I learned at an early adult age, with only minor but memorable pain, not to hero-worship. When we lionize people, we tend to forget the natural inclination of the lion to consume the person. I prefer admiration. Admiration works from the muck up. While hero worship sets up the faithful for a fall, admiration begins in the recognition of human failings and appreciates a person’s achievement in rising above them. Fewer disappointments that way, more genuine appreciation of the distinction in the ascent.
I was asked the other day, after tweeting of his death, about my thoughts on Russell Means. Not that I have any special standing to speak about him. Very soon after, I was informed of what I had not known, not having bothered to read the schedule – that Russell Means was on the schedule to speak at the coincidentally named and meretricious Russell Tribunal, and prevented from appearing only, near his end, by the cancer that killed him.
Russell Means was a controversial figure even among the Native peoples he championed, but that is almost a commonplace. Strong people who play leading roles in resistance movements usually are controversial. There is not a palliative manner in which to challenge oppressive power and seek to overthrow a structure of domination. One can hardly come closer to such an ideal – if that it be – than Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and look how they were reviled by those they opposed and by some who contended with them for influence. See how they were dealt with in the end.
Means, from what I know, came up bad. It was a rough life, a poor one. Some of the violence of his life in the 1970s was as much an outburst of rage and wild destructive frustration as it was a plan of resistance. But in the 1970s, Russell Means was one of the people who stuffed in the face of a smug, amnesiac America a defining truth of its origins that it still does not acknowledge. One can argue that the conquest of Indigenous America, with its long falling action in diminishment and despair, only ended, at last, in the 1970s, with the rise of the American Indian Movement. There are those who say that all of Indigenous rights movements of the Americas – stronger, actually, in some countries than they are in the U.S. – have their origin in the rebirth of pride marked by the American Indian Movement that Russell Means helped lead. That the achievement of Evo Morales, the indigenous Aymara President of Bolivia has its origin in the American Indian Movement that Russell Means helped lead.
For the rest of his life, whatever directions Means took, including his Hollywood career, he never acquiesced in his mind to the brute reality.
The brute reality is that while the victims of prejudice and discrimination may ultimately be relieved of those afflictions, and the descendents of slaves live free themselves of enslavement, American Indians and all the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas will not be unconquered. They are not another minority in any kind of melting pot, but a conquered people compelled to live within a conquering culture that ignores and disregards them, refusing even to recognize the nature of the act it committed against them. (As one neat symbol, consider the head of Metacomet, displayed on a stake at the Plymouth Colony for two decades after the colonial victory in King Philip’s War.)
None among us who is not Indigenous can know the interior landscape of the wisdom it takes not to live a life in blind fury. If I imagine myself a Native American, I can imagine myself Russell Means.
As it turns out, because the well of ideological depravity is as deep as the field of human barbarity is wide, the abuse of Indigenous Peoples comes from every direction. Whereas once reactionary national and religious institutions pretended to seek for Indigenous Peoples their civilization and salvation, now it is left, international pretenders to peace and justice who claim to champion their liberation. Once again Indigenous Peoples are used and abused, if only, this time, conceptually.
It makes only superficial but surely apparent and satisfying sense to connect the historical conquest and the current disempowerment of Indigenous Peoples to the general postcolonial critique of imperial power. And what do the activists of any political movement wish for but a handy Rosetta stone of historical understanding to share with the people? But using power and its imbalances as the homogenizing agent that substitutes for specific historical and political analysis renders thought as unchallenging and pleasing at one end of the political spectrum as does a mantra like American Exceptionalism at the other. Yet for an indigenous person steeped in the overwhelming history of the West’s annihilation of Native cultures, the inclination to disambiguate any particular power imbalance in the world must be very slight indeed.
So there it is. The Dutch, French, German, and English in Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America. The English, French, and Spanish in North America. The French (and Japanese, while we’re at it) in Southeast Asia. Jews in Judea. All the same.
If I had ever met Russell Means, I would have wished to talk with him – as I do so many Native leaders, as I will on the Omaha reservation next month – about all in his life and career that challenges human imagination and compassion. I might, too, have asked him about Sioux warfare against the Pawnee and encroachment on Pawnee land, how the Pawnee were powerless against the much larger and more aggressive tribe. I might have mentioned how after the Ponca Indians were ethnically cleansed and removed from the Nebraska territory to Oklahoma, in order to open the way for white settlement, some Ponca made their way by foot back to Nebraska; how when they arrived ill and starving, the Omaha Indians welcomed them on their own land in Nebraska and supported the Ponca in their request to return home.
I might have reminded Means of what he always reminded others, how the Black Hills of South Dakota were taken from the Sioux by the United States in violation of the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. I might have asked him how many years the Sioux might remain exiled from that land, those sacred hills – more than 140 years now, but even one thousand, two thousand – before he would claim they had lost their indigenous, historic, moral right to return.
I cannot ask him that now. And on the record of his life is included now, too, his intent to speak before a miscreant panel of the hateful and slanderous who rhetorically style themselves champions of the “indigenous” (Palestinians) only for the purpose of wielding that concept as a club against Israel and Jews.
How, then, to feel?
A couple of weeks ago, I suffered briefly through a foolish, facile attack by a Jewish voice on President Obama. The writer employed the trope of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” against Obama, and concluded by declaring his stance with Eliot against Obama. I reminded the writer of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and of the occasion when the English Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, upbraided Eliot in verse in the master’s presence, before an admiring crowd. Litvinoff, as I, as any reader of English poetry, was an admirer of Eliot.
Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, “Il miglior fabbro,” was more famously anti-Semitic, with greater pronouncement. Any student of Modernism is an admirer of Pound. Yet even at the end of his worst travails, before his long silence unto death, when Pound condemned the anti-Semitism of his fascist support, he dismissed it, still inadequately reflective, as a “suburban prejudice,” reducing to an aesthetic error, in bohemian condescension, what is a great moral failing.
Still, the cover photo on my Facebook page is this.
The currents of the very aged Pound locked in a gaze with the statue of his long-dead peer James Joyce – a man contemptuous of political engagement and passion – those are currents of thought that will invite me to swim for a very long time.
On the home page of an online literature course I teach I have placed this photo of Pound.
The great poet standing in his library, literary and exotic, with his forebears – see Joseph Conrad? – gazing over him. It sets a tone for the students, richer for them in memory years from now when they may know more than presently. What they also know not now is any reason why I superimposed over the photo Pound’s “Notes for Canto CXX,” the last addition to the great craftsman’s lifelong, impossible poetic project.
I have tried to write Paradise Do not move Let the wind speak that is paradise. Let the Gods forgive what I have made Let those I love try to forgive what I have made.
14 thoughts on “Writing Paradise”
You have that all too rare ability to make us see beyond the obvious while expanding our horizons. That’s why it’s always such a pleasure to read your work.
I’ve always felt the American Indian story has been sanitized and romanticized so much as to make it hard to discern the truth unless one really digs into the subject matter. And you do that often. Never knew about the relationships between the Sioux, Pawnee, Ponca and Omaha, but now I do. And I’m richer for it.
Also, disappointed to read about Russell and his planned participation in the Russell Tribunal, but still glad I asked the question. On the subject of disappointment, I’ve been very disheartened over the years by some of Jimmy Carter’s thoughts and statements on Israel, but on the whole, so many have benefited from his humanitarian work. And that’s why I’ll always admire him. And on a smaller scale, that’s Russell Means.
No one’s perfect.
Thanks, Rob. And while Greenwald may not always be right, he is at least impressively wrong.
Jay, this is such a well-considered and beautifully written essay.
Your concluding paragraphs, those two wonderful images (especially that haunting first one), those lines from the Canto, truly moved me. It all brings to mind a portion of an interview I read recently in Image Journal, in which Marilynne Robinson notes that every encounter we have is a “dealing with an image of God” and that “in dealing with somebody who is hostile or destructive to you, you are dealing with somebody whom Christ is waiting to forgive.” She goes on to point out what a “very demanding” but also “beautiful” ethic that is. Implicit in it is forgiveness of oneself, sometimes terribly difficult to do, perhaps for some completely impossible.
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment, Maureen. It is reward for the writing.