Does North American history possess a pre- and non-, even anti-capitalist history relevant to struggles against the profits system in the United States and the world today? It does if our historical sensibilities are deep and wide enough to include the original and longstanding inhabitants of North America – those who British and other white-European settlers (conquerors) slandered as “primitive savages.” The continent’s First Nations people were highly civilized, unscathed by capitalist and other forms of class rule, and harmoniously connected to the natural environment in ways that hold critical significance for human and other living things in the current age of capitalist “geocide.” As the intrepid radical Native American author and activist Ward Churchill wrote two decades ago:
“On October 12, 1492. The day Christopher Columbus first washed up on a Caribbean beach, North America was long since endowed with an abundant and exceedingly complex cluster of civilizations. Having continuously occupied the continent for at least 50,000 years, the native inhabitants evidenced a total population of perhaps 15 million, cities as large as the 40,000-resident urban center at Cahokia (in present-day Illinois), highly advanced conceptions of architecture and engineering, spiritual traditions embodying equivalents to modern ecoscience, refined knowledge of pharmacology and holistic medicine, and highly sophisticated systems of governance, trade, and diplomacy. The traditional economies of the continent were primarily agricultural, based in environmentally sound farming procedures which originated well over half the vegetal foodstuffs now consumed by peoples the world over. By and large, the indigenous societies demonstrating such attainments were organized along extremely egalitarian lines, with real property held collectively and matrifocality a normative standard. War...in the Euro-derived sense in which the term is understood today, was unknown.” (W. Churchill, From a Native Son: Essays on Indigenism 1985-1995, South End Press, 1996, p.21, emphasis added).
Also unknown was economic inequality and poverty on anything remotely like the scale of early modern Europe, which gestated the capitalist order that would spill its surplus on North American territory including what would become the United States – a nation where the top tenth of the top One Percent currently owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
Pre-Conquest North American civilization was comprised of what Churchill described as “large-scale societies which had perfected ways of organizing themselves into psychologically fulfilling wholes, experiencing very high standards of living, and still maintaining environmental harmony…”
We know what happened to these First Nations North Americans, who had the misfortune of standing in the way of the European “settlers’” (those Churchill labelled simply as “Predator”) unsettling lust for land and natural resources. The “Indians” (absurdly so misnamed because the originally arriving “Predators” thought they had discovered “the Indes) were immediately interpreted by the invaders as inferior, subhuman interlopers in their own homeland – as animalized brutes fit for genocidal elimination and removal (this even as Predator incorporated numerous aspects of Native American culture [moccasins, canoes, and much more] and took great pride in defeating First Nations fighters in “the Indian Wars.” A lethal, mass liquidationist combination of germs, superior numbers, technology, and killing capacities – including the moral capacity to wipe out whole villages (see this for one of many examples) and nations with no more spiritual discomfort than that involved in shooting deer and coyotes – inflicted astonishing population decline on Native North America. “By 1890,” Churchill noted, “fewer than 250,000 Indians remained alive within the United States, a degree of decimation extending into the upper ninetieth percentile.” It is one of many reminders that “Western civilization” has hatched more than one Holocaust in its long bloody history.
What possible relevance could these “decimated” peoples have for the struggle against capitalism in the 21st century? Quite a bit it turns out, thanks in part to matters of geography, ecology, and history. On one hand, there is an elite corporate- and finance-managed U.S. political economy whose ruling investor and political classes are determined to achieve and sustain so-called national energy independence with highly expensive and environmentally disastrous methods of fossil fuel extraction that involve practically unfathomable toxicity and waste: mountaintop removals, strip-mining, hydraulically fractured (“fracked”) oil and gas drilling, and ever more reckless deep-water oil drilling. The system depends on the ruthless and world-wide exploitation of human labor power but it also and equally relies on the extraction of profit and value from (and the spoliation of) nature – other animals, natural resources, the land, the air, and the water. The environmental damage resulting from this great extractivist project is by now quite dangerously advanced. It has gone far and is so extreme that full-on ecosystem collapse – a lethal blow to prospects for a decent future – is an ever more imminent certainty without a radical reorientation of humanity’s patterns of interchange with nature.
On the other hand, there’s an at least partially restored Native American U.S. population (currently estimated at 5.4 million, including Alaska Natives and people more than one race), more than a fifth (22 percent, more than a million people) of whom live on one of the nation’s 326 reservations or on other federally managed “trust lands.” The reservations are spread mainly across the Northern Great Plains, the Upper Midwest, and the West (along with significant pockets in Oklahoma and the U.S. Deep South). Many of these outwardly “barren” stretches of land have long been rich in mineral resources (coal, oil, gas, copper, and uranium) cherished by the United States’ capitalists and government. The reservations are strategically placed, geographically, for resistance to capital’s endless campaign to extract and exploit natural resources – a ruinous quest that has turned back upon the U.S. “homeland” itself in the age of “national energy independence”(a curious phrase for deepened dependence on deadly fossil fuels).
The land-based reservation communities also possess distinct cultural-historical advantages in the environmentalist struggle against eco-exterminist capitalism. Their living historical connection to a cultural legacy that values holistic harmony with over the suicidal Euro-capitalist conquest of Nature (including a sense with humans themselves are at one with the natural environment) combines with their long and ongoing struggles with the U.S. corporate state over control of precious land and resources ( “cheap nature” inputs and “commodity frontiers” for profit-hungry capital but vital parts of “Mother Earth” worth of preservation for Native North Americans) to privilege them with a properly deep grasp of capitalism as something worse than just the rule of one small segment of humanity (capitalists) over another (the rest, “the 99 percent”). First Nations tribes know all too well from their experience that the profits system is a form of organized war on the world ecology we all share, on the planetary commons – the air, the water, the land, and all living things (who Indigenous activists call “our relatives”), who depend on each other and other gifts of the “Earth [who] is our Mother.”
It’s not for nothing that thousands of left and left-leaning non-native American environmentalists have flocked to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation in southern North Dakota, where militant Lakota and Dakota “water protectors” have been joined by fellow Indigenous Americans in “the largest Native American mobilization in almost 150 years.” Standing Rock is ground zero in an epic people’s struggle to block the installation of the Dakota Access Bakken Pipeline – a US$4 billion, 1134-mile project will carry 540,000 barrels of largely fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” daily on a diagonal course through, sacred North Dakota Sioux tribal sites and burial grounds, South Dakota, 18 Iowa counties, the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and many other major waterways, to Patoka, Illinois (one of countless U.S. towns named after Native North Americans “Predator” wiped out many years ago).
Environmentalists know that the Standing Rock Sioux are fighting to protect more than just their own ancestral lands and more even than the water and soil of millions of Americans – Indigenous, European, and African-American – along the great Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They know that the “pipeline fighters” are struggling to save humanity and life itself from the ravages of “anthropogenic” – really capitalogenic – global warming (CGW). Many of them sense also that, to quote Churchill, “the bodies of Indigenous knowledge evidenced in Native North America at the point of European invasion” provide a “model…from which a genuinely liberating and sustainable alternative can be cast for all humanity.”The goal is not an impossible “recreat[ion of] Indigenous societies as they once were” but to preserve and expand the deep ecological wisdom of those societies – wisdom whose warnings have been born out beyond wildest imagination and eco-dystopian nightmares by CGW and other environmental disasters generated by the predations of capital.
“In a very real sense,” Churchill reflected two decades ago, “the fate of Native America signifies the state of the planet” (From a Native Son, 31). These words wing truer than ever today, as the scientific and experiential evidence of impending environmental catastrophe hits critical mass and blind, carbon-addicted capitalism has upped the fossil fuels ante to the final degree.
Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa, where civil disobedience is underway against the Bakken Pipeline.