[This essay excerpt was written by Jimmie Durham of the Cherokee nation. Durham was a member of the American Indian Movement and founder of the International Indian Treaty Council that lobbied the United Nations in favour of decolonization of indigenous peoples worldwide. He is also a sculptor and poet. The entire essay can be read here. – Ed.]
Culture as a Way to Know the World by Jimmie Durham, 1974
. . . The white left in particular has a tendency to take the words and concepts of revolutionary leaders from around the world instead of participating in the hammering-out of a true understanding of what is going on here, and how to use it.
That is especially true when we consider questions of culture in the U.S, either white culture or some other.
For example, a group of white leftists decides to hold a conference. They know, in an abstract way, that they have been robbed of their culture and that culture is important in revolution. Therefore they set aside one or two evenings during the conference as “cultural evenings.” Songs are sung and poems are read, but these “cultural activities” are not integrated into the conference itself, instead they are isolated as special events. More important, and more to the point, no one really sees and analyzes the ways in which the conference itself is a cultural event. . . . The reason people do not see the conference itself and its interactions as a cultural event in itself is because they have been robbed of their culture.
At the first level, the culture of the society is “Western.” That is, most structures of social action are like those of any other Western country, and are clearly unlike those of American Indians, Lapps, Masai, or even societies that have become “Westernized” in many aspects, such as the black population in the U.S.
But at the second level, the people at that conference are culturally part of a society that has taken the Western tool of “specialization” and changed it to what Paulo Freire has called “specialism” in his study of mass society. (The concept of mass society is not associated with the emergence of the masses in a historical process.) Freire describes this phenomenon in Cultural Action for Freedom:
“Mass society appears in highly technological, complex societies. In order to function, these societies require specialities, which become ‘specialisms,’ and rationality, which degenerates into myth-making irrationalism.”
“Distinct from specialities, specialists narrow the area of knowledge in such a way that the so-called ‘specialists’ become generally incapable of thinking. Because they have lost the vision of the whole of which their ‘speciality’ is only one dimension, they cannot even think correctly in the area of their specialization.
“In mass society, ways of thinking become as standardized as ways of dressing and tastes in food. People begin thinking and acting according to the prescriptions they receive daily from the communications media rather than in response to their dialectical relationships with the world. In mass societies, where everything is prefabricated and behavior is almost automatized, people are lost because they do not have to ‘risk themselves.’” . . .
Our societies, our culture, defines us, in large part, and our way of experiencing the world is through our culture. Politics, economics, science and technology, language, etc., are all cultural phenomena, and finally, of course, political phenomena. Many progressive people in this country, both whites and blacks, are not critically conscious of that process, and are a part of that mass society in one degree or another.
So, when white people look critically at the Indian Movement (as they should), it should be with a critical consciousness that they are looking through their own culture, which is a particularly alienating one and therefore difficult to see through.
As if the problems mentioned above were not enough of a barrier to communication and analysis, there are still two more blocks. The first is racism, which cannot really be separated from the cultural problems I’ve been talking about. Racism is used so effectively and insidiously as a tool of oppression that some people think that it is some absolute of human nature, or at least some absolute of white human nature. Most white progressives will freely admit that they carry some racist attitudes (whereas most Indians, also infected with racism, will not), but will not take the trouble to commit themselves to identifying and eliminating those attitudes, partly because that can be done only by the kind of praxis that U.S. culture makes so difficult. Those attitudes are especially obnoxious and destructive in white people who have the aggressiveness or self-confidence to be in leadership positions of one form or another.
Racism often takes the subtle forms of assuming Indian people to be just like white people, or totally different from white people, or other unspoken generalities, which further blind the people to the realities of Indian culture. It is also the primary cause of the most hateful piece of miscommunication now going on between Indians and white progressives: “political missionary-ism”. Particularly, by young white Marxists who have never been in real situations of struggle in a working-class movement, who in fact have seldom worked with anyone except fellow-students, and who come to us as though we were ignorant “lumpen proletariat” in need of being “taught”, not only Marxism, but the realities of our own struggle. . . .
The second block is the colonial tool that I call “romanticism.” The U.S. has used romanticism more effectively to keep Indians oppressed than it has ever been used on any other people. The basis of that romanticism is of course the concept of the “Noble Savage,” but the refinements over the years have worked their way into how every non-Indian thinks about us, and how we think about ourselves. In the U.S. there is a special vocabulary of English deliberately developed to maintain oppression of Indians. This vocabulary has connotations of “primitiveness,” backwardness, savagery, etc., and affects the ways every Indian and non-Indian in the U.S. thinks about Indians, whether or not people are conscious of them. This vocabulary has become so ingrained that the use of just one of the words conjures up the thought of Indians, and we have come to assume that these are “Indian” words, or at least direct translations from an Indian language into English.
Who decided that the word “chief,” which has the connotation of meaning the head of a land or tribe, is the correct translation of theconcept of the Creek Indian word “Enhomvta”? Did white people decide that was the correct word by studying the Creek political system? No. They decided because they wanted to show the Creek nation as a “primitive” body of people and “chief” carried this connotation. At first, colonists called Indian leaders “kings,” as in the example of King Phillip of the Wampanoag “tribe.”
Compare the two following sentences describing the same event and the reasons for a colonial vocabulary may be clearer:
1. Today Archbishop Tatanka Iotanka, Minister of Interior Affairs of the present government of the nation of Lakota and the most respected religious leader of the Lakota people, was assassinated by paid agents of the United States government.
2. Today Chief Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Sioux Indian tribe, was killed by another Indian.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the word “archbishop” would describe Sitting Bull’s position correctly or adequately, but I am saying that it describes the Lakota concept for his position just as well as the English phrase “medicine man” in the English of non-Indian people.
The romantic colonial vocabulary serves to dehumanize us, and make our affairs and political systems seem not quite as serious or advanced as those of other people. The English vocabulary used to describe us is designed to prove that we are inferior.
Here is a list of English words used in the romantic vocabulary with parallel English words in normal vocabulary. . . .
Band—State or province
Medicine Man—Doctor, minister, psychiatrist, etc.
Chief—President, prime minister, secretary general
Band of warriors—Army, regiment
Great council—Cabinet, parliament, central committee
Great Spirit—God, Allah, etc.
Some words refer to concepts specific to the way Indians are spoken about: “full-bloods,” “1/4, 1/16, 1/64 Indian,“ “mixed breed,” etc. This is a kind of racism that is not used against any other people. And even when white society as a whole has used words like “mulatto,” white progressives have not. But today they do speak of “full-blood” Indians and so on. It is no excuse to say that many Indian people themselves use those terms—many blacks in the South also used words like “mulatto,” “yallah,” etc., at one time and some still do now. . . .
As we in our struggle break out of isolation, we also break that language barrier, usually before the non-Indians know what has happened. Today we have learned what “tribes” really means so we refuse that definition. Non-Indians, including progressive whites, still use it. Tomorrow we will no longer speak of “full-bloods”; whites may still use that racist terminology. Those who are truly committed to liberation, however, will use the advantage of their outside position to begin an understanding of what we mean by certain words and phrases, such as “traditional,” and so work in solidarity with us in the process of coming back into the world. Those whose unconscious racism makes them decide that our specialized language makes us simple-minded or romantic, or Noble Primitives will continue to enhance their own self-image by “helping” us stupid Indians.
It is not an easy situation, nor is it completely one-sided. To add to the confusion there are many young Indians today who have been brought up in cities, sometimes in white foster homes, who have been denied their own culture and the education of their people. Romantic white society gives them their concepts of what “Indianness” is. Because these young people are so alienated, they are in many ways more oppressed than the rest of us, and so their zeal and desperation makes them our “revolutionary vanguard” in many ways. They are the people most articulate and willing to talk to non-Indians. They are also more visible than the “traditionals” on the reservations.
Because they are often in leadership positions and because what they say about our culture and politics fits the romantic stereotype, non-Indians sometimes take everything they say whole-cloth, and then either write off Indians as mystics or embrace Indians as fellow-mystics according to where they, the non-Indians, are politically.
All I have written so far should serve as a backdrop and framework for the main purpose of this paper.
The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. Jefferson was not the only man of his time to advocate imposing a capitalist and possessive society on Indians as a way to civilize them. The “bad example” was a real threat; the reason the Eastern Indian nations from Florida to New York State and from the Atlantic to Ohio and Louisiana are today so racially mixed is because indentured servants, landless poor whites and escaped black slaves chose our societies over the white societies that oppressed them.
Beginning in the 1890s we have been “red-baited” and branded as “commies” in Congress (see the Congressional record) and in the executive boards of churches. That was a very strong weapon in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the Oklahoma area any Indian “traditional” who was also an organizer was called a communist or even a “Wobbly.”
So we have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also as a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are “communistic” values. Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives.
Marx used our societies as examples of what he meant by communism on two different occasions in his writings. He said that we are “Primitive Communists.” The word “primitive” means “first,” but people who have skimmed through Marx often decide, because of theconnotations of the word “primitive” which come from political manipulation, that Marx meant that we were backward or “childlike” communists. Marx was, nonetheless, very Eurocentric, and he assumed that European history was the main body of humanity’s history.
We do not need Marx’s words to teach us how to live our lives in our own society. We do not need to go through an industrial revolution so that we can come out as communists on the other side.
We do need Marxism-Leninism as a method and system for knowing the human world as it is today and for knowing how most effectively to fight our oppressor. We do need to join forces with world Marxism-Leninism, because that is the liberation movement for the world. But we will not come into that world community as a “primitive” younger brother.
Our struggle has always been not only to maintain our own lands and culture, but to fight the political system of capitalism itself. That is evident in all the speeches and addresses given by our leaders throughout U.S./Indian history. The struggle to maintain culture is in itself a revolutionary struggle. It is a dynamic and positive struggle, not a passive holding action. We speak of our traditions, and because the romanticism of non-Indians always speaks of us in the past tense (What did the Cherokees eat?, instead of What do the Cherokees eat?), it is assumed that we are speaking of things that we used to do, such as “roaming the Plains” or making arrowheads. The traditions that we mean are not the exterior manifestations that are easily identified as “Indian,” not the “artifacts” and objects of our culture, but what we call our “vision”—the value system that makes our culture. In short, we mean our political system (but remember we have been taught a special vocabulary), not our well-made arrowheads. . . .
Taking new ideas that are useful is a very Cherokee activity. It is a very Lakota activity, or Mohawk activity. We took glass beads, horses, wool blankets, wheat flour for fry-bread, etc., very early, and immediately made them identifiably “Indian” things. We are able to do that because of our cultural integrity and because our societies are dynamic and able to take in new ideas. . . .
Another of our valued traditions is to take weapons from the enemy. Thus, in the 1920’s some “benign” branch of the B.I.A. decided that if properly controlled it would be a good thing if Indians sitting on barren reservations in Oklahoma were appeased and distracted by letting them hold a dance or two in the summer months. They reasoned that this would also give white people a chance to see “real Indians” doing “real Indian stuff.” The B.I.A. decided that it would be easier and less dangerous if these affairs were inter-tribal. In those days the different Indian nations which had been forced into Oklahoma did not have much contact with each other, and were relative strangers to each other. Therefore the B.I.A. decided that small groups from each tribe would find it harder to communicate or plan an “uprising” than one nation of people, or two neighboring nations. The B.I.A. named these events “pow wows,” after the word “P’houwah” which means “elder” or “medicine man” (the white trappers a century earlier made the mistaken translation).
To be able to sing together and dance together the Indians invented new dances and songs that did not require words in any one national language. The A.I.M. “song” is a pow wow song, but it should not be thought of as a contrivance because of that. It is a very real, valid and heartening cultural experience for us. The words are the “chant” part—the chorus—common to most Indian singing.
We were not degraded and made to feel like tourist attractions by these pow wows. We used them to create unity among us. We used the English our oppressor taught us as the most available common language. In that language we exchanged information and ideas. Now the pow wows are “our thing.” We hold them all over the country all summer long, and Indians from Maine meet with Indians from New Mexico to hear a political speech from an Indian from South Dakota. This century, pow wows have been our main tool towards forming ourselves into one confederation of people and reorganizing our struggle. What was meant to alienate us we used, in ourtraditional way, to strengthen our will.
Some people get the idea that “traditional” Indians want to go back to the “good old days.” Especially, they imagine that because of our grave concern over the environment we are escapists who want to reject technology and progress. That is another part of the romantic stereotype. We have, and have always had, technology. We accept all technology that contributes to the well-being of our people, whichmust include the well-bring of the Earth itself and all the life upon it; that acceptance is neither a new thing nor an “accommodation”: it is one of our traditions. . . .
Something that few people realize is that our culture and our vision have not remained static during our five hundred years of oppression. Indian nations which were once large (the pre-Columbian population of what is now the U.S., not counting Alaska, was 20 to 35 million) are now comparatively small and are “inside” the illegal boundaries of a giant European settler regime. These nations have had to come together, and such factors make for important cultural changes. Before Columbus we were not “warring tribes” as the history books have it, but neither did we always have a clear and motivating concept of an international “brotherhood” of humanity. Many of us had a national chauvinism which was sometimes very destructive. Also, given that we are speaking of a large continent with many countries, naturally every one of those countries did not have a good political system. No one, of course, was or is perfect. Some nations in the Southeast had very ugly class systems; in other areas some nations had pretty strange “consumer societies.” However, those aberrations were distortions of real values in a political (cultural) vision (concept) underlying all Indian societies, just as the Aztec sacrifices were horrible distortions of a common Indian concept of “society cannot develop without sacrifice.”
Colonization and our struggle for liberation accelerated a process of unification and clarification that had already begun (witness the Iroquois Confederacy and its vision). That political process of welding together, and refining and improving a unified concept of society on the Earth, is a cultural process. It is a process that is going on right now.
But it is a process, of course, that is going on internally and is seldom seen or understood from the outside. Because it is a process in a struggle for liberation, inside the most oppressive colonization the world has ever seen, it is not a smooth, clear road towards an ideal. Remember that oppression is more than skin deep; it is not exterior to a person’s inner life. It gives us confusion, self-loathing, and a natural urge to escape, which in some people takes the form of a “mental” escape—into mysticism, alcoholism, suicide, reactionism. It does that to each of us to some degree at some time or another. Some of us, in our confusion, try to escape the oppression in ways that do not help our struggle but which are not often seen as escapism either by ourselves or by non-Indians.
Some of us, particularly Indians who have been cut off from their own roots (the “urban” Indians mentioned earlier), use guilt-trip tactics on non-Indian supporters. They can easily find valid reasons for verbally blasting white co-workers because those white people have racist attitudes which make such blasts easy and seemingly excusable. But the people who escape by doing that are taking an easy and “self-satisfying” role instead of really struggling with racism, and they also get locked into attitudes that can serve to maintain our isolation; and non-Indians who simply react to those attitudes, by acceptance or belligerence, hinder our struggle.
It is a universal truth that human beings do not exist outside of their culture, their society. A biologically human animal is not fully human without, for example, language which is a cultural/political phenomenon. To speak of an alienated society is to speak of people robbed of their culture, always so that some political system can exploit them. That is what makes culture so important to liberation, and that is why it can never be considered a separate piece of human activity . . . .
Those white people who would “teach” us Marxism should realize that we have come to understand these things because we struggle to break out of isolation. The fact that white people meet us and are in solidarity with our struggle is not because they came to us, but because our struggle to regain our place in the world is effective and successful. The more we struggle the more we learn of the things in the world that we need to know, because we have broken our isolation.
We have made and will continue to make mistakes, as individuals and as a people. We are using those mistakes to further our struggle and to learn more.
Progressive non-Indians in the United States cannot be either teachers or spectators in that process, but must stand with us in true solidarity, which means a commitment to clarity, Marxist criticism and analysis of actual situations. We are, by every criterion, colonizednations of people, whose culture is not Western. Blacks, Mexicans, Chicanos, and whites all have more in common with each other than any have with us.
Our culture and our political systems have many faults, and had many faults in pre-colonial times. We have never claimed to be perfect or to have the “secret of life”. We demand, though, an end to romanticism, paternalism, and racism. We must include in that a demand for an end to liberalism directed against us. We demand to be taken seriously as the people we are, by the world and especially by other peoples on this continent. We must demand criticism of ourselves.
American Indian Spiritualism
Our “spiritualism” is a controversial issue right now. Marx said that religion is the opium of the people. We agree that for many, religion is a drug that exploits people for the State. That is why we have fought Christianity so vehemently. But we say that our own “religion” is a force of liberation. . . .
The basis, then, of what is called our “spiritualism” is the concept of Mother Earth. That is no more nor less than a formalized realization that we are human beings, whose sustenance and creation comes from the earth. This is not counter to Marxism. From this basis, built into our culture is a critical consciousness that our methods of production coincide ecologically with what is being produced. For this reason, in our farming methods we developed an agricultural technology which has not yet been approached by Western civilization. (The same holds true of our hunting methods in most cases.) So we maintain a critical consciousness and form our political systems by making sure that that relationship and the critical consciousness of it continue. We do this through our “mythology,” our festivals and celebrations, even by our social family structure. We formalize it and ritualize it in a non-static way. The ramifications of this process are what is translated into English as our “religion” or “spiritualism.” . . .
In the system described above there is an overriding value that is also a main ingredient in our “spiritualism.” We apply the same critical consciousness that I have been speaking about to a concept of what I will call the “quality” of things: the quality of actions, changes, systems, so on. We don’t accept ideas of “development” or “economic growth” unless we can clearly see both the long-range and short-range benefits they will provide to human beings. Benefit to some abstract notion of “society” or even “the masses” is not within our framework of understanding. We might also call this value the “spirit of things.” . . .
In our “spiritual” system we have come to know that human beings, to be fully human, must be integrated into society. We’ve also found out that society is nothing without personalized human beings. Our culture denies the concept of “masses” because it carries a connotation of depersonalization. Our culture also denies the concept of an “individualistic” society. “Individual” carries a connotation of objectification of persons. A person is a person, not an “individual”. One ant in an ant hill is an “individual”. Human beings are persons, and that is not the same as “individuals”.
This is an extremely important point. A person in U.S. society who thinks of himself as, or wishes himself to be, an individual will always be trying to prove/achieve his individualness. He will try desperately to be “different” from others in his society (while making sure that his “difference” is socially acceptable to his peer-group). What he is doing is volunteering to participate in his own alienation, his own victimization. It seems to us that the concept of “masses” is just the other side of that same coin.
It is our “spiritualism” that allows us to know that we exist only as human persons, and that our only way to be human persons is through our society. “Our way of being human is to be Indian, and that is our only way.” But we have no culture, no society, if it is not a society of persons. Our communism depends upon persons and our personhood depends upon our communism. We will not compromise on this concept; and there is no friction between this concept and Marxism.
Making Thoughts Match Actions
There are about a dozen American Indians in the U.S. today who say they are Marxist-Leninists. There are quite a few more who are in Marxist study groups. But the very large majority are, to differing degrees, verbally, “anti-communist” whilst their actions are communistic. But we need to be able to use the tools of Marxism-Leninism if we are to see effectively and fight our enemy. I do not believe that we have time to “let nature take its course,” or to have that kind of liberal “faith in the people” which means escaping one’s own responsibility for leadership and action.
Disorganization, lack of perspective and clarity, and everyone “doing their own thing” are American phenomena which are destructive to our struggle. Lack of strategic unity plays right into the hands of the enemy. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the detailed realities of our situation, I believe, is the only way to combat such phenomena. The greatest weakness of the American Indian struggle is our inability to analyze properly the enemy’s make-up, weapons and tactics, and to figure out how to use them against him. That weakness, of course, is a direct result of, and is part of, our oppression, just as alcoholism is part of our oppression. So it cannot be singled out and dealt with through “special programs.”
Progressive people, Indian and non-Indian, who take our struggle as theirs must have a commitment to see the particulars and take responsibility to engage themselves and others in a battle that will further changes. I have spoken repeatedly in this paper about “real situations,” “details,“ and ”particular situations,” because I am addressing what I have perceived as a serious weakness in the white American left.
A real situation: American Indians as a whole are suspicious of the English language, especially when white people speak it. Rightly so, because we have been deceived by that language. We are also suspicious of non-Indians or even Indians educated and articulate in the white society, who come to us with new plans and new answers. All of the new plans and answers over the past 200 years have been disastrous to us. . . .
These suspicions are well-founded, but they are a sizeable object to be overcome. I repeat, it is not for our few Marxists to overcome them; it is for all of us together to join the struggle that is already effecting changes—the struggle of the Indian people as a whole. And yet, neither am I willing to say that we “play it cool” and so let the government continue its indoctrination unchallenged. I am not going to suggest facile “solutions” to this problem because it does not make sense for one person to come up with solutions. We should commit ourselves to work, Indians and other Third World people in the U.S., and everyone whose goal is liberation, not as one nebulous mass nor as divided groups which cannot communicate with each other. Now is the time when we must begin the process of coming together as the peoples we are. No one group of us can be the student or the teacher of revolution, only the struggle—in unity, clarity, and commitment—can teach.
Source: Jimmie Durham, “American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle,” in A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, ed. Jean Fisher (London: Kala Press, 1993).