Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nonviolent roots, shoots, fruits

Indigenous mentoring

When some ponder nonviolence in this ahistoric era, they seem to dismiss it as an artifact from the historic peace churches in Europe; this is only a tiny part of the rich legacy of nonviolence, and not its most important thread. From Gandhi to King to Aung San Suu Kyi to Rosa Parks, Rigoberta Menchu, Cesar Chavez and countless more people of color, the traditional roots of nonviolence are apparent.

There are those, of course, who would deny that even Gandhi would count as a non-European initiator of nonviolence, since he was educated in London and took influence from Tolstoy, Thoreau and others. But his roots were not only clearly in his own culture, his direct mentors were virtually all Indians, beginning with his political mentee relationship to Gopal Krishna Gokale and others. (Erickson: 178) Further, Gandhi increasingly shed the ways of the West as he matured, reaching more deeply into his own indigenous roots for ongoing strength, wisdom and inspiration.

The same is true for the vast majority of Native American warriors of the nonviolent spirit, and is noticeable both in group-to-group nonviolent struggle and in community efforts to mitigate and eliminate the various forms of violence in Native American communities, where, for example, tribal men are often taught by their mentors that, before whites conquered Native nations, domestic abuse was virtually nonexistent because it was so powerfully frowned upon that there was a disincentive to engage in such negative practices. (Warters: online)

Peace education

One of the elements in a war system is an educational system that glorifies nationalism, excuses or even praises violence, teaches tolerance only as long as everyone wishes to be like us and intolerance otherwise, dismisses nonviolence, and focuses on dominant cultural stories, narrative and solutions.

One of the elements in a peace system, then, is an educational system where nonviolence is admired, where multiculturalism is valued as more than quaint appreciation for curiosities in funny costumes with bizarre customs, and where students and teachers believe that each culture offers a great deal for all.

Sometimes, in the context of a war culture, teaching peace generates fear, and, to the extent that this fear can be allayed and overcome, students and teachers can proceed toward learning how to help build societies that help humans live with each other and with the Earth. (Harris: 192) We've all been taught much about Native violence. Learning about Native American nonviolence is a challenge to each of these elements, and can offer significant steps to students and teachers intending to build a peace system.

Carrying peace education into the general discourse in society is what peace researchers Bertram I. Spector and I. William Zartman call the development of “knowledge and consciousness-raising (epistemic) communities.” (Spector and Zartman: 289) When vectors of information dissemination are used systematically, the conditions for consensus are created, social norms are morphed and we can even achieve global mores that are guarantors of some measures of peacekeeping and better conflict management. This epistemic approach can create global consensus so profound that outbreaks of previously acceptable, or excusable, behavior will not be tolerated. It can change the conditions of debate, e.g., from whether slavery is ever acceptable to how best to eliminate it when it appears. Learning nonviolent indigenous approaches to conflict management can be a significant element in this epistemological process.

198 ways, plus

Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp assembled a list of 198 nonviolent tactics. Gandhi and King were creators of some, but many more tactics have been identified. Looking through Native American history, we may find all 198 used by one tribe or another, and they have, no doubt, added to that list. Examples are instructive.


When an unscrupulous sewage disposal company leased land from a tribal member of the Torres Martinez tribe in the Coachella Valley of California, it wasn’t long before there were literally half a million tons of human waste in a foul mountain on the 120-acre site. Locals asked for help from other organizations both Native and non-Native, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, Greenpeace, the United Farm Workers and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. They joined in a two-week blockade and, in conjunction with a court challenge, shut down the dump. (Lewis: 145)

That is the Native American spirit that will offer profound hope to Native peoples and non-Natives alike. When a tiny minority finds the moral high ground and can generate enough support, perhaps they can change social norms, societal practice and public policy. It has happened before and Native peoples offer shining examples of that peaceful path. We need not long dwell on the history of violent Native response to attack, robbery, invasion and other insult; many other sources do fine work in describing that history, though it sometimes serves to place nonviolence in context and so we ought to review some of that conflict at times. For the most part we ask instead, how can we learn from another Native history that has been invisible, ignored and discounted—the history of nonviolent tactic, strategy, philosophy and spirit? We do well to bear in mind the perspective of Theodore Roszak, who wrote, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t work, they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” (Terkel: 115) Importing Native nonviolence may seem counterintuitive to US-Euro peoples—and most Native peoples most of the time, for that matter—but in the face of the senselessness of ongoing dysfunctional violence, isn’t it time to discipline ourselves to conduct some worthy experiments with potentially helpful elements of other cultures, other people’s historical strategies that may offer new hope to old problems?


Erikson, Erik H., Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969.

Harris, Ian M., and Mary Lee Morrison, Peace Education, Second Edition. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2003.

Lewis, Andrea, “Native American struggle for land, liberty, and a toxics-free environment,” in: Anner, John, Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Justice Movements in Communities of Color. Boston MA: South End Press, 1996.

Spector, Bertram I. and I. William Zartman, eds., Getting It Done: Post-Agreement Negotiation and International Regimes. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003.

Terkel, Susan Neiburg, People Power: A Look at Nonviolent Action and Defense. NYC: Lodestar, 1996.

Warters, Bill, “Native American men and domestic violence: An interview with Oscar Arredondo,” online:

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