Robert Phillip Burnette, Sicangu (Brulé) Sioux, often was a proponent of nonviolence and acted as mediator during some of the most potentially violent Native American political events of the 1960s and ‘70s, including the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee. (Josephy: online)
Absolute nonviolent advantage: principled negotiation
The use of any violence makes anyone vulnerable to manipulation and fabrication. We see this in Portland with the Christmas Tree Bomber now--the 19-year-old who will now be a trope for Somali-Americans specifically, for Somalis in general, for Africans, and for Muslims. Just like the US ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native Americans under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that was made palatable by portraying Native Americans as bloodthirsty, our flagging war enthusiasm will be pumped up by images of Somali jihadis with truck bombs swarming our innocent village squares. Winona LaDuke's work of fiction told it truthfully:
“How about a short video on the kind of equipment the Indians have in there that we can release to the media?” Agent Simpson suggested. “It’s worked before, putting the fear of God in most Americans. We show some bazookas, some heavy firepower, a mound of bullets. That gets people on our side right quick.”
One of the primary principles in conflict management is that a productive path is the generation of an agreement to strive toward mutually acceptable standards. Best practices, those policies that result in fairness, are only reached in a true consensus if negotiations aren’t pursued with a threat of violence. A movement for social change or protection is served poorly if it is oppressed by soldiers and police who have been given carte blanche by a populace more afraid of the activists than they are of the police. When demonstrators use tactics that make most citizens grateful for the thin blue line of police protection from dangerous demonstrators, the chances of that group of demonstrators achieving much more than a few headlines are almost nil. Indeed, Dr. King pointed out fewer people were killed in 10 years of nonviolent Civil Rights struggle than in one night of rioting in Watts. (Ansbro: 245)
Further, the Civil Rights movement produced two historic acts of legislation--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965--while the rioting in Watts produced a fear of blacks unprecedented in the US, a fear that clamped shut all progress in legislation. Certainly Native Americans have learned the risks of armed resistance—though too many obdurately cling to a warrior ethos that doesn’t incorporate a nonviolent warrior’s practice.
Certainly the most outspoken of these Native American analysts who reject nonviolence is Dr. Ward Churchill (honorary doctorate, not awarded for actual degree program, a poseur in the academy and in the activist revolutionary world as imaged),
who wrote Pacifism As Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America, a screed so replete with factual errors it would scarcely merit a mention, except it is an influential document. His work has been widely cited and relied upon by those who have attempted to hijack the Global Justice movement and other movements, including the opposition to the war in Iraq. His critique of pacifism includes such egregious errors as “Gandhi’s followers perished by the thousands.” (Churchill: 47) No. The struggle for independence in India never once rose to the level of war as counted by official statisticians. His followers did perish by the hundreds once, at Amristsar, in their nonviolent demonstration, but, unlike an insurgency, there were few deaths, mostly beatings and imprisonment. It was horrible, and was (to paraphrase another W. Churchill, that old racist Winston, in his comment about democracy) the worst way to gain independence—except for all the rest.
Indeed, whenever violence was used in that struggle it retarded the movement’s progress. Churchill gets it all exactly backward from historical facts as eyewitnesses, including the cameras, give us. Churchill also simply gets the description of pacifism all wrong, including his critique of Jewish lack of opposition to Hitler until it was too late, which was not an expression of pacifism whatsoever, but of passivity, a distinction well known in the field but which has eluded Churchill entirely. Essentially, he blames any victims who do not rise up shooting--and yet he isn't himself shooting in the defense of anyone. It is an odd twisted mirror of George W. Bush, the one who evaded Vietnam, sending in thousands of troops to kill and die in a country that is rejecting them.
The “let’s you and him fight” school of thought is appealing to some, but most Native Americans and most nonviolent actionists do not engage in it. Defeat is depressing when nonviolence is employed and terrible when violence is the method of resistance. No one said it more eloquently than Black Elk:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...sources
The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
—Black Elk, Sioux holy man
(Black Elk: online)
Ansbro, John J., Martin Luther King, Jr.: Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change. NYC: Madison Books, 2000 (original, Orbis, 1982).
Black Elk, online: http://msnbc.com/onair/msnbc/TimeandAgain/archive/wknee/1890.asp?cp1=1.
Churchill, Ward, Pacifism As Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 1998.
Josephy, Alvin M., “Burnette, Bob,” online: http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_005000_burnettebob.htm
LaDuke, Winona, Last Standing Woman. Stillwater MN: Voyageur Press, 1997.