Rebecca Solnit: So Much for the Belief that Indians Are Vanishing





Rebecca Solnit, in www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute (May 6, 2004):

The law of unexpected consequences prevails so frequently that perhaps it should not be so unexpected. For example, Laura Bush's attempt early last year to hold a symposium on"Poetry and the American Voice" while her husband was planning to saturation-bomb Baghdad so appalled poet, publisher and symposium invitee Sam Hamill that he circulated a letter of outrage to Ms. Bush; his e-mail box filled up; he started poetsagainstthewar.org, to which more than ten thousand poets submitted poems; and so he became a major spokesperson against the war and an organizer of antiwar poets. Laura Bush's symposium was cancelled. In much the same way, the plans to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's crash into the Americas were overwhelmed by opposition to that celebration. Indigenous people throughout the western hemisphere used the occasion -- not just a single day, but a discussion that began long before and continues yet -- to assert their own history of the Americas, as a place that was not discovered but invaded. Invaded but not quite conquered, for though much was lost, the Quincentennial was an occasion for many native groups to assert that they are still here, that they remember, and that this history is not over.

Thus the Quincentennial became an occasion for many nonnatives to relearn the genocidal history of the Americas and sometimes address those parts of the history still with us -- questions of sovereignty, visibility, representation, reparation, and land rights, among other things. Thus, remembering the past became the grounds to make changes in the present. Thus, culture becomes politics. In the end, the day did not commemorate the start of an era but marked in some subtle way the beginning of its end.

After the Second World War, one of the programs to dissolve Native Americans' identity, diffuse their power and detach them from their land base involved resettling them in the cities to assimilate. For many, cities instead gave them access to new resources and information and fostered intertribal political alliances. Out of this, in Minneapolis, came the American Indian Movement, AIM, in 1968 (and out, as well, of the hope for justice and the tactics for achieving it offered by the Civil Rights Movement and out of the carnival of the later 1960s). Out of an AIM conference in 1974 came the International Indian Treaty Council. In 1977, the Treaty Council went to the United Nations, where it became the first indigenous organization to apply for and receive non-governmental --NGO--status. So you can trace the Quincentennial back to 1974, or 1968, or for that matter 1492, along a zigzag trail of encounters, reactions, and realizations.

Treaty Council activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was at the UN General Assembly in 1980 when Spain proposed that 1992 be declared the"year of encounter of civilizations" and"it was the most amazing thing--every African government representative stood up and walked out, so I walked out. They were not thinking about indigenous people, but this was the onset of slavery and they sure knew that." South Africa's African National Congress and African NGOs would prove important allies for the UN-based struggle for indigenous rights. Spain had planted the idea of the quincentennial of Columbus's arrival, but indigenous-rights activists would reshape it into an antithesis of Spain's agenda.

"We never got one single line of media attention," says Dunbar-Ortiz of the early years. Getting the word out was"just really hard work" carried out by speakers traveling to reservations, groups, and conferences, and by publishing a newsletter put together by the poet Simon Ortiz, among others. Word spread, and ideas began to shift. Dunbar-Ortiz told me,"It is exactly what gives you hope when you see this happen--when you see how hungry people are for the truth. When it is offered to them, they seize it." Truth has been at least as important as law in the shift of status of indigenous Americans, for even the legal gains seem to be built on a foundation of changed imagination and rewritten history. Columbus Day became an occasion to rethink the past, and rethinking the past opened the way to a different future.

Nonindigenous Americans often embraced two contradictory not-so-true stories before that change. One was that Native Americans had all been wiped out--the tale of how a frail, static people had been swept away by progress was sometimes told sadly, but seldom questioned. Even radicals seemed in love with this tragedy, and again and again books casually assert some tribe or nation has vanished that hasn't. We had the end of the trail, the last of the Mohicans, a vanishing race, a dying nation, a doomed people, stories that might condemn the past but let us off the hook for unfinished conflicts. In the other key story, there never had been any Native Americans, because the continent had been pristine, untouched, virgin wilderness before we got here, a story particularly dear to environmentalists who saw nature as a nonhuman realm, a place apart. Putting Native Americans back in the picture meant radically redefining what nature means and what the human place in it might be (an undoing of an entrenched dichotomy, the nature-culture divide, with profound implications for the environmental movement, which has not yet altogether come to terms with this revision of meaning). Putting them in the present means that the Indian wars are not over. The difference is that in recent years they have begun to win, some things, some of the time, and that this time the wars are mostly in the courts, the Congress, over textbooks, novels, movies, monuments, museums, and mascots, as well as on and over the land.

The Quincentennial became an opportunity to restate what Columbus's arrival had meant --invasion, colonialism, genocide -- and what it had been met with --"500 years of resistance" was the catch-phrase. Other factors, from academic discourse to the legal ruling that made Native American casinos pop up across the country (you can't lose your shirt to an extinct people), shifted the terms of native visibility and historical memory. It was probably the quincentennial conversation, as well as the brutal civil war in Guatemala, that moved the Nobel Committee to give the Nobel Peace Prize to indigenous Guatemalan human-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu.

And it was the Quincentennial that had made the indigenous revolutionaries who would become world-famous as the Zapatistas say"basta," enough, to their own five hundred years of defense against annihilation and go on the offensive, though it was NAFTA that pushed them over the edge into action (but then, NAFTA can be regarded as just another phase of the colonizing program that began with Columbus). On New Year's Day of 1994, a guerrilla army of indigenous men, women, and children came out from their hiding places in the Lancadonan jungle and mountains of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, and took the world by surprise and six towns by storm. In honor of Emiliano Zapata, an indigenous Mexican rebel at the other end of the twentieth century, they called themselves the Zapatistas and their philosophy Zapatismo.

The fall of the Soviet Bloc was framed as the triumph of capitalism; in the years that followed, capitalists increasingly asserted that the"free market," which had triumphed over history itself, was tantamount to democracy and freedom; and the 1990s would see the rise of neoliberalism. The Zapatistas chose to rise on the day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect, recognizing early what a decade has confirmed: NAFTA was an economic death sentence for hundreds of thousands of small-scale Mexican farmers and with them, something of rural and traditional life. In dazzling proclamations and manifestos, the Zapatistas announced the rise of the fourth world and the radical rejection of neoliberalism.

They were never much of a military force, but their intellectual and imaginative power has been staggering, an influence not just on indigenous movements throughout the world, but on the antiglobalization movement's understanding of place, power, and of the very language of insurrection and history. And hope. Two years after that initial uprising, the Zapatistas issued the Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle. It reads in part,"A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…. In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror that neoliberalism represents, we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope."

Since then, a surge of indigenous power has transformed the face of politics in many Latin American states, including Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. For example, in 2000, Ecuadorian General Lucio Gutierrez was ordered to repress protests against government policy by tens of thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians. Instead, he set up kitchens to feed them, permitted them to occupy the Congress, and joined an indigenous leader in announcing a new government. He was jailed for this disobedience, kicked out of the army--and in 2002 he was elected president, the first time indigenous people had exercised such power anywhere in the hemisphere. Far from perfect, he still represents a crucial shift in power. Gutierrez was elected a month after the 510th anniversary of Columbus's arrival, which became another day of hemispheric action stretching from Canada to Chile.

In the United States, the post-Quincentennial gains have been on many fronts, from the repatriation of indigenous corpses and skeletons in museum collections to lawsuits against the Department of the Interior for"losing" billions of dollars that belong to the tribes, along with the records of that money. The number of people identifying as Native American more than doubled between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, in part because the new census recognized mixed-race identities, but also because far more people were willing to acknowledge an identity that had once been denigrated. From being a dying race, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have become a growing force.

The Coast Miwok were supposed to be extinct when I was growing up on their territory; in 1992, they began fighting for federal recognition, and in 2000, led by the gifted part-Miwok novelist Greg Sarris, they got it. In Yosemite National Park, the cradle of the concept of virgin nature, the native people who were wiped out of the official representations--park signage, park histories, land management policies--have in the past decade reappeared in those contested cultural sites. And they've won the right to build their own cultural center in the park, a small victory for them but a big shift in defining what nature might mean and who will define it for the four million visitors per year. The Timbisha Shoshone whose homeland became Death Valley National Park have won far more. In 1994, they won federal recognition of their status as a tribe with unextinguished rights, and in 2000 they gained jurisdiction over nearly eight thousand acres in the park, as well as extensive lands outside the park.

And this scale is dwarfed by other victories. The Inuit activist John Amagoalik remembers that in the 1960s journalists would come to his arctic homeland and write about it as"a wasteland where nobody lives… There was always agreement between them that Inuit could not survive as a people. They all agreed that Inuit culture and language ‘will disappear.'" On April 1, 1999, the Inuit got their homeland back. They won from the Canadian government their own autonomously governed province, Nunavut, a huge tract of far northeastern land three times the size of Texas, ten times the size of Britain, a fifth of all Canada.

How do you measure the space between a shift in cultural conversation and a landmass three times the size of Texas? What bridges the space between that hope and that realization? What is the scale of the imagination and of the will? What sustained the people whose uncountable small acts shifted the world, since almost no such act has a reward in itself, or soon, or certainly? From what vantage point can you see such incremental, such incomplete, but such extraordinary transformation?

The resurgence of the indigenous peoples of the Americas means many things. One is that there are usually cracks somewhere in the inevitable and the obvious. Another is that capitalism and state socialism do not define the range of possibilities, for the indigenous nations often represent significantly different ways of imagining and administrating social and economic systems as well as of connecting spirituality to politics. Indigenous people have been relegated again and again to history's graveyard; as the Zapatistas and other visionaries and insurrectionaries they have, instead, generated the birth of another future."Another world is possible" has become a rallying cry, and in some ways this is their world, the other future drawn from another past recovered despite everything. This resurgence also demonstrates the sidelong ways of change: from an argument in Geneva to a land mass in northern Canada, from a critique of the past to a new path into the future, from ideas and words to land and power. This is how history is made, out of such unlikely materials, and of hope.

Rebecca Solnit is the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (from which this piece is an excerpt) and seven other books, including River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, which recently won the Spurs Award of the Western Writers of America, among others. She lives in San Francisco, of course.

Reprinted by permission of Nation Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit


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