Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Falcon

For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors were hunter-gathers.  For most of us, these kinfolk are long forgotten in family memory.  Quite a bit has been written about wild societies by visiting outsiders from civilization, strangers who could not fully understand the cultures of their subjects.  The Falcon is the autobiography of John Tanner, a fascinating book that gives readers a ringside seat at a wild society, prior to conquest, from the viewpoint of an insider.

Tanner was a white lad born about 1780, in frontier Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio.  At the age of 9, he was captured by the Shawnee and taken to Saginaw, Michigan, where he was treated harshly for two years.  Then, up at Mackinaw, an Ottawa woman, who had lost her son, bought him for 20 gallons of whiskey, blankets, tobacco, and other treasures.  He was given a name that meant “the falcon.”

Tanner was a rough, tough, honest man who endured an incredibly difficult life.  He lived among the Ottawa and Ojibwa people from roughly 1790 to 1820, and spent this period hunting, trapping, fishing, and defending himself from a variety of angry and violent folks.  He traveled thousands of miles by foot, canoe, and horseback through a vast wilderness.  His saga mentions visits to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Pembina, North Dakota; Lake of the Woods, Ontario; and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

This story takes place in an era of bloody helter-skelter, when the traditional way of life was seriously assaulted, and beginning to disintegrate.  Disease ridden, pale faced terrorists had landed on the east coast, and their infectious pathogens spread to distant regions of the interior, killing enormous numbers of natives.  Terrorists were beginning to settle on the frontier.  Tanner’s parents had moved west from Virginia, stupidly planning to acquire prime real estate in an extremely dangerous wilderness.

In that era, many New England tribes had become heavily dependent on agriculture.  Corn produced far more food per acre than forest, leading to increased population density and conflict.  Diana Muir described how corn quickly depleted the soil, requiring ongoing deforestation to clear new fields.  When the devastating epidemics arrived, tribes had been on an unsustainable trajectory to run out of forest that was suitable for cropland.  Corn helped the Iroquois become a dominant power, and their aggressive expansion forced other Algonquin tribes to flee westward.

At the same time, the fur trade was a booming, and there was intense competition for pelts.  Many traders were lying, cheating, racist creeps.  Industrial scale trapping drove the beavers close to extinction in eastern regions, so traders and trappers had to keep moving westward.

As eastern tribes were forced westward by warfare, settlers, and the quest for pelts, they put growing pressure on the fierce Sioux tribes of the prairies, who were not amused.  Tanner spent a lot of time in hot zones close to Sioux country, where he was in constant danger of losing his scalp.

The Sioux hated Tanner and his tribe for trespassing.  Because Tanner was the offspring of terrorists, many of his Indian companions and family were wary of him — terrorists were often whirlwinds of evil spirits.  Several times, they tried to kill him.  Finally, the terrorists hated him because he looked like a savage, thought like a savage, and spoke a savage tongue.  He once made an effort to return to his kinfolk in Christian society, but he didn’t belong in that bizarre world, and kept catching fevers.

Indians were tolerant of gender-benders.  On a visit to Leech Lake, Minnesota, Tanner met the son of a chief who was an A-go-kwa — “one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians.  There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes.”  The A-go-kwa was about 50-years old, and had lived with many husbands.

The central theme of the book is the endless struggle to survive.  Starvation was a primary threat, and getting food was job #1.  Mike Culpepper wrote an essay on Tanner’s life, including a description of his diet:  “Tanner hunts bear, buffalo, moose, but also eats muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, otter and other animals trapped for their fur, and, when game is not available, his dogs, horses, and scraps of leather.  He eats ducks, geese, blackbirds, and swan.  He fishes for sturgeon, dory, and unnamed small fish that are eaten by the handful.  He consumes corn, wild rice, and berries.”  Yum!

Throughout the book, Tanner and those around him suffer from infections and fevers.  He lived in an era where diseases were common and largely incurable, for both wild folks and the civilized.  Howard Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began:  “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals.  They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”

Homo sapiens is a bipedal species — we move on two legs, not four.  This evolutionary trait enabled long distance running, chasing game until they collapsed from exhaustion, a practice often mentioned in discussions of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.  Tanner also mentioned this.  “There are among the Indians some, but not many, men who can run down an elk on the smooth prairie, when there is neither snow nor ice.  The moose and the buffalo surpass the elk in fleetness, and can rarely be taken by fair running by a man on foot.”

Tanner, armed with a low tech, single shot musket, killed lots of animals.  One winter, he was hired by a fur company to provide meat for Scottish settlers.  In four months, he killed about 100 buffalo.  Another winter, he hunted with a buddy.  “O-ke-mah-we-ninne, as he was called, killed nineteen moose, one beaver, and one bear.  I killed seventeen moose, one hundred beavers, and seven bears, but he was considered the better hunter, moose being the most difficult of all animals to kill.”

Nomadic people found some trade goods useful: muskets, ammo, gunpowder, knives, axes, pots, blankets, corn, etc.  They gained no prestige by hoarding valuable trade goods, because it was dumb.  The stuff they owned had to be hauled along, every time they moved to a new camp.  So, one pot was enough.  Consequently, they trapped just enough to secure the necessities, and no more.  Traders learned a toxic secret — offering booze seriously motivated the trappers to produce far more pelts.

Oblivion drinking is a regular celebration in this saga.  After a long, harsh winter of trapping, pelts would be taken to the trading post.  Necessities would be acquired, and the leftover income would be invested in 10 gallon (38 l) kegs of booze.  Over the course of the book, at least 100 gallons of rum and whiskey were guzzled.  Multi-day drunks often resulted in impolite comments, bloody fights, and murders.  Their lives were harsh, and a lovely drunk provided a vacation from the daily routine, a spirit journey.  Booze destroyed many lives.

In Tanner’s day, in roadless woodlands, dogs were their beasts of burden.  On the wide-open prairie, there was a new beast of burden, the horse.  The Spanish had brought horses to America, and some escaped.  They rapidly grew in numbers.  By 1700 or 1750, plains Indians had horses — lots of horses.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.

Each horse was the private property of an individual.  Only fools hoarded 100 iron pots, but owning 100 horses provided immense social status.  Horses fed themselves, moved themselves to new camps, and hauled people and stuff.  Stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to demonstrate your bravery and get rich quick, or die trying.  Raiding was a popular pastime.  Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds.  In the horse age, living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure.

Tanner described the bloody side of raiding:  “I had four horses, one of which was a very fleet and beautiful one, being considered the best out of one hundred and eighty which a war-party of Crees, Assinneboins, and Ojibbeways, had recently brought from the Fall Indians.  In this excursion they had been absent seven months.  They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”

Tanner spent most of his life in the Great White North, a region known for long and extremely harsh winters.  On chilly nights, they huddled around fires inside drafty lodges.  Tanner mentioned several close calls with death.  Once, after breaking through the ice, “we were no sooner out of the water than our moccasins and clothes were frozen so stiff that we could not travel.  I began also to think that we must die.  But I was not like my Indian brother, willing to sit down and wait patiently for death to come.”

Homo sapiens evolved on the warm tropical savannahs of Africa, where a year round supply of organic food was generally available.  They didn’t need clothing or shelter.  Hypothermia was never a risk.  Life was so much easier in an ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned our bodies.  Remember that.  The status quo is zooming toward sharp limits, and our soft lifestyles are a temporary high-impact luxury.

Tanner, John, The Falcon, Penguin Books, New York, 1994.  Free PDF download.

Culpepper, Mike, John Tanner Between Two Worlds.  This 10-page essay fills in many helpful details missing in Tanner’s words, and better describes the big picture dramas that affected his life.  It discusses his controversial end.

Fierst, John T., Return to Civilization, Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society, 1986.  This 15-page essay describes Tanner’s troubled life in Sault Ste. Marie, in the years after his story had been published.

Dr. Edwin James transcribed Tanner’s story, in 1828, at Sault Ste. Marie.  He edited out lots of excessive details, to make the story more readable.  The 1830 edition, published by Baldwin & Craddock in London, includes an 18-page introduction by James (HERE).

Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond — Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.  Chapter one describes the ecological and social turbulence generated by the adaptation of agriculture by the Native Americans.

Simpson, Howard N., “The Impact of Disease on American History,” The New England Journal of Medicine CCL (1954):680.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cradle of Humankind

East Africa is called the Cradle of Humankind because it’s where our ancestors originated.  As noted in an earlier post, two to four million years ago, the region became cooler and dryer.  Forests shrank.  The ancestors of baboons and humans moved out of the forest and adapted to savannah ecosystems (grasslands with scattered trees).

In this new habitat, male baboons evolved large canine teeth, to better deflect predator attacks.  All baboons retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons still live sustainably, as they have for millions of years, because they continue to live in the manner for which evolution fine-tuned them.  They adapted to their ecosystem without altering it.  They did not make weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.

Our ancestors evolved into critters that stood on two legs (bipedal).  They became furless, sweaty, long distance runners who, in a hot climate, could chase animals until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Heavy sweating kept them cool whilst jogging for hours.  With these traits, evolution created a new mode of offense, but it was weirdly stingy about providing defensive assets like speed, strength, teeth, or claws.  These ancestors were less agile at zooming up trees.  Over the eons, many species of bipedal apes have evolved, but only one still survives.

In the early days, the ancestors acquired new abilities very slowly, via evolution.  At the same time, other species were also busy evolving new abilities for countering our advances, and maintaining the balance.  For large animals like apes, genetic evolution can take thousands of years to stabilize a new and improved trait.  Evolution does not always mean progress.  We’re discovering that big brains can be more trouble than they’re worth.

With our transition to tool making, we began gaining new abilities by inventing them, a much faster process.  Spears enabled our ancestors to impede the man-eating predators that had kept their populations neat and tidy.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to overpower foxes.  With spears, we could also kill large game, acquire abundant meat, and feed more bambinos.

By becoming tool freaks, our ancestors stumbled into the dangerous juju of cultural evolution, a painful experiment that has achieved enormous momentum and speed.  There are now seven-point-something billion of us.  We are the best-educated generation ever, the most destructive, we know it, and don’t seem to care much.  There is an important lesson here, summed up by Orgel’s Second Rule: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.”

Here’s a happy idea.  Genetic evolution is the result of a process that constantly generates billions of random mutations in every species of flora and fauna.  Most mutations are maladaptive and promptly blink out.  When mutations survive and continue, we call this natural selection.  William E. Rees reminds us that cultural evolution is also subject to something like natural selection.  Maladaptive cultural mutations, like soil mining or forest mining, are unsustainable.  Natural selection has no mercy for cultures that refuse to learn the dope slap lessons of repeated mistakes.  In the long run, the family of life will always trump self-destructive cultures, in a messy and merciless manner.

Rainforests are a paradise for biodiversity, providing a pleasant home for huge numbers of species.  Savannahs support far less biodiversity, but provide excellent habitat for many large animal species.  A square mile of rainforest contains tons of biomass in its trees, far more biomass than a square mile of grassland, but grassland can produce more new biomass every year, primarily during the wet season.  This nutritious vegetation grows close to the ground, a convenient location for grazing animals.

The biological productivity of grasslands (savannahs, prairies, and steppes) enabled the emergence of large herbivores and their predators in Africa, Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas.  For grassland herbivores, size and speed are evolutionary assets, because they discourage predators.  Lions scatter when menaced by uppity elephants.  Elephants live longer than bunnies.  Size matters.  Bigger is better.

Some species use simple tools like sticks, stones, or blades of grass, but our ancestors took the fabrication and use of tools to new levels.  They learned how make blades, projectile tips, scrapers, and axes by chipping flakes off stones.  Confronted with an organized gang of hungry apes with spears, giant size lost its advantage, and became a serious handicap.  Cultural evolution trumped genetic evolution.

In addition to getting extremely clever with tools, our ancestors also learned how to make and use fire, an ability that helped keep man-eating predators at bay.  Fire allowed us to inhabit the entire planet, and disrupt the balance of ecosystems wherever we went.  Cooked foods were easier to digest, so we could extract more nutrients.  Cooking also enabled us to digest formerly inedible materials.  Thus, our food resources were greatly expanded.

Stephen Pyne is the world’s expert on fire history.  He described excavations at Swartkrans Cave in South Africa.  At the oldest layers, the pre-fire level, no charcoal is found.  There are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids — cats were the top predator.  Charcoal is found in newer layers, the fire age.  Here are found complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats — hominids had become the top predator in the cave.

Pyne concluded, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”  Combined with fire, our ability to make spears, javelins, hammers, choppers, baskets, nets, and so on propelled our blastoff into outer space, far beyond Africa.  Maybe fire and tool making are the reason that evolution didn’t bother enhancing our defenses.

Baz Edmeades is a specialist in megafauna extinction, and he notes that our ancestors were not masters of sustainable living.  Africa was loaded with megafauna species at the dawn of the Pleistocene 1.8 million years ago, but many were gone by 1.4 million years ago.  At the Olduvai Gorge site in Tanzania, in 1.8 million year old deposits, they have found the butchered bones of rhinos, hippos, elephants, antelopes, and buffalo.  Elsewhere, evidence suggests that our ancestors were tending fires 1.6 million years ago.

In the good old days, Africa had nine species of big cats (three today), nine species of elephants (one today), and four hippos (one today).  There were giant antelopes, giant hyenas, giant pigs, giant monkeys, and giant baboons — all gone.  Primary suspects include an Australopithecus species and Homo erectus.  Homo sapiens emerged much later, maybe 100,000 years ago.

Edmeades emphasizes that during this wave of extinctions, there were not corresponding extinction blips in Siberia, Europe, Australia, or the Americas.  In these other regions, most megafauna species thrived for another million years — including many species that blinked out in Africa and South Asia.  If climate change was the primary cause of megafauna extinction, the northern hemisphere should have been hammered harder, because it was the region most affected by glaciation.

Lars Werdelin is a specialist in the evolution of mammalian carnivores.  He ponders the current efforts to designate a new era of geologic time, the Anthropocene, the period when humans began causing irreversible impacts.  When did it start?  Some think 1945, or the Industrial Revolution.  Others say the dawn of soil mining and animal enslavement.  Paleontologists like Werdelin observe reality from a perspective that embraces a much broader sweep of time.

He notes that between 3.5 million years ago, and 2 million years ago, the number of large carnivore species in Africa was reduced by half.  Today, only two percent of the African large carnivore species still survive.  This transition does not correspond to what is known about climate patterns — similar extinctions did not occur in other regions at this time.  A more likely suspect is the appearance of an early species in the Homo genus.  With regard to the kickoff date for the Anthropocene, Werdelin notes, “Humans have had the ability to affect ecosystems on a major scale for the past two million years.”

Björn Kurtén was an expert on the fauna of Pleistocene Europe.  The megafauna included varieties of mammoths, rhinos, horses, aurochs, reindeer, giant hippos, giant deer, giant musk ox, giant hyenas, giant bears, giant cheetahs, giant cave lions, saber-tooth cats, leopards, antelopes, goats, and many others.  Many of these species survived in Europe until the Late Pleistocene (which ended 10,000 years ago), but are now gone.

Kurtén concluded, “The mass death can hardly be ascribed to climatic causes alone, for there was no similar mass extinction in earlier interglacials.  It seems fairly certain that modern man has played a dominant role in the wiping out of many species, although perhaps by indirect influence as much as by actual hunting.”

Edmeades notes that, in Europe, warmth-loving megafauna species, like the straight-tusked elephant, hippos, and woodland rhinos, went extinct by 25,000 years ago, around the time of the last glaciation.  There were many glaciations during the Pleistocene, and some were more severe than the last one.  The last glaciation corresponds to the time when Homo sapiens colonized Eurasia.  Cold-tolerant mammoths and wooly rhinos survived in Western Europe until 12,000 years ago.

In North America, prior to human colonization, Edmeades says the ecosystem remained comparable to Africa 1.8 million years ago.  There were condor-like birds with 16-foot wingspans (4.8 m), mammoths, and mastodons.  In addition to cheetahs, “No less than five other kinds of big cat were living on an extravagant assortment of camel, llama, deer, horse, musk ox, bison, goat and sheep species.  With its giant bears, giant beavers, giant armadillo-like species, giant tortoises, and its giant ground-sloth species, North America was, without exaggeration, a super-Serengeti containing many more big-animal species than present-day Africa.”

“The population of every organism on Earth,” he writes, “is limited by collisions with the wall of limited resources.”  Baboon numbers are limited by the availability of nutrients they can acquire with their bare hands.  Specialized meat eaters like lions are limited by the availability of prey animals.  Both lions and baboons live as evolution fine-tuned them.  Food may be abundant one season, and scarce the next.  When abundant, populations increase.  Starvation is perfectly normal and natural.

Our ancestors had the added benefit of being omnivores.  When hunting was bad, they could dine on roots, nuts, and fruits.  This dietary safety net provided a huge strategic advantage over specialized meat eaters.  Of course, even omnivores can experience mass starvation.  All life requires nutrients, and all nutrients are finite.

The ancestors also benefitted by having cutting edge technology like fire, javelins, lances, harpoons, nets, snares, boats, and warm clothing.  Modern humans have blindsided the planet by converting many wild ecosystems into freaky food production plantations, dramatically increasing their nutrient resources — as long as the soil remains fertile, and pests, viruses, droughts, deluges, and frosts don’t nuke the plan.

Everyone agrees that, once upon a time, many species of megafauna inhabited every continent, and that most are now extinct.  Everyone agrees that the extinctions did not occur at the same time, around the world.  There were not major spasms of extinctions in places where our ancestors had not yet arrived.  The extinct species had previously survived multiple eras of global and local climate swings, which were sometimes sudden and severe.  Climate shifts do alter the flora and fauna of affected ecosystems, and this contributed to regional extinctions, like the hippos of London.

When it comes to success at long-term sustainability, the chimps, bonobos, baboons, and every other non-human species, get high scores.  When the food supply in their ecosystem declines, they starve and die.  Our lineage took a different path.  Instead of starving, they increased their food supply via innovation.  Wild and free chimps, without technology, would struggle to survive beyond their current habitat.  They live where evolution fine-tuned them to live.

The creature you see in the mirror has the body of a meat-eating hunter.  It is bipedal, designed to be a long-distance runner in a hot climate.  Its hands, arms, and shoulders are fine-tuned for hurling projectiles (killing from a distance), and making and using tools.  Our ancestors were hunters more than a million years before Homo sapiens appeared.

Daniel Quinn wrote Ishmael, a best-selling novel that defined two classes of human societies, Takers (naughty) and Leavers (nice).  The fall of humankind was the transition to agriculture and civilization.  The book torpedoed sacred cultural myths and blew my mind.  Hunter-gatherers certainly have far less impact than civilized folks, but the history of megafauna extinctions is important. 

So is the fact that plant and animal domestication emerged independently in several regions.  Some groups of hunter-gatherers chose to increase their food supply rather than rely completely on the fickle luck of the hunt — or become masterful at family planning.  They cleverly began displacing the wild ecosystem to produce plant and animal foods — a transition that had Earth-shaking unintended consequences.

Worse, by producing far more food, their population bloated.  There is strength in numbers.  For thousands of years, mobs of hungry dirty farmers and herders have been steamrolling wild societies, helpless deer in the headlights of progress.  This is a real pisser!  High impact societies routinely trump low impact ones.  Consumer culture has become a monster factory where students are entranced by dark juju sermons on Sustainable Development™.  This feels like the Mother of All Predicaments.

The good news is that Big Mama Nature will not allow this tragic game to continue forever.  Highly educated consumers are consuming nonrenewable resources at a growing rate, blissfully ignorant of the existence of limits — a wall that they will slam into.  At the same time, centuries of progress are destabilizing the climate that has enabled the existence of civilization.  Wildlife populations are severely depleted and plummeting.  We are getting very close to the peak of our batshit crazy joyride of turbocharged foolishness.  An era of healing is coming.

Meanwhile, on the rainforest sidelines, are the chimps and bonobos, our closest living relatives, who have lived in the same place for millions of years without leaving scars on the habitat.  Imagine that!  Humans are animals, an extremely embarrassing fact that most of us adamantly deny.  I have no brilliant solutions to offer today.  My humble suggestion is to think like an animal.  Thinking like a consumer is pushing us toward the coffin of humankind.  All the best!

Edmeades, Baz, Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction, 2013.  This fascinating manuscript has been withdrawn from its home location ( for updates.  An earlier version is available HERE.

Kurtén, Björn, Pleistocene Mammals of Europe, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1968.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.

Rees, William E., Is Humanity Fatally Successful?, Vancouver Institute, British Columbia, 2003 (Download).

Werdelin, Lars, Hominids, Carnivores, and the Origin of the Anthropocene, Swedish Museum of Natural History, 2015 (50 min video).

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Good Old Days

I’ve been reading John Tanner’s autobiography, The Falcon, (Download).  He was born in Kentucky in 1780.  At age 9, he was kidnapped by the Ojibwa, and adopted by an Ottawa chief.  Tanner spent 30 years living as a wild hunter-gatherer, wandering in the wilderness between the Red River of North Dakota and Lake Huron in Michigan.  He once tried to return to his birth family, but white society was intolerably creepy.

One day on the prairie, he met an odd fellow.  The stranger brought news of a Shawnee prophet who had a vision for a great healing.  Ever since the disease ridden, pale faced, radicalized Christian terrorists had washed up on the shores of Turtle Island, life had gotten ugly for Native Americans.  The terrorists, who seemed incapable of honesty, kept pushing the tribes westward, generating much tension and bloodshed.  At that time, the Sioux of the plains were pushing back hard against the unwanted immigrants displaced from their traditional lands in the east.  Nobody was happy.

Tanner listened to the prophet’s list of instructions.  Never allow your fire go out.  Let no dogs live.  Never steal, lie, strike others, get drunk, or go against your enemies.  If you follow these instructions, you will become invisible to the Sioux, and can live in peace.  A flashback slithered into my boggy old thinker.  This story sounded familiar.  Computer magic remembered my notes on Alvin Josephy’s book, 500 Nations, pages 305-306.  Bingo!  They read:

305 In Indiana in 1805, Lalawthika (the noise maker), an alcoholic brother of the heroic warrior Tecumseh, fell into a trance, and visited with the Creator in a vision.  306 He quit drinking and changed his name to Tenskwatawa, meaning “the open door.”  He was later known as the Prophet.  He preached to many tribes about declining morals and the need to return to traditional values.  They needed to reject Christianity and return to their old religion.  They should drop the selfishness, envy, and lust for possessions that the whites had taught them, and return to the way of sharing.  They should cast out of their lives domestic animals, woven clothes, and metal tools.

Upon reading this, a name farted out of my boggy old thinker: Donald Trump.  I was startled at this weird association, and then burst into a big smile.  This led to another flashback, a passage on the Ghost Dance I had written for What Is Sustainable.  Here’s a bit of it:

In the 1860’s, deranged Europeans rode their brand new railroads into the Great Plains and commenced the Buffalo Holocaust.  By 1890, the buffalo were at the brink of extinction.  For the Indians, the buffalo were the core of their existence.  With the buffalo gone, their traditional hunting life became obsolete and impossible.

In January 1889, a Paiute prophet named Wovoka had a vision.  He encouraged folks to perform the Ghost Dance.  They should gather and dance five days and four nights, then on the fifth day bathe in the river.  It was powerful dancing, with up to 500 in a large circle.  Many enjoyed manic frenzy, some fell into hypnotic trances, some collapsed and became unconscious.  The Ghost Dancing spread from tribe to tribe, eventually expanding over a vast region of the American west.

The vision was that if the Ghost Dance was properly performed, a great flood would come and wash the whites back across the ocean to their European home, where they belonged.  The ancestors and the buffalo would be reincarnated, the epidemics of white diseases would cease, and life would return to the good old days.

A different version of the Ghost Dance story, described by Lame Deer, used the metaphor of rolling up and disposing a filthy old carpet, which was a symbol for the white man’s world.  Imbedded in the filthy carpet were roads, mines, cities, farms, factories — every form of ugliness that civilization brought with it.  When the old carpet was rolled away, beneath it was revealed a healthy wild Fairyland — the land as it was prior to the invasion of the whites and their diseases.

The Ghost Dance became so popular that the white invaders began to get spooked.  They were intimidated by the fact that large numbers of Indians were enthusiastically dancing, with the goal of cleansing their lands of the white race forever.  They perceived (incorrectly) that the natives were conspiring to launch a violent rebellion.  The army was called, and several hundred Ghost Dancers were exterminated at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

This story spurred the recall of another memory, an old rant on the vision of Nongqawuse, in South Africa.  Some snips:

When the Dutch Afrikaners (Boers) invaded the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, the Xhosa tribe fought them long and hard.  Beginning in 1779, eight bloody frontier wars were fought.  In 1806, the British replaced the Afrikaners and continued the struggle to conquer Xhosa land.  In 1853, a lung disease began killing off the Xhosa’s cattle herds.  Problems worsened when a severe drought hit.  Things started looking grim.

Then, in 1856, after decades of terrible struggles and misfortunes, an 11-year old Xhosa girl named Nongqawuse had a vision.  She communicated with spirits of the dead and they informed her that the colonist invasion was the result of their cattle having been cursed by witchcraft.  The spirits then gave her some important instructions in order to remedy this situation.

To lift this curse and return to days of peace and plenty, the living Xhosa had to do three things:  stop cultivating their fields, destroy their grain reserves, and kill all of their cattle.  If they did this, the whites would be driven into the sea, the dead would return, and they would refill the granaries, restore the crops in the fields, and bring herds of immortal cattle.

At this point, the Xhosa split into two groups, the believers and the non-believers.  In 1856 and 1857, the believers did as the ancestors instructed them.  They dumped their grain and slaughtered 400,000 cattle.  Having destroyed their food supply, tens of thousands then proceeded to die of starvation.  Tens of thousands were forced to go to towns and take oppressive low-paying jobs.  Only 37,000 remained on their lands, out of 105,000.  By the 1870s, white settlers occupied most of the Xhosa’s lands.  The surviving Xhosa were rounded up and moved to reserves in British Kaffraria.

Anyway, these stories emerged from cultures whose good old days were behind them, following bloody collisions with civilization.  The present was out of balance, miserable, a dead end.  It was time to perform big ceremonial magic, return to the traditional path, and live in peace and prosperity.

As I write in early 2017, Donald Trump is the new U.S. president.  His mantra is “Make America Great Again.”  It’s time for Americans to perform the Trump Dance, and restore the good old days of cheap and abundant oil, coal, iron, and timber, when men had good jobs, mothers stayed home to raise large families, minorities knew their place, and Kennedys boogied in the White House.

To return to the traditional path, we must expel the crazy, dangerous Mexicans and Muslims.  We must replace public schools with private religious schools, and graduate kids who are blissfully ignorant about evolution, climate change, and overshoot.  We must let the Reaper take the commoners, and reserve health care for people who matter.  We must eliminate all restrictions on loggers, miners, ranchers, and bankers so our wheezing economy can have one last screaming squirting orgasm of mindless destruction.

This time, it will work, by golly!

Image: “The Ghost Dance by the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge.”  Illustration by Frederic Remington, 1890.