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October 07, 2005

The Ward Churchill interview

Below the fold is an excerpt of a lengthy (3,000 words and change) interview I did with Native American Studies professor and author Ward Churchill. The interview took place in San Francisco, California in September, 1992, in advance of the quincentenary of Columbus' landing in the New World. The extended and rather more poorly edited version of this interview appeared in the October, 1992 issue of Terrain.

I reproduce this interview here not because I agree with everything Churchill says here, but because I find what he has to say important even where I find fault with his conclusions.

Clarke :Why should people in the largely white environmental movement pay any attention to the quincentenary?

Churchill: Partly because the quincentenary symbolizes the whole complex of attitudes, perceptions, ideas, etc. that go with the predatory impulse that has consumed not only native people, but the natural order, the environment itself. That's what the consumption of the native population was about. That's why it was done. That consumption being accomplished, of course, it has opened up the doors to environmental devastation, which is what is opposed by the environmental movement. Two components cannot be taken apart, all right? And coming to grips with the symbology involved you create a counter-symbology, which allows attainment of the kinds of goals the environmental movement has always espoused, rhetorically at least. You're starting to concretize those goals, but you have to change consciousness in order to accomplish that, and the counter-celebration of the quincentenary is a fine symbol for the transformation of consciousness that is required.

There's this image that's held in the white environmental movement of the indigenous inhabitants of this continent, a kind of one-dimensional image, perhaps, of living in harmony with the environment...

Bambi.

Right. What's the best way to challenge that image? Or does it need challenging? Is it a useful image?

Well, it's not a useful image, because it's a false image, and false images are never useful in the end. They always lead in false directions, ultimately, and we've had enough false directions. We don't need more. Enough damage has been done as a result of them.

Vine Deloria, in another context, came up with the perfect line for this one. A white scholar from an East Coast institution called him up and explained at some great length how he was this national resource and therefore was obligated to do A, B, C, and D that she felt was important. And he said "Lady, let's play a game of let's-pretend. Let's pretend for about ten seconds that instead of a national resource, I'm a human being.

The environmental movement, and everyone else in this society, ought to play that little game, and pretend that rather than whatever aspect of their fantasies they require Indians to be, that Indians are, in fact, human beings. And as human beings, devised societies which were not perfect, which were not ideal, which were not Rousseauian, but were real human societies predicated in a concrete understanding of the natural order that allowed them to exist in place for a thousand generations without appreciably disrupting the habitat. All right? They didn't do it by being something other than what they were. They didn't do it by being Bambi-type deers, they didn't do it by being Chuck Connors playing Geronimo.

It's about time people started trying to apprehend the reality instead of the fantasy.

What are some of the specific aspects of those cultures that allowed native people to live in a sustainable fashion?

You're free to do anything you want. That's sort of a cardinal rule. You have an absolute latitude of action - that's usually called "freedom" - so long as you do not permanently disrupt or disturb the equilibrium of the habitat in which you live. OK? You cannot re-engineer it, you cannot transform it. You must sustain it. And that establishes an entirely different parameter for human conduct than exists in this society we inhabit today.

That's the whole thing about seven generations of the future. You also look seven generations into the past. History, present, future are all part of the composite whole, and they interact. You can understand what's been done in order to sustain things, figure out how to apply that to your comportment in the present, so that those who come seven generations after you will inherit the exact same set of prerogatives that you enjoy. That's very, very different from current assumptions. It sounds kinda simple when you posit it, but look around today for an example! There's nowhere in this cultural matrix that we experience where that's put into practice as a working assumption of how on should live one's life.

Maybe that's still too abstract.

Indians attained a certain population level - which was saturation, in terms of the carrying capacity of the land, and a little less. They had discovered, bioregion by bioregion, what level of sustained human occupation the land could support without being permanently altered. They did not make a premium out of the idea that more humans would be a better thing. Birth is celebrated in indigenous cultures the world over precisely because a birth is not something to be regretted, because they were never overbalancing the habitat in which they lived.

OK. Look what happens when you bring up the question of the need for population reduction in any sector of contemporary society. Third Worlders accuse you of genocide, though they're suffocating themselves in population, which is still growing. First Worlders... [laughs] we end up with Phyllis Schlafly. I don't think I need to go into the contradictions embedded in that particular point of view. Even the white left, in exercising choice, presume to choose to have more themselves, because they feel that they are a superior product and they wouldn't want to have too many Schlafly clones running aroound so they feel compelled to have more and more children of their own as well.

There's also a very skewed way of looking at population anyway, and I just did it to a certain extent. You have gross numbers of people that are far too high. So more and more bodies.

But the most overpopulated sector of the planet is right here in North America. We've only got a quarter of a billion people here as compared to, say, the Chinese who are coming up on two billion, on approximately the same land base. You'd think the Chinese would be vastly overpopulated, and they are...

But they don't all have refrigerators.

Yeah! By and large, they exist at what we'd call a third world level of material consumption. One good American Yuppie counts for seventy of them. Probably the mean multiplier for the entire US society - including poor people, and Indians included in that, a very narrow percentage of Indian societies today live in a truly sustainable manner. There are some - but if you average it all out you'd probably have to multiply the US population by thirty to arrive at a comparable [per capita] impact on the environment as evidenced by the Chinese population, and that makes, what? Seven and a half billion North Americans as opposed to two billion Chinese?

Seems like about three or four times a week I'm sent information about a different small struggle, whether about a garbage incinerator, or a small hydro project, or a road going through a roadless area, or a toxic dump being put somewhere on Native land. If it's not the Oldman River dam in Alberta, it's the Campo Reservation down in San Diego getting a toxic dump, or the G-O road being put through sacred land in Northern California, or the giant James Bay hydro project in Canada. Why the concentration on Native land for this environmental destruction?

Actually, it's nothing new: it's just that you're hearing about it more than you have been in times past. It's been going on ever since about 1930, in terms of so-called development, or the focus off certain types of development on Indian land.

Partly, it's - as I've said before - "out of sight, out of mind." Nobody in the broader society tends to give a good goddamn what happens to the Indians. Half the dominant population probably isn't even aware that there still are Indians in any meaningful sense. Reservations are viewed kinda like National Parks, with these curiosities who stand there in feathers and sell postcards and get their pictures taken for five bucks. That's their conception of Indians.

And so things like uranium mining and milling have been not just preponderantly, but absolutely, totally, completely lodged in reservation land. About two-thirds of the uranium is there, which makes it obviously sensible, but the mining is not pro-rated so that two thirds of it happens on Indian land and another third happens on non-Indian land. It's all on Indian land. Because it has the kinds of consequences that, in order to be maximally profitable, must be visited on populations and landscapes where the general population doesn't give a damn. They don't care. Well, they don't. You bring it up, they say "that's terrible" and they go right on abut their business as if nothing's happened, because it's not affecting them.

The Indians are definitely, in this hemisphere, the other. The Big "O". A sort of Sartreian, Camusian other. Might as well be from Mars for most Euro-American and, frankly, for most non-Indian people of color as well. That's changing, but it's changing very gradually and slowly.

You can take all the progressive agenda items you want, including environmentalism and ecology, OK? The movement to combat sexism, the movement to combat racism, the movement against oppressive class structures, all of it. And if in the end, you come up with a scenario in which all of those goals are suddenly realized, do you know what you end up with? You end up with a society that is still predicated fundamentally in colonialism. It would still be a colonial society because it would have been implementing these relations, however progressive they may seem on their face, on somebody else's land without their permission. You've still got an imperialist culture. You've got a culture that will reinvent all these forms you thought you just combated and destroyed. You gotta deal with the fundamental issue first and work out from there. You gotta lay a foundation for a different social order, a different social consciousness and all the rest of it. And the place to begin that, of course, is in relation to the land.

I hear Marxist and non-Marxist socialists arguing that "that's a self-serving premise" and "all the rest of it is far more important, there's vastly larger numbers of people oppressed by different sorts of social manifestation."

And I can't escape this basic premise: It's a settler state population rearranging its social order for greater profit, people looking out for themselves at the expense of those who were colonized in the first place, and avoiding the issue - in fact, denying the issue - perpetuating the oppression in the process. Willfully! It's very uncomfortable for them to acknowledge somebody else's oppression may just be, by definition, more fundamentally important than their own.

If you cannot unlock the equation of your rights to occupancy on the land, none of the other equations ultimately are going to be resolved in a positive manner. And no one's ever been able to give me a convincing response to that, rather than just saying "we don't want to deal with it."

So why are we hearing more about these local issues than we had been?

Well, partly because we've got this vast proliferation of communications here, which is a by-product of the centralization of state information. So you've got a negative that has a somewhat positive fallout.

It's not that those struggles have not been going on. They have. I could give you a litany, for example, as I said, dating back to the 1930s. You've also got a sort of incipient shift of consciousness beginning to emerge within the broader population. Partly it's because of Wounded Knee, and the emergence of what could be understood as some kind of comprehensive articulation of a militant indigenous rights agenda, in terms that could be understood by the general population rather than simply in Indian terms.

What concrete goals are part of this agenda?

To get the citizenry of the United States reconditioned to expect that its government will abide by the fundamental elements of its own law. Which would go, for our purposes, to the terms and provisions of the treaties to be honored by the United States. That's not the end of it, but it's such a monumental step in itself that I think you could see where it leads. Thirty-five percent of the lower forty-eight states was never ceded by any indigenous nation to the United States. The US has no pretense of legal title, no right of occupancy, to a third of its own claimed territory.

Now if you were to dismantle - and that's probably the only appropriate word - dismantle the United States to the extent that it lost internalized control over a third of its domestic territory and the resources therein, I think you could see that the relations of power between the central government and the oppressed sectors of its population, not just Indians, but all the oppressed sectors of its population, the glue of the social order itself would begin to dissolve and you'd have a situation of flux in which all kinds of positive social transformation - that almost everybody in the progressive movement is pushing - could be realized.

Realized. Not just approached, not just a coherent rap put together, not just some organizing done, but put into soome form of practical reality. So I'd say that that would have to be construed as goal number one. Not because we have some grandiose, abiding respect for Euro-law, but because that's a medium of discourse in which all sides haveto pay credence. It's comprehensible too the average American to some extent. They understand that there are principles of law that need to be articulated, and given that our ancestors were participants in the negotiation of the provisions that go into those treaties, we have an interest in them too.

It goes beyond land, but land is the key. Certainly you can see that there's an indigenous interest in recovering ten times the land base that is now allotted to us.

You've made comparisons on various occasions between the US and Nazi Germany.

I find it a very useful comparison to make, partly because this society has been so conditioned to view Nazism as bad. I don't argue with that. It certainly was bad. A lot of things that I think are bad people want to debate me about. That one, they usually don't.

You can make a point-by-point comparison of the policy and the motivations underlying the policy between the United States and the very government that it went to such great lengths to condemn and convict, establishing points of law. As George [H.W.] Bush would put it, "The Nuremburg Doctrine will stand." Just against Saddam Hussein, or is it applicable here as well? You can provide people with analytical tools, which allow them to see things through a less confusing lens than is usually available to them by using comparative devices like the Third Reich. You have to do it in a non-rhetorical fashion. You have to do it by pointing out the match, policy-wise, motivation-wise, results-wise. Which can be done.

Ultimately, you're left with one big difference between Germany and the United States. Germany lost; the United States won.

You happen to be an expert on one of those suspect US policies, namely the COINTELPRO and similar policies of police agencies in the United States. People here in the Bay Area are quite aware of the controversy surrounding the blowing up of Judi Bari's car, and the allegations that Richard Held, everyone's favorite FBI agent, was ultimately responsible.

Richard Held the younger. Yes.

How likely is it that the environmental movement will continue to see the kind of attention paid to it by these agencies that have been visited on AIM, the Black Panthers, the labor movement and other organizers?

It's proportionately likely to the extent to which the environmental movement renders itself tangibly threatening to the status quo, bearing the potential to seriously disrupt the order of things that it opposes. To the extent that it achieves that threatening capacity is exactly the extent to which it will be repressed in the manner in which the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement were. And Judi Bari! Because what was done in her case was entirely in character with what was done to the Panthers, to AIM. I mean, what is still being done, when you think about it, to the Panthers and to AIM. It has not stopped. The moment of its peak intensity has passed, but Geronimo Pratt is still in prison [not anymore! - ed.], they're still trying to put Dhoruba bin Wahad in prison, Rice and Poindexter are still in prison. I mean, you can name off thirty or forty Pathers who are doing life for reasons which are, to be most politic about it, extremely suspect. There's no inclination to let them out.

And the hundreds of thousands of African American men arrested as what you might call "potential Panthers."

True. Yeah, potential Panthers n the broadest, most abstract sense, you've got that social engineering going on. But what you've got going on with the Panthers is a much more surgical imposition of repression. Very precise. They know exactly who they want to take out, and why they want to take them out. Same with AIM. Peltier is still in prison. You've got a whole lot of other people who are scattered. That's a continuing thing.

The process going on with Earth First! is in that mode. In Judi Bari's case, it's precisely in that mode. The odds-on probability was, when that bomb detonated, she and Darryl Cherney would have been dead. That was the intent. There was no other way you can construe it. There's no way you can be so precise with a pipe bomb that you can blow off the doors of a car, destroy the seat, and leave the passenger and driver. Well, you cannot do that if you are an agent of the US government. You can do it if you're a member of the Red Army Fraction in Germany. They have the capacity to be that precise. But these guys are relatively low-tech. They're more like the IRA, these guys who work for the Feds.

It seems like they're not as competent as we give them credit for a lot of the time.

No, they'e not! They have a colossal imbalance of resources available to them to pursue what it is they're doing, so if they don't do it right the first time, they'll just do it ten other ways. One of them's gonna work.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 01:56 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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You mean, Ward Churchill is not a stock cartoon villain?
Excerpt: I should have known as much. When the Right plucked out a few of his more outrageous statements and waggled them in my face, my first thoughts were 1) I've never heard of Ward Churchill before, 2) those statements do not reflect my sentiments, and...
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Tracked: October 8, 2005 06:26 AM
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Comments

i am curious about what he said that you agree with, or find credible, and with what you disagree, or find incredible.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at October 7, 2005 07:00 PM
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Well, since you asked... I agree with more than I disagree with here.

I find his summation of police disruption of activists depressingly accurate. I also agree with his criticism of many activists for ignoring the colonial foundations of American society.

I suspect that the thing about "absolute latitude of action" within Indian societies is a bit of a gloss. Certainly slaves were not completely free to do as they wished, and despite the fact that many North American native cultures granted a significant amount of respect and/or political power to women, I have trouble believing that women were truly autonomous. And are we reallly saying that the Haudenosaunee, the Kwakiutl, the Hupa and the Aztecs were all libertarian environmentalists? Some of the sustainability in Native cultures almost certainly had to do with lack of access to European tech, as some - the Aztecs and Incas, for starters - certainly had the seeds of resource-extraction-based empires within them, if not the actualities.

Lastly, as much as I'd enjoy seeing the US dismantled into a collection of indigenous territories, I think Churchill is optimistic in the extreme in alleging that this would open the doors to a democratic, progressive revolution.

Who's going to get the keys to these new Native nations? The tribal councils, most likely. Some tribal councils do good work, larely as a result of progressive Native populist campaigning. But one need lok no further than the example of Leroy Jackson, the Diné eco-activist who was probably murdered for opposing loggin on the Navajo res - the proceeds of which partly went to Tribal Council coffers - to see that corporations have become very skilled indeed at finding Natives who'll be happy to do business with them.

And though Churchill has criticised movement sexists and racists in the past, and I give him credit for that, his "work on the important shit and the rest will follow" sounds suspiciously familiar.

I also found some dark humor in his statement that you can make the US-Nazi comparison in a useful, "non-rhetorical" fashion.

That said, dissecting this interview at this date is a little unfair. I have the advantage of thirteen years' persepctive on some of this stuff now, and I don't know whether Churchill would still make some of these statements.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 07:20 PM
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thanks chris. i agree that thirteen years is a long time ago and i would grant him room to change. my take is pretty close to yours. i would add that i think it is unrealistic to even speculate about disassembling the united states.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at October 8, 2005 09:19 AM
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i would add that i think it is unrealistic to even speculate about disassembling the united states.

On purpose, sure. I'm finding it increasingly likely, though, that some post-bush president will be the US's Gorbachev.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 09:33 AM
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Regarding the article, there are some errors (though at least they aren't especially egregious).

Indians attained a certain population level - which was saturation, in terms of the carrying capacity of the land, and a little less. They had discovered, bioregion by bioregion, what level of sustained human occupation the land could support without being permanently altered.

I'd say that the Indians lacked the technology to alter their environment very much - not that they "discovered ... what level of sustained human occupation the land could support without being permanently altered." Indians killed buffalo en masse. It's also important to point out that a lot of North American life went extinct about the time man (i.e. Indians) arrived on the continent. Look up the life that used to exist in North America sometime. There were camels, a type of rhino, a four-tusked mammoth, a very large pig-like creature, etc.

...you'd probably have to multiply the US population by thirty to arrive at a comparable [per capita] impact on the environment as evidenced by the Chinese population

Well, it's obvious that this was written over a decade ago. Currently, China is the second largest oil consumer, and will almost certainly surpass the US. China's energy consumption is growing seven times faster than the US.
http://www.iags.org/china.htm

Now if you were to dismantle - and that's probably the only appropriate word - dismantle the United States to the extent that it lost internalized control over a third of its domestic territory and the resources therein, I think you could see that the relations of power between the central government and the oppressed sectors of its population, not just Indians, but all the oppressed sectors of its population, the glue of the social order itself would begin to dissolve and you'd have a situation of flux in which all kinds of positive social transformation - that almost everybody in the progressive movement is pushing - could be realized.... So I'd say that that would have to be construed as goal number one.

Wow. I can't think of anything more stupid or unlikely to actually happen. But, if Ward Churchill wants to be the first to give up his home and land to the Indians (he is a 100% "white man" afterall, despite his claims that he is 1/16th Indian) more power to him. Maybe we'll be nice to him and just let him give up 15/16ths of his land.

Certainly you can see that there's an indigenous interest in recovering ten times the land base that is now allotted to us.

Us? Heh. Even if he were 1/16th Indian, he still couldn't talk about being an indian - he'd be 15/16ths "evil white man" and only 1/16th indian.

Ultimately, you're left with one big difference between [Nazi] Germany and the United States. Germany lost; the United States won.

Makes one wonder if Churchill is deliberately marginalizing himself so he can claim the role of outsider. You'll attract more flies with honey than vinegar, but all Churchill ever does is serve up vinegar and moan that people aren't responding well to him.

Posted by: BC at October 8, 2005 01:45 PM
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In among a few sensible objections, BC says:

(he is a 100% "white man" afterall, despite his claims that he is 1/16th Indian) more power to him. Maybe we'll be nice to him and just let him give up 15/16ths of his land.

This criticism of Churchill is racist at its heart. And yes, it is so even if the person making it is Native American.

The notion of "blood quantum" - that one cannot be a citizen of a native nation without having a certain amount of provable and accepted ancestry - is at its heart a genocidal notion. It was not the Indians who came up with the idea. It was an idea that was imposed upon them by those who had Indian eradication as their aim. Namely, us white folks.

These are nations we're talking about. Nations have the right to bestow citizenship in them on whomever they deem appropriate. I don't care if Churchill is one hundred percent Swede genetically, or Xhosa, or Chinese: if the Chippewas or Creeks say he's one of them, then he's one of them. Period. And it's not up to me to say otherwise, nor is it up to some Lakota who's pissed off at him over internecine politics.

Although I really ought not to say anything about that latter.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 02:00 PM
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Oh, and:

It's also important to point out that a lot of North American life went extinct about the time man (i.e. Indians) arrived on the continent. Look up the life that used to exist in North America sometime. There were camels, a type of rhino, a four-tusked mammoth, a very large pig-like creature, etc.

The above is functionally equivalent to saying that Andy Warhol and Peter Max could not have used primary colors in their work because the Lascaux cave paintings had none.

This is the ONLY context in which people expect to be taken seriously when they conflate existing cultures (the Arapaho et al) with cultures that existed 12,000 years ago. Again, it's racism pure and simple: the notion that Euro culture progressed along an upward line while other cultures remained static and stagnant for thousands of years.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 02:06 PM
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"This criticism of Churchill is racist at its heart."

I don't understand what is racist about exposing a poseur.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Churchill#Ethnicity

The above article summarizes all that I have read--he is not Native by descent or affirmation. He asserted his background at a time when it was not questioned and used it as a political platform. Bah. No Indian nation has claimed him as a member.

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at October 8, 2005 02:42 PM
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This speaks to greater issues than aboriginal.

Great post!

Comes From The Heart, Naysayers Be Damned

Posted by: Thomas Ware at October 8, 2005 05:13 PM
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He asserted his background at a time when it was not questioned and used it as a political platform. Bah. No Indian nation has claimed him as a member.

Good point, Mike: I should clarify. Pointing out that Churchill is not accepted into any Indian nation I have no problem with at all. But it astounds me when liberals hew to the blood quantum metric.

I mean, if Churchill is a fraud he ought to be exposed. But the "not a real Indian because he's 1/16th" stuff? What happens if an Osage couple decides to adopt a kid?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 07:51 PM
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Just so we don't confuse the gentle readers, let me clarify:

Native nations are sovereign and can determine their requirements for citizenship however they please. It can be by descent (% blood) or any other means the tribal council adopts.

That is completely different from a writer, or anyone else, *claiming* to be Native American based on any either measure.

Whether Churchill has reported events accurately, and whether we should consider his opinions, is separate from his ethnic background, whatever it may be. Yet a reporter's integrity is inextricably tied to the whole of his or her persona, and lacking other measures to evaluate the source, we find ourselves considering his biography.

Churchill's dissembling about his identity should not detract from his message, but sadly, it does.

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at October 8, 2005 08:20 PM
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And just to clarify the clarification I clarified up there: I agree with Mike.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 08:28 PM
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Chris, I'd offer to buy you a whiskey, a beer, or a coffee, but I hear they're all off the menu. And milk is bad, too, they say. Bottled water is an economic nightmare as well.

Hmm. What to do?

Smoke?

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at October 8, 2005 08:53 PM
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Coffee's back on the menu.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 8, 2005 09:03 PM
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All right, then. Double espresso coming right up!

(or whatever they have in Essex)

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at October 8, 2005 09:09 PM
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thanks for addressing churchill's integrity vis-a-vis his native nationality, however (or whether) acquired. I had the same thoughts. a writer who treats truth as malleable - or who appears so to do - OUGHT to have the greater portion of his work scrutinized. less than truthful in his biography, he undermines his credibility and hurts his advocacy.

any thoughts on why he did it? did his fervor carry him away or was it calculated?

Posted by: peacebug at October 9, 2005 08:19 AM
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For another perspective on the relationship of North American Indians* with the biotic environment, check out "The Ecological Indian: Myth and History" by anthropologist Shepard Krech.

* granted, "Indians" covers quite a bit of cultural diversity and some of his examples reflect economies disrupted by the presence of Europeans.

Posted by: jg at October 9, 2005 09:18 AM
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Yeah, if you head down into Mexico, and parts further south, Churchill's ideas are hardly applicable.

I'm a bit of a dilletant when it comes to Aztec history and culture, and from what I know, they did have a resource-extraction based society. They seem to have had famines rather regularly, because their population expanded so quickly. And of course, their laws were extremely strict; public drunkeness was punishable by death.

Axtually, what's ironic is that the idea that all Native groups in all of North America can be lumped together is itself a colonial idea.

Also, I don't get the idea of the blood quantum. We don't use it for anything other then determining what race people are. I mean, my great-grandmother was from the Sprig family, but I don't call myself "1/16th Sprig".

It just seems like some shit people made up so they'd know how racist to be to a given person.

Posted by: Christopher at October 12, 2005 03:03 AM
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