Hey folks! Shane and I wrote something for the Conversation a couple of weeks ago for Indigenous People’s Day.
This was a difficult kid to give birth too. We originally had a ~6,000 word essay looking at how there is a massive split in the American Dream as an Ideal and the American Dream as Practice, with one oriented towards things like justice, equality, freedom and the other generally deploying things like murder, rape, theft, and general lies and self-ish behavior to allow one group of people to acquire the ideals of the Dream at the expense of another group of people. Over the course of edits with the editors at the Conversation (which was a great experience for the most part) and massive cuts and reorganizations aimed at getting this down to 1200 words a lot of these important discussions were lost. Or minimized. Which was unavoidable since this is really about 5 books worth of writing needed to cover the 5,000 years we focus on.
Some of the goals for the piece that we had that we believed were important, included indicating that Indigenous history can be fundamentally important for changing contemporary political conversations and another of which is that there is a group of Americans with an incredible history who are routinely ignored, treated as non-existent, or worse threatened when they dare to express outrage at their historic and contemporary treatment.
Some small things were changed during edits (The Conversation doesn’t use a track changes style of editing software) that I missed, as well, and didn’t notice until a 50th read through after publication. Small things with huge impacts, like the sentence “archaeologists have long known…” that used to read “Indigenous knowledge-holders and scholars as well as historians and archaeologists have long known . . . ” As a comrade, I thought the second was necessary, but there is some clear academic privilege of my own that allowed the edits to slip through unnoticed. Anyways, this isn’t totally what Shane and I were hoping for. I’m going to write a blog post about the whole process, I think, but I’m also not horrified by the outcome. We geared it towards non-academics outside of Indigenous communities to try and get them to think more deeply on what the American Dream is, how they were able to get to where they are at socially and economically through their own and their ancestor’s actions, and whether there are alternative ways of being and organizing that might help to deal with some of the rampant issues of cultural and economic inequality we are dealing with in our lives. I think that middle goal was lost during our many rewrites. Anyways, clearly I’m conflicted about this. I’ll post the Conversation piece below (which made the front page of the Global edition!). Underneath that, I’ll put our response to many of the critiques, or at least the ones posted as of this writing. If anyone wants to see an early version, let me know and I can post that also.
When President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the 2012 program that offered undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children a path into society, for a moment the ideals of the American Dream seemed, at least for this group, real.
We call these kids (many of whom are now adults) “Dreamers,” because they are chasing the American Dream – a national aspiration for upward economic mobility built on physical mobility. Fulfilling your dreams often means following them wherever they may lead – even into another country.
But the notion underlying both the DACA repeal and the wall – which is that “illegal” immigrants, most of them from Mexico, are stealing U.S. jobs and hurting society – reflects a profound misunderstanding of American history.
On Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s worth underscoring something that many archaeologists know: many of the values that inspire the American Dream – liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness – date back to well before the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border and before freedom-seeking Pilgrim immigrants arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. They originate with native North Americans.
A Native American dream
The modern rendition of the American Dream can be traced back to 1774, when Virginia’s governor, John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore, wrote that even if Americans “attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.”
The actual term “American Dream” was popularized in 1931 by the businessman and historian James Truslow Adams. For him, its realization depended on not just being able to better oneself but also, through movement and human interaction, seeing your neighbors bettered as well.
The first peoples to come to the Americas also came in search of a better life. That happened 14,000 years ago in the last Ice Age when nomadic pioneers, ancestors to modern Native Americans and First Nations, arrived from the Asian continent and roamed freely throughout what now comprises Canada, the United States and Mexico. Chasing mammoth, ancient bison and the elephant-like Gomphothere, they moved constantly to secure the health of their communities.
A more recent example of the power of migration reappears about 5,000 years ago, when a large group of people from what is today central Mexico spread into the American Southwest and farther north, settling as far up as western North America. With them they brought corn, which now drives a significant part of the American economy, and a way of speaking that birthed over 30 of the 169 contemporary indigenous languages still spoken in the United States today.
This globalist world view was alive and well 700 years ago as well when people from what is now northern Arizona fled a decades-long drought and rising authoritarianism under religious leaders. Many migrated hundreds of miles south to southern Arizona, joining the Hohokam (ancestors to modern O’odham nations) who had long thrived in the harsh Sonoran desert by irrigating vast fields of agave, corn, squash, beans and cotton.
When the northern migrants arrived to this hot stretch of land around the then-nonexistent U.S.-Mexico frontier, Hohokam religious and political life was controlled by a handful of elites. Social mechanisms restricting the accumulation of power by individuals had slowly broken down.
For decades after their arrival, migrants and locals interacted. From that exchange, a Hohokam cultural revolution grew. Together, the two communities created a commoners’ religious social movement that archaeologists call Salado, which featured a feasting practice that invited all village members to participate.
As ever more communities adopted this equitable tradition, political power – which at the time was embedded in religious power – became more equally spread through society. Elites lost their control and, eventually, abandoned their temples.
America’s egalitarian mound-builders
The Hohokam tale unearths another vaunted American ideal that originates in indigenous history: equality. Long before it was codified in the Declaration of Independence, equality was enacted through the building of large mounds.
Massive earthen structures like these are often acts of highly hierarchical societies – think of the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, constructed by masses of laborers as the final resting place of powerful pharaohs, or those of the rigid, empire-building Aztecs.
But great power isn’t always top-down. Poverty Point, in the lower Mississippi River Valley of what’s now Louisiana, is a good example. This massive site, which consists of five mounds, six concentric semi-elliptical ridges and a central plaza, was built some 4,000 years ago by hunter-fisher-gatherers with little entrenched hierarchy.
Originally, archaeologists believed that such societies without the inequality and authoritarianism that defined the ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Aztec empires could not have constructed something so significant – and, if so, only over decades or centuries.
But excavations in the last 20 years have revealed that large sections of Poverty Point were actually constructed in only a few months. These Native Americans organized in groups to undertake massive projects as a communal cooperative, leaving a built legacy of equality across America’s landscape.
The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, offer a more modern example of such consensus-based decision-making practices.
These peoples – who’ve lived on both sides of the St. Lawrence river in modern-day Ontario and the U.S. Great Lakes states for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – built their society on collective labor arrangements.
They ostracized people who exhibited “selfish” behavior, and women and men often worked together in large groups. Everyone lived together in communal longhouses. Power was also shifted constantly to prevent hierarchy from forming, and decisions were made by coalitions of kin groups and communities. Many of these participatory political practices continue to this day.
The Haudenosaunee sided with the British during the 1776 American Revolution and were largely driven off their land after the war. Like many native populations, the Haudenosaunee Dream turned into a nightmare of invasion, plague and genocide as European migrants pursued their American Dream that excluded others.
Native Americans at Standing Rock
The long indigenous history of rejecting authoritarianism continues today, including the 2016 battle for environmental justice at Standing Rock, South Dakota.
The movement centered on an environmental cause in part because nature is sacred to the Lakota (and many other indigenous communities), but also because communities of color often bear the brunt of economic and urban development decisions. This was the indigenous fight against repression and for the American Dream, gone 21st century.
Redefining the North American dream
Anthropologists and historians haven’t always recognized the quintessentially Native American ideals present in the American Dream.
In the early 19th century, the prominent social philosopher Lewis Henry Morgan called the Native Americans he studied “savages.” And for centuries, America’s native peoples have seen their cultural heritage attributed to seemingly everyone but their ancestors – even to an invented “lost” white race.
But the ideals of freedom and equality – and the right that Americans can move across this vast continent to seek it out – survive through the millennia. Societies based on those values have prospered here.
So the next time a politician invokes American values to promote a policy of closed bordersor selfish individualism, remember who originally espoused the American Dream – and first sought to live it, too.
Shane and my comments to critiques:
First off, we want to thank everyone for their comments and we’re happy this has started a conversation. We, of course, appreciate those who understood and agreed with our argument, but we also value the discourse that has arisen from those who do not agree with us. There are a number of different critiques, so we’ll sort of break each down briefly. Some, we realize, are supposed to be insults, but are actual high praise when you deconstruct what they mean. For instance, one of the commenters clearly meant to insult us by calling this a typical academic argument (many academics would disagree with our statements, by the way). But since most academic arguments are built on rigorous empirical and historical analysis, we appreciate the complement. #backhandedcomplimentsarecomplimentstoo
- Critique: Dream evolved with the Europeans.
Response: The point of the article is to demonstrate that liberal globalism (ie freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equality regardless of where you are from) is not uniquely an invention of the US, nor of “Western” society, but that similar ideas existed in the Americas prior to arrival of Europeans. On top of that, the American Dream that emerged out of the “Western” tradition of liberalism (and in the US, liberalism is fundamentally embedded within both the Democratic and Republican parties) was more likely to be put in to practice at the expense of another group of people (i.e. freedom, liberty, and equality for some).
- Critique: There was outside money involved in the Sacred Stone camp and the NoDAPL protests.
Response: This, of course, has nothing to do with the point of the article and doesn’t change the fact that the Dakota Access Pipeline emerged from the actions of a horizontally organized youth group. But, yes, many people were donating supplies to the protestors. There is no evidence of a conspiracy to fund protestors if that is what is being implied.
- Critique: No indigenous humans in the Americas
Response: This, of course, has nothing to do with the discussion in the article. However, this is a particularly common response that is problematic because it is frequently used to justify non-Indigenous decisions that negatively impact Indigenous groups. Folks who argue this also often argue that history is apolitical, etc. It is also purposely obtuse and pedantic to say that the only Indigenous people in the world have to be from where homo sapiens first evolved. This type of comment is also often used to justify social violence on Indigenous communities by governments, and sadly, academic researchers. So yes, there are many Indigenous groups in the Americas.
- Critique: There was no group membership in the past (i.e. group “uniqueness”)
Response: This is neither true within contemporary tribal communities, nor is it correct in archaeological or historic data. One significant component that should be addressed is that, as with many groups, identity is a shifting, intersecting, scalar issue. For many Indigenous members of the US and Canada, identity is not often thought of as tribe first, for instance, if you talk to a Hopi and ask them who they are, they will likely first say clan. If pressed further, or in different social and spatial contexts, they may then say their village, then their mesa, then Hopi. If you ask them who they are while at a meeting together in Chicago, they’ll likely just say Hopi. It’s the same in non-Indigenous cultures. Lewis is originally from Wisconsin, lived in the SW for 15 years, and is now in the Netherlands. When people in Europe ask him who he is, he usually says he’s from the US. When someone from the US asks him who he is, he usually says he’s from the American Southwest. When another archaeologist asks him who he is, he says he’s a Southwestern archaeologist. When his daughters ask him who he is, he says, “Dadda.” There is always, and has always been, group membership. But how we define that shifts within cultural contexts.
- Critique: Missing nautical travel, Hawaiians, and Pacific Northwest Indigenous groups.
Response: We definitely are. And thank you for pointing that out. Sadly, there was not enough space to incorporate all of the relevant groups within this discussion. But those groups, coastal California groups, groups in the Arctic, and Caribbean groups would definitely fit well within this discussion.
- Critique: Sanitized version of history and prehistory
Response: First, there is no human prehistory, at least not as long as we have archaeological evidence for human activity. As for sanitizing history, if what you mean is oversimplified, then yes, it was hard to incorporate the infinite levels of detail necessary to do justice to multiple different regions and 14,000 years of history. If you do mean sanitized, I’m not sure how discussing revolutions, violence, conflict, and slavery amongst Indigenous groups in the Americas is sanitized. Could we have focused on the rise of inequality and the violence surrounding that instead of on ways that groups enacted equitable practices? Yes, but that would be a different article. One that has been frequently written. Do we think our argument is damaged by incorporating the “dirtiness” of history? No. Not at all. Again, this was a simplification to get 14,000 years of history into 1200 words.
- Critique: Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous groups in the Americas were just as brutal and violent.
Response: We have a number of responses to this (in fact, we could write a book on it and it’s possible one of us is). We’ll break them apart briefly here:
This isn’t something we discuss in the article, and if non-state groups in the Americas were as violent as state groups in the contemporary world (or that invaded the Americas), this wouldn’t change the nature of our argument, either. People are incredibly complicated and can exhibit dualities. As we note in the article, violence existed prior to the arrival of Europeans, but that doesn’t change general trends in society (i.e. more concerned with limiting the ability of individuals to control other people versus celebrating it).
This is also an old critique and first was popularized in “Western” thought with a guy named Hobbes. Hobbes later had a cartoon stuffed tiger named after him, but that doesn’t change the fact that his argument, in his book Leviathan, was that people in non-state societies lived in “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His argument is fundamentally situated within the Enlightenment’s views of “the state” as the supreme apex of civilization. It is also wrong. In archaeology we often study how people respond in contexts of perpetual fear of violence. It leaves very distinct signatures in how people build, in where they build, it what artifacts they make. Anyways, it’s categorically not true (neither is the extreme inverse). Hobbes argument is problematic on a number of levels, though.
1) Violence is often used to limit the ability of individuals and/or groups to control others. So, if freedom and equity are some of the founding principles of your society, then sometimes violence occurs to limit those trying to take it away. We see this regularly in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. This sort of violence decreases dramatically within states, because violence becomes regulated. Only state sponsored acts can occur (i.e. police, military, etc.). Anything happening outside of those regulations will be punished.
2) There are mixed results from studies looking at the level of the advent of states. The first critiques of the myth of the Noble Savage (which was popularized in French literature and philosophy in the 1600s and 1700s) that were rolled out empirically in archaeology in the 1990s successfully demonstrated that American Indigenous individuals and groups can be as violent as state level societies on a per capita level, often more so. Again this is per capita, not total numbers. The most popular book to come out of the champions of this view was written by Larry Keeley (although there are many others). And he was right. He was also wrong on a lot of things. I’m not sure that 1 out of 10 (1 person = 10% per capita) dying in a raid is more violent than 3 to 3.7% of the worldwide population that died during World War 2 (70-85 million), but that is the gist of their argument. Fundamentally, it was pushed to stop dehumanizing past peoples and reducing horrible instances of fear and brutality to “ritual” or “ineffective” combat/warfare. That’s besides the point, though, what is the point is that many of these researchers who push the idea that past warfare was more damaging, per capita, than modern warfare focus on warfare instead of more commonly on violence. While Keeley’s actual results are still contested (there is a new paper out in Current Anthropology that reiterates some of my points here and has been written up for the public in Science News on October 20th), it is clear that the total per capita fatalies decreased with the advent of states (this may have happened anyways without states and may be a natural expression of numeric chances). But, again, this argument is built specifically on warfare and doesn’t include dramatic increases in other types of person on person violence. Things like domestic violence (which we know increased under state political organizations), state sanctioned violence like executions, prison sentences. Long story longer, life in the contemporary U.S., Canada, and Mexico, for many marginalized communities, is nasty, brutish, short and full of the perpetual fear of violent death. To be clear on who we are critiquing with that last sentence, it isn’t the marginalized communities.
o Critique: Communalism and Communism are the same.
Response: They aren’t.
o Critique: Tribes were homogenous before the arrival of the Europeans
Response: This is demonstrably false, both empirically and historically. Since we’ve used Hopi already, we’ll draw on their history as an example again. Each Hopi clan has a separate migration story that incorporates centuries, if not millennia, of movement throughout the Southwest, and sometimes farther afield. This has been demonstrated through Hopi historical practices (i.e. oral traditions and tribal knowledge) and archaeological research. In fact, many Indigenous groups in North America, even though identity has become politicized with firm cultural boundaries drawn in recent centuries by the Canadian, Mexican, and US governments, were very heterogeneous with individuals and households having diverse histories (if not in the immediate past, then definitely in the deep past).
o Critique: No mention of Solutreans in the Americas.
Response: It’s true. We don’t. The archaeological data, at this time, does not support that hypothesis. Neither does the genetic data. It also isn’t relevant to this article.
o Critique: 90% of Indigenous groups in the Americas were wiped out by European disease.
Response: While we do mention the impact of plague and genocide on the one period and region we discuss that overlaps with the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, the presence of European diseases doesn’t really impact our argument that liberal globalism was much more effectively deployed (in general) through many Indigenous societies than it was, and is, within the Western state. That being said, we’re already here so . . . since the actual numbers of Indigenous groups present in the Americas varies widely between researchers who attempt to reconstruct what North American demography looked like just prior to the arrival of Europeans, it is difficult to come up with an actual percentage of Native Americans that were killed by European diseases. It is also very important to recognize that Europeans weren’t only accidentally complicit in these genocidal activities and that many times they choose to commit genocide, both through acts of physical violence (i.e. with weapons) and by purposely infecting populations with diseases they knew would wipe them out. The fact that many Indigenous groups still exist with incredibly vibrant cultures and societies in the face of these atrocities speaks to strong underlying community and intra-group, sometimes even inter-group, equitable practices common in many Indigenous cultural practices in North America. Our argument as drawn out in the case studies is that this may not be true always at specific points in time, but through time, periods of inequality, particularly in what would become the U.S. and Canada, were frequently contested and overcome.
One of our goals was to demonstrate that there is a creative persistence in the humanism underlying many Indigenous societies in North America that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans and continues to exist. Of course humans are humans, but human societies work within cultural rules and beliefs that can be written, unwritten, or both. Our main argument, that one of the reasons so many groups practiced forms of equitable rule and that so many instances of transitions into inequality and hierarchy were violently torn down or walked away from, is because the view of individuals as members of a social compact was (and is) often sacrosanct and much more strongly embedded in many North American Indigenous societies than it is in many other societies that allowed states to flourish at the expense of liberty and happiness for all members of society. Migration, which created these heterogeneous and cosmopolitan Indigenous societies prior to the arrival of Europeans, was a huge driver of this success and a recognizable indicator of this globalist impulse through time.
Okay. That is a lot of words for one blog post, but I thought this would be informative for anyone interested in the topic we wrote about as well as any scholars (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) interested in taking their research out to a broader, diverse audience that doesn’t share your views and can be a bit caustic and dismissive in their disagreement. Not that researchers should be surprised by that. It’s just Reviewer 3, multiplied by a few hundred voices.