Wednesday, August 3, 2011

American Indians, a Movie, No Restaurants, and Some Resulting Perspectives

Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis and Boston, I read Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Histories" of the World and of the United States, so I understood the gist of the American Indian Genocide. But, this knowledge remained simple, shallow, and abstract - a child's book-knowledge. I had not experienced or seen enough pain or personal tragedy to begin to empathize in what I would now consider a meaningful way.

Now, watching the movie "The Canary Effect" after having spent four months in Rwanda, I feel suddenly a little more able to see the American Indian Genocide from the perspective of a decimated minority.  Before, it seemed a little dubious to say that the high suicide rates, alcholism rates, unemployment, and general despondency on reservations could be caused by lack of official recognition and respect for the ugly history.  But, now I begin to understand that feeling like the favorite target of the US government's extortion, theft, and mass murder with impunity, would certainly be a tough pill for me to swallow.  It could certainly be an ongoing source of angst, anguish, and worse.

I highly recommend watching this movie - before it gets put back behind a paywall!  I hope it will stay free online and get growing coverage just like "Home" and "Earthlings."  It just went online in April 2011!

While watching this movie and pausing to google up references, I forgot to eat dinner.  So I also started thinking a lot about food - American Indian food, of course.

In 2010, AyJy did a month of her clinical rotations at a Eastern Cherokee hospital in South Carolina, and I was able to visit for a brief but memorable weekend.  I was excited to be visiting a Indian community for the first time since I was ten years old, when my family went to see a public pow-wow.  I remember searching the internet for any American Indian restaurants in South Carolina.  I was incredulous to have a difficult time finding any such restaurants, anywhere, and it turned out that the only authentic dish we tried was frybread with cranberry sauce.  But of course, this only rubs salt in the wound as the now-beloved traditional frybread originated from the doled-out flour and grease tins on the concentration-camp "reservations". (source)

I am encouraged by this 2005 NYTimes article on a potential renaissance of traditional Native cuisines.  To all the restaurateur VCs and entrepreneurs out there, check out this chowhound thread to demonstrate the market demand: many have encountered similar experiences to my own.

But I am beginning to feel like the US government really needs to apologize to American Indians, and rewrite the "Manifest Destiny" chapters in our elementary school history books.  Along with that, we need to get some backbone and start paying our financial debts to American Indians as well.  I wonder of some of this could be lumped in under "stimulus."  You can't "lose" another nation's money, although it is another debt that could be defaulted on.  maybe there's some economics thesis material in here somewhere...

Unfortunately we've already decided to bail out other less-deserving folk.  Plus, it seems that the last time we paid off all our debts was when Andrew Jackson annexed American Indian lands and sold them off, causing the Cherokee Trail of Tears.


When I was a ten-year-old, reading history in a cartoon book, I knew I should not be held responsible for the sins in my American inheritance. Of course, as an adult I now have a different role. Perhaps I realize that if I need not recognize this responsibility, then no one else would need to do so either.

Although my attempts today at understanding and empathy may have progressed since then, I don't claim to be able to empathize strongly. Perhaps I have the comfort of maintaining emotional distance and rationing my empathy, over time - in proportion as I amass the resources and ability to usefully channel the resulting grief and shame into action. Maybe limiting my empathy helps me maintain my gamely optimistic 'healthy' self-perceptions of grace and humanism.

Of course, when a vulnerable person is confronted with institutional violence, they have no such 'reality spigot' to help maintain emotional balance.

Maybe that's another good reason to have picked Economics as a home discipline.  Economics is absolutely not the "dismal science."  This name didn't originally come from Malthus' preventative population check, but from a proponent of Carribean slavery who was complaining about the free-marketers' logic of emancipation.  So it might just as well be the "Emancipatory Science."

And, economics doesn't tell us how Cristóbal Colón decided that the moral cost of systematically subjugating and lynching the Taíno on his second voyage was outweighed by dubious gains from gold-seeking, punitive retribution, or pre-emptive deterrence.  Economics doesn't tell us why Andrew Jackson and Southern voters decided that contradicting an explicit Supreme Court order and enforcing a thousand-mile Cherokee death march was an acceptable price to pay for a land grab.

Anthropology is so much more depressing.

1 comment:

StevenBhardwaj said...

The US will settle the "American Indian Trust Fund" lawsuits this year, per NY Times Article, and The US had grossly mismanaged these funds, but will now finally pay up in the amount of $3.4 billion.

However, many other land claims have been and continue to be contested. The most important one today is the Black Hills claim. See this March 2011 article from the Atlantic: