Monday, December 26, 2011

The European and the Indian

About 400 years ago, several boatloads of rigidly righteous racist Puritans washed up on the shore, much to the detriment of the Indians of New England.  The two cultures could not have been more different.  Every schoolchild knows the sacred colonial myths, but what really happened is far more obscure, and far more interesting.  In search of a more accurate story, historian James Axtell plowed through mountains of old papers and summed up what he learned in his book The European and the Indian.
In 1600, Europe was near the peak of the Inquisition.  At that time, it was perfectly appropriate to torture and burn thousands and thousands of people who were accused of doing ridiculous and impossible things.  The Puritans were an offshoot of the new Protestant movement, which was obsessed with sin and evil, and terrified of sex and sensuality.  The natural world was the realm of Satan.  The Puritans were raised in a hell broth of mass hysteria.  They believed that the ideal life was one of back-breaking work.  They were rigorously trained to be obedient to their superiors, and their way of life was “almost slavery.”
The Indians blew their minds.  Native men spent their days hunting, fishing, and socializing, living like upper class English lords.  They wore their hair long, which was a shocking display of pride and independence (pride was the greatest sin of all).  They had contempt for all authority.  Their low-tech agriculture produced as much food as colonial farmers, using just primitive hand tools and far less labor — the women tended the fields!  They were impossible to predict and control, because they would suddenly pack up and move to an unknown location, as if they were noble aristocrats who could do whatever they wished.  The Indians were absolutely free people, and the Puritans were neurotic heavily-armed control freaks.
It was easy to control colonists who lived in established villages and towns, because the authorities could keep a careful eye on them, and promptly punish those who stepped out of line.  But some colonists drifted off into the wilderness, and lived far from church and law, where they were dangerously at risk of slipping into heathenish ignorance and barbarism.  These disgusting renegades were lazy and immoral people who lived in crude log cabins, dressed in animal skins, and lived by hunting.  There were small settlements in the Maine wilderness where Europeans lived in complete freedom, in a state of nature, as wild as the deer — a delicious idea to contemplate.  Imagine that. 
One thing in the old papers astounded Axtell.  Over and over the colonists wrote about the need to “reduce” the savage barbarians to civility, to “reduce” them to docility.  The word “reduce” was used many times, with just two exceptions (the exceptions were written in the eighteenth century, long after the settlement period).  “Reduce” is a word that has a clear, unambiguous meaning.  The colonial writers used it accurately, if you believe that freedom is good, as I do.
The number one stated purpose of settlement was to bring the gospel to the Indians and save them.  Because European society was so vastly superior, Indians would certainly fall over each other in the rush to be converted.  But this fantasy crashed head-on into reality.  Missionaries frequently alienated the Indians with their intolerant ethnocentricism.  And Christian settlers were too often greedy, brutal, dishonest hypocrites.  The foreign religion competed poorly with the traditional spirituality of the Indians, which worked perfectly well for them. 
The schools established for Indian children were miserable, and most students fled at the first opportunity.  The few Indians who managed to jump through all of the hoops, and successfully become educated Christians, discovered that they had no place in white society, because they were members of an inferior race.  Coerced conversion was a complete failure.  Later, the settlers discovered that the Indians could successfully be converted with “Powder & Ball.”  Dead Indians were easy to control, and offered no resistance to the seizure of their lands.
I was especially fascinated by Axtell’s discussion of the “white Indians” — colonists who voluntarily lived with the natives, and merged into native families and communities.  European diseases and bullets killed many Indians.  To replace them, the Indians adopted whites that they captured, mostly women and children.  Also, a number of whites deliberately ran away and were accepted into Indian tribes.  This happened so often that laws were passed to ban settlers from escaping to freedom — violators could be beaten, imprisoned, or hung for treason.
In 1782, Hector de Crèvecoeur was astounded to discover that “thousands” of Europeans had become Indians, but no Indians had become Europeans.  Other sources confirm that this was not a wild exaggeration.  Most white Indians preferred living with the natives, and made no effort to escape.  When relatives came to get them, and begged them to come home, they usually declined to return.  And those who did return often got disgusted and soon came back to their tribe. 
The Indians were moral and honest people, unlike the Puritans.  They were more Christian than the Christians, and they won the hearts of their former enemies with kindness and generosity.  They lovingly accepted the whites into their families as brothers and sisters.  They treated women with absolute dignity and respect.  Indian children enjoyed abundant love and attention, the complete opposite of the Puritan mode of severe discipline.  Some of the white Indians later became great chiefs.
A life of hunting and fishing was far more enjoyable than a life of plowing and reaping.  The Puritan colonists endured a life similar to slavery, fettered with cultural balls and chains.  White Indians discovered that freedom was divine — far more valuable than the cheap thrills of life in an oppressive society.  It’s no fun being reduced to docility and civility, and they gladly walked away to a better life.
James Axtell.  The European and the Indian.  Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Of Wolves and Men

Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez, explores many facets of the long and tempestuous relationship between humans and wolves.  Sadly, in an age of infinite information and growing eco-awareness, many people still remain crippled by an overwhelming, totally irrational hatred of wolves.  They want them all dead.  Now.
The people of hunting societies had immense respect for wolves, amazing animals that could survive long arctic winters without tools, clothing, or fires.  Both wolves and humans were highly intelligent and social species who spent their lives living in a similar way, on the same land, pursuing the same prey.  Wolves were natural predators. Their bodies were perfected for the hunting life by a million years of evolution.  Humans were odd creatures, incapable of effective hunting without the use of a collection of clever technology.  Eskimos periodically died of starvation, but wolves rarely did.
The Eskimos hunted sacred wild animals, and their meat was powerful medicine.  It made you strong and alive.  The opposite of sacred flesh was the meat of pathetic animals, like domesticated herbivores.  This was junk food that would not keep you well nourished.  The Naskapi believed that they were being spiritually destroyed as a people by being forced to eat the meat of mutant animals.
Hunting societies generally did not hunt wolves for food.  Eating wolf flesh was taboo in many cultures.  Similarly, wolves did not routinely kill humans for food.  But they enjoyed having humans for lunch.  There were many stories of wolves digging up corpses.  They feasted on the piles of humans killed by the Black Death, and they regularly appeared on battlefields to dine on unlucky soldiers and horses.  Wolves and ravens were frequently the companions of mighty war gods. 
When humans migrated into North America, they probably brought three or four types of dogs (domesticated gray wolves).  Dogs assisted in hunting, pulled or carried loads, and provided fur and meat.  They were not pets.  Nuisance dogs were promptly dispatched.  The Nunamiut believed that wolves had souls, but their sled dogs didn’t.  The Sioux referred to wolves as shunkmanitu tanka, “the animal that looks like a dog (but) is a powerful spirit.”  Dogs were not allowed in their ceremonial lodges.
Big trouble came when “problem humans” appeared, and began the bizarre and unnatural practice of domesticating livestock, poultry, and water fowl.  They were completely out of balance with the family of life.  Problem humans rapidly expanded in numbers, destroyed the ancient forests, and exterminated the animals that the wolves depended on.  Before long, the countryside was cluttered with passive dim-witted beasts.  Eventually, there was nothing for the wolves to eat except for junk food.  A farm family might wake up in the morning to find that wolves had killed all of their enslaved critters, and this did not amuse them.
Lopez once asked Eskimos a question: if you decided to start herding reindeer, would you exterminate the wolves?  “No.”  They would expect some predation.  It would be insane to kill off their sacred relatives in order to maximize meat production.
But problem humans resented anything that lived on their land for free, and long ago they began the War on Wolves.  An enthusiastic European wolfer in 1650 might kill 20 or 30 wolves in his life, but an American wolfer in the late nineteenth century, armed with kegs of strychnine, might kill 4,000 or 5,000 wolves in ten years.  By collecting bounties and selling pelts, a wolfer could make $1,000 to $3,000 in four months — big money at that time.  The game was: (1) shoot a few buffalo, (2) lace their meat with poison, (3) return the next morning and skin 20 or 30 dead wolves.
The strychnine hunters went crazy.  Cowboys never passed a carcass on the range without poisoning it.  They shot birds and painted them with poison.  Farm dogs died.  Children died.  Anything that ate meat died.  Prior to white settlement, the Great Plains was home to an incredible abundance of wildlife.  Lopez estimated that between 1850 and 1900, 500 million wild animals died.  Such insanity staggers the imagination. 
Today, the killing continues.  Problem humans are using dynamite to blow up predator dens, and shooting them from planes and helicopters.  They stake out dogs in heat, and then beat to death the wolves that mount them.  Why?  Why?  Why? 
Lopez takes us back to old Europe in search of answers.  In the medieval mind, anything evil was associated with wolves.  The wolf and the devil were one.  Werewolves and witches were tortured and brutally murdered in great numbers during the Inquisition, an enterprise controlled by the well-educated, Jesus-adoring, upper class.  Victims included anyone odd or unpopular: the insane, simpletons, epileptics, people with Down’s syndrome.  Our experiment with civilization was turning into a horror show, as they always do.
From another source, I’ve learned that problem humans were not just Christians.  The Japanese raised far less livestock, so wolves were not a major threat to them.  Wolves were seen as spirit messengers, and shrines were built to venerate them.  But the last Japanese wolf was killed in 1905.  Oddly, some still believe that the wolves continue to survive.
Lopez does not give us an exact diagnosis for our sickness, nor an antidote.  Our problems are rooted in a failure to understand our place in the universe.  They reflect self-loathing.  We kill wolves, werewolves, and witches in a futile effort to erase our animal nature.  We have been taught to believe that our strong and normal hunger for pleasure and life is shameful and wrong.  We have been taught that humans are the center of the universe, elevated above everything else in Creation.  Until we outgrow that idiocy, we will remain spectacularly crazy, and doomed to a short performance on our sweet and beautiful planet.

Lopez, Barry, Of Wolves and Men, Scribner Classics, New York, 2004. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Neither Wolf Nor Dog

One of the most tragic stories in human history describes the spread of civilization into the lands of the wild and free.  This story has countless variations, in every region of the world, and they rarely end happily, with the wild and free expelling the invaders.  Instead, what usually happened was that the civilized people proceeded to kill or enslave the natives, and then destroy the ecosystem, which eventually doomed the civilization.
In New England, the European invaders tried to transform the Indians into submissive, hard-working Christian farmers.  This plan enjoyed little success.  In the 19th century, the strategy changed.  Indians were herded into concentration camps called reservations, or gunned down if they resisted.  The Indians were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
The first wave of my Norwegian ancestors immigrated in 1879 and settled in the eastern regions of Iowa and North Dakota — formerly the home of the Lakota and vast herds of bison.  This was three years after Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn, and eleven years before the last group of free Lakota was exterminated at Wounded Knee.  The world would be a happier place today if everyone had stayed at home, spent time with therapists working through their superiority and domination complexes, developed effective family planning systems, and learned how to live in harmony with their land.
Kent Nerburn’s book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, presents the Lakota perspective on the European invasion, as seen through the eyes of “Dan,” a 78 year old elder (1913-2002).  It’s a perspective that white folks are rarely exposed to, unfortunately.  Dan had many important ideas that he wanted to pass along to the younger generations of all peoples, and Nerburn compiled them into a book.  The format of the oratory was very laid back — riding around Indian country in an old Buick with two elders, a big dog, and a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Dan was a traditional Lakota who had no affection for white government, white religion, or white people.  He had been angry all his life at what the whites had done to his land and his people.  The conquest provided no benefits for the Lakota, it was a complete disaster, a toxic explosion of greed, craziness, and injustice.  Yet white historians described the conquest in glowing terms — brave pioneers conquering and civilizing an untamed wilderness — progress!  God bless America!
The perspective in Lakota country could not be more different.  In their eyes, the conquest of America resembled something like the 2011 tsunami of east Japan that erased everything in its path.  The bison were exterminated, the forests were eliminated, the prairies were plowed, and contagious disease killed millions.  They shot the buffalo just to kill them!  They had no respect for the land or the beings that lived there.
When Indians killed “innocent” white settlers, the whites howled about barbaric savages and bloody massacre.  But the Indians had little choice.  The invaders intended to completely erase Indian society, even if this included exterminating every Indian.  The whites relentlessly advanced.  The soldiers were young men who had been hired to kill the “animals” that stood in the path of empire, and many of them took pleasure in killing.  There was no possibility of negotiation, because the invaders broke every agreement they made.  There was nowhere to flee to.  Surrender promised cultural obliteration. 
For the whites, the land was not alive and sacred — it was a treasure to be seized and exploited as quickly as possible.  The Lakota saw the land as their sacred mother, and they treated her with great respect.  Dan could never understand why, despite their good treatment, mother had gotten angry and punished the Lakota with invasion, diseases, and harsh winters.  Dan wondered what she had in store for the whites, who have shown no respect whatsoever.  We’ll surely find out.
One day, Nerburn drove Dan through his village on the reservation, an impressive scene of rundown houses, junk cars, and trash.  White people typically drive through and perceive nothing but “a bunch of shit.”  Dan asked Nerburn what he thought Indians saw when they visited a white city.  “We say the same thing.”  “You see a dirt path with a pop can next to it and you think that is worse than a big paved highway that is kept clean.  You get madder at a forest with a trash bag in it than at a big shopping center…”
White people are fascinated with the idea of freedom, because they have so little freedom in their lives.  Dan saw that whites are confined in a world of cages — their fenced property, their permanent home, their rulers, their bosses, their laws, their religious beliefs.  Indians have always enjoyed great freedom, and they had no desire to become farmers and join the whites in their world of miserable cages. 
This is why the whites had Sitting Bull murdered.  He didn’t want to sign treaties, because that would turn his people into blanket Indians.  They would turn white.  Sitting Bull said “I do not wish to be shut up in a corral.  All agency Indians I have seen were worthless.  They are neither red warriors nor white farmers.  They are neither wolf nor dog.”
After Sitting Bull was gunned down, many of his people fled to Wounded Knee, with soldiers in pursuit.  The weather was frigid, but they didn’t dare make fires, fearing that they would be discovered.  They were cold, hungry, and weak when the soldiers caught them.  The Indians were disarmed, then all of them were mowed down with machine guns — men, women, children, and the elderly.
The climax of the story came when Dan and Nerburn spent a night at the Wounded Knee cemetery, in a realm of powerful spirits.  Throughout his life, Dan had remained in close contact with the spirits of his ancestors.  The invasion had filled his life with pain, rage, and sorrow.  The injustice was unbearable.  Why did the Creator allow this to happen?  His ancestors had died running. 
Dan prayed for healing.  He was sure that the passage of generations would eventually bury the anger.  Peace would eventually return.  This is a book I will never forget.

Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, New World Library, Novato, California, 1994.  Due to popular demand, Nerburn wrote a second book about Dan, The Wolf at Twilight (2009).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Health & the Rise of Civilization

The emergence of agriculture and civilization represented an astonishing advance for humankind.  Or did it?  A growing number of people are raising questions about this cherished belief.  Mark Nathan Cohen, an anthropology professor, wrote Health & the Rise of Civilization to shine a light on the history of human health.  His book is fascinating.
Hunter-gatherers did not enjoy perfect health, but they were vulnerable to far fewer maladies than people in agricultural societies.  In hunter society, dying from accidents was common.  Intestinal parasites were common, and hunters were vulnerable to zoonotic diseases, which could use humans and other animals as hosts, but couldn’t be transmitted from human to human.  Diseases that could be transmitted from human to human were rare.  Cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases were very rare, as was starvation. 
There are scientists who study the health of dead folks via their bones or mummified remains.  Their research reveals that big game hunters were the best nourished group in human history.  Animal foods are the best source of complete proteins, and they are rich in other nutrients.  When big game declined, we shifted to intensified foraging, and hunted for small game.  The people of this new phase were shorter and experienced more infections. 
With the shift to farming, the quality of our health plunged.  Infection rates doubled at some Illinois sites.  Tuberculosis became common.  Intestinal parasites increased.  Reduced nutrition led to shorter people.  Life expectancy did not increase. 
Wild hunter-gatherers were nomadic.  They frequently packed up and moved, leaving their excrement behind.  Wild grazing animals were also nomadic.  When they needed more vegetation, they moved on, leaving their excrement behind.  The nomadic life had two advantages — animals were free to move in pursuit of better nutrition, and by moving they left behind the risks of acquiring the diseases of filth and confinement. 
Farmers, on the other hand, spent their lives in one place, in denser populations, and their excrement remained on location.  This delighted fecal-oral diseases.  Farmers often confined numerous domesticated animals, which converted plant material into excrement that also accumulated on the farm.  Thus, the farm was transformed into a treasure chest of pathogens, worms, and intestinal parasites.  Domesticated animals suffered from diseases that were rare or unknown in wild animals.
The farm was home to a mixture of species: cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, dogs, waterfowl, and poultry.  By keeping multiple species in close proximity, we encouraged the transfer of diseases from one species to another.  Humans acquired livestock diseases like measles, smallpox, influenza, diphtheria, and the common cold.
Living in permanent homes with stored food led to frequent visits from hungry rodents and insects, who sometimes carried pathogens.  Living indoors made it easier for contagious illness to spread from person to person.
Malaria and yellow fever were originally treetop diseases of non-human primates, but they spread to humans as farmers cleared forests.  Malaria is rare among nomadic people, but common in farming societies.  It is especially serious where farmers grow rice in flooded paddies (mosquito incubators).  Some believe that malaria has killed more people than any other disease.
Growing civilizations typically created extensive trading networks.  Trade and travel spread many diseases to new regions where the inhabitants had no immunity.  These include bubonic plague, smallpox, and tuberculosis.  Speedy new steam ships and locomotives enabled cholera to spread explosively in the last 200 years, killing millions.
Hunters enjoyed a diverse and nutritious diet, and farmers didn’t.  The farm diet majored in cereals and tubers that were rich in calories but contained fewer nutrients.  This diet often lead to illnesses from mineral and vitamin deficiencies — pellagra, anemia, thyroid problems.  Tooth decay was almost unknown among hunters, but cavities are a common problem for people who consume gummy cereal foods and sugar.
The spread of disease closely followed the spread of civilization, and the growth of population centers.  Measles originated in cattle.  It couldn’t survive in human communities of less than 500,000 people, because there were not enough babies to provide an adequate supply of new hosts.  Thus, measles is a new disease for humans.  I was surprised to learn that there was little contagious disease prior to the shift to agriculture.
Modern people tend to be physically inactive, and consume generous portions of calorie-intense processed foods that are very low in fiber — an excellent recipe for obesity.  The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of degenerative diseases that had previously been rare — cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.  It seems that most of the amazing technology of modern medicine is used to counteract the unintended consequences of the rise of civilization.  With seven billion people, vast numbers of confined livestock and poultry, a high-speed global transportation system, and a growing number of drug-resistant pathogens, the conditions are perfect for the creation and spread of catastrophic pandemics.
The idea of “progress” first appeared around 1800, and it proudly celebrated recent improvements over the horrid life of the 14th to 18th centuries.  Cohen said that the people of this dark era “may have been among the nutritionally most impoverished, the most disease-ridden, and the shortest-lived populations in human history.”  Members of the progress faith incorrectly projected this horror farther back, to include healthy, well-nourished prehistoric hunters.   
Cohen concluded that our beliefs in the benefits of civilization are in need of revision, because civilization did not make life better for most people.

Mark Nathan Cohen, Health & the Rise of Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989. 
For additional information on health in civilized societies, Man and Epidemics by Charles Edward Amory Winslow (1952) is excellent.  Laurie Garrett contemplated future health risks in The Coming Plague (1994).