Saturday, August 11, 2012

First Stewards #6: The New Tip of the Spear

The defining difference between the indigenous person and the settler, or the native and the subject of the modern nation, is the ability to change, to adapt and to grow. The native, the indigenous person is defined in relation to the modern nation as a stagnant thing.
They have been living in the same place in the same traditional way for centuries, perhaps millenia. They embody old cultures, ancient cultures, and as such are never prepared for the modern world of today. They are the stagnant, stuck images that define the prowess and the adaptability of the modern subject.

In the case of the United States for example, this relationship is necessary because of the way in which the origin of the nation is inundated with a dependency upon the native. Early settlers of North America struggled to survive and only did so through their cooperation and learning from Native Americans who were already familiar with the land and the climate. Without them the first settlers would have died out, never survived. They were only able to take root because of the pity that Native Americans took upon them.

The Thanksgiving Holiday is intriguing in the way in which it effectively takes that primal dependency and transforms it into a rite of passage. In most Thanksgiving stories the dependency is largely absent, as is the eventual genocide. What instead becomes front and center is the exchange that takes place between the pilgrims and the natives. That exchange becomes the metaphor for the assumed bequeathing of the land and the destiny of the land from small tribes to the great white country that would later be born. The gifts of ma’ise that the Native Americans gift are in truth the “keys” to the American nation, it is a moment in which they give up their previous sovereign control, that resulted in centuries of charming and quaint stagnation and instead let the white settler take charge and guide the land into a bold new direction.

It is a similar sort of scene that is portrayed in the infamous Marshall Cases. In a sort of racial/legal alchemy that should leave one breathless, the political gold of treaties signed between Native Americans and the United States become the lead chains that are meant to forever enslave them as subordinate to US Federal interests. The treaties the Native Americans signed and the relationships that they had started to form with the United States were used in the Marshall Cases as evidence of their dependency upon the US, and as evidence that even if they once had sovereignty, that had clearly lost it long ago. This should confuse you since the purpose of treaties is the opposite, it is meant to establish a relationship between equals, but since the US was full of people who wanted Native lands and governments that wanted Native Americans gone, a massive fantasy took the place of truth and has been built upon ever since.

The Natives, the indigenous people thus become a residue leftover from the birth of the nation. There is an icky, unfortunate quality to their existence. Something that you don’t quite know what to make of. There is also a sort of magical quality to them, because they bear the marks of the birth of the nation and so they also exist to perform the sovereignty of the nation. As the natives that remain even after the nation has surpassed and usurped them, they are stagnant fragments of the nation’s origin that you can still make use of it to reflect back the power and ability of the nation.

The indigenous person gets stuck in time and stuck in history. The past may belong to them, but the future and the present always belong to someone modern. That is why indigenous people are always supposed to be just about to disappear. The horizon of their non-existence waits just around the corner. Their culture has been disrupted and has been shattered. What they have now are just simple pieces of it. With each generation they become less and less of who they are, always lured away by the promises of the present and the future. The modern ensnares them and pulls them away from their stagnant, grounded culture.

This is the way things are supposed to be. This is the way that the world and history have been established, especially through the previous epochs of colonialism and imperialism.

A very different narrative was asserted at the First Stewards Climate Change Symposium, one that inverted this idea in an inspiring and interesting way. While the modern subject may argue its existence as the spear of history, the thing that pierces the veil of the future in the name of all mankind, the thing that can change its stars, determine its own destiny and the destinies of others, we have come to a point in history where this is clearly no longer true. In terms of climate change, global warming, rising water levels and other environmental problems, what we see from the modern world is stagnation and paralysis. They are unable to do much of anything. They can talk big about it, can blame everything under the sun for it, but in the face of the next level of existence, the natural order, mankind, especially in its most modern dimensions appears to be almost pathetic in its inability and stuck in ways that you could easily call criminal.

Indigenous people on the other hand are the ones who are leading the charge for radical action in terms of climate change. They are the ones who are changing the most and appear to be the most adaptable to the situation. Throughout the First Stewards Climate Change Symposium, stories were told from across the Pacific and the Western United States of communities who were taking aggressive action to try to fix things, to adapt to what is becoming more and more obvious and clear in our lives. Part of the reason is of course because they are being affected the most. They are the ones who depend most directly on certain resources, for example the ocean and the creatures that are in it. For much of the world adverse effects may take much longer in order to be felt as so much of what people eat comes across borders and is dependent upon the exploitation of lands and labor from elsewhere. For a fishing tribe in Alaska the effects of global warming are apparent and clear as land is literally disappearing beneath the water, glaciers are melting at alarming rates and fish are no longer found where they have traditionally been.

It is an interesting turn of events when the nature of the world is reversed in this way. The question is whether or not those who have placed themselves at the top of the world and oppressed and subdued indigenous people in so many ways, will set aside their pride and allow things to change.

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