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d’Errico: Perils of empire-building

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has several times discussed the long history of Afghanistan, referring to the many failed efforts by imperial powers to conquer it. The “tribal” organization of Afghanistan is the bane of empires; they can invade, but they cannot rule. They can disrupt and destroy, but they cannot build anything workable.

Most recently, Gates spoke to Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist. She asked what the U.S. should do to avoid the traps and pitfalls of past imperial projects in Afghanistan. Gates’ reply is fascinating. He said, “If we can re-empower the traditional local centers of authority, the tribal shuras and elders and things like that and put an overlay of human rights on that, isn’t that a step in the right direction?”

Amazing. In the 1980s, the U.S. funded jihadist resistance against the Soviet Union; now the U.S. is fighting jihadist resistance against the United States. As Dowd pointed out, the U.S. is caught in a historical contradiction – having created the very mess it is now trying to clean up.

The really fascinating thing about Gates’ comments, however, is how they shed light on another area of U.S. relations with “tribal” societies: The indigenous peoples of the Americas. The parallels are pretty clear, if we want to admit it. First, there is intervention based on using some elements of tribal societies against other elements and against the enemies of the United States. Then, there is the collapse of traditional governing structures. After that, there is the belated awareness that the traditional structures are needed to maintain social coherence and stability.

Maybe the U.S. is paying attention to its historical failures and applying the learning to present actions. That’s one hope.

An article in the Times, just two days before Dowd’s column, reported the growing problem of gang violence on Pine Ridge. The article said, “5,000 young men from the Oglala Sioux tribe [are] involved with at least 39 gangs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The gangs are being blamed for an increase in vandalism, theft, violence and fear that is altering the texture of life here and in other parts of American Indian territory.” It’s not only Pine Ridge: “The Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, has identified 225 gang units, up from 75 in 1997.”

One response, not surprisingly, is a call for more police. That’s like the call for more troops to Afghanistan. But the article noted there are other voices at Pine Ridge: “Even as they seek to bolster policing, Pine Ridge leaders see their best long-term hope for fighting gangs in cultural revival.” The article quotes Melvyn Young Bear, an Oglala cultural liaison: “We’re trying to give an identity back to our youth. They are Lakota, and they have a lot to be proud of.”

One gang member at Pine Ridge told the reporter he “regretted not learning the Sioux language when he was young” and now wondered about his own future. He is “emerging as a tribal spiritual leader, working with youth groups to promote Native traditions.” He said he is participating in Oglala rituals and purifying sweat lodges.

How nice it would be if the United States had not first attacked traditional societies. But that is what happened, in the invasions, allotments, terminations, relocations, and other harmful actions to extend American empire across the lands of indigenous peoples. It is the history of America on this continent and in Afghanistan.

The really fascinating thing about Gates’ comments is how they shed light on another area of U.S. relations with ‘tribal’ societies.

Maybe the U.S. is paying attention to its historical failures and applying the learning to present actions. That’s one hope. But there’s been a lot of damage done and the seeds of healing are scattered far and wide. Plus, there are still people in and out of government who believe in the failed policies of the past. If they have their way, the U.S. won’t learn anything until it’s too late for all of us.

One major contribution from Indian country is increasingly clear statements of traditional perspectives, and this shouldn’t be limited to talking about gang violence. Winona LaDuke’s new booklet, “Food is Medicine,” points out how genocide and colonization deprived indigenous peoples of access to traditional lands and foods. She presents indigenous communities that are “restoring spiritual practices related to foods, strengthening community health and self-determination.”

That’s the lesson for all indigenous peoples, on whatever continent, invaded by whatever power: spiritual restoration and self-determination.

Peter d’Errico is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues. D’Errico was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. He taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst until 2002.