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The Heresy of Capitalism Threatens Well Being in Indian Country

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
10/21/13

Duane Champagne’s recent article on violence and poverty in Indian country is, sadly, a stark reminder that in the big picture not much has really changed for America’s first peoples. These are indicators of suffering; to be born Indian is to be born into a culture plagued by multigenerational suffering.

He rightly points out that high crime rates are symptoms of deeper social and cultural distress and that addressing poverty is only a partial solution. He cites college education, better housing, restoral of individual health, cultural renewal, and enhanced tribal self-government as necessary to lowering crime rates. Yes to all of the above, I say.

Champagne also quite predictably mentions the creation of jobs and “market sustainability” as crime deterrents. Of course, this is the conventional wisdom of how to create social well-being within a capitalist, market-based system. Economics is the god that free-market capitalism (and even socialism) worships, and to suggest that capitalist fundamentalism is a false religion is to commit heresy. I’m not afraid to admit I’m a capitalism heretic.

Settler colonialism effectively discredited and dismantled Indigenous social systems including science and economic systems (and, yes, we had our own science and economic systems). The systems replacing them--market and wage based economies--were entirely foreign to our ways of being in the world, and caused further social devastation. In essence we became social laboratory experiments to prove the superiority of European civilization compared to our own Earth-centered cultures. I think by now we all know how well that has worked out for us.

The problem is that not only has it not worked out well for our Indian communities, it’s not working out well for anyone else on the planet, two-legged, four-legged, winged, crawlers, swimmers or anyone else, except perhaps for the 1 percent or so at the top of the economic food chain. The changing climate is a direct result of the industrial age and mass consumerism that Western societies glorified as true “civilization.” Already we are observing catastrophic effects to human and non-human life and it’s only going to get worse. Far worse.

Capitalist market fundamentalism at its most basic level is defined by and depends on the endless exploitation of natural (and human) resources, or what we normally call economic growth. The principle of market sustainability holds that the maintenance of and unrestricted access to markets stimulates growth and reverses violence. It doesn’t take an economics genius to understand that on a finite planet there is no such thing as unlimited resources, to say nothing of how the unfettered exploitation of those resources, especially fossil fuels, is responsible for global warming.

But more to the point: market-based capitalism is fundamentally rooted in competition, and competition means there will always be winners and losers. Its results are an intensely stratified social class system. So the obvious question is, how can an economic system that creates such profound differences between the haves and the have-nots—and thus violent crime—simultaneously prevent violence? The answer is it can’t. It’s a fallacy of epic proportions to think that the invisible hand of an omnipotent market will lead to social equity.  

Market-based capitalism runs counter to everything we’ve been taught by our ancestors. They taught us cooperation, not competition. To care for the environment and all the beings in it, not reckless exploitation. Colonization has programmed us to ignore those teachings and to invest our well-being in a system that only leads to illness and death, not life. It’s responsible for what the Hopi call “koyaanisqatsi,” or life out of balance.

As Native people we are obligated to our ancestors and to the future seven generations to imagine a better way to live on the planet. The kool-aid we drink is when we believe that there is no alternative to the current paradigm where everything on the Earth is seen as commodities to develop, not relatives to be respected. And that if we only had more money, more jobs, more education, better houses to live then we can be happy. “More” is the language of capitalism and its close companion, colonialism.

But we know that in our worldviews are the keys to envisioning a different, more sustainable life. It will likely involve decentralization of power on a global scale and as Dr. Champagne articulated, enhanced self-government for tribal nations. Increased regional control will allow communities to determine what is best for them in a bottom up, not top down manner. A return to more of a subsistence lifestyle where the things we need for life like food, water and medicine are not concentrated in the hands of multinational corporations would be sensible.

There is a rich and growing body of literature, scholarship and activism that dares to buck the current paradigm and imagine alternatives to the death culture of capitalism. But we must be brave enough to be capitalism heretics. Only then can we begin to refuse the poisoned kool-aid and choose a more life-affirming reality.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.

 

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bullbear's picture
Thank you Ms. Gilgio-Whitaker and Mr. Champagne for pointing out problems that we, as tribal members, already know too well. Educating our younger generation has not led to improved economy, health services or environment on reservations because there are too many politicians who have led their tribal communities down the path to disarray, mistrust and financial ruin. (see: AP Impact: Tribes Mishandle Funds: Go Unpunished 10/7/13) There is no turning back to a time when tribes relied solely upon its own resources and abilities to provide for its own. We are a society who must depend on external services to meet medical and housing needs. One of the tribal nations battles is how to best utilize its natural resources to produce jobs and protect the environment simultaneously. If we rely solely upon tribal council, who hold no engineering or economic studies degrees, to make those decisions - backs are turned on a tribes' education investment. It makes no sense. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying there is no place for wisdom of the elderly. What I am saying is that tribal nations need to do a much better job of working in unison and lead by example and open the doors and ears for all members to be heard and stand behind the best thinking of ALL of its people. Alcoholism, drugs and diabetes are the results of following a trail that is not our own path. Putting people back to work and showing how healthier diets lead to stronger nations is a start. It will take a fight, but not a fight for only a few - but an entire society of young, middle-aged and elderly.
bullbear
Anonymous's picture
this article brings to mind an old story I heard, when the Europeans were expanding westward they were starving due to a lack of commodities. they were approached by natives which addressed their needs and were told how could you be starving when you are surrounded by food.....this is only one example of who our natural resources have been affected by colonialism... every child could find at least 7 different species of manzanita... now every child doesn't even know what a manzanita fruit looks like....from the newly arrived European to the full blooded native child ... it is sad but true
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Dina you speak the truth.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you for pointing out "Settler colonialism effectively discredited and dismantled Indigenous social systems including science. " Many tribes were self healing and the biology of being less attached to the material world, bringing awareness within ourselves we can self-transform with Ceremonies. Being in touch with our Spirituality are brains produce different brain waves and many people never practice or even experience this self-healing energy. Clouding our bodies with materialism keeps us constantly plugged into confusion, overwhelming feelings and agitation.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
We as a society have many issues to deal with but sadly we focus on commerce and resource development as the only solution to these problems. Money, money, and more money are not going to solve the human populations serious issues of mass exploitation by less than 1% of it's residents. When some people are earning more money than the GDP of some third world countries, something is surely out of balance. Our mother earth is our life blood and needs to be protected from those who wish to rape it of it's bounty for the gains of a select few.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
We as a society have many issues to deal with but sadly we focus on commerce and resource development as the only solution to these problems. Money, money, and more money are not going to solve the human populations serious issues of mass exploitation by less than 1% of it's residents. When some people are earning more money than the GDP of some third world countries, something is surely out of balance. Our mother earth is our life blood and needs to be protected from those who wish to rape it of it's bounty for the gains of a select few.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
First nations were tribal, fighting between bands, making slaves of each other, betraying for resources, concerned only for their tribe, un-united, which is how the fiercest of ancestors were overcome by newcomers. The olde ways are not always the best ways. Communism does not work. Capitalism does not work. The world population is growing beyond our fishbowl. We must be able to learn from our respective histories and create a lifestyle that does work. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Anonymous
LookoutMtn's picture
I hadn't read this article before today, and then it was after reading an article about an Oklahoma children's "social welfare" agency being chided for not meeting its goals and expectations; more foster homes were signed up than had children in them. To reduce the number of children in "shelters" is a good thing, however, when we look at capitalism as a source or economic issues, one has to realize the problems it causes. No "children in need" - no social worker jobs, no agencies, no titles. While hearing the alarming number of Native children being taken into the welfare system, remember SOMEONE has to or there would be no dollars allotted from DC, no jobs. Yes, there are children who NEED services, however, to have quotas and "goals" creates necessity. Extrapolated numbers means statisticians seeing children who may NOT really need "services" but it makes the funding come in. Social workers are not allowed to cross "culture" lines for foreigners because their "culture" is different than the USA paradigm but the Native culture being truly different goes unrecognized because of the assimilation assumption. Talk to social workers and ask how many Hmong, Togo (African) or other cultures they're allowed to go into homes and take out children for "neglect," "abuse," or poverty, (what we would consider) squalid conditions - not allowed. I apologize if this does not seem directly related to Ms. Gilio-Whitaker's article but it is related, Native children are a commodity to the social work system. No, I do not think there should be more foster homes to be filled. Pay the families the money the foster homes would get, help the people stay a family - none of the articles listed these as goals of DCFS or the state welfare systems. Statistics abuse is causing the break-up of families. I can name at least 3 states that the laws state the welfare system does not even have to tell the families what they are doing wrong or help them get their own children back. This is part of the adoption abuse, too. Foster families get first option for adoption. Capitalism should not mean the selling of babies and children, whether by the social "welfare" system or the adoption industry. We must stand together and demand laws that unify families and work to keep them together not tear them apart.
LookoutMtn
LookoutMtn's picture
Anonymous: I would disagree with your over-view of Native American history, it is colored by what the European immigrants want to believe. First, "to the victors goes the writing of history" means more scholarship, historical writing and RESEARCH needs to be done by Native Americans themselves. When we speak of "the Land" and our Mother earth, it needs to be from the old way - actually living on/with her, walking her, smelling her, "researching" her for ourselves. It can be done in little places, at special times. Capitalism is not going to let you live in the old way, you can find a way to listen & know in the old way that few Europeans & other immigrants ever think of.
LookoutMtn
Anonymous's picture
I likes your commentary in the current This Week in Indian Country. I would like to propose that it be re-printed in our Tribal newsletter. I would like your permission to do so and then will have to get it approved by the newsletter committee but I think it is a very current and worthwhile statement. Thank you. Whe-Whe Olitza, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, Sequim WA (my e-mail is: beejmacg@gmail.com)
Anonymous

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