Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 16

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have switched our attention from old Westerns to the Tarzan films of the late Johnny Weissmuller.

Now here’s something I have never understood – Cheeta. Why did Tarzan have a chimpanzee called “Cheeta”? I mean, did he also have a cheetah called “Rino”, a rhino called “Ippo”, a hippo called “Elepant”, an elephant called…

… well you get the picture.

Excuse me, there is a herd of gnus passing. My, my! There are a lot of them. I can just about… yes… there’s the last of them going past now. That is the end of the gnus, now for the weather forecast.



This is the serious item in today’s blog, and it is a mulling-over of an observation on someone else’s blog.

Attending an inter-tribal powwow, the blogger was surprised to see the number of US flags being waved during the Native-American dances, to see the pro-Republican, pro-Palin bumper stickers, to hear speeches praising and blessing the USA for giving these people the right to practice their beliefs, to value their culture, and so on. Given the history of the tribal people of America at the hands of the incoming whites and their successive governments, she found this extraordinary and decided that she must examine the GOP’s policy toward Indians and see whether there is some dichotomy, some contradiction.

Certain things strike me here.

Firstly culture, no matter how continuous it may seem to superficial observation, is a living thing. There is always something dynamic to it. The powwow may have appeared in some ways to be a “museum piece” or even a “showcase” event, but culture is not as superficial as that. Culture includes ways of thought, attitudes, mental and intellectual viewpoints. These do shift. I have watched it happen here in Britain during the fifty-odd years I have been alive. Perceived certainties are nothing of the kind. Attitudes exist in the current generation that did not exist in the previous; in turn the generation before had still different attitudes. Nothing is more striking to me than the shifts in culture of the people of South Asian heritage here in Britain. I have seen one generation struggle into suits and ties, into dresses, into a kind of awkward Britishness; I have seen another generation grow up at ease with Britishness, comfortable with cockney or Glasgow accents, with lager, and with discos, picking and mixing from the languages and argots of white and black youth; I have seen yet another generation trying to recapture its ethnic roots, re-learning South Asian languages, even coming “back” to their religions with a fervour not seen since the days when their families lived in the lands of their ethnic origins.

I just pick them as one example. I could pick others. I could pick the changes in the last half-century to life in the tranquil, seemingly-unchangeable English countryside, or the way in which we now seem to have no “working class” in the way we used to. The point is that culture changes, sometimes profoundly, but often without people actually noticing. They just grow up where and when they grow up and broadly accept the things around them as being somehow “normal”, as just how things are.

Is it really, therefore, so surprising that where people are now proud of their traditions and where they wish to see them flourish and be preserved – in short in an environment and culture that is at present conservative – people should align themselves with other conservatives?

I used to rail at the USA (okay I still do, you got me there!) at the time when it opposed Apartheid in South Africa and castigated that country for setting up “Bantustans”. I used to shout in amazement, “What the hell are Indian Reservations if they aren’t Bantustans?” I still have issues with the Reservation system (is it my business?), but one thing is certain, and that is that it does foster an environment where tribal traditions can be preserved with relatively little outside influence. Note I said “relatively”.

What would the “liberal” alternative be. Okay drop the “liberal” and let’s just think of an alternative without a label. Let’s say, for instance, integrating the native peoples into the citizenry of the USA in the way that generations of immigrants have been integrated, in the land of E Pluribus Unum. Would today’s generation of dissociated Indians, along with concerned friends, perhaps now be trying to extract from the American goulash its basic ingredients in order to put them back into their various packets and jars, in an attempt – too late! – to preserve things which had been lost? Who can say?

Yes the phenomenon noted in the other blog does still seem strange to me on the surface. In particular because I believe that one of the particular tribes present was the Iroquois[*], who were surely the first people to suffer mass collective displacement at the hands of the USA, when George Washington’s administration penalized them for having fought for the Crown during the colonial rebellion. However, when I take a step outside my own mental box, things do begin to take on a new shape.

A bad ethnomusicologist (it was an ethnomusicology blog I was reading) takes on culture head-on. A good one - I know the blogger to be a good one - considers context and has at her hand a corpus of learning which includes observations made during enquiry into previous generations; there, beneath the surface, are the changed cultural circumstances.[**] Access to this corpus of learning gives insight and clarity to the process of discovery.

[*] Actually a federation of six tribes – Mohawk, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Oneida.

[**] Consider what Karlheinz Stockhausen said about change, in a different context: “New means change the method, new methods change the experience, new experience changes man.”

It occurs to me to recommend a book. The author intended it as an autobiographical account of his days as a Christian missionary in the (then-dying) West. It is Thomas C Battey’s The Life and Adventures of a Quaker among the Indians. When he wrote it he little thought that it would be a vital piece of evidence of the rituals and beliefs of the about-to-be-civilised Kiowa, Caddo, and Apache peoples. He was trusted by even the “wild” tribes whom he visited, was respected as a spiritual man, and was allowed to attend religious and celebratory occasions amongst them. He was truly fascinated by their dances and ceremonies, describing them in as much detail as he could. At the end of each long, detailed description it is as though he shakes himself, brings himself round, and thinks “Of course it’s all terribly pagan and unenlightened”, but still the fascination and the detail are there. I read this book many, many years ago. It’s style is stilted, but its contents are worthwhile.


  1. good questions marie! thanks for writing this.

    it can easily be depressing to see cultures being destroyed, and people not really resisting assimilation (or not appearing to resist it). this is what i was thinking about when you talked about the south asians.

    one thing you said on my blog is certainly true, we can't liberate any people other than ourselves. we can only be a good example.


  2. I almost feel as though "being a good example" leans towards a sense of cultural superiority; our "good example" only needs to be that people can come up with something of their own. We may hope that, say, the Iroquois start reading Kropotkin, but we must be prepared for them to come up with something entirely their own and entirely unexpected. :-)