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Earth (Arts and Literature)

Native American History, its overlaps with South Africa, and the villainous Ronald Reagan

I’ve just finished reading a book on Native American history, The Earth Shall Weep by James Wilson. The US government is not in my good books right now, and books like this don’t help! As one Amazon reviewer points out, the book does focus more on the settlers crimes, the massacres, the betrayals, rather than on Native American history before colonisation, or at times of relative peace. It makes grim reading, from the racist murderers, land-hungry colonists, legal shenanigans attempting to justify the crimes, Christian missionaries stealing children from their parents in order to ‘civilise’ them and US government deceit. After reading a particularly grim section, I could barely believe Wilson when he started the next section claiming that what he’s about to describe brought a new low to the situation. I found the historical atrocities interesting to read, reacting with an uncomplicated hopeless outrage. But the most recent history was also interesting. Being more complex it doesn’t make as ‘good’ a story, but there are interesting overlaps with the situation in South Africa. The San people here suffered similar atrocities, and the recent difficulties mirror some of the Native American experiences. A marginalised people trying to make do as a minority in a society that they do not well-understand, and are ill-equipped to face. Tensions between the ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘modernists’. (See the Sunday Independent articles San wait for a gate back to their old lands and the subscriber-only article Divisions within San community not the only factor in land fiasco.) Wilson covers these tensions within the community well, and I can only wish for some similar scholarship here, as well as some of the Native American experiences to be passed on in the local situation.

I was also struck at the role of Ronald Reagan. I seem to keep coming across the man, an example of the worst of the US government. Yesterday I read that he was an FBI spy during his time in Hollywood (in a Sunday Times article) (if Hogarth was being serious!). Today I read his idiotic comments about Native Americans in 1988, as well as his role in cutting back Pauite water rights while California governer in 1968 by ‘convicing’ a dissenting official (of course the Pauite’s had no say themselves) to withdraw his opposition by inviting him on a gambling cruise. The Pauite had been assured of first-user rights in an 1859 treaty, but like most, if not all, treaties with Native Americans, this was ignored when it became inconvenient for the US government.

Add to that Reagan’s role as bad guy in the life of one of my favourite poets and activists, Allen Ginsberg, his support for the Contras and of course, closer to home, his support for Jonas Savimbi and support for the apartheid government by viewing the ANC as terrorists.
The only thing making me look a little more positively at all of this is that it does seem things are getting better. Reagan’s atrocities were undertaken a less visibly and with less opposition than, say, Bush’s invasion of Iraq. So I hold out some hope that humanity is waking up, thanks in no small part I’m sure to the technology we’re sharing to read and write this piece.