Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 10, 2018

In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

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

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

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

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

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August 1, 2018

Munsee Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

July 31, 2018

Munsees, Monsey and Muncie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

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

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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December 22, 2017

Wind River; Hostiles

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

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 22, 2017

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

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

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October 6, 2017

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

On September 30thNew York Times reporter Simon Romero profiled the thief who had severed the bronze right foot from a statue of Don Juan de Oñate twenty years ago as a protest against the genocide of American Indians. Even the normally sedate “gray lady” could not help but refer to Oñate as the “despotic conquistador” of New Mexico. Indeed, the theft of the foot was highly symbolic since Oñate had once ordered the chopping off of the right foot of 24 Indigenous captives.

Romero got a chance to interview the foot thief through a rendezvous set up by Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who made “Skins,” a 2002 film that climaxes with red paint tossed in George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore.

Romero analogized these protests with those against the statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. Eyre referred to the president’s complaint about these disrespectful acts: “Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson. For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”

Trump is well-qualified to defend Washington and Jefferson since he harbors the same sort of racist attitudes that these Indian-killers embodied as early architects of Manifest Destiny. When he was building up his gambling casino empire in the early 90s, he claimed that Indian reservations were run by the Mafia. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that depicted the St. Regis Mohawks in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals around the time that they were seeking to build a casino in the county where I grew up. He even told the notoriously racist shock jock Don Imus that they were probably not real Indians, stating that he might have more Indian blood than them.

Besides the St. Regis Mohawks, there was another Indigenous group seeking permission to build a casino–the Munsee Lenapes. They were ethnically cleansed from Sullivan County, where I grew up, in the 1800s. Monsey, New York (now a predominately orthodox Jewish enclave) was named after the people who lived in the area while the city of Muncie, Indiana was where they were forced to go. Frankly, I would welcome a return of all the Munsees to their original homeland. They certainly would have more respect for a beautiful part of New York state that is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalist development and its consequent environmental despoliation.

When some on the left seek to contextualize Washington and Jefferson, it usually follows the line of reasoning that despite being slave-owners, they were also founding fathers of a democratic republic that was the envy of the world. While this might not sit well with the descendants of the slaves they owned, it also carries the burden of sweeping Indigenous peoples under the rug.

After reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, you will conclude that all these great White leaders should be condemned to the ashbin of history. Published as part of the Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History series (there are also books about gays, the disabled and Blacks/Latinos in American history), it is very much in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. While the term “revisionist” is often applied to works such as these, I am persuaded that “revisioning” is a far more appropriate term since it points to both past and future. If we do not have a vision of how the United States should be governed, our future is bleak.

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September 29, 2017

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the Ulster-Scots

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” for a CounterPunch review, I came across this extraordinary passage that deals with the Scotch-Irish, who can more properly be described as Ulster-Scots. They were the Scots that the British used to colonize Ireland—the ancestors of those who marched under the Orange flags during “the troubles”. In the same way that they were the shock troops for colonizing Ireland, they helped to dispossess the American Indian. When I first got wind of Roxanne’s book, I mistakenly referred to it as a history of indigenous peoples. She corrected me on the spot—it was instead a history of the USA from the perspective of those who were living here and doing quite nicely at the time. It is a sorely needed complement to Howard Zinn’s history and one that deserves to be on everybody’s collection of essential radical histories of this misbegotten settler state.


The core group of frontier settlers were the Ulster-Scots—the Scots-or “Scotch-Irish,” as they called themselves.” Usually the descendants of these Scots-Irish say their ancestors came to the British lies from Ireland, but their journey was more circuitous than that. The Scots-Irish were Protestants from Scotland who were recruited by the British as settlers in the six counties of the province of Ulster in northern Ireland. The British had seized these half-million acres from Ireland in the early seventeenth century, driven the indigenous Irish farmers from it, and opened it to settlement under English protection. This coincided with the English plantation of two colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America and the beginning of settler colonialism there. These early settlers came mostly from the Scottish lowlands. Scotland itself, along with Wales, had preceded Ireland as colonial notches in the belt of English expansion. Britain’s colonization of Indigenous lands in North America was foreshadowed by its colonization of northern Ireland. By 1630 the new settlers in Ulster—21,000 Britons, including some Welsh, and 150,000 Lowland Scots—were more numerous than British settlers in all of North America at the time. In 1641, the indigenous Irish rebelled and killed ten thousand of the settlers, yet Protestant Scots settlers continued to pour in. In some formerly Irish areas, they formed a majority of the population. They brought with them the covenant ideology of Calvinism that had been the work of the Scotsman John Knox. Later John Locke, also a Scot, would secularize the covenant idea into a “contract,” the social contract, whereby individuals sacrifice their liberty only through consent. An insidiously effective example, the US economic system, was based on Locke’s theories.”

So it was that the Ulster-Scots were already seasoned settler colonialists before they began to fill the ranks of settlers streaming toward the North American British colonies in the early eighteenth century, many of them as indentured servants. Before ever meeting Indigenous Americans, the Ulster settlers had perfected scalping for bounty, using the indigenous Irish as their victims. As this chapter and the following one show, the Scots-Irish were the foot soldiers of British empire building, and they and their descendants formed the shock troops of the “westward movement” in North America, the expansion of the US continental empire and the colonization of its inhabitants. As Calvinists (mostly Presbyterian), they added to and transformed the Calvinism of the earlier Puritan settlers into the unique ideology of the US settler class.” In one of history’s great migrations, nearly a quarter-million Scots-Irish left Ulster for British North America between 1717 and 1775. Although a number left for religious reasons, the majority were losers in the struggle over Britain’s Irish policies, which brought economic ruin to Ireland’s wool and linen industries. Hard times were magnified by prolonged drought, and so the settlers pulled up stakes and moved across the Atlantic. This is a story that would repeat itself time and time again in settler treks across North America, the majority of migrants ending up landless losers in the Monopoly game of European settler colonialism.

The majority of Ulster-Scot settlers were cash-poor and had to indenture themselves to pay for their passage to North America. Once settled, they came to predominate as soldier-settlers. Most initially landed in Pennsylvania, but large numbers soon migrated to the southern colonies and to the backcountry, the British colonies’ western borders, where they squatted on unceded Indigenous lands. Among frontier settlers, Scots-Irish predominated among settlers of English and German descent. Although the majority remained landless and poor, some became merchants and owners of plantations worked by slaves, as well as politically powerful. Seventeen presidents of the United States have been of Ulster-Scots lineage, from Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party, to Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama on his mother’s side. Theodore Roosevelt characterized his Scots-Irish ancestors as “a stern, virile, bold and hardy people who formed the kernel of that American stock who were the pioneers of our people in the march westwards.”16 Perhaps as influential as their being presidents, educators, and businessmen, the Scots-Irish engendered a strong set of individualist values that included the sanctity of glory in warfare. They made up the officer corps and were soldiers of the regular army, as well as the frontier-ranging militias that cleared areas for settlement by exterminating Indigenous farmers and destroying their towns.

The Seven Years’ War between the British and the French (1754-63) was fought both in Europe and in North America, where the British colonists called it the French and Indian War because it was mainly a British war against the Indigenous peoples, some of whom formed alliances with the French. The British colonial militias consisted largely of frontier Scots-Irish settlers who wanted access to Indigenous farmland in the Ohio Valley region. By the time of US independence, Ulster-Scots made up 15 percent of the population of the thirteen colonies, and most were clustered in majority numbers in the backcountry. During the war for settler independence from Britain, most settlers who had emigrated directly from Scot-land remained loyal to the British Crown and fought on that side. In contrast, the Scots-Irish were in the forefront of the struggle for independence and formed the backbone of Washington’s fighting forces. Most of the names of soldiers at Valley Forge were Scots-Irish. They saw themselves, and their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, the ones who spilled rivers of blood to secure independence and to acquire Indigenous lands—gaining blood rights to the latter as they left bloody footprints across the continent.

During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, first- and second-generation Scots-Irish continued to pour westward into the Ohio Valley region, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They were the largest ethnic group in the westward migration, and they maintained many of their Scots-Irish ways. They tended to move three or four times, acquiring and losing land before settling at least somewhat permanently. Scots-Irish settlers were overwhelmingly farmers rather than explorers or fur traders. They cleared forests, built log cabins, and killed Indians, forming a human wall of colonization for the new United States and, in wartime, employing their fighting skills effectively. Historian Carl Degler writes that “these hardy, God-fearing Calvinists made themselves into a veritable human shield of colonial civilization.”18 The next chapter explores the kind of counterinsurgent warfare they perfected, which formed the basis of US militarism into the twenty-first century.

The Calvinist religion of the Scots-Irish, Presbyterianism, was in numbers of faithful soon second only to those of New England’s Congregationalist Church. But on the frontier, Scots-Irish devotion to the formal Presbyterian Church waned. New evangelical off-shoots refashioned Calvinist doctrines to decentralize and do away with the Presbyterian hierarchy. Although they continued to regard themselves as chosen people of the covenant, commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel, the Scots-Irish also saw themselves, as their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.

 

July 21, 2017

Taxi Searchers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

I had never made the connection between John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” but found myself saying “of course” after Stewart pointed out that both involve anti-heroes trying to “rescue” women who don’t really feel any such need. Another important insight found in Taxi Searchers is their proximity in time to two important reversals of imperial fortune. Ford’s film was made just two years after the French were defeated in Vietnam and Scorsese’s came out just a year after the Vietnamese kicked the imperialists out once again.

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July 7, 2016

The political economy of American Indian gaming casinos

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:29 pm

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 8.27.14 AM

Episode 42 of “The Sopranos” opens with gangster boss Tony Soprano and his henchmen complaining about a protest threatened by American Indians at the upcoming Columbus Day parade in Newark. When Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who wrote the script) reminds them that native peoples were massacred, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s one-time guitarist) replies “It’s not like we didn’t give them a bunch of shit to make up for that like land, reservations and casinos.”

Tony decides to consult with Chief Doug Smith, who operates a casino in rural Connecticut owned by the “Mohonk” tribe (a fictionalized version of the Foxwoods resort owned by the Mashantucket Pequots). If the chief could make some phone calls to have the protest called off, Tony would use his mob ties to benefit the casino. Over dinner at the casino, when Tony tells the chief that he doesn’t look like or act an Indian, he replies with a smirk on his face that despite his 1/16th blood quotient he had an “awakening” that led him to claim his indigenous roots and start the casino. You are left with the impression that there’s not much difference between a Mafia don and a phony Indian. It’s all about the money.

In 1995, seven years before the “Sopranos” episode, Sixty Minutes aired an “exposé” of Foxwood that made the same point, namely that Indian casinos were a scam. The target of their investigation was Skip Hayward, the Pequot chairman who had been working as a pipefitter until he got the idea that running bingo games could improve his people’s economic situation. The bingo games proved very successful and led to the formation of Foxwoods with Malaysian seed money. The right of people with only a 1/16th blood quotient to benefit from casino profits outrages Sixty Minutes. Since a smallpox epidemic wiped out 90 percent of the tribe in 1633, it is remarkable that any have survived even on a 1/16th basis, especially when the colonists would wipe out even more Pequots a mere 4 years later with gun and sword.

The name Pequot might ring a bell since that is identical to the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s boat. Did Melville intend to evoke the tribe that was a victim of genocide? I would like to think so since he was a powerful advocate of indigenous rights in the South Pacific.

The question of Indian gaming casinos is close to me, having grown up in a tiny village in Sullivan County just 90 miles north of New York City. After many years of legislative wrangling, the county has received the green light from Governor Cuomo to open up a casino that will benefit an area hard-hit by the collapse of the tourist industry. For local residents, casinos represent a life preserver thrown to a drowning man just as does fracking, another proposed solution to the county’s economic misery. When I check my local newspapers each morning, there’s either an article on casinos or fracking. After following the Indian gaming casino discussion in Sullivan County newspapers for over 25 years, I am convinced that local opposition to the former probably has more to do with the message of the Sopranos episode than anything else. If there’s anything that white racists hate more than a poor Indian, it is evidently a rich Indian.

Both the Pequots and another tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsees, put in bids for a casino in Sullivan County but withdrew after learning that Orange County, a good 30 miles closer to New York City, got the green light as well. It is a universal rule that casinos succeed when they are in proximity to large cities. If a casino is closer to New York, it will get the lion’s share of the profits. This is one of the reasons that so few tribes start casinos. For example, there would be little reason for the Lakota, the Blackfoot or any other remnant of the once-proud plains Indians to open one up since they are so many miles from major cities.

Like the Pequots, the Munsees are a tiny shard of a once populous tribe (despite the controversy around this term, it is simply a description of a pre-state social formation and not intended as a sign of backwardness. In fact, there is more “tribalism” among advanced capitalist societies, when defined as irrational belief in one’s racial superiority.)

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states: “The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.”

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been transported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of “Gotham”, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting Sixty Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

New York State was anxious to cut a deal with the Munsees in 2004 that would grant them the right to build a casino in Sullivan County. In exchange, they agreed to forego their claims to 300,000 acres in Oneida and Madison Counties in central New York. As anybody with a familiarity with Lenape history would attest, the whites robbed them of their land in the 19th century. As might be expected, a judge ruled against their claim, giving them a sop in the form of the right to open a casino in Sullivan County.

As opposed to the version presented by Silvio and Sixty Minutes, native peoples were never given the right to open casinos on a silver platter. They only came into existence through struggle. Furthermore, Indians have conducted one battle after another to defend their rights to keep them going.

As might be expected, someone like Donald Trump had a vested interest in keeping them out of New York State since they would be competition to his Atlantic City properties. In 1993 he told a Congressional Committee “it’s obvious that organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations. This thing is going to blow sky high. It will be the biggest scandal since Al Capone, and it will destroy the gaming industry.” In an April 4, 2011 Huffington Post report on Trump’s testimony before Congress, Marcus Baram noted:

Trump neglected to mention that his initial partners on his first deal in Atlantic City reputedly had their own organized crime connections: Kenneth Shapiro was identified by state and federal prosecutors as the investment banker for late Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo according to reports issued by New Jersey state commissions examining the influence of organized crime, and Danny Sullivan, a former Teamsters Union official, is described in an FBI file as having mob acquaintances. Both controlled a company that leased parcels of land to Trump for the 39-story hotel-casino.

The best account of the origins of Indian gaming casinos can be found in Jessica R. Cattelino’s “Tribal Gaming and Indigenous Sovereignty, with Notes from Seminole Country” that appeared in the Fall-Winter 2005 American Studies journal. Although she is ethnically related to Tony Soprano and his goons, her real loyalties are with the Indians who have used their economic power to reduce poverty and increase their political clout.

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed casinos not only to be built on reservations but also to be exempt from federal taxes and regulations. For many people, including the racist enemies of Indian sovereignty, this piece of legislation was an act of charity intended to make up for past sins as Silvio put it in the Sopranos episode. In reality, it was recognition of facts on the ground that had been established by various Indian tribes, including the Seminole.

In the 19th century the Seminole were driven from Florida into Oklahoma just like many of their Creek and Cherokee brethren were driven from states to their north. The Seminoles fought against the American army in three separate wars in the 19th century and put up a stiff resistance. The word Seminole is likely a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón, which means “runaway” or “wild one”, an apt description for tribes that happily accepted runaway slaves into their arms. Unlike other Indians, they never signed a peace treaty with the United States.

In 1979 the Seminole opened the first gaming casino without anybody’s permission—just as you would expect from such a militant group. It was dedicated to bingo, the first type of gambling ever hosted by most tribes and one that paved the way for the slot machines and roulette tables at Foxwood.

The Seminole saw this initially as an experiment that would pay off economically. In the past they had tried light manufacturing, cattle ranching, land leasing, and tourism but these ventures either failed or produced very modest profits.

But their casino, named Hollywood Bingo (after the Florida city, not tinseltown), turned a profit almost immediately. By 2001 five Seminole casinos were generating $300 million a year. The economic impact of this revenue has been remarkable. The proceeds fund health clinic, law enforcement (a serious concern on reservations where poverty has bred vicious crimes), the K-12 Ahfachkee School, and housing. It has also funded cultural enterprises such as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, craftwork, language classes, festivals and other programs.

And like any other capitalist, the tribe has diversified economically. Profits from he casinos have been plowed into sugarcane and citrus fruit plantations, cattle ranching, ecotourism at the Billie Swamp Safari, and even airplane manufacturing. None of this is a result of government handouts. Instead it is a Horatio Alger story that if not vindicating the usefulness of capitalism at least is a testimony to native grit.

This is not to say that gaming casinos are a bed of roses. As expected, when millions of dollars are involved, there are men more than happy to separate Indians from their wealth, and none more so with such satanic duplicity than Jack Abramoff.

While Abramoff’s plot is far too complicated to review here in any detail, suffice it to say that he extracted millions of dollars from the Coushattas in Louisiana and the Tiguas in Texas by playing them against each other. In exchange for millions of dollars in fees, he promised them that he would lobby Congress to make sure that their casinos would go unmolested by the state and also protected from competition by each other. In an email message to his right-hand man Mike Scanlon, Abramoff wrote: “Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” (The Tigua reservation and casino were near El Paso.) Scanlon replied: “I want all their MONEY!!!” In other emails, Abramoff referred to his clients as “morons,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”

After serving his prison sentence, Abramoff has tried to restyle himself as a reformer, speaking at various Washington confabs at presumably exorbitant fees. This has not impressed Indians who suffered the most from his heinous acts, especially the Tiguas who were essentially left bankrupt. After watching him in action at the Press Club in Washington, DC, Rick Hill, a member of the Oneidas, told the Huffington Post “It’s all bullshit. … You look at Jack — though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”

Market forces, the sine qua non for capitalist production including that taking place on the reservation, generated the rivalry between the Coushattas and the Tiguas. The access to riches has made the blood quotient all-important. There are constant conflicts over who is really a member of a tribe that enjoys casino wealth.

On December 3rd, 2004, the LA Times reported:

Before the Indian casino opened here, few people had any interest in joining the Chumash tribe.

But now that each member collects close to $350,000 a year in gambling revenue, nearly everyone with a drop of Chumash blood wants in.

“A lot of people found out they were Indian,” joked George Armenta, chairman of the Chumash enrollment committee.

Infighting over lineage is tearing apart many tribes with gambling operations. Fueling the disputes is simple math: If tribal enrollment shrinks, each remaining member will collect more money.

Whenever a valuable resource become available to a historically oppressed people, whether it is oil or roulette chips, it will trigger such fights. That being said, it is foolish to expect Indians to renounce either oil or gaming. In the best of circumstances, such as is the case with the Seminole (or Bolivarian Venezuela), it can be used for the common good.

The vain hope that Indians can live as they did before Columbus persists among those who would prefer that time stand still. The most extreme version of that is Jerry Mander’s 1992 “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations”, a work that warns Indians about the hazards of computers and other new-fangled technologies. The only sort of Indians that Mander seems interested in are those who are completely untainted by the outside world. If an Indian lives in a city or makes a living as a miner on the reservation, Mander ignores him.

He only pays attention to the “pure” Indian who survives by hunting or fishing the way that he did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Hence, he devotes an entire chapter to the Dene Indians in Canada, who live in the Northwest Territories where the traditional economy revolves around caribou hunting and ice fishing. In the 1970s, they discovered oil on Dene land and pretty soon all the usual culprits descended upon them: oil corporations, lawyers and real-estate developers. What is Mander’s biggest concern, however? It is that television, of all things, will disrupt the Dene’s simple life. He worries that televised soap operas will replace traditional story telling.

After surviving hundreds of years of genocidal onslaught, American Indians have developed survival strategies geared to a time and place. The right to make money from gaming casinos is part of that arsenal, whether or not some critics view it as contrary to the image of the “pure” Indian. That Indian was virtually destroyed in the 19th century, just as was the bison that the plains Indians relied on for food, shelter and clothing. It will be up to the Indians to define their own identity in the 21st century just as they have in the past. Our responsibility as supporters of indigenous rights is to offer our solidarity, just as we would when the FBI was besieging Wounded Knee. The battlefield has changed but the goal is as it ever was—to defend the rights of America’s native peoples.

June 8, 2016

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Film,immigration,indigenous,Peru,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Tomorrow is opening night of the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York that includes two documentaries that I had an opportunity to see at press screenings a while back and discuss below. If they are any indication of the quality of the scheduled films, I urge you to take in as many as possible. If they are not exactly entertainment (as if anybody with an IQ over 75 could be entertained by something like “X Men Apocalypse”), they are compelling reminders of the need to support all those struggling for a better life.

On Thursday, June 16th at 8:45 PM, you can see “When Two Worlds Collide” at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. As a rule of thumb, if you have tended to agree with my recommendations, this is one not to be missed. It is the chronicle of the struggle between indigenous peoples of Peru and the government of Alan Garcia over the 840 Law he rammed through in late 2006 that opened up indigenous territory to mining and oil extraction as part of a neoliberal blitzkrieg that began earlier in the year with a Free Trade Agreement with the USA.

If I were to write a narrative film, I doubt if I could come up with someone as villainous as Alan Garcia. Early on in the film you see him addressing an audience of potential investors from the USA about how Peru was welcoming foreign investment. To indulge in a bit of Marxist jargon, he is the quintessential comprador bourgeois.

This was Garcia’s second term as President of Peru. In his first go-round, he clashed with the guerrillas of the Shining Party, a Maoist insurgency whose dogmatic and repressive approach isolated it from the urban working class. Their members were Quechean Indians living in the highlands.

In his second term it was the Indians of the Amazon rainforest who got the shaft. Unlike Chairman Gonzalo of the Shining Path, the opposition to Garcia was led by Alberto Pizango, a member of the Shawi tribe who was committed to nonviolence but totally uncompromising when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples whose water was being fouled by the Peruvian state oil company pipelines and who feared that things would get much worse with the advent of Law 840. It allowed private investment in their territory and sacrificed their hard-won right to a modicum of sovereignty.

They say that the choice of a principal subject is key to the success of most documentaries. That being the case, co-directors Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel were fortunate to have complete access to Pizango as he rallied opposition to the multinational onslaught given red carpet treatment by Alan Garcia. He is a plain-spoken man but capable of stirring rhetoric when the circumstances call for it. He was exactly the sort of grass roots leader José Carlos Mariátegui must have had in mind when he founded the Communist Party of Peru in 1928 based on a program that synthesized Marxism and indigenous principles.

As it happens, Mariátegui only decided to become a Communist after becoming disillusioned with the APRA party in Peru in whose name Alan Garcia misruled. For APRA, anti-imperialism and “development” were to be pursued within the framework of capitalism even if it meant treating the indigenous people in the same way they have always been treated in the Western Hemisphere, as relics of a “savage” past standing in the way of progress and civilization.

Once the opposition to Law 840 began to develop a mass base and after it began organizing picket lines throughout Indian territory, Garcia and his cohorts began to refer them to as relics of the past who were defying the needs of the country’s majority. That, of course, is what inspired the film’s title.

The tensions between the ruling party and the indigenous peoples escalated until a pitched battle took place on June 5th, 2009 when the cops began firing on pickets assembled on the “Devil’s Curve” jungle highway close to Bagua, a town in the heart of Indian country. Not long after the first Indians fell to the ground mortally wounded, others seized guns from the cops or used their own and machetes to strike back at the cops. One of the most moving parts of the film involves the father of one of the dead cops who returns to Bagua to get help from the Indians in finding his son’s corpse or more optimistically winning his freedom. After he discovers that he had been dismembered and thrown into a nearby river, he calmly states that he does not blame the Indians but the overall climate of violence created by APRA politicians.

Although I would hardly describe the film as “entertainment”, the directors had a bird’s eye view of the clash on the Devil’s Curve and were skillful enough to turn the footage into some of the most hair-raising scenes I have ever seen in a documentary. The struggle continues in Peru as it is likely that Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has won the recently held Presidential election. He is a former World Bank economist and co-chairman of First Boston, so that says it all.

Next Wednesday at 8:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater and 9:15pm in the IFC Center in the Village you can see “The Crossing”, a powerful chronicle about a group of Syrians fleeing Assad’s reign of terror and taking a risky boat ride across the Mediterranean to Europe in search of political asylum.

It puts a human face on the ordeal facing millions of Syrians that is now only an abstraction in the mass media or—worse—a target of nativist violence and state-sponsored blockades through much of Europe.

If there is still a question of what drives refugees to flee Syria, all you need to do is listen to the journalist Angela—a Christian–who along with her husband and journalist partner was forced to flee the country when she became a target of the security forces in 2011 after writing articles in support of the Syrian revolution. She was arrested once and worried that the next time she might be killed.

You can also hear from IT expert Rami who was working in the UAE. When he was arrested at demonstration in support of the revolution by the emirate’s cops, he was ordered to leave the country. Since going back to Syria meant arrest or being killed, he opted to join Angela and about 20 others in an uncertain sea voyage.

In 2012, director George Kurian was working as a photojournalist in Syria in the thick of the battles while buildings were being bombed to pieces. That led to the decision to make a film about the efforts of some to leave this hell. He put it this way:

“The Crossing” is about Syrian people speaking for themselves. Through it, we hope to join the debate about our electoral policies…Islam and its branches of fundamentalism will always serve as flashpoints in any discussion…[but] it’s these ideas that have kept us from acting. These concepts make us see refugees as a problem rather than a people who have a problem and who need our help.”

Although it is not part of the HRW film festival, I also urge you to watch the six-part series of nine minute videos about another group of Syrian refugees on the New Yorker Magazine website (http://video.newyorker.com/) directed by Matthew Cassel and executive produced by Laurie Poitras, who made the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. Poitras is affiliated with Glenn Greenwald whose views on Syria are questionable at best. I am glad that he obviously had no influence on this film.

Unlike “The Crossing”, Cassel’s film, titled “The Journey from Syria”, does not address the question of what drove people to mostly walk from Istanbul to Macedonia to flee the horrors of Syria but you might suspect that it was the regime rather than jihadists that was responsible especially since they refer to bombing. As is obvious at this point after 5 years of war, it is the Syrian air force that is creating genocidal conditions, not the lightly armed rebels.

For an excellent review of Cassel’s film, I recommend Idrees Ahmad, one of the most committed and tireless defenders of the Syrian revolution we have:

The Journey, however, is more than the chronicle of an exodus. It is a human story about ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonists are normal people—a jeweller, a hairdresser, and a schoolteacher—who have to face dilemmas that jewellers, hairdressers, and schoolteachers do not normally face. The film is well constructed and tells its story with minimal editorialising. Through its relatable protagonists, it offers viewers a mirror to consider the choices they might have made had similar circumstances been thrust upon them.

This context is important for the kind of debate currently raging in Europe. The last segment of the documentary shows movements like Pegida and demagogues like Geert Wilders stirring up xenophobia. The refugee exodus has served as a boon for the European far right. Across Europe, far right parties are now ascendant. Refugees are routinely demonised.

But if the left has failed to challenge this wave, it is because they, just like the right, have been unwilling to address the root causes of the Syrian conflict. The organised left across much of Europe has shown little sympathy for Syrians fighting oppression. Some have tacitly supported the regime; others, such as the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have backed Russian military intervention while opposing safe zones for civilians. (Some of the tropes the right has used to stereotype refugees were first used by the left to demonise Assad’s opponents, painting them all as “extremists” and “jihadists”)

Read full review

Episode one of “The Journey from Syria” is on Youtube:

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