Saturday, January 25, 2020


From the beginning of time, before humans or mammals or reptiles or eukaryote one-celled "beings", one differentiated group has overrun another.  Maybe they took the other's "turf" or maybe they just ate them, but that's the fact of it.  But it is not only basic opportunism that affects our thinking about the Euro populations who invaded the Americas and profited so handsomely by capturing their resources.

Since one of the resources was other human beings different enough to either fear or oppress, that's what the invaders did.  Since most of the seafarers were men, themselves a human resource mercilessly used, they "took" the women.  So, let's imagine.  You're a woman who had no idea that there were other continents.  They were as unlikely as other planets.  A whole new people might be a good or bad thing, depending on one's personal situation, but some people, esp. women, are likely to be open to the mystery and adventure enough to get close.

So, in 1492 the first indigenous/Euro babies came 9 months after the landing.  Some people alive now can date and document themselves back to that.  Euro-style thinking gives it high priority, though in the subsequent generations from that first pair probably other proportions of indigenous/Euro people were involved, leaning to the more indigenous people sometimes and more Euro people later.  Eventually Africans and Asians began to mix in.  

If I were a better historian, I would try to write a series of stories to capture each generation -- born in 1492, born in 1515, born in 1535, and so on.  All the while the situation changed, two demographics expanding into a hundred variations.  All the while the story in Europe changed and the story in various parts of the Americas also developed.  It is a time-story and a space-story.  As more Euros were pushed out (the Highland clearances were a rehearsal for the prairie clearances), esp in the British colonies, they crowded into America and though many died in the process, at last figured out how to live here.  They came from parts of Britain packed with poor, suffering, starving, diseased people.  Many died before they ever reached America but their microbes did not.  Before they ever realized what a friend they had in germs, the pandemic was wiping communities off the continent.  

The strength of these communities was in their culture, calibrated to fit their place, shaped to sustain their generations, but the new danger was too abrupt and mysterious to be addressed, much less resisted.  The strength of the invaders came partly from their greed and partly from their desperation, so partly they came to get rich and partly they came because they had no where else to go.  Partly it was a story that unfolded over the next 500 years and partly it was a story of pushing people West, out, away.

So reservations, to some, were cages, wastelands, places where military force could keep the indigenous and the nonconforming in one place.  They would rather have had an island, like Australia or that island where lepers were confined, but in the meantime major spaces and forbidding geography would have to do.  How to do this varied over the years so some treaties were as "between countries" and others were just administrative rules like a company.  One of those was keeping a list and another was tying the provision of food and supplies to those on the list.  

When the Heart Butte kids were given new pencils because they were on the list, they immediately broke them in half and gave part to their friend who was not on the list.  When they grew up, they began to argue with the list.  The whole justification of reservations had to be rethought, not so much in terms of turf and time, but in terms of the people on the list.  The whole idea of self-determination came into it.  The subject was inflamed and expanded because the stories of the culture had made "Indians" into heroes and the last resource to be exploited was their theoretical nobility and embodiment of Nature, which some considered to be God.

So far there are these justifications for being part of a "tribe" which is only unevenly related to the concept of a "reservation."

  • Provable descent from the original list made by the cavalry at early contact and conquest.  Proof is by provenance, which is continuous chain of documentation like baptism, mixing religion with government.  This is at most a couple of hundred years ago, unrelated to "blood" which is a metaphor for provenance, but so vivid that it overspills every attempt to clarify it.
  • In the earliest days people looked different and composed their lives according to their ecosystem, whether salmon, buffalo, wild rice, or desert.  If today's youngsters wanted to look like the early prairie people, they would need to live mostly outdoors and on the move.  It's not a matter of clothing or even food, though that counts.
  • Many people have assumed that DNA can prove a person belongs to a tribe.  This is a merchandizing gimmick for several reasons.  Tribes were defined and named as the groups came to consciousness but they never had rigid boundaries as Euros did.  As tribes were pushed West, they died out, merged, accepted stray people even if they were white, and lost much of their original culture and "fittingness" to the land because they were no longer on the land that formed them.
  • As soon as today's located and confined tribes realized that "scientists" wanted their blood, they began refusing access.  This has greatly hampered transplant technology since there are no records for finding people whose parts "fit."  There is not enough data about the aboriginal people to indicate who was in a particular tribe.
  • At the same time, the participation of "Indians" in World Wars drew them into the mystique of heroism and group allegiance with vivid justification, all tied to battlefield wounds and transfusions according to the four blood protein groups.  NOT DNA, which had not been known.
  • Writers and artists have capitalized on the general population's hunger for identity and nostalgia to form genres and since we have come to value the creators more than the actual creations, the focus has been entitlement which the goal of narrowing those who are provably on the descendants of those cavalry lists.
  • Women in particular have become entangled in the 1492 sailor's access to a new kind of woman that he can impose sex on, regardless of consequences.  One force has been the defining of women of color as undefended, fair game like slaves but better because slaves are "owned" and the owner is likely to object.  
  • Also, poor have always been victimized by rich men or violent men. Many of those women and men have been resourceful enough to organize sexwork. Morality makes it easier to victimize them but also adds value because they are valuable in the way that the black market always is.
  • Because of those to whom sex and death are interchangeable concepts, the toll of murdered women rises.  But another force has been that without the cultural shaping of protecting of indigenous women, being sexy and hot is a form of power, and because of today's convention of advertising such an identity, indigenous women take advantage of social media to show how desirable they are, attracting men.  But now that has become so outrageous that a backlash has formed and is becoming powerful.  The sexual revolution has muddled everything and, as usual, freedom without guidelines is deadly.
I'll come back to DNA later, but the idea that it is "beads on a string" has been traced to a scientist early in the 20th century.  It is not a fact.  The true nature of the swirl of mixed and barely distinguishable organic chemistry is still being discovered.  But as David Quammen explained, it is a sheet of instructions passed on by atoms, molecules, parasites, chromosome organization -- continuously shared among all living beings and mostly organized within "skins" of one kind or another.  "Skins" is a synonym for indigenous people in America, not as the people who watched the Euros come ashore from their huge white-winged ships, carrying microbes and war, but as the People who have persisted across the continent, however was necessary and barely possible.

The people in this video are building the future, one poem at a time.  They will make "Indians" out of any white people who read their poems.  They are powerful.  I've known these names for generations and the faces are familiar.  They cannot be murdered.  They cannot be driven out.  They persist through both turf and time.

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