Revolution & Native Americans

I recently read the transcription of this excellent speech given by Russell Means in 1980 entitled “For America to Live, Europe Must Die.” You can read the full text here.

A number of things stood out for me toward the latter half of the speech in particular. I certainly agree with Means that Europe seeks out a messiah, whether he be Jesus or a scientist like Albert Einstein. But I was a bit thrown by his assertion that humans are the weakest creatures, so much so that other creatures are willing to give of themselves for our sustenance and survival. He says we are only able to survive through rationality because we cannot feed ourselves “through use of fang and claw,” and that our rationality is ultimately a curse because it allows us to forget our place in nature whereas other creatures do not. Europeans declare their reason, their science, and their god superior above all else, defying the natural order.

While I can see how this is a conceivably true conclusion to draw, I’m not sure that this is entirely so. I don’t imagine that the other animals on earth consciously or subconsciously decide to let humans eat them because we are weak and need the favor. All creatures are interdependent, form mutually beneficial relationships, hunt and eat each other, have the instinct for survival, have the desire to pass on genes, and so on. I also think it is not our reason, but rather the level of our capacity to reason, that is the problem for humans in forgetting their place in the universe. Plenty of creatures reason, gage risk, and strategize to attain food and survive. Humans simply use this to higher degrees, accompanied by language and more advanced tools. I think this level of reasoning and thought arises from the natural complexity of our brains, and hence, the complexity of our social structures, culture, religion, etc. (I personally think it’s a bit odd evolutionarily that humans have to add all this unnecessary complexity and often out-of-control “rationality” to what are very basic survival goals.) But we share basic instincts with the rest of the animal world. While this can cause humans to be terribly destructive and imbalanced, humans still ultimately evolved as creatures that serve as part of the natural balance, for example, helping to kill off the weak of another animal group, or thinning deer herds when they become too populous in a region. (It is possible for other creatures to “forget their place” so to speak as well, especially in cases where dramatic reductions in one species’ population causes unhealthy increases in others.)

I was also not sure I agree with Means’ seemingly categorical claim of European culture as the essentially and inherently bad and destructive enemy. He names the Irish and the Basques as allies of indigenous people, but they are Europeans as well. “European culture” a vague and inaccurate term, and I think Means does not make the important distinction between what he claims to be culture and what is ideology. Of course the two are tied. But the Irish, for example, are embracing of ideas from the Enlightenment as far as I can tell, and they are Christians, Christianity being as important an ideological doctrine in European oppression around the world as anything else. Here, I am inclined to argue that the Irish are not so much the ally Means thinks them to be, and are in fact an example of those who confuse revolt with resistance, as he criticizes. Perhaps he has in mind some part of Irish history I am not familiar with, but the Irish seem to me somewhat like the American colonists, revolting against British rule, but not because they had a genuine interest in overthrowing oppression and destructive practices if it served their own desires.

In any case, I think Means needs to describe specifically what he means when he says “European culture,” because there are many nations, histories, ideas, etc. that exists within the European continent. The destructive ideologies, theologies, and philosophies that lead to things like colonialism, capitalism, and marxism are products of several convergences of history and intellectual thought. I don’t know European history well enough to talk about the nature of the various cultures there before the more destructive characteristics took hold, but I do believe European culture and thought cannot be understood as an aggregate that developed in a vacuum. I don’t see how making the blanket claim that all white people need to escape European culture in order to be good is really the right approach to take. Certainly there are much more glaring flaws to be critical of when we look at developments that arose from European nations, but all human societies have bad things that we need to step away from to examine, even indigenous people. Europeans were not the first to dehumanize their victims or take the environment for granted (Rapa Nui is an example). And the Sami people in Scandinavia are technically a European culture as well. Not every part of European culture serves to distort and destabilize. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are the modern, dominant ideologies and culture that permeate the European continent that have “nothing helpful to teach you and nothing to offer you as a way of life,” and that, rather, caucasians should look farther back to what their ancestors knew and practiced as a source of reliable insight to re-establish balance. Because we were all “indigenous people” of somewhere and knew how to live well with the land at some point in our respective histories.

I do really like, however, that he focuses on the word “revolution” in its double meaning:

“All European tradition, Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things. Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution. And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples….We don’t want power over white institutions; we want white institutions to disappear. That’s revolution….
American Indian people will survive; harmony will be reestablished. That’s revolution.”

I had never considered the idea of political and social revolution in the framework of a physical, full-circle return, but that makes a lot of sense. When we normally talk of revolution, we’re talking about overthrowing and replacing an existing system with another, but the origins of that new system we’re putting in place has everything to do with the idea of coming back full-circle. There’s nothing new under the sun and history has a habit of repeating the same old patterns. We can use the intelligence and balance of the natural world around us to guide our ideas. Revolution understood in this sense can help us re-examine and redefine our goals when we talk about getting ourselves out from under oppressive social, ideological, or economic systems. The idea is to return to balance, not to simply replace one system with another that is superficially different but is in fact built on the same perverted foundation.

Finally, I must say it’s somewhat difficult for me to take away a clear sense of personal direction from Means’s final words addressed to Native youth in white institutions. In order to “draw your strength from who you are,” to hold onto one’s sense of reality, beware of distortions and so forth, one must of course know who one is. And that tends to be a problem for most mixed people like myself. On one hand, one could always say it’s good to be mixed because you can appreciate and critique all sides of your ethnic/cultural background. But on the other hand, it isn’t always so simple when one feels pulled in different directions, or floating alternately in cultural/intellectual warps and voids, as is often the case for me. Over the years, I’ve kind of flirted with the idea that it’s necessarily for mixed people to acknowledge their place and identity as rooted in a new place entirely, though that place may still find its roots crossing blurry boundary lines into multiple cultures. And maybe there’s a whole new valuable kind of insight into these issues of revolution we can draw from seeing ourselves as outside the pre-established, distinguishable identity boxes.


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