Political parties, armies, and nations change

Segregationist Southern Democrats had a grip on the party—and in some cases the country—for years. Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of Civil Rights legislation alienated Southern Democrats, and chased them into the Republican Party—which had been the party of Lincoln and abolition!

Germany’s radical Nazi government gained power in fewer than twenty years, was defeated, and went from genocidal rampage to conversion to Western democracy in a few years; Japan’s Imperial aggression transformed itself into a Western leaning and anti-militaristic state.

In Iraq, our country pursued a different policy, not allowing bureaucrats and officers to serve in a post-Saddam Hussein government. The lack of basic governing skills led to chaos, rampant corruption, and the deaths of many Iraqis and Americans.

It’s taken time, but decades and centuries of declaring American Indians inferior, of demonizing their cultures, religions, and resource practices, the American Public and most of the general population is tripping over ourselves to acknowledge our errors, honor cultures, and emulate natural resource practices of indigenous Americans. In California, where genocide was practiced and Indian tribes demolished by the Spanish, the priests, and the Americans who paid bounties for Indian body parts, the state works with the Yuroks and other tribes to restore ecosystems.

Most conversions happen over time—although usually not the amount of time it has taken for the government and wider society here to embrace Native Americans—and one could argue that they are rarely complete. There are neo-Nazis and right-wing parties in Europe, and white supremacists and even paramilitary and anti-government groups in our own country. Maintaining balances between freedom and stability, free expression and incendiary speech, ethnic pride and pluralism is always difficult. But crucial to maintaining moral and social order.

Netanyahu claims that Hamas must be utterly destroyed, and that members of Hamas have no future in governance of Gaza. In fact, at this point he rejects the idea of a self-governing Palestinian state. But thinking that one group, one ideology, can be completely destroyed seems a dangerous illusion. And positing a Palestinian state that would not be self-governing, or would not be able to use people from Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, who have at least some experience in governance, is wrongheaded and flies in the face of a transition from terrorist organization to civilian government that occurred in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own country at its founding, in 1948.

Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish right-wing underground movement in Palestine, was founded in 1931, and operated until independence in 1948. The organization committed acts of terrorism against the British—most famously in the bombing of the King David Hotel—whom it regarded as illegal occupiers, and against Arabs. The Irgun was described as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the British, and United States governments.

Menachem Begin was Irgun commander from 1943-48, when it transformed itself into the Herut (freedom) party in the new nation. Begin then served in the Knesset, eventually became Prime Minister, and in 1978, as a result of peacemaking efforts, he and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Is there a Menachem Begin in Hamas? Or will the ghost of Begin hover over Netanyahu and show him the way to peace?

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How the Holocaust resonates today

I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on “The US and the Holocaust,” some of it for the second time. I have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. multiple times. I had a good friend, now deceased, whose US Army Tank unit liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. The images of the Nazi genocide from these three sources haunt me. I remember the piles of glasses and shoes at the museum, collected as prisoners were loaded onto trains and into gas chambers. I remember the spiraling towers of photos of communities lost, and the videos of Josef Mengele’s experiments on prisoners—experiments with diseases, amputations, and freezing temperatures. And I can’t get the image of friend Jack recounting a scene at Buchenwald: hand scratches on a wall that prisoners, supposedly dead and hung like animals on a rail, put there on the way from gas chamber to crematorium. Jack scratched an imaginary wall with his own hand as he told the story.Read Rich’s Post →

Eurocentrism in America and Palestine

In the introduction to America In 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, a book of essays Alvin Josephy edited and published on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean, he wrote that:

“Commencing with Columbus’s arrival among them, Spanish, French, and English invaders, colonizers, pirates, and imperial explorers all but exterminated them [indigenous people], slaughtering Caribs wholesale with fire, steel, European tortures, and savage dogs, working thousands of them to death as slaves, and wiping out their settlements with the pox, measles, dIphtheria, and other white men’s diseases to which the Indians had no resistance…Read Rich’s Post →

An American Indian solution in Palestine?

When I am talking with non-Native audiences, and even when talking with Tribal friends, I sometimes say that I feel like I am body-surfing on a wave of pro-Indian sentiment in the country. I say that a big part of this is based on recognition of non-Native—read mostly white male—failures in dealing with the natural world. We haven’t been so smart about fire, fish, and water, and grope now, trying to play catch up with preemptive burns and reintroduction of beaver and bison.Read Rich’s Post →

At Mid-winter

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to know where to start. Should I tell you about kids and grandkids, triumphs and setbacks over the past year? Or muse about the state of the country and the world, the places I visited or lived in years ago—and are still close to my heart—that are now in turmoil or in ruins? Or should I tell you about the peace and hope that I find in my work with American Indians, how my old mentor Alvin Josephy, gone now for a dozen years, gets smarter every day as I learn from Tribal people? And learn not just about the past, but get glimpses of hope for tomorrow.

Yesterday there were visitors at the Library. Two families from McMinnville, Oregon and their two YES exchange students, one from Pakistan and the other from the West Bank in Palestine. YES, or “Youth Exchange and Study Programs,” brings students from predominantly Muslim countries to the US, and sends American students to those countries. YES involves full scholarships, is administered by the State Department, and was instigated by Senators Kennedy and Lugar, a Democrat and a Republican. It is difficult to imagine how the program survives.

But it does, and my 16 year-old Palestinian visitor—his English was flawless, and he had a good basic understanding of American history and official Indian policy—asked fine questions about the Nez Perce story and Josephy’s understanding of Indians in new world history. We talked about languages—about the 2500 distinct languages in the pre-Columbian Americas and the dialects of Arabic across the world. He was hungry to know what we can learn from the flow and development of languages—I told him how Josephy had gone to linguists to explore the early movements of peoples across the Americas, and to make estimates of their numbers. He promised to look for Charles Mann’s 1491 for a better grasp of the pre-Columbian Americas, the impacts of diseases and the interchanges between the new worlds and the old.

Not fifteen minutes into the conversation, my new friend remarked on the similarities between the plight of American Indians and that of Palestinians—peoples visited and lands settled by foreign colonists.

At this point one can become pessimistic. A YES exchange student from Palestine who lived in Wallowa County a couple of years ago had serious trouble getting back to his family home. Will these bright young people who spend a year exploring America and ideas of peace and friendship get lost in a decades-long fight for home and culture on their return? Or will they be part of new flowerings of peace-making in their home countries, and in the “work” they have done in their brief stays in ours?

We’ve just celebrated my favorite day of the year, the winter solstice, the day that brings more light. It’s also a reminder that our linear understanding of history is always punctuated by the cyclical—or rather that the cyclical is fundamental, and the events and actions done in the present punctuate the rhythms of light and darkness, days and years. Summers and winters come and go; listening to the people who know that the land needs fire, salmon need free-flowing water, that the earth we live on persists through plagues and tyrants, we might begin to live saner lives. As Alvin Josephy said so many times, we have much to learn from American Indians.

And whatever the reasons for the perennial mid-winter calls for peace—shalom—that emerge in many languages and religions, and always in perilous times, let’s listen to them too. Let’s listen to and hope with YES and the students who are bridging the divides in their worlds and ours.

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