Can we learn from Bruchko? Please?

We have just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  Along with the general attitude of gratitude suggested by the holiday is a the history of least a single point-in-time harmony of Europeans and Native Americans.  The image of the two groups in fellowship, enjoying a share meal is seared into the minds of young American children from early age.  And it’s not that inaccurate:

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But it’s also not complete as a story.  Because the whole story mostly features the two group not getting along well at all.

Native Americans were misnamed “Indians” by the wave of southern European explorers who found themselves landing in the shores of the Americas. “America “ itself was a name bestowed upon the new world, after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

By most DNA and historical analysis, the tribal groups inhabiting the Americas at the time of the “discovery” by Europeans had migrated from eastern Asia thousands of years earlier. Their distinction as the earliest inhabitants establishes a context for what would follow, but their real origin makes the moniker “Native American” a bit less sticky.

Whoever or whatever existed in the American continents prior to their arrival would be more “native” than they. This does nothing to soften the horrible tale of brutality later practiced against them. I mention their origin only to note that their discovery and settlement of the same land traveling from the east had at least the same aspect of people movement as that of the discovery and settlement from the west by Europeans. And we’ll never know what else it had in common.

I have thought and hard about how the ensuing conflict between the two cultures could have been avoided or lessened. Aside from the Europeans sailing back and leaving the Americas and their residents alone – maybe establishing trade partnerships, say – there was going to be conflict. Consider:

  • The Europeans who came to the New World were discoverers and settlers. Negatively they could be called conquerors, though the European version of conqueror was quite different than these settlers. They were not diplomats or people sensitive to other cultures. There were traders for sure, and perhaps these were the most likely strike a harmonious balance with the indigenous people.
  • Cultures were going to clash. There were many difference, but the principle one causing conflict concerned land. Owning and permanently settling on land was a foreign concept to Native Americans. And restrictions of where could live, hunt, fish and farm were also foreign.
  • There was a profound technological advantage. There has been much said and written about the forgotten (or repressed) advances of the Native American people. In spite of this, the Europeans held a 800-1500 year advantage in development upon their arrival. I do not say that to say that made them better as a people group, though that’s exactly what they concluded. The racist attitudes created an atmosphere that squelched any move for reconciliation.

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Now, Native Americans were not the only people treated poorly by the westward moving whites. Mexicans, Asians and Africans also received prejudice and brutal abuse.

So, beginning with King Phillip’s War, there would be conflicts between the peoples. The Europeans prevailed, supplanting their culture over the land. It is in the wake of that prevalence after conflict that we live today. It can also be said that the conflict is not over – there have been skirmishes that persist even today.

Native American population is thought to have decreased from 12 million to about 250 thousand by the end of the 19th century. Most of the decrease is attributed to disease, but loss of life due to conflict and relocation was awful.

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Saying that conflict was inevitable is not to say that cruelty or maltreatment was. The war had atrocities like many others, and after a point, neither side cared much about the culture or even survival of the other.

There have long been voices calling for restitution and restoration but I would hold that neither can occur without allowing Native American culture to dominate, at least provincially.  And yes, that means the war for cultural dominance is still with us.

I will assign value to advancement in technology for the benefit of people without it, divorced from its often-linked cultural domination. Some might call this culturally insensitive; I really just want the best for all people. I believe that the advancement of the human race through innovation and invention is a blessing for all humankind. And yes, not all technology is good or used well, of course. Like all people who are exposed to new things, we do well to be suspicious of the motives and practices of those introducing us to new things.

So how can Culture A be brought up to speed with the blessings of Culture B? And how can the differing elements of culture be reconciled?

I thought about this and one story came to mind.

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It was Bruchko – the story of Bruce Olson who sought out a reclusive tribe of Native South Americans in Venezuela – the Motilones – and not only brought them into the 20th century, but made them a political force to be reckoned with in the nations of Venezuela and Colombia. They kept their land and evolved their way of live mostly peaceably.

And please, if you assign him a stereotyped role as “missionary” you will miss a very important story of compassion and cultural sensitivity.

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How can this story help us today with Native Americans in the US? I don’t know, but I want to believe it can be done. Because it has been done.

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The Hubris of Revision

I read an article yesterday picking on Valentine’s Day. It took down the card companies, the forced and scheduled love, and even the Single’s Awareness Day which it has fostered.

The article said it was fine to celebrate. But somehow it was necessary to find things wrong with that, which is akin to saying “You are free to do that, but you’re an insensitive and ignorant idiot.” At least that’s what I heard.

It didn’t really go into history, and I think that’s because the writer may have found himself attacking something really beautiful. But historical and cultural revision is all the rage.
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And I’ll say it – it’s predominantly by the millennial generation.

Now getting history right is good. Let me talk a little about a popular-to-malign figure, Christopher Columbus:

I do think Columbus has been over-lionized, and mostly by a distinct group – my ethnic Italian friends. But the attack on old Chris has presented him without any good qualities. He was, at the very least, a daring explorer. And on the bad side, at the very least, a horrible governor. So now if you celebrate his day – which was always a good day to take off from work – you are a heretic and one espousing pillage and rape.

Not so!! I have no particular connection with things Columbus and I’ve known since 15 years old or so that the Norwegians were the first Europeans to set foot on North America.

So what? Columbus set sail across an ocean not knowing what he would find. His modern critics have the courage to post entries on the internet.

His crew was a collection of tough, morally compromised men who believed they answered to no one, not even Columbus.

I don’t know the details and context of the abuse his crew and people heaped on Native Americans. Neither do his detractors, though they love to find and spit disconnected writings as if they prove their points. We can probably say he at least didn’t stop it. But we don’t know what would happen if he did. There are other explorers who treated the indigenous people they encountered with kindness and dignity. Bartolome de la Casas is such a person.

Columbus had weaknesses – in particular he was a poor leader and governor. His men ran rampant and did their brutal best to ruin the good country and people they had found.

I’m not making excuses for Christopher Columbus. I’m saying he wasn’t as good as the holiday says and not as bad as his modern critics say.

The more troubling phenomenon is the need to revise. To make some points:

1. Snobs revise. C.S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to describe the phenomenon of a generation declaring its superiority to past generations by applying its enlightened perspective to those living in past centuries. Note that he wrote that in the 1940s – so there’s nothing new about revisionism.  But “snobbery” is an accurate description of the practice.  One thing is certain – that same practice will be exercised by one’s children.  The snobs will be vilified by future snobs.

2. Context and progress matter. In the American south during the slave era, racism was rife. Believing that Africans were subhuman was required to live in a society where they were treated that way. It was wrong, horribly unjust and we live with the wounds of that society to this day. But expecting someone who lived in that society to have the values of 21st century America ignores the economic system in force and the struggle it would take to bring justice. So, reading the words of a white slave owner – like Thomas Jefferson – and coloring them all with a single fact is willfully ignorant and unfair.

3. Injection is fallacy. Like Walter Mitty, those who insert themselves as heroes, retroactively into systems and times of injustice and abuse are day dreaming. It’s so easy to write critically and spew ad hominem vitriol on one’s forebears. It’s an entirely different matter to live under such systems and stay alive to make change. Nazis killed detractors; and the fear that spawned helped poison the minds and actions of an entire generation of German people.  There were heroic ones who resisted, but they did so risking it all.

4. Do revisionists really care? If those writing so critically applied the same energy to the known injustices of today; they would get a taste of the roadblocks and realities of the good fight. That way they would understand better that, for instance, misogyny was once a sea in which entire cultures swam (indeed still swim) and its practice, assumptions and language permeated everything.

Please, let’s revise US. And let’s practice mercy – finding the good and virtue amidst whatever else we might find wrong – with our historical past.

We will then find that mercy triumphs over judgment. Period. And when we need mercy, we will also receive it. There was someone really important who said:

Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.