Native Americans: Is Exoticness a State of Mind?

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‘Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.’ – Ancient Native American Proverb

We build our world around ourselves, sealing our existence up into a cocoon plastered by that intangible earthen material we know of as familiarity, regularity and routine. We are nestled in the womb, cradled in our prams, cared for in our village schools and enveloped away on a cloud of academia and employment – from embryo to adult, for most our cocoon widens without once collapsing. It is thus the universal privilege of he who wanders errantly, to free himself from this cultural cocoon- with one step, swim or flight, he may leap from the exorbitant luxury of the familiar into an otherworldly realm. Yet even if the explorer’s body may depart his cultural roots, his mind is unwittingly still entrenched in them and hence, as history has taught us, all that is exotic and unknown may terrify as much as it enchants.

So the annihilation of civilizations may be explained, for in reality, an igloo is no more exotic to an Eskimo than a bamboo shoot to a panda, but as an outsider peering into these peculiar worlds, we watch on with bewilderment and fear, we seek to destroy that which we cannot comprehend. To the wandering Englishman on American shores, a feather headdress becomes as foreign as an igloo to a panda, to the spaniard mooring on Peruvian coast, the cave dwelling Incas become merely sophisticated savages immersed in treasure.

Throughout human existence, man has sought to dismantle all that he classes as alien, material greed has prevailed over cultural comprehension to the detriment of entire ethnicities and of these cultures, Native Americans have perhaps suffered most of all under history’s unrelenting fist. We scorn Hitler‘s inhumanity whilst the Founding Fathers are heralded as heroes; loss of land, forced emigration,15th century raping, ‘scalping’, infection with smallpox (wiping out 96% of American Indians inhabiting Massachusetts Bay) right through to the ‘Indian Removal Act‘ of the 1830’s and the ‘fertility management’ programs of the 1970’s, which hoodwinked native American women into signing ‘sterilization forms’ so as to eradicate America’s indigenous race – Native Americans have experienced the hand of fascism quite unlike any others before them.

Perhaps we may forgive the early whiteman his ignorance, but as learned beings exposed to the rich historical archives of social media, internet, radio and television, it is harder to exonerate the modern man. Today, most American schooling does not teach of the violence inflicted by the country’s English predecessors, land ownership issues are still rife and while Native Americans make up 2% of the United States of America with their 562 tribes, they have the highest suicide rate in the country and between 24% – 25 % live below the poverty line.

Should more be done to preserve the culture traditions of Native Americans? Must the United States government atone for the past through education and re-division of land to its original inhabitants? The cause of much early deforestation, are we presented with an overly romanticized view of Native Americans and their oneness with nature? Given the constant inter-tribal warring, could Native Americans ever have found peace, or would their country have been wrought with unending civil war had the Europeans not intervened? Ought American law be changed to support a still underprivileged struggling population, or since tribes are able to rule with their own laws and governments, are Native Americans no longer political victims of the United States? 

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Violent collisions following western European settlement led to a series of epidemic disease outbreaks, conflict, genocide and an oppression that some claim still continues today for descendents of America’s indigenous inhabitants, who (far from being Indian in origin as Columbus declared) migrated to America from Siberia some 12,000 years ago during the Ice Age.

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 ‘How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.’ -Black Hawk, Sauk

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A portrait of the Nez Perce family in 1909.

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A rare glimpse of Is-se-dar accompanied by his horse in 1907. Europeans had brought over horses to America in the 16th century, creating a complex horse culture that completely transformed way of life for Native American tribes.

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A snapshot of Pix-on-che-la-hoit (otherwise known as Nicoli) in the year 1906. Advanced forms of weaponry brought over from the Old World in the Elizabethan era were to at once extinguish & revolutionize the Native American population.

‘No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.’ -Ben Franklin, Founding Father

*This weeks photos are not my own.*

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25 thoughts on “Native Americans: Is Exoticness a State of Mind?

  1. I have learned about the history of the Wampanoag tribe who lived and live in the area near my home. The landscape bears the land-taking influence of the English in uneven boundary lines between towns, and much later, how the prime real estate near the coast became the property of the rich, who were mostly non-Wampanoag. The long-ago history on the part of the English is egregious.

  2. I am delighted that you are voicing your observations and thoughts. It is encouraging to know there are people that are engaged in the world, provoked to make comment and to create dialogue. Thank you.

  3. Very thought-provoking. Man’s inhumanity to man springs to mind. Not sure one can ‘atone’ for the past, but focus on the present, educate and inform – and do what’s right now.

  4. I think there is so much we could learn from the native Americans: their deep respect for the Earth and their consequent ability to live sustainably would be two very timely lessons for the modern world. Indigenous peoples across the world deserve to be respected as peoples in their own right – they should not need to fight to preserve their chosen ways of life. They have a richness of life that the modern world cannot seem to comprehend. Even now many of these indigenous groups are being persecuted and driven from their ancestral homelands. The natural resources they have relied upon for many many generations are then exploited, natural environments are destroyed … all in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. I certainly think the native Americans ought to have been compensated for the persecution they have suffered. To me it is a blight on us all that indigenous peoples continue to be treated so appallingly. I support the efforts of an organisation called Survival International in their work fighting on behalf of indigenous peoples across the globe. They recently produced a satirical animated short film you might be interested to see about so-called ‘development’, written by Oren Ginzburg and narrated by actor and comedian David Mitchell, called “There you go!” http://www.survivalinternational.org/thereyougo

  5. I have a very deep grief over what happened to Native American tribes. It feels personal and I don’t know why that is. Is it guilt over what my ancestors did? Do I share the grief of the native peoples because I have their blood running through my veins? All I know is that when I think about what happened, I feel like someone I love has died.

  6. It is shameful what was done to the American Indian Tribes. I have always thought more should be done to help rebuild each nation and the proud heritage of their ancestors. We have done so for the descendents of slaves, the survivors of the Japanese / Americans who endured the relocation camps, it is way over due to help our brothers and sisters of the Indian nations.

  7. Wow what an emotive post. I am reading Howard Zinn’s book, the peoples history of America who talks on this subject in much the same way and also challenges the reader if one way of life is more powerful just because it may eliminate another. Where do you get your information from?

  8. Please remember that we Native Americans are still here. The problems we face, whether in urban settings or on the reservations, remain daunting, and we are unimaginably resilient. We are also profoundly diverse in culture and identity. The problem now is less what happened and more what continues to happen: desecration of sacred sites, state and federal programs that play tribes against one another, the entire idea of blood quantum, etc. One of the big problems we face is the ongoing effort by the powers that be to get everyone to imagine we are gone from the face of the planet.

  9. Whether or not to “preserve” native cultures is entirely up to them. But, having ravished and raped, the least we can do is not stand in their way. Nor should we romanticize them; that’s just another variation of chauvinism. Native peoples are exactly like us, no better and no worse, just a lot less fortunate in this particular encounter.

  10. I appreciate the proverb you share at the beginning of the post (your words are great reminders, as well), and I love the photos. Old photographs of Native Americans have so much depth and feeling within them. I have not ever seen any of the pictures that you share here. Thank you!

  11. Rachael. This is a really thoughtful, informative, well researched post. I don’t reblog that often but am going to mark this one for reblogging shortly. If you haven’t heard it you should listen to the album ‘Toltec’ by Jon Anderson. If you can find it. I have it on my hard drive but don’t know how I can share.
    And here’s a quote I love and I have used on my blog:
    “Our land is more valuable than your money. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals; therefore, we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us.”
    Anonymous, Blackfoot chief (c. 1880)

  12. I want to begin by saying that yes, it is important that we are learning and sharing this history, particularly among white folks as native folks are very aware and are still living with the traumatic effects of this history. However, like michaelwatsonvt I agree that we must also be present minded and understand that the Native population in the United States is incredibly diverse. At least one of the photos that you share is one taken by Edward S. Curtis (the third one but I would not be surprised if others were taken by him too). Even if you do not know who Curtis is you have seen his photographs, they were taken around the turn of the 20th century and most depict stoic faced Native Peoples. He manipulated his photos, giving headdresses and other sacred objects to Native Tribes that would not have used them and putting captions on photos that would have been untrue for the time period. In my opinion it was the depiction of Native folks as serious, non-smiling that has done the most damage in our collective history.

    The native sketch comedy group the 1491s offer a present day response to Edward S. Curtis here: http://youtu.be/ga98brEf1AU

    Also, the contemporary Diné artist Will Wilson takes photographs with the same equipment that Edward S. Curtis used but allows those having their portrait taken to bring whatever objects they would like to have photographed with them. http://willwilson.photoshelter.com/#!/index

    So, it is important to start this dialogue and I thank you for that, but it is also important to make sure that we are not continuing to tell the story of the colonizer. As white allies we must be accountable to present day Native folks who are telling their own stories and we must also include resilience and strength in our discussions.

  13. Beautiful words and Images, It is amazing how quickly the Native American culture which has existed for thousands
    of years is effectively overwritten and white washed in under two decades. I’m currently reading: Life Among The Piutes:
    Their Wrongs and Claims by: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins.http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/winnemucca/piutes/piutes.html Its Amazing seeing Native American Culture thriving in cyberspace. Sending much love and respect!

  14. A lovely and insightful piece of writing. Don’t know what gets into people when they start believing their way is the only way. Liked the song on the video too, especially the bit about how they crawl under our skin. Thank you for liking my blog, the arabic world is in big trouble and needs lots of support.

  15. My only take on this, which might add or contribute to all that has been said, is a simplistic one. ‘Guilt’ is a luxury of the dominant species, the conquering race, the successful silverback. It is not an honest emotion. We indulge ourselves with regret and by doing so convince ourselves that we are somehow wiser or better than our predecessors, when in truth the spirit of the witch hunt is embedded in our tribal instinct, and will not change. We are, after all, tribal and dominant. We still commit genocide, we still persecute minorities, cleanse ethnically, exorcise that which we consider odd or outside our current fashionable norm. We still plunder.

    Yesterday my wife threw some bread out into the yard for the birds. Inadvertently she allowed our dog into the yard five minutes later. The dog chased away the birds and doubtless (given previous examples) would have killed a bird if she caught one. Then she ate all the bread. It was brutal, it was selfish, but it was expected and it was honest. Did she feel guilt? We might rebuke her, but will she understand? She was simply following her instinct.

  16. Reblogged this on jamoroki and commented:
    Rachel Kanev was a fascinating interview subject of mine on The Displaced Nation. I always enjoy her posts when I get time to read them. Here is one I have wanted to re-blog for some time which I particularly like.

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