Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bury My Heart

now finished: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
now reading: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I owned a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for more than 15 years before reading it. Hence its place in "Project: Finally!" in which I have resolved to finally read over the course of 2013-14 the most nagging and lingering of all the books I've meant to read for years now. These aren't just books I've thought about reading here and there, but the ones that I've actively, totally, fervently meant to read, that I have touched or even owned, many of which I have started and read some of. These are the books that I know about and have engaged with and many, many, many times failed to read for some stupid reason. This project is about mending!

Would that the slaughter of the tribes that previously occupied the U.S.A. could be mended so easily.

It's not as if I can add anything to the tale of woeful history in which the U.S. manifested its destiny by slaughtering the previous occupants of the land. I will say, however, that this book presents the story in such a way that I felt really sad. And yeah, outraged, of course. Plenty of outrage. Of the if-not-you're-not-paying-attention variety. But even more sadness, the deepest, darkest, gut-punching sadness. Every time another leader tried to say, "Hey, we can live here and you can live here and we can all live here, but please let my people just live on this land without your soldiers attacking us" it hearkened back to the very first pages in which Christopher Columbus notes how polite the welcoming Taino Indians were, their manners "decorous and praiseworthy." Which prompted him to take all he could get. Nothin' but a G-G-G thang. Talk about your original gangsters. But don't gangsters actually respect their rivals' territory, maybe, at least a bit?

A few people did try, among them  John L. Webster, Judge Elmer S. Dundy, and Tom Jeffords, but there were so many assholes to contend with that the noble efforts of good people were but a tiny glimmer in a horrid, shadowy doom. Now, I'm a super proponent of "it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." That's true, but many people didn't have even that much of a choice. So, so many people, especially Native peoples, were lighting their candles, only to be doused and darkened time and again by gold- and silver-hungry settlers, battle-hungry soldiers and officers who didn't have a living in the army if they didn't stir up shit, and general greedy destiny manifesters who told themselves Indians were savages.

Every time another massacre is about to happen in this book -- and yes, there are so, so many -- the dread creeps up again, and the reader just hopes against hope that this time someone will see reason, that someone will realize killing people they have just sworn to protect, including dozens of women and children, is a really bad idea, you know, morality-wise.

Alas, no.

This book made me so profoundly sad -- and I already knew some of this history! It's not as if it was a surprise, right. I've read I Will Fight No More Forever.  I grew up in Arizona. I know about Honor the Earth. I had thought and even ranted about loads of it before! I lived in Joseph City and I've been to Holbrook and know all about the Navajo, right?! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.  So pathetic that this is what passes for "knowing" this history. I lived on the edge of the reservation (you know, where the powers-that-be like to build power plants). I quoted passages from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee  in a college paper (without reading all of the book!) I'm a supporter of Native justice, so I totally knew all about what went on, right? Oh my dear gods, no. Those attitudes of "what can I do" + "hey, I'm on the right side, I've done something" are pretty dangerous. Especially if they prevent you from getting around to reading this book for fifteen years. Trust me, you can learn something from reading this book, no matter what you think you already know, and furthermore, you can feel something and experience something while reading this.

Then again, I really DON'T know what to do, even now that I've read it. For a long time I have wanted to get a job where I can even do something tiny and small to help right these wrongs and be better going forward. But what? How? Where?  etc. I really should have gone to law school at ASU. Fuck Hofstra's "international law" concentration; what a joke. I might add that I don't even know how to find my own Indian ancestry, which I always think about when I think about the deplorable behavior of the white folk in the 19th century. My great-great grandmother, the paternal grandmother of my paternal grandmother, hails from Quebec and was a "first nations" person, or whatever one calls this in Canada. See how pathetically little we know? Even my grandmother didn't know. Just knew that her grandmother was Indian, married into the family of Frenchies there in Quebec, and both of this ancestor's parents are recorded as French names in our records, without birthplaces even, so who knows who was French and who came from where. That's all we know. We don't even know what Indian nation she descended from, or who married or kidnapped whom. It bothers me that one's history can be so quickly erased and forgotten, whether on a personal level, or on the massive scale in which the U.S. army and settlers saw fit to eradicate entire tribes and nations and peoples and history in the Western U.S.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee should be required reading for everyone. (Is it required reading anywhere in school??) Yes, it will make you feel sad. You might have to pause and come back to it when it gets to be too much. But read it. Do.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gods, wealth, magic underwear, socialist market economies,
and other roots of all evil

now finished:
The Return of the God of Wealth:  The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China
by Charlotte Ikels
now reading: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry ed. by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
now also reading: Lonely Planet Phuket Encounter by Adam Skolnick and Austin Bush

I just managed to get the heck out of Guangzhou, and my so-called friend makes me relive it all with The Return of the God of Wealth, which, while about "urban China," is specifically about Guangzhou as a representation or even trendsetter of the aforesaid transition to a (socialist) market economy. This so-called friend (I kid, I kid) is living in Shanghai and working and getting a master's and learning about China things for his classes, and he loaned me the book because, he said, it was "good" and "interesting"  and it intrigued him and taught him a lot about Guangzhou.

Guangzhou...sigh.  So interesting from afar. So full of bodily fluids from a-near.

All right, I'll admit that it was kind of fun, in a schadenfreude way, to read perfectly objective, factual sentences written in social science, clinical description, I'm-not-capable-of-judging-you-I'm-here-only-to-report-human-behavior speak about the hygiene (or more accurately, the lack thereof) in Guangzhou. And the public confrontation/problem solving amusements. And the traffic jams, and the trash, and the spitting, and the lack of heat source in apartments (WTF?!, as I have mentioned) and the horrible dietary practices of eating every animal that comes along (including domestic ones that are often stolen--since THEY AREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE EATEN so of course there's no dog/cat/hedgehog meat industry to legally raise and acquire them, you mother!@&**$rs!!!)  and about how Guangzhou people are willing to slaughter and eat anything.  Except that's not fun at all, actually. Because it's pretty fucking terrible. So I'm not really sure that I wanted to relive the past year by reading all about it in this book, even if there is a tiny bit of satisfaction to be had in having it documented all professional-like for anyone who was maybe thinking of not believing me.

For me and China, it's like the Mormons all over again. You people have got it all wrong; you dislike them for all the wrong reasons. People are always on about Mormons being weird or "cult"-like because they "wear magic underwear" and "have lots of wives," neither of which are accurate descriptions. Now, if you want to talk about history, that's fine; I do think we have to be responsible for our history (see, e.g., Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), and I definitely think it should be discussed and that leaders should not gloss over it. However, to say "Mormons are weird because they have lots of wives," besides being such a blatantly male-identified statement, interesting in someone who wants to critique a wholly patriarchal religion, is basically the same as saying "People in the U.S.A. are assholes because they have African-born slaves."  I mean, we just don't. Anymore. Was the country founded and built on slavery? Yes. Did slavery disappear with the snap of a Constitution-amending finger, making life happy and joyous and hunky-dory for all the slaves? Of course not. And are there dire, lasting consequences that should be addressed by politicians and others in power, as well as masses who think, simplistically, that "those days are over so be quiet and move on"? Yes. And yet, if you said, "Ewww, the U.S. is so weird and creepy because they have slaves" you would sound very misinformed, and that's how you sound when you talk about the Mormons and the wives.

ANYWAY. The point is, there are soooo many good reasons to dislike and/or leave and/or never participate to begin with in the Mormon church (or any Christian church), in my humble opinion, and I've always been amused by all the "reasons" people have for thinking the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so weird when they fail to even address the real issues like lack of critical thinking, more sexist double standards than you can shake a stick at, condescending discussions about womanhood and motherhood (basically equated in the religion), and obsessive avoidance of super-mundane pleasures in life like coffee, wine, and R-rated movies. Not to mention the fact that the three hours of weekly church and the general conference sessions that roll around a few times a year will basically bore you to tears.

And so it is with China. People stateside are ready at the drop of a Tweet to unleash their scorn: blah-blah pollution, blah-blah piracy, blah-blah human rights. No, I don't mean to suggest with my "blah-blah" that these are not important issues. I mean to suggest that people are not saying anything important about them. They are jumping on a bandwagon ("Oooh, I heard China is bad! China is totally bad, it's like armageddon and doom and it's totally Communist, right, so it's bad!") and repeating things they know very little about and also buying a WHOLE lot of goods made there while lamenting the loss of "made-in-America."   Actual conversation that took place between me and a neighbor of my mother's in her Phoenix condominium complex's pool:

Neighbor woman: If we don't watch out, pretty soon we're all going to be China.
Me, admittedly a little puzzled about what it means to "be China": Well, maybe that's true, especially if everyone keeps shopping at Walmart.
Neighbor woman: *speechless uncomprehending face*

Part of why I was looking forward to living in Guangzhou for a year was that I wanted to distance myself even further (and farther) from the people who could never imagine themselves living in China. The people who assure you that they've read all about the cable news scrolling headlines...but can't necessarily name the third and fourth largest cities there (which each have higher populations than most U.S. states).  And having traveled and lived there, I find myself shaking my head at all the apocalypse-now doomsaying, when I'm just fleeing the egregious daily life issues. You want a real disaster?  Try going to the bank. Try exiting the subway via escalator. Or, just enjoy a stroll through the city streets, with spit hurtling at you from every direction and children urinating and defecating on the sidewalks as a matter of course ("induced" even, by their adult guardians, to do so, as Ikels so clinically describes it--true story!) And let's not ever overlook the fact that they cage, tie up, and eat cats and dogs. (No, not everyone does this. One instance of it would be too many, but no, it's not everyone.)  These are really great reasons to dislike China, but everyone's too busy tsk-tsking their human rights abuses, which are like most countries' human rights abuses (i.e., they deprive people of their human rights; see, e.g., Guantanamo), but a lot easier to call out in others than in oneself.

You are never going to address human rights issues by making it a competition between nations or acting as if some countries (imaginary lines drawn in the sand) are blame-free. We are all one big global humanity, and we need to act as such when we claim to want humans to live freely and prosper.

But what is divided up country by country is our one big global economy, and for that reason, it's interesting to read books such as The Return of the God of Wealth: The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China. Although the author's research took place from the late '70s through the mid-'90s, much of it still rings very Guangzhou-true.

Although it would have been nice to get some of her matter-of-fact depictions of the debacle that is a ride on the Guangzhou Metro, but that wasn't launched until 1997, so we'll have to wait for the sequel...