The law of unexpected consequences prevails so frequently that perhaps it should not be so unexpected. For example, Laura Bush’s attempt early last year to hold a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” while her husband was planning to saturation-bomb Baghdad so appalled poet, publisher and symposium invitee Sam Hamill that he circulated a letter of outrage to Ms. Bush; his e-mail box filled up; he started poetsagainstthewar.org, to which more than ten thousand poets submitted poems; and so he became a major spokesperson against the war and an organizer of antiwar poets. Laura Bush’s symposium was cancelled. In much the same way, the plans to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s crash into the
Thus the Quincentennial became an occasion for many nonnatives to relearn the genocidal history of the
After the Second World War, one of the programs to dissolve Native Americans’ identity, diffuse their power and detach them from their land base involved resettling them in the cities to assimilate. For many, cities instead gave them access to new resources and information and fostered intertribal political alliances. Out of this, in
Treaty Council activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was at the UN General Assembly in 1980 when
“We never got one single line of media attention,” says Dunbar-Ortiz of the early years. Getting the word out was “just really hard work” carried out by speakers traveling to reservations, groups, and conferences, and by publishing a newsletter put together by the poet Simon Ortiz, among others. Word spread, and ideas began to shift. Dunbar-Ortiz told me, “It is exactly what gives you hope when you see this happen–when you see how hungry people are for the truth. When it is offered to them, they seize it.” Truth has been at least as important as law in the shift of status of indigenous Americans, for even the legal gains seem to be built on a foundation of changed imagination and rewritten history. Columbus Day became an occasion to rethink the past, and rethinking the past opened the way to a different future.
Nonindigenous Americans often embraced two contradictory not-so-true stories before that change. One was that Native Americans had all been wiped out–the tale of how a frail, static people had been swept away by progress was sometimes told sadly, but seldom questioned. Even radicals seemed in love with this tragedy, and again and again books casually assert some tribe or nation has vanished that hasn’t. We had the end of the trail, the last of the Mohicans, a vanishing race, a dying nation, a doomed people, stories that might condemn the past but let us off the hook for unfinished conflicts. In the other key story, there never had been any Native Americans, because the continent had been pristine, untouched, virgin wilderness before we got here, a story particularly dear to environmentalists who saw nature as a nonhuman realm, a place apart. Putting Native Americans back in the picture meant radically redefining what nature means and what the human place in it might be (an undoing of an entrenched dichotomy, the nature-culture divide, with profound implications for the environmental movement, which has not yet altogether come to terms with this revision of meaning). Putting them in the present means that the Indian wars are not over. The difference is that in recent years they have begun to win, some things, some of the time, and that this time the wars are mostly in the courts, the Congress, over textbooks, novels, movies, monuments, museums, and mascots, as well as on and over the land.
The Quincentennial became an opportunity to restate what
And it was the Quincentennial that had made the indigenous revolutionaries who would become world-famous as the Zapatistas say “basta,” enough, to their own five hundred years of defense against annihilation and go on the offensive, though it was NAFTA that pushed them over the edge into action (but then, NAFTA can be regarded as just another phase of the colonizing program that began with Columbus). On New Year’s Day of 1994, a guerrilla army of indigenous men, women, and children came out from their hiding places in the Lancadonan jungle and mountains of
The fall of the Soviet Bloc was framed as the triumph of capitalism; in the years that followed, capitalists increasingly asserted that the “free market,” which had triumphed over history itself, was tantamount to democracy and freedom; and the 1990s would see the rise of neoliberalism. The Zapatistas chose to rise on the day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect, recognizing early what a decade has confirmed: NAFTA was an economic death sentence for hundreds of thousands of small-scale Mexican farmers and with them, something of rural and traditional life. In dazzling proclamations and manifestos, the Zapatistas announced the rise of the fourth world and the radical rejection of neoliberalism.
They were never much of a military force, but their intellectual and imaginative power has been staggering, an influence not just on indigenous movements throughout the world, but on the antiglobalization movement’s understanding of place, power, and of the very language of insurrection and history. And hope. Two years after that initial uprising, the Zapatistas issued the Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle. It reads in part, “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…. In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror that neoliberalism represents, we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope.”
Since then, a surge of indigenous power has transformed the face of politics in many Latin American states, including
The Coast Miwok were supposed to be extinct when I was growing up on their territory; in 1992, they began fighting for federal recognition, and in 2000, led by the gifted part-Miwok novelist Greg Sarris, they got it. In
And this scale is dwarfed by other victories. The Inuit activist John Amagoalik remembers that in the 1960s journalists would come to his arctic homeland and write about it as “a wasteland where nobody lives… There was always agreement between them that Inuit could not survive as a people. They all agreed that Inuit culture and language ‘will disappear.’” On
How do you measure the space between a shift in cultural conversation and a landmass three times the size of
The resurgence of the indigenous peoples of the
This essay is an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s forthcoming book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Reprinted by permission of Nation Books. All rights reserved. Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit
Aside from Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit is the author of seven other books, including River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, which recently won the Spurs Award of the Western Writers of America, among others. She lives in
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]