At one point it was suggested that we could reconcile cultural differences by making our central defining point the getting and spending like the fur trading posts so vital to the frontier. After all, economics is what it’s all about. (Too bad we can’t seem to figure out what economics is about.) So now the Global Ferengi have us in their grip. The pirates win. The most important and reliable news source is “The Economist.”
The Internet was thought to be a way to get us all talking to each other, therefore understanding each other and transforming the world. But what does a resentful snide little high-heel wearer with the mental equipment of a 7th grader have to say that isn’t the online equivalent of her slam-book? (A slam book is one that assigns a coded page to a frenemy and invites other girls to write accusations on it. It’s semi-anonymity. Like the Internet.)
What I’m talking about is a phenomenon of print -- the line of the sentence is the shaft of the arrow. Those who can write a piercing sentence that matches straight logic with a smooth rhetorical shaft are those that kill nonsense. Of course, there are always the feathered fletchings of religion -- plucked from angels, no doubt. And the nock of the author’s fingers on the pen. I’d make up something cute about the “crest” but I don’t get what it is and don’t care enough to find out. It’s just a simile and a bit of a parody.
The quiver contains “kinds” of arrows, usually relating to the academic history of nationalities. Of course, those who have NO SUCH THING, because their language and heritage is oral, must resort to throwing rocks. Nevertheless, there are interesting variations in the arrows: The English ones are about the entitlements of hegemonies. The French ones are about the suffering of the oppressed being bled to death. (They admire de Sade and Saint Sebastian. There’s also a strange cult about pelicans who feed their young from the wound on their side which is somehow connected to the crucifixion of Jesus.) The German ones are about the sacrality of nature. It’s hard to tell about the Italian ones because everyone is yelling at once -- or is that opera?
Now I’ll be a little more serious. Many word arrows have been exchanged with North American indigenous peoples. Most of them have become bent or broken by now. The problem is that the peoples of any continent are not defined or shaped by their relationship to the whole continent, but rather by the various ecologies, which are the basis of the economies of survival. This is true of everything from genetics to religion. Fish-eaters to corn-raisers to bison-hunters.
First Contacts with Europeans, who wrote everything down on their terms, was governed by “otherness.” This was rooted in the unwritten native cultures, elaborated, definitive and place-based. Organic. The Euros saw them as all alike -- a big mass called, mistakenly, “Indians,” who soon conveniently died and left an “empty continent.” Everyone still thinks the prairie is empty.
These ideas are so potent that even teaching on a reservation in the Sixties one met whites who said, “Well, we only took the land because the Indians weren’t using it.” (Using means exploiting.) And only a few years ago when a law was passed requiring Montana schools to teach Indian history, a librarian said to me, “I don’t see why WE would have to study THEIR history. There isn’t any anyway.” It was again the hegemony of the written. It was a puzzle to her how anything could exist if it weren’t in a book. After all, her work was books, not stories told out loud. (That was before the row of computers now in the library.)
The transition from oral to written has been a rocky one and often confused by the belief that certain cultures only write certain kinds of writing. The early writing-down of Indian matters was done by helpful whites, often Victorian women or clerkly sorts of white men, who were influenced by Grimm and Anderson writing down the oral literature of Europe. So “myths and legends” became the definitive genre of Indian literature. But then the “scientific” -- well, “natural history” people -- came along, taking a great interest in material culture, and soon the whites had captured back through description the implements, the clothing, the shelters, in anthropological compendiums of the contents of museums or the paid reports of informants needing to feed their kids.
In the meantime the “Indians” were going to government schools which intended to make them white, but instead created an underground Pan-Indian culture that is still carried along on the Pow-Wow circuit and the many political alliances of tribes, different as they can be.
You might know all this. But have you considered the dilemma of a person who wishes to change cultures, the trans-culture person? (Is that parallel to trans-gender?) Adolf Hungry Wolf has an excellent Euro-education but a place-based lifestyle from the frontier between white and indigenous: a log cabin with a photovoltaic array to power his computer. He is attacked from both sides, at least by those who cannot accommodate any sort of hybridizing, thinking of it as disturbing the order of the world. Or maybe the diminution of their own power. Remarkably, Adolf is peaceable about all this.
Others are not. One of the most interesting cases is Sherman Alexie, a bit of a misfit among his own tribe, who has managed to be on both sides by aligning himself with whites who romanticize Indians and believe they are a definable “something” in spite of being removed from the context that shaped their ancestors, but also aligning with the subcategory of Indians who resent having to conform to white hegemony and try to claim their molecular cell nucleus DNA trumps all environmental and cultural influences. As time goes on, Sherman has to shift his target audience to a younger and younger demographic to keep his mockery from rebounding on himself.
Mocking whites who try to ennoble themselves by alliance with an imaginary “noble Indian” is to choose a soft target, mostly German, these days often female. But Sherman has a hostage to the white medical establishment that tends to he and his son with their hydrocephalus. They saved both brains. But it means he has to keep the money coming and more whites have money than reds have. Indians on reservations do not buy books, even his. He gives respect and authority to whites and white publishing, enabled by political correctness, and dances to their organ-grinder tune -- not the drum.
After all, his tribe bullied him and the other tribes only admire him now because he is a success in a white world, the way they want to be. Wannabe-ing works both ways. Dissolution of identity is not a happy thought, but the arrows puncture us right and left. We are like the wounded buffalo, still running but destined to fall and rot. The fish are dying in the drought the cities may cause, but everyone crowds into the cities.
There’s another influence: in the French-Algerian post-modern-influenced context, political correctness targeted governmental, academic and literary whites who soon discovered that the best way to avert disaster was to hire the troublemakers to be professors and actors. Just don’t let them have any power. In a while, they’ll discover what they thought was privilege and authority is nothing of the kind, and then they’ll go home.
If you don’t dare fire popular individuals, in spite of claiming that the once accepted credentials are now worthless, don’t fund their department. Native studies, queer studies, women’s studies, border studies -- whatever. Asian studies . . . are you kidding? That’s where the MONEY is! Do you want this university to survive? And how do the now unemployed indigenous, mock or not, make their living? What color was the parachute of the president of Harvard who was driven out of his job because he said that women were not like men, which enflamed the arrows of the hard-core feminists.
Is politics a living? Is that quivering orgasmic?