Cockburn to Indians: get over it!

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Oct 26 06:12:11 PST 1998

1. What Cockburn wrote:

[from Alexander Cockburn, "Wild Justice," New York Press, October 21-27, 1998]

The hunters crashed out of the resort at 5 am. and I read a few pages of Ward Churchill's A Little Matter of Genocide. He certainly raises victim,hood to the level of political manifesto arguing that his purpose is to claim genocide for Indians on the grounds that genocide has given the Jews moral authority and he wants the same moral authority for his people. This seems to be a sad posture, claiming moral authority by dint of the percentage of your number wiped out, with 100 percent moral authority established presumably when you are 100 percent extinct.

Do the Mandan have greater moral stature than the Blackfeet because a white man's disease, smallpox, wiped out a higher percentage of their number? Do some Indian tribes, surviving in higher numbers, like the Yurok, have diminished moral stature? Or is It just A matter of "Indians" without. regard to specific tribes or destinies? For Churchill it is. He takes a population estimate, pre-white conquest, of 15 million Indians, subtracts the 248,253 Indians counted in the 1890 census and sets down the balance in the ledger of genocide. Ergo, moral authority amid the ruins. Rhetorically, it's hard to argue with him, because In Churchill's moral arithmetic you somehow become a denier not only of the Indian but of the Jewish Holocaust as well.

Do Indians really need a holocaust to give them standing? Surely not. To be frank, they've done better with casinos. Is it not more uplifting to see Indians as gallant and savvy survivors than as victim-dead? They certainly ended up with more land than two other ethnic grows on the losing end,. the Spanish and Africans in North America. It's true that disease, evictions and cultural dislocation wrought a devastating toll. On the Plains there were massacres: Sand Creek, Washita, Marias River, Camp Grant, Wounded Knee. In these infamous events there were somewhere around 1260 Indians dead. Between 1789 and 1898 the U.S. Army records 1535 Indian fights, with estimates of Indian dead running anywhere from 3000 to 6000. On the other side, between 1789 and 1898 Indians killed maybe 7000, soldiers and civilians. Of course Churchill would disdain such calculations as obscene efforts to establish some sort of moral equivalence, which was certainly the intent of some of the white historians totting up the numbers and claiming that more Indians were killed in intertribal warfare on the Plains than by the white soldiers. There's no need to haggle over moral equivalence. The whites were the latest of the arrivals on the scene and got every thing. But rather than tout genocide as the battle standard, It is surely better to see Indians as brilliant diplomat-warriors who stood off three major sets of white invaders for centuries. In the end, the true hero is Red Cloud, the warrior/diplomat, rather than Ian Frazier's (and no doubt Churchill's) hero, Crazy Horse. Surely this is a more bracing lesson for young Indians than the cover of Churchill's book, being photographs of the dead at Wounded Knee, and a drunk Indian on Main St., Anywhere, USA. I say, Get over it.

We drove across the rest of Montana, up over the road to the Sun in Glacier National Park over the Lolo Paw, down through% Idaho and into the tolling wheatfields of eastern Washington, like the most kitsch of Soviet socialist realist posters; With a great red sun going down, a grain elevator and a tractor in the foreground (and, as it happened, a child murderer going down to lethal injection in Walla Walla prison, just the other side of the horizon), Down the Columbia, past Sam Hill's strange museum, down through a couple of stops by Washington and Oregon cops who probably thought we were ferrying dope. Into Oregon City we came, in the '64 New Yorker with 4000 miles on the odometer, which now stands at 150,324. Back, most surely, in late 90s civilization. Our hosts, Jeffrey St. Clair and Kimberly Willson-St. Clair, are moving house and had just boarded Sam the Newfoundland until new fences could be built. A chipper young woman at the Clackamass Pet Spa had quoted him $14 a day for Sam's bed and board, with optional extras. Sam could get a "nature walk" through Oregon's dwindling Douglas firs for $1.50 a day, a 'snack and snuggle for another $4 a day, "Indoor play" for another $4, and "sunbath" with restoring oils for $2 and a birthday party for $8. If he had a cat, she told the bug-eyed Jeffrey; pussy could, at $4 a day, enjoy a "mock mouse hunt." So much for frontier days. This is how the trail ends.

2. What I wrote: It's taken me a day to get over the initial shock of reading Alexander Cockburn's advice to Cherokee activist/scholar Ward Churchill who is preoccupied with genocide against the North American Indian. Churchill states in his "A Little Matter of Genocide" that there were an estimated 15 million Indians at the time of Columbus, and only 250,000 counted in a census taken in 1890, which by his reckoning, would make this the worst genocide in modern history. And Cockburn's advice? He says that Churchill should "Get over it" because gambling casinos have reinvigorated the American Indian. What in the world could have gotten into this famous radical journalist to come up with such an insensitive and reactionary comment?

Part of the problem would seem to be the inability of superstar leftists like Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore to rely on feedback from other leftists. Unlike Doug Henwood, they don't expose themselves to the rude and rowdy Internet. When Chomsky makes a gaffe, he never acknowledges it. His stubborn pride would be the only explanation for refusing to admit his error in judgment in writing the preface to a book by holocaust denier Faurisson. Instead of admitting that he was wrong, he came up with grotesque arguments about the need to defend free speech. Moore went out on a limb not too long ago when he wrote in the Nation Magazine that leftists cared more about Nicaraguan peasants than American blue-collar workers in the 1980s. It was obvious that he didn't know too much about the grass-roots movement when he wrote this, since it was obviously wrong. Moore had obviously become rather isolated from ordinary radicals in his pursuit of a big-time television career. When he made the same criticisms at a recent Socialist Scholars Conference, veteran activists roasted his ass.

Up until recently, Cockburn has had unerring instincts when it comes to the sensitivities and values of rank-and-file leftists. In 1979, shortly after I had left the Trotskyist movement, I moved to NYC in order to continue with my programming career and try my hand at novel writing. When I began reading the Village Voice to find out about interesting movies and concerts, I stumbled across Cockburn's columns, which rekindled my interest in politics. His passionate criticisms of US warmongering in Central America convinced me to join CISPES and then to help form Tecnica, a project that sent programmers and other skilled professionals to Nicaragua and southern Africa.

Of course, there were some things about Cockburn's politics back then that I always found a bit troubling. He supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on the basis that it was a lesser evil to the misogynist fundamentalism of the village chieftains. He probably was influenced on this score by the CP politics of his father, another famous journalist, Claude Cockburn. But Alex was not a plain vanilla Stalinist. He also extolled the newspaper of the Trotskyist Spartacist League. This I found much more disturbing than his old-line Red Army apologetics. The Sparts, who also supported Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, were--to put it bluntly--nuts. During the Vietnam war, they raised the slogan "Drive the GI's into the sea!" As somebody who had leafleted draftees and knew how important tactful formulations were, I would found have found this slogan an invitation to a broken nose.

I have always been puzzled by the appeal of the Spart newspaper to otherwise intelligent journalists like Cockburn and Doug Henwood. I suppose to a degree it is a function of the workerist self-destruction of my own group, the SWP. When the Militant began running bizarre articles about "worker-Bolsheviks" (in reality, recent college graduates who were slumming in a factory or mine), I suppose it was inevitable that some radicals would turn to the Sparts for inspiration. Part of the appeal of the Sparts no doubt lies in their libertarianism. They would mix in appeals for smokers' rights with cheerleading for the Red Army in Afghanistan. Both Cockburn and Henwood are susceptible to nicotine militancy. I guess it has something to do with the natural contrariness of the radical journalist. Although I have to admit that I don't recall John Reed caring too much about cigarette smoking on demand. He was more into free love.

After the Central American revolution was stopped in its tracks in the late 1980s, socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe started to unravel. This had an enormously disorienting effect on most radicals. Some began to accommodate to the "end of history" mystique. To Cockburn's credit, he remained adamantly anticapitalist. The only sign that something weird was going on was his flirtation with the militias. Some people have a crude economic determinist explanation for this. They take note that Cockburn was having big trouble with the IRS and surmised that the militia's hatred for all federal agencies, including the IRS, must have seduced him. This could be correct, but I wouldn't rule out as an additional factor his coming out as rustic misanthrope in the Robinson Jeffers mold. There is a hoary tradition in the US of backwoods lunacy. It tends to occur with most overeducated people who become hermits, with Henry David Thoreau the notable exception.

Cockburn's most infamous article on the militias likened them to the Zapatistas. He couldn't seem to understand why leftists in the US were willing to solidarize with Mayan peasants fighting for land reform and democracy, but held the American militias at arm's length. Any fool could have explained to Cockburn what the problem was. The American militias were primarily composed of xenophobes, who not only hated the federal government but blacks, American Indians and immigrants as well. Their goal was to return the US to its constitutional roots, a dubious prospect for all those disenfranchised peoples that the founding fathers had little use for, including the slaves and the indigenous peoples. One could only wonder where Cockburn would be going next with this glorification of rural neopopulism. Would the Ku Klux Klan be the next group to be eulogized as "misunderstood white workers"?

Actually, Cockburn's not the journalistic superstar he once was. The Wall Street Journal dropped him, and the Nation Magazine cut him back to a single page.

For the past year or so he has been writing a weekly column for the NY Press, where his attack on Ward Churchill just appeared. A word or two is necessary on this newspaper. It is a freebie that was launched by a certain Russ Smith, who has his own weekly column titled "Mugger" that often exceeds 3 pages. It is filled with neoconservative rants and recommendations on where to get a good meal. If there is anything that Smith hates more, it is insufficiently attentive waiters. The more they grovel, the better he likes it.

You can get the flavor of this "alternative" newspaper by examining the front page of the latest issue, which contains the attack on Ward Churchill. There is the start of an fawning interview with Christopher Buckley, William F.'s son and editor of a supplement to Forbes Magazine, the "capitalist tool". There's an article announcing the addition of Taki, the reactionary racist journalist, to the stable of NY Press's writers. Taki's maiden column states that because Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, kept concubines, "No wonder the puritan Pizarro turned him into sirloin steak, well done." This would come as a big surprise to those of us who believe that the real reason for exterminating the Incas was to be able to get at their silver. Russ "Mugger" Smith's column, which begins on the first page, tells us that he had a fine meal at Spartina's the night before, and that even though "the kitchen was a bit slow, the waitress and hostess were hospitable." Boy, I tell you, its good to know that the underlings who wait on the Mugger know their place.

This milieu has had an effect on Cockburn. He has become great pals with the Mugger, even though their politics would seem to be at odds. A few months ago Cockburn reported on his dining experiences in New Orleans and for the life of me I couldn't tell whether it was Cockburn or the Mugger who I was reading. Frankly, I can't think of anything more superficial and boring than reports on how a gumbo agreed with one.

More to the point, Cockburn and the Mugger have a regular tag-team going which attacks well-known left/liberal figures, from Todd Gitlin to Mark Crispin Miller. The Mugger complains about their "political correctness" while Cockburn lacerates them for taking money from liberal foundations. One can only wonder if there is an economic determinist explanation for Cockburn's animosity. Since he probably doesn't enjoy the income he once did, no doubt he envies other people's success.

I suppose if I had a choice between Cockburn's radicalism and the tepid left-liberalism of Miller or Gitlin, I'd opt for Cockburn. However, with his latest attack on indigenous peoples, I say screw him.

3. A representative Churchill essay, from January '98 Z Magazine: The Crucible of American Indian Identity

Native Tradition versus Colonial Imposition in Postconquest North America

By Ward Churchill

Among the most vexed and divisive issues afflicting Native North America at the dawn of the twenty-first century are the questions of who it is who has a legitimate right to say he or she is American Indian, and by what criteria/whose definition this may or may not be true. Such queries, and the answers to them, hold an obvious and deeply important bearing, not only upon the personal sense of identity inhering in millions of individuals scattered throughout the continent, but in terms of the degree to which some form of genuine self-determination can be exercised by the more than four hundred nations indigenous to it in coming years. Conversely, they represent both an accurate gauge of the extent to which the sovereignty of North America's native peoples have been historically eroded or usurped by the continent's two preeminently colonial settler-states, the U.S. and Canada, and a preview of how the remainder stands to be eradicated altogether in the not-so-distant future.

Defining for itself the composition of its membership ('citizenry"), in whatever terms and in accordance with whatever standards it freely chooses, is, of course, the very bedrock expression of self-determination by any nation or people. The ability to maintain this prerogative is thus a vital measure of its sovereign standing. By the same token, intervention in or preemption of this plainly internal function by any external entity may be taken as signifying a blatant abridgment of a nation's right to self-determination and a corresponding diminishment of its sovereignty. For that very reason, under conditions of colonialism--where one nation is directly subordinated to the politico-economic or strategic interests of another, and most especially in the kind of "internal colonial" systems prevailing in North America, where the colonizing powers have quite literally subsumed the territoriality of the colonized within their own claimed geographies--such domination may be seen as a structural imperative.

T'hings cannot be put so straightforwardly in practice, however, since colonialism in all forms has been flatly prohibited by international law since at least as early as 1960. In these circumstances, the kinds of subterfuge designed to create false appearances are an essential aspect of maintaining and perfecting the modes of colonial order. Hence, it is necessary for the colonizer not merely to preempt the sovereignty of the colonized, but to co-opt it, inculcating a comprador consciousness among son-Le segment of the colonized population in which the forms of domination imposed by colonialism will be advocated as a self-determining expression of will emanating from the colonized themselves.

At this point--with the codes of colonial domination embraced by many native people as comprising their own traditions, and articulation of the latter often perceived as a contravention of indigenous sovereignty--the colonized become for all practical intents and purposes self-colonizing. hi this most advanced and refined iteration of imperial order, confusion accomplishes much more cheaply, quietly and efficiently what physical force was once required to obtain. Meaningful resistance, never mind decolonization, among those so thoroughly indoctrinated and deluded as to accept and enforce the terms of their own subjugation in the name liberation is, an its face, quite impossible. Yet both resistance and decolonization are not simply rights but obligations under international law and most other recent philosophical/moral schemas of justice.

The situation presents a dilemma of the first magnitude. Resolving it, and thereby actualizing the potential for a coherent and constructive indigenous response to the realties which now confront us, and which will confront our future generations, requires a systematic unraveling of the web of mystification through which North America's native peoples have been bound ever more tightly into the carefully-crafted mechanisms of our oppression and eventual negation. The purpose of this essay is to make a contribution in this regard by sorting out that which has traditionally been part of the "Indian way" of identifying member/citizens of our polities from that which has not, and to sketch out the mechanisms through which the latter has supplanted the former. From the resulting vantage point it should prove possible to ascertain with some clarity the methods which must be (reasserted if we are ever to truly throw off the yoke of colonial bondage, and those which must be rejected as perpetuating and perfecting the colonial structure.

The Traditional Way

T'here is not, and has never been, much of a genetic ("hereditary") distinction to be drawn between indigenous peoples in the Americas. hi part, this devolves upon the probability that the great proliferation of culturally-distinct entities evident in the hemisphere by the time the European invasions commenced around 1500 had all evolved from three--or perhaps four--discernible "gene stocks," figures correlating rather well to the evident number of root linguistic variants. More to the point, native peoples have for the most part always maintained relatively high degrees of sociocultural inclusiveness and consequent reproductive interactivity ("inter-breeding") among one another.

Since time immemorial, Cheyennes (or their precursors) have intermarried with Arapahoes, Ojibways with Crees, Cayugas with Ononadagas, Yaquis with Turamaras, Choctaws with Chickasaws, and so on, ad infinitum. In such instances, depending on whether the cultures in question were matrilinear or patrilinear, either the male or female spouse would become a part of the other's society, as would their offspring. Genealogy rather than genetics was the core component of societal composition, although procedures for incorporation of individuals and sometimes whole groups by adoption/naturalization and occasional merger were similarly well-established and practiced with varying degrees of scale and frequency by most peoples, either periodically or continuously.

Whatever else may be said of such processes, they served over time to erase any meaningful genetic distinctions between the groups involved. Indeed, there are recorded instances--as when the Mohawks absorbed significant portions of both the Hurons and the Susquahannocks during the seventeenth century--in which the number of outsiders incorporated into a given society are known to have noticeably exceeded that of the original members. Given these historical circumstances, the contemporary notion of somehow being Mohawk "by blood" is self-evidently ludicrous, albeit no more so than similar claims advanced with respect to the Pawnee, Cherokee, Apache, Paiute or virtually any other native people.

Once non-Indians began to appear in substantial numbers across the hemisphere, the same time-honored principles prevailed. Probably the earliest group of English to have simply melted into a native society were the inhabitants of Raleigh's "lost colony" of Roanoak in 1590. A century later, there were literally thousands of "white Indians"--mostly English and French, but Swedes, Scots, Irish, Dutch and others as well--who, diseased with aspects of their own cultures, had either married into, been adopted by, or petitioned for naturalization as member/citizens of indigenous nations. By then, the phenomenon had become pronounced enough that it had long-since precipitated a crisis among the Puritans of Plymouth Colony and figured in their waging of a war of extermination against the Pequots in 1637.

T'he attraction of "going native" remained so strong, and the willingness of indigenous peoples to accept Europeans into their societies so apparent, that it prevailed even among those captured in Indian/white warfare. During the 1770s, George Croghan and Guy Johnson, both acknowledged authorities on the native peoples of the mid-Atlantic region, estimated that the great bulk of the several hundred English prisoners of all ages and both genders taken by the Indians had been adopted by them rather than being put to death.

The literature of the period is literally filled with observations. Virginia's Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, for example, noted that whites "recovered" from Indians had to be "closely watched [lest] they will certainly return to the Barbarians." Colonel Henry Bouquet, who headed a 1764 expedition to take charge of "captives" returned under terms of a treaty with England by the Shawnees, Miamis and other peoples of the Ohio River Valley, issued orders that "they are to be closely watched and well Secured [as] most of them, particularly those who have been a long time among the Indians, will take the first Opportunity to run away."" The Reverend William Smith, chaplain and chronicler of Bouquet's foray, noted that most younger whites seemed to view their "liberators" as captors and "parted from the savages with tears."

Some, like fourteen-year-old John McCullough, managed to escape Bouquet's column and quickly reunited himself with his native family. Many Indians reciprocated by refusing to surrender those they'd married, adopted, or otherwise accepted especially children-under any but the most coercive circumstances." hi cases where there was no viable alternative, the record is replete with examples of adoptive native parents regularly visiting and otherwise maintaining familial relations with such children for the remainder of their own lives." And, of course, children born of a union between Indian and non-Indian were almost invariably never relinquished at all (not least because whites, not Indians, tended to frown upon such "mixed-blood" offspring and thus made little or no effort to claim them). One upshot is a marked proliferation of European surnames among indigenous peoples, not only in the East but the West as well; witness such sizable contemporary mixed blood families as the Morriseaus, Robideaus, Peltiers and Bellecourts among the Chippewas, and the Pouriers, Gamiers, Amiotts, Roubideauxs, Archambaults and Mousseaus among the Lakotas.

With respect to blacks-mostly Africans brought to the southeastern quadrant of North America as chattel slaves, but the occasional few "free man" as well-the situation was not dissimilar, albeit the imperative for them to reject a return to Euro-American society was obviously greater than for whites, and a much larger proportion of adults was involved. Escaped slaves were typically accepted among the native peoples they encountered, married and produced children who were fully integrated into the societies at issue. So prominent was this process of intermingling that at some point around 1750 an entire people, the Seminole, was constituted as an amalgamation of the remnants of several thoroughly decimated indigenous nations and a very substantial element-about one-third of the whole-of blacks.

Hence, by 1830 at the latest, the notion of defining "Indian-ness" in terms of "race" had been rendered patently absurd. It has been reliably estimated that somewhere between a third and half of all native people still residing east of the Mississippi River were at that point genetically intermixed not only with one another, but with "Negroid and Caucasoid racial stock" as well, a demographic pattern which would spread rapidly westward over then next half century. There is little if any indication, moreover, that most indigenous societies tended to view this increasing admixture as untoward or peculiar, much less threatening, in and of itself (this is as opposed to their often bitter resistance to the cultural, political and material encroachments of Euroamerican "civilization").

(The entire article is at

Louis Proyect


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