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Trimble: In search of Utopia

I had long viewed decolonization as a wish for an atavistic return to long-gone tribal societies of our ancestors – societies we tend to view as gentle and gracious, and free of all the greed and trash that aliens brought to our shores. I presumed that the goal of decolonization is a Native Utopia.

I would ask the decolonization leaders, even with a mass expulsion of all those non-indigenous people back to the homelands of their forebears, would we be able to bring back a truly tribal society and culture?

So I thought I ought to read up on the subject. On I found a book titled “For Indigenous Eyes Only,” a manual on how to go about decolonizing ourselves and our tribal communities. It was written by some of the most erudite Native scholars, each writing on a topic of his or her particular expertise or interest. The topics included the theories and need for decolonization, tribal critical thinking, sports (including mascots), repatriation (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), healthful diets, governance, language survival, storytelling and oral tradition, ideology and tribal enrollment.

It is excellent reading, and makes much sense for the betterment of tribal life, even if Utopia is not achieved. However, I was disappointed that the book did not describe what a decolonized community would look like; how it would differ from communities in Indian country today. Would it be utopian, as many Indians view the indigenous world before the white man came into it?

Many of our people yearn for a return to some world of our collective tribal past, one that was simpler and purer, if not perfect. But I have never heard that prospect described.

Some group, perhaps led by those scholars who promote decolonization, should define and describe the ultimate decolonized state.

Legal scholar Felix Cohen, in his great book of essays, “The Legal Conscience,” tells us that the great English philosopher and martyr Thomas More was inspired by contemporary reports of Amerigo Vespucci describing an idyllic native society he found in the New World. Shipwrecked in 1497 off the coast of what is now Brazil, Vespucci and his crew were rescued by Native people and treated with great kindness. It was from those accounts that Thomas More created the ideal society he called Utopia, described in his book of the same title.

After five centuries of conquest and occupation by European powers, little of that ideal world remains in the western hemisphere, except perhaps in some undiscovered tropical village along the Amazon. What remains of any semblance of traditional culture exist in enclaves of poverty surrounded by development and wealth. The poverty in these enclaves is the result of many decades of injustice – massive land theft, forced removal, and physical and cultural annihilation. This has left tribes in alien and much-reduced homelands unsuitable for the economic systems and lifeways that had sustained them for centuries, where they are wholly dependent upon their occupiers.

To be sure, much of the lack of development and resultant poverty stem from the resistance to assimilation into the larger society on the part of traditionalist segments on those reservations. And much of that resistance comes from rejection of what they see as a greedy and unjust colonial social system, and from undying hope for a return of the old days.

Many Native people, from traditional elders with little formal education to highly educated scholars, see the answers to the societal ills of Indian country in a return to the old tribal ways. And in some ways and in varying degrees, there seems to be promise and expectations of the eventual return of an Indian utopian society.

In the late 1880s, the Paiute prophet Wovoka promised that the white man would disappear, the buffalo would return, and life would again be good if the Native people would follow his new Ghost Dance religion. This new religion spread throughout the Plains tribes from Oklahoma to Canada, and into the far west. Despite the political and military reaction to the Ghost Dance that resulted in the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, it persisted in some tribes almost into the 20th century.

Less than 40 years after the Ghost Dance movement subsided, much resistance to the new government models offered in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 resulted in the fear of traditionalist that it would further delay the return to the old tribal governance of the chiefs. The political split in the communities – mostly between fullbloods and mixed bloods, over the adoption of the IRA model has remained alive and still renders some tribal governments ineffective for lack of popular support.

In 1973, dissidents on the Pine Ridge Reservation charged the elected tribal leadership with corruption and tyranny and called upon the American Indian Movement to help topple the IRA government and replace it with a traditional government of chiefs.

Today, the decolonization movement gains support from the apparent inability of modern tribal governments to deal with the myriad of problems in Indian country that are destroying families and communities alike. It is also fed by the escalating deterioration of social, economic and health conditions on the reservations.

I had long viewed decolonization as a wish for an atavistic return to long-gone tribal societies of our ancestors.

But a big problem is that those who would lead the various movements toward the return to the old ways have not defined what it would be. What are we looking for? What should we reject of our modern world of technology and its societal systems, and what would be the consequences of that rejection?

Some group, perhaps led by those scholars who promote decolonization, should define and describe the ultimate decolonized state. Then people can best judge if it is at all possible, and what the challenge is of restoring that utopia. Or they can choose the degree and the pace at which to decolonize.

Perhaps it is the spirit, morality, ethics and values of the old cultures that we seek. The vast majority of Native peoples have been baptized into one Christian faith or another. Most, I suspect, have fallen away, disillusioned by the actions of public leaders who share those faiths, and by the actions of their clergy.

The book, “For Indigenous Eyes Only,” is a good start. It should be read and debated.

Charles Trimble is an Oglala Lakota, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Neb. He can be contacted at His Web site is