This misnomer continues to cause confusion for some, as the recent comments of American Representative Loretta Sanchez have made clear. She isn’t the first to make such a comment, as evidenced by this scene in the now classic film Good Will Hunting.  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, available online for free  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I, page XVI quoting Karl Marx in Capital: Volume I, Chapter XXXI  Utsa Patnaik, “New Estimates of Eighteenth-Century British Trade and Their Relation to Transfers from Tropical Colonies”, pages 362-363 in Irfan Habib, The Making of History  Wikipedia, “Native Americans in the United States”  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I, page 98  Romila Thapar, Readings in Early Indian History, page 114.  See Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History for the first point and Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications for the latter point.  Julian Go, Patterns of Empire, page 36  Ibid, 54  The Daily Kos, “The Great California Genocide” and Ken Burns Presents The West: Specks of the Future, documentary film  Quoted in LA Times, “Sherman on the Sioux”  Reel Injun, documentary film, segment The Cowboy  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V: Property  Covered, in part, in this excellent book: John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks  Tom Rogers, Native American Poverty  Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival vs Forced Assimilation  National Public Radio, Americans for Independence-From America  AAA Native Arts, Half of the Top 20 Poorest Counties in America are Included in Native American Reservations  Running Strong for American Indian Youth, The Poverty Cycle  Wikipedia, Modern Social Statistics of Native Americans  But the government was able to get Leonard Peltier; it has falsely imprisoned Native American Leonard Peltier, ostensibly for the murder of two FBI agents who had barged into a tribal compound on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. Despite the fact that militant AIM members simply were defending their own homes and loved ones, and asserting their right to self-determination, they were consistently branded as terrorists. Let us remember that a terrorist is simply someone the ruling authorities find bothersome.  Simon Wexman in the Washington Post, The US Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans  John Trudell, When Columbus Got Off the Boat
Comments are closed.
Today I am writing about Indians, for a largely Indian audience. The Indians I am writing about aren’t really Indians, it’s a misnomer. They have also been called savages, redskins and a host of other pejorative names. Now we call them Native Americans, or American Indians or Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps we feel that a name change will assuage our guilt? Or perhaps it is part of the American character not to feel especially guilty. What does this etymological incertitude mean? What’s the context? South Asians and Native Americans have both been collectively shaped by the forces of the modern world-economy and historically neither population has fared particularly well. India has shaken off the parasitic British Raj only to be faced with her own inherited and manufactured problems, and now stands on the world stage desirous of a global role. Native American people have been exterminated, sequestered and forcibly assimilated and are now seeking to survive and create their own spaces, where they can flourish in a world that views them as a historical curiosity, a relic suited for Spaghetti Westerns or a topic for folk singers and hippies. When Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he thought he had sailed to the Indies (South and Southeast Asia). He sailed for Spain, which wanted in on the good thing the Portuguese had going in Goa and elsewhere. He embodied the relentless, profiteering spirit that would, centuries later, animate the British subjugation of South Asia and beyond. He was avaricious and had no compunctions about subjugating the Native American population. His example would serve as the template for further European excursions into this New World. Along with their iniquitous hunger for more, more everything, the Europeans brought with a whole host of diseases. This dangerous combination reduced the indigenous population of the Americas from 54-120 million in 1492 (estimates vary widely)  to 10 percent of that figure less than 100 years later. Disease and insentient cruelty supported by religious ideology wrecked the near slave workforce. Consequently, Europeans turned to Africa and therefore developed the Atlantic Slave Trade. Indeed, Immanuel Wallerstein begins his magnum opus on the modern world-system with this from Marx: “The discovery of gold and silver in the America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels threads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.” This global theatre turned to India, where the British Empire and modern Industrial Capitalism was built, in part, on the primitive accumulation (read plunder) from the conquest of Bengal in 1757 and the subsequent wealth drain from South Asia. The native population of what is now the United States and Canada decreased from perhaps 18 million pre-contact to 600,000 in 1800, to a quarter million at the beginning of the 20th century.  Today over 5 million people identify as being Native American, although adherence to ‘traditional’ practices has declined as a percentage of total members. Disease continued to play a large role in the decline of native populations, even after the founding of the United States. However, we must look elsewhere if we are to understand the drastic decline in native population figures between 1800 and 1900. We must explore narratives that are fundamental to the American understanding of itself. At one level we can see this as part of a larger narrative of ‘progress’ against the forces of ‘tradition’. Here we must be careful to remember what Wallerstein has pointed out: tradition as we know it is a creation of the present, and can be only defined in opposition to something else, namely ‘progress’ or ‘modernity’. This expansionist drive is one which has been played out throughout human history, even as it has taken a particular form in the United States. Recall the tension between settler communities and the jungle in South Asia during the Rig Vedic period. Romila Thapar and others have pointed out that the Vedic gods can be seen in light of the colonizing and pacifying drive of the forces of ‘progress’ with Rakshasas perhaps representative of adavasi populations; simultaneously there was something mysterious and rejuvenating about those ‘outside’ of society: “The proximity of the forests is always present in the consciousness of the settlers…where the forest is the place of exile, of demons and raksasas, but also where the hermitages of rsis were situated.” This narrative tension was preserved in much later oral tales such as the Ramayana. And what has happened to the adavasi populations of South Asia? Their deities have been assimilated into the remarkably fluid pantheon of ‘Hindu’ gods and goddesses, or given tutelary statuses and they have been assigned subsidiary positions within the varna-jati nexus of caste. Some groups have been subsumed and others have reified their ‘traditional’ ways of life in the face of an assertive state. Similarly, in what is now the United States of America, Native Americans responded to their changing environment. The urban settlements of the Mississippian Cultures were laid barren by disease and tribes became increasingly nomadic as they started making use of that European import, the horse. Much of what is ‘traditional’ about the standard Image of the Plains Native American (befeathered astride a variegated painted horse) is in fact a consequence of European inroads into the New World. The new American nation felt bound to expand. This idea was euphemistically known as ‘Manifest Destiny’, or the belief, in the words of Bob Dylan, that god was on our side. It combined the well worn arguments of the capitalist class-‘those’ people weren’t properly utilizing the land; it was unproductive and their lack of ‘improvements’ meant that they had forfeited their claims to said land. We on the other hand were an industrious people and we had a powerful hunger for land. Europe was played out and immigrants streamed into this fresh continent, empty (save for those pesky Native Americans) and ready for white European settlement. The American government, according to Julian Go, made the subjugation of Native Americans their primary military task in the nineteenth century. Indeed after the sanguinary American Civil War, the great military minds of that conflict (Sherman, Custer and Sheridan to name a few) turned east to ‘pacify’ the Native Americans. From Andrew Jackson’s expulsion of the Native Americans to Oklahoma (according to him an “inferior race of people”) to the genocide of the Native Americans in what is now California (bounties for heads, and laws that allowed children to be captured as slaves), to General Sherman’s advice to President Grant: “First clear off the buffalo, then clear off the Indian. We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux [a Plains tribe of Native Americans] even to their total extermination-men, women and children.”, there is a long history of determined, hateful prejudice against Native Americans in the United States. Manifest Destiny, that Expansionist Exceptionalism that is called Imperialism everywhere, and by everyone, except for the Americans, was the driving force in the development of the United States. Americans comprehension of themselves, of their own values, are driven by this Imperial, and plainly genocidal experience. Individualism, self-reliance, and freedom are the characteristics of the Western man. He has the freedom to expand into territory that is empty (save for those Native Americans who aren’t using it properly), and he is and individual, driven to do what he knows is right for his own people, even if, and especially if, that means exterminating Native American peoples. The open landscape and the Native American inhabitants are at once alluring and perilous. The documentary film, Reel Injun, does a good job of elucidating this relationship. One critic, Jesse Wente, says that John Wayne, the quintessential American film cowboy, displays “remarkably violent actions that are excused, because these seem to be exactly the right actions for someone dealing [with Native Americans]”. In the Searchers Wayne’s character takes pleasure in desecrating a grave and shooting a Native American corpse in the face; furthermore, he refers to a Native American guide as “blanket-head” (no doubt his spiritual heirs now traverse the Middle-East shouting comparable abuses). Wente goes on to say that John Wayne embodies American self-understanding: “The true American wasn’t native. Native Americans were the ones that stopped real Americans from settling their own country.” This of course goes back to capitalist understandings of land and ‘productive use’ seen as far back as the writings of John Locke. Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, states that property can be expropriated when it is not being used productively. Locke, of course, provided much of the intellectual underpinning of the inchoate United States. In a tension similar to the wary fascination with the forest displayed in the Ramayana, for the American settler, the West was a vast arena in which to test one’s mettle. This was reminiscent of Melville’s Moby Dick, except in the end Captain Ahab would surely kill the White Whale and triumph. This was not an obsession in vain, nor Sisyphean, but rather the ‘natural’ expansion of the American frontier, a people settling into their rightful place in the sun. The land was empty, waiting for Americans to engage and shape it, except when it wasn’t. As a practical matter those Native Americans that didn’t just disappear had to be dealt with. This could happen through extermination (for example the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, or the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre) or through sequestration and assimilation. The government had no ideological commitment to either policy, but rather employed various methods depending on the individual proclivities of its agents, from settlers and administrative caprice. Treaty after treaty was violated and the land was slowly consumed by voracious settlers, backed by the coordinated might of the United States military. A familiar miasmic pattern emerged: tribes would be relocated to ‘reservations’, or their ‘traditional’ (again a tricky concept) lands would be truncated. This ‘Indian territory’ would then slowly start to be infiltrated by prodigious settlers, until it was also annexed through treaty or military invasion. The tribals would be relocated once again, or their reservations would be further reduced. The Plains Wars stretched from the period prior to the American Civil War, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre. It was a ceaseless process of aggressive, underhanded policies against Native Americans, intimately bound up with the American Imperial project and later Social Darwinist ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the West had been won for the United States and those stubborn quarter million Native Americans that hadn’t disappeared were being forcibly assimilated (this process of course has parallels in the brutal policy of the Australian government towards the aboriginal population). Tribal religious practices were curtailed and replaced with the sterile Christianity of sour-mouthed temperance agitators. Their raiments were prohibited and their mother tongues denounced. Their erstwhile ways of life gave way to box housing on the reservation and dependency on government handouts. Speaking over a quarter century earlier, one government agent had said, “If they are hungry let them eat grass or dung.” Agriculture on marginal land became their way of life. The life chances of youth were constrained where emulation of the dominant culture became the only way to succeed and eke out some form of survival. According to one government agent, “[Native Americans] were taught to despise every custom of their forefathers, including religion, language, songs, dress, ideas, methods of living.” Of course this self-hatred is a common thread in today’s globalized environment as well. Native Americans today are nominally independent from the federal government in many ways, But relations that existed at the end of the conquest of the West have become caricatures of sovereignty to the point that Native American activist Russell Means’ quixotic claim of establishing a tribal nation-state, the Republic of Lakotah, can be met only with derision, even by sympathizers.  Today Native American languages are becoming extinct and knowledge of religious practices is dying out. Poverty amongst Native Americans is endemic. The top three poorest counties in the country are on Native American Reservations. Concurrently, Native Americans have the lowest employment rates of any minority group in the country. 39% of Native Americans living on reservations and 26% off the reservations live in poverty, compared with 25% of African Americans and 23% of Hispanics. Other indicators show comparable disadvantages. In response to the marginalization of Native Americans, pan-tribalism has developed and has been manifested in terms similar to the Black Power movement. In 1969 Native American youth occupied the old federal prison on Alcatraz Island and in 1970 tribal youth held a Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock where the Pilgrims first landed. That same year Native American youth occupied Mount Rushmore. In 1972, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied Wounded Knee, resulting in a standoff with the federal government. Native American activist, Russell Means, famously said that “What Wounded Knee showed the world was that John Wayne hadn’t killed us all.” In a world where concrete action is restricted, symbolic theatre becomes one of many important tools of resistance. Today, Native Americans continue to assert themselves, despite the systemic forces engaged in perpetuating their subjugation. In addition to using casinos as a means of income (something that has had very limited returns for the vast majority of Native Americans), some tribes, such as the Sioux, are attempting to promote hemp (ganja) for its industrial applications, as a means of tribal livelihood. Doubtless additional paths out of poverty will appear in the future. From well intentioned hippies to less well intentioned professional sports teams, Native American culture has been appropriated and pulled into the mainstream, in the process being divested of its meaning. Perhaps most insulting of all, as Simon Waxman points out, the United States military names helicopters Apache and Chinook. It was Operation Geronimo that killed Osama bin Laden and Grey Eagle drones enforce American hegemony. Let us remember that we must not ennoble Native Americans, to borrow a page from Orientalist playbook. Tribal cultures have been successful stewards of the environment and have mismanaged their natural spaces as well. They have lived in peace and been engaged in ritualized internecine warfare. They have, in short, had all the successes and failings of societies everywhere. Like many groups of people the world over, Native Americans have fallen victim to the zero sum logic of the modern world-system, organised by the expansion of capitalist production. ‘Traditional’ ways of life have been superseded by ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’. It has been a messy situation, and cannot be swept under the rug, nor excused by appeals to the exigencies of the past. We must remember that the extermination of Native Americans is a key facet in the formation of the modern United States of America and no amount of museums or retrospective documentaries can atone for that. Collectively we must remember and realize that similar processes are happening today to marginalized groups the world over, from the neglected tribal people of the Maoist Corridor in India to the Roma people in the European Union. A fundamental requirement in the twenty-first century era of globalisation is the obstinacy of survival. This is the key for marginalized people-to survive, to still exist when the powers that be say to go away. Native American activist John Trudell aptly summarizes the challenge ahead, “The necessary objective of Native people is to outlast this attack, however long it takes, to keep our identity alive.”
 This misnomer continues to cause confusion for some, as the recent comments of American Representative Loretta Sanchez have made clear. She isn’t the first to make such a comment, as evidenced by this scene in the now classic film Good Will Hunting.  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, available online for free  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I, page XVI quoting Karl Marx in Capital: Volume I, Chapter XXXI  Utsa Patnaik, “New Estimates of Eighteenth-Century British Trade and Their Relation to Transfers from Tropical Colonies”, pages 362-363 in Irfan Habib, The Making of History  Wikipedia, “Native Americans in the United States”  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I, page 98  Romila Thapar, Readings in Early Indian History, page 114.  See Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History for the first point and Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications for the latter point.  Julian Go, Patterns of Empire, page 36  Ibid, 54  The Daily Kos, “The Great California Genocide” and Ken Burns Presents The West: Specks of the Future, documentary film  Quoted in LA Times, “Sherman on the Sioux”  Reel Injun, documentary film, segment The Cowboy  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V: Property  Covered, in part, in this excellent book: John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks  Tom Rogers, Native American Poverty  Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival vs Forced Assimilation  National Public Radio, Americans for Independence-From America  AAA Native Arts, Half of the Top 20 Poorest Counties in America are Included in Native American Reservations  Running Strong for American Indian Youth, The Poverty Cycle  Wikipedia, Modern Social Statistics of Native Americans  But the government was able to get Leonard Peltier; it has falsely imprisoned Native American Leonard Peltier, ostensibly for the murder of two FBI agents who had barged into a tribal compound on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. Despite the fact that militant AIM members simply were defending their own homes and loved ones, and asserting their right to self-determination, they were consistently branded as terrorists. Let us remember that a terrorist is simply someone the ruling authorities find bothersome.  Simon Wexman in the Washington Post, The US Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans  John Trudell, When Columbus Got Off the Boat
Comments are closed.
WE are living in a world that is governed by rules and regulations for everything, created not by anyone else but by US only. The walls of these rules and regulations are so high that one wonders what to speak, think even sometimes what to feel. Everything seems possessed and in chaos. Amidst all this pandem
© TPP 2018
Designed & Developed By Evaluate Bytes