Below is a segment of an essay produced in preparation for an invited lecture on indigenous issues and global justice at Stetson University. (2009)
New Frontiers for Indigenous Issues
By Jennifer Lawson
In 2008 Brazilian tribes made headlines throughout the United States in two news pieces. The first widely discussed story featured aerial photographs released by the Brazilian government of allegedly uncontacted tribes living in grass-roofed huts, wearing red body paint and wielding bows and arrows. The Brazilian government released these photographs along with a story about how loggers were illegally entering tribal territory, damaging the environment, creating conflict, and endangering tribal people with very little immunity to easily transmittable illnesses. The second story was the result of a campaign by the United States-based missionary group, Youth With a Mission, to raise awareness of infanticide practiced by some Brazilian tribes and the Brazilian government’s unwillingness to put a stop to this practice.
First Nations tribes in Canada garnered wide attention when on June 11, 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper issued a formal apology to native people for government residential schools that aimed to forcibly assimilate native people. Tibetan people and their relationship with China, too, received massive news coverage leading up to and during the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing.
Around the same time, two short books, Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear, and On Rage by Germaine Greer, appeared in the academic world. Radical Hope, an analysis of what happens when a culture breaks down and a prescription of what people ought to do in the midst of cultural breakdown, focused on Crow culture during the late 1800’s and presented Plenty Coups, chief of the Crows, as a virtuous role model. Greer’s On Rage analyzed the breakdown of aboriginal culture in Australia and presented the thesis that cultural breakdown is the cause of the high rates of violence, poverty and general poor living conditions of aboriginal people.
In the academic community and the global community, the issues indigenous people face and the ethical and political concerns surrounding these issues are debated and discussed. The unique situations confronting indigenous people and the complex dilemmas these situations raise are appropriately the concern of world citizens. Yet the relevant analyses put forth and solutions proposed are often lacking in theoretical finesse and practical application. In this work I will analyze the major ethical and political issues surrounding indigenous people today. I will focus mostly on the indigenous people of the western hemisphere, particularly North America, but in most cases my analyses can be applied to indigenous people outside the western hemisphere, for although they are separated by continents and oceans, indigenous people worldwide face common challenges.
In section One I discuss the distinction between cultural entities and political entities and explain why this distinction is crucial to understanding indigenous ethical and political dilemmas. In section Two I discuss the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In section Three I argue that, contrary to how indigenous issues are usually framed, they are not very different from issues of non-indigenous people and that liberal political theory and attention to autonomy is helpful to sort through indigenous issues today.
SECTION ONE-POLITICAL ENITIES AND CULTURAL ENTITIES
When the news of uncontacted Brazilian tribes broke in the United States, the news reports invited debates that are well-known to philosophers. Journalists and reporters debated whether ‘we should leave them alone’ and whether it is good to preserve their culture by leaving them untouched by the outside world. Despite the fact that most tribes in South America have already had contact with people of European origin, and that tribes who move further into the Amazon rain forest for seclusion often do so because they have been victims of violence, murder and pillaging by loggers and others, these important facts weren’t the center of discussion. The issue instead became whether this small cultural group in the Amazon rain forest should be isolated from the rest of the world and whether such seclusion, for purposes of not destroying their culture, is good.
Similarly, Lear’s Radical Hope and Greer’s On Rage took tribes to be primarily cultural entities. Radical Hope, a book of philosophical anthropology, ethics and moral psychology, argued that the real losses the Crows experienced when the buffalo were killed on the North American plains and Crow people were forced to live on the reservation were cultural losses—the loss of culturally embedded practices and culturally embedded thick concepts. Lear argued that all human beings, in virtue of being cultural animals, are vulnerable in exactly the same way the Crows were and he offered Plenty Coups, chief of the Crows during the reservation era, as a role model during times of cultural breakdown.
Greer’s On Rage argued that cultural losses played a causal and psychological role in the contemporary poor state of aboriginal people. The historic role men played in aboriginal culture, Greer argued, had been lost due to Australian interventionist policies. Aboriginal men were no longer heads of household, were no longer respected ‘breadwinners’ and were devalued, implicitly or explicitly, by Australia. As a result, according to Greer, aboriginal men took on what may be thought of as a neurosis; they became enraged and acted this rage out in various ways—taking up alcohol and drug addictions, becoming violent and abusive. The cure for this rage, argued Greer, is to encourage the restoration of previous aboriginal cultural practices and to take a hands-off approach with respect to aboriginal tribes. Thus, Greer concluded, Australia should not interfere in aboriginal affairs and further destroy aboriginal culture.
When most people today think about indigenous villages or tribes, they imagine these groups as cultural entities—groups with distinct practices, languages, dress, codes, kinship arrangements and other unique structural formations. Thus, popular and academic debates are then framed in terms of multiculturalism and justice internal to a nation-state, since the object of interest—the tribe—appears to be a cultural group, usually within a larger political entity.
Yet in most cases, indigenous groups are political entities—entities which control, regulate, protect and serve, with various degrees of legalism, their members and which interact with other political entities, nation-states among them, on a global scale. In the case of Tibet, this point is usually brought to the fore. Arguments about Chinese occupation of Tibet assume that both China and Tibet are political entities, and criticizing China’s actions typically presupposes that China has unjustly entered and occupied a sovereign political community. However, in the majority of cases, such as that of Brazilian tribes, Australian tribes, Canadian tribes, American Indian tribes and Alaska Native tribes, the fact that these communities have political autonomy and are not mere cultural entities is usually missing from the discussion.
A cultural group, to the extent it is easily identifiable and distinguished from other cultural groups, may sprawl political boundaries. That is, a collection of political entities may be encompassed by a single cultural group. The Crows are an example of this. Crow culture in the late 1800’s wasn’t easily distinguished from other plains tribes. The Crows, the Sioux and other tribes in the region wore similar clothing, ate similar foods, considered many of the same substances to be food (where understanding something as food is a cultural practice—in most cultures, not everything edible is considered food and in some cultures things that are toxic or indigestible to humans are considered food), had similar economic practices, lived in similar dwellings, organized their communities and families alike, and so on.
What distinguished the Crows from the Sioux in the late 1800’s—and, by and large, what distinguishes them today—is political organization, autonomy and authority. The Crows and the Sioux each had independent political decision making procedures and structures. Crow and Sioux leaders would each meet with other political leaders in the region to discuss common concerns, challenges and goals. The Crows and the Sioux would each decide when to go to war and whether going to war in some particular case was justified and good. The Crows and the Sioux each entered into treaty agreements with the United States. So, while the Crows and Sioux were distinct political entities, they shared, to a large degree, a common culture.
Likewise, a cultural group may exist among other cultural groups within one political entity. This has been the subject of much discussion in the current era, in which large political communities allow immigrants and may (or may not) subject immigrants to various forms of assimilation. To what degree assimilation is in fact required in modern nation-states is not the issue here. The issue is, rather, to understand that a political entity may conceivably be organized such that very little assimilation would be required of immigrants from different cultures. In such a case, the result would be an empirical instance of a single political entity with plural cultural groups inside it.
Bringing out the distinction between political and cultural entities aides us in thinking more clearly about ethical and political dilemmas with regard to indigenous peoples. I shall demonstrate this below using two cases. The first case is the issue of Brazilian tribes and infanticide. The second case is the issue of membership in an American Indian tribe.
In the case of infanticide committed by Brazilian tribes, the debate has been framed in terms of protecting a culture. Members of Youth With a Mission have argued that infanticide is morally wrong and the Brazilian government should put a stop to it. According to Youth With a Mission, tribal leaders allegedly order a child to be killed in instances where the child has physical abnormalities, is the child of a single mother or is a twin. The reasons for these killings are reported to be concerns about the soul of the child in question: children with disabilities may possess an animal soul rather than a human soul, one twin may possess an evil soul, and since it is hard to tell which child has the evil soul, both twins are ordered to be killed.
The extent to which infanticide is actually practiced by Brazilian tribes and the reasons for these alleged killings is unclear and is not our primary concern here. What is clear, however, is that three groups came forth to speak up on this issue to the press: members of Youth With a Mission, Brazilian government officials and members of the non-profit organization, Survival International.
Youth With a Mission, as I mentioned above, argued that the Brazilian government should stop infanticide, and missionary members expressed outrage that Brazil would not stop infanticide among Brazilian tribes. The Brazilian government argued that ending ancient tribal cultural practices is wrong, and that the best thing to do is to leave tribes and their practices alone. Members of Survival International, a non-profit group that works on indigenous issues, sided with a Brazilian government, saying ending tribal cultural practices is wrong. But Survival International also argued that the cases of infanticide in question, especially the killing of children with disabilities, aren’t morally wrong. They are, rather, benevolent because children with disabilities cannot survive and live a good life in the jungle. Survival International also accused Youth With a Mission of having an allegedly malicious religious agenda—to Christianize tribal people, thereby destroying their culture, while providing medical assistance.
There seems to be nothing in particular about a cultural practice that makes it, qua cultural practice, intrinsically good. Put another way, the fact that something is a cultural practice does not show it should remain existing in the world. Clearly, there are many cultural practices that most people agree are bad and should not occur in the world. If one wants to argue that some cultural practice should be kept intact, it seems, one needs to argue why this particular practice is good—intrinsically, instrumentally, or both—or why this particular practice is, at least, not bad.
Much of the time, people acknowledge this. But when the concern is about indigenous communities, many people are, understandably, hesitant to condemn a cultural practice, given the long history of colonialism in which relatively benign cultural peculiarities, such as hairstyle, clothing and language, were practically eliminated through assimilationist laws and policies developed and enforced by colonizing populations. Given that people have been very wrong about such things in the past, it is reasonable to be timid about future courses of action. This is why it is understandable that many people hesitate to condemn tribal practices. But upon reflection, it seems rather odd that while killing children is condemned throughout the world and individuals or communities that kill children are condemned by others, we should suspend moral judgment, to the extent that is possible, or endorse such killing in the case of indigenous people. Is there something special about indigenous cultures, such that, when infanticide is manifested in those cultures it ceases to be morally wrong? Probably not, but let us take a look at what seem to be the best defenses of infanticide among Brazilian tribes.
The first defense comes from Survival International, which claims that infanticide is not morally wrong in tribal cultures when the child to be killed is disabled because such a child cannot live a flourishing life in the jungle. In such a case, the killing of the child is not murder. It is, rather, a mercy killing.
Immediately it becomes clear that this argument is not really about indigenous cultures in particular. People outside of Brazilian tribes argue for mercy killings and in some of those cases we may conclude mercy killings are justified and, if they are not praiseworthy, then at least they are permissible, even if they are also regrettable and we would rather avoid them.
The second argument comes from considering tribes as political entities: like other political entities, tribes enjoy a degree of autonomy and control over internal affairs, functions and decisions. Since a tribe is an autonomous political entity, forcing a tribe to give up a policy which states that certain children should be put to death would be unjust.
But this argument doesn’t seem to be particular to tribes, either. The question of how bad a policy, law or state of affairs has to be before it is justifiable or good to enter a political entity to change the policy, law or state of affairs is debated beyond the context of tribes. So, neither of these arguments appear to show there is something about indigenous communities such that they may practice infanticide while others may not.
However, the latter argument does point to why Brazil may be justified in not going in to stop the killing of children in tribes. Brazilian government officials did not make this argument—they argued it is best to preserve tribal cultures—but a better defense for not immediately entering tribal territory to put an end to infanticide appears to be the fact that tribes, qua political entities, retain a certain amount of autonomy and while it is very bad that they practice infanticide with the endorsement of the tribal government, we should discuss whether this policy makes it justifiable to enter tribal territory to stop it.
Reasonable people disagree about such things, but it seems apparent to anyone who appreciates both political autonomy and global norms that there are many ways to get a polity to comply with global norms that do not require invading the polity to change its laws and policies. What is unique about most tribes today, including those in South America, is that they have little access to many modern goods, including medical centers and services, and they have very little money to provide these things to their members. A non-aggressive approach to ending infanticide within Brazilian tribes, then, might be to make arrangements with tribal leaders to set up hospitals and clinics, controlled by citizens of the tribe but funded, perhaps, by foreign aid, so tribal citizens can get medical treatment, recognizing that many childhood disabilities among Brazilian tribes are the result of easily preventable or treatable illnesses.
Where such hospitals and clinics already exist, a viable alternative to forcing tribes to end infanticide by aggression might be to increase funding to these programs so they may provide better services and ensure accessibility to tribal citizens who need medical care. In addition to basic medical services and treatment, there is nothing preventing nation-states and the international community from providing educational funding so tribes may set up better schools to educate their populace and educate tribal leaders themselves about the wide consensus affirming the dignity of all persons, children and people with disabilities included, and that all persons have a right to life. As nation-states begin to meet their obligations to indigenous people they can provide goods, services and foreign aid and, in some cases, support and services promised to indigenous people by treaty while also making it clear that some things are intolerable, such as the killing of children, and aren’t acceptable in the international community.
Understanding tribes as political entities, and keeping the distinction between cultural and political entities in the fore, clarifies these situations and brings the debates onto familiar ground, since many people are apt at thinking about how to deal with bad states of affairs inside a polity without invading the polity, going to war, and so forth. Currently, in the indigenous context, it may sometimes be reasonable, depending on the types of wrongs committed and the extent to which they are committed, to not immediately take up arms or invade tribal territory because most tribes are extremely impoverished, are among the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world, have recently been and in some cases still are targets for genocide and other violence, have less access to the free exchange of ideas globally, are restructuring their governments, often in good faith, after having lived under colonial rule for quite some time, and have only recently been able to access international decision-making procedures.
Let us turn, then, to citizenship requirements for American Indian tribes to see how the distinction between political and cultural entities clarifies issues.
After a long period during which the United States controlled citizenship requirements for American Indian tribes, tribes regained the ability to establish their own citizenship requirements. The United States had taken control over American Indian tribal citizenship during periods of American history most people rather regret—the removal era, during which many tribes were forcibly removed from their territories and regions, and the reservation era, in which the United States forced tribes to live and remain on smaller tracts of land they had previously lived on.
When the United States assumed the responsibility of determining the eligibility requirements for tribal citizenship, these requirements were often much different from the requirements tribes had previously used. Before the United States took over tribal citizenship, for instance, a tribe may have allowed immigration or citizenship through marriage or adoption. But when the United States took over tribal citizenship, the United States made race—or ‘blood quantum’—and biological lineage determining factors of whether a particular individual could be a citizen of a tribe. When the United States documented tribal citizens, their ‘blood quantum’ was recorded. For example, a person, S, might be listed by name on United States Indian rolls and recorded as having ‘one half Indian blood’. S’s children would then be documented as having X blood quantum, depending on the blood quantum of the individual S reproduced with. Two ‘full blood’ American Indians would produce ‘full blood’ offspring, a ‘full blood’ Indian and a Caucasian would produce offspring with one half Indian blood, and so on.
This system of classifying American Indians is obviously archaic and turns on false notions of race, while also assuming the inferiority of people indigenous to the Americas. Such classifications have been debated and analyzed both within and beyond the American Indian context. But what makes the issue different for American Indian tribes, as opposed to African Americans, for example, is the fact that American Indian tribes have maintained functioning governments for hundreds of years and if one is, say, Choctaw, one is a citizen of a political community, such as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma or the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. What blood quantum turns out to be, then, is a racial requirement for political citizenship, and not merely a general and rudimentary way of classifying kinds of humans.
American Indian tribes were resistant to the United States’ tribal citizenship requirements, but in most cases there wasn’t a lot tribes could do to stop U.S. control over tribal citizenship. After the 1970’s, which marked an era of intense political and academic analysis with regard to American Indian tribes and indigenous people in general, tribes once again retained the ability to determine their own citizenship requirements. However, three things have not been clearly distinguished in the debates on tribal citizenship: (1) racial categories, (2) political citizenship and (3) cultural or social membership. Because these three things have not been clearly distinguished from one another and analyzed each in turn, American Indian tribes have experienced difficulty in creating just citizenship requirements.
Presently among philosophers and others, racial citizenship requirements are not only thought to be based on false notions of race, they are also considered unjust. Specifically, other things being equal, it is unjust to bar individual S from political citizenship into polity X just because S is a member of social race Y.
As autonomous political entities, American Indian tribes now enjoy the ability to determine citizenship requirements, just as any other political entity. With the problems of race-based citizenship brought to light, many tribes have begun to consider feasible alternatives to racial citizenship, while others, like the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, have made moves to deny citizenship to a group of former and formerly eligible people—black freedmen.
Black freedmen are those people whose ancestors were African slaves of tribes. When Europeans brought Africans to North America, some tribes, like the Cherokees, adopted the practice of slavery and had black slaves. When the Cherokees were forcibly removed under the Indian Removal Act, their slaves were forcibly removed, too. Upon arriving at Indian Territory (approximately present-day Oklahoma), the Cherokees freed their slaves and made them full tribal citizens. These people and their descendants became freedmen—American Indian tribal citizens of African origin.
But recently the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has revoked citizenship to black freedmen and made moves to bar people who were previously eligible for Cherokee citizenship because they are black. The basis of doing this is the notion that what it is to be Cherokee is to belong to some race or some biological lineage.
While debates currently rage over the status of Cherokee freedmen, other tribes and tribal citizens have suggested that a viable alternative to race-based citizenship requirements is culture-based citizenship requirements. The proposal for culture-based citizenship runs as follows: American Indian tribes should ‘grandfather’ all current tribal citizens and, from henceforth, require all new citizens to meet some basic cultural requirements. Such cultural requirements may be basic indigenous language fluency, basic knowledge of tribal history, cultural and religious practices, and so forth. On this model, anyone could become a tribal citizen so long as she passed a basic cultural test.
Culture-based citizenship requirements appear to avoid many of the problems associated with race-based citizenship, as in the Cherokee freedmen case, and other problems that tribal people worry about. For example, if a native family adopts a child unaffiliated with any tribe, it seems unjust to deny the child tribal citizenship simply because of the child’s biological origin. And denying the child citizenship seems especially egregious if the child is raised on a reservation, goes to tribal religious ceremonies, attends tribal school, and speaks the tribal language. Tribal citizenship, like other political citizenships, confers political and legal rights and responsibilities, such as eligibility to run for public office, the right to vote in tribal elections, and the right to receive health care through Indian Health Services (IHS). For people living on reservations in remote areas, such as parts of the Dakotas or Alaska, IHS may be the closest medical facility and being ineligible to receive services from IHS can mean traveling hundreds of miles to see a doctor. The problems associated with adopting non-tribal children, marriage to non-tribal persons, and so forth, under race-based citizenship requirements motivate the proposal for culture-based citizenship requirements, since an otherwise non-tribal child, spouse or partner could obtain citizenship simply by passing a cultural test and thereby avoid being unable to participate in tribal political decision-making procedures, receive tribal governmental services, etc.
While culture-based tribal citizenship requirements are perhaps better than race-based citizenship requirements, arguments for culture-based citizenship usually presuppose that tribes are fundamentally cultural entities and that membership into a tribe is appropriately conferred upon individuals who are culturally similar in relevant ways. Moreover, mere proposals for culture-based citizenship raise worries about the status of tribal members who deviate in culturally relevant ways. Although no culture-based citizenship requirements for tribes has been adopted at present, one must wonder what is to happen to native people who, for example, choose not to attend tribal religious ceremonies, choose not to eat meat (where eating, say, buffalo is a cultural practice and is involved in cultural rituals), or study western philosophy. Should their citizenship be revoked if they deviate from current tribal cultural practices, or should they remain tribal citizens so long as they can fluently ‘code switch’?
In fact, outside the tribal context, culture-based citizenship requirements are typically considered highly dubious. In recent years, some have made arguments as if the United States had strict culture-based citizenship requirements. For instance, American citizens who opposed the war in Iraq were called unpatriotic, not worthy of American citizenship, and not ‘real Americans’. It is for reasons similar to these that, for the most part, liberal societies do and ought to open citizenship to people of different cultures, religions, and general motivations of conscience. For it is generally considered unjust to prevent people from obtaining political citizenship or to purge people from a political entity for cultural or religious reasons or for reasons associated with liberty of conscience. Thus, it appears that culture-based citizenship requirements for tribes are a bad idea.
Moving away from thinking about tribes as fundamentally racial or cultural groups and instead understanding tribes as political entities may prove useful in creating just tribal citizenship requirements. A cultural group may indeed map onto a polity and in some cases it may be reasonable to require minimal cultural fluency for political citizenship, but there seem to be few good reasons to force cultural and political entities to be in unity such that a person gets legal protection and the right to participate in political deliberation and decision-making only if that person wears certain dress, attends certain religious ceremonies, and so forth. As tribes continue to consider just citizenship requirements, they may do well in looking to liberal democracies around the world for citizenship models, especially where those models require that one understand the governmental structure, general judicial procedures, basic legal rights and responsibilities within the polity as well as fundamental documents, such as constitutions and treaties.
Bringing out the distinction between cultural entities and political entities refines and clarifies complex and important issues both indigenous people and the global community face today. In this section, rather than directly posing solutions to the specific cases in question—alleged infanticide among Brazilian tribes and citizenship requirements among American Indian tribes—I have tried to show how these distinctions may be used to help solve and illuminate such dilemmas.
SECTION TWO-CULTURAL BREAKDOWN: QUESTIONS ABOUT CAUSES
Recent work concerning the general poor state of indigenous peoples today often draws attention to indigenous cultural breakdown. To take two recent cases, both Jonathan Lear and Germaine Greer argue that cultural breakdown, if not the only cause for poor living conditions of indigenous people today, is at least one of the more important causes.
Causation, as is well known, is terribly hard to establish in a variety of areas, including the social sciences. Yet in many instances, this causal connection—that cultural breakdown caused poor indigenous living conditions—is simply asserted or assumed to be true. In this section I shall examine how indigenous cultures have been typically described in recent work and what ‘cultural breakdown’ seems to mean in such work. I shall suggest that it is not best to assume cultural breakdown is the main cause of poor living conditions among indigenous people. A better way to understand the causes of those poor conditions, I argue, is in terms of lacking substantial positive and negative liberty over a long period of time. Finally, I suggest that further work in this area should be well informed by empirical research, for even where we cannot or have not established a cause beyond all doubt, empirical work in the social sciences can supply causes we may reasonably believe.
Jonathan Lear, in his book Radical Hope, provides a thorough picture of Crow culture in the late 1800’s. The Crow tribe, whose land base is presently located on the North American plains, also lived on the Great Plains during the late 1800’s. In Radical Hope, Lear presents the Crow tribe as a nomadic culture centered around hunting and warfare.
The late 1800’s was the Plains Indian War era. Americans were moving westward, the United States was engaging in military battles with Plains tribes, entering treaty agreements with tribes, and setting up the reservation system. The United States also encouraged the extermination of buffalo. Exterminating the buffalo of the Great Plains would make the land easier for Americans to settle, would clear a path for the railroad and would also weaken plains tribes, who depended on buffalo for food, as well as for making homes, tools, clothes, musical instruments and other artifacts. It was during this time that Crow culture changed. Lear describes the change that took place as a cultural breakdown: Once the buffalo were killed and Crows could no longer be nomadic because they were forced onto a reservation, traditional Crow culture broke down.
But what does it mean for a culture to break down? On Lear’s analysis, Crow culture broke down when practices and culturally embedded virtues ceased to make sense. The Crows, he argues, had a culture structured around a culturally embedded concept of courage. Courage was manifested in practices such as counting coups, where a warrior in battle would plant a coup stick in the ground as if to say to an enemy, the only way you shall cross this point is if I die. A Crow warrior would plant a coup stick in the ground and defend that spot with his life. This practice—planting a coup stick—was a culturally embedded practice and defending the spot on which the coup stick was placed was an act of courage. A warrior who planted and defended many coup sticks was considered extremely courageous and was the object of praise among the tribe.
But when tribes were forced onto reservations, the United States banned intertribal warfare and tribes like the Crow could not plant coup sticks anymore. Planting a coup stick would no longer make sense, according to Lear, since counting coup was only sensible within a nomadic culture where boundaries weren’t clearly defined. Yet when the United States forced tribes onto reservations, borders were clearly defined and the act of counting coup became senseless. Because the Crows had a culture centered around courage and counting coup was the paradigmatic way in which courage was manifested, when the act of counting coup became senseless, Crow culture broke down.
Lear’s description of Crow culture is traditional and unified. That is, Crow culture is imagined to be traditional in the way Bernard Williams described a hypothetical hypertraditional culture, in which all that exists within the culture are thick concepts and members of the culture do not critically reflect on their moral concepts and practices. Thus, Crow culture, according to Lear’s depiction, would have been relatively free of moral skepticism, but it would also be less flexible and adaptive to change. When things did change—when the buffalo were killed and the Crows were forced onto the reservation—life for the Crows became rather meaningless, according to Lear. Crow concepts ceased to make sense and it wasn’t clear how one should act, what kind of person one should be or what could count as an act of courage.
This way of conceiving native cultures is fairly common. Pre-conquest native cultures are typically imagined, by non-anthropologists and non-archeologists, to have been unified and exceedingly stable. When one holds this conception of native cultures, it seems reasonable to suppose that cultural upheaval during the colonial period began a downward spiral—native people began committing suicide, began drinking alcohol, sunk into poverty and so on—because they lost crucial aspects of their culture. Indeed, this is how native people sometimes describe their own history. But in the social sciences—anthropology and psychology among them—it is widely understood that self-reports are not always accurate. Self-report may indeed be one reasonable method of data gathering, but just as important are other methods, like observational studies, because members of a culture do not always accurately report cultural practices or causal forces affecting the culture, just as individual persons do not always accurately report their own behaviors, or understand situational forces affecting their behaviors and mental states.
We ought to, thus, get clear about pre-conquest native cultures. Plenty of social science evidence suggests that, far from being hypertraditional societies, native cultures were dynamic, complex and changing. Evidence suggests intense cultural transfer and exchange as well as critical examination—and modification—of cultural practices, theories of virtues and virtuous practices, conceptions of the good, and the just organization of a society among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These are standard ways of understanding pre-conquest native cultures in anthropology, archeology and history because the current evidence suggesting this interpretation is so strong.
At the time of colonization, native people did have relatively stable cultures, worldviews and forms of government and it is true that many of these things were lost to them, often through the force of assimilationist policies. However, conceiving native cultures as hypertraditional and focusing on the loss of cultural unity as a cause of poor living conditions, past and present, plays into a particular philosophical narrative that may or may not, on a large scale, be true. This narrative was put forth by MacIntyre in his well-known After Virtue, which argues by way of history and philosophy, that the Enlightenment fractured, as it were, morality. Moral concepts and virtues before the Enlightenment were, according to MacIntyre, quite stable and connected to culturally embedded practices. After the Enlightenment, he argues, moral skepticism and attention to thin concepts became prominent. MacIntyre does not draw upon or examine native cultures, but Lear does examine a native culture—the Crow culture—and Radical Hopeoperates as if pre-conquest Crow culture was analogous to Ancient Greek culture and the breakdown of Crow culture is analogous to what MacIntyre argues happened to western civilization during the Enlightenment.
Whatever the truth of MacIntyre’s philosophical history, we ought not take this model and apply it to other cases without acquainting ourselves with relevant evidence. The Native American experience during the colonial period was quite different from the experience of Ancient Greeks, Europeans during the Enlightenment and early American settlers. Moreover, the losses native people experienced were far more than the loss of practices and thick concepts, and the reason for these losses weren’t philosophical in nature in the way that MacIntyre argues that certain philosophical reflections and projects brought about the poor state of current moral concepts in the western world.
Native people, surely oftentimes rightly, mourn the loss of aspects of their cultures. But the fact that they did lose cultural practices during the colonial period, which coincided with the poverty, addictions, and poor physical health that has stayed with them since then does not in itself show that the loss of cultural practices caused and sustained those social ills. Correlation, after all, is not causation. Let us try to identify, then, more likely causes of poor living conditions of native people.
When I speak of living conditions, I refer to a collection of things which are measured and kept track of as a means of understanding, documenting and promoting a flourishing human life and which are considered core liberal values: life, bodily integrity, bodily health, liberty of conscience, freedom of affiliation, political participation, and others. Substantially lacking these constitutes poor living conditions. This is generally agreed upon within the western liberal tradition, but it is also—at least tacitly and generally—agreed upon within Native American communities. For even though we do not have written historical philosophical treatises on the matter from indigenous thinkers, we do have court testimony, historical speeches and oral histories from which we can form a general, if tentative and incomplete, sketch of the guiding principles of notable native individuals. We can conclude that, in general, both historical and contemporary indigenous people agree that, for example, persecution and death sentences on the basis of religious difference is intolerable and unjust and that suppressing religious practices which do not inflict direct harm on non-consenting parties—such as ceremonial dancing, sweating or burning particular grasses and herbs—makes for a poor life for those who lack such freedom. I will make a case for religious freedom and religious accommodation within the Native American tradition drawing on historical resources in Section Three to give a better picture of how extrapolating core values, political practices and conceptions of justice may be done without philosophical treatises. But for now all I need to move forward is a broad conception, agreed upon by many western people and many native people, of what constitutes a good life so that we may understand what a lack of the conditions which make up a good life looks like and come to understand what poor living conditions are.
Since we have focused on the Crow tribe during the colonial period (roughly the late 1800’s), let us continue to use the Crows as an example, bearing in mind that the experiences of indigenous people throughout the Americas have been varied and their current states are somewhat different. (For example, the Crows currently have a relatively large land base while the Mississippi Band of Choctaws have a relatively small land base. But the Crows have relatively small casino operations while the Mississippi Band of Choctaws have relatively large casino operations.)
Original ideas in this essay segment are the intellectual property of Jennifer Lee Lawson. Please contact her for permission of use. Proper citation of sources was not included in the production of this piece as it was developed to be delivered as a lecture. Ideas which are not original to Ms. Lawson are owned by respective others, such as Germaine Greer, various anthropologists and historians, and others.