Around 4:00am on a Saturday morning I arrive with my companions at Ya-Ka-Ama—a former U.S. military installation in Northern California’s Sonoma county that was occupied and reclaimed by native activists back in the 1970s. It now serves as a community center, offering education, resources, and ceremonial spaces for indigenous people. On site there is an inipi—a purification lodge, commonly called a sweat lodge, one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota that has become a ritual common to the native diaspora, across tribal boundaries. At the back of the property there’s an arbor that hosts pow-wows, community events, and dances for the various regional tribes. The name, Ya-Ka-Ama, means “Our Land” in the Pomo language.
Ya-Ka-Ama is located in the city of Guerneville, about seventy miles north from where I live in East Oakland. This region was once home to forests of redwood, cedar, and oak; most of them were murdered to make room for European invaders, concrete, and wineries. “Winery,” for those who don’t know, comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “water vampire.”
Okay, so I made that last part up. But it might as well be true.
In the lingering night of this early hour we’re spared the sight of the water vampires, but we can see a whole lot more stars in the sky than are visible from the streets of Oakland. We’ve come to perform the sacred duty of keeping fire for the sweat—we offer tobacco and prayer, pile up stones of volcanic rock, surround the pile with oak and redwood logs from fallen trees, then light it up. We refer to the stones as grandfathers, because they are our oldest relatives. The fire will wake them up; in the lodge, with the water, they will doctor us with their heat.
The ceremony begins at sunrise. Other people trickle in, until a dozen or so folks are waiting around the fire. Just before the sun comes up, the elder who will pour water for the lodge arrives with his wife. Both of them are veterans of the Sundance—another of the Lakota rites that has become a kind of pan-native renewal ceremony in which people from many different nations participate.
Almost everyone who is present at the lodge this morning serves their people in some capacity—as educators, mentors, community organizers and activists, spiritual advisors, and artists. Many of them are from local tribes. Some of them are former outlaws and convicts. All of us are at least part-native; this is a closed altar, meaning the ceremony is for natives only. The altar was a gift to our sweat leader from Spotted Thunder, a Lakota holy man and heyoka who recently left us to join the ancestors.
In the darkness of the lodge, there will be songs, drumming, words of wisdom, visions, tears, and laughter. There will be healing. Spirits of the land, the sky, and departed family will visit and offer counsel and support.
Most of the people who will read this are probably not indigenous. Perhaps reading it will fill you with romantic notions of pure and noble savages. If you’re (over)educated, perhaps you will categorize it in terminology developed by European anthropology and sociology, or whimsically compare it to various other world philosophies. If you’re religious, you might experience warm feelings about the beauteous variety of ways that human beings “worship.” If you’re a Rationalist Leftist, you may regard it as a quaint example of folk culture—cute, but basically a bunch of primitive, superstitious nonsense.
All of those perspectives are bullshit. All of them are part of the problem.
I’ve always hated the term “Native American.” It makes it sound like this was always “America,” and we just happened to be here—wasting perfectly good land that was just waiting to be developed into oblivion. The term is racist, colonialist, and—worst of all—it’s a shamefully milquetoast attempt by the liberoid column of imperial extermination to slather a gloss of “cultural respect” over one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the human species.
I once overheard the sweat leader telling a story about an interaction he’d had with a white woman who referred to him as “Native American.” He immediately corrected her: “I am of the Original People of this land. I’m Wailaki and Kashaian. I’m not American.”
Several years ago I was briefly employed as part of the Non-Profit Activism Industrial Complex. My former boss, a black man from a San Francisco ghetto, once asked me what I thought it would take to end systemic racism. Having thought about the subject for many years, I immediately responded: The total collapse of industrial civilization. I think he thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
From a purely technical standpoint, I’m confident that humans could voluntarily dismantle the Machine before global warming kills everyone. However, I also think the chances of that happening are somewhat less than the chances of Hell freezing over.
It’s impossible to talk about a practical plan for ending the cybernetic imperium without sounding like a Bond villain. I’ll leave that to Derrick Jensen.
Systemic racism is exactly that—a system. There is no Capitalocracy, and no America, without the enforced oppression and impoverishment of blacks. We’re not part of the “nation of immigrants”; we were kidnapped by European invaders and brought here so they could make money off our bodies… which they never stopped doing. Even a cursory glance into the histories of sports, music, law enforcement, and the prison industrial complex makes that point painfully clear.
Black people are Americans… but not really. How could we possibly be genuine citizens when, as a group, we’re dirt-ass poor, riddled with communal trauma and dysfunction, and we make up the bulk of the prison population? A combination of destitution and felony convictions is the quickest way to lose or nullify even the most basic advantages of citizenship. We’re a collection of peoples who became a single people… in the cargo hold. We are lost in time and space; we’re not on the land of our ancestors, and most of our indigenous culture was stripped from us, becoming a thing of the forgotten past.
Back in 2002 I spent a summer studying abroad in Shanghai, China. There’s nothing quite like being in a foreign country to offer some crucial perspective on one’s homeland. One day I took a trip with some classmates to Suzhou, about an hour’s train ride from Shanghai. It was unbearably hot. Several merchants were selling almost-cold beverages out of push-carts. We stopped at one and spent some time talking with the merchant, an old man. He was astonished that we spoke Mandarin. He’d never met any foreigners who did. He singled me out of the crowd and asked me where I was from. I told him I was American. He didn’t believe me, and I was unable to convince him—he kept saying, over and over, that I was not American.
See that? Even a fucking drink cart merchant on the other side of the planet knows that “American” means “white.”
For black and indigenous people, Americanness is something that was done to us—an ongoing atrocity. We are its fuel; how could we be its members?
I have a friend who looks white but has quite a bit of native blood. She refuses to “identify” as native because she grew up without any lived exposure to native ways, ceremonies, or culture. That’s a decision I deeply respect; after all, nativeness as a matter of blood quantum is a sinister European construct. Recently she and I were having a conversation about whiteness, and she said: “One of the fundamental aspects of whiteness—possibly the defining aspect—is the conviction that no matter what, we’re the ones who know what’s best for everyone.”
Those words perfectly summarized the sentiments that arise for me whenever I immerse myself in the writings of white leftists. I sometimes find myself wondering if the dictatorship of the proletariat would tear up all the asphalt and get rid of all the factories. Would cyborgs ever voluntarily destroy their prostheses? I have my doubts.
I once got in an argument with a random doofus on Zuckerbook that started off being about voting (specifically, why I don’t vote). At some point I made a reference to indigenous cultures and their relationship with the earth, and he responded by saying that indigenous cultures were not “better” than any other culture. By that time I was unwilling to paint myself the fool by continuing to argue with one, so I didn’t respond. However, I continued arguing with him in my head, as I often do.
I was irritated at his immediate defensiveness; I never said anything about indigenous cultures being “better” than other cultures…
But let’s explore the topic.
An evaluation of what is better or worse in regard to a given subject depends on your criteria. Some cultures have values, beliefs, and a social organization that enable them to live in a balanced relationship with their landbases, more or less forever. Other cultures have values, beliefs, and a social organization that drive them to murder their landbases. Since this is the only earth we have and I’d like us to continue being able to live on it, I’ll go ahead and say that the first type of culture is better.
However, such a culture only becomes “indigenous” relative to foreign visitors or invaders. Up to that point, it’s just culture. So, in a way, the doofus was partially correct.
Looking beyond the particularities of various human societies through time, there are basically only two kinds of cultures—the Circle and the Pyramid.
People of Circle cultures experience themselves as part of a connected, living world. They have social structures where power is diffused and fluid; everyone has some power, but nobody has too much. There are circles within the circle, different groups that have authority or influence over different aspects of life. People in these cultures recognize their familial relationship with the rest of the living world, and therefore their responsibilities to it. They live as part of the land. They experience their humanity holistically, incorporating dreams, visions, the spirit world, and the teachings of their non-human relatives. They have customs, traditions, and narratives that serve to prevent the concentration of power.
Pyramid cultures, which transform human society into one giant BDSM fetish cult, are created and maintained by systematic atrocities—slavery, human sacrifice, imperial warfare, environmental murder, and genocide. We call this system “civilization.” (Between you and me, I think it’s some kind of alien mind-virus. Or maybe a weapon.)
When most folks talk about the Turtle Island Holocaust, they tend to make two glaring omissions. First, they rarely mention the countless non-humans who were exterminated. Native cultures regard those beings as family—nations unto themselves—but, to invaders, they don’t count. Second, people talk as if this genocide was something that happened a long time ago—oops, our bad, good thing that’s all over, let’s move on.
Few non-natives are aware of the extent to which this holocaust is still happening. That’s if they’re willing to acknowledge it at all; many white people exempt themselves and their ancestors from responsibility because most of the native human population died from foreign diseases—oops, our bad, guess those savages just weren’t strong enough to resist our mighty European germs.
As if the invaders didn’t know their diseases were killing us. As if they didn’t use their diseases purposely, strategically. Biological warfare is still warfare.
Occasionally someone will ask me what my politics are. I have a simple answer: Take back our land! And by “our,” I don’t just mean humans; I mean everyone—the Four-Legged Nations, the Bird Nations, the Tree Nations, the Grassland, Desert, and Mountain Nations.
Then, maybe, we can all begin to recover.