The sun that looks down upon us today, and gives us light and heat, sees that our hearts are true, and that what we do is good for the poor red man.
—Blackfoot, Mountain Crow, 1873 at Crow Agency,
Montana (Vanderwerth: 157)
The theory and practice of mass liberatory nonviolence comes to us in the original from peoples of color, from Gandhi and then from other liberation struggles in Africa, Asia and America. The roots of the philosophies and cultural practices that informed the various movements for liberation and defense are sometimes clear and traceable and often obscure and require informed guesswork. The research into nonviolence and into Native cultures is constantly underway and under revision. The synthesis between the two is a relatively unexplored arena.
Even the origins of Native Americans is anything but a settled question, with the upending of the Clovis peoples as the original humans on the continent by digs in Chile and many other locales showing evidence of earlier inhabitants, some of whom probably pushed north. (Dillehay: 15) With two peoples, probably quite different from each other, pushing north from the far south and the other groups pushing south and east from the Bering Strait land bridge some 12,000 years ago, can we make categorical statements about peoples and their culturally developed methods of dealing with conflict? Probably not easily at this juncture. But where the record exists, it is worth noting, especially in the context of developing conflict management methods that can operate with some success in asymmetric struggles. Nonviolence is a logical option, in many cases, for cultures in conflict with more militarily powerful and morally underdeveloped conflict practices.
Objectifying the Originals: Just War on Natives
A well known tenet of the theory of killing and violence, of war and invasion, is that we must objectify the enemy before sending soldiers against them. When we can do that, we remove the proscriptions we naturally feel against killing them. Indeed, when they are no longer human, when they can be equated with vermin of some type—either subhuman or superhuman—we can feel naturally able to act in self-defense, even when we are committing horrific acts of invasive, unjust, brutality against fellow humans. While various Native Americans--from those who greeted the starving Pilgrims and taught them to survive, to Sacagawea and on and on--treated the aliens well, the invaders responded with such avarice and disregard that violent conflict eventually began. But the patience of the original people was tremendous. Those who actually choose to read the recorded comments of Native Americans throughout US history will find, as Dee Brown points out, “words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages.” (Brown: xix)
Dehumanizing the Other is not hard; indeed, it seems to come naturally to humans, whether they are oppressors or victims in shock at their shackles. The objectification of indigenous peoples by invading colonizers is easily recognized and commonly understood by those who listen to mainstream discourse in the dominant culture. One must go deeper to hear and understand the response from the oppressed. In her brilliant work describing the life of blacks in the Deep South before Civil Rights, Maya Angelou writes of the common perception of whites: “I couldn’t force myself to think of them as people--Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn’t walk on the balls of their feet the way people did—they walked on their heels like horses.” (Angelou: 21)
Explaining the inexplicable is possible if the Other is not human. How could white people be so intensely and purposefully mean and cruel? It seemed to be impossible until they could be understood as another species entirely. For the dominant identity, it works to make the other identity either less than or more than human; either makes the Other nonhuman and potentially an unreasoning threat that can only be dealt with using coercion, which, to most, implies a threat of extreme violence. We may even need to drive an entire population away—away to another place, a reservation, another nation. If the worst comes, it may be a regrettable necessity to completely eliminate them from the planet. Thus, dehumanization devolves into ethnic cleansing, which in turn degrades into genocide under the most awful circumstances.
Robert Drinnon and many others document this phenomenon in various scholarly works examining the process by which EuroAmericans perpetrated Manifest Destiny on what would become the United States of America. The slaughter, the injustice, the blatant robbery at gunpoint, the genocidal attack on inhabitants of a rich land—all justified, all made possible by learning to twist the images of who these original inhabitants were. When whites and Indians battled and the whites prevailed, it was a military victory. When Indians won the day, it was a massacre. Often the cultural mythology that described Natives as brutal and violent was more akin to the psychological phenomenon we know as projection, i.e., we take the worst behavior of which we know ourselves capable and assume the foe will engage in it at every opportunity.
Thus, for example, when Daniel Boone—basically a greedy real estate entrepreneur who had zero tolerance for rights of the original inhabitants—explored Kentucky in search of free real estate to peddle, he wandered at will through the vast forests, paranoid that the “painted savage red man” would come upon him, discover his scheme to steal their land and lifeways, and foil him. (Drinnon: 133) He needed to make them seem stealthy, sneaky and intolerant, and he did so with zeal. This justified his conduct, his rapacious and invasive robbery of great swatches of territory. This fits precisely with classical conflict theory from Coser to Levine and Campbell and others, which holds that real conflict is generated by perception of threat from another party based on an understood conflict of interest. That perception thus causes hostility, in-group solidarity and identity and, ultimately, acts based on this created ethnocentrism. (Polkinghorn: 86)
At any time, of course, the local Natives could have dispatched Daniel Boone with little trouble, but they never did. They lived and let live, but that trait was ignored. When they were violated, they sometimes struck back, but generally the initiation of violence was a US-Euro event. And the anthropologists tell us that, generally, even an unprovoked raiding party fatality amongst the plains tribes would only result in an equivalent retributive raid, not in a vengeance of great bloodletting. In one recorded event, a Hidatsa party killed one Hunkpapa. “The Hunkpapa also followed custom by accepting the death of one of their number without attempting to wipe out the whole party. Had they sought to revenge the loss of their comrade, one scalp would have sufficed.” (Peters: 98)
During that period, 1763-1776, the British Empire had declared that the lands west of the colonies were Indian lands. The Proclamation of 1763 was, for the most part, a recognition that tribes were becoming increasingly hostile to the unjust theft of their lands, and that they were beginning to organize larger coalitions to militarily oppose British expansion, including strategically aligning with France during the North American extension of the Seven Years War in Europe, known in North America as the confusingly named French and Indian War. It turned out that the French were not objectifying Native Americans nearly as much as the English, that they were assimilating into tribal life and tribes were assimilating into French colonial life, that the French and Indians were intermarrying and trading on a more equal footing. The British, by contrast, were imperial conquerors who attacked, subjugated and naturally alienated the tribes. (Zinn: 125) The complexities of these relationships and alliances further diversified Native American conflict management models.
Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. NYC: Bantam Books, 1971 (original 1969).
Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. NYC: Henry Holt, 1970.
Dillehay, Thomas D., The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory. NYC: Basic Books, 2000.
Drinnon, Richard, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating & Empire-Building. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997 (original edition 1980).
Peters, Virginia Bergman, Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains. North Haven CT: Archon, 1995.
Polkinghorn, Brian D., “The social origins of environmental resource conflict: Exposing the roots of tangible disputes,” in: Byrne, Sean and Cynthia L. Irvin, Reconcilable Differences: Turning Points in Ethnopolitical Conflict. West Hartford CT: Kumarian Press, 2000.
Venderwerth, W.C., ed., Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains. NYC: Ballantine, 1971.
Zinn, Howard, The Future of History: Interviews with David Barsamian. Monroe ME: Common Courage Press, 1999.