Blood Cries Out From The Soil

(this is for the dead)

Fighter jets are flying overhead; their screeching rage punctuating the rumbling roar of heavy-tread machines behind me. Particles of dust and exhaust cling to sweat-drenched skin in the searing sun. Everything feels dry, desiccated, as if all the shadowed life of this place has been swept over by a sudden desert.

My attention’s drawn to something unexpected–four red strokes against white, crimson vivid as blood, pasted against a steel pole. It’s a glyph, a sigil, with a power steeped in terror.  I need to leave this place to find a friend, but my attention is held. Something hardens in me as I stare, a sorrow awakening in veins constricted by anger.

I cannot believe what I am seeing. I look around myself to see if others note it. Women wearing head-scarfs are gathered nearby, speaking to each other quietly next to buildings which soon, too, will become rubble to be hauled away. It’s unlikely they’ve seen this mark.

I scrape it off the pole. No one seems to note my actions, neither the uniformed man who watches the gathering of Arabs a hundred feet from this pole, nor all the others passing by. It peels off easily, and I slip it into a pocket to show others, just as another aerial machine-of-death makes a second pass over where I stand.

“Indian Country”

I’m standing on a street corner in Seattle, not the Middle-East.

There’s a naval celebration going on–those jets are The Blue Angels a military performance troupe. I’m not in the middle of a declared war-zone, but I am in the middle of an occupation. And the sticker? It was three K’s, placed on a light pole in the middle of a traditionally black neighborhood undergoing massive gentrification. The bulldozers behind me are tearing down old homes and shops to make room for high-priced condominiums.

This was not far from the house I’m staying at. My host has been a First Nations man who was adopted out as a child to a white family who actively worked to keep him disconnected from his indigenous past. Neither of us have ancestral connections to Seattle, though he’s got closer claims to actually being on this land than I.

Also, he’s gay, like I am. Seattle’s a remarkably “tolerant” place for sexual minorities who play the middle-class games.  It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed here so long, why I returned here after being gone for a year. I was elsewhere, searching for home, but this place called me back.

But by being here, I’m helping to displace the people who lived in this neighborhood before. In fact, this was one of the few places where blacks could live in Seattle due to redlining and other practices. I’ve met folks who still remember when it was called “coon town.”  They’re younger than you’d think.

White, mostly liberal folks, flooded this area after the recent housing-price collapse, buying up foreclosed homes. Many of those evicted were black. Many, from the stories I’d heard, had taken out equity loans on houses that their grandparents were born in and found the sudden inflation of rates meant they couldn’t pay it back. Real estate agents harassed the residents who hadn’t lost their homes; My neighbor and friend complained of still getting unsolicited offers from white realtors several times a week. The poor, mostly minorities were pushed out, and bourgeois entered.

Blacks were hauled over in slave ships to help white people make money in America. Immigrants were brought in to build the railroads and then vehemently oppressed when they were finished.  And all these groups helped displace the indigenous First Nations before them.

Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.
Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.

Did I just say displaced? I’m sorry. I meant slaughtered.

You used to be able to get money for “Indian” scalps. The U.S. government once encouraged people to shoot buffalo to help starve the First Nation resistance to westward expansion. Freed-slaves who joined the army were heavily involved in the Indian Wars and called Buffalo soldiers. And even today, “Indian Country” is U.S. Military slang for enemy territory.

But because of all that violence, the smallpox blankets and massacres and starvation, this open, tolerant, liberal city I live in has space for me. I’m “free” to practice my Pagan religion now, and the same military which killed natives now officially recognizes both my religion and my sexuality. This is all supposed to be “progress,” except I just saw a KKK sticker in a traditionally black, gentrifying neighborhood, and we’re all on stolen, conquered, and occupied land.

We Inhabit The Past

buffalo-4

What we know and believe that the past and our histories greatly determine how we encounter the present. Without knowledge of slavery, for instance, I might be inclined to see the poverty of minorities in America as some sort of problem inherent within their cultures or, worst of all, intrinsic to their very nature.  And if I am ignorant of that past, I might encounter all the anger, rage, and despair of minority communities as unwarranted, unjustified, and dangerous.

Most everyone, though, knows about slavery and has at least a vague understanding of the slaughter of First Nations people on this continent, so the matter is less what is actually known than what is actually believed about those things.

As I’ve mentioned before, belief affects human actions, not just human perceptions. Our accepted histories are not mere narrative. They rise to the category of belief precisely because they determine the way we encounter the present.

One of the most difficult problems in our histories is the notion of “progress;” the Enlightenment notion that we have moved beyond the past into a better present. This Progress Narrative is a way of divorcing and disconnecting our present from all the atrocities of the past while justifying our actions now. Once, Americans held slaves and treated minorities as less-than-human, but now, we are equal. Once, Americans slaughtered indigenous peoples on this land, but now we’ve passed to a more progressive, enlightened state.

It’s a narrative of the past, certainly, but it defines what we think of ourselves now. Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Anarchist scholars have variously noted how Western civilization creates a conception of itself which poses all other present and former societies as primitive, existing in a less (politically, economically, and socially) evolved state. That is, it “others” all societies besides itself, positions itself as the most-evolved form of society humanity has yet attained, and then sees all societies (including itself) through this filter.

A particularly pernicious effect of this, though, is that parts of our own society that do not fit this narrative become ignored, made invisible by the story we tell about ourselves. We see moments of crime against sexual, religious, and racial minorities as aberrations to the liberal, tolerant society in which we live, as if all the past is behind us and all the blood of scalped and starved natives, of tortured slaves, of murdered immigrants do not, even now, fertilize the ground upon which we plant our organic gardens. And when we look at our past, we disconnect those events from the present in which we live. The displacement of peoples, slavery, First Nations genocide–those happened then, but we live in now.

But history is full of processes, not just events and presences, which continue to haunt and continue to not just shape but inhabit our modern interactions with each other.

The post-colonial historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about European mode of disenchantment and secularism, noted:

what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular (Provincializing Europe, p112).

This has a terrifying consequence. Our notion of being different and removed from the atrocities of the past is utterly false, even more so when those atrocities are unacknowledged and unrepaired. White Americans do not currently own African slaves, but the conditions of slavery continue to affect the descendants of those slaves and the wealth derived from slavery continues to benefit the descendants of those owners and American society. The land taken from indigenous peoples through violence is where we all now live. We’re not just the inheritors of atrocity–we are also the beneficiaries and the continuation of them.

We can look at our present through this lens and start to understand much of our current political, racial, and economic crises and how we, willingly or more often inadvertently, continue the atrocities of the past into the present. The United States of America was birthed in colonization with the oppression of peoples. Is it any wonder that our government supports other governments doing similar things?  It took a very long time for the U.S. Government to stop supporting Apartheid in South Africa precisely because “European settlers on non-European land” looked awfully familiar.  We can see the same thing in the Middle-East, as well. Regardless of what one thinks of that conflict, it should give us pause that the U.S. Government has given more military aid to the Israeli government since the second World War than to any other country in the world.

“Not in My Name”

leviathan_hobbes_cropped_03

From the frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Speaking of governments, one of the other legacies of The Enlightenment besides Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy, is the notion of complicity. Like egregores, the modern state demands a shared identification of its people. That is, since sovereignty no longer derives from the land or the gods and now is said to derive from “the people,” it’s become difficult to separate the actions of a government from the people whom they are said to represent.

This is different in other countries though. I first noticed it with a German friend. She and I had been talking about American CIA involvement in the overthrow of socialist governments in the Middle East and South America. I’d said to her something regarding how “we claim to believe in Democracy, but will undermine it when the people vote for someone we don’t like.”

“Why do you keep saying ‘we?’” she asked me.

I didn’t understand the question.

“We?  Why ‘We’?  You weren’t there, and you didn’t do it. The government did. Americans often say ‘we,’ and I don’t understand why. Germans don’t do that.”

I’d noticed this, but had thought it was merely a linguistic difference. “You never say ‘we’ when talking about Germany?”

“That’d be silly,” she replied. “I’m not Germany. I’m German, but I’m not Germany. You’re not America, either.”

I still think on that matter. It was relieving to understand that I was not personally responsible for everything the U.S. government had ever done. It was also terrifying, because I began to understand the meaning of implicit consent; how people in power were bombing children in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they represented my interests, and I was helping to pay for it with taxes from my paltry wages.

Before I’d understood this, my reactions to the founding (and foundational) violence of America were most often ones of disbelief. Sometimes I’d accuse the historian of such horrors of lying, or twisting facts towards an agenda.  But I realized I was mostly just being defensive, because I couldn’t believe “we” had done such a thing.

Thing is, “we” didn’t. Others did, just as others do now. But they did it in “our” name, just as they do now.

I’m a vehemently anti-racist Pagan Anarchist. On what grounds could a government ever have thought I’d want them to kill indigenous people? Or buffalos? Or allow and encourage people to own slaves?  And how could they possibly think that they’d be accurately representing my will by dropping bombs on children in the Middle East?

The answer’s awfully obvious. No government such as that could ever speak on my behalf.

There’s another side to this idea of sovereignty and complicity. If the actions of a government are a reflection of the will of the people, then it makes perfect sense that our government was wrong to attack us directly.  For any government to attack the people for whom that government is a mere proxy. After all, governments just do what they’re elected to do, right?

Many Gods, No Masters

So here I am, a gay Pagan living on stolen land. I didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was stolen. Not having been directly responsible, I cannot personally make amends, nor can I, with all the magic of the gods and spirits, hope to resurrect the dead, to undo those crimes.

More difficult, I have little choice in this matter. I live where I can; where I can afford; where things are open to me; where I feel safe. And I’m bound by the citizenship conferred to me at birth. I cannot merely “go back to Europe,” to my ancestral lands, because I have no legal claim to do so.

I guess I could perhaps do what many people do, which is ignore the whole thing, tuck the horrors away into a neat little envelope called “past” and pretend like these things don’t still happen. The more I work with spirits, though, the more I realize the dead don’t just go away like that. Besides, the horrors continue.  Poor minorities are still shot dead on American soil by city militia. The descendants of slaves continue to live in deep poverty and are thrown in prisons now, instead of slave ships.  And the government which claims to represent me, which derives sovereignty from my “consent,” slaughters people in other countries, too.

Knowing all that, I cannot look away.

This, too, is why it’s impossible for me not to see conflicts elsewhere as part of the same legacy of which we, in America, still re-enact. Watching the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cannot help but think both of the plight of the people in the occupied territories and their poverty as being similar to what the indigenous people around me suffer. Simultaneously, I cannot help but identify with people in Israel who did not themselves choose to steal land from others. Many of them are the descendants of people who moved elsewhere, some are also people who fled from violence and hatred elsewhere.

Besides thinking Capitalism is the worst thing we’ve ever come up with, this is why I’m an Anarchist. The foundational violence which haunts every “freedom” in America was perpetrated by people who were not me. The violence which America still enacts in the world is committed by people who falsely claim to be acting on my behalf. I did not consent to those horrors, nor do I consent to them now, nor will I allow them to do those things on my behalf.

Anarchism doesn’t stop at rejection of a government. Recognizing that the suffering of other people relies on my implicit consent, I cannot allow that violence to occur. Governments who claim to represent my interests and who extract money from me in order to commit atrocities must be toppled, and the conditions which have allowed them to thrive must be changed so that they no longer may do so.

My Anarchism, however, is also my Paganism. The gods and spirits we’ve pushed out of our present continue to exist, as do the dead. Just because I live in the present, I am not absolved from my inheritance, nor of my legacy.  I cannot perform rituals on stolen land without working to have it returned, I cannot worship gods of place and people without fighting those who’d poison those places and sever those people from their gods.

There’s something really liberating about this knowledge, though. The notion that the past is dead is false, and this means we Pagans who are attempting to reconstruct ancient worship of ancient gods are still living among fragments of those religions. We don’t need to prefix what we’re doing with “neo-,” even if what we come up with, guided by our gods, is a different configuration from what our ancestors had.

That is, if the past is not ever truly gone, it can be rewoven, reshaped. It’s around us now. Processes which started centuries ago and continue to this day can be ended and amended. Fragments buried in plain sight under our illusion of being modern can be teased out from their hiding places.

We only need to stop claiming that the past is over, so we can own up to the past that is still with us.


[This piece first appeared on The Wild Hunt on August 9, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


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The Reawakening of Tribal Consciousness: The Spread of Ecological Wisdom and Confronting the Artifice of Capitalism

 

By William Hawes

“When
we learn to come together we are whole
when we learn to recognize the enemy
we will know what we need to know
to learn to come together
to learn to weave and mend.”

Anne Cameron, Daughters of Copper Woman

“I am the guardian of life
and death
all my children come back to me
I call you
conjure you
hide you in my breast
you nourish me with your bones
and live again.
I am your Mother Earth
your dark Mother Earth.
If you insist on destroying me
you will destroy yourselves.
Wake up
my children
listen to my cry.”

-Claribel Alegría, “Gaia’s Cry”

Recent world events are playing out a drama unseen since the mid-17th century. When the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, European borders were drawn so that sovereign states would establish the sole rule of law within their own respective territories. Today, transnational capitalism, huge waves of immigrants from war-torn and poverty-stricken regions, instant globe-spanning internet communication, and the threat of fundamentalist terrorism are dissolving borders at a rapid pace. In its wake, the notions of duty, respect for environmental rights, citizenship, and nations are being reformed to shape this rapidly forming interconnected global culture.

Leaders of modern nation-states are proving less and less adept at handling crises and managing world affairs: they turn to various technocrats within the maze of various government ministries, powerful businesspeople whose lobbyists write the laws for the legislature, non-profits and NGOs who carry out needed health and infrastructure projects, and community leaders from civil society who are able to wade through ethnic and tribal antagonisms with ease.

As nations falter due to weak links of shared identity between citizens, new ecologically and culturally conscious groups of people are linking together, as globe-spanning tribes based on tradition, ritual, spirituality, reciprocity, and love of the environment are gathering to create the most important movement of the 21st century. As refugees from the Middle East flee warfare, as Latin Americans leave their homelands due to little or no job security, and as highly educated East and South Asians emigrate to pursue advanced careers in engineering, science, and more, global tribes are forming that transcend the modern nation-state. Millions of people now have dual citizenships, and conflicting allegiances between their nation of birth and their new homes.

The Western State is now collapsing under the weight of its own bloated bureaucracies, its satiated, anesthetized, and myopic views of politics, and its inability, its unwillingness, to confront the environmental destruction and social ennui endemic to capitalism. The predatory nature of the State, its capacity for resource extraction and organized violence, is becoming all too clear for globally oriented people, those who adhere to a one-world philosophy and a desire to eliminate borders. Many young people are beginning to consider themselves as world citizens, or at least as member of larger regions, just as people in the EU refer to European citizenship and the European community. In the Islamic world, a similar concept has been used for centuries: Muslims are members of the ummah, the collective community of believers in Islam.

The Vision of Global Tribes

These questions surrounding transnational violence, religious fundamentalism, world citizenship, and social backgrounds are explored in depth in Amin Maaolouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.  Maalouf traces his personal background, explains why having numerous tribal and ethnic allegiances does not inevitably have to lead to conflict, how modern Western nations react to “the other”, and most importantly, explains his notion of global tribes. He asserts that in contemporary life we have reached “The Age of Global Tribes”, a new era in which a patchwork of shifting ethnic, religious, and tribal allegiances compete with nation-states for glory, the need for social identity, and power.

Maalouf focuses on the Arab world, due to his dual French-Lebanese background. For Maalouf, fundamentalist Islamism gives disaffected individuals in undemocratic, dictatorial regimes a stable identity, despite the possibility of fomenting hatred and nihilism that fundamentalism can lead to. The corollaries in Western society would be people like Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, the Unabomber, and the odd racist or militia group that advocates violence. While it would be tidy to lay all the blame on a nihilistic outlook, on the death drive (Freud’s Thanatos), this seems an oversimplification. For the young, well-educated, and politically-oriented men in Arab nations, but those not rich enough to emigrate to the West or enjoy the simulacra consumer “”paradise” that Arab nations try to copy, there are few options for social belonging.

Fifty years ago, Marxist groups would have provided an outlet for social belonging; thirty years ago, the examples of Nasser, Sadat, and Khomeini led youths towards pan-Arab or nationalist organizations. Today, with the failure of both, and the covert support of the Gulf monarchies and their Western backers for jihadi terror, Islamist groups provide the need for social belonging in a very small percentage of young Arabs. Maalouf explains:

“In [Islamism] they find satisfaction for their need for identity, for affiliation to a group, for spirituality, for a simple interpretation of too-complex realities and for action and revolt.” (i)

The need to find affiliation for young people is due to the loss of power of the modern nation-state, which has exploited various ideologies to cling to power over the last few centuries. The construct of the nation-state, and its right to exist, has been de-legitimized by the failed ideologies of Marxism in Eastern Europe, Maoism in East Asia, permanent ethnic conflict in Africa, dictatorships in the Mideast, unregulated capitalism in North America and Western Europe, and the machismo populism prevalent in parts of Latin America. Thus it is no surprise to Maalouf and others that religion is what groups will fall back on in the modern era of crony capitalism and ecological disaster. Maalouf’s solution is language: if we all learn to adopt three (or more) languages, cultural differences and tensions will relax, and a true world community where religious belief no longer coincides with group violence and mob rule can flourish.

Neo-Tribal Consciousness and Organization

bus

What is missing from Maalouf’s analysis is the organization of this future society. For author Daniel Quinn, it is the tribe that will become the backbone of our emerging culture. He explores these ideals in his book Beyond Civilization, where he calls for a “New Tribal Revolution”. And in many ways the neo-tribal group seems the best option: tribes which share the work and share the profit of collective endeavors will inevitably have much less inequality and are likely be much more peaceful. As Quinn explains:

“Tribal life is not in fact perfect, idyllic, noble, or wonderful, but wherever it’s found intact, it’s found to be working well – as well as the life of lizards, racoons, geese, or beetles – with the result that the members of the tribe are not generally enraged, rebellious, desperate, stressed-out borderline psychotics being torn apart by crime, hatred, and violence. What anthropologists find is that tribal peoples, far from being nobler, sweeter, or wiser than us, are as capable as we are of being mean, unkind, short-sighted, selfish, insensitive, stubborn, and short-tempered. The tribal life doesn’t turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation.” (2)

A new form of tribe is emerging, not the suffocating, tyrannical, stereotypical, monotype tribe of the kind we read about in school history books: new groups where tradition does not dictate every action of the individual, where individuals feel free to express their spirituality without the needed to conform to a group religion. An egalitarian tribe, where merit matters, not rigid hierarchy or nepotism. Most importantly, neo-tribal wisdom accepts the idea that ecocentrism is central: the idea that humanity is not center stage in a drama located on planet Earth; the idea that we are all part of a cosmic web, a sacred hoop in Native American terms; that the environment does not derive its worth from human value, but has innate value and should be protected from short-term exploitation. For Quinn, the new tribal revolution is distinctly post-modern: it signifies the end of meta-narratives, the end of the idea that, in his words “There is only one right way to live”: the end of the superficial, spiritually myopic way of the modern techno-capitalist state.

The Delusion of Left vs. Right

trainyard

Viewing the world from the holistic, ecocentrist way, the futile arguments over liberal versus conservative beliefs are unmasked for what they are: a distraction, a carnival. The antagonism of Liberal/Conservative is thus a collective hallucination designed by elites to divide and conquer the people, as well as destroy ecosystems and pillage resources. Capitalist and Marxist-Leninist communist societies controlled by oligarchies have both ravaged environments immensely, and both have had industrial growth at the heart of their belief system. They both constitute, for author Jonathon Porritt, a super-ideology: industrialism. Here’s Porritt:

“[Capitalism and Communism] are dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralization and large-scale bureaucratic control and coordination. From a viewpoint of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance.” (3, quoted in Dobson, 2007, p. 18)

The only politics that matters is how the human race uses and protects its lands and waters for the betterment of our own societies, our future children, and our fellow plant and animal species. How we can in small groups, clans, tribes, and perhaps even bioregional city-states grow enough food, collect enough clean water, gather materials for shelter, use appropriately scaled technology, and foster a vibrant culture among peaceable citizens. This philosophy goes by many names: sustainability, deep ecology, ecocentrism, etc.

Indigenous cultures have been practicing these skills for millennia, passing on oral traditions and ecological and agricultural knowledge so detailed it would make the Library of Congress look insignificant in comparison. Much of this knowledge and ancient wisdom has been lost to the sands of time, victim of the uprooting of cultures because of colonial wars, epidemic diseases, the techno-reductionism of modern health and science, capitalism, and Christianity’s missionary engulfment over entire continents, and more.

Ideas surrounding ecocentric politics, liberty, and democracy are being questioned from new radical perspectives, although Western media blacks-out massive progress: in Ecuador and Bolivia, the socialist parties in power are immensely raising standards of living and education, while improving rights for the environment and indigenous groups. In Spain, Podemos’ combination of direct and digital democracy, and its citizen circles used to debate local and municipal issues are redefining European politics. In the state of Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatistas led by the EZLN group have been busy for the past twenty-one years opening schools and hospitals, redistributing farmland for struggling farmers, saving diverse rainforests from logging and grazing, and imparting deep ecological values to its youths. Also, the EZLN are committed to passing on their own traditional Mayan culture within a framework of egalitarian deals, communalism, and socialist beliefs, distancing themselves from the whirlwind of neo-colonial capitalism that lords over most of North, Central, and South America.

What is also interesting is that many of these new perspectives and leaders are not committed to the ossifying processes that soon results from traditional political parties and the levels of bureaucracy that ensue. Groups like Bolivia’s MAS party and the EZLN have begun to embody the ideal of direct, grassroots participatory democracy. This is because it is only the people of a nation, its citizens, and not the faceless multinationals and their political figureheads, who are able to understand that inequality, injustice, and environmental degradation are a direct result of corporate-induced poverty, resource consumption, a loss of choices in the public sphere, and lack of regulations and care for the Earth.

The Paradox of Modern Education: Liberation versus Indoctrination

Today, modern Western education systems are playing a dual and contradictory role: edifying our youth and steeping them in critical ecological knowledge and value systems, while at the same time indoctrinating them into a corporate and conformist lifestyle by teaching them to obey and buy the products of the multinational companies pillaging the Earth.

Possibly the most intelligent tract concerning modern-day mindlessness when it comes to education is Paul Goodman’s devastatingly accurate Growing Up Absurd. Written back in 1960, Goodman torched the official out-of-touch education system, and laments the disaffected youths who feel excluded from capitalism and the anomie that emerges. Still immensely relevant today, Goodman explains the sheer naivety and blind spots of western pedagogical methods:

“Social scientists … have begun to think that “social animal” means “harmoniously belonging.” They do not like to think that fighting and dissenting are proper social functions, nor that rebelling or initiating fundamental change is a social function. Rather, if something does not run smoothly, they say it has been improperly socialized; there has been a failure in communication. … But perhaps there has not been a failure in communication. Perhaps the social message has been communicated clearly…and is unacceptable. … We must ask the question, “Is the harmonious organization to which the young are inadequately socialized perhaps against human nature, or not worthy of human nature, and therefore there is difficulty in growing up?”  (4)

Goodman’s analysis of juvenile delinquency, the lack of hope and prospects for young people, as well as his treatment on many issues including the structural racism of the prison system, and the missed revolutions in modern society are devastatingly accurate today. Education which focuses on world cultures, equality, indigenous beliefs, sustainability, and love of nature for its own sake and not human instrumental needs, teachings outside the Eurocentric worldview, will foster an ecocentric outlook, and progress then can be made towards a peaceful world community.

The Anatomy of Power

The modern nation-state faces a series of contradictions, not just in health, agriculture, and education. It simply is becoming more impotent as solving problems in mass society due to layers of bureaucracy, inflation of the currency which makes every social service more expensive to implement, the hollowing out of community services due to privatizations, etc. And problems of an interconnected, interdependent, globalized world lie outside the reach of the state. In Daniel Bell’s words, nations “have become too small to solve big problems, too big to solve small problems.”

States in the 21st century are most likely to function and thrive by governing horizontally: with many connections between workers unions, local politicians, civic groups, environmental non-profits, etc. In this way, local production takes precedence over mass-manufactured goods from China and places halfway across the world, lowering greenhouse emissions. Thus practices of bioregionalism are employed, and what experts might call the “topology of power relations” is changed to include environmental concerns and forms of eco-cultural restoration. Culture can then recreate itself around annual agricultural and ethical-responsible means of production, and recreate its connection to time and space: rather than continuing exclusively under the atomized Gregorian time system and borders imposed by conniving politicians, our world culture can work, play, and sink into the ever-present moment, what the Aborigines call the Dreaming.

If power is already beginning to be dispersed tribally, and through bioregional processes, are there any examples we can point to? Certainly, in the West, the case of the breakup of Yugoslavia, referendums in Quebec, Scotland, the fight for a referendum in Catalonia, all qualify as sub-national tribal entities reasserting their right to self-rule. Further, in the region of the former Soviet Union, the cases of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, East Ukraine, and Crimea, while they are often vilified as a form of ethno-nationalist fascism originating in the Kremlin, are undoubtedly due to the tribal allegiances shared between these fragile mini-states and the Russian motherland

There are even wannabe theorists in the US who claim to have identified the tribal identities in the USA, such as Colin Woodward and Joel Garreau. You can find the facile representations of their findings here and here. Both authors appear to be older, white, privileged, and seemingly unaware that US culture is very homogenous, and perhaps didn’t consider that there are vastly less cultural differences between New York and California, a 3,000 mile trek, then, say, the short hop between Brussels and Amsterdam. Further, unsurprisingly, Garreau does not even have any territory set aside for the First Nations, the Native Americans whose ancestors lived here for millennia, while Woodward only includes land in Northern Canada and Alaska for First Nation status, apparently oblivious to the 333 federally recognized Indian Nations in the US that are not in Alaska.

Badiou’s Rebirth of History

Occupy

The most striking examples of tribal, sub-national, mass movement intuitive wisdom towards rebellion and revolution against corrupt nations can be found in the 2011 Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Spain’s Indignados. In all three instances, it was an activist minority who ignited popular dissatisfaction against corrupt regimes: in the West, oligarchic capitalism, in the Arab world, the figure of the Western-backed strongman, the dictator. For philosopher Alain Badiou, each of these dedicated protests represents a historical riot: an attempt to portray a political Truth to the world. Further, these acts showed that they represented the true will of the people, in the most general and universal terms: even though they accounted for a tiny minority, mainstream media regularly referred to Egyptian protesters at Tahrir Square as democratic, as representing the will of the people.

Of course, in the Middle East and North Africa the Arab Spring was about much more than democracy in any representative, parliamentarian sense: besides throwing out dictators like Mubarak and Ben Ali, social justice, dignity, equality, and freedom from Western hegemony were among key issues. The state should not have total power to determine law, taxes, industrial organization: civil society and direct democracy has a role to play as well. For the state, this is non-negotiable. As Badiou puts it:

“A massive popular event creates a de-statification of the issue of what is possible. In general, and especially in recent decades, the state has arrogated to itself the right to say what is possible in the political order and what is not. It is thus possible to ‘humanize ‘ capitalism and ‘develop’ democracy. But to construct a productive, institutional social order normed by equality and genuine popular command – that is completely impossible, a fatal utopia.”  (5)

To Badiou, the instincts of these protesters are correct in the sense that they tend towards universality: the values expressed (freedom, justice, forcing dictators to step down, etc.) not only apply to the nations involved, but are political truths the whole world must accept. This marks our age as an interregnum, or as Badiou says, an intervallic period, a stage between crony capitalism and a possible future world order of justice and egalitarianism. History is being born again out of the Thatcherite-Reagan period of hyper-capitalism from approximately 1980-2011, where greed was good, deregulation and privatization ruled, and the World Bank and IMF plundered the developing nations. The rise of civil society and grassroots democracy will lead to the withering away of the state, to Communism, in Badiou’s mind. For other theorists, ecologism is the preferred term to refer to the future era of politics, for others, bioregionalism, or environmental democracy.

Despite the differences in the symbolic nomenclature, in ideology, there are key similarities between theorists of leftist political thought,  and though they are hesitant to use terminology of the tribe, their principles often align with indigenous groups: smaller organizations of well-integrated peoples living and working together, with forms of consensus, direct democracy, horizontal civic groups, and yes, even tribal and religious elders who will uphold essential traditions, rituals, and spirituality necessary for group survival and cultural enrichment.

Lessons from Anthropology

For cultural anthropologist John H. Bodley, there are three cultural worlds: the tribal, the imperial, and the commercial. Most 21st century states are commercial states, dependent on industrialization, fossil fuels, high technology, global markets and cities, and representative government. Yet as he points out, “Commercialization co-opts both humanization and politicization processes to promote economic growth and the accumulation of financial capital.” (6) Political “elites” agree, although they use vague and convoluted arguments, threats, rhetoric, and would demur from ever saying so in such a blunt manner. For instance, the humanism of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is now seen as idealistic and unworkable by most “modern” Western states. The politicization process begun in the Enlightenment now begins and ends with liberal democracy, which today only buys time for authoritarian capitalism and the oligarchy that funnels money to the one-percent and their multinationals.

The commercial (liberal) arguments that restricting personal freedoms and thinning out the social commons are necessary for civilization are simply cases of falling for one’s own propaganda. The most glaring and infamous recent example being Fukuyama’s The End of History, in which he posits free-market capitalism, liberal democracy, and globalization marked the end of world conflict, the rising of standards of living globally, and  that liberal capitalism was the last and greatest socioeconomic ideology. These are “Delusions of Progress” according to Bodley. Bodley rejects the materialist technological, epidemiological, and geographical reasons for Eurocentric dominance (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel argument) in the imperial and commercial worlds, and for him:

“The fate of humanity is determined by three variables…the scale at which people organize their sociocultural systems…how people control social power…and their deceptive use of culture to control perception.” (7)

In the imperial states of the 16th century through the commercial states in the 21st, the Westphalian states meet all three criteria for domination of weaker tribes and small nations. Recall the huge organizational scale of Spanish, Dutch, British, and French empires; the figure of the leader, replaced by rulers and later parliaments who demand tribute in the form of taxes to control social power; and the use of culture for dark purposes (consider the hypocritical and murderous rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, Bush’s “War on Terror”, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, etc.).

The Global System, Political Ecologism, and Their Limits

Global institutions like the UN, World Trade Organization, the EU, and their associated NGOs are simply not equipped to handle the flood of crises that scientific and social experts are predicting. And the nation-state will not be ready to handle issues when the floodgates open either. There are calls from a few (mostly ignored) expert theorists to begin planning for what they call the Eco-state, or the Green State (8), which will delegate responsibility of the bottom-up duties of social welfare and assign them to civil society, non-profits, and grassroots citizen groups; and the top-down, streamlined hierarchy of government responsible for natural disasters, tax collection, defense, and integrating trade within the global architecture. Green political ecologism does impart an especially important lesson, one that tribal societies understand implicitly: to expand the moral community to provide political protection for the rights of future human generations, non-human life forms, and the biosphere as a whole.

Political elites are not interested in imparting these deep ecological values: the elites instead appeal to the darkest, craven, lowest-common-denominator voter who refuses to consider lowering their habits of consumption. Everything could be changed by sharply limiting what we buy, lowering meat and especially beef consumption, rationing fossil fuel use, etc.: quality of life would vastly improve, average lifespan would increase, the arts would be rejuvenated, and morally responsible technology would develop.

As long as elites are bought by lobbyists pushing corporate agendas, and electorates are unwilling to see that the “standard of living” does not equate with the amount of things one owns, the green state and the interlocking global framework it requires seems far off. Perhaps the late 21st or the 22nd century will provide the state system needed for ecological stability and interdependence. For now, the smaller scale of the tribe will have to suffice.

Tribal Seeds: Reproducing Culture from Time Immemorial

While great philosophers like Badiou extol communism, and green theorists such as Dobson and Eckersely promote ecological politics, the annals of history and examples of indigenous tribes today can provide a model for the future. As Bodley shows, it is the tribal world that knows how to reproduce culture. Small-scale tribes are less likely to use organize violence as a tool for coercive and deadly clashes with rival nations, and much more likely to use sustainable farming and technology. A sharing and bartering society, with organic, biodynamic agricultural practices nourishing people materially and spiritually, would go a long way towards healing the open wounds of our mother Earth and the ethnic and sectarian tensions plaguing most nations. Rather than keeping food, housing, material and intellectual property under lock and key, a culture of abundance would allow unparalleled access to health, education, and scale-appropriate technology.

All the while, transnational notions of identity allow numerous chances for the cross-fertilization of sub-national groups and tribes. Civic engagement is slowly regaining strength as citizens want to expand communal gardening and agricultural practices, energy-efficient housing and irrigation, and renewable energy projects. As mass movements rally for social justice and direct democracy, the idea of what a tribal nation can be will spark a change in the public, and the struggle for liberation from suicidal capitalism and respect for universal human rights dissolve people’s delusions that a tribe must be xenophobic and anti-democratic.

Tribal society can be insular when it comes to one issue, however: the idea of reproducing culture. Certain rituals and rites of passage remain a closely guarded secret for many tribes, because of their profound mystical and spiritual implications. Shamans and chieftains in indigenous society are trained their whole lives to guide and groom the next generation: there are risks involved when passing through stages of life, and traveling through spiritual realms. Similarly, the industrialized nations face similar risks today, which can only be solved by a tribe, a village, a community. We must invent ways where we can initiate youths and adolescents, mothers and fathers, so that they can develop harmoniously within the social fabric. We must confront the ennui and malaise that the consumer culture has spawned. And hopefully, then we can learn the holy, sacred secrets to reproducing and recreating ecosystems and cultures worth passing on to the next generation.


Notes

  • 1 Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. p. 90. Penguin Books, New York, 2000.
  • 2. Daniel Quinn. Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure. p. 61. Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999.
  • 3. Andrew Dobson. Green Political Thought (4th ed.). Routledge, New York, 2007.
  • 4. Paul Goodman. Growing Up Absurd. p. 10-11. Vintage, New York, 1960.
  • 5 http://ouleft.org/wp-content/ p. 94.
  • 6. John H. Bodley. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. (5th ed.) p. 17. Altamira, Plymouth, 2011.
  • 7. ibid. p. 19.
  • 8http://www.amazon.com/Planetary-Vision-Essays-Freedom-Empire-ebook/dp/B01E968NSQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1460761588&sr=1-1ii .Robyn Eckersely. The Green State. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

William Hawes

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. You can find his ebook of collected essays here. His articles have appeared at Globalresearch.ca, Countercurrents.org, Dissidentvoice.org, and Counterpunch.org. You can reach him at wilhawes@gmail.com.


 

A Prayer to Athena for Canadian Democracy

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena. Public domain image by Jastrow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

O Grey-Eyed One,

She of the Steel Gaze;

In nine days my country goes to cast ballots

In the ancient ritual You taught to Your city.

Our system is broken.

Hateful betrayers of Your sacred trust hold power,

As they have for many years now.

We elected them because we trusted them,

But they have betrayed our trust.

They have prorogued our Parliament,

Ignored Parliamentary rulings,

Accepted bribes,

Corrupted our electoral system,

Gerrymandered democratic ridings,

Taken the rights of our expatriates,

Denied voting access to the disabled, the young, and the poor,

And told people to vote in the wrong place

So as to spoil ballots.

They have lied continually to us,

Stolen our money and our future,

Denied basic rights to our citizens,

Reduced the rights of women

And of people of non-conforming gender,

Oppressed our poor and disenfranchised,

Oppressed our First Peoples,

Abandoned our ancestors and our veterans,

Broken the unity of our labourers,

Spit upon the sanctity and sovereignty of the earth,

And deprived us of the right to speak against them;

All to better serve their Corporate Masters.

Lady of Wisdom, You see more clearly than I do,

But I see all that You stand for being suborned.

I implore You; give us back our nation!

Strike these betrayers down!

Cast them from the lofty seat they have stolen!

Make our voices count!

Give us back the gift that You gave us

That we may once again govern ourselves,

Instead of being ruled over by Corporatist lackeys.

May Your steel gaze fall upon these corruptors with wrath!

May You look upon us with favour!

Help us to take back what was stolen

Without the shedding of innocent blood.

Send Your Owl to give Sight and Wisdom

To our people, who have been denied it.

Call upon any friends You have

Among the Sacred Spirits of our First Peoples

To ask them to take part in the ritual,

If only this once.

Draw Your Aegis over us!

Give us back our Canada!

I shall cast my ballot in honour of You.

I shall ask all who know me to do the same.

Praise be to the Lady of Wisdom!

Praise be to the Grey-Eyed One!

Deconstructing Local Mythologies

By Alley Valkyrie

2013-06-30-09.22.11-1024x612

The Willamette Valley stretches over 200 miles north-to-south along the Willamette River in Western Oregon. Cradled by mountain ranges to the east and west, the valley branches out northwards from the mountains outside of Eugene up through Salem and then past Portland, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River at the Washington border. The valley is renowned for its rich and fertile soil, a result of volcanic glacial deposits from the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age, and the area is world-famous for its lush, old-growth forests as well as its agricultural output.

The Willamette Valley is also world-famous for its prevalence and severity of hay-fever allergies. The valley registers the highest grass pollen counts in the nation on a regular basis, and it was recently stated that Eugene in particular has the highest grass pollen counts in the world. The severity of the pollen varies seasonally as well as yearly, but its especially high throughout May and June, and on the worst days many do not even leave their house due to breathing difficulties. Visitors to the area are often surprised to find themselves violently sneezing out of nowhere, especially if they don’t normally suffer from hay-fever back home where they live. Local residents enjoy pointing out the fact that nobody is immune from the effects of the pollen. Many are often quick to share a well-known local myth in order to drive home the severity of allergy season in the Willamette Valley.

I initially heard the myth on my very first visit to the Pacific Northwest, long before I ever called the Willamette Valley home. I was sitting at a counter in a restaurant just outside of Eugene, my backpack sitting next to me. I started to sneeze profusely, and the man sitting next to me glanced over at me in my sinus-based misery. “You know, ‘Willamette’ is an Indian word meaning ‘valley of sickness’ or something close to that,” he said to me. “The allergies were so bad here that when white folks first came over the [Oregon] Trail, the Indians warned ‘em not to settle here. They thought that we were crazy for doing so.”

Wpdms_shdrlfi020l_willamette_valleyThe story immediately sounded suspect to me. At the time, I knew nothing of the history of the Willamette Valley, but I did know that far too often, “history” that references Native people is anything but truthful or accurate. As a product of American public schools, I was taught for years on end that Columbus “discovered” America and that the Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a happy Thanksgiving feast. Growing up in the NYC area, I was taught as accepted “fact” that Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from a local tribe for $24. Stories such as these are accepted as “history” to many, and yet they are well-known to be heavily sanitized and mythologized in order to de-emphasize the oppression and colonialism that are central to their true history. I had a hunch at that moment in the restaurant that the “valley of sickness” tale I had just been told was nothing more than sanitized mythology in the same vein as Columbus or Minuit, and yet it was obvious by his telling of the tale that the man next to me believed it as factual truth and fully expected me to believe it as well.

A few years later, after I moved to Eugene, I immediately started to hear variations of the “valley of sickness” tale on a regular basis, told by people from all walks of life. There were many slight variations of the myth, as might be expected with any folklore. Often I heard it told as the valley of “death” as opposed to “sickness”. Once in a while, someone would say that “the Indians nicknamed this the valley of sickness”, as opposed to claiming that the word “Willamette” itself literally translates as such. In some versions, the Indians left and/or didn’t want to live here because of the pollen, and other times they just warned white settlers not to settle here. The basic story is always the same, however. And as opposed to commonly-held beliefs around Columbus, I never heard anyone refute nor even question the “valley of sickness” tale.

After hearing several versions of the tale within the first few months of my living here, it occurred to me more and more that not only was this tale most likely false, but that I was quite disconnected from the history of this valley that I chose as home. Prior to moving to Oregon, I had lived my entire life within a 100-mile radius of New York City, and I was quite well-versed in the history of the New York area, from the landing of the Mayflower through the present. That knowledge, especially as it relates to the land itself, became central to my spiritual exploration and practice when I lived on the East Coast. Researching and examining the history of place in relation to the activities, energies and present tendencies within that place was a source of constant fascination for me, and became essential to my practice in terms of navigating a dense urban landscape from an energetic perspective. Here in Oregon, however, while I had a decent understanding of the local culture, I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself, and I decided to start educating myself in local history using the “valley of sickness” tale as a starting point.

“I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself.”

I broke down the tale in order to identify the basic alleged facts within the story. If any or all parts of the tale have any truth to them, then any or all of the individual facts within the story need to carry some truth:

  • That high pollen counts were an issue in the 1850s.
  • That the native people who inhabited the land prior to white settlement were adversely affected by the pollen.
  • That “willamette” is a native word that translates to “valley of sickness.”
  • And/or that “willamette” does not specifically translate as such but the native inhabitants also gave the valley another nickname that translated to “valley of sickness.”
  • And/or that the native inhabitants discouraged white settlers from settling in the area due to the pollen.
  • That the native inhabitants left because of all the pollen and related sickness.
  • And/or the native people never lived here in large numbers in the first place because of all the pollen.

With this outline as a guide, I immersed myself in both the history of the Willamette Valley as well as its present conditions. And indeed, I learned quickly that the “valley of sickness” tale was a multi-layered falsehood that among other things served to deny and mask the injustices done to the native inhabitants of this area. The truth itself did not surprise me as much as how easy the truth was to find for anyone who cared to look for it. A few books combined with a few conversations gave me all the answers I needed.

2013-06-18-17.51.31-1024x612Prior to white settlement, the Willamette Valley was originally inhabited by the Kalapuya, a semi-nomadic tribe who migrated within the valley for centuries before Europeans ever set foot in Oregon. Lewis and Clark first passed through the Willamette Valley in 1806, and the fur trappers and missionaries came through the area soon thereafter, bringing with them smallpox, measles, and other diseases that the Kalapuya had no immunity to. These diseases ravaged the Kalapuya population through the mid-1800’s, with some sources estimating that over 90% of the Kalapuya had died by the time that the first wave of white settlers came through the Willamette Valley from the Oregon Trail in the early 1850’s.

The remaining Kalapuya referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness” after the settlers came, but it was due to smallpox, not hay-fever. Some of the remaining Kalapuya may have migrated elsewhere on account of the widespread sickness, but the rest were removed to a reservation in 1855. The word “Willamette” itself derives from a Chinook word, and there is no definitive record as to its precise meaning. Most historians and scholars agree that it most likely referred to the water and/or specifically the river, and that the word pre-dates the smallpox epidemic and has nothing to do with sickness or pollen.

The pollen issue itself is a separate piece of the puzzle, where the changing terrain of the land itself comes into play. Most significant in terms of disproving the “valley of sickness” tale is the fact that the highly elevated pollen counts that cause such severe allergies in the Willamette Valley are a modern phenomenon that is the result of widespread industrial agriculture as opposed to a natural product of the native ecosystem.

The native terrain of the Willamette Valley was mostly composed of prairie-savannas and wetlands, with a mix of surrounding coniferous forests. The Kalapuya were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, and did not plant or cultivate crops. Various histories of the Kalapuya make no mention of excessive pollen or hay-fever, and there is nothing specific that stands out in the botanical and/or ecological composition of the Willamette Valley prior to white settlement that would give cause for the excessive pollen counts, especially such excessive pollen from any one plant source such as grass.

In contrast, the present-day Willamette Valley is a major agricultural center, and commercial non-native grass seed is by far the most prevalent crop. Grass seed production in the Willamette Valley was introduced in the 1920’s, and currently the valley produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s grass seed. Production in acreage recently peaked at nearly 500,000 acres, and currently nearly 1,500 farms are devoted to grass seed, many of which are owned by national and multinational seed companies. The highest grass pollen counts in the world and the subsequent hay-fever allergies are essentially a direct result of a $250 million-dollar industry that is significantly shielded from blame by the widespread proliferation of the “valley of sickness” tale. But due to the commonly-held belief that residents of the Willamette Valley have been sneezing nonstop since the 1850s, a typical sneezer in Eugene is often completely unaware of the fact that the elevated pollen levels that cause such severe allergies are mainly caused by commercial grass seed production as opposed to by the local trees and plants in the immediate area.

As an outsider in this community, it was initially hard for me to understand why the myth was so prevalent and widespread despite easily accessible information that disproves the story entirely. It was also hard for me to understand the mindsets of several people I encountered who were very aware that at least one or more core factual elements of the tale were untrue. When I asked them if they ever corrected people on the facts, most of them admitted that they did not. “The story is appealing”, one woman told me, defending her silence. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad vibes.” I disagreed strongly with her stance, but over time I understood her point more than I wished to admit. In a town full of back-to-the-land hippies and leftist intellectuals who are often all-too caught up in a culture of positive affirmations and passive-aggressive niceties, nobody wants to be the one bringing up genocide in the middle of a barbecue.

But over the years, when I look deep into the eyes of the myth itself time and time again, as well as into the eyes of the people who tell it, I have come to understand its appeal within the context of the local culture, especially given the fact that most of those who tell it are white, middle-class folks who are either the descendants of pioneers or transplants from other parts of the country. The myth serves as an easy explanation for the pollen issues, and it connects modern inhabitants of the Willamette Valley with the native people who lived here before them. There’s a sense of comfort inherent in the idea that even indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago suffered from hay-fever as people do today. Many also feel that the myth demonstrates the wisdom of the native inhabitants, and they feel that by telling the tale they are honoring that wisdom. “The Native Americans were right,” a friend said to me recently, in the midst of a hay-fever spell during one of the highest pollen measurements on record. “They warned us not to settle here, and man were they right.”

And yet, the myth is oppressive and damaging on many levels. The myth falsely explains away the modern suffering of those who benefited from colonialism at the expense of the truth behind the suffering of those who were oppressed by the colonizers. Not only does the “valley of sickness” tale dishonor the legacy and memory of the Kalapuya by whitewashing the truth of their history and suffering, but the myth also dishonor the spirits and ancestors of this valley that lived and experienced that truth. The fact that the myth also protects multinational agribusinesses whose profit-driven actions wreak havoc on the health of the people in addition to disrupting the native ecosystem is simply the icing on the cake, especially in an area where local values tend to be left-leaning and anti-corporate in principle.

Deconstructing this myth taught me many lessons, and gave me many insights into the local history and culture that have been invaluable to me ever since. More importantly, my questions regarding the myth not only revealed to me my own disconnect with the history of the land, but the fact that most who live here are ignorant of their own history, both the history of their ancestors as well as the history of this valley itself. My disconnect was due to being an outsider, and to some extent it is the outsider’s perspective that inspired me to develop the relationships and understandings that I have with both the land and the culture of the Willamette Valley. Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.

“Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.”

It’s currently allergy season, and I’ve heard the “valley of sickness” tale twice this week alone. And while I can’t prevent its telling, nor can I necessarily deflate its ubiquity, I can strongly dent its armor in subtle ways. But rather than lecturing people on genocide, oppression, and whitewashed history, I’ve found that the most effective method of drowning out such sanitized mythology is to simply tell a new story, one based in truth and fact.

And so I have become the awkward guest at the dinner party, so to speak, but I keep it short, sweet, and easy to digest. Whenever I hear the myth mentioned in my presence, my response has become almost automated. “That story is bullshit. The Kalapuya were sick with smallpox, not hay-fever, and pollen wasn’t an issue in the valley until agribusiness moved in. If you don’t like the hay-fever, blame the grass seed companies, but retelling that story only serves to disrespect the original inhabitants of the valley.”

Once in a while, in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it as a reminder that the land is always listening.

 


Alley Valkyrie

alley-valkyrieAlley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in Portland, Oregon. She has been interacting with a collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years.


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The Roots of Our Resistance

By Rhyd Wildermuth

View from my window, 2009
View from my window, 2009

I stood in the street-front garden on a languid August evening.  The sun had set, the heavy Friday commuter traffic dwindled on the arterial street before me, a pause of quiet settling over the city before the raging hoards of week-end revelers awoke to earlier memories of life.

The gloaming light faded just as the street-lamps ignited, shining amberic yellow across the concrete stones radiating the last of the day’s heat into the cooling night.  I breathed in, deeply, taking in the intoxicating scents around me. Nicotiana filled the heavy, thick drunk air as I unraveled the garden hose, my bare feet brushing against chamomile and mint. I opened the spigot, directing a slow spray of water on the baked-earth in which nasturtium, victorian lilac, and heather rooted amongst human-high blades of vetiver and taller-still sunflower.

Nothing ready to harvest those weeks in August; all the greens had long-before gone to seed, and the tomatoes and peppers not yet ready.  I liked that time of year best, in between one harvest and the next, my garden planned to explode in heady blossoms while vegetables and roots swelled pregnant in the long heat.

This was my home, a shared house in the middle of the city in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, then still an enclave of queers, artists, urban service workers, hipsters, and old Black families sharing the same streets and cafes in the 10 blocks near my garden. One of the first neighborhoods established on the forested hills, ancient trees still winning out over perpetually cracked concrete, centuries-old roots throwing off asphalt and brick with easy indifference.

The house was built early in the 1900’s, but I was much newer to it, having moved just after the WTO protests in the last year of the last century. The neighborhood was gorgeous, playful, the spirits and animals curious and kind, the side-streets as much a foot-path as the sidewalks, alleys hiding mysteries, swelling with quiet contentment. It was a good place, all I needed and wanted of a neighborhood, a city, a world.

That night I stood outside to water my garden somewhat distracted.  Several things weighed on mind, particularly the increasing costs of living where I did. The neighborhood was in upheaval, that slow war of gentification and displacement, increasing costs without increasing wages. The rent on our place had not yet gone up, but all the other expenses were becoming difficult to manage on my full-time social work income, even after sharing the burden of rent, utilities and food with my lover and roommates.

My lover was inside at the time, with another lover. I’d wanted to give them some time to each other, and I’d wanted to stand in the garden. I’d suspended candle lanterns from the branches of an Elder tree another lover had rescued 6 year before, other lanterns swayed from wrought-iron sections of fence we’d found in alleyways and converted into trellises for climbing Cathedral Bells, Morning-Glories, and Black-eyed Susan vine. Amongst those planted vines, ivy–cut back years before—crept back to war with a rather resilient clematis, and amongst those candles and vines, wild lupine and scotch broom and opium poppy peeked through, each flower and shrub and vine a story, each planting of it a relic of my life always ready to be relived.

I sat for awhile, perhaps over-watered, lingering, wondering if they’d had enough time alone, wondering if I should make maybe take tea in thegarden.  It was a beautiful night–all options seemed pleasurable, all paths leading towards contentment.  I’d decided on tea, but just as I turned, I heard my neighbors’ voice call out.

Hey! You got a transfer?” he asked.  I turned, glad to see him.  We’d known each other for over a decade, and he’d been there long before I’d arrived. At 15 years in my home, I was a newcomer—he’d lived there his entire 45 years, which were short compared to his grandmother’s 96 years.

“Yeah,” I said, digging the paper bus ticket from my over-full pockets.

We had an illegal trade going. He started it a decade ago, running across the street to hand me a crumbled purple ribbon of newsprint, an unexpired bus transfer.  I’ll admit, a stranger running at you, shouting as you wait for a bus, is a bit startling, and I was probably awfully defensive that first time.

Don’t pay,” he’d said, stopping in front of me.  “I got a transfer.”

At first I’d refused.  Metro transfers are non-transferable, and I was more a liberal then, and less the anarchist.  I imagined it my moral duty to pay for public transit, regardless of how poor I was.  But the man was nice, and he’d sprinted a hundred feet across a busy street to give me a free ride, so I accepted.

That act started our long friendship.  Whenever I’d see him, I’d say hello, and offer him any unexpired transfers that I had if he was waiting at the stop.  Sometimes he’d leave his on the sign-post by the bus shelter, and then I started doing that too.

My large balcony overlooked the street and the bus stop, and I’d sometimes spot him offer used transfers to others, too.  Most would refuse, particularly the well-dressed white women, and I’d watch their body language show their fear or disgust of the large Black man trying to save them a couple of dollars.

That evening, I handed him mine–an ‘Owl’ transfer, good until the next morning, and then offered him a cigarette, though he hadn’t asked.  I enjoyed his company, despite always forgetting his name.  He always forgot mine, too, no matter how many times we’d offer them to each other.  After most of a decade of talking, laughing, sharing a beer or sprinting across a busy street to save the other guy a few dollars, names really didn’t matter as much as everything else.

We stood outside together, talking, watching the street lamps flicker and the increasing weekend traffic begin to flood the street. My mind was still a bit distracted by my lover’s guest inside, though not from jealousy. The man inside was a writer, too, a left-leaning journalist for a local alternative paper, who’d written several articles about this recent wave of gentrification in our neighborhood. We didn’t agree on much—he saw the changes as good and inevitable; I saw them as horrifying as my steady income seemed to pay for less and less each month.  We’d talked amiably about it, though, but the matter weighed on me.

In the garden, I asked my neighbor and co-conspirator against the rising cost of public transit a question I’d been meaning to ask for several months. As my friend had lived in his home his entire life, and his grandmother was the first to live in their century-old house, I figured he’d have some insight.  And I’d wanted to know how he’d fared during the sub-prime era a few years before, when predatory mortgage brokers would go door-to-door trying to get poorer families to take out equity loans or to sell their home altogether.

“Hey,”  I asked.  “Did you and your grandmother ever get hit by the loan sharks a couple of years ago?”

“Shit,” he’d said, dragging his cigarette, one eye scanning the street for the bus. “We still do, and the real estate agents.  There was a woman here just yesterday–she comes by every week trying to get my grandma to sell.”

I probably looked a bit stupid from the shock.  His grandmother was almost a hundred years old, suffering from age-related dementia, could barely remember her own name let alone make such a decision.

He told me he had to chase another out of his house a month before–his grandmother had let the real estate agent in while he was gone, and by the time he’d arrived his grandmother was already fumbling with a pen to sign away the home she’d been born into. He’d torn those papers up in a fury and pushed the woman out.

A house next to us had sold for almost a million dollars a few years before, after its owner had paid my landlord and another to cut down trees to increase the view from its windows onto Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains (I never learned how much my landlord was paid).  The house next to my friend’s rented for six thousand dollars a month, the house on the other side of him had sold and was being torn down for new apartments.

The hyper-inflated market for housing in a dense and vibrant neighborhood offered quite the buy-out for those whose desire for money outweighed their sense of place and ties to their home.  For him, though, despite being employed only part-time while caring for his very elderly grandmother, it made no sense to sell and move from the house built by his great grandfather.

He told me there’d been plenty of times he was tempted when the electricity was about to go out because of unpaid bills.  Worse, several of the mortgage brokers pitched hard–he was in his mid-forties and had never owned a car, never traveled.  A mortgage or a sale would mean he could buy a car and wouldn’t need to bus all the time, wouldn’t need to trade transfers with his neighbor to make ends meet.

Making a Killing

You might not know the scam here, particularly if you are white–I was ignorant of this myself until about a decade ago.

Black home-owners are continuously targeted by real estate agents and predatory lenders in neighborhoods primed for ‘urban renewal’ (that is, gentrification).  Because they’re minorities, their plight and position elicits little sympathy and solidarity from the middle-class white liberals who dominate the politics in many cities, and their high unemployment rates often mean they are more likely to endure long periods of poverty and have less access to the lines of credit freely offered to middle-class whites.

But many of them owned homes, particularly in areas that were once considered poor and undesirable neighborhoods.  And for families like my friend’s, the home was theirs, long-ago paid off or never borrowed for in the first place. Without income, though, and without easy credit, the house becomes the only thing they can draw from, and banks are too-often willing to take a house as collateral on an ‘equity loan.’

There are many ways a loan can go wrong, the most obvious one being that jobs are lost or medical crises ensue, and the failure to repay that loan (often for relatively small amounts compared to the value of the house) means everything is lost.

Because we live in a racist, Capitalist Democracy, profit is the only religion and any problems you endure are considered your own responsibility, even if those problems were caused by manipulative land speculators and bankers composing confusing loan agreements. And speculators often target Black home owners because they know they are poor, often strapped for cash, less educated than their white neighbors, and their lack of political power means their complaints are often ignored or considered hysteria by those outside their communities.

Mortgage brokers and loan officers (who, like real estate agents are often paid on commission) see Black home-owners as easy targets, particularly since the pay-off for a loan default is often extra-ordinarily high compared to the amount lent.  During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when interest rates were low and regulation was lax, brokers and real estate agents targeted Black home owners particularly, approving loans with variable rates (often interest rates that tripled after a year of repayment), making a ‘killing’ in new housing markets.

During the heady days of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the new rage in home ownership from friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to get in on ‘Flipping,’ where you buy a house, hold it for a year or two, and sell it for $50- to $100 thousand more than your original loan, pocketing the difference as profit.

“In fact,” a long-time friend of mine explained after he flipped his first house, “you wouldn’t have to work for others anymore.  Rhyd–you could write while fixing up a house.  And they don’t care how much money you’re making now–they’ll give a loan to anyone.  You’d be stupid not to.”

Lax regulation, high unemployment, and government policies to push home ownership as the ‘American Dream’ created an overheated engine of profit for those who did the transfers.  And each sale meant a little more profit, and many people were buying only to sell again, with no interest in the communities they bought homes in.

It all seemed really, really wrong…and it was.

A friend got caught on his second house as the market collapsed, and he, along with many, many other people, were all ‘underwater’ (owing more on their loans than the resale value of their houses).  But worse than the obvious game and great ‘forgetting’ of everyone involved (they, like me, had witnessed the dot.com bubble in Seattle, after all), was the fact that this shell game was being played at the expense of poor and Black folk, who lost their homes in droves when the money they’d borrowed to pay down medical debt, perform long-needed repairs, or get them through an economic rough-patch couldn’t be paid back. They lost not only the roofs over their heads, but also the decades and almost centuries of rootedness that came from living in the same home as your ancestors.

Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA
Street art protesting Gentrification in Seattle. Copyright John Cristello. Retreived from #CapHillPSA

And in the last 6 years, another round of the shell-game had begun in our city and our neighborhood. Large internet technology companies had begun expanding their profit-ventures and needed more workers to help them do it. Traditionally Black and gay neighborhoods became war zones again, threatening to push both him and I out in favor of a whiter, straighter population.

Ancestral Trauma and the Cycle of Violence

The ancestors of many Black folk in America were hauled from their homes in chains in the hulls of ships, becoming an uncompensated labor force to subdue the colonized lands of the Americas.  From one great break of ancestry to another, the descendents of folks living on the continent of Africa found their traditions severed by the ravenous lust of Capital both through slavery and through the pillaging of land speculation.

Marxist historians speak of a process called “Primitive Accumulation,” [Primitive as in ‘primary’ or ‘initial,’ not as in the ‘opposite of civilized,’] the plundering of natural resources (wood, minerals, people).  This accumulation usually involved violence–the Crusades, imperial conquest of South America, and slave-taking were all acts of Primitive Accumulation, and all resulted in great wealth for European rulers and merchants.  That initial accumulation of wealth at the point of the sword then became the wealth that we now call Capital.

Primitive Accumulation caused massive displacements of people and destruction of societies–the deaths from conquest in the Americas and the hauling of humans in chains across oceans being obvious examples.  But this way of gaining wealth is never very sustainable–one can only plunder so many ancient cities of their gold and people before there’s no longer any gold or people left to plunder.

Capitalism is a more systematic and efficient method of plunder, as it invests those stolen resources into localized cycles of oppression.  Consider–the effort to hire an army willing to risk death to conquer another people for its wealth is intense, requiring state sanction and ideological support (the Crusades, the War on Terror)–and this method is usually only available to kings.  For lesser lords (and their descendents, the ‘Bourgeoisie’), it was easier to exploit the people around them rather than traveling overseas.

slave auction, Virginia
Slave Auction, Virginia, USA

But Capitalism operates, still, on the same logic as primitive accumulation–the ‘creation’ of wealth from finite resources.  Humans can only work so long before they tire, and consumers can only buy so many of the same dress before they no longer need any more dresses.  There is always a limit to the amount of money that can be made in any venture, whether it is conquest of ancient societies or mass-produced trinkets.  The wells run dry, the mines empty, the storehouses fill to overflowing.

The Capitalist, like the conqueror, is never sated, since the entire point of both Capitalism and Conquest is to gain ever-increasing amounts of wealth (unlike for the worker or the slave, which is do do as little work as possible while still surviving or not getting beaten). So Capitalism must find new ‘markets,’ new fields of conquest from which wealth can be derived.  And sometimes, it does so by destroying what is already there in order to make profit from rebuilding it.

When a neighborhood undergoes gentrification, land and buildings are changed or replaced in order derive more wealth from them. Old houses that are only being lived in or rented at stable rates become targets for Capital-seeking investors and real-estate agents. If you own a house your entire life, you’re not making money for anyone else by living there. Renters  provide some wealth for landords, but because there’s only so much that can be squezzed from a renter’s income before they must move, Capitalists actively displace renters in favor of higher-income people.

Old houses are torn down to make room for denser apartments and condominiums, old apartments are renovated or sold as condominiums, and the people who lived previous are either ‘priced out’ or forced to leave through lease terminations.

This cycle of upheaval is not new.

Consider some of the earliest upheavals caused by Capitalism, not in the Americas or in Africa, but on the very islands where Capitalism started.  The Highland Clearances and other Enclosure movements were the first salvos in the transition from Primitive Accumulation to Capitalist exploitation of peoples.

The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo's, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to 'improve' production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.
The Highland Clearances, a prime example of Capitalist displacement of peoples. In the 18oo’s, Scottish tribal chieftains began expelling people from land in order to ‘improve’ production. Supported by the English Crown which had already begun the same process, landlords forced people off their ancestral lands to turn land into Capital. The subsequent emigration also caused violence in the lands to which people fled, as indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia became secondary victims of Scottish Capitalism.

Wealthy landlords and tribal chieftains pushed people (often kin) from land they’d worked for centuries in order to derive more wealth from that land through ‘improvements’ (in essence, the beginning of industrialised farming).  Some were sold as indentured servants because of unpaid rents, others were marched away and left to die, and the vast majority faced a choice–move to the towns and work in the factories other Capitalists had set up to turn their lifeblood into wealth, or travel across oceans to the conquered lands of North America and Australia in order to start again.

Of course, the lands those displaced peoples moved to were already inhabited, and the history of all European colonies is written in the blood of indigenous peoples. Those First Nations and Aboriginal peoples had varying responses to these newcomers.  Some sought peace, others sought war, but neither tactic proved successful in keeping their own ancestral lands from the Enclosures that sprung from the British Isles.

The United States, particularly, has seen multiple waves of displaced peoples.  Enslaved peoples from the African continent, indentured servants and refugees from the “Progress” of Capitalism in Europe, and of course, the very people who lived on this land before the whole cycle began–they are all victims.

‘Round the Prickly Pear

Gentrification is seen by many as a natural process.  In a way, it is– it;s initiated by a very small but particularly destructive element of the natural world—humans, or more specifically, Capitalist humans. And though displacement of peoples is not new, the kinds of economic displacement seen since the birth of Capital, is a different thing altogether than what was seen in the past.

Gentrification is a kind of opening of a new Capital-producing market , created by destroying what was already there–and it’s a super-heated engine of destruction in many cities of the United States currently. I’ve many friends in the Bay Area, for instance, for whom the exorbitant rent-increases has become so absurd that they’ve taken on a sort of war-trauma.  The same occurs in Seattle now, with apartments friends rented 4 years ago at $1000/month now renting for $2000, a 100% increase over half-a-decade.

Similar in Portland, Oregon, as well as neighborhoods in large cities across the country. In other cities, natural disaster (like in New Orleans) or economic collapse (Detroit) have led to even more damage to Black folk, as investors and traitorous politicians have colluded to rebuild cities without their traditional inhabitants. In all cases, though, the mechanism is the same, and the victims have much more in common with each other than they do with new residents moving into their respective cities, yet rarely do they fight in solidarity.

But why not?  Some of this absence of solidarity derives from racism, but there’s an understated problem in our understanding of Gentrification which also prevents united fronts against Capitalist displacement.

Too much written about this process situates it in a narrative of cycles,  a progression of neighborhoods derived from natural law and inevitability.  From this view, the answer to complaints about rising rents and destroyed communities range between ‘get over it’ or ‘there’s nothing that can be done.’

A less-heard point sometimes arises, though, and it has more merit.  I heard it often from my anarchist friends in the middle of the last decade, an important reminder that whites did this to First Nations peoples before, and we’re all on stolen land.

This is true. Unfortunately, the result of that argument is usually a complete  dismissal of the very real damage done to people when their homes are taken through predatory loans or their rents increased so much they have no choice to become displaced.

The problem arises because so many different peoples, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, have all fallen victim to Capitalist displacement. The land I currently live on was stolen from the Duwamish peoples more than a century ago; it is still stolen from them, and worse–the Federal Government does not recognize them as an tribal group, and therefore all their claims are legally null. The Black families who lived here were descendents of people displaced by force from their homes in Africa, victims of primitive accumulation and the European thirst for Capital.

And then…there’s me.  Some of my ancestors were displaced from the British Isles during the Enclosures and the birth of Capital.  Others fled mainland Europe during the Enclosure of their land, or became refugees of Capitalist wars.  Not all, mind.  I’ve a rumored but unverified First Nations ancestor on one side of my family, and on the other, an unfortunate “Boston Brahmin” ancestor.  And I’ve already been displaced several times in my life through poverty or rent-increases.

We could construct a hierarchy of victimhood in the relentless history of displacement by employing metrics of innocence, complicity, and ancestral ties. And we should and must tell those stories, and we should and must do everything to right those wrongs.

But here’s the problem– the insidious trick of Capitalism is that the violence it perpetrates upon people determines their future actions, too. White (a false racial construction) settlers, displaced from a myriad of European lands, helped displace (sometimes by direct violence) indigenous peoples and each other, like abused children who grow up to repeat their childhood trauma upon others. The violence enacted on them became the violence they enacted upon others.

More horrifically, Capitalism offers a path out of poverty and ancestral trauma if one agrees to renounce all kin, class, and ancestral ties.  The descendent of African slaves who becomes an immigration enforcement officer, the victim of the Enclosures and the Clearances who agreed to help the English enforce its laws against the Irish, or became a colonial administrator in India, the Irish descendents who swelled the ranks of violent police forces in New York, Boston, and San Franscisco, the “Buffalo Soldier,” the Tribal leader who signed away mining rights for personal benefit,  the poor-born of any race who becomes a manager or foreman–each is preyed upon twice-over by Capitalism, forced into horrible circumstance and then offered a treasonous path to personal survival.

When we try to parse out all the histories of complicity, we miss the point, much like sorting buckets of bailed water on a sinking ship according to half-full/half-empty dichotomies.  The question should not be, “who suffered most?” but rather “why haven’t we stopped this suffering?”

In a gentrifying neighborhood, newcomers are often confused by the reactions of those their presence is displacing.  No one person displaced another; in San Franscisco and Seattle and in all these other cities, each person is making an individual choice to live in a different place, often times following work.  The problem is never each individual person, but the systematic weakening of the communities being displaced (long before real estate agents and property owners identified the neighborhood as a new market), a state which not only enables but often encourages the destruction of older neighborhoods, and under all of this, entire societies which have lost touch with the spirit of the land beneath their feet and the meaning of place.

And it’s that weakening of ties to place where our primary resistance and revolutionary assault against Capitalism must begin.

From Strong Roots, We Fight

CC. Alley Valkyrie
CC. Alley Valkyrie

Capital requires new markets to expand, but the earth is limited and we only need so much shit.  Enclosures are an old trick, and the displacement they cause generate both more profit for the rich, but do something even more vital for the smooth running of Capital: displaced peoples lack community, become desperate, and most significantly of all, have no access to their history.

Slaves hauled across oceans cannot visit the graves of their ancestors; peasants forced off land cannot visit the old wells and stones which rooted their world firmly in the other.  Old contracts with the land are broken, old gods forgotten, and the standards once used to judge if an act would serve the community or damage it fall away.

Capitalist displacement is also Capitalist disenchantment; it is the reason for which the traditions of people are perpetually destroyed. Rootless people are easily controlled and coerced, people without the stories, myths, and spirits of a place have nowhere to turn beside the market for the creation of their meaning.

Capitalism needs us to be displaced, pushed around by its invisible hand.  We must stand in fight, root ourselves in place, learn the names of our neighbors and the trees on our streets, seek out the sources of our water, trace our streams under pavement, learn the origins of our food and the histories of our homes.

We must tell the stories of our place to each other, creating new communities, new peoples unwilling to move when they tell us to go, untempted by profit in other towns, unafraid to confront the haunting ghosts of those buried in our graveyards, uncowed by threats of property laws and poverty outside the logic of the time-sheet and the work-day.

For those of us in the Americas or in other former colonies of the proto-Capitalist empires in Europe, we must begin by seeking out, offering our aid, and helping to restore the peoples displaced by our ancestral traumas. The Duwamish are not the only First Nations people written out of existence in the United States, and the successor states of British Imperialism have a particularly horrible history of violence against the people they conquered—the British, after all, started Capitalism.

We must become rooted in the land and communities, and we must refuse the Capitalist’s game of divide-and-conquer.  In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, waves of ‘tech workers’ are displacing others. They, moving to cities for high-waged work, have no ties to the land, and no community when arriving except their (Capitalist) employer and others working for them.  The 100-year old Black woman whose house they might purchase means nothing to them; they don’t know her story any more than they know that of the land upon which her home was built.

But we must remember—they are mere tools, ‘buying in’ to new Capitalist ventures and selling their labor to powerful Capitalists. They contribute to the destruction of communities by renting and buying homes at exorbitant rates (against their own self-interest). They become the weapons Capitalists wield in new wars of accumulation, often unwitting and too-often indifferent, rootless themselves, colonial settlers no different than those who became colonial servants in India for the British crown. They are not the direct cause of gentrification, but they become ‘class traitors,’ slobbering on their knees and choking at the altars of Capital—just like the rest of us. They, and we, must refuse to destroy the lives of others in return for scraps from the tables of the rich.

And from our position of rootedness and solidarity, we must directly attack Capital. It is the Capitalists who are in power, who start this engine and keep it stoked hot, making a killing from our attempts to make a living.  Aided by complicit governments bloated and drunk on tax money, political donations, and their lust for power, the Capitalists have perfected the pillaging wars of Colonialism in a system so pristine we cannot fully unravel its knotted patterns of destruction.

But that knot cannot be unraveled; it must be cut.  We cannot ever hope to find an answer to Capitalist displacement of peoples without fighting Capitalism, nor can we hope to rectify the wrongs that Capitalism has caused to peoples until Capitalism is no longer a threat.

The answer’s under our feet, in the places we live, the communities from which we’re alienated, in the spirits of the air and tree and grass in our neighborhoods.

The answer is both a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen). Even when displaced (as I was), we must see every place as our home and a site of beautiful resistance. And those who refused to leave, those who, like my transfer-trading friend and neighbor, who bravely choose land, history, and community over the treason of the Capitalist buy-out, must be be honored, supported and defended, because it is they who can show us best the importance of roots.

We have allies, seen and unseen.

We must join their fight.


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Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.

Restoring Sovereignty and the Path Forward

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Lia Fail – Hill of Tara photo by Ken Williams http://www.shadowandstone.com

(also posted at Strixian Woods)

The world we have inherited is one where the Sovereignty of the Land has been broken.  It’s not a single person’s fault.  It’s not a specific generation’s fault.  Throughout history, humanity has made a series of choices that have separated us from the spirit of the land, from the Otherworld, from nature itself.  Our broken Sovereignty reveals itself in our poisoned rivers and oceans that are becoming barren, in the extinction of species and our dwindling biodiversity, in our melting icecaps and rising seas.  Our unhealthy relationship to the Sovereignty of the Land is perpetuated when we vilify the poor instead of aiding them,  when we  foolishly act as if we have dominion over the Earth rather than acting as stewards of it,  and when we turn our backs on justice in this land and do not stand in opposition to these false judgements of old men.  As we withdraw ourselves from and choose to ignore the power of the land and the gifts of the Otherworld, the land sickens around us, our place on our planet becomes tenuous, and our societal priorities become selfish and obscene.  As a species, we stand today at a crossroads, at a place in our collective Wyrd where the threads of our fates diverge, some leading to our continued survival, and some cut prematurely leading to our extinction among the multitudes of other species extinctions.  Our path forward will not be an easy one no matter what choices we make, but there is a path ahead for us that will allow us a future, a path on which we encourage the return of the Sovereignty of the Land.

Before we can discuss restoring Sovereignty to the Land, we better take some time to define what I mean by the term.  I will be referring to the primary three types of sovereignty that are used in most discussions on the topic and attempt to define them and untangle their meanings. The types of sovereignty that I’ll be referencing I’ll refer to as either political sovereignty, or the authority of a state to govern themselves or others, personal sovereignty also known as personal autonomy, and Sovereignty of the Land, the numinous power of the Otherworld channeled through the Sovereignty Goddess to the ruler of the land.  These concepts are related, and each one has some influence with the others, but at their heart they all have different and nuanced meanings.

In a modern context, when the term sovereignty is used it is usually referring to political sovereignty.   This is often the type of sovereignty that causes much of the confusion.  It’s easy for us to look at the concept of Sovereignty of the Land in regards to Celtic lore and history and superimpose our modern concepts of political sovereignty over it.  This can muddy the meaning of both types of sovereignty.  The concept of political sovereignty, while crucially important to people’s lives, has become a corrupted by those with power.  A militarily or economically powerful nation’s sovereignty is determined by their ability through war or trade to prevent others from imposing their will on them.  In most cases, this type of political power is held through violence or the threat of violence.

A good case study of how this dynamic works is the state of Native or First Nations Peoples on this continent.  Technically, Native Peoples have been granted “sovereignty” for their tribal governments to rule themselves.  Although they had no real right to do so, the US and Canadian governments granted Native Tribes limited rights to self-rule and government.  In reality, they took this step not out of the goodness of their hearts or some sort of concern for the dignity of the people, but to appease the Tribes after destroying their livelihood, culture, and lives.  This continent was founded by people who, through murder, rape, disease, lies, and genocide, systematically wiped out vast populations of people.  The European people who colonized this continent have absolutely no legitimate claim to it.  They arrived and through a fluke of technological achievement, specific biological resilience, and an arrogant spiritual philosophy of dominion over all of creation, they took it.  Their claim of sovereign rights to the land they occupy rests on the childish and dangerous tenant of “I took it so it’s mine”.  With this in mind, the idea of these illegitimate foreign governments bestowing the right of political sovereignty to the peoples that had been living here for thousands of years is tragic and delusional and we must always look at this connection to violence when we consider political sovereignty.

Personal sovereignty on the other hand is rooted in the cultural values of personal autonomy and self determination.  It is based on the concept of a fundamental human right to self-determination.  Retaining our personal sovereignty has been one of the great struggles of our time and this struggle takes countless forms today.  The right for women to make decisions about their own bodies, right to express your free will, and our freedom of speech, all fall under the category of personal sovereignty.  Personal sovereignty does not come without responsibility and cost though.  To be able to have the type of autonomy and freedom that we desire and still live in a world populated with other sovereign individuals, we must be operating from a place of high moral accountability.  Accessing your personal sovereignty is reliant on an understanding and acknowledgment of other people’s sovereignty and rights.  We must understand and accept that we are part of a greater whole, that our actions affect others and affect the heath of the planet around them.  Our own honor, integrity, and sense of justice must guide our decisions, coupled by connections to our community and understanding of the ecological world around us.  In this way, personal sovereignty is much more closely tied to the Sovereignty of the Land.

When we speak of the Sovereignty of the Land, we are speaking of a concept that has been obscured by the mists of time.  We see this classical and historical concept of sovereignty throughout the lore of ancient peoples.  At the heart of this type of sovereignty is a contract and partnership with the Otherworld, the unseen spiritual world.  In the traditional sovereignty tale, a King is granted his right to rule though the Otherworld.  This power flows from the land through the form of the Sovereignty Goddess.  This power is usually transferred in the form of a mead cup or the act of sexual union with the Goddess.  The Sovereignty granted to the King is not unlimited power over his subjects, but a fluid force, the magical power of the land itself.  A power that must used for the benefit of both the land and the people lest it be withdrawn.  The Sovereignty of the Land flows from the Otherworld, is mediated by the King and from him flows back to the people to sustain them.  This contract, like most agreements with the Otherworld, is conditional and strictly regulated through a combination of ritualized behaviors (Geasa) and mutual obligations between the ruler and his people.  The failure of a King to meet their obligations either by breaking their agreements with the Otherworld or their people, resulted in withdrawal of Sovereignty which had disastrous effects such as crop failures and famine, the death of livestock, disease and hardship.  In a situation like this, the failed King would step down, die in battle, or be sacrificed to allow a more suitable King to take their place.

Sovereignty of the Land was never truly about power over the tribe or the land.  It was responsibility to both.  A good King was not selfish but selfless, willing to cede power and sometimes his life for the benefit of his people.  The health of the people and land reflected directly on the ruler.  A single person starving from lack of food was abhorrent to Celtic society and to have someone starve on your doorstep brought great dishonor to you.  In this system of Sovereignty, there was a strict social contract between the leader and the people.  Bound in layers of obligation, hospitality, and geasa, the King had a sacred responsibility to care for and provide for his people.  Our ancestors knew that community is essential to our survival, and also knew that connection and relationship with the Otherworld was necessary for our continued survival.  Those in positions of power in our world today have forgotten both of these things.

Our culture has cut all relevant ties to the Otherworld, and we have fetishized selfishness and self interest.  We stumble forward, stepping on the backs of others with little care for their well being as we strive for personal gain.  We are not appalled by our hungry neighbors, and we chose to create a land that is as dead as we perceive it to be.  The Sovereignty of the Land has withdrawn from us and we have been left with a poisoned land and a broken society.  Our leaders have failed us and we all suffer from their failings.  We no longer live in culture where the leaders work for the benefit of the people and the land.  Our leaders will not step down when they fail us and regrettably we can’t sacrifice them.  We no longer have Kings ruling us and that is a good thing, because we live in an age where we can be more and more responsible for ourselves.  Sovereignty has never left the land, we, as a society have chosen to ignore it and not to access it.   In an age defined by self determination, it is up to us to restore the Sovereignty of the Land, to maintain relations and contracts with the Otherworld, to establish a mode of existing with the world and with each other that is sustainable and life affirming.

But how do we return Sovereignty to the Land and how will that change our course?  How will our connection with the Otherworld help create a better world for everyone?  How will this provide for us a viable path ahead?

At the heart of this type of Sovereignty of the Land is interconnectedness.  It is the acknowledgement that as a society our future survival is dependent on working with each other, not fighting against each other.  It is understanding that on a greater level, our society’s survival and our ecosystem’s survival are intertwined.  When the health of our planet fails, our health fails with it.  When we cut ourselves off from our environment, from our communities, and from the Otherworld, we wither like a plant cut from its roots.  And we are withering.  Our bellies are full and we are starving to death.

We can take these basic steps and reestablish the flow of Sovereignty in our lives and in our land.

– Establish and maintain relationships with the Otherworld.  Honor your Gods, honor the spirits of the land, honor your ancestors and make your choices for those that will come after us, not for ourselves.

– Establish and maintain relationships with your communities.  Get to know your community and take part in it, both locally and globally.  Don’t ask what you are getting from your community, ask how you are helping it.

– Give more than you take, in all things.  Wealth and power are a flow, not something to hoard and hold onto.

– Stand for Sovereignty.  Speak out where you see sovereignty being compromised.  Defend others’ rights and their sovereignty, not just your own.

Taking steps to restore Sovereignty will not save us, but it’s the start of the mindset that we need to thrive again.  Like a spring that has been buried, the flow of Sovereignty awaits us.  As we dig into the soil with our bare hands we can restart the flow again: many trickles make a stream, many streams a river and many rivers fill an ocean.  We no longer need Kings to mediate the Otherworld for us, we can take our fate into our own hands and restore Sovereignty to our Land.