Someone on Facebook published this quote by Ayn Rand: The Native Americans didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…. What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.
I would like to believe no one on this blog needs an explanation about how utterly disgusting that is. In my opinion, it flows naturally from the concept that property rights are above–or a part of–human rights. This is what one would expect of such an ugly, reactionary philosophy. But it was the comments of some of those attacking the quote that made me roll my eyes.
“They were one with the land,” went one predictably inane remark. And, “they were a part of nature,” went another.
First of all, probably the most offensive thing is referring to American Indians as a monolith. I mean, seriously? The pastoral (in the literal sense) lifestyle of the Navajo is somehow identical to the complex agricultural life of the Powhatans or the Aztecs? The nomadic life of the Lakota is the same thing as the settled life of the Cherokee or the Seneca? The ancestors of the Pueblo who lived in Mesa Verde had the same life as the Iroquois of the Great Lakes? Some tribes in the Kansas Territory supported abolition, others owned slaves But they’re all the same? What the fuck?
Second, what is this, “one with the land,” bullshit? Like every human being ever on the planet, the American Indian, in different ways, according to the development of productive forces and the nature of his environment, consciously altered that environment. That is what human beings do. If we are “a part of nature” then the form that “oneness” takes is conflict. We wrest our living from nature, in conflict, as does every other living thing right down to the microscopic parasites in the intestines of our dogs. What makes human beings unique is our ability to planfully alter nature in accordance with our wishes–we not only build tools, but we build tools to build tools. This activity changes nature, adapts it to our needs.
This “one with nature” crap is only one, tiny step up from the racist “noble savage” idea every serious anthropologist had abandoned by the end of the 19th Century. And speaking of anthropologists–it is very popular today to dismiss the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, and cry racism for his use of terms like, “savagery” and “barbarism” and “civilization” in defining cultural states. But Morgan, who took the time to study and learn the nuances and subtleties of the different tribes with whom he lived, was far, far more respectful than the “one with nature” types we run into today.
By claiming that those who lived on the North American continent didn’t planfully change their environment, and by lumping them together, you are, in essence, denying them humanity, every bit much as Ayn Rand does.