Afghanistan and the Indians

I sat down to a long cup of coffee with Leif Christoffersen, a Norwegian-American with long experience in African and Latin American countries and international aid organizations. It was at the time of the American pullout from Afghanistan, and I asked Leif what he thought about it.

Leif went immediately to “nation building,” and saw Afghanistan as the latest in a long line of big, mostly Western, often American attempts to “develop” what we once called “third world” countries from the top down. We fly into less developed or underdeveloped countries—and pay no attention to their own long histories, cultures, and stories of internal development. We find partners willing to play by our rules, and then pour resources—and oftentimes military assistance and our own troops—into efforts to wrestle the country into some political-cultural replica of our own.

We have to learn, Leif thinks, to see each place on its own terms, for what it is, and then, maybe, with empathy, luck, and hard work, provide some assistance to the developing country as it charts its own course.

As I listened to Leif, it occurred to me that American government treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America, from the earliest days of settlement and well into the twentieth century, followed very similar patterns.

Early missionaries worked hard to convert and “civilize” the Indians, and although there were lapses into war and threat of war, treaties made and broken, lands bought by war and coin, and forced “removal,” government has maintained a steady stream of laws and regulations demanding that American Indians become civilized, assimilated, make them “like us.” And when troops were needed to civilize, move, or control tribes, the US military, relying on scouts from neighboring tribes, stepped in.

The forces of assimilation have been relentless. The idea of tribal lands—”common lands”—was a stumbling place for colonizers; the American way has always been to make individual Indians individual landholders. Plows, seeds, tools, and schools were brought and built to help make Indians white farmers. The Allotment Act in the 1880s imagined yeoman farmers on homesteads. At the same time, boarding schools began taking students from Indian families, cutting their hair and outlawing languages and religions, giving them marching band uniforms and trumpets. Indian regulations outlawed the Ghost Dance and regalia and plural marriage.

The good-willed Reorganization Act of 1934 asked Indians to follow an American model of governance (not admitting that the American model itself had taken from the Haudenosaunee), treating 500 tribes, with widely different governing cultures of their own, all the same.

And finally, in a last-ditch effort at civilizing and assimilating Indians in the Eisenhower years, the Termination Act asked Indian reservations and leadership to dissolve, and the Relocation Act asked Indians to move to American cities to learn and work in the American way.

Today, many of us acknowledge that American Indians, in their diverse cultures adapted to geography over millennia, might have knowledge that is better than what the majority culture has been teaching. We—at least important numbers of us—are listening to Indians about fish and wildlife, water and fire. We are even questioning the primacy of individual land ownership which was enshrined in the original constitution, when voting was left to white landowners.

America was the first “foreign” country that the founding fathers began working their ideological magic on. Successive governments have continued to press for Indians to adapt and adopt the ideas of the white majority.

But the flaws in the original vision, from the treatment of African-American slaves and women to the way that lands were taken from the Indians, are now coming under harsh scrutiny. Indian ways of dealing with the world, especially the ways of dealing with the natural world of earth, water, and fire, are being revived.

A reexamination of foreign policy under the same bright lights is in order. Maybe we have something to learn from the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others who have lived in what we now call Afghanistan for millennia. And in our country we might go back to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—also known as the Iroquois League, which united five and then six American Indian nations under the “Great Law of Peace,” given to Hiawatha by the prophet Peacemaker centuries before the Europeans came to break them apart.

As the world careens towards global warming and disunity, we will need new peace-making and nation-building tools, foreign and domestic.

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  1. Thoughtful insightful commentary, thank you. A new path is being explored by compassionate people who suffer with the awareness of our brutal and unjust history. Everything feels precarious, mountains and rivers and their inhabitants and our descendants in the balance. Honoring and respecting ancestral ways from the past will make a difference

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful words–and the recognition of the past and hope for the future.

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