How to create a mysterious crop circle
Since I have a fifty year history with the Blackfeet, thirty years on or next to the rez and the other twenty in touch via media, I watch their doin’s with close attention. Our lives are meshed in subtle ways. Two political issues have been of interest. One is how the politics of African-Americans so dominate and define what race means and how it should be included in public life. This tends to push aside, if not crush, the issues of tribal people. The other is the ferocious emotion aroused — even on the part of white people — by the bogus literary category of “hoax” ginned up by yet another writer, sometimes a journalist and others an academic, but mostly a mix of the two. Often about Native Americans and entitlement to that identity.
The idea of a hoax seems to offend “gentle readers”, often women and youngsters, much more than it riles more broadly educated and experienced people. Misleading author attributions have been common as long as there has been writing. Sometimes they were purported to be “found” letters or journals to add credibility to stories of castaways or brothel adventures. Once in a while they were meant to tease the reader, like “Naked Came the Stranger” in which each chapter was written by a different author or “The Painted Bird” which was simply a retyping of an award-winning book meant to reveal that the prizes were rigged.
There seems to be a relationship to anthropology when accounts sounded unlikely to conventional English-speaking middle-class readers — which aroused curiosity and incredulity at once — things like Margaret Mead’s account of teenaged female sexuality in Samoa. Later scientists would revisit the place and make a reputation out of debunking Mead, who had been so honored that some proposed we should all act like South Sea Islanders. Eventually writers found the internal worlds that always coexist alongside or under the commonplace: criminals, cloistered religious, immigrant communities, and “Indians.” Stigmatized or privileged.
Books that purported to reveal the “truth” sold well, but then were “re-revealed” to be wrong or fantasized. Then the idea became that only the people from inside those separate groups should be allowed to write about them. They were the only true “knowers” and interpreters. And it was satisfying to think that former slaves and “medicine men” were now converted to a proper life — Christian, of course. Members of stigmatized groups now restored to respectability via confession and Oprah.
A freak show element — like the story of Chang and Eng, the conjoined men, or the secret diaries of Hitler or Howard Hughes — was always popular. Some people are so freaky that just a straight account of their lives can keep us breathless. “Fire and Fury” comes to mind. Publishers, whose business is profit, love best-sellers like this. Now that computerized data can reveal so much, we are fascinated to read the “truth” about how many people consume online porn, what categories sell best, and that there are perversions we never heard of before. Recently, the trend is to private civilians making home-porn vids, so profits are damaged by this “reality”.
In fact, we are no longer so incredulous about other countries or our neighbors, but rather challenged to develop our own identities, which triggers what scholars call “collective narcissism,” the celebration of origins or communities as defining worthiness. This can be healthy pride and participation, but it can also turn toxic to be an excuse for persecution of others or to cover for individual failure to thrive economically or psychologically. When conditions hurt people, they resort to their religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation — their roots — for reassurance and clues about what to do.
When one looks at lists of hoaxes, many are about the issues described above. Adding to the toxicity is the idea that unentitled writers are making up stories, so that the crime of misery-lit hoaxes can be that the writer wasn’t as criminal as claimed or that miracle-recoveries from cancer or escapes from oppression were exaggerated. The proof of crime is thought to be the enormous amounts of money writers supposedly made, which is a hoax in itself.
There are two broad categories of what the public considers especially problematic: African Americans and Native Americans. They do NOT have the same essential claims about primal identity, and it affects their political fortunes as well as their literary esteem. I sort the two as being defined by their humanness or being defined by their relationship to their land. Both are greed-based.
African Americans were physically dislocated and owned, ignoring their humanness on the grounds of their being stupid/uneducated, childish, and violent. The category was defined by “blood” or so it was claimed though at the time very little was known about actual blood or DNA, which blood doesn’t carry since red blood corpuscles have no nuclei. It was a poetic metaphor for SKIN. African Americans were defined by their skin color, which was believed to be inherited automatically through generations. The more “white” the skin, the less African-American. Since white owners had sexual access to their slaves, the people tended to get more pale over time until they could “pass.” Some of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants could pass and others could not. Skin color is not like coffee and cream.
But because the people were “owned” and the justification for that was skin color, the law defined African Americans as being automatically slaves unless proven otherwise by the legal means of paper documents. Once DNA analysis became widespread, people assumed that since skin color failed to be a bright line, then the genetic strings of code would be the replacement. But it turns out that all humans are very much alike and only the frequency of certain alleles (groups of genes) can suggest a line of inheritance. Suggest.
So the indicator of “blackness” became cultural, often based on suffering and deprivation. Ghetto or prison creds counted, even inside the group. People who had made successful academic careers or who came from prosperous families were “not black,” Oreos.
The assumptions about who is or is not an American Indian/First Nations person keeps being attributed to “blood” but is actually “provenance,” that is, records of who begat whom over time. The paper records were written by the military, hundreds of years after first contact. Like ideas about African Americans this is based on European domestic breeding of plants and animals, so that in some minds being from one tribe or another is like being from one “breed” of cattle or sheep, usually developed in an area where certain qualities are more desirable than others. Breeds of domestic animals are often named by where they were developed: Hereford, Shropshire. Tribal names.
The original people of the North American continent, like people everywhere, had evolved to suit their ecologies. The origin of the differences and solidarities of “tribes” are shaped by the conditions where they had lived over millennia, adapting to a corn-based ecology, a bison- based ecology, a salmon-based ecology. Those who didn’t know how to manage their “place” would die or leave. Those who were good at it had more children and became a tribe with its own story and morality, gradually becoming religious.
When Europeans came, they pushed most tribes out of their own ecology into places they didn’t know. Europeans are ownership-based, tracing back to many territorial wars among kings, because land ownership and occupation is a key source of wealth. (Ask Putin.) Domestic livestock and crops depend upon well-defended settlements and a bureaucratic domination like a king to keep records on paper. They could not have imposed this system on North America so easily if it had not been for disease.
At first Euros did not understand what was going on, but as soon as they figured it out, they didn’t hesitate to act on it. Some sent contagious blankets to the People but Lewis and Clark carried vaccine and tried to make that a gesture of good will. But they were deluded about what “good will” meant. It was essentially land theft by people who lived on different continents. The King of France sold the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson. No one actually living in the drainage of the Mississippi River detected any difference — it was all the exchange of paper far away. Lewis and Clark were charged with defining and describing the Louisiana Purchase and were dismayed to discover it only went to the 49th parallel before the drainage turned north. 50 seemed so “symmetrical.”
To be plain, the defining injustice against African Americans is that of being owned themselves as though they were commodities. But for the Native Americans it was about the land, its extent and resources. Both were hindered by speaking languages other than English and by being oral cultures. If the journals created by Lewis and Clark, now classic published books still selling well in many versions, had been written by Native Americans in English on paper and bound with gilt-impressed leather to carry to Washington DC and present to Jefferson, there would have been no need for expeditions and would have challenged European nations who believed they had ownership. Legal Euro ownership of American land is a primal HOAX.
The implications of all this are immense. A new world yawns before us in which the essential wovenness of all life, challenges to the concepts of both “owning” and “nations”, and technologies that allow the return of oral cultures will change the terms of everything.