CONFRONTING THE POWER OF EMPIRE: A LESSON FROM THE GWAII HAANAS

GHIn last month’s Fast Company, Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Support Economy, points out that when it comes to consumer goods that we want, and which we buy through regular retailers, we can be very demanding — the iPod or this year’s hot toy, for example. But when it comes to things we need, like decent affordable health care and housing, a quality education, safe, healthy food, and adequate pensions, we tend to be meek and wait for politicians to do something for us. When they don’t, we just shrug and say “Oh, well”. We’ve been conditioned to the learned helplessness that allows outrages like the recent disgraceful, pork-laden US omnibus bill worked out in back rooms by sleazy, corrupt politicians and sleazier corporatist lobbyists, to pass with hardly a squeak from the media, opposition groups or even consumer advocates. She concludes:

I cannot help but wonder if and when our lack of voice and shattered trust will again awaken our revulsion and turn it into revolt. Instead of “no taxation without representation,” our cry could be “no choice without voice.” It says we’re no longer seduced by a superficial array of choices. We once found the strength to confront the power of an empire. Can we do it again? Will we?

Why do we put up with this? I’ve just been watching a program on the Haida Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Heritage Site, on the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) in BC, which provides a remarkable cultural contrast to the problems that bedevil our culture. The park and the site are jointly protected by the Haida people and the Canadian government, and the number of visitors is strictly limited. An area of stunning beauty (depicted above and below) and astonishing wildness (some of the highest rains and winds on the planet), the site is of course seriously threatened by the oil cartel’s shoddily constructed and negligently managed oil tankers. And the Haida people, whose self-contained and rich culture is arguably one of the best models of how to live in human history, were ravaged by epidemics of the white man’s diseases, to which they had no immunity, brought by miners, loggers and whalers. The 9000 year-old matrilineal Haida culture had about 30,000 people living in total harmony in 800 communities scattered throughout its 4000 square mile, 200-island area. Between 1780 and 1915, disease, mainly smallpox, reduced their numbers to about 500, and children were forced into residential schools to indoctrinate them into the colonizers’ culture. Our culture clear-cut the Northern forests and drastically reduced the fish population on which the Haida culture had thrived.

GH2The remaining Haida have been able to protect only the Southern third of the islands from logging and other development by our invasive and destructive culture. The area sports a staggering biological diversity, including, because of the islands’ remoteness, some species not found anywhere else on Earth.

These were a people who, for 9000 years, knew nothing of the learned helplessness that oppresses our culture. The word Haida means simply ‘People’. Their genesis legend is that Raven, the great spirit, coaxed the first humans out of a clamshell. Their relationship with the land, the sea, the forest and the air, and all their creatures, is a profoundly sacred one, one of complete interconnectedness.

Think of the problems that we are struggling with today: lack of adequate and affordable health care, housing, education, safe and healthy food, and security in old age. For 9000 years the Haida had none of these problems. They lived within their means. They had an egalitarian society where resources were shared. They learned what they needed to know (and what we would be wise to learn) from studying nature, from each other, and from the stories passed down from previous generations. They lived in a world of great abundance, and took only what they needed. They revered the community elders. Although they had the wherewithal to create an exploding population and imperial, urban society (they were the only ones skilled enough to cross the strait to the mainland, but did so rarely), they did not — their population was never more than 8 people per square mile, and women had an average of only 3-4 children, which kept population stable for millennia. In short, they managed their numbers and their consumption in a way that prevented any of the problems that plague us today from ever arising. They lived responsibly and sustainably. And very comfortably.

So my answer to Shoshana’s question is: Our culture is doomed, and we will not ‘confront the power of empire’ and overcome our learned helplessness. In our urban, horrifically overpopulated, rapacious and expansionist artificial world, we can no longer see that the ‘power of empire’ is an inevitable consequence of living beyond our means and of disconnection from the appreciation of nature as sacred. We cannot learn the lessons of the Haida because our culture’s constant noise and indoctrination, the ‘machine in our heads’, no longer lets us hear or understand these lessons intuitively, there is no natural context for us to see and hear and feel the truth that allowed previous cultures to thrive for millennia. We need people like Shoshana to stop wasting time trying to make a hopelessly damaged and self-destructive culture work, and instead help us design the next culture, after ours has destroyed itself. That next culture will be one that melds the best innovation and technology of our present dreadful culture, with the timeless and instinctive wisdom of all other cultures, successful and sustainable cultures, human and animal, that we have so tragically forgotten.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to CONFRONTING THE POWER OF EMPIRE: A LESSON FROM THE GWAII HAANAS

  1. Doug Alder says:

    They also practised slavery and warfare on a grand scale. They travelled the coast from Alska to California raiding other tribes along the way. They were among the fiercest of native warriors and were feared throughout that range. Close to one third of their population consisted of slaves. You are dangerously close to falling for the “Noble Savage” myth Dave.Having lived in the Charlottes (Sandspit on Moresby Island) for 4 months in my youth I can certainly attest to the beauty, wildness and ferocity of nature there.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    So my answer to Shoshana’s question is: Our culture is doomed, and we will not ‘confront the power of empire’ and overcome our learned helplessness. In our urban, horrifically overpopulated, rapacious and expansionist artificial world, we can no longer see that the ‘power of empire’ is an inevitable consequence of living beyond our means and of disconnection from the appreciation of nature as sacred. We cannot learn the lessons of the Haida because our culture’s constant noise and indoctrination, the ‘machine in our heads’, no longer lets us hear or understand these lessons intuitively, there is no natural context for us to see and hear and feel the truth that allowed previous cultures to thrive for millenniaOuch ! and I agree. I think I’ve described oin comments previously on this blog my amateur systems thinker’s “worldache”. I do think we’re doomed … and so I’ll keep on doing, and trying to do, what I think is right, and progressive and helpful. The only alternative is (for me) real “anomie” … and although it may be that that way lies real wisdom, the impermanence of life, it’s beyond me at this point in time to deal effectively with a constant awareness of that continued slide into a sort of Hell in any other way than continuing to try, somehow, to make a positive difference .. to be the change I want to see.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: I read about the Haida’s slavery and warmongering. I have to ask whether this is verified, or possibly propaganda to salve the conscience of the white man for the horrendous slaughter of the Haida and the despoiling and theft of their land. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but half of what I learned in school about aboriginal peoples has since been shown to be outrageous lies. What possible reason would the Haida, living in an abundant Eden, isolated by the Hecate Strait from other cultures, have to go out and deliberately attack other tribes without any provocation, and bring in slaves? The stories don’t seem well substantiated from what I can find online, and just don’t add up, intuitively or rationally.

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    I am with you dave – what we have cannot be reformed. There is no point protesting. The alternative has to be built.

  5. Avi Solomon says:

    The ‘Matrix’ of rationality has me in it’s grip. It will either destroy me(if I am ‘wild’) or will turn me into a complaint cog. I am asleep and not even aware of how much the ‘matrix’ has me in it’s tyranny. There are ways out but one has to be smart & tough!

Comments are closed.