Category Archives: Literature

Old Praise for Ursula LeGuin

In August 2019, Siobhan Leddy wrote a thoughtful little essay, “We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.” She said, “Her novels imagine other worlds, but her theory of fiction can help us better live in this one.” Here’s a quote:

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. “Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.” Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity’s foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing.


Yes, LeGuin is an important writer! I’ve read a lot of her books and in every one found a deep understanding of life as well as a good story that teaches lessons. She seamlessly weaves anthropology and science fiction into perspectives that shed light on history, politics, economics, enlivening those staid and sometimes pompous disciplines.

But let me pick a few nits with Leddy. Well, not exactly nits, because I think they are of some significance to understanding LeGuin and her relevance to Leddy’s project.

  • She uses that terrible word ’stakeholder’ to refer to members of a community:

While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

No wonder she says it’s boring: “Stakeholder” washes out the juice and truth of “collective action”. The OED ties ’stakeholder’ to money, finance, and business: “A person, company, etc., with a concern or (esp. financial) interest in ensuring the success of an organization, business, system, etc.”; “An independent person or organization with whom money is deposited, esp. when a number of people make a bet or other financial transaction.” These are not the dynamics of a community.

See Vine Deloria, God is Red, describing American towns: “Very few political subdivisions are in fact communities. They are rather transitory locations for the temporary existence of wage earners.”⁠ ’Stakeholders’ appropriately describes residents in such places, but not in the communities imagined by LeGuin. 

  • Leddy gets the meaning of community here:

 The carrier bag gatherer, meanwhile, is no lone genius (genius being its own kind of heroism, after all), but rather someone rooted in a shared existence.

  • Leddy gets some other things spot on — ’nature’ is not our adversary (even though many natural forces challenge us); ‘domination’ is self-defeating:

We will not “beat” climate change, nor is “nature” our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves “become part of the killer story,” writes Le Guin, “we may get finished along with it.” All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story.

But as for ‘abandoning the old story,’ I think people will only be able to do that when they see that the ‘killer story’ has abandoned them, turned on them, come to its logical conclusion. The killer story includes the reduction of ‘community’ to ‘stake-holding’; notice the examples from the OED, where the dominator actors promote ’stake holding’ as a ‘new’ story:  

stakeholder economy n. originally British Politics an economy regarded or conceived of as giving all members of society a stake in its success.
1994    W. Hutton in  Guardian 31 Oct. 10/5   Instead of the winner-take-all economy and polity, the aim should be a stakeholder economy and polity in which all have an interest.
1996    Daily Tel. 8 Jan. 4/1   Tony Blair will today begin to map out the main themes of Labour’s campaign pitch for the next general election. He promises to develop a ‘stakeholder economy’ in which everyone can participate.
2003    New Straits Times (Malaysia) (Nexis) 13 Mar. 12   This will encourage more participation and, consequently, move the country closer to a stakeholder economy.

P.S. You can read “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” courtesy of The Anarchist Library, at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction.muse

In Praise of Liberty and Mutual Aid: A short review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021).

In Praise of Liberty and Mutual Aid: A short review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021).

By Peter d’Errico *

The Dawn of Everything, a “new history of humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropology and archaeology research team, joins a burgeoning global awareness that life on Earth is in social and ecological crisis and that the crisis is tied to the system of industrial state corporate society. The book’s contribution is to help us understand why we are having a difficult time figuring a way out of the mess. The reason, they say, is that our thinking is trapped by belief in the story that modern corporate state society is the end state of human evolution, the inevitable result of “progress” from “barbarism” to “civilization.” The obstacle to thinking of alternatives to the current organization of society is a belief that there is no alternative to this organization. 

This belief dominates received opinion. Francis Fukuyama, in the heady days of US self-congratulation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said we are at the “end of history.” Recently, even as ecological data confirmed that the current social system is problematic, Jared Diamond persists in promoting the view that it is “unrealistic,” because of “biogeographical” factors, to expect to live without “kings, presidents, and bureaucrats” except in “some tiny band or tribe.” He insists on this limiting view even though the event he presumes caused the dilemma, the so-called “agricultural revolution,” is “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” If we believe received wisdom, we can only conclude there is no way out of a world out of balance.

Speaking of Fukuyama and Diamond, Graeber and Wengrow say, “The truly remarkable thing is that, despite the self-assured tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence…. There is simply no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian—or, conversely, that large ones must necessarily have kings, presidents or even bureaucracies.” Notions of a “necessary” human evolution from small-scale egalitarian to large-scale hierarchical societies “are just so many prejudices dressed up as facts, or…laws of history.” 

The Dawn of Everything is a riposte to received wisdom. But The Dawn is not a polemic. It is a detailed survey of scientific data about ancient human civilizations from archaeological and anthropological investigations that have only recently become possible (archaeobotany, DNA analysis, “statistical frequencies of health indicators from ancient burials,” etc.). The conclusions they draw from this data are directed against all stories of irreversible historical inevitability, those derived from Rousseau’s notion of an original human egalitarianism ruined by the “agricultural revolution” and those tied to Hobbes’s proposition of an original “nasty, brutish” humanity rescued by “sovereign government.”  The Dawn rejects both versions on the grounds that they “simply aren’t true; have dire political implications; [and] make the past needlessly dull.” 

These three analytical categories shape the authors’ overall approach and tone of the book: First, occupying the greatest portion of the book, is the scientific data; second are discussions of political implications of various readings of history; third are speculations aimed to enliven our “sense of human possibility.” The authors suggest that our “future now hinges on our capacity to create something different” and they ask a question to motivate readers through the nearly 700 pages of text: “What if, instead of …[repeating the conventional story], we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?” 

The book’s opening salvo is, “Most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway.” The authors then declare their intention to go where most people don’t go, to take up “the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common.” In fact, as the authors quickly make clear, lots of people do talk about human history, “from industrial psychologists to revolutionary theorists…[to] popular writers.” The problem, they say, is that the talk generally shares the same “foundational story… the prevalent ‘big picture’ of history [that]…has almost nothing to do with the facts.” They embark on the task of backing up their assertion by exposing the ethnographic and historical assumptions incorporated into the dominant story of human evolution to state-of-the-art scientific work. The result, they promise, will not simply be a catalog of new data, but “a conceptual shift” in thinking about the “notion of social evolution,” a shift “retracing…the idea that human societies could be arranged according to stages of development…hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on.”

Ursula Le Guin [“Books Aren’t Just Commodities” (National Book Awards Speech, 2014)] also reminded us of human possibility and the power of conceptual shifts to motivate historical change: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” 

I approached The Dawn of Everything with a view to bolster my own work studying Indigenous peoples’ legal issues, a field I’ve been working for more than 50 years. From that perspective, rooted in scholarly study and personal experience, I long ago realized the falsity of the Anglo-European proclamation of civilizational superiority. I wasn’t looking for “proof” that Indigenous peoples of the past built sophisticated societies and grappled with complicated social problems. I understood that Indigenous perspectives about human society today offer valuable alternatives to the political economy of industrial extraction and “wealth production.” I knew Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Hobbes’s “brute” were efforts to bracket and come to terms with evidence of alternative modes of human existence from the “New World.” I had already done what Graeber and Wengrow decide to do: “To move away from European thinkers like Rousseau entirely and instead consider perspectives that derive from those indigenous thinkers who ultimately inspired them.” 

The authors’ core thesis is that the story of a “necessary” human evolution from “barbaric tribes” to “civilized states” was produced by European writers to rationalize the great differences between their societies and the societies “discovered” in the “New World.” The Dawn refers to this process as Europeans responding to the “Indigenous critique,” ideas put forward by Indigenous people criticizing European Christian civilization. The most significant reports of the Indigenous critique were provided by Jesuits and other missionaries in the Northeast Woodlands region: That Native peoples are very generous with one another, that there’s no one who goes hungry within their communities unless everyone is hungry, that there are no beggars within their communities and no jails. The reports also noted that Indigenous chiefs only have authority in as far as they’re eloquent, and that no one will do anything when ordered to do so unless they find it agreeable. Scandalized missionaries reported that Indigenous women had full control over their bodies; colonial authorities noted that women often took part in Indigenous governance. 

Public figures in Europe directly encountered the Indigenous critique from Natives visiting Paris, London, and other cities, who saw beggars in the streets and attributed this to a lack of charity on the part of the Europeans, condemning them for it. The contrasts between European hierarchy and domination, selfishness and greed, and the way of life of Indigenous peoples had a profound impact in Western thinking and was one of the major streams of thought flowing into the Enlightenment. 

In a nutshell, The Dawn of Everything says the theory of human evolution from “barbarism to civilization” was developed specifically to defend European feudal societies against the overall Indigenous critique. Europeans were shaken by the unmistakable openness and fluidity of Northeast Woodlands Indigenous societies and the paradoxical (to Europeans) combination of Indigenous insistence on individual autonomy with an equally strong insistence on group solidarity. The central theme of the European arguments was that individual autonomy and self-determined group cohesion were viable only among “primitive” peoples and had to be abandoned as humans “evolved.” Followers of Rousseau and Hobbes alike argued that “advanced civilization” was “necessary” in human “development” and that the life of “tribes” was doomed by this necessary “progress.” 

The Dawn notes that Europeans did not perceive such dangerous ideas from the Aztec and Inca, whose urban civilizations and empires rivalled Europe. Neither did they bother to figure out how their theory of “human progress” could explain such “advanced” Indigenous societies. The only explanation they needed to combat such peoples was the “heathen and infidel” argument that, with religious notes, also composed a hierarchical scale putting European Christendom at the top. 

The eventual outgrowth of European defense against the Indigenous critique produced a combination of “human evolution” and the doctrine of a “right of Christian discovery,” a combination adopted into US law in 1823 by the Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Justice Joseph Story [Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)] characterized that decision as “…the title of the Indians was not treated as a right of propriety and dominion; but as a mere right of occupancy. As infidels, heathen, and savages, they were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations. … The territory, over which they wandered, and which they used for their temporary and fugitive purposes, was, in respect to Christians, deemed, as if it were inhabited only by brute animals.” (Not surprisingly, “Christian discovery” originated as a Portuguese “right” to the African slave trade in 1452.)

That doctrine and the “evolution” story remain dominant at the legal foundation of contemporary US claims of inevitable supremacy. Recent examples include City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation (2005), where Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ …fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States….” [she denied Oneida land ownership]; and McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), where Justice Neil Gorsuch said Congress has “authority to breach its own promises and treaties” with Native nations, based on “Christian discovery” precedents [he said Congress had not done this yet with the Creek Nation, but “remains free to …[do so] at any time”].

Indigenous critique also persists in the 21st century, including: Idle No More (founded 2012)— Led by women, with a call for “refounded nation-to-nation relations… a movement for Indigenous rights and the protection of land, water, and sky”; Independent Lakota Nation Declaration on Lakota Nationhood and the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict (2016)— “We do not recognize United States or state permits to gather, pray, or otherwise demonstrate our cultural, social, and political institutions on our own aboriginal lands”; Yakama Nation amicus in Washington State v. Cougar Den (2018)—”The Court should expressly repudiate the doctrine [of Christian discovery] and instead rely on the Yakama Treaty”; Manoomin, et.al., v. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, et.al. (Case No. GC21-0428 in White Earth Tribal Court, 2021)—”an action for declaratory and injunctive relief to declare Manoomin, or wild rice, within all the Chippewa ceded territories is protected and possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” 

In short, the 16th century dynamic cited at the core of The Dawn remains active in the 21st century, providing global humanity with the same opportunity and challenge that faced Christian European colonial powers: to shape human societies harmoniously and sustainably. 

Even as apparently “simple” Indigenous societies befuddled and disturbed European intellectuals, they attracted on-the-ground colonists. James Axtell [The Invasion within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (1985)] summarizes what colonists said about their experiences living among Native peoples: “They found Indian life to express a strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity…[as well as] social equality, mobility, adventure…the most perfect freedom, … ease of living, the absence of…corroding solicitudes….” 

The record of contacts between colonial invaders and Native peoples illustrates what Axtell and The Dawn say: The Puritans, for example, were embarrassed by the fact so many of their kind fled to the “Indians,” while so few Natives wanted to adopt the Puritan world. Sebastian Junger [Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)], like Graeber and Wengrow, quotes Benjamin Franklin bemoaning that white captives “liberated from the Indians” and returned to “stay among the English…take the first good opportunity of escaping again” to their Native communities. On the other hand, Franklin said, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us…if he goes to see his relations…there is no persuading him ever to return.” Junger recounted that when Colonel Henri Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary under British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked Odawa Chief Pontiac’s forces (after delivering smallpox-infected blankets to Fort Pitt [see d’Errico, “Amherst and Smallpox” http://people.umass.edu/derrico/amherst/lord_jeff.html (2001, 2020)]) and demanded return of white captives, Native families had to bind those people and forcibly bring them in. Many later escaped and returned to their Native communities. 

Junger, echoing Axtell, says colonials gravitated to the “intensely communal nature” of Indian life: Not only the “rough frontiersmen,” as he puts it, but also “the sons and daughters of Europe” were drawn to the natural sociability of Indian life, even as against “the material benefits of Western civilization.” He quotes French immigrant writer Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur, saying, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” 

Graeber and Wengrow launch their book against this background: “Revisiting [the encounters of Indigenous peoples and Europeans]…has startling implications for how we make sense of the past today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.” They suggest that “The ultimate question of human history…is not our equal access to material resources…, much though these things are obviously important, but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together.” Contemporary diatribes against “tribal politics” in the US have forgotten this long-existing perspective that “tribal” life is more humane than state civilization. 

European efforts to counter the Indigenous critique and neutralize its threat, combining the “human evolution” story and religious theory, ultimately merged into a field of  “natural law,” a domain of thought explicitly triggered by debates about the moral and legal implications of European Christianity’s “discovery” of the “New World.” The core debate focused on the question: What “rights” do humans have even if they exist in a “state of nature” ignorant of “revealed religion”? The answer, generally, was that they have some rights, but that these are inferior to the rights of civilized (read, European Christian) humans. 

The argument in Dawn only touches on the development of “international law” from these natural law origins. That history is told by Carl Schmitt [The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum(1950; trans. 2003)] and will be helpful to recap here: Schmitt says, “The traditional Eurocentric order of international law…arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world…. The Age of Discovery, when the earth first was encompassed and measured by the global consciousness of European peoples…resulted in …a Eurocentric international law: the jus publicum Europaeum. …Its nomos was determined by the following divisions. The soil of non-Christian, heathen peoples was Christian missionary territory; it could be allocated by papal order to a Christian prince for a Christian mission. … European international law considered Christian nations to be the creators and representatives of an order applicable to the whole earth. The term ‘European’ meant the normal status that set the standard for the non-European part of the earth. Civilization was synonymous with European civilization. … The first question in international law was whether the lands of non-Christian, non-European peoples…were at such a low stage of civilization that they could become objects of organization by peoples at a higher stage.”

Schmitt has this to say when he focuses specifically on the claim of “a right of Christian discovery”: “The meaning of the legal title ‘discovery’ lay in an appeal to the historically higher position of the discoverer vis-à-vis the discovered. This position differed with respect to American Indians, and other non-Christian peoples, such as Arabs, Turks, and Jews…. From the standpoint of the discovered, discovery as such was never legal. Neither Columbus nor any other discoverer appeared with an entry visa issued by the discovered princes.”

In the same vein that Graeber and Wengrow decry the absence of questioning of all this, Schmitt says, “Jurists …have in view…only the system of a specific state legality. They are content to reject as ‘unjuridical’ the question of what processes established this order.”

We might expect that The Dawn’s thesis will be rejected by many commentators. After all, contemporary edifices of power, whether in academia, media, corporations, or statehouses, is dependent on public belief in the inevitability of the edifice; more, a fear that the absence of the edifice would mean a loss of “quality of life.” Nevertheless, a quick rejection is not viable. Proper evaluation of the thesis requires engagement with nearly 700 pages of information from the most recent scientific work related to human history. I will point readers to the book itself for that task and close my review with a comment about anarchy, which some may assume must be the underlying philosophy of The Dawn, especially because Graeber was known as an anarchist. 

The dominant story of “human evolution,” to which mass society and professional commentators seem equally wed, has no room for anarchism. Liberty and mutual aid are either gone forever or limited to their bureaucratic manifestations in the “welfare state.” Anything else is said to be wishful thinking, hopelessly naïve, even “anarchy.” 

If it be anarchism to challenge the received (and celebrated) story of inevitable statist domination of human life, so be it. On the other hand, anarchism is not the same as anarchy. Specifically, anarchism is “a political theory advocating the abolition of hierarchical government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion”; anarchy is “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority or other controlling systems.” Anarchism not only comprehends social order but celebrates such order that arises from and is compatible with liberty and mutual aid. One need not be a Marxist to embrace these values; Friedrich Hayek did also. To explore the significance of that coincidence requires more than I can do here. 

Suffice it to say, quoting Carl Schmitt again, “Anarchy is not the worst scenario. Anarchy and law are not mutually exclusive. The right of resistance and self-defense can be good law, whereas a series of statutes shattering every notion of resistance and self-defense, or a system of norms and sanctions suppressing anyone who proposes resistance and self-defense can presage a dreadful nihilistic destruction of all law.” 

I have long been fond of a remark by Professor Grant Gilmore [The Ages of American Law (1977)], who, to my loss, left Yale Law School as I was entering, and I close with it: 

“Law reflects, but in no sense determines the moral worth of a society…. The better the society, the less law there will be. In Heaven, there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb…. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” 

BOOK REVIEW: Steve Russell, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor (McLean, VA: Miniver Press, 2020), 340pp.

Steve Russell is a big man, physically, intellectually, and morally. He’s also a great writer and storyteller. His recent memoir, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor, tells the story of his life through overlapping and intertwining tales. The overall structure is chronological, but the chapters often take a step back or to the side, opening a new perspective on something we’ve already learned in order to build on it and add detail, nuance, and the ground for a following tale that will do the same thing. It’s an adventure book, a journey through space and time that becomes full of many people’s lives. We gradually realize, even if we don’t know Steve, we are part of his community—the community of people working against adversity toward realization. 

The energy of the stories and their direction is impelled from the start by Steve’s urges to grow in every dimension—upward, outward, inward, and downward. Up from poverty and parental dysfunctions manifesting intergenerational trauma from the Trail of Tears; outward and inward with the love of nurturing grandparents who encouraged his native curiosity about the world and especially his curiosity about his Native identity; downward into his Cherokee roots while growing up in Muscogee Creek lands and finding his way into a career that included being a judge and a professor. The stories spiral around these movements and intentions, told with honesty, courage, and increasing wisdom. We are fortunate that no matter where he was in this journey, Steve wrote, and his writing is good. 

The book title reveals the arc of the story, so we know where we’re headed, which helps cushion the shocks of so many episodes that would overwhelm a weaker, less determined person. Steve’s talent shows repeatedly in his ability to relate survival stories with grace, evenhandedness, compassion, and humor. His coming-of-age stories are often delightful, even as they hang out all the laundry; in not sparing himself, he demonstrates how it is possible to work through adversity. He doesn’t pretend trauma simply goes away, but rather, as he says at one point, that “you will, in your own time, learn to park it somewhere that allows you not to trip over it.” The stories all lead to insights like this. They are teaching stories, expanding through and beyond the telling of Steve’s life into the reader’s life.

Beyond being stories of Steve’s life, each chapter illuminates history, politics, and psychology. He accomplishes this cleanly, without becoming didactic, simply tying his personal experiences into the experiences of his people and the American people, past and present. His struggles are intergenerational struggles, and his survival is the survivance of the Cherokee and other Native peoples from the ravages of what he calls the North American Holocaust. But not only Native people: He insists again and again his is a story of being human. He reminds me of what Muscogee Creek Medicine Man Phillip Deere said: “We are not talking about an ‘Indian’ way of life; we are talking about a human being way of life.” Steve digs deeper into his Native heritage with each chapter, but he does so in a way that sets an example for any person trying to figure out who they are and where they come from and where they’re going.

Steve and I trod parallel career paths on our way through law school and into what is conventionally called US “Indian law,” but is really US anti-Indian law. We also shared an interest in journalism in college and beyond, which culminated in us both being columnists for Indian Country Today Media Network when it was owned by the Oneida Nation. He has musical talent I never developed, despite my closeness to musician friends. Our academic trajectories intersected at conferences and in shared teaching methods. Although I read his book against the background of this personal involvement, I am sure readers who have no personal connection to this man will engage with him through his writing and enrich their lives by the fire he tends.

Plains Indian Art: A Living Legacy

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” is in its final stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (through 10 May 2015). An amazing and profound exhibit of American Indian art, it deserves all the raves it gets. The reviewer for Indian Country Today called it “a rare and important showcasing of the art and creativity of some of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.” The New York Times reviewer described it as “one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York right now.” A reviewer in the New Yorker magazine said the show is “the most comprehensive of its kind...exactingly selected and elegantly installed.”

I visited the exhibition in late March. My word for the experience: overwhelming. I was not alone. Hundreds of people, many visibly moved—some even shaken—by the power of the art and artifacts, made their way through the gallery. As I moved from one piece to another, thoughts and emotions swirled through me, pushing me to contemplate what this exhibit means.

The impact of the exhibition hits immediately. Two pipes displayed at the entrance bring home the significance of prayer and tobacco, reminding us that smoking encompasses a ceremony of breath. The sculptural forms of the pipes are mythic figures, intercessors and companions in making breath visible. Visible prayer. Far cry from today’s public health campaigns against tobacco adulterated with chemicals.

A Quapaw tanned leather robe is complexly painted to tell a battle story and show how the Quapaw cooperated with French traders. Its center holds images of celestial powers—sun and moon. The robe carries so much content so vividly portrayed that I could feel the lives of the villagers and warriors, the traders, the lands on which they lived. Even after three centuries (the curators date the robe c. 1740), the energies of cultures meeting, cooperating, conflicting are palpable. The robe, like the pipes, is alive.

Another robe, thought to be Illinois, depicts a mythic bird, with sharp geometric shapes and lines that seemed to me to foreshadow the rise of modern art. The museum catalog, which I bought as a record of the exhibit, confirmed this, stating that the robe displays “all the tenets of the finest geometric painting…: intricately balanced composition, precisely controlled and sharply delineated forms, elongated tapering lines, small unpainted elements, and shifting focal points and rhythmic movements.”   
The displays of clothing—women’s dresses, men’s shirts—pushed me to an emotional edge. They are stunning works of art, but, more significantly, they carry intense energies of those who made and wore them. I felt their presence. If you think that’s strange, consider these remarks in a recent New Yorker magazine article by NYU Professor Jessamyn Hatcher, an expert in textile and fiber art: “Clothing is different from most other kinds of objects in museums. Garments never lose the imprint of the body that was once inside them; indeed, the chemical reactions between the materials of the garments and the wearer’s body are ongoing.”

In a move of great significance, the texts on the walls of the exhibit and in the catalog speak in the present tense, unlike so many discussions of Indians that deploy past tense verbs, as if Indians no longer exist. The exhibition, though it presents primarily old works, makes clear that Indians exist, here and now; that Indians have survived centuries of invasive colonialism and domination. 

This point is emphasized by the inclusion of contemporary works by Native artists, which, in the words of Gaylord Torrence in the Introduction to the catalog, “reveal lasting forms along with evolving concepts.” The exhibit and catalog, he writes, “present a view of Plains Indian aesthetic traditions over the long history…and as they are being redefined today.” 

There is a past tense to the exhibition, simply because the older objects represent an era that no longer exists: the era defined by horses and buffalo. But even this, as Colin Calloway explains in an opening essay in the catalog, “was a phase in a story of perpetual change.” Horses and buffalo still live, but they are not the defining elements of contemporary Plain cultures.

The catalog authors are forthright in naming the historical factors that disrupted Plains Indians and their art. Torrence: “Artistic expression from this period…reflects the efforts of missionaries, forced educational policies, effects of Wild West shows, and perceptions of popular American culture.” Calloway: “The United States demanded the destruction of their way of life as well as their military subjugation.”

Part way through the exhibit, I recalled the epithet about Indian trade beads—that Indians are so simple they valued  “trinkets.” It dawned on me that the pervasive integration of trinkets—beads, buttons, small metal objects—with such native ornamentation as porcupine quills and feathers marks a sophisticated aesthetic consciousness of daily life. Indian art is integral to everyday objects, not a separate category of performance.

Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Lakota) addresses this in an opening essay in the catalog. He writes, “art is where the underpinnings of tribal thought and values are encrypted.” He adds, the adornment of clothing and other items to signify “successful encounter[s] with spiritual powers” and “success in the hunt or battle” amount to “message systems advocating collective tribal pride.” 

Amiotte discusses how these practices and materials changed in response to U.S. government prohibition of Indian ceremonial and social occasions: “Some…pieces were exchanged for food and household necessities at the newly established trading posts.” Ornamented clothing also became “decorative outfits for show performers” in “Wild West tours.”

“Today,” Amiotte continues, tribal arts and ancient beliefs “are once again conjoined…imparting a clear message: ‘We have survived, we are here today, well-adorned, in joyous celebration of our heritage as Native Americans.'”

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” opened in Paris, at the Musée du quai Branly, traveled to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and completes its journey at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It draws on the strengths of each of these institutions, in a collaborative effort to recognize and promote “masterpieces of non-Western art”; in this case, the “sophistication and power of Plains Indian art.”

The exhibition catalog is a work of art in itself, containing images and detailed descriptions of every item, together with a series of informative and scholarly introductions. The Met has placed digital images, videos, and an audio guide online, so those who cannot visit in person may yet experience the power and beauty of the work.

“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse”: Peter Matthiessen Leaves a Legacy

Peter Matthiessen left this life on April 5, 2014. His obituary appeared in the Arts section of the New York Times, a fitting tribute to the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction.

Indian Country remembers Matthiessen for his book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” an indictment of the U.S. government’s prosecution and conviction of Leonard Peltier in the killing of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975. The book became a lightning rod for non-Indian attacks. Two lawsuits delayed distribution of the book at a crucial time in Leonard’s legal appeals, when an FBI agent and a former South Dakota governor each sued Matthiessen and his publisher for libel. Courts eventually dismissed the suits, but the costs to defend the book amounted to two million dollars.

Matthiessen wrote with breadth and depth about subjects around the globe. The New York Times obituary listed a sample: “‘Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons of Stone Age New Guinea’ (1962); ‘Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea’ (1967); ‘The Shorebirds of North America’ (1967, revised as ‘The Wind Birds’ in 1973); ‘Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark’ (1971); ‘The Tree Where Man Was Born’ (1972), a contemplative account of East Africa; and ‘Sand Rivers’ (1981), about a safari in the Selous Game Preserve in Tanzania.”

“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse”—like other exposés of the government’s efforts to imprison leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM)—riled not only the FBI and a governor, but also some reviewers. Two negative reviews of particular significance were in Newsweek magazine (March 28, 1983) and The New York Times Book Review (March 6, 1983).

The Newsweek reviewer, Peter Prescott, found the book “bloated” with interviews and documents, but nevertheless said, “Matthiessen argues convincingly that…Peltier…was railroaded into an illegal conviction…. The accounts he gives of federal lawlessness…become in time stupefying.”

In an astonishing turnabout, however, Prescott concluded that Peltier did not deserve further attention because his case is “not particularly interesting. Its manifold injustices are in no way unique or even uncommon.”

In other words, the Newsweek reviewer dismissed the significance of Leonard’s case on the ground that the same injustices are happening to other people all the time! This perspective contradicts human rights and the bill of rights, but it passed the editors of a national magazine.

The New York Times reviewer was Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Despite his reputation as a constitutional and criminal law scholar, Dershowitz did not regard the evidence of an FBI frame-up as very significant. He wrote, “Matthiessen…fails to convince.” Dershowitz’s review was replete with white guilt clichés, like the comment that it will be “impossible for any sensitive reader ever again to enjoy Mount Rushmore.”

Dershowitz waxed romantic about the historical Crazy Horse—”a noble 19th-century leader of Indian resistance”—but as for Leonard Peltier and AIM, they were “violent…self-destructive…self-appointed…radical(s)” who “exploited their…heritage for their own personal ends.”

Dershowitz concluded, like Prescott, with the suggestion that Peltier “ended where (he belongs)—in jail.” Dershowitz’s book review prompted a protest in his office by Harvard students and members of the Massachusetts Indian community, who accused him of “insult” and “slander” of Indians.

Without Matthiessen’s understanding of Indian people and culture, the book never could have been written. No amount of “objective interest” would have been enough to gain admittance to the homes, hearts, minds, and memories of the numerous Indian people whom Matthiessen interviewed. Too many Indians have been affronted by too many well-intentioned whites—from authors to missionaries to lawyers—for any Indian person to easily share information with a writer or reporter, especially on a topic of potentially lethal significance.

Matthiessen’s ability to enter people’s lives gave him access not only to Indians present at the shoot-out and involved in previous and subsequent events, but also to crucial informants on the other side—most notably David Price, the FBI Special Agent whose aggressive surveillance of AIM leaders made him a key figure in the prosecution of Leonard Peltier.

Matthiessen didn’t idealize anything to conclude that Leonard Peltier’s conviction and imprisonment amount to an injustice. Matthiessen’s interviews—revealing fabricated testimony, intimidated witnesses, suppressed evidence, and other prosecutorial wrongs—were confirmed in 12,000 pages of documents obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Peltier’s attorneys. These documents eventually led Matthiessen to conclude that “Leonard Peltier deserved a new trial, not only because of dishonest proceedings…but because of accumulating evidence that the authorities had wanted him out of the way whether he was guilty or not.”

“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” includes chapters about the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, providing a valuable addition to that period of American history. Despite the enormous publicity focused on AIM during its periods of high conflict, no comprehensive account of the movement and its organization occurred until Matthiessen’s book. His interviews with most of the key figures and many observers offer a definitive history of AIM.

Matthiessen also includes a very useful chapter on the Wounded Knee trials, showing the misconduct and political aspects of those prosecutions. Still other chapters discuss the impact on AIM of COINTELPRO, the FBI secret counter-intelligence project directed against domestic protest groups—including a discussion of the activities of then South Dakota Assistant Attorney General William Janklow cooperating with the FBI’s program to “neutralize” AIM.

The bulk of “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” consists of a very detailed presentation of the 1975 Pine Ridge shoot-out and its aftermath in criminal prosecutions. Separate chapters present the shoot-out itself from the viewpoints of the Indians and the FBI. Matthiessen provided extensive documentation and interview material, and carefully reviewed every aspect of each event in an attempt to come as close as possible to what may be said to be the truth. In the course of several chapters, a full, moving history emerges.

Ultimately, the central thread of “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” becomes an exploration of the long conflict between whites and Indians, showing it as attempted cultural genocide. Matthiessen helped us understand that the Indian wars have not ended. Today, rangeland is less important than the minerals beneath it, and the forces of giant energy corporations have supplemented the cowboys.

The overall coordination of the Indian wars is still in the hands people whose vision of the world is dominated by the quest for ever-greater accumulation of material wealth. In this context, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” demonstrates that a shoot-out between Indians and FBI agents at Pine Ridge reservation in 1975 was a battle and not simply a crime.

J. G. Ballard and the Death of Rain (thoughts on the oil volcano in the Gulf)

In 1965, novelist J. G. Ballard published The Drought, an expanded version of his science fiction novel published a year earlier, The Burning World. With these early novels, Ballard was well under way toward achieving the literary distinction of having a genre named for him: “ballardian” — “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

The story of The Drought is the disappearance of potable water, a consequence of the disappearance of rain. The excerpt quoted below provides a capsule history of the disappearance and an explanation for it: the disruption of the hydrologic cycle caused by a thin “mono-molecular film” on the surface of the oceans. Covered by this film, the oceans no longer provide sufficient evaporation to produce rain on the world’s lands.

The striking thing about Ballard’s dystopian vision is in the details: The ocean film is “a complex of saturated long-chain polymers,” formed from a “brew” of “highly reactive industrial wastes—unwanted petroleum fractions, contaminated catalysts and solvents… mingled with the wastes of atomic power stations and sewage schemes.” Here is not only a vision, but prescience, a glimpse into a world post- British Petroleum’s Deep Horizon well blow-out.

Here is the excerpt [from pp. 33-35, Triad/Panther paperback (1985)]:

The world-wide drought now in its fifth month was the culmination of a series of extended droughts that had taken place with increasing frequency all over the globe during the previous decade. Ten years earlier a critical shortage of world food-stuffs had occurred when the seasonal rainfall expected in a number of important agricultural areas had failed to materialize. One by one, areas as far apart as Saskatchewan and the Loire valley, Kazakhstan and the Madras tea country were turned into arid dust-basins. The following months brought little more than a few inches of rain, and after two years these farmlands were totally devastated. Once their populations had resettled themselves elsewhere, these new deserts were abandoned for good.

The continued appearance of more and more such areas on the map, and the added difficulties of making good the world’s food supplies, led to the first attempts at some form of global weather control. A survey by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showed that everywhere river levels and water tables were falling. The two-and-a-half million square miles drained by the Amazon had shrunk to less than half this area. Scores of its tributaries had dried up completely, and aerial surveys discovered that much of the former rainforest was already dry and petrified. At Khartoum, in lower Egypt, the White Nile was twenty feet below its mean level ten years earlier and lower outlets were bored in the concrete barrage of the dam at Aswan.

Despite world wide attempts at cloud-seeding, the amounts of rainfall continued to diminish. The seeding operations finally ended when it was obvious that not only was there no rain, but there were no c1ouds. At this point attention switched to the ultimate source of rainfall—the ocean surface. It needed only the briefest scientific examination to show that here were the origins of the drought.

Covering the off-shore waters of the world’s oceans, to a distance of about a thousand miles from the coast, was a thin but resilient mono-molecular film formed from a complex of saturated long-chain polymers, generated within the sea from the vast quantities of industrial wastes discharged into the ocean basins during the previous fifty years. This tough, oxygen-permeable membrane lay on the air—water interface and prevented almost all evaporation of surface water into the air space above. Although the structure of these polymers was quickly identified, no means was found of removing them. The saturated linkages produced in the perfect organic bath of the sea were completely non-reactive, and formed an intact seal broken only when the water was violently disturbed. Fleets of trawlers and naval craft equipped with rotating flails began to ply up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America, and along the sea-boards of Western Europe, but without any long-term effects. Likewise, the removal of the entire surface water provided only a temporary respite—the film quickly replaced itself by lateral extension from the surrounding surface, recharged by precipitation from the reservoir below.

The mechanism of formation of these polymers remained obscure, but millions of tons of highly reactive industrial wastes—unwanted petroleum fractions, contaminated catalysts and solvents—were still being vented into the sea, where they mingled with the wastes of atomic power stations and sewage schemes. Out of this brew the sea had constructed a skin no thicker than a few atoms, but sufficiently strong to devastate the lands it once irrigated.

This act of retribution by the sea had always impressed Ransom by its simple justice. Cetyl alcohol films, had long been used as a means of preventing evaporation from water reservoirs, and nature had merely extended the principle, applying a fractional tilt, at first imperceptible, to the balance of the elements. As if further to tantalize mankind, the billowing cumulus clouds, burdened like madonnas with cool rain, which still formed over the central ocean surfaces, would sail steadily towards the shorelines but always deposit their cargo into the dry unsaturated air above the sealed offshore waters, never on to the crying land.

There are those who will claim the mantle of science to dismiss Ballard’s vision as only fiction. The federal government itself, in partnership with BP, would have us believe the oil volcano (or “spill”) in the Gulf has been capped with no long-term damage to the ocean. Here’s their report, released on August 4, 2010, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey:

…. burning, skimming and direct recovery from the wellhead removed one quarter (25%) of the oil released from the wellhead. One quarter (25%) of the total oil naturally evaporated or dissolved, and just less than one quarter (24%) was dispersed (either naturally or as a result of operations) as microscopic droplets into Gulf waters. The residual amount — just over one quarter (26%) — is either on or just below the surface as light sheen and weathered tar balls, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments. Oil in the residual and dispersed categories is in the process of being degraded.

Despite this rosy assessment, the report concludes: “… federal scientists remain extremely concerned about the impact of the spill to the Gulf ecosystem. Fully understanding the impacts of this spill on wildlife, habitats, and natural resources in the Gulf region will take time and continued monitoring and research.”

In Ballard’s story, the “full understanding” took about a decade to acquire.

In a sign that others are more attuned to the dystopic possibilities of the blow-out in the Gulf, the report “set off a war of words … among scientists, Gulf Coast residents and political pundits about what to make of the Deepwater Horizon spill and its aftermath,” according to an article in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, further research by other scientists “confirms the existence of a huge plume of dispersed oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico and suggests that it has not broken down rapidly, raising the possibility that it might pose a threat to wildlife for months or even years.” The dispute about the science is ongoing, and at least one observer understands the potential for fiction in scientific reports: Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Environment subpanel, said during a hearing on the official report, “People want to believe everything is OK, and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf.”

Local news reports along the Gulf coast provide additional information contradicting the official report: “a coalition of Gulf community activists, scientists and philanthropists are saying the federal government and BP are misrepresenting the amount of oil left to be cleaned up in the Gulf of Mexico and the safety of eating seafood from the region.”

One long-term Florida resident provides a useful compendium of information on a website wholly devoted to the Gulf oil mess: “What I was seeing in the local and national media barely scratched the surface.”

If you want to take a quick look at the kind of science that is being used to study oil in the oceans — including the variety of assumptions (dare we say “fictions”?) involved — see these documents:

1. The “Ask a Scientist” answer to a nine-year-old student’s question, “Does oil evaporate?“; provided by the Newton Project of the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy:

… the molecules in some kinds of liquids, like oil for example, are rather large and well-tangled up and attached to each other. This means that evaporation, if it occurs at all, is very slow.

2. “Evaporation of Oil Spills,” by M. F. Fingas, Emergencies Science Division, Environmental Technology Division, Environment Canada, submitted to Journal of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1994:

Although the process of oil evaporation is understood, the application of evaporation equations in spill models is sometimes difficult. This relates to the input data required for the equations. There are only 3 relatively well-used schemes currently employed in models. The most commonly used is that of evaporative exposure as proposed by Stiver and Mackay (1984). Difficulties with the implementation of this model are primarily in terms of input data. Model implementation requires a mass transfer coefficient and a vapour pressure for each oil. These are not routinely measured for oil and must be estimated using other techniques. The second most-commonly used method is that of applying oil fraction-cut data. These methods are applied by using the readily-available distillation curves to estimate parameters for the Mackay equations noted above or in a direct technique. The third most common method is to assume a loss rate which is estimated from oil properties and the presumption that the oil moves linearly or logarithmically to that end point.

A blurb from The New Statesman, reviewing Ballard’s The Drought, is quoted on the front cover of the 1985 paperback edition: “powerfully credible, a compulsive nightmare.”

Indeed.

A statistic from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Approximately 80% of all evaporation is from the oceans, with the remaining 20% coming from inland water and vegetation.”

Thomas Friedman’s Burden

Wow! Thomas Friedman’s books and columns, parading as hip political-economy for a Globalized Flat World, are really naive, romantic longings for an imagined Past.

Friedman wishes he could have been “a district governor in Africa or India,” he tells Ian Parker [“Profile: The Bright Side” (New Yorker Magazine, November 10, 2008)]. Friedman’s “eyes … dampened” as he reads aloud from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, “a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.”

Friedman elaborates, “You could get places relatively easy (sic) — but they were still totally unspoiled and cultures hadn’t been polluted. That period, I’ve always loved.” He adds, “There was a sense of discovery. Who can discover anything anymore?”

Poor Thomas. I’ve always seen him as naive. Now I understand how deeply rooted his naivete is: He believes in The White man’s Burden! He want to be one of those White Men. He longs for a romantic governorship in a distant land, made safe for travel by the White Man’s inventions, but still populated by quiescent Natives to do all the work. His best-selling, prize-winning writings on Globalization are the old wine of Colonialism and Empire “re- branded” in new bottles and marketed to a public equally romantic, equally naive.

Friedman’s sense of loss — nothing left to discover — is an integral part of The White Man’s romantic vision. He imagines an aboriginal time, a time before time, before History. In this Pure Prehistory, things are “unspoiled,” cultures “unpolluted.” One imagines the Biblical Eden and understands the Crusades as a quest for the Grail of Originality. These fantasies have long since been pricked. We know that humans and cultures are always influencing one another, and that this doesn’t require The White Man’s Empires and Colonial interventions, and that the intermixing of cultures is not “pollution.”

Friedman wants to “brand” his thoughts, to preserve a claim to originality (and to copyright). But there is nothing new here. Only the brand itself is new. We’ve seen the ideas before.

One more thing. A tip to Tom: You’ll discover lots of new things if you get out of the rickshaw.