Monday, November 08, 2010

Hoka hey!

Trying to understand Native American nonviolence requires substantial context. Some of the elements might include the following.

US-Indian law: a double-edged sword
When tribes were overrun by the Euro-invasion, the tribal sovereignties were forfeit in favor of the so-called “trust” relationship, defined in the Chief Justice Marshall’s 1831 opinion Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, in which Marshall described the tribes in a state of “pupilage.” (Slade: online) Marshall may have been referring to the incorporation of a unique Cherokee Syllabary just a decade earlier, in 1821, by Sequoyah, though literacy rates among the Cherokee immediately skyrocketed past those of their EuroAmerican neighbors (Arnold and Plymire 2003, 715). This corpus of law has permitted the abrogation of treaties on the one hand and has subsequently been used to protect the tribes on the other. In a further and updated paradox, this body of law has been used to provide elevated and more robust levels of environmental protection for both reservation land and even ceded territory, while at the same time leaving open an avenue to negotiate government-to-government for US disposal of federally managed wastes—nuclear waste in particular—on tribal lands.

When white sportsmen’s groups and resort owners associations opposed Anishinabe treaty rights in the 1980s, tribal leader Walter Bresette predicted they would come to appreciate those treaty rights as the best environmental protection for all. He was scoffed at and then proven correct. Treaty rights law has been defended nonviolently and has, in turn, provided a tool in the nonviolent tool chest of various tribes.

Indigenous alliance
While I am from one nation of indigenous peoples, there are an estimated 500 million indigenous peoples or some 5,000 nations of indigenous peoples worldwide. We are in the Cordilleras, East Timor, New Zealand, Australia, Tibet, New Caledonia, Hawaii, North America, South America, and beyond. We are not populations nor minority groups. We are peoples and nations of peoples. Under international law we meet the criteria of nation states with each having a common economic system, language, territory, history, culture, and governing institutions—conditions under which indicate nations of peoples.
—Winona LaDuke (LaDuke, 2002: 211)

The alliance with indigenous peoples worldwide will vastly assist Native Americans in their ongoing nonviolent assertion of their sovereignty, their treaty rights and their ethnic and human rights. An essential element of the theory and practice of nonviolence is to alter the asymmetry of power relations through coalitions internally and externally. Thus, even though the US is the largest military the world has ever seen, victories can be won in opposition to the US government, and those victories are much more likely when the smaller groups—bands, tribes, or even nations of Native Americans—join with other indigenous peoples in whatever ways they can transnationally. People like Winona LaDuke make that happen on an ongoing, systemic basis. The results are sometimes quick, sometimes long in coming, but are amongst the most fruitful organizational work in the trend toward Native nonviolent power.

Nonviolent warriors
It looked bad for us. Then I heard voices crying in our language: “Take courage! This is a good day to die! Think of the children and the helpless at home!” So we all yelled “Hoka hey!” and charged the cavalrymen.
—Iron Hawk, quoted in Black Elk Speaks (Black Elk: 101)

Many suspect that the real reason we admire warriors is not so much that they will kill enemies, but rather more that they are prepared to die. Indeed, the fallen warriors on the losing side are remembered longer than the victors, oftentimes. It is telling, however, that some Native American tribes taught that war means warriors experiencing suffering and pain as much, or more, than inflicting that on others. In her germinal study Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts the practices of the Taulipang Indians of South America, who, when victorious, sat on biting ants, passing a cord covered with such ants through the mouth and nose. (Ehrenreich: 12) This is far closer to the empathy with victims so notably absent in, for example, pilot training for air force bombers and fighters, where the officers are trained to make sorties that may inflict flaming death on hundreds of people and come back to base for beer and pizza, laughing together about the rush a good bombing run can provide. Which is the advanced culture?

Nonviolence is largely about the willingness to sacrifice and the unwillingness to sully that sacrifice by shedding someone else’s blood. At the heart, then, of the warrior cultures both violent and nonviolent, is the concept of selfless sacrifice. This is why Gandhi was so excited about the nonviolent Muslim movement coming out of the warlike Pashtuns under Badshah Khan and it is why Native Americans can make some of the most powerful nonviolent warriors. Native American scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., in his germinal God Is Red, noted, “Death merely marks a passage from one form of experience to another. Rather than fearing death, tribal religions see it as an affirmation of life’s reality.” (Deloria: 177) Whether using violent or nonviolent means to fight, the willingness to die while protecting the vulnerable ones is a mark of the warrior and is understandable across most cultures. Sadly for the violent warrior, he is usually hated by the other side, while the nonviolent warrior can gradually win respect and even love from the people—if not the leadership—on the other side.

We can see the power of the nonviolent warrior transformation across the globe, from the history of the Badshah Khan in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the indigenous nonviolent struggles for their lifeways throughout the Americas. Gandhi always felt that one ought to learn to be a warrior and then one might be ready to learn to elevate the method of struggle to that of a nonviolent warrior. He stressed purification and self-discipline, two qualities valued by combat troops in their most proud moments. Indeed, Gandhi was very excited upon meeting the huge Abdul Ghaffar Khan—upon whom his Pashtun warrior people had bestowed the honorific Badshah Khan. Khan was a hereditary leader, a natural leader, and a nonviolent leader. He was Gandhi’s most stalwart ally even in the most fractious days of the Indian National Congress and he showed again and again the courage and self-sacrifice it takes to wage nonviolent liberatory struggle.

Sociologist Al Gedicks examines the Native struggles against transnational extractive industry corporations and recounts the story of the natural heirs to the nonviolent campaign of rainforest indigenous lifeways protection led by Chico Mendes. A military dictatorship, in power from 1964-1985 was supported by the US administrations, and indigenous opposition grew steadily as mining and timber extraction corporations ruined vast sections of the Amazon rainforest that provided Native peoples with everything. On one occasion, 400 indigenous Kayapo leaders in warpaint converged on a federal courthouse. One of their leaders, Paiakan, said to the assembled press, “my people were great warriors. We were afraid of nothing. We are still not afraid of anything. But now, instead of war clubs, we are using words.” (Gedicks: 10)

The Native trends have always competed as tensions over injustices grew; while some tribes were drifting toward final showdowns with the invading US settlers and armed forces in the last half of the 19th century, various chiefs were desperately singing death songs as they led warriors into generally suicidal battles with vast armies equipped with mechanized tools of genocide, including machine guns. Others—known only locally nowadays because they weren’t as dramatic as the arrow-shooting suicide squads—were on the peacepath. Chief Sarah Winnemucca of the Piutes, for example, learned the language of the invader, and methodically outreached to the common whites from coast to coast in speaking tours, telling the stories of bloodshed and robbery, stories of the peaceful Native ways, and insisting on justice. She wooed and wowed audiences in San Francisco and Boston, laboriously wrote a book documenting the facts of the invasion as she understood it, and appealed passionately to the sense of justice amongst the whites—just as Dr. King would do thousands of times 80 years later. Indeed, one of her biographers, in describing that portion of her life, calls it “A different kind of battle.” (Morrison: 145)

Arnold, Ellen L., and Darcy C. Plymire, “The Cherokee Indians and the internet,” in: Dines, Gail, and Jean M. Humez, eds., Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 2003.

Black Elk, online:

Deloria, Jr., Vine, God Is Red. NYC: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. NYC: Metropolitan Books, 1997.

Gedicks, Al, Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. Cambridge MA: South End Press, 2001.

LaDuke, Winona, The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater MN: Voyageur Press, 2002.

Morrison, Dorothy Nafus, Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca’s Fight for Indian Rights. Portland OR: Oregon Historical Society Press.

Slade, JD, Lynn S., “The Federal Trust Responsibility In A Self-Determination Era,” online:

No comments: