Sunday, November 29, 2009

Indian Country

I'm listening to Earthsongs, a program of Native American music that airs each Sunday morning on our local community radio station. (There's also a locally-produced program an hour earlier, which is now run by the Native American student organization at the university. I've been listening to both of these for several years now.) This week's guest is the Muskogee poet Joy Harjo, my almost exact contemporary, whose work I've encountered here and there over the years. I liked the first books of hers I read, She Had Some Horses and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, but the third, A Map to the Next World, was full of pomposity, racial stereotyping, and bad writing. Harjo is also a musician, with several albums out, and on the program she sang, unaccompanied, a new song she was working on. It included the following line:

Remember that a nation is a person with a soul ...

This is fascist nationalist crap, and I'm using "fascist" carefully and deliberately. A nation is an invented abstraction, an "imagined community" as the political theorist Benedict Anderson famously dubbed it. The corporate (from the Latin word for 'body') concept of nationhood (or of any group of people, like a religion) is highly dangerous and must at best be balanced by an emphasis on the individual members of the body; otherwise individuals become mere cells to be brushed off like dandruff when they're no longer needed. It can't even be defended as a specifically Native cultural heritage, since it has been a feature of modern European nationalism as well, which reached its epitome in blood-and-soil fascism in Europe and elsewhere.

Harjo then explained to the host of Earthsongs:

We were a hundred percent of the people in what is now America, and now we're one percent.

Hey, Joy, I know what you mean -- that's why so many Euro-Americans are worried about our demographics, what will happen to our gene pool if we let in too many "immigrants" -- we remember what happened to you guys when you let illegal immigrants swarm onto your shores! No doubt the first wave of people who came into the western hemisphere tens of thousands of years ago felt the same way about the later waves of foreigners, though we'll never know. (One of the benefits of oral, traditional culture is that it erases the past into an eternal present.) Harjo referred to other minorities in the US, such as Asian-Americans, but I don't think she's really thought about what she said today.

In saying this, I am neither denying nor minimizing the genocide of the American Indian by European invaders. But even accepting the largest estimates of the pre-Columbian population of the western hemisphere, the floods of Europeans and others from the eastern hemisphere who then bred like rabbits are also responsible in large part for the fact that Indians are no longer one hundred percent of the population here. Harjo is veering into nativism here.

Which may have something to do with the increase I've noticed of a familiar style of American patriotism among Native American artists and speakers over the past several years, an insistent claim to be, like, Americans. The latter, to an anti-essentialist like me is just fine, as an appropriation of the invaders' label. (I wish I really believed that was the intention behind the tendency.) The patriotism part, not so much. It's like the "gay American" trope in which the Human Rights Campaign advised Jim McGreevy to drape himself when he was in political trouble. (Patriotism is, as always, the first refuge of scoundrels.) The Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, for instance, famous for her songs attacking the European invasion of the Americas and its consequences (which led to her being blacklisted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations), has recorded "America the Beautiful" for her new album. She wrote some new verses for it, and told Amy Goodman the other day on Democracy Now!,
It’s about America the country, not America the nation state. It’s about the real America that so many people, regardless of their political associations, really feel in their hearts—you know, this beautiful, beautiful place. So, it’s yet another take on “America the Beautiful.” People seem to enjoy it.
Of course, America is not a country, and never was. It's a large landmass which had many peoples, languages, cultures in it before the European invasion; the United States of America is just one country among many, and it's an annoyance to people in those other countries to see their existence disappear when "America" refers only to the big bully of the upper portion. Earlier in the same interview, Sainte-Marie referred carefully to "the North American public," but now she forgot that there's a lot more to the America than the USA. (Even speaking of "the North American public," perhaps because she was born in Canada and still has ties there, seems to lump in Mexico, which has a different history. Ethnocentrism is hard to avoid, even for the indigenous.)

But I digress. Back to Joy Harjo, who also said on Earthsongs:

We have a lot of veterans, people going over there to defend our country.

It's true, and should not be forgotten, that American Indians have contributed substantially to the body count of the American war machine, much as other oppressed groups have done, to the present day. But I guess I have to keep repeating, American forces "over there" in Iraq and Afghanistan are not "defending our country" -- they are attacking other countries. I wonder if Harjo talked the same way during the Vietnam era? (Subject for future research.) I don't see how anyone can deplore the US treatment of the Indians while being so complacent about US aggression against other peoples.

(image credit)