The Rights of Native Peoples

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Fridays, 9:30-11:00 a.m. 6-week course begins 11/13

European settlers in the Americas dispossessed and decimated native peoples, here for thousands of years, and ravaged their traditional life ways—a vast, irreversible tragedy. Yet, surviving natives continue to enact meaningful lifeways that express traction and enable plural endurance and revitalization. This course asks: For natives and settlers, sharing a tortured history and now inescapably residents of one nation, “What is desirable?” “What is possible?” Two in-depth case studies of Indian communities in the 20th century will provide grist for our thinking and discussions. Suggested Books: David Treuer, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life, ISBN 978-0802120823; Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community, ISBN 978-0300033250. Steven Piker is an anthropologist, taught 44 years at Swarthmore College, has offered several courses at three Maine senior colleges, and has held a career-long interest in Native Americans.

About the class:

The post-Columbian imperial expansion of Europe is the back drop for this course.  The expansion overtook virtually the entire human world.  In 1900, almost everywhere  in the world either was or had been a colony of a European nation, or otherwise substantially penetrated by a European nation.

Of course, everywhere colonized by European states was already inhabited by native peoples with distinctive traditional life ways.  As regards, then, the impact of European colonialism on native peoples, how did things play?

 Things played differently from time to time and place to place.  One way, disastrous for native peoples, involved the establishment of settler societies . . . in which European settlers displaced, dispossessed, and often decimated the native inhabitants; savaged traditional native life ways; populated almost completely the erstwhile native lands; and established and governed their own states in which the surviving native peoples comprised marginalized, stigmatized, and impoverished  small minorities, for whom traditional life ways were impossible and the rights of the settler states were often of little or no use to native peoples.  The settler states adopted, often coercively, the role of cultural missionaries vis-a-vis their native peoples.

 The settler society iteration of European colonialism arguably presented most fully in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand . . . for all of which the main initial settler impulse came from the same European nation, viz., 17th and 18th century Great Britain.  The conditions outlined in the previous paragraph were well advanced in all four counties by 1900 . . . In short, settler societies  had comprised vast and inescapable tragedies for native peoples. Interestingly, these four settler society nations are all full blown democracies, embodying what many of their citizens are pleased to consider to be the most humane forms of governance ever developed by humankind.  Did this circumstance, then, mitigate the just named disasters which overtook  their native peoples?  The short answer is, ‘no’.  Our course will consider how, now and into the future, especially the United States iteration of democracy does and might interact with the circumstances and aspirations of its native peoples.

 But the descendants of native peoples have endured, which circumstance poses the main questions for our course: Now, and into the future, of what can and should the relationships between natives and settlers consist?  For both, what is desirable? What is possible?

 Our course will take up these questions mainly by consulting two superb in depth studies of native communities long in intimate juxtaposition with settlers.  Both communities are Ojibwa, one in W. Ontario and one in N. Minnesota.  For both studies, the ethnographic present is the second half of the twentieth century, and both studies trace the circumstances of the present to early native/settler contact.  Both studies present the perspectives of both natives and settlers, with much more attention devoted to the former.  Both studies familiarize the reader with actual people in their everyday local life worlds.  Our consideration of, ‘what’s desirable?’ ‘what’s possible?’, will be grounded in this.

 The author of the Minnesota study is a native, of the Ontario study a settler.   Each author has, by following very different paths, attained fluency in both cultures……..which enableseach author to serve as a cultural broker, that is, to guide members of one culture in efforts to understand and appreciate the other culture and its people.