Debunking Myths for Species Survival
Debunking Myths for Species Survival
by Glenn Morris
For many people socialized in the United States, the only exposure to indigenous political leaders is an image of a “Big Chief” on the cover of their grade school writing tablet.1 This image, coupled with Hollywood distortions of indigenous peoples and societies, has convinced nonindigenous Western society that sociopolitical structure among American Indians was male/warrior dominated, barbaric, and autocratic, without room for individual liberty or dissent. However, these traditional Western descriptions of indigenous society could not be farther from reality.2
Prejudiced myths about indigenous peoples were developed early and planted deep in Western historical writings. By the nineteenth century, such notable authors as Lewis Henry Morgan, John Locke, and Frederich Engels were describing indigenous social organization in terms ranging from the backhanded “primitive communism” to the pejorative “barbaric.” They anticipated the day when indigenous peoples would evolve into an industrial, presumably “civilized,” form of capitalism or communism.3
Now, ironically, indigenous peoples watch the system based on Engels’ version of advanced communism disintegrate, and watch the Lockean capitalist system move ever closer to the environmental precipice. Meanwhile, the “primitive” political systems of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) and other indigenous nations continue to function effectively after at least four centuries despite continuous oppression from “civilized” society.4 The idea that indigenous communalism is an archaic relic of the past, holding no lessons or usefulness in the late twentieth century, reflects an ignorance about the nature of indigenous North American social organization. Sadly, this ignorance and lack of respect prevent consideration, or even awareness, of fundamental solutions to some of the most pressing problems of our time.
At the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, called the Earth Summit, the organizers from the industrial nations offered few serious proposals for reversing the negative effects of Western development vision. Indigenous peoples from around the world felt compelled to offer their own vision of how to retrieve the species from the brink of destruction. Known as the Kari-Oca Declaration,5 after the community in which it was decided, this statement proposes to move the planet toward a saner environmental vision and demands justice for the world’s indigenous peoples — the most immediate victims of technological expansion. In the indigenous people’s viewpoint, the dominant paradigm cannot shift if Western governments fail to recognize the similarities between their historic policies of extermination and their contemporary attitudes and actions.
[Copyright the Fellowship for Intentional Community 1996]
1. Bataille, Gretchen, and Charles L.P. Silet, editors, The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies (Ames lA: lowa State University Press, 1980), discusses the shaping of the collective consciousness of the United States regarding indigenous peoples, as do the following titles. Berkhoffer, Robert F., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1978). Deloria, Vine, God Is Red (New York: Dell, 1973), reissued by Fulcrum, 1993. Drinnon, Richard, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (New York: Shocken Books, 1990), 2nd edition. Horsman, Reginald, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origin of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981) (especially Chapter 10). Stedman, William Raymond, Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
2. Schusky, Ernest, editor, Political Organization of Native North Americans (Washington: University Press of America, 1970). Vogel, Virgil, This Country Was Ours: A Documentary History of the American Indian (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).
3. Engels, Frederich, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1942, 1975). Locke, John, The Second Treatise of Government (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1952). Morgan, Lewis Henry, Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, 1877. League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee, Iroquois, 1851.
4. Colden, Cadwallader, The History of the Five Indian Nations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958)(originally published in 1727). “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” Akwesasne Notes, 1978, Mohawk Nation, Rooseveltown NY 13683.
5. The Kari-Oca Declaration is available from the author at the Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics, Department of Political Science, University of Colorado at Denver, Campus Box 190, P.O. Box 173364, Denver CO 80217.