Jerry Mander's "In the Absence of the Sacred": a critique

Jerry Mander's "In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations" represents a very important but misguided tendency in the world-wide movement for indigenous peoples' rights. Along with Kirkpatrick Sale and Vandana Shiva, Mander argues that the only way forward for land-based peoples is to live the simple life that their ancestors lived. Politics consists of turning the clock backwards. The computer is a symbol of evil in their eyes and Sale went so far as to defend the Unabomber in public. He also begins each of his highly paid lectures by smashing a personal computer.

Before presenting a counter-argument to Jerry Mander's, it would be fair to give some credit to him for presenting some valuable information about American Indian history and society. Mander has been studying these issues for many years and is often good at presenting the other side of the story, which is essential in such a racist country as the United States.

In the chapter "The Gift of Democracy," he makes the case that the Iroquois confederation had a big influence on the authors of the American constitution. The colonists wanted to make sure that a central government did not trample on the rights of individual states. The Iroquois confederation included the Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora nations and stretched from Ontario to Georgia. The Great Law, which was oral, served as its constitution. The anthropologist Lewis Morgan wrote extensively about the Iroquois and Frederic Engels leaned heavily on these writings in the Marxist classic "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State." Engels thought that the Iroquois were a prime example of a successful classless, egalitarian, noncoercive society. While most leftists are familiar with Engels' respect for Iroquois government, far fewer are aware that people such as Benjamin Franklin held similar views. Citing Donald Grinde's groundbreaking "The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation," Mander makes the following point:

"Grinde points out that James Madison made frequent forays to study and speak with Iroquois leaders. William Livingston [first governor of New Jersey] was fluent in Mohawk, and stayed with Indians over extended periods. John Adams and his family socialized with Cayuga chiefs on numerous occasions. Thomas Jefferson's personal papers show specific reference to the forms of Iroquois governance, and, says Grinde, 'Benjamin Franklin's work is resplendent with stories about Indians and Indian ideas of personal freedom and structures of government.'"

The chapter titled "Lessons in Stone-Age Economics" refutes the claim that people living off the land through hunting and gathering were worse off than people living under capitalism. Making extensive use of Marshall Sahlin's "Stone Age Economics", Mander argues that so-called primitive societies enjoyed a great deal of leisure time, satisfied all their material desires and survival needs with little difficulty, did not work very hard, and consciously chose 'subsistence economies.' And, most critically, they "deliberately did not accumulate surpluses."

Sahlins cites a 1960 study which finds that in a representative hunting and gathering society, after adding up all the time spent in all economic activities (plant collecting, food preparation, and weapon repair), the average male worked three hours and forty-five minutes a day, while females worked on average just five minutes longer. Sahlins concluded that such peoples did not work hard, nor did they work continuously. No wonder nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the Lakota, the Navajo, the Apache and the Seminole fiercely resisted capitalist assimilation. When given a choice of living a life of freedom close to the abundance of nature or becoming wage-slaves or farmers, they inevitably chose the former. The real "primitives" would seem to be the average overworked American who sits at a desk or stands on an assembly line for 50 to 60 hours a week for the sole purpose of making high wages to satisfy an addiction for consumer goods.

Hence it is easy to understand why Mander would defend such an existence. It is also easy to understand why big business and the corporate state are so eager to get the Indian off the land and open it up for commercial exploitation. If it can not persuade the Indian to adopt the white world's ways, it will use chicanery or violence to move the Indian off their ancestral lands. In the nineteenth century, such conflicts took place across the Plains states. Today, they are even taking place on the reservation, where Indians struggle to retain traditional ways. Mander's advice to the Indian is simply to resist the encroachments of the outside world. This does not only mean resisting the uranium mining company's rape of sacred land, such as occurred in New Mexico. It also means resisting the tools of the outside world, such as the computer.

In the chapter "Seven Negative Points About Computers," Mander takes exception to the Canadian government's attempt to provide computer training to Indians for the purpose of resource management. Mander challenges the notion that trees, grizzly bears, water, etc., are "resources." They are rather part of mother nature and Indians should use traditional methods of keeping track of them, which is much more intuitive than a computer can hope to achieve.

This is bad advice. The Indians of the United States are facing a fundamental challenge with respect to resources like oil, coal, gas and uranium. There is no "traditional" way of keeping track of them since traditional society had no particular use for them. Meanwhile, there are vicious, greedy corporations who want to avoid paying royalties to the tribes, while polluting the water and soil on their land. How can one prevent this? Clearly, this involves keeping accurate records of the quantity of such resources and accounting exactly for royalties. There are estimates that billions of dollars have been stolen from the Indian because of shady bookkeeping practices by the government and the corporations. The only way that this can be prevented is if Indians develop their own expertise and know for sure what they own and how much it is worth.

Mander cites an article in the October 1984 issue of "Development Forum" titled "Worshipping a False God," by Ken Darrow and Michael Saxenian. The authors, who have been involved in developing small-scale technology in third world countries, reject the use of computers. They do not think that computers can provide low-cost communications and information processing needs to primarily agrarian societies. This is "dangerous nonsense" and Mander agrees with them. They say, "In a poor country, using a microcomputer linked by satellite to an information system half-way round the absurd."

To the contrary, it is "dangerous nonsense" for indigenous peoples to avoid using computers in this manner. Anybody who has been following the Zapatista struggle for the past few years understands how crucial the Internet has been. Not only has it served to educate people all around the world about what these Mayan peoples are fighting for, it has also provided an emergency response mechanism when the Mexican government has attempted to repress the movement. Immediately after the massacre in Chiapas last month that took the lives of 44 people, the Internet became a beehive of activity as word circulated. Demonstrations, picket-lines and other forms of protest forced the Mexican government to open up an investigation and public awareness will surely make it more difficult to repress the movement in the future.

Furthermore, the World Wide Web is replete with pages devoted to struggles of land-based peoples all around the world, including the American Indian. The information originates with the tribes themselves and provides an accurate source of information in contrast to the misinformation contained in the daily newspaper or television and radio. For somebody to tell Indians not to use computers is not only arrogant, it is stupid.

Another big problem is that Mander oversimplifies the fight between the Indian and the forces arrayed against him. The only sort of Indians that Mander seems interested in are those who are completely untainted by the outside world. If an Indian lives in a city or makes a living as a miner on the reservation, Mander ignores him. He only pays attention to the "pure" Indian who survives by hunting or fishing the way that he did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Hence, he devotes an entire chapter to the Dene Indians in Canada, who live in the Northwest Territories where the traditional economy revolves around caribou hunting and ice fishing. In the 1970s, they discovered oil on Dene land and pretty soon all the usual culprits descended upon them: oil corporations, lawyers and real-estate developers. What is Mander's biggest concern, however? It is that television, of all things, will disrupt the Dene's simple life. He worries that televised soap operas will replace traditional story-telling.

This is astonishing. When the Dene's traditional way of life is being challenged by the outside world, he focuses in on the threat of television. Television, as everybody knows, is a means of escape just like alcohol or drugs. If you want to remove the temptation of such things, you have to give people an alternative. In the case of the Dene, the alternative was there to begin with, namely their traditional way of life. Mander has never really considered the question of POLITICS, since it is only political struggle that can block corporations. Mander's approach is that of the good missionary who wants to paternalistically plead the case of the Indian. His message seems directed toward the corporations: "Please leave these defenseless people alone." He has functioned on the boards of various corporate backed environmental groups and had a career in the world of advertising beforehand, so it easy to understand why he would try to act as the Indian's representative to this world.

He reminds me of the Franciscan priests who used to intercede on behalf of the Indian during the 1500s when they asked the crown or the church to be more merciful. Paternalistic intercession is less useful than self-organization and self-defense of the Indian peoples. That is something the Indian can only do for himself. Mander has nothing to say about this. In his 400 page book, he never once mentions, for example, the American Indian Movement. Ward Churchill's review of Mander's book, titled "Another Dry White Season," (contained in "From a Native Son"), contains the astonishing observation that of 305 bibliographic entries in the book, only seventeen are by Indian authors. Not one of Vine Deloria Jr.'s dozen books is cited, nor any by Churchill himself, nor any by any other American Indian political leaders. The only conclusion you can draw is that Mander thinks the fight is between poor, defenseless, "pure" traditional peoples and the government and corporations. And whom can they count on in their hour of need? Superman himself: Jerry Mander.

This brings us to the final question of Mander's prejudice against anything that is not primitive and local. If it was up to him, Indians would exist in triblets just as they did 500 years ago. They would not live in cities, drive cars, wear clothes purchased at Walmarts, watch television, use computers or go to college. This precludes hundreds of thousands of Indians, including the men and women who founded AIM.

People like Leonard Peltier, Dennis Banks, Russell Means and John Trudelle were not traditionals. The civil rights movement or the black nationalist movement of the 1960s inspired them. They lived in the cities and made their living as auto mechanics or other blue-collar jobs. They often did not even speak Lakota or their tribal language. Their sole agenda was defending Indian rights, on or off the reservation. This meant challenging the government, not pleading to it to be kinder and gentler.

And so we must ask what and who is the American Indian that is much more complex than the one described by Mander? Furthermore, do we have a litmus test that says only people who speak the language and subsist off the land are worth defending? No, of course not.

The American Indian, more than any other people living in this country, is a product of various clashing economic, cultural and social forces. Ever since the colonists came to America, Indians have adopted defense strategies that in essence contradict the sort of highly localized, traditional identity that Mander privileges.

There is a very interesting paper titled "From Peripheral Domination to Internal Colonialism: Socio-Political Change of the Lakota on Standing Rock" by James V. Fenelon, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Carroll University. It is at ',' the online version of the Journal of World-Systems Research. Unfortunately, Fenelon uses a lot of academic jargon but his research is fascinating. Basically, he argues that American capitalism has forced the Lakota at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota to think of itself both as a nationality and as a tribe. Their complex self- identification shows how limited Mander's categories are. Fenelon has interviewed people on the reservation and here are seven examples of the rather diverse forms of tribal and national identity:

1. "I'm a Sioux woman, Yanktonai, and it (the group) should be called the Sioux club. I've lived here for almost forty years, so this is my home, but I am from Standing Rock, and so is my daughter... We speak Dakota, and of course English... Some of these people don't even know where they are from, and so they're from nowhere..." (Earth-Powers, 1995)

2. "I am from (a particular Lakota) Sioux reservation - I don't like that word Sioux, but for means of identification I suppose it's OK. ...that's what I consider home, although I'm living out here, I guess I feel expatriated..." (Yonder, 1994)

3. "I felt it was an insult to the wisdom of my ancestors that the knowledge passed on to me should be valued so lowly... When I began teaching, I was amazed how many (Indian people) didn't have any (knowledge of their) background as a people." (Defender, 1993)

4. "When I first came to (the city) I thought 'Good I can relax here' because I had come from South Dakota where you can cut discrimination with a knife it's so thick. But that's not true. Here you find discrimination trying to get our needs met with city and state systems, because the Indian community doesn't have group strength." (Blue Weather, 1992)

5. "When you get cornered, boxed in, with nowhere to go, and your people are attacked... you resist... They take your land, your traditional ways, and then they want to start education their way, and all that is a continuation of their system. It's hard to be an Indian. They embargo your people, your ways, your nationhood. I had to expose this system that is used to destroy us, what is why I talked to the U.N., because we are a nation... They say "we acquired the land, we conquered this land, but we, the Sioux nation were never conquered. We will take our sovereignty..." (Grass-man, 1993)

6. "...when you know, you learn your language, your traditional ways... your whole outlook on life will change, your whole value system will change - you will be proud when someone calls you a traditional - you will become proud of your identity, and you will see the beauty of life,,,, and walk the good road." (Big-Horse, 1993)

7. "(The) colonial powers, coming in and re-naming us, ... naming us... (the)...military never gave the people, my grandmother, then chance to go back to their emergent, sacred places... (to re-new their identity)... People have been separated from their emergent places, and are not educated in their language." (Defender-Wilson, 1996)

Obviously, this level of complexity would frustrate Mander's model of analysis so he does just what you would expect. He ignores peoples like the Lakota, who have been at the forefront of American Indian struggles for the past 25 years.

It seems pointless to place traditional hunting-and-gathering societies on a pedestal at this point in history. While activists must defend the right of the Dene or any other peoples to live a traditional life, we have to be aware that the threat to their existence is not because of ill-will. Private enterprise does not represent an alternative "life-style" to that of traditional society that one can accept or reject as a matter of taste, like sugar in one's coffee. What is driving the Canadian and American governments and corporations to batter down the doors of the Dene and Inuit peoples is the need for profit. Oil, coal and uranium corporations will not listen to somebody like Jerry Mander,even if he is the most sincere and well-meaning person on the planet. Demonstrations and picket-lines speak louder.

They will only respond to political action, the more militant the better. As the cabal of corporations, the FBI and other defenders of private property lay siege to reservations and ancestral lands, the Indian must develop his own united front. Tribes will have to build coalitions both nationally and internationally. The need to communicate both within the United States and internationally will become ever more important. The Chiapas Indians will have paved the way for the use of computers in a liberation movement. Indians need not only computers, but faxes, cell telephones and cable TV. As Malcolm X once said, "By any means necessary." While he was speaking of guns, it is obvious that a much more effective tool for the time being is one that plugs into a wall.

In my next two posts, I will be taking a very close look at the intersection of Marxism and Indians. In the first of these, I will review the mistakes and the corrections made by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua vis-a-vis the Miskitu Indians. As part of this, I will examine Russell Means' role in the contra war. Following that I will examine the political philosophy of Juan Carlos Mariategui, a Peruvian Communist who tried to synthesize Incan communalism--embodied by the "ayllus"-- and 20th century Marxism.