If you are in New York in the next few months there is a small visiting exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called Listening to Our Ancestors, which is worth a visit. It is an amazing building, the exhibition is free and the layout and structure is professional and engaging. The content was extraordinary and something of a revelation to me. The aesthetic of Native American art has never particularly appealed to me. Many of the masks in the show, and I apologise for the analogy because these are sacred objects, reminded me of Mr Punch – the exaggerated facial features and so on. Others were strikingly original and the images of women flying on the back of birds and a carved canoe were beautiful. There were, however, two aspects of the show that stood out.
The first was the notion of songs in the culture of Native Americans. The tribes represented here were from the north Pacific coast, ancient peoples closely associated with the sea. Images of whales reminded us of the movie Whale Rider. The songs were sacred in the sense that they were given – the songs came. I had never really understood this idea before. The exhibit, however, made it clear that these songs would come to the people who wrote them and the act of their creation was seen as a divine act. The notion of song being given seems to me to be as good an explanation of creativity as any. The coming of the song, like the coming of a poem or a piece of music, cannot be explained so it is turned into a divine act, the coming of a god into the life of the tribe. These songs are then guarded and protected.
The second thing that came out of the exhibition for me only occurred when I read the catalogue back here in London. The objects were all in remarkably good condition. I did not question this as I walked around but afterwards I realised it was because most of them were made in the last hundred years. They were recreations of objects made much earlier that had been collected by the Canadian authorities and shown for a fee in parish halls. To an extent this was not an exhibition of Native American civilisation so much as an exhibition of the reconstruction of that civilisation after its destruction. Not in the sense of an invented tradition but in the sense of rebuilding from the fragments of what remained after a continental genocide.
The author of the catalogue recalls being sent off to a church school, aged six, to have his beliefs educated out of him. All of this is well known of course for western tribes, but perhaps less so for these north Pacific ones. An entire culture destroyed and then, slowly and carefully, recreated. At first this process was carried on against the policies of successive governments and then, finally, with their support. Even the fishing rights were restored and protected. Despite this the fact that very little of the exhibit was more that 150 years old was deeply depressing. Truly this was a genocide of epic proportions – the attempt to destroy in whole or in part a nation or in this case many nations, in their cultural life as well in the physical sense of killing.
We do not teach the genocide of the Native Americans on our comparative module at Kingston. Nor do we teach the history of slavery or slavery as an instance of genocide. There is another module on slavery in the portfolio. In part the decision to exclude these two US cases was pragmatic – we could not teach everything and we wanted to concentrate on the 20th century. In part this was a necessary restriction because if we opened up the 19th century it could easily have become a module about imperialism and its victims. A worthy module to teach, but different from what we wanted to achieve with the course which was to explore the extent to which “never again” has not been a reality. There were deeper reasons at work as well I think, at least in myself. As I have written here before, I am very fond of the US – its people, its values, its democracy and its freedoms. A colleague has critiqued our choice of cases – Stalin, Hitler, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Saddam Hussein and Sudan – as being cases in which the west are the good guys, or at least not the perpetrators. This is partially true, though in Rwanda our failure to intervene was a prime cause of the genocide. But the decision not to focus on US perpetrated genocides was also a reaction against the monolithic focus on the crimes of the US in contemporary academic life and the attempt to try to offer a little balance to the overall curriculum students study. (It is odd that both sides in these debates feel that the other dominates so much.)
There were then good curriculum reasons for excluding this case in the sense of not being able to cover everything and also of introducing students to the notion that states other than the US have committed crimes against humanity. The exhibition has though given cause to pause and consider if the decision was sound or not. We discuss precedent a great deal on the course. Much is written about the way in which the Holocaust shattered human taboos about what a state could do. Listening to Our Ancestors reminded me of the extent to which the almost complete and wilful destruction of the Native American civilisation was also a pretty clear module for Stalin and Hitler to follow. This argument for the 20th century is extended and made at length in Michael Mann’s book, the Dark Side of Democracy. I still think Mann is broadly wrong in his thesis but I will be spending a lot more time on the 19th century in the first week of teaching this year because of this wonderful exhibition.