CASE: Native American Life Wasn’t ‘Tribal’


Native American

Life Wasn’t ‘Tribal’

To the Editor:

I read Jim Atwell’s Front Porch Perspective, “The Originating Sin,” with great dismay. Although I share his disgust with the ignorance-laced factionalism that dominates the airwaves, I find his use of the word tribalism to be misinformed and highly offensive, to such an extent that I feel compelled to respond.

I agree that as Americans our education in what he calls tribalism starts early. There is no doubt that it poisons both the public and private spheres. And there is certainly abundant proof, which he accurately presented, of its weaving through historical and contemporary times. But calling it tribalism
is harmful to actual tribal people who, yes, still exist, especially in some of the counties and towns named for them (Oneonta, Otsego, etc.) where this newspaper circulates.

Misuse of the word is akin to naming teams such racial slurs as “red skin.” What’s more, it’s inaccurate. Consider the Northwest Area Foundation’s informative article, “Toward Native Truth … and Away from Mainstream Misuse of the Word Tribal.”

Kevin Walker, president & CEO, states “what’s being labeled ‘tribal’ is better understood as factional”:
“We in the United States are experiencing a … media environment that thrives on … us-versus-them messaging. We’re indulging in an extreme version of what George Washington once called ‘faction,’ in which the default mode for millions is to hunker down with those who agree with us and vilify those who don’t … What should we call this mess?

“Increasingly, the word ‘tribalism’ is the trendy answer. But it’s the wrong answer.

“… I’ve come to believe that the word ‘tribal’ is being used as political shorthand today in a way that is downright destructive … let’s use ‘tribal’ as a means of truly seeing Native communities.”

What does he mean? To get it, we first have to free ourselves of Atwell’s idea that “early in our species’ history, this trait embedded itself in our developing brain, probably parking right next to the fight-or-flight impulse.” That’s just a bit shortsighted and inaccurate. Factionalism of the level and to the degree that currently plagues us is not “humans’ original sociological sin,” but Western culture’s “original sociological sin.”

So, what are our original traits? Humans could never have survived as solitary animals, so what wiring facilitated our group success? Cutting-edge science reveals that our primal wiring is for sharing, empathy, compassion and equity (see Frans de Waal’s Ted Talk), and this informs tribal cultures.

Fight/freeze/flight, grounded in fear, is an emergency system that is not meant to be the basis of culture. But some cultures – and Atwell is correct that these have become dominant – have opted into them as a default system.

Anyone who has studied the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy’s’ Great Law of Peace on the U.S. Constitution is aware that tribes are the source of representative democracy. Like many tribes, they practice—now, not past tense – a council approach to decision making in which everyone has a voice and Elders mediate between multiple perspectives (Rogers & Case).

Today Elders like Oren Lyons (Onondaga), in his role at the U.N., and places like Standing Rock, where people of all ages, ethnicities, races and so on gathered to protect The Waters for future generations, demonstrate that our primal wiring is still alive and well in today’s tribal cultures.

Standing Rock is based on the understanding that Water is a living entity that travels globally and connects us all. It affects everyone’s lives, not just any one faction. Some tribes call this kind of understanding the Original Instructions. These instructions are shaped by philosophical principles such as the web of interconnectivity, not just among human tribes, but with animals, plants, air, earth, and water (Case & Craig).

Walker explains: “Native values, such as stewardship of the earth and thinking seven generations ahead, contain precisely the wisdom and insight that can lead all of us into a sustainable future. That is Native truth as I have come to understand it. It’s a far cry from the ‘tribalism’ described in the political media every day.”

In sum: actual tribal principles are exactly the opposite of factionalism. The stakes are high, and misuse of the word “tribal” obscures people whose solutions that we sorely need. By using the word “tribalism,”

Mr. Atwell is inadvertently creating division between Western and tribal peoples. He should consider changing his vocabulary, if only out of respect for his neighbors. Thank you for listening.

Saratoga Springs
Ms. Case is an associate professor
of Interdisciplinary Studies at
SUNY’s Empire State College

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