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Panarchists To The Rescue

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Issue: 33 Section: Opinion Topics: Indigenous

February 2, 2006

Panarchists To The Rescue

Out Of The Pan And Into The Fire

by Stewart Steinhauer

"Coming Home From Buffalo Mountain" by Stewart Steinhauer. photo: Stewart Steinhauer
This, the fourth and concluding article in a series intended to introduce the readers of The Dominion to an Indigenous perspective, has had an unintended consequence for the author of this series. The necessary research, communication and dialogue has instead introduced the author to the Canadian perspective on Indigenous issues. This introduction comes complete with the assurance that Indigenous issues are not just dead issues, but are so deeply submerged in a 500 year long campaign to eliminate Indigenous Peoples from the world stage, that bringing forward a discussion amongst the general Canadian population becomes impossible. While completely discouraged, the author intends to finish the task at hand, and so now turns to the concept of anarchism.

While interviewing Noam Chomsky, Ziga Vodovnik, an Assistant/Young Researcher in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, makes this point about anarchism:

"Ordinary people often confuse anarchism with chaos and violence, and do not know that anarchism (an archos) doesn't mean life or state of things without rules, but rather a highly organized social order, life without a ruler, "principe." Is pejorative usage of the word anarchism maybe a direct consequence of the fact that the idea that people could be free was and is extremely frightening to those in power?"

As commonly understood in Canada today, the "pejorative usage" referred to above implies that anarchy means "without order," further implying that this lack of order will naturally result in a state of chaos, random violence and wanton destruction. The wealthy and therefore powerful have invested heavily in promoting this "pejorative usage." They rule the grassroots people fearfully: the powerful have invested a lot of wealth, generated by the grassroots people, into setting back the day when these people will be free.

Before the civilizing mission from Europe reached my homelands, here on the northern prairies, my ancestors did not have a "principe." Zealous firearms/firewater traders and over-zealous Black Robes (Jesuit Missionaries), backed by the Imperial Might of Western Europe, invented the headman system for us, so that we could escape the nightmare of our highly organized social order without a ruler. Now, thank God, we have Indian Act Chiefs and Councils, responsible to and directed by the head naughty boy, himself, Mr. Minister. Under a "principe," our former orderly home and native lands, now the Rez Zone, are characterized by chaos, random violence and wanton destruction.

In my first language, nehiyawewin, fresh new words are coined, on the spot, out of pre-existing word components (morphemes), to describe something new. Listening to great orators vying with one another in public story telling contests was the theater of the pre-colonial culture. Bearing witness to brilliant minds spontaneously creating new language that tickled us at the borders of our capacity to comprehend was fireside entertainment. Aren't the sound stages created in the free spaces of the human imagination incredible?

Following humbly in the footsteps of my ancestors, although nowhere near to that caliber of linguistic inventors, I've decided to take the prefix "pan" and add it to "archy" to invent a new word that more closely describes pre-colonial horizontal organizational structures. I'm going to suggest that this transformed word, "panarchism," explains why we are surviving the largest longest running genocidal campaign in human history, and in fact, holds a kernel of hope for humanity, if humanity's sincere desire is to avoid the collective species suicide we're currently contemplating.

To gain a true understanding of panarchism's highly organized social order, you must go down the path called "spirituality." It's not an easy path to start down, because the Black Robes, and their spiritual heirs, bar that path. To explain what I mean, I'll quote a bit from Ellen Meiksins Wood's "Empire Of Capital" (Verso, 2003):

"Christianity had to be transformed from a radical Jewish sect, which opposed the temporal authority of the Roman Empire, into an ideology supportive of imperial obedience. This transformation can be traced from St Paul to St Augustine, both of them Romanized imperial subjects – one a citizen of Rome in its imperial ascendancy, the other as Bishop of Hippo who witnessed the imperial decline – and two of the most ingenious ideologues any empire has ever produced. In their hands, Christianity became not a politically rebellious sect of a tribal religion, but a universal spiritual doctrine that sought salvation in another world and rendered unto Caesar his unchallenged temporal authority.

"This transformation would not have been allowed to occur if the Roman imperial functionaries had not recognized the utility of a universal religion, the first of its kind, as an instrument of imperial order. The notion of a universal church, as distinct from the traditional local or tribal cults, which included Jewish monotheism, would probably not have emerged if the Roman Empire, itself, had not been conceived as universal, claiming to represent a universal human community."

Access to spirituality denied by order of the Pope? The panarchism I see operating every day, in the Stomach of Empire, here at Saddle Lake Last Nation, is not a "politically rebellious sect of a tribal religion". This panarchism is definitely universal, but refers more to "the universe" than to "all humans". Indigenous panarchism is rooted in our Great Mother, and hinges on the notion of our "property relations" with Mother Earth. Here's a short racialized story, featuring two fictional "races" of human beings, to try to provide a glimpse into the mysterious world of indigenous panarchistic property relations.

The Whiteman came up to The Indian, pointed at the ground, and asked, "Does this land belong to anybody?" The Indian said, "It doesn't belong to me." The Whiteman looked nervously around, saw no Real People watching, said, "Then it belongs to me," and stood back to see what would happen next. As the saying goes: "Shit happens." Centuries later, The Whiteman is still saying, "This land belongs to me." The Indian has learned to speak, think and dream in Whiteman ways; she/he opens her/his mouth and says:

"It doesn't belong to anybody, but we are sharing the use of it, and anyone else who wanders along can have a share, too. We're sharing with the sun, moon and stars, with the blue sky and the clouds, and the rain falling down, and the rivers, lakes and oceans, with the birds flying overhead, and the animals walking, hopping, and crawling around, with the insects and all of the even tinier creatures, including the ones way too small to see, and the grass, and trees, and all of the plants, as well as the earth, and the rock below…none of it belongs to us, or to any one of the entire list of beings just identified….but we all have a share. That share belongs to us, but we can't go take it. Our share is a gift to us, and comes with a responsibility. It's a reciprocal relationship; we can lose our share if we fail to reciprocate.

"Our personal share is not a commodity. It cannot be bought, sold or traded. Our share ceases to exist when separated from each one of us. The potential for our share comes into existence at the exact moment of our conception, and continues to exist until the exact moment that we slip away from this world. Our personal share is determined by the laws of harmony and balance, to each according to their need, from each according to their ability, in an interconnected web."

This four-part introduction to an Indigenous perspective was undertaken in an attempt to look for allies from amongst the general Canadian population, and, as Delegate Zero, the Zapatista subcommandante formerly known as Marcos, has pointed out, the place to look is below and to the left. Boy, nothing down here but anarchists and Marxists, and you're downright unfriendly towards the notion of spirituality, for the very good reason pointed out by Ellen Meiksins Wood, above. That makes for quite a gap between the position I am trying to articulate, and the place where you Canadians below and to the left are.

As if messing around with anarchy isn't bad enough, now I'm going to ruffle some Marxist feathers. Panarchism challenges Marx's concept of historical materialism, not to deny it, but to point out that, as anyone studying quantum mechanics will be quick to confirm, there is more to the material world than meets the eye. In fact, scientists complain that sub-atomic particle physics is completely mysterious. In order to understand the stuff of the universe, western scientists whack things apart and then watch and record what happens. Indigenous epistemology proceeds by creating a space in which we can engage directly in dialogue with so-called "things," in order to understand. We call the creation this research space "ceremony." To the western scientific mind developed by of thousands of years of a specific set of traditions, this method of research is absolutely mysterious.

Perhaps Western Civilization's insatiable lust for material objects stems from this delusionary positioning of self as objective observer, a Descartean talking head, while the indigenous methodology brings deep satisfaction from the experience of being directly involved right in the mysterious, without any need to de-construct or rationalize the experience. Indigenous ways of knowing calm fears of scarcity, like a fresh newborn human at mother's breast. More spiritual understanding brings less material need. Archeological records show that indigenous technology in my homelands was in a stable steady state for at least twelve thousand years. The recordings of the first missionaries onto the northern plains show that the folks they met living here had most of the day free to play, sing, laugh, visit, tell stories, engage in ceremony, contemplate, recreate and celebrate. Going all the way back to the 16th century, missionary writings show the Black Robes' frustration with this state of affairs, widely encountered across the territory now called Canada.

In pre-colonial Nehiyaw ceremony, we opened spiritual invocations with "mamotowsit," "the Mystery." The Black Robes convinced us to use "mamoway ohtawimaw," literally "Our Father," instead, but, no matter what words are used, indigenous Elders regularly hear the inaudible and see the invisible. Physicists' superstring theory, with its seven additional coiled up dimensions and at least two flows of time, is an acceptable explanation for the question: "Where do our spiritual grandmothers and grandfathers, whom we encounter in ceremony, come from and go back to?"

Panarchism's challenge to the notion of "rationalism," a philosophy that could be summed up as "the view that the world consists of phenomena that can be understood, reduced to basic principles, and manipulated," comes from the fact that our "grandmothers" are not rooted in human concepts of time and matter, but in Mother Earth and the mysterious universe beyond. Indigenous Peoples are not lefties in a Marxist or any other sense; perhaps Karl Marx was an incipient indigenist who had the great misfortune of being born in Europe in the 19th century.

Yes, I am typing these words on a computer. Yes, they may be broadcast on the Internet. Yes, this instantaneous capacity to exchange ideas globally is an example of historical materialism in action. However, consider this: As well as the computer and the Internet, I have the sweatlodge. In the sweatlodge I meet with my grandmothers and grandfathers. These ideas I'm trying to communicate via computers and the Internet are not my ideas. These ideas are not shaped by computers and the Internet. Rationalism meets panarchism. As one insignificant individual Indigenous being, I welcome Western Civilization's Peoples to Turtle Island.

One of the Real Indians, a little man named Gandhi, who somehow reminds me of a little Cree-Ojibwe man named the Big Bear, was asked what he thought of Western Civilization. His response was: "It might help." Now, if you'll just stop trying to destroy us, we may be able to help you with Gandhi's suggestion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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