BENSOZIA/IDEAS

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


Ian Frazier, On the Rez.  New York: Picador Books, 2000.

Review by John Bedell

In the first chapter of On the Rez, a book about life among the Sioux at Pine Ridge, Ian Frazier explains that he likes Indians because he admires their devotion to freedom. He describes in a series of moving paragraphs the history of this devotion, and of the price paid for it, over the past 400 years. He mentions Powhatan scoffing at English offers of vassalage, explaining that he is a king, too, and will bow to no one. He tells of Red Cloud, brought before a Senate committee in Washington, so unimpressed by their threats that he refused a chair and took his seat on the floor, where he said, "I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man." Frazier recounts the long struggle for independence waged by the Sioux, the Apache, and other western tribes, and he praises their "centuries of resistance to authority, intractability and independent-mindedness." He longs for the America described by Amerigo Vespucci, where "everyone is his own master." "We live," he complains, 

in a craven time  I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated communism, new seems to be about to do the same thing to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can't be nice, we'd better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. "Who does he think he is?" is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us..... Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear: The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air--freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval--has become a luxury most of us can't afford.
I have thought about the freedom of the plains Indians for many years, since I read a stack of books about them in a course on legal anthropology. There is something in what Frazier says-- among the horse-riding peoples of the plains, men were very free and defended their freedom at great cost. But, I wonder, what does their way of life really have to offer the 21st century?

I should point out, first, that Frazier errs when he attributes to the eastern Indians the same sort of freedom-loving lifestyle he finds in the west. Powhatan, after all, was a king, and while he loved his own freedom his subjects who dared to defy him generally had their heads bashed in. The Aztecs were Indians, too, and we know what happened to their rebels. I should also point out that the freedom Frazier admires was limited to men--and I will argue in a minute that this was an essential part of it. I do find it remarkable, though, that men of the plains tribes generally refused to obey orders from anybody, and this rather extraordinary fact raises, for me, some questions about why we live in a society where freedom is so tightly circumscribed.

There is a terrific scene in "Dances with Wolves" in which the old chief, faced with a tough challenge, invites Kevin Costner to sit down and have a smoke.  As they smoke and talk, the chief tries to persuade Costner to see things his way. This was how chiefs in these tribes really operated. They could offer advice, but most of the time they could not give orders, because no self-respecting man would do anything that a chief commanded him to. His personal honor would not permit it. A war leader who wanted to lead a raid would say, "I want to attack the Pawnee" (or whomever), and those who wanted to go, went. The others stayed home. If a dispute arose between two men over, say, a debt, the chiefs, the elders, or their friends would try to persuade them to agree on a settlement, and there was no court that could order either man to submit to a resolution he felt unjust.

Unfortunately, this utopian system didn't work very well, and murder was the all-too-frequent outcome of conflict. All of our stories of plains life are full of killings, and many of the most famous chiefs were killers. As a result, the chiefs spent a great deal of their time and energy trying to mediate between the families of victims and the families of their killers, so that each murder would not lead to an unending cycle of revenge. The violence of plains life was, in a sense, the necessary consequence of the freedom, for there was no institution to restrain bullies or force peace between enemies, no way to control these free men except death or the threat of it.

The chiefs saw most killings, not as crimes needing to be avenged, but as wounds in the society that needed to be healed. Most of the tribes ritualized this notion. Among the Cheyenne, a killing was held to bloody the sacred arrows of the tribe, and all ritual life had to cease until the arrows could be cleansed.  The cleansing could not take place until the killing had been resolved in some form. According to the information we have, the most common resolution was for the killer's family to pay compensation to the victim's kin (often a number of horses), and then for the killer himself to undertake a period of voluntary exile. Note that the killer was not exiled by the chiefs; he had to be persuaded to leave freely, for the good of the community. Of course, the threat that some relative of his victim would kill him in turn was an added incentive to go, but one imagines this was left unsaid as much as possible, so as not to insult the killer by insinuating that he was afraid. In any event, he left for several years. He went to a neighboring tribe with whom his own tribe had an understanding about such exiles; given the number of killings in our stories, exiles must have been a regular feature of Indian life.

As a system of criminal justice, the plains way has many advantages: it was generally humane, and through negotiation and ritual it often managed to use potentially disruptive violence as a way of bonding the community closer together. It also avoided the dehumanizing, oppressive machinery of the state--the prison, the courtroom, the gas chamber--that burdens the "civilized" world. On the other hand, it didn't deter crime very well and it did not always succeed in keeping the community together. Plains tribes frequently split into factions that lived apart for years, sometimes forming new, long-lasting entities.

As a model for us, the Plains way has an even greater weakness, which is that it depended on the low density of people on the land, and on their great mobility. When two people couldn't get along, they lived apart. When two groups couldn't get along, they packed up their teepees and rode off in different directions. It seems to me that this model also depends on the matrilineal structure of the society, and the small role played by fathers in their children's upbringing. In the cases I have read, men always just head off by themselves, leaving their families behind. What happened to women killers I do not know, since there don't seem to be many examples in the record, but it doesn't seem to have bothered these people that men should leave their families for 7 years if need be. Surely most killers were young men, as they are in every society, but some Indian men married and fathered children in their teens, so many of these exiles must have been abandoning children. This made so little impression on the Indians who told these stories that they didn't even bother to mention it. The freedom loving Indians Ian Frazier befriends, who live in New York or Los Angeles or Pine Ridge as the mood strikes them, are all men, and they don't have any children with them.

Ian Frazier knows all about the violent history of life on the Plains. He also knows that the legacy of violence lives on among contemporary Indians:  "Especially in Western towns that border big reservations, stabbings and fights and car wrecks are a depressingly regular part of life." He seems, though, to regard the loss of life as a price worth paying for the freedom. He points out several times that none of the Indians he knows wears a seat belt, despite the frequency of accidents, and I take this as a symbol of the trade-off. Those willing to wrap themselves in safety gear may live longer, but they do not live free. Those with judges and prisons and police may be safer, but they live in the shadow of the state, never breathing the truly free air of a man like Red Cloud.

Like Ian Frazier, I admire the struggles of the Apache, the Seminole, and all the other tribes, and I think we should preserve the memory of the sacrifices they made for freedom. We should value freedom, and we should always think carefully before we trade some of this precious substance for safety or comfort. I share my love of freedom with many Americans, and I think that perhaps we learned some of our devotion from the Indians, whose way we admired even as we trampled them. But I wear a seat belt. It is, I find, a trivial burden, and it is a burden that saves a thousand lives a year and might well save mine. I also make an effort to be nice to everybody I meet, not just the ones I work for in my service-sector job, and I rarely even fantasize about telling people off. If you ask me, we could do with a lot less rudeness, not more. I have my misgivings about our swelling police and prison apparatus, but given the choice I would rather have it than nothing. Without such mechanisms it is all too easy to end up in a kill or be killed situation, and that repulses me.  I lack many freedoms, but I am free to choose nonviolence, a choice no man of the Sioux or the Comanche ever had.

To live together in our cities and in our nations we must learn to get along with each other. You can choose to see this as a surrender of freedom, or you can choose to see it as a miraculous coming together of different kinds of people to build something greater than any one person or tribe could build. There are things in our crowded society no land of nomads could support, from Hollywood to Harvard. By curbing our tempers and our impulses and working together, we have sent men to the moon, built the Internet, decoded the genome. None of this can be done without sacrificing some freedom to do and speak as we please. You can take your teepee and head off in a huff when you don't get your way, or you can participate in the extraordinary project of human civilization. I think civilization is worth it.


From the 
Commonplace Book

When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong and disfigure their faces with black paint, their hearts, also, are disfigured and turn  black, and our old men are not able to restrain them. Revenge, with our young men, is considered gain, even at the cost of their own
lives, but old men who stay home in times of war, and old women who have sons to lose, know better.

--Chief Seattle
 

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