Monday, October 9, 2017

Observing Indigenous Peoples Day

The push to scrub Columbus Day once and for all from the secular religious calendar of the United States is gaining momentum, thanks to three things that happened in the past year.

First came the widely-publicized protests of the water protectors of North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Nation. Even military veterans joined in solidarity to protest the construction of a polluting oil pipeline on sacred land. Despite some setbacks, resistance is on the ascendant.

Second is the popular demand, from all over the country, for the removal of statues and flags which celebrate white supremacy. 

And third has been the refusal of professional athletes and others to stand for the jingoistic rituals of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner. This is a direct rebuke to the militarism and racism which are the founding principles of the United States, not to mention the integral ethos of professional football.

All of this public "wokeness" in such a relatively short span of time is a giant leap in the direction of some long-overdue historical truth and reconciliation. And this reckoning isn't coming a moment too soon. Not only are we condemned to repeat the past if we won't remember it (Santayana), the past isn't dead because it's not even past. (Faulkner)

There is an absolute straight line from the plunder of the Americas by the Spanish in 1492 to the present-day terroristic war on a global battlefield. Donald Trump is the end-product of late capitalism and American imperialism, a mass psychosis on a crack cocaine high.

"Our nation was born in genocide," wrote Martin Luther King Jr. "We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode."  

It wasn't until nearly a quarter century after King's murder that Indigenous People's Day in the US got its official start. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Caribbean islands,  the city of Berkeley, California officially voted to mark the second Monday in October as a day of solidarity with aboriginal communities and as a protest against colonialism.

The late historian Howard Zinn wrote that the glorification of Columbus, a mass murderer for the ages, as a hero in the American creation myth is just the start of the continuous propaganda fed to us both in textbooks and by our political leaders:

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.
 The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.
Slaughter of the Arawaks
Although many school districts and municipalities are also increasingly refusing to honor Columbus on his very specious day, only four state legislatures have taken the plunge so far: Hawaii (whose native populations were robbed and slaughtered by sugar and pineapple barons under cover of militant Christianity); South Dakota (home of many a US cavalry land grab and massacre of indigenous peoples); Oregon (end-point of Lewis and Clark's manifest march to exceptionally bloody American destiny); and Alaska (Seward's Folly, and oil and gold-despoiled home to many a plundered aboriginal resident.)

People are finally beginning to challenge the archaic but stubborn legal concept of Terra nullius, or the Discovery Doctrine.

It all started with the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. By papal writ, Spain and Portugal agreed that all non-Christian territory was as good as unpopulated and fair game for plunder and enslavement. Other European countries then followed this same legalistic theory for their own settler initiatives. Thomas Jefferson himself declared the Doctrine of Discovery to be international law, a declaration which was later upheld by the Supreme Court. 

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had actually been the first settlers on the mainland to act upon the Discovery Doctrine, using Calvinist Christianity as justification for their plunder just as the Spaniards had used Catholicism. The pilgrims built the foundation for the enduring belief in American Exceptionalism and the prosperity gospel. Certain individuals and groups are just so special that they obviously were chosen by God to be The Elect. Salvation is guaranteed to the materially successful chosen ones, while the poor and unlucky (and dark-skinned) probably deserve damnation.

  Scotch-Irish immigrants scrabbling for a piece of land in the aboriginal territory of the South were the ideological forebears of Donald Trump's base of aggrieved white people. It's no surprise that the supposedly ignorant Trump is a huge fan of populist land speculator, slave owner, and Indian killer Andrew Jackson, who finally ordered the mass expulsion of the Cherokee Nation in the infamous and lethal Trail of Tears.

And Trump is by no means the first or the only president to champion the white supremacy which is at the very core of the Discovery Doctrine rationale for the creation of the American settler state both here and abroad. In his 2009 inaugural address, our first cosmetically black president preached the settler creation myth gospel - unforgiving toil and torture and death as the price of "progress" - with all the regressive eloquence he could muster:
  "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasure of riches or fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor - who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

 Time and time again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. This is the journey we continue today."
He might as well have titled his speech "Greed Is Good." In just those few paragraphs, Barack Obama echoed the bootstrapping Puritan ethos of condemning of the lazy poor, or the "fainthearted."  Whether the pioneers worked for slave wages till they died of exhaustion, or whether they were initially slaves "lashed by the whip," it was all so, so worth it. They did it all for Exceptional Us, the Chosen Ones, the Elect. As Obama revises history in a none-too-subtle appeal to the ultra right wing, even African slaves apparently "chose" to sacrifice for the greater good once they'd adjusted to their kidnappings. And oppressed people all over this great land of ours will gladly continue to serve, at great public cost and for great private profit for the very few.

Nowhere in his address did Obama mention that in order for this "journey" to prosperity to have succeeded, it was necessary for the elites to enlist those hard-working pioneer folk for the mass genocide of indigenous communities all along the way. Aboriginals weren't whipped; they were scalped (this is the original meaning of the term "redskin," by the way.) And of course, the majority of the poor white settlers who pursued their own American dream were doomed to disappointment once the grasping Trumpian precursors of real estate and railroad empires seized up most of the homestead properties for their own speculative purposes. These were the 19th century progenitors of the modern private equity and hedge fund guys.

And as further evidence of what Zinn calls the deliberate creation of false historical memories, Obama actually tacked on the bloodiest battle of the whole bloody Vietnam War -  Khe Sanh - to his litany of militant heroism, ranking right up there with the iconic battles of the Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. Vietnam might have been lost, but that record body count ratio of Vietcong to Americans certainly gave the generals something to brag about (or lie about) - so much so that the legend even made it into Obama's first inaugural speech.

As Roxane Dunbar Ortiz writes in An Indigenous People's History of the United States, the modern US Army had been created specifically to aid the white settler-squatters and militias who, in service to the elites, had already been robbing and exterminating people in the so-called "Indian Wars" since the early colonial days. As a matter of fact, the Second Amendment was written specifically to allow for both the continued killing of indigenous peoples and for the rounding-up of escaped slaves. "The militias were tasked with rubbing out one group of people, and capturing another," Ortiz writes.

The military's modern tactics of "irregular warfare" got their start in the ethnic cleansing of the North American continent. If you watched the recent PBS series on the Vietnam War, you'll have noticed that enemy territory was commonly called "Indian Country" - ripe for pillaging, burning of crops and homes, rape, torture, slaughter of innocent civilians of all ages, and the collection of body parts as trophies. Roxane Dunbar Ortiz noticed striking similarities in the diary entries of soldiers conducting the aboriginal genocide and those who fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

And, she continued, black and brown men have always been used disproportionately in American wars, both as a way for them to receive the economic benefits which might otherwise elude them, and to allow the white ruling class and military elites to pit one set of disposable people against another. "The Indian Wars were not fought by the blindingly white American cavalry of John Ford westerns but by African Americans and Irish and German immigrants," she writes.

The US military, in honor of the original ethnic cleansing even gave its relentless bombing campaign in Vietnam the name of a famous medicine man: Operation Rolling Thunder. 

And Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge once quipped at a press conference that "we have to get the Indians away from the fort so the settlers can plant their corn."

As Michael Herr wrote about the debacle of Vietnam, "we might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter."

  The American military has such a toxic addiction to slurring Indians as aggressive savages that they even co-opt their tribal names as cover for their own savagery. They launch Tomahawk missiles, and they bomb their human targets with Apache attack helicopters. There are Chinook, Lakota, Kiowa and Ute helicopters, along with C-12 Huron airplanes. And who can forget the secret code-name the Obama administration gave to the soon-to-be-assassinated Osama Bin Laden: Geronimo.

Praise the Ammunition & Pass the Popcorn: Armchair Warriors Watch the Geronimo Show

Whenever it's convenient, the American government does not hesitate to rely on historical racist animosity to justify every new atrocity. When Bush lawyer John Yoo wrote his infamous memo "legalizing" torture, he used as precedent an 1873 Supreme Court decision in a case involving the military slaughter of imprisoned Madoc Indians. Since these indigenous people had once been deemed to be subhuman and stateless "enemy combatants," Yoo invoked the principle of homo sacer, which means that anyone defined as a terror suspect may not only be tortured, but killed with impunity.

There is so much more to the atrocities perpetuated in 300 years of white supremacist rule in North America than there is space to write about in one mere blog-post.

But the very fact that school districts throughout the country, including in my own home town, are beginning to teach American history from the perspective of indigenous communities, is cause for hope. We still live in a settler society, and the vestiges of colonialism are everywhere you look. Besides the untold lives lost, the trillions of dollars spent on our constant wars of aggression are dollars not being spent on universal health care and public education and jobs.

We're incessantly told that the road to happiness lies in consumerism and dog-eat-dog competition. The "faint-hearted" individuals who lose the corporate-sponsored game of life all too often resort to drugs, alcohol, guns and violence. Homelessness, joblessness and hopelessness are leading more people to commit suicide. The death rates in general for Americans, from what should be preventable diseases, are increasing as well. What we are witnessing, as Case and Deaton have demonstrated, are deaths from despair.

So our immediate task, bitter though it may be, is acknowledging that America is never going to be a paradise, a Terra Nullis of possibilities there for the taking, if only we're willing to work hard and play by the rules and wave the flag and support the troops.

The Horatio Alger myth is hazardous to our health. The road to national greatness has been paved with very malign intentions. The American dream was a fairy tale then, and it's a fairy tale now.

Facing reality by educating ourselves about unpleasant truths is the first step toward setting ourselves and our fellow citizens free.


Jay–Ottawa said...

Here's an idea for a monument to the people we squashed underfoot while taking everything from them––their land, their culture, their future. Set down in our nation's capital a long, curved wall of granite like the Vietnam Memorial. Maybe facing that same memorial. Then get me a stone cutter who will chisel Karen's post on it, word for word, exactly in the middle of the great wall. On both sides of her post, chisel the names of as many aboriginals as we dare remember killing over the centuries. The stone cutter may run out of space for those names. Let the generations visit this Aboriginal Memorial as a corrective to just about every other monument in D.C.––and in our heads.

Karen Garcia said...

Great idea, Jay, for indigenous heroes' statues to replace those being torn down. I nominate Tecumseh, who forged an alliance of aboriginal communities to fight against settler incursion. (Another thing I learned in my research for this post is how even the iconic Mount Rushmore itself was chiselled on stolen land.)

I've been interested in indigenous history ever since my Oklahoma university days when I got to know many Indians (they don't object to this terminology, by the way) personally.

Recommended reading: Killers of the Flower Moon, a recent bestseller, about the murders of Osage Indians who got momentarily rich - and robbed, and murdered - when oil was discovered on their land in the 1920s.

Jamie said...

If statistical projections of future climate aren't debatable ... then we aren't dealing with science, but instead, just dogma -- what Galileo and other early scientists encountered in the middle ages.