline that prevailed under Jackson’s exterminationist presidency, “Last of the Mohicans” ends with these words:

Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in an attitude of friendship these two sturdy and intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.

In the midst of the awful stillness with which such a burst of feeling, coming as it did, from the two most renowned warriors of that region, was received, Tamenund lifted his voice to disperse the multitude.

“It is enough,” he said. “Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

You get the same sense of the inevitability of Indian removal in William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies”, written in 1832:

The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.

A decade later, Bryant wrote “The Fountain” that seems to approve Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act even though it contains lines that are consistent with the “Noble Savage” stereotype found in Cooper as well as many other 19th century authors:

I look again–a hunter’s lodge is built,
With poles and boughs, beside thy crystal well,
While the meek autumn stains the woods with gold,
And sheds his golden sunshine. To the door
The red man slowly drags the enormous bear
Slain in the chestnut thicket, or flings down
The deer from his strong shoulders. Shaggy fells
Of wolf and cougar hang upon the walls,
And loud the black-eyed Indian maidens laugh,
That gather, from the rustling heaps of leaves,
The hickory’s white nuts, and the dark fruit
That falls from the gray butternut’s long boughs.

But this hunting and gathering society is soon leapfrogged by the more productive farmers that conquered the Catskills and the prairies:

So centuries passed by, and still the woods
Blossomed in spring, and reddened when the year
Grew chill, and glistened in the frozen rains
Of winter, till the white man swung the axe
Beside thee–signal of a mighty change.
Then all around was heard the crash of trees,
Trembling awhile and rushing to the ground,
The low of ox, and shouts of men who fired
The brushwood, or who tore the earth with ploughs.
The grain sprang thick and tall, and hid in green
The blackened hill-side; ranks of spiky maize
Rose like a host embattled; the buckwheat
Whitened broad acres, sweetening with its flowers
The August wind. White cottages were seen
With rose-trees at the windows; barns from which
Came loud and shrill the crowing of the cock;
Pastures where rolled and neighed the lordly horse,
And white flocks browsed and bleated. A rich turf
Of grasses brought from far o’ercrept thy bank,
Spotted with the white clover. Blue-eyed girls
Brought pails, and dipped them in thy crystal pool;
And children, ruddy-cheeked and flaxen-haired,
Gathered the glistening cowslip from thy edge.

However, this is not the final verdict of history. Growing alienated from the mammon-worshipping Jacksonian presidency that had cost the lives of countless Cherokees and encouraged the expansion of slavery that would convince Bryant to join Lincoln’s party, he ends “The Fountain” with a rueful note:

Is there no other change for thee, that lurks
Among the future ages? Will not man
Seek out strange arts to wither and deform
The pleasant landscape which thou makest green?
Or shall the veins that feed thy constant stream
Be choked in middle earth, and flow no more
For ever, that the water-plants along
Thy channel perish, and the bird in vain
Alight to drink? Haply shall these green hills
Sink, with the lapse of years, into the gulf
Of ocean waters, and thy source be lost
Amidst the bitter brine? Or shall they rise,
Upheaved in broken cliffs and airy peaks,
Haunts of the eagle and the snake, and thou
Gush midway from the bare and barren steep?

Will not man seek out strange arts to wither and deform the pleasant landscape which thou makest green? That’s a question his best friend answered in the affirmative when he painted “River in the Catskills” a year after “The Fountain” was written.

 

It is the first landscape that depicts a railroad train. If  you look carefully,  you will spot it just above the man in the red coat. While not exactly agitprop, the painting was a commentary on the threat to the Catskills posed by capitalist development, especially the tanning and lumber industries that were the counterpart of Bolsonaro’s declaration of an open season on the Amazon rainforest for ranchers and miners.

As editor of the New York Evening Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton and now a propaganda outlet for Rupert Murdoch, Bryant defended the values that most of us associate with the American Revolution until we had a chance to read Howard Zinn. Growing increasingly disgusted with the direction the country had taken, Bryant wrote an essay in 1837 that warned against the annexation of Texas—and implicitly slavery:

The question how long an empire so widely extended as ours  can be kept together by means of our form of government is  yet to be decided. That this form of government is admirably  calculated for a large territory and a numerous population we  have no doubt, but there is a probable limit to this advantage.  Extended beyond a certain distance, and a certain number of  states it would become inconvenient and undesirable, and a  tendency would be felt to break up into smaller nations. If the  Union of these states is destined to be broken by such a  cause, the annexation of Texas to the Union would precipitate  the event, perhaps, by a whole century. It is better to carry out  the experiment with the territory we now possess.

We don’t know exactly what Thomas Cole thought of Bryant’s poem but it moved him sufficiently to make a sketch that would be part of a series of paintings based on “The Fountain”. I tend to agree with the blurb that the Metropolitan Museum attached to a page on the sketch:

The poem evokes several eras of American civilization through incidents that occur at a forest stream. In this scene, a wounded brave (modeled after the Hellenistic sculpture known as the “Dying Gaul,” which Cole had seen in Rome) symbolizes the plight of many American Indians in an era of forced relocation.

 

April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “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.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

April 24, 2019

The Blackfoot and the Barbarians

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:12 am

(Liberated from behind a JSTOR paywall.)

Bear Bull, a Blackfoot Indian

Organization & Environment; Mar 1999
The Blackfoot and the Barbarians
By Louis Proyect

Five books discussing the Blackfoot Indian people are reviewed.

  • Chrisjohn Roland and Sherri Lynn Young. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residence School Experience in Canada. Penticon, British Columbia, Canada: Theytus, 1995, 327 pp.
  • Timothy Egan. Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. New York: Knopf, 1998, 266 pp.
  • Margaret A. Kennedy. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains. New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 181 pp.
  • R. Miller. Shingwauk’s Vision. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto, 1996, 582 pp.
  • Donald Worster. An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994, 151 pp.

Reporter (to Mahatma Gandhi): “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Beginning in the mid-1800s and coming to a climax in the post-Civil War period, rapacious gold prospectors, fur trading companies, and ranchers invaded Blackfoot territory. They came in the same fashion that profit-oriented barbarians have come to the Amazon rainforest in recent decades, with plunder in their hearts and a willingness to exterminate anybody who got in the way.

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Army defended the invaders on the basis of protecting private property and “civilization.” In the summer of 1865, the Pikuni (Southern Blackfoot) signed a treaty in Fort Benton, Montana, that pushed their southern boundary north to the Teton River. They received annuities of $50,000 a year for a period of 20 years. If the United States did not have the benefit of a superior armed force, the Blackfoot never would have signed such a treaty because it amounted to theft. As Woodie Guthrie once said, some men will steal your valuables with a gun while some will do it with a fountain pen. The United States used both gun and fountain pen.

Clashes with gold prospectors continued because they refused to respect Blackfoot rights within the newly redefined territory. When some prospectors under the leadership of the racist thug John Morgan killed four Pikuni men just for sport, Chief Bull’s Head organized a large revenge party and the prospectors got their comeuppance.

In 1868, when a Pikuni elder and a small boy were in Fort Benton on an errand, White racists shot them down in the street. Alfred Sully, who had responsibility for upholding the law in the tense area, said that because of tensions between the two groups he could not convict the killers in any court. This gave other White settlers a license to continue killing. When the Pikuni resorted to self-defense, the authorities decided that some kind of state of emergency existed and called in outside help.

Having decided that the Indians rather than the rapacious invaders were at fault, the army ordered Colonel E. M. Baker to put down a rebellion led by Mountain Chief. “Strike them hard” were his instructions. He pulled together four companies of cavalry, augmented by 55 mounted infantrymen and a company of infantry, and marched on the Indians. On daybreak of January 23, 1870, the U.S. army under Baker’s command attacked a village on the Marias river. They killed 173 Indians, seized 300 horses, and took 140 women and children into custody. There was only one problem. This was not Mountain Chief’s village but one that was friendly to the United States. Many of the villagers were sickly victims of a recent smallpox epidemic. To add to their misery, the troops burned the lodges and camp equipment.

The eternally sanctimonious New York Times editorialized on February 24, 1870, “The question is whether a wholesale slaughter of women and children was needed for the vindication of our aims.” The editorial is cited in John C. Ewers’s (1958) flawed but essential history The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains (p. 251). One wonders if The New York Times keeps a file of such sentiments recyclable for suitable occasions, such as the recent bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan.

The consequences of this mass murder were as would be expected. It panicked the Pikuni into signing another compromised treaty. The whole purpose of military repression was not to restore “law and order” but to push Pikuni into the marginal portions of the state of Montana. All of these treaties from the 1860s and 1870s lack legitimacy and should be reviewed, just as the annexation of Hawaii is being reviewed by the United Nations today.

Its flaw is visible in its very title, which depicts the Blackfoot as “raiders.” Ewers draws a picture of “Blackfeet” (the Blackfoot people prefer not to use this term because it refers to feet rather than people) as warriors who enjoyed stealing horses from Indians and White settlers alike. In the very chapter where he decries the massacre at Marias river, he refers to the problems involved in “the pacification and civilization of western Indian tribes” (p. 236). This is said without irony.

THE WHISKEY TRADE AND FUR TRADING

More recent scholarship steps back from the warlike image fostered by Ewers on the Blackfoot and other Indian tribes. Margaret A. Kennedy (1997), in The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains roots the conflicts in the fur and whiskey trade.

The whiskey trade was far more than the exchange of buffalo robes and other furs for whiskey and trade goods. This exchange was conducted within a diverse and often hostile social and ethnic context. The interactions between native and nonnative were heightened by the existence of intense rivalries within each of these groups, band against band, Americans against British, trader against trader. The origin of some of the intense intergroup hostilities that characterized the whiskey trade can be traced back throughout the fur trade, but much of it was deeply accentuated in this late period by the pressures wrought through fear of loss of the buffalo, tribal territorial infringement, American and British competition and of course, the deleterious effect of liquor. (p. 13)

To put it more bluntly, the British and American fur traders lured the Indians into the cash trade by offering them whiskey, the one thing that was not available on the open range. They used whiskey in the same way that the British used opium in China. It was a way of breaking down the doors of a local economy that had little use for the lure of imported goods. One of the most notable things about opium and alcohol is that they are addictive. This is exactly what the East Indian Company or the Hudson Bay Company could use to best effect: a substance that hooked the unfortunate native into becoming unwilling accomplices to his own destruction. As the fur trade began to decrease the number of available buffalo, the various tribes fought with each other for control over the scarce resource. They stole horses from one another because the horse was necessary for the wholesale collection of hides. Pressures from fur and whiskey traders go much further in explaining the Indian wars than any lack of “civilized” values. Who needed civilizing were the entrepreneurs who used such poisons to make the Indian dependent.

While in one sense we have become inured to the idea of alcohol being a symptom of American Indian despair, it is important to understand how this substance entered their society. Today, there are all sorts of investigative journalists reporting on how the contras introduced crack cocaine into the United States in order to fund the war in Nicaragua. An investigation of the introduction of whiskey into the northwestern Plains states would also be a good idea. This is clearly the purpose of Margaret A. Kennedy’s (1997) scholarly treatment.

She points out that prior to the 1830s, buffalo robes had been a minor commodity in the fur trade. Beavers were the preferred good. When the avaricious trading companies caused the near-extinction of the beaver, the buffalo became a substitute. So whiskey lured the Indians to the trading post, where they surrendered the highly desired bison robes for alcohol, the most toxic drug. Kennedy (1997) explains,

The business was fairly simple. Fort Benton merchants were willing to commission individuals and supply them with an outfit. In return, the trader and clerks would remove to Indian Country and exchange goods as cheaply as possible for buffalo robes, wolf, antelope, elk and other animal pelts. The quiet inclusion of alcohol in the trader’s outfit, seldom accurately recorded on the manifests, was the magnet guaranteed to draw native clientele. In 1867, the selling price of buffalo robes was $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only $8.00, the highest amount it had yet reached. The trader′s cost was only 3.00, thereby guaranteeing a healthy profit even after commissions, inventory, and transportation costs were considered, (p. 22)

Just as British capitalism used rum, sugar, and slaves to drive its commercial expansion into the Caribbean and the American south, so did the fur trading companies use a combination of whiskey, furs, and alcohol-addicted Indian hunters to increase their wealth. Wealthy and jaded Europeans’ taste had shifted from fur to buffalo, just as people today decide to use one cologne rather than another. Image back then was as important as it is today. It was of course no consequence that the very source of Blackfoot and other Indians’ survival was being destroyed in the process. The buffalo was no longer a source of clothing, shelter, and food. It was instead a luxury item to generate profits for the seller and alcohol addiction for the unfortunate hunters.

Unfortunately, not only could the Indian become addicted to alcohol, he or she could also suffer the consequences of “bad” drugs, just as occurs on the streets of New York City today when the occasional bag of heroin contains poisonous adulterants. Margaret Kennedy (1997) describes the horrors that took place frequently,

The movement of American traders into the last stronghold of Blackfoot territory could only have been accomplished through the extensive availability of alcohol. The Blackfoot north of the border had fervently and successfully protected their hunting territory from intruders-native and non-native alike-until 1869. Now the destructive results of the whiskey trade began to make themselves evident, as the people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance-bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink, and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine. George McDougall, the Methodist missionary who was so outspoken against the whiskey trade, reported the same traumatic death for the native drinker as was experienced by the wolf consuming strychnine: foaming at the mouth, followed by convulsions and the body turning black after death. If people managed to survive the concoction, their faces were later horribly disfigured by blotches. Untold numbers of native people, well into the hundreds, died from the drink itself, exposure to winter conditions during intoxication, or violently at the hands of traders or each other. (p. 31)

GENOCIDE AND RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

While the Southern Blackfoot were suffering the combined effects of military repression and alcohol addiction, a more subtle form of genocide was being carried out against their Canadian brothers and sisters of the Bloods and the Northern Blackfoot tribes. They became the victims of a vast conspiracy by the Canadian government and the church to rob them of their cultural identity through residential schooling. Residential schooling, as J. R. Miller (1996) points out in Shingwauk’s Vision, was a tool used to rob the Indian of his birthright. The blackboard and the rod joined the fountain pen and gun as instruments of genocide.

Writing about the “Basic Concepts and Objectives” of Canada’s Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa’s desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada’s systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion’s purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization among the Indians was in its own right, it was “also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.” Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had long sought to exterminate them physically. “In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end” of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official. The peaceful elimination of Indians’ sense of identity as Aboriginal people and their integration into the general citizenry would eventually end any need for Indian agents, farm instructors, financial assistance, residential schools, and other programs. By the cultural assimilation it would bring about, education residential schools would prove “the means of wiping out the whole Indian establishment.” (pp. 184-185)

As bad as this sounds, it does not do justice to the actual physical aspect of extermination that took place in the residential schools. Because most of the physical abuses took place in the classroom or in children’s dormitories, it was not visible to the outside world. For more than 100 years, Indian children were prevented from speaking their own language, sexually abused, and made ill from substandard housing and lack of adequate food. They were forced to do slave labor, such as cleaning the buildings and grounds, picking crops, and washing dishes. J. R. Miller (1996) details the sort of hell that Indian children faced.

A Sister of Charity at Shubenacadie school ordered a boy who had accidentally spilled the salt from the shaker while seasoning his porridge to eat the ruined food. He declined, she struck him, and told him to eat it. When he downed a spoonful and then vomited into his bowl, the sister hit him on the head and said, I told you to eat it!” A second attempt produced the same result. On his third try, the student fainted. The sister then “picked him up by the neck and threw him out to the centre aisle” in the dining hall. On one occasion at St. Michael’s school at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, the boys’ supervisor ordered two boys who had broken rules to kneel in front of him and then he began “kicking the boys as they knelt in penance before him.” A Mohawk man remembered with bitterness a senseless incident that occurred at the Jesuit school at Spanish in the 1930s. The fifteen year old was taking some time to clean up after coming in from working in the shoe shop before proceeding to the study hall. The supervisor came to where he was washing and “without a word, he let me have the back of his hand, squarely in the front of my face.” Fifty-five years after the event the former student concluded that the supervisor had struck him because he knew he could get away with demonstrating his authority in this manner. (pp. 325-326)

While J. R. Miller’s (1996) book is strong on such details, it is weak on the general political conclusions that flow from these details. For this, we have to be grateful for The Circle Game, coauthored by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Lynn Young (1995). The thrust of The Circle Game is to situate the residential schools in the general context of genocide. There are mounting scholarly and activist campaigns to establish Canada’s guilt in the cultural genocide of the native peoples. It is a genocide that is just as real as the one unleashed by the Turks against the Armenians. Although the body count might be less, the overall effects are just as damaging. They effectively erase a people from the face of the earth. When you destroy a people’s language and spiritual and cultural identity, the consequential forced assimilation is tantamount to genocide. Chrisjohn and Young state,

We are unwilling to treat “cultural genocide” as a species of action divorced (or divorceable) from its universally recognised relatives. The machinations and intrigues that have surrounded the debate about the concept of cultural genocide have all the savoir faire of a schoolyard bully; powerful groups, in obvious double-faced violation of their own publicly stated human rights poses, have used their power to compel the rest of the world into going along with them. Consequently, we maintain, and will henceforth assume, that assimilation is genocide. Even the phrase “cultural genocide” is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. If there are any serious arguments against this position, we are ready to hear them. (p. 44)

A tribunal under the auspices of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), a United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization, occurred in June 1998 to hear testimony from Canadian Indians who had been victims of residential schooling. Although the tribunal did not have the ability to impose penalties on the Canadian government or the church, it could have been an effective moral force at the United Nations, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights. Although the first tribunal suffered from poor organization and questionable selection of judges, it was an important first step.

One of the people who was to testify was Harriet Nahanee (Pacheedaht), who was abused at the Alberni school. She pushed for the hearings and said that the government was giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. “They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 9, 1998). She told the reporter that she remembered seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intended to raise the allegation at the hearings.

The Canadian government is attempting to conclude a $326 million settlement with the Indian nations. Much of this money would be earmarked for psychotherapy, which would be a slap in the face to the victims. Not only is the sum paltry, the notion that the “talking cure” is appropriate for restoring the dignity of the Indian is absurd. The people who need sessions with the psychiatrists are the top officials of the Church and government who saw fit to brutalize Indian children. What would be appropriate is restoration of all the land claims that peoples such as the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway are pressing. This would do more for mental health than any 50minute psychotherapy session.

THE BLACKFOOT RELATIONSHIP TO THE ENVIRONMENT

In Donald Worster’s (1994) An Unsettled Country, Black Elk, a Lakota, is quoted as saying in 1930 that “Once we were happy in our own country and we were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us” (p. 55). He added that when the Wasichu, the White men, came, they “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds, and always these islands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the Wasichu; and it is dirty with lies and greed” (p. 55). What is critical to understand is that by creating such islands, the organic unity between man and nature breaks down. This is key to understanding the ecological crisis of the 20th century. In restoring human rights and economic justice to the American Indian, we will also begin the process of restoring ecological health to our nation. Without one, you cannot have the other.

Black Elks’s remarks begin the chapter in Worster’s book titled “Other People, Other Lives:’ that details the transformation of Plains wildlife, with particular emphasis on the wanton slaughter of the bison.

In accounting for the terrible loss of the bison, Worster raises the possibility that the same sort of undercounting that goes into the loss of American Indian lives has affected the fauna as well. The goal of the undercounters is to minimize the depths of the slaughter. Ernest Seton, a pioneering naturalist, estimates the number of bison at 75 million when the barbarian fur trading companies and ranchers arrived. By 1895, there were only 800 animals left, all within the Yellowstone National Park. Nature writer Barry Lopez has tried to estimate the total number of local fauna that were destroyed through the uncivilized recklessness of the invaders: “If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies [killed] by whites to keep the Indian poor, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died” (Worster, 1994, pp. 69-70). Worster calls this a virtual holocaust.

As the bison were wiped out from Blackfoot territory, a new ungulate took its place: the cow. Most champions of progress assumed that the slaughter of the bison and the banishment of the Indian into reservations was a regrettable evil. If these cruel acts did not take place, then it would have never been possible to create the modern beef industry. This notion requires demythologizing.

One of the latest books to take a look at this myth, as well as a number of others, is Timothy Egan’s (1998) Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West. Egan is a third-generation Westerner and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times. It bodes well for the “gray lady” that such a critical-minded reporter can find his way on the payroll of such an establishment paper. Comparing the bison to cow, Egan writes,

With the bison gone, the government had to come up with some way to the people who had once relied on free buffalo herds. Thus were born first major government subsidies of cattle. Significant numbers of people began to kill one another over cows as well. Indians were starving to death on the barren, bisonless reservations they had been moved to, in Oklahoma and eastern Arizona. Wards of the state, they were promised rations of beef by federal Indian agents. By 1880, the government was purchasing fifty thousand animals a year to feed the tribes. Providing those rations, through huge contracts, was a source of graft and ultimately folklore–of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, for example.

At first, the dominant cattle were hybrids from Texas. These longhorns were scrawny and ornery. And they had two other major problems: they carried a tick, which infected Herefords, the popular cattle brought to the West from Britain, and their meat was tough and gristly. As one cowboy put it, a Longhorn was “eight pounds of hamburger and 800 pounds of bone horn.” Longhorns were quarantined, banned from most rail-shipment towns. The smaller, more docile, white-faced dogies became the dominant animal of the latter half of the cowboy era. The contrast between Herefords and bison was the difference between a redwood and a potted plant. Conditioned to a wet climate, cows bunch up along rivers and streams and will kill their water source with poop and poison unless moved. Bison spend most of time on and higher ground, going to a water source only for short periods. In the winter, bison use their shaggy heads to plow through snow for forage; cattle whimper and bawl for human help. Bison can survive droughts; cattle need the equivalent of forty-plus inches of rain a year.

Moving beeves, as cattle were called, over open ground was said to be one of the easiest routes to riches in the 1870s and 1880s. The grass cost nothing, or so the owners and the government agents initially thought. Cattle chewed up all that feed on the public domain over which buffalo used to roam and then were herded to rail depots for transport and slaughter. Establishing a tradition that, today, allows foreign-owned companies to extract billions of dollars in minerals from American public land without a dime in royalties, the United States opened the former bison lands to anyone with a head of beef. The point was to bring people west, for any reason, and to use the land, also for any reason. The Marquis of Tweeddale had 1.7 million acres. Large British investment houses bought enormous herds, and by the early 1880s more than 100 million pounds of frozen beef was being sent annually to England. The XIT Ranch in Montana, owned by a British conglomerate, counted fifteen thousand square miles of rangeland as its cattle domain-an area bigger than any of a half dozen states in the former British colonies. Inside wood-paneled clubs in Cheyenne and Denver, the owners read the Sunday Times from London, sipped gin-and-tonics and purchased local sheriffs. In Wyoming, the stockmen-owned legislature passed a law making it a felony to possess a cow that was not branded by the owners association. Basically, that meant any cow not owned by the monopoly was illegal. Rebellion by small homesteaders against this law prompted the Johnson County War, the biggest violent clash over red meat in the West. An army of hired guns owned by Wyoming stockmen started hanging, burning, and shooting people on a death list drawn up by the stockmen. A story of calculated violence and feudal power at a time when the homesteader was supposed to be king, the Johnson County War inspired one of the worst movies ever done on the West, Michael Cimino’s bloated and interminable Heaven’s Gate. (pp. 139-140)

The “progress” of cattle-ranching in Montana and other Indian territories has actually represented retrogression because water sources are either exhausted to feed the animals or polluted from their waste. Native grasses that helped to preserve the fertility of the soil have been replaced by grains that serve only one purpose: cattle feed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the cattle industry has driven many ranchers to desperation, prompting then to hook up with the fascist-like militias. Wyoming and Montana have strong militia movements, and unless a strong progressive movement takes shape in the United States, the militias can easily form the basis for a violent and racist mass movement.

I want to conclude this review essay 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 (1996) “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 issue 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 Blackfoot 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 it was motivated by beliefs identical to those held by George Bird Grinnell, a park administrator and well-known friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot storytellers and this allowed him to put into print the Blackfoot Lodge Tales (Grinnell, 1962). 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” (p. xi), he saw no particular reason to preserve Glacier National Park as Blackfoot territory. 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” (p. xiv). 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 accepting their banishment from the park.

Spence (1996) 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 (1996) concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators and the Blackfoot 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 buried in the 1930s. (p. 41)

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 precapitalist 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. Callenbach (1996) writes,

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. (pp. 77-78)

References

REFERENCES

References

Callenbach, E. (1996). Bring back the buffalo: A sustainable future for America’s great plains. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the northwestern plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Grinnell, 0. (1962). Blackfoot lodge tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Spence, M. D. (1996, July). Crown of the continent, backbone of the world: The American wilderness ideal and Blackfeet exclusion from Glacier National Park. Environmental History, 1(3), 29-49.

AuthorAffiliation

LOUIS PROYECT

Columbia University

AuthorAffiliation

LOUIS PROYECT is a scholar-activist, employed by Columbia University, whose articles have appeared in Canadian Dimensions, Sozialismus, Review of Radical Political Economy, and New Politics. During the 1980s, he was the president of Tecnica, a volunteer program that placed skilled professionals and tradespeople in government agencies in Sandinista Nicaragua. The article is part of a work in progress that will attempt to synthesize Marxism and indigenism.

 

January 22, 2019

Thoughts on the Covington High School/American Indian confrontation

Filed under: indigenous,racism — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

After having written over 1,500 film reviews for Rotten Tomatoes for the past twenty years or so, I am probably better qualified than most people to make sense of the one hour and forty-five minute video recording made by a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites cult that can be seen below:

The recording was about the same length of the average film I review but one that was even less interesting than the Hollywood junk I am forced to watch at year end in advance of the annual NYFCO awards meeting. Made by Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan on a smart phone, it had no close-up footage of the American Indian confrontation with the Covington Catholic schoolboys except for the native drummers advancing on them and then being swallowed up. Most importantly, you don’t see the smirking Nick Sandmann whose future as a student and professional will be constrained by his arrogance. No Ivies for him.

Like Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, there are a number of versions of what happened on the plaza beneath the Lincoln Monument on late Friday afternoon four days ago. The right has predictably taken up Nick Sandmann’s cause while the left has indicted him as a racist thug. Given the kind of abuse American Indians have put up with for the past three hundred years, Sandmann ranks as a minor first-offender but an offender nonetheless. I will try to explain his and his classmates’ behavior later on but want to start off with a word or two on the Black Hebrew Israelites who created a climate that made such a confrontation possible. If they had not been haranguing people that day, the Covington students and the Indians would have never crossed paths.

The Hebrew Israelites will be familiar to most New Yorkers, where they are based. Many years ago they used to preach (for the lack of a better word) near the corner of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue where I am embarrassed to say I used to preach socialism with my SWP comrades. It is difficult to say whether passers-by were puzzled more by them or us.

Thanks to the indispensable Wikipedia, I have a better idea of who they are. The belief that African-Americans are the true descendants of the Biblical Hebrews has been around since the late 1800s when Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy formed the first such congregations, unconnected to each other. Wikipedia doesn’t have any information on Cherry but Crowdy is a notable figure. He was born into slavery in 1847 and escaped from his masters in 1863 after an argument. Wasting no time, he joined the Colored 19th Regiment of the Union Army as a cook that year. After the war, he became a Buffalo Soldier, the term for Black cavalry members used to break American Indian resistance to the white settlers.

Crowdy’s Church of God and Saints of Christ is a fairly conventional institution with a mixture of Christian and Jewish customs. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather a strict adherent to Judaism and a prophet sent by God. Leaders of the Church call themselves Rabbis, and so on.

The outfit that Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan belongs to is a horse of another color. The best introduction to them is a Village Voice article from March 2011 titled “Black Hebrew Israelites: New York’s Most Obnoxious Prophets”. Author Steven Thrasher recounts their infamous street theater:

On this corner, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, you could just pull up a chair with a bowl of popcorn and watch a show more entertaining than anything you’d ever see in a comedy club. The House of Israel, shouting within earshot of the tens of thousands of people who pass through this intersection on any given evening, makes for a sticky web. The endless stream of “so-called black” New Yorkers, “so-called Jews,” bewildered Japanese tourists, and born-again Christian teens who pass by are their flies.

For the first 30 minutes of Banyamyan’s video, you see his four co-religionists at the bottom of the Lincoln Monument, about 40 feet from the stairs and with their back to Lincoln’s statue. Another 40 feet or so in front of them are about 150 American Indians who have come to Washington as part of an Indigenous People’s March and Rally. It is likely that the event has ended since nobody is giving a speech. Instead, they are in a circle dance with drummers keeping rhythm. Their mood is relaxed.

The unnamed street preacher of the Hebrew Israelites kept up a steady stream of invective against them the entire time. He denounced them for worshipping buffaloes and totem poles. A couple of Indians walked over to argue but they probably would have been better off just ignoring them, especially since that would rob the cult of a sense of accomplishment. Their goal is not so much winning supporters but antagonizing people.

Meanwhile, there were maybe a dozen or so Covington students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial who were paying no attention to the war of words between the cult and the handful of Indians.

That began to change forty minutes into the video when the Covington’s numbers had increased, marked visually by the MAGA hats about half of them were wearing. When the cult spotted the MAGA hats, they turned their backs on the Indians and refocused their verbal abuse on the students who they called children of incest led by pedophile priests. They denounced Trump as a “faggot” since he was seen on the Internet hanging out with Rudolph Giuliani in drag from a charity event in 2000:

By fifty minutes, the Covington students had risen to the bait and surrounded the Hebrew Israelites who taunted them as being chicken-shits, too afraid to take on five Black men protected by angels. I suspect that the students were less interested in having a fight with the men and were simply mystified by street theater that never would be seen on a sidewalk in their lily-white town.

What they seemed to be more interested in was recreating the “team spirit” of their high school gym, seeing the group of five insane Black men as a rival basketball team. One youth stripped down to his shorts and began jumping up and down bare-chested like a cheerleader. For all I know, that’s what he was. It didn’t take much to get the Covington students revved up and they all began jumping up and down, yelling chants that are not possible to decipher from the video although I might have heard “block that pass” at some point. It is important to understand, however, that there was a good distance between them and the Hebrew Israelites at this point, likely a result of an older man (likely a chaperone) urging them to retreat.

At one hour and twelve minutes into the video, you see Nathan Phillips leading a small group of Indians headed toward the teens drum in hand. Still high on adrenaline, the students surrounded them and continuing jumping up and down in rhythm to the drum. I doubt that no more than the average contempt for Indians motivated them at this point. It is likely that they were like most teens, just acting like assholes—especially the smirking Nick Sandmann. I have seen articles that compare the Covington youth to the “Unite the Right” protestors in Charlottesville when they strike me as have never having heard of Richard Spencer. The closest analogy to them would be the football crowds who do the “tomahawk” at an Atlanta Braves baseball game. There have been references to a basketball game in the Covington gym where a couple of students have painted themselves black. It is likely that this was not minstrel-type racism but only a reference to the school colors (everybody else around them is dressed in black.) That being said, it was a slap in the face to Black players on the opposing team in the same vein as blocking Nathan Phillips. The affront was inspired more by watching NFL games where painted faces are prevalent rather than Tucker Carlson.

These are racist jerks but no more so than probably 90 percent of Americans that Leon Trotsky once described in the following terms. Substitute the word “Indians” for “Negroes” and you’ll get the idea: “99.9 per cent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the American beasts.”

In terms of their political views overall, they are like probably 90 percent of the white students in Catholic schools–pro-Trump and anti-abortion. That is why they came to Washington. They were at an anti-abortion rally and picked up MAGA hats from street vendors. That’s normal for the USA even if for the rest of the planet it is aberrant behavior. Everything is relative. What’s normal for the USA would strike a Swede as fascist (at least up until the point when Swedish fascists become the majority.)

After the Indians are surrounded by the Covington students and disappear from the camera’s view, there is of little interest in the video except one key element. All of this takes place a good distance from the Hebrew Israelites who chat among each other about the bad behavior of the students, something that has a hollow ring given the hour or so they spent stoking them up. With all due respect to Nathan Phillips, there is little evidence that his small and plucky group was acting to defuse the situation since the distance between the youth and the cult was considerable. My guess is that he was asserting their right to climb to the top of the stairs, which certainly was their right. The callow youth of this Catholic School saw their right in turn to block them as if they were a visiting high school basketball team. They will pay for their arrogance in years to come.

 

December 30, 2018

Genesis 2.0

Filed under: extinction,Film,indigenous,Russia,science — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

If you knew nothing beforehand about “Genesis 2.0” and sat down after the opening credits had rolled, you’d swear after about 15 minutes that you were watching Warner Herzog’s latest documentary since it incorporates his obsession with obsessional people. In this instance, it is the Yakut hunters who have set out on a hunting trip for dead animals, specifically the tusks of woolly mammoths that have been extinct for around 10,000 years. It would not be far-fetched to call them scavengers rather than hunters.

The Yakuts live in the very north of Siberia. If the word Siberia summons up visions of frigid, desolate and barren tundra, nothing prepares you for the hunting ground they have chosen, the New Siberian Islands to the north of Siberia that would be of little interest to any Russian if it were not the high price paid for the tusks of creatures dead 10,000 years ago and up. Of course, that price is relative since like most indigenous people drawn into the commodity production, they are likely to be the lowest paid.

We learn that woolly mammoth tusks are in high demand because there is now a ban on exporting elephant tusks to China where they are used in carvings purchased by a nouveau riche population that seem little interest in whether a knick-knack on their fireplace mantle might eventually lead to the extinction of the African elephant, the genetic relative of the woolly mammoth as well as the mastodon. In the commodity chain, a Yakut hunter might get a hundred dollars for a tusk that is in relatively good condition. It is then sold in the marketplace in China for up to tens of thousands of dollars to a merchant who then hires artisans to turn it into something looking like this:

This goes for $130,000 at http://mammothtusk.org/

“Genesis 2.0” is narrated by Christian Frei, the Swiss director whose native language is German. If it wasn’t for the offbeat subject, the narrator’s quizzical tone and German accent would convince you that you were listening to Werner Herzog. That being said, Frei is dealing with far more deeply philosophical questions than any I have ever seen in a Herzog film. Since I consider Herzog to be one of the top ten living filmmakers, that’s quite a compliment to Frei whose ambition is to engage with the deepest concerns of the 21st century: what is humanity’s future and what is the future of life in general? Although we do not hear the term “sixth extinction” once in the film, you can’t help but think of it.

Among the men profiled by Frei is Peter Grigoriev, a Yakut who dropped out of college to become a mammoth tusk hunter. His brother Semyon also plays a major role in the documentary even though he is not a hunter. He is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic in northern Siberia. His dream is to resurrect a woolly mammoth, a task his brother and his fellow hunters make plausible after they stumble across the nearly complete carcass of a baby woolly mammoth that has been so well-preserved under the frozen tundra that its blood pours liquid from its veins.

Like Indiana Jones coming across the lost ark of the covenant, Semyon feels like his lifelong dream has been realized. With samples in hand, he flies to South Korea to connect with Woo Suk Hwang who runs Sooam Biotech, the largest cloning laboratory in the world and most successful. While Woo is mainly interested in pure science, he pays his bills by cloning the pet dogs of wealthy people who are willing to pay the same money to be reconnected with Fido as those willing to shell out for a mammoth tusk carving. We hear from one customer, a woman with a distinctly nasal Queens accent who says she loved her dog more than anybody, including her husband and her mother. In moments like this, you can also be fooled into thinking you are watching a Werner Herzog since the unintended comedy is funnier than any Will Ferrell movie I’ve ever seen.

This is not Semyon’s last stop. Next, he flies to China to meet with the top management of BGI, a genome sequencing laboratory that has Communist Party members and military officers on its board. They are anxious to register the dead baby woolly mammoth’s genome codes with BGI that is aspiring to encompass every single living thing on earth in its electronic archives. Like Woo, BGI pays for their pure science undertakings by the more menial job of testing fetal samples sent to their labs by parents anxious to preempt having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. When Semyon’s colleague questions the morality of such a business, the BGI executive stares blankly at him with a plastic smile on her face.

Let me conclude with something from the press notes that helps pull together the different strands of this remarkable film that opens on January second at the IFC in New York:

There is a kind of gold rush fever in the air, because the prices for this white gold have never been so high. But the thawing permafrost unveils more than just precious ivory. Sometimes the hunters find an almost completely preserved mammoth carcass with fur, liquid blood and muscle tissue on which arctic foxes gnaw.

Such finds are magnets for high-tech Russian and South Korean clone researchers in search of mammoth cells with the greatest possible degree of intact DNA. Their mission could be part of a science-fiction plot. They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life à la “Jurassic Park”, and resurrect it as a species. And that’s just the beginning. Worldwide, biologists are working on re-inventing life. They want to learn the language of nature and create life following the Lego principle. ( The Lego Principle refers to the concept of connecting first to God and then to one another. Regardless of the shape, size, or color of any LEGO brick, each is designed to do just one thing: connect. LEGO pieces are designed to connect at the top with studs and the bottom with tubes. Following this metaphor, if you can connect to the top with God and to the foundation with others, you then have the ability to shape the world you live in.) The goal of synthetic biology is to produce complete artificial biological systems. Man becomes the Creator.

The resurrection of the mammoth is a first track and manifestation of this next great technological revolution. An exercise. A multi-million dollar game. The new technology may well turn the world as we know it completely on its head…and all of this has its origin in the unstoppably thawing permafrost at the extreme edge of Siberia.

Genesis two point zero.

 

August 10, 2018

In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:38 pm

Four years ago the Stockbridge-Munsee Indians decided to cancel plans to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County since Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved another Indian-owned gambling casino in Orange County that was closer to New York, thus putting theirs at a disadvantage. Starting in the early 2000s, there was a growing momentum to build such casinos in the economically-ravaged Sullivan County. Like Flint, Michigan after the departure of General Motors, Sullivan County bled jobs after the Borscht Belt hotels closed down due to New York City’s changing Jewish demographics. In the 1940s and 50s, garment workers sent their wives and kids up to the Catskills in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of tenement apartments. When their children became lawyers, doctors or accountants after graduating from a CUNY college, they could afford to move to Long Island, install air conditioners in every room, and fly to Europe instead.

When Donald Trump first found out about these casinos, he went ballistic. He said, “We’re giving New York State to the Indians.” If you know the real history of New York, you’d say instead that “We’re giving New York State back to the Indians.”

Some politicians objected to the plans since it went against the norms of gambling casinos being located exclusively on reservations. How could the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsees build a casino so far away from their home? As it happens, the pols in Albany calculated that offering the Indians the right to build a casino in exchange for dropping a land claim in Madison County, NY for 23,000 acres illegally seized hundreds of years ago made sense. But then again, how could a tribe in Wisconsin be entitled to New York land? What’s going on here? The answer should be obvious to anybody who has studied Native American history. Ethnic cleansing and genocide.

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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.

 

 

July 31, 2018

Munsees, Monsey and Muncie

Filed under: indigenous,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

Monsey, NY is a town just north of New York City that is mostly Hasidic. Here you see the Neturei Karta sect celebrating Lag Bo’omer. You’ve probably heard of them. They often participate in protests against Israel, mostly because they consider the state of Israel to be contrary to Jewish religious precepts. Until the Messiah comes, there can be no Jewish state in their eyes. In addition to that, they also decry the treatment of the Palestinians who they see as victims of ethnic cleansing.

The town of Monsey derives its name from the Munsee Indians, who were part of the Lenape nation. They had a village there as well as settlements all through New York State from approximately just south of Albany all the way down to New York City. In fact, the Munsees were the ones who supposedly sold Manhattan to the Dutch for $24.

In the early 1800s, the Munsees were systematically robbed of their land in New York and eventually relocated to  Wisconsin. in much more meager circumstances.

They also resettled in Indiana, where they called their village Munsee Town. It was once  again absorbed by whites who at least gave them the courtesy of retaining the name but Anglicized it as Muncie. Muncie became immortalized as the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd’s “Middletown” that examined attitudes of people living in Muncie, the first sociological study of its kind.

The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical Staughton Lynd. Their study, according to Wikipedia, found that at least 70 percent of the population belonged to the working class. “However, labor unions had been driven out of town because the city’s elite saw them as anti-capitalist. Because of this, unemployment was seen among residents as an individual, not a social, problem.” With a study reaching such conclusions, no wonder they were investigated as Communist Party members in the 1950s.

Because of the wrongs done to them in the 1800s, the Munsees were compensated by being allowed to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County, where I grew up. They were as dominant in Sullivan County as the Sioux were in the Dakotas. Unlike the Sioux, they were farmers and mostly dispossessed of their land rather than dispossessed of their game as was the case with the Sioux.

Four years ago they decided to abandon plans to build the casino since Cuomo had authorized the building of casinos closer to New York City, thus shrinking their market.

As for the Neturei Karta, Lag Bo’omer is a holiday that nobody in my Jewish village celebrated. It is much more of a Chasidic thing with Kabbalistic implications. The Talmud states that it originated in the 12th century when a divinely-ordained plague led to the death of 24,000 rabbinical students in the month of Omer. The “lag” refers to the day when the plague was lifted. As far as I know, there is no explanation why God visited such a calamity except maybe as a Job-like test of their faith.

The holiday is marked by dancing around bonfires and the children taking rubber bows and arrows into the fields sort of like in a John Ford western. In today’s Israel, the holiday is celebrated as a symbol of Israel’s fighting spirit. Needless to say, the Neturei Karta has different ideas.

May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

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December 22, 2017

Wind River; Hostiles

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 22, 2017

“Wind River” and “Hostiles”, two of this year’s highly praised films and clear-cut Oscar bait, have a number of things in common. They both feature bankable white male stars in leading roles as good-hearted saviors of indigenous peoples in the time-honored (speaking charitably) tradition of “Dances with Wolves”: Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. They also were directed and written by white males who made the transition from acting careers: Taylor Sheridan and Scott Cooper. And, finally, they are both marred by political and artistic shortcomings. After making the case for them being rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I will conclude with some thoughts on what might go into a Hollywood film about native peoples although I doubt The Weinstein Company (the distributor of “Wind River” that was cut loose by Taylor Sheridan after news broke about its sexual predator boss) would be interested.

This review will reveal the endings of both films but I doubt that by the time you get to that point in the article, you’ll have little interest in seeing either of them.

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