Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

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 bridgehead. 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.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

February 21, 2016

Rafael Correa and the Chessintern

Filed under: China,indigenous,Latin America,oil — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

As most people probably understand, political analysis about a particular government leader is often largely driven by where they stand in the geopolitical chess game—most of all by the grandmasters who play it, namely the “anti-imperialist” left that is as single-minded ideologically as earlier generations of Kremlin apologists if not more so.

In my experience, Stansfield Smith is the Boris Spassky of this milieu. The tops at awfulness with no competition on the horizon. Back when he was on Marxmail, he never posted anything except talking points in line with the Pepe Escobar/Mike Whitney/Eric Draitser Chessintern.

To belong to the Chessintern, you have to master a few basic openings such as the need to defend every foreign policy initiative of the Kremlin or China and then to smear anybody who ends up on the other side of the chessboard as tools of the CIA or the NED.

Back in 2010, when Smith was still a Marxmail subscriber, he did everything he could to tarnish indigenous activists in Ecuador organized in CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as tools of imperialism. That year there was a coup attempt in Ecuador that CONAIE supported. Rather than dealing with indigenous unhappiness with Correa, as I tried to do in an article on the Miskito rebellion in Sandinista Nicaragua, Smith approached the whole thing as a conspiracy in which NED payoffs to the Indians was the key factor. You don’t need Marxism to understand such conflicts, just Hal Holbrook’s line in “All the President’s Men”: “follow the money.”

Interestingly enough, the Chessintern-friendly CounterPunch ran a number of articles that year that refused to demonize the Indians. The late Roger Burbach called attention to a law that allowed for the privatization of water and that placed “no real restraints on the ravaging of rivers and aquifers by the mining companies.” Ben Dangl stated that Correa had been marginalizing the indigenous movements of Ecuador while Laura Carlsen seemed to have offered the most balanced approach: “Although Correa has required companies to pay a larger share of profits to the government as mentioned above, he promoted the extractive model of national development that encroaches on indigenous lands and rights and has led to massive environmental destruction.”

The same divisions exist in Ecuador today with indigenous people continuing to feel vitimized, especially when it comes to the exploration for oil in their territories. If you’ve seen “Crude”, you know how much damage oil companies can do to Ecuador’s water and soil. With the film’s  focus on the attempt of peasants to sue Texaco and Chevron’s for damages, it is not difficult to imagine that Indians would have the same kind of grievances even if the government was part of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement and that oil drilling in Indian country was being done in partnership with a Chinese oil company. That is, unless you were Stansfield Smith.

With a title like “Propaganda as ‘News’: Ecuador Sells Out Indigenous Tribes and the Environment to China”, you pretty much know what to expect. Whatever the question (Syria, Ukraine, Tibet, Xinjiang), you trawl the Internet for any links between some protest movement and the NED, the CIA or some Soros-funded NGO and that’s all you need to know. Case closed.

Foolish me. I tried to transcend Chessintern thinking when I wrote about the Miskito revolt:

The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.

These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.

Essentially this is the same kind of clash in Ecuador today.

Smith’s article is an assault on Amazon Watch, an NGO that was supposedly the source of an article titled “Ecuador to Sell a Third of Its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Oil Companies” that has made the rounds on the Internet. In Smith’s eyes, the article was “an invention” since to this date no land has actually been sold. He also believes that even if China began buying up land for drilling, the targeted area is practically the size of a postage stamp:

And, for comparison, the Alberta tar sands oil fields are 1,500 times the size of the small area Ecuador opened up for oil exploration in the Yasuni. In comparison, too, last May Obama approved oil drilling in the Artic Sea, where 20 billion barrels of oil and 90 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are now more available due to the melting of Arctic ice sheets.

I am not exactly sure how much drilling there will be in Yasuni National Park once the extractive juggernaut gets a full head of steam but it is bigger than the state of Connecticut. This does not even speak to the damage that will be done to a priceless natural habitat that Correa pledged to preserve after becoming president.

To wrap up his case against the indigenous peoples, Smith draws a contrast between their “corporate-backed funders” such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and China, which “provides loans at low interest rates, does not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, respects other countries’ paths of economic and political development, and encourages South-South cooperation as a counter to Western hegemony.” I got a chuckle out of this since the organization I was involved with in the 1980s that trained Nicaraguans how to use high technology tried to get some donations from Mott. The executive director Michael Urmann, who died in 2012, told me about after going up to see Mott in his penthouse he was forced to listen to this knucklehead lecture him about world politics for an hour. That was bad enough but when no money came out of the visit, he was fit to be tied. Our attitude toward Mott, the Ford Foundation or any of a number of liberal charities was if they gave us money, it was their contradiction, not ours. Since both of us were sixties radicals (he was a Maoist), that is the way we looked at it. I have no idea what Smith was doing in the sixties but his inability to think in these terms suggests not very much.

But in terms of Smith’s ebullient description of Chinese beneficence, inquiring minds would naturally have to look a bit closer at the economic data to determine whether China is interested in helping the poor, especially since strikes and protests there set records in 2015. Worker militancy has led to increased wages in recent years, hence leading to a devaluation of the yuan to make Chinese exports competitive with other Asian countries that pay even lower wages.

All this has consequences for Ecuador. With a devalued yuan, which Ecuador uses, exports to China produce less revenue. When you take into account that the price of its main export—oil—has dropped precipitously in the last year or so, the consequences are drastic. Less money is available for social spending, the cornerstone of the oil-lubricated Bolivarian revolution. There is also the pain of increased prices on imported goods, including food and medicine. In other words, Ecuador is going through the same painful adjustment as other export-dependent Latin American countries and there is little that China or any other BRICS country can do to alleviate matters. We are dealing with a general crisis of capitalism, something that seems to escape the ideological framework of the Chessinturn. They have a classless notion of “development” that posits alignment with the BRICS as a kind of magic elixir that will vanquish poverty. Someone should remind these people that capitalism is a crisis-ridden system that has long outlived its usefulness even when it is practiced by someone who gave Julian Assange safe haven. We are for giving him safe haven but we are also for giving Ecuador’s Indians safe haven.

Finally, let me recommend what is probably the best left critique of Rafael Correa, an article by Marc Becker that appeared in the September-October 2009 Against the Current. Just to establish Becker’s bona fides, he is a major Mariategui scholar and considered to be a rock solid anti-imperialist. He even had the audacity to write an article putting the Shining Path in a relatively good light.

Titled “Ecuador: Left Turn?”, Becker’s article is quite even-handed. It refers to Correa as defending the idea that “socialism is both more just and efficient than capitalism” and promising to stand up for indigenous rights. However, the deeds don’t quite match the words as Becker points out:

Despite Correa’s attempts to mimic Chávez’s strategies, his policies are not nearly as radical as those of his counterpart. Of the many lefts that now rule over Latin America, Correa represents a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the Concertación in Chile rather than Chávez’s radical populism in Venezuela or Morales’ Indigenous socialism in Bolivia.

The danger for popular movements is a populist threat with Correa exploiting the language of the left but fundamentally ruling from the right. It is in this context that a mobilized and engaged social movement, which historically in the Ecuadorian case means an Indigenous movement, remains important as a check on a personalistic and populist government. If Correa follows through on any of the hopeful promises of his government, it will be due to this pressure from below and to the left.

Correa continues to enjoy an unusually large amount of popular support in a region which recently has greeted its presidents with a high degree of good will only to have the populace quickly turn on its leaders who inevitably rule against their class interests. Chávez (and, to a certain extent, Evo Morales in Bolivia) have bucked this trend by retaining strong popular support despite oligarchical attempts to undermine their governments.

Correa is a charismatic leader, but in the Ecuadorian setting charisma does not secure longevity. José María Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador’s classic caudillo and populist, was president five times, but was removed from four of those when he failed to follow through on his promises to the poor. In recent history, Abdalá Bucaram was perhaps the most charismatic leader, but he lasted only seven months in power after winning the 1996 elections. Charisma alone does not assure political stability.

In the wake of Ecuador quickly running through ten chief executives in 10 years, Correa appears positioned to remain in power for 10 years if he can maintain his current coalition to win reelection in 2013. Correa has also said that it will take 80 years for his “citizens’ revolution” to change the country.

In quickly moving Ecuador from being one of Latin America’s most unstable countries to maintaining a strong hold over executive power, Correa appears to have been able to mimic Chávez’s governing style. Whose interests this power serves, and particularly whether it will be used to improve the lives of historically marginalized subalterns, remains an open question.

Needless to say, the drop in the price of oil since 2009, when this article was written, renders the question of enjoying an “unusually large amount of popular support” rather moot.

January 5, 2016

Deconstructing cannibalism

Filed under: indigenous,transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:26 pm

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu: “How the West Came to Rule”, p. 129

However, political and legal questions were not the primary challenge posed by subjugating the Amerindians. Instead, it was the more existential questions regarding the ontology of the Other — with, of course, determinant (geo)political and legal effects — that proved most problematic, destroying and creating roughly equal measure. This was a problem that touched on all aspects of Native American being, including fundamentally their ‘cultures’. The various challenges that this presented to the European colonialists are the subject of this section.

To better understand the ontological separation of Europe as a discrete sociocultural entity, we must trace a specific challenge found in the colonial confrontation against which these ideologies were created: the resistance of indigenous communities in the Americas. As Silvia Federici argues, the debates among Spanish jurists that took place in the mid-16th century over the ontological status of Amerindians (and therefore also ‘Europeans’) “would have been unthinkable without an ideological campaign representing the latter as animals and demons”. Travel literature was embellished with bestial, diabolical and nonhuman imagery (cyclops, troglodytes, pygmies, people with tails, giants) as a way of sharpening the differences of local populations from Europeans. In this period, cannibalism, polygamy, devil worship, sodomy and bestiality became European obsessions, since they “seemed a perversion of the law of nature.” The ontological separation of Europeans from Amerindians at the heart of the ideological innovations of sovereignty (more on this below), European identity and Eurocentrism was therefore based on a priori attempt to demonise the local populations of the Americas.

    * * * *

Written on December 6, 1998:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian

By Louis Proyect

The evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare not only set The Tempest on a Caribbean island, but included a native American major character. The play’s ambivalent attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban serves not only as a useful window into 17th century racial attitudes, it also helps us understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it should be added, is regarded as a form of “Carib,” the name of the original inhabitants on the islands invaded by Columbus.

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John Smith’s Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world. As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith’s behalf. The British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.

One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative account of the shipwrecked crew’s experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got the idea for his play from this background material since The Tempest is a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and enslaving the native population.

The other important influence on the play was Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” an essay that argues that American Indians lived a naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by civilization. Montaigne wrote:

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate.

Although Montaigne was one of the great writers of the 17th century, he could be longwinded as was so often the case back when people had longer attention spans than they do today in the television age. So allow me to reduce what he was saying into a soundbite: “Frenchmen have no business calling the Indians barbarians, because they live in harmony with nature. If anything, we can learn from them, since our own world is so artificial.”

While giving credit to Montaigne as Europe’s first multiculturalist, we must at the same time recognize that he was also guilty of a terrible slander against the Indian, committed mainly out of ignorance. Montaigne assumed that the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil were cannibals, when there really is no evidence to support this. A sailor named Hans Standen spent 12 months on the South American coast and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about Tupinamba cannibalism that Montaigne accepted at face value.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. I personally have been studying Spanish on and off for 35 years and still don’t have it nailed down.

And what accounts they are! He says that when the tribe captures a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” That is what we would call a major mood disorder. Standen also said that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism. (For a full and highly informative discussion of how Europeans got the idea from Standen and other fabulists that cannibalism existed in the New World, I recommend W. Arens’ “The Man-Eating Myth Myth: Anthropology and Anthropagy, New York, 1979.)

(One other interesting note on European superstitions about the Tupinamba: They decided to name the newly discovered river the Amazon because their fantasies about fierce Tupinamba women reminded them of the Amazon women of Greek myth. Amazon is the Greek word for “without breast.” It was believed that the Amazons cut off their right breasts in order to allow full extension of their bowstrings in combat. It is difficult to explain the irrational notions of the primitive ancient Greeks, who invented all sorts of absurd myths. We must, however, resist the temptation to explain this in terms of some sort of genetic deficiency in the European race, since as we know they are capable of civilization if educated properly.)

Since Shakespeare represents Caliban in a totally unflattering manner–an “ignoble savage” so to speak, one is tempted to conclude that the play is an attempt to answer Montaigne. As might be expected, Shakespeare has a much more complex understanding of his characters which comes through in the drama itself.

When we first meet Caliban, he complains about how he was disenfranchised by the European invader: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me.” We also learn that Sycorax had worshipped the god Setebos, who was known to Shakespeare as the god of the Patagonian Indians through Magellan’s account in the “History of Travel.”

When Trinculo, a shipwrecked court jester, stumbles across Caliban on the beach, he regards him as some kind of monster. It should be added that Shakespeare’s stage directions stipulate that Caliban should appear as some kind of half-man, half-beast. After recoiling in horror from Caliban, Trinculo considers bringing the monster back to England where he can be displayed in a freak show:

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit (coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.

The court jester is referring to the practice of “exhibiting” Indians for a fee in late 16th century England. Such “freak shows” were highly profitable investments and were a regular feature of colonial policy under King James I.

Caliban tries to ingratiate himself with Trinculo, who might liberate him from Prospero, his current master and lord of the island. What services can Caliban offer? Probably the most important need for any shipwrecked sailor or settler is how to find food, and so Caliban tells him:

I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts; Show thee a jay’s nest, and how to snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll get thee To clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?

Powhatan had provided the same services to John Smith’s colony and with results that were just as predictable. According to Judith Nies, in “Native American History,” (Ballantine, 1996),after half of the colonists died in the first year, Powhatan took pity and “saved them with donations of food and taught them how to fertilize their fields with seaweed; to plant corn, beans pumpkins, squash; to bake clams and beans and corn in a hole in the ground.” Once the starving British colonists recovered their strength, they set about the task of enslaving or exterminating their benefactors.

The main conflict in The Tempest is between the exiled Prospero and the men against whom he seeks vengeance. With his magical powers, he torments them with apparitions as a warmup to killing them. When his daughter falls in love with one of them, he has a change of heart and decides to free them, along with Caliban. Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes be as simplistic as a Saturday morning cartoon, but he compensates with powerful language, including this speech by his daughter Miranda, who in some sense is Pocahantas to his Powhatan: After receiving a promise from her father that the men will be spared, she expresses her happiness:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it.

The play ends with Prospero deciding to return to Europe, where his daughter will marry her lover, the son of the man who was responsible for his exile. He also decides to decolonize his island and emancipate the slaves: “Set Caliban and his companions free.” His final words are an ode to freedom:

I’ll deliver all; And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expedition, that shall catch Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, That is your charge: then to the elements Be free, and fare thou well!. . .

Since we only know Shakespeare through the words in his plays, it is a little difficult to come to any conclusions about his social and political views. One thing we can be clear about, however, and that his compassion for humanity and a desire for justice. The Tempest’s happy ending involves setting people free, a rather unambiguous message. In this act, the colonizer sets himself free as well. Prospero not only gives up his island, but relinquishes his magical powers that enabled him to control Caliban. In the epilogue, he states, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own.”

His very final words plead for forgiveness from the audience: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

It has been said that Melville is to the United States as Shakespeare is to England. Not only are the two the greatest writers their country produced, they are also–for their age–deeply humanitarian and progressive. Shakespeare’s call for decolonization and emancipation mirrors Melville’s own commitment to the cause of South Sea indigenous peoples, whom he discovered in his early sailing days. His challenge to conventional notions of “civilization” and “savagery” mirror the themes of The Tempest and the Montaigne essay on cannibalism that inspired it.

There were two great influences on Melville’s prose. One was the King James Bible, with its beautiful poetry and insights into human nature. The other was Shakespeare. Melville, who hated snobbery of any sort, saw Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. His Shakespeare was not the precious, aristocratic taste-maker of the kind so often found on Mobil’s Masterpiece Theater. Melville saw Shakespeare as “one of us.” Writing his best friend and editor Evert Duyckinck, Melville said:

I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.

With these words Melville declares that Shakespeare was a progressive artist, even if he was the servant of the Elizabethan aristocracy, who paid his wage and kept him “muzzled.” In the United States of Melville’s day, the artist suffered no such inhibitions. The American Revolution of 1776 had broken all ties with the English aristocracy and artists could write freely.

Alas, the American Revolution of 1776 had not set the slaves free, nor would it protect the rights of the indigenous peoples. The question that Melville was wrestling with for his entire career as a writer was whether the soul of the American republic could be saved. Moby Dick is an indictment of the country he was growing more and more estranged from. The capitalist whaling-ship which destroyed great whales wantonly, while oppressing the working-class crew, was a symbol of the rot at the heart of American society.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world’s oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick’s most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg, a Polynesian. The final scene in Moby Dick depicts the whaling-ship Pequod, named after the exterminated New England Indian tribe, sinking into the ocean after the white whale has rammed it into oblivion. In an apt symbol for the fate it deserved, we see Tashtego’s tomahawk has nailed an American flag into the mast of sinking ship.

People who desire to change American, British or any other repressive society are obliged to consult the great literature of their country, not in order to become “cultured” but in order to get to the living essence of what makes us tick as a people.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

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This article appeared originally in Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy19.html).

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

October 18, 2004

Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7, 328 pages.

(Swans – October 18, 2004)   After the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the Melville family, the eighteen-year-old Herman was forced to fend for himself. After bouncing from teaching to surveying to civil engineering jobs, he finally signed up on the whaler Acushnet and sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on January 3, 1841. While spending the next four years at sea, first as a whaler and then as a sailor in the US Navy, Melville began to conceive of a new career for himself as a writer.

On June 23, 1842, Melville and a companion jumped ship from the Acushnet and made their way to the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. There they sought refuge with the reputedly hospitable Happaa peoples. After taking a wrong turn in a forest, they wound up in the midst of their rivals, the Typees, who had a reputation for ferocity and cannibalism. The four weeks spent among the Typees inspired Melville to write the eponymous Typee, a novel that defies 19th century conventions and which foreshadows many of the themes that would appear in subsequent works such as Moby Dick. It is a clarion call against racism and colonialism, as well as an inchoate search for an alternative to the inhuman economic system that had ruined his once patrician family as well as many other Americans of all races.

While Typee incorporates many fictional elements, there is no doubt that his description of life on the Acushnet (called the Dolly in the novel) is very close to the truth:

The usage on board of her was tyrannical; the sick had been inhumanly neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance; and her cruises were unreasonably protracted. The captain was the author of the abuses; it was in vain to think that he would either remedy them, or alter his conduct, which was arbitrary and violent in the extreme. His prompt reply to all complaints and remonstrances was–the butt-end of a handspike, so convincingly administered as effectually to silence the aggrieved party.

After a long arduous trek through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, Tommo (a character based on Melville) and his companion Toby stumble across the Typees who live in a secluded valley. The two sailors are practically adopted by the villagers at once and treated as visiting dignitaries:

All the inhabitants of the valley treated me with great kindness; but as to the household of Marheyo, with whom I was now permanently domiciled, nothing could surpass their efforts to minister to my comfort. To the gratification of my palate they paid the most unwearied attention. They continually invited me to partake of food, and when after eating heartily I declined the viands they continued to offer me, they seemed to think that my appetite stood in need of some piquant stimulant to excite its activity.

The contrast between the oppressive conditions of life in capitalist society, called “civilization,” and the Stone Age affluence (as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it) enjoyed by the Typees is drawn throughout the novel. After watching a Typee man laboriously start a fire by rubbing two sticks, Melville observes:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable cannibal education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who through the instrumentality of a lucifer performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wit’s end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without troubling their parents, pluck from the branches of every tree around them.

After noticing that the Typees lacked a concept of personal property or crime and that they left valued spears and carvings about for the taking, Melville wondered aloud if civilization was really that much of an advance over savagery:

Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength among many barbarous people. The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendship of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass anything of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe. If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: ‘Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.’ I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained. But alas! since then I have been one of the crew of a man-of-war, and the pent-up wickedness of five hundred men has nearly overturned all my previous theories.

Ultimately Melville casts doubt on the possibility that cannibalism was practiced by the Typee, despite the allegations of missionaries and sailors who had preceded him to the island and who were far more prejudiced against the “savages.” This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the history of colonialism. During the early years of colonial expansion, subjugation of native peoples was considered appropriate if they were beyond redemption, especially if they were reported to be cannibals. Hence, such reports on such tendencies were accepted often at face value.

In The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist W. Arens debunks such testimonies and concludes — with Melville — that cannibalism is an extremely rare phenomenon in precapitalist society. Arens tells the story of a sailor named Hans Standen who spent 12 months in Brazil in the 1600s and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about cannibalism among the Tupinamba people. He is everything that Melville is not.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. And what accounts they are! He says that when they capture a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” He also claimed that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism.

Whatever the truth about cannibalism among the Typees, they are mere slouches when it comes to the savagery of the invader. Some experts believe that Western colonialism is responsible for the reduction of the native Marquesan population from 100,000 at its height to only 4,865 in 1882. One such assailant of the native peoples was Captain David Porter of the US Navy who seized the islands shortly after the War of 1812. While at first acknowledging the generosity and pacific nature of the islanders, he soon found it necessary to bring them under his thumb as part of an overall scheme to exploit the Marquesas economically. When a chief of the Teii peoples expresses his defiance to the naval officer, Porter thrusts a musket into his face and demands an apology. His words are a virtual credo of the colonizer: “My aim was to render all the tribes subservient to my views, and I thought it necessary to check the manner of Mouina, lest it became contagious, and I should find a difficulty in keeping them in that subjugation by which only we could render ourselves secure.” (Quoted in T. Walter Herbert Jr.’s Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization.)

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a “phonographist” from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas. His reply:

Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside — splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.


October 24, 2015

The Pearl Button; Bering: Balance and Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 7, 2015

Dark Horse; Whale Rider

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

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

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

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

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

My review:

Whale Rider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



September 7, 2015

An exchange about John Muir with Donald Worster

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

Donald Worster

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

My email to Worster:

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

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

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Thanks, Louis

* * * *

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

Don Worster

August 16, 2015

Racism and the “Overhunting” hypothesis

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

Victim of a paleo-Indian’s blitzkrieg?

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 3.24.45 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 10, 2015

The Pongo’s Dream

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

The Pongo’s Dream

by José Maria Arguedas

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little man could not bark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you?”

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

“Well, keep talking.”

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

“And then?” the master asked.

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

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

“And then?” the master asked once again.

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

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

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

“And then?”

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

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

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

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

July 4, 2015

Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Indian

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

An excerpt from:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 7, 2015

Charlie’s Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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