Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

The story of Native Americans, their culture and customs is fascinating. In particular the manner in which the native people of the United States once lived is what captures the imagination – the connectedness they had with the world around them, their free and wild lives on the plains of that continent, and the wisdom running through much of their societies.

They first entered my imagination a kid reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ collection. Larry McMurtry’s classics ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Streets of Laredo’ fuelled the fire, along with Dee Brown’s historical ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ and reading about the adventures of Lewis and Clark on their famous 1804 trek west into the frontier.

I’m no expert on Native Americans now or then and know that it’s easy to romanticise an existence that was a relatively tough struggle for survival. Still though, it must have been a life well-lived to have roamed the wild, untamed expanse of North America. Free to live and play and die under the almost sole duress of the laws of nature.

In Bury My Heart At Wounder Knee, Brown makes a point of noting the trust that the natives placed in the settlers’ promises of recompense, ceasefire, and land treaties. Promises that were ultimately broken time and again.

In many ways the natives struggled to rapidly internalise the concepts underpinning the frantic push eastwards of a society so at odds with their own. Private land ownership, reckless buffalo extermination, and a ruthless pursuit of materialism at the expense of natural wealth were not ingrained in their way of life. An earlier understanding the intersection of these things in the changes that were coming may have held more hope for their weathering of the onslaught that came.

Buffalo skulls - mid 1870s

Buffalo skulls – mid 1870s

“Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the white man wants the crumbs.” –Luther Standing Bear

Today it is the inability to internalise the consequences of our lock-stepped march of progress towards yet more progress that holds us all together in a dangerous swaying dance with self-regulating natural limits. We are like a planet of Easter Islanders – ultimately entering a critical phase of survival on this spherical island, showing no great aversion to felling the last of our great forests and pumping the planet for all it has to give.

The arrogance and inhumanity that was adopted towards Native Americans contains a deeply significant resonance today too. Those same attitudes are evidenced in the actions of corporations towards people and the environment alike, modern day extensions of the ‘right’ to pursue profits and greed under the protection of the law. Violence underscoring civilisation.

Disconnect

In observing the destruction of their own way of life, one of the principal points that consistently comes across in the many quotes, stories and historical studies is the natives’ observance of the lack of a kind of respect or spiritual connection to the environment they could see in the new settlers’ way of life. Despite growing modern movements to the contrary most societies and institutions use technological and material advancement as a measure of human values and progress.

How much of modern society’s ‘civility’ relies on the exploitation of other parts of the planet? What would actually happen if the oil stopped flowing to the West and elsewhere? What fuels the likes of Isis, support for extreme right-wing, fearmongering political mouthpieces, and general xenophobic ugliness? Are we actually acting any wiser than those settlers two hundred years ago?

Surely the meaning of ‘progress’ should have evolved and changed a lot since then? It hasn’t really, and not nearly as fast as the structures and processes of technological advance, which have to an extent been hijacked in the discussion. These hijacked tools have perpetuated the linear acceleration of materialism and neo-capitalist market fundamentalist ideology as a way of life. And the money that trickles down from the top – it is mixed well with plenty of shit too.

Coming full circle, perhaps the planetary invasion of an armed, clearly hostile alien species would be the great galvaniser of humanity, the ultimate knock-on-the-head realisation that we are all in this together – ourselves and all of nature. In a confusion of irony, justice, and historical karma, we could witness the sight of Barack Obama climbing into the cockpit of his F-16 to lead the mighty U.S Airforce to victory against a technologically superior alien enemy ill-prepared for a cunning pre-prepared sleight of hand.

The real win would not be a military one, it would be the seed of a generalised knowing reawakened in the hearts and minds, that there is this great, vast, interconnected living breathing web of life that we are all connected into, we are not alone, and it is not every man, woman, religion, or nation for itself. That the best example of connected life we know is here, on the pale blue dot, and we are all a part of it. It is devoid of ideology, avarice, and judgement. It is completely real and alive and purposeful. It has more meaning in a moment than all the Kardashians, cans of Coca Cola, and Aldi Special-Buys of a lifetime. It is real magic behind the trick.

That kind of stuff is general and possibly diminishing knowledge in native societies. If I replaced my memory of computers, history, car models, societal bric-a-brac, and reluctantly even Rory Gallagaher’s musical legacy with that of the seasons, plants, animals, geography, and spiritual space of the natural world, where would it leave me? A bemused onlooker no doubt. Starting from that point, I am confident could integrate with the modern world. Starting from the modern world, can the reintegration with lost, natural knowledge happen?

Terence McKenna once noted that it is not nature which is mute, but rather it is man who is deaf. But we are not blind, and we have intelligence, experience, and imagination. The kind of intelligence, experience, and imagination whose greatest challenge will be in saving itself, from and for more than, itself.

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.

Chief Seattle, 1854

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