Eaglets v. Chickens

Richard White

  • The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations by Guy Gibbon
    Blackwell, 311 pp, £30.00, December 2002, ISBN 1 55786 566 3

I live and teach in a country as parochial as it is powerful, and there are moments that bring home to me how American I am. Several years ago a colleague, who had served as the American ambassador to Pakistan, tried to arrange a series of meetings between a visiting Pakistani general and teachers and students at Stanford University. In those innocent days before the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Pakistan had become a staple of the coverage of terrorism, and pictures of ‘tribal’ leaders in Iraq graced the pages of every American newspaper, I wasn’t quite sure why he wanted me and my students to meet the general. He told me he thought it might be interesting to compare American Indian history and policy, which had yielded semi-autonomous Indian nations within the larger American polity, to Pakistan with its tribal areas. This should have been obvious to me, but it wasn’t. Something happened in Pakistan and the general cut short his visit. The conversation never took place.

Now, in coverage of the Middle East and elsewhere, the word ‘tribe’ is everywhere. It is loosely used to mean people who are linked by ties of language, kinship and culture that existed prior to, and are separate from, the citizenship of modern states. Journalists present their members as being not quite modern; they sometimes infiltrate states and influence them, but mostly they hover dangerously on the edge of state control. They are assumed to be throwbacks, pictured, like the larger Muslim world, as having somehow managed to inhabit the modern world without themselves being modern. They surface as states collapse. They are represented as dangerous – armed with Kalashnikovs, testy, edgy and ignorant – and yet sometimes necessary as allies. Ultimately, they are hopelessly outmatched in a world of satellite-guided bombs, helicopter gunships hovering over villages, and grim crew-cut special-ops who descend from the sky to kill, capture and disappear.

The United States, however, is also filled with tribes. One of the first American fatalities in Iraq was, I believe, a Hopi Indian woman. For most American Indians, the moment when an expanding nation-state overtook them was in the 19th century. The American state negotiated treaties and guaranteed them a semi-autonomous status they would have to struggle actually to achieve in the 20th century. They are, in part, creatures and creations of the state that overwhelmed them.

The great iconic symbol of such Indian peoples is the mounted warrior of the Great Plains (whose depiction in art owed much to European portrayals of Arab horsemen). These Indian warriors, in the popular imagination of both the United States and the rest of the world, are virtually always Sioux. The 19th-century moments in which the Sioux are frozen are always moments of violence. The choice is between the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where they defeated General George Armstrong Custer, and the first Wounded Knee Massacre, when soldiers of Custer’s old regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, mowed down Ghost Dancers with the combination of military efficiency and cultural confusion that characterises American incursions into the ‘tribal’ areas of the Middle East today. These moments were etched into both Sioux and American consciousness because they were illustrations of larger stories that still influence the US and the Sioux. The Little Big Horn is about Americans as victims, attacked and massacred by a cruel enemy, and thus entitled to righteous revenge. The moment erases everything that led up to it. Wounded Knee is part of the story of the Sioux as victims, a brave people, but outmanned and outgunned, conquered and slaughtered for trying to be Sioux. The complexities of Wounded Knee, too, are erased by the sound of Gatling guns blowing apart women and children. Americans have tried, and will undoubtedly try again, to cast this story and its equivalents as a regrettable tragedy of innocents caught in the crossfire of American soldiers confronting religious fanatics.

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