Sebastian Junger—You missed something else

Dear Mr. Junger,

I went to a funeral mass for a friend last week. As I listened to the priests—one from Africa, the other from South America, and bathed in Catholic ritual with the large extended family and members of the local congregation, it occurred to me that you missed something else in your interesting analysis of PTSD and our tribal nature in your recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

You argued that most of the men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who claim PTSD have not experienced combat, and that what they are really experiencing is a homecoming reaction. You say that they have lived for a time in a highly interdependent military culture in which small groups of people have jobs, meaning, and each other.  They serve together in foreign lands—and then return to the competitive, individualistic, wealth driven scene at home.

I said last week that I agreed with much of your argument, but criticized you for lumping all New World Indians into one—“a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years”(quoting from your text)—“ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.” (my response)

To that indictment, I now add your omission of the importance of “ritual.”

When I returned from the funeral, I said to a friend that the Catholics do a good job with ritual. “Catholics and the Marine Corps,” he replied. And Indians, I would add.

Over centuries, Protestantism has gradually erased and eroded ritual in Christianity—favoring “does” and “don’ts” over tradition and accommodation. The attitude was prominent in 19th century missionary work in the West, where clergy worried about white fur traders and settlers intermarrying with Indians. The Methodists outlawed them; Presbyterians grudgingly accepted. The ritualistic and tradition-bound Catholics, on the other hand, were more accommodating, and, valuing the institution of marriage, trained clergy in eastern Canada and sent them West to minister to and marry mixed families.

Unfortunately, these stories are often lost, as the standard historical narrative is not strong on mixed bloods and their place in the settlement of the West.

The long-term history of history is ignoring Indian roles, and the history of Indian-White relations is of course largely about forced assimilation. Indian lands and migration patterns were divided and shattered by Indian removal and the creation of reservations. At the conclusion of the Civil War, President Grant turned the reservations over to the churches, which intensified the war on Indian cultures. The Dawes Act of 1887 demanded that Indians take up farmsteads, and Indian boarding schools demanded that they cut hair, lose language, and dress white. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration pushed one more time, with “Termination Policy,” to put Indian lands and culture behind us.

Not all Indians complied, of course. Some hid regalia, elders spoke among themselves, and names of people and sacred places were passed down quietly. And, gradually, beginning in the 60s, Indian voices were raised, old treaties examined, fisheries regained, language programs begun, and regalia taken out of closets. Indian art celebrating the past and present began to flourish. Land—reservation land, culture, and ritual are saving them from complete assimilation.

Although not all tribes are healthy or wealthy, there is a fine National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington D.C.; there are tribal, state historical, and regional museums which celebrate Indian culture. And there are proud Indian writers, artists, and Indian drummers and dancers who perform at powwows across the country.

And here, Mr. Junger, is where your veterans come in. At every powwow that I have attended, veterans are honored. At the local dances in the Wallowa Country of the Nez Perce, veterans—white, Indian, Black, Filipino, all—are honored in a grand entry with songs and dances and in a ceremony in which each veteran steps up and announces his or her branch of the military and dates and theaters of service. There is a drum roll for each vet. And when an eagle feather inadvertently falls from headdress to the floor during a dance, all stops; a veteran must pick it up with special ceremony.

(Why, you ask, are Indians eager to celebrate their service at all? Because, as Indians say, “We are fighting for ‘our’ country.”)

From sign up through boot camp and into service, soldiers and marines comport to ritual—ceremonies of completion and good conduct; medals for places and battles served; advancement of rank and station; changing of leadership, etc. Throughout, they are shoulder to shoulder with peers and cohorts.

Indian veterans who have ties to their reservations come home to ritual, but any veteran in reaching distance of a powwow can get a little bit of what’s been missing.

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Sebastian Junger, PTSD, and 500 Nations

I liked the argument in Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, but cringed throughout the first chapters as he lumped all American Indians together and made them stone-age hunter-gatherers, “a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years,” ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.

Alvin Josephy would say that this is yet another gross misunderstanding of American Indian history and its intertwined relationship with all American history, that the “standard narrative” once again sees all Indians as hunter gatherers with headdresses.

Sebastian Junger gained fame with a book about the sea, The Perfect Storm, and, after being embedded for five months with troops in Afghanistan, produced a well-regarded documentary film, “Restrepo,” and book, War, based on that experience.

In the new book, he argues that “humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern Society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” His experiences with soldiers and vets, and his own brief encounter with PTSD—which he at first did not recognize as such—sent him on and exploration of PTSD that led him to the concept of “tribe.”

He’d quickly learned that most of the military veterans claiming PTSD now have not been involved in combat—only 10 percent of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced combat, while almost 50 percent claim PTSD. He thinks that most of what is diagnosed as PTSD is really a readjustment problem. Humans have evolved over eons in small interdependent groups—tribes—and need to be needed and need community in order to thrive. Soldiers leaving a situation that mimics ancient tribal culture and reentering a highly competitive, individualistic America have trouble. In the Peace Corps, which Junger gives a nod, it is called “reverse culture shock.”

Tribe is the book’s title and the answer to PTSD. His historical exploration begins with America’s founders and first relations with Indians. There are stories from Benjamin Franklin and other Founders about white men donning leggings and living like and with Indians on the frontier, and about women and children captured by Indians who did not want to be rescued. A Frenchman, Hector de Crevecoueur, lamented that “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”

For women, Indian life might have been hard, but the dominance of husbands was not so absolute. For Junger, the important notion is that tribal life offered the mutual support, egalitarianism, and community values that contemporary European society did not. And today in America, vastness and radical individualism are at odds with our tribal natures.

It’s no accident that Josephy’s book and the Kevin Costner TV series were named “500 Nations of North America,” an upfront declaration that there was great diversity in the Americas before the Europeans came. And in the National Book Award nominated Indian Heritage of America Josephy uses linguists’ work to show two continents evolving into groups or tribes that spoke some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages.

There were, among these “nations,” vast differences in economies, cultures, life-styles, wealth, governance, etc. etc. There were the imperial peoples of South and Central America—Incas and Mayans and Aztecs; the wealthy, class-bound, matriarchal, and extremely artistic cultures of the northern Pacific Coast; and the treaty and governance pioneering Haudenosaunee Confederacy of northeastern North America.

Nations—no civilizations—had risen and fallen: Inca, Mayan, Aztec, Cahokian. The Mayans’ intricate irrigation-based society might have fallen to global warming. Incans’ penchant for revering dead leaders might have sapped their economies. The mound-builders that summited at Cahokia near present-day St. Louis might have fallen to overcrowding, or drought, or disease. And the agriculture! Who tamed and developed corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, rubber, manioc, squash and all the rest? And how did they do it?

No, Mr. Junger, none of this touches your basic argument about humans evolving over hundreds of thousands of years to best function in small groups—groups of about 50, he estimates—and to value and practice mutual support and co
operative working and living. And the history of early North American interactions among “the English” and tribal peoples is enlightening and important.

But painting all American Indians with the same brush (caveat—later in the book there is some minimal admission of tribal differences) is robbing two continents of histories that are as rich, complex and tragic as anything Europe and Asia have to offer.

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