Purchase The Culture of Make Believe
Read more

Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Indigenous Warfare (p. 174)

From chapter "Redemption and Failure"

This seems as good a time as any to debunk the notion that the “merciless Indian Savages . . . known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” which in the end is a falsehood no less absurd, indefensible, and self-serving—albeit more beautifully expressed—than the notion that black-haired Jew-boys lurk waiting around every corner for ignorant girls to defile. The only reason the former lie still has currency while the latter does not is that the Thousand Year Reich lost the war, while the decent white men have won all of theirs, at least so far.

And a primary—if not theprimary—reason whites have consistently defeated Indians in war is because of the cultures’ different understandings of war’s purpose and conduct. The purpose of war for white culture is to conquer, to subdue, to take, to win (and one could argue that this is the purpose not merely of war within white culture but of white culture as a whole). Whites will do anything to win. They will lie and cheat, and they will murder noncombatants. They will destroy foodstocks, and they will destroy the environment. They will pretend to be friendly, keeping in mind always the wisdom of John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, later Secretary of State responsible for the treaty providing for construction of the Panama Canal, and poet laureate of the late nineteenth-century Republican party: “In reality, the White Man was not a philanthropist: he would treat the Black, Yellow, or Brown Man humanely if it was convenient, but if the dark-skinned resisted, the White Man would destroy him. Biology, according to the scientific cant of the day, required no less, in order that the Fittest might survive.”

This notion of deceitful warfare is foreign to indigenous cultures. As Cortés advanced on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he repeatedly declared the peacefulness of his intentions. Montezuma, the Aztec leader, greeted him in friendship, as so many Indians had already greeted so many Europeans, and as so many more Indians would greet them in the future, all to their grief. Given the embeddedness of all of us in a culture that perceives war in monstrously utilitarian terms, and given our immersion in a river of deceit, a river where we take as accepted that one hand may hold forth an olive branch while another makes final arrangements to thrust with a sword, a river where treaties are abrogated at convenience, a culture in which lying to achieve one’s goals is not only acceptable and expected, but routine, it is no surprise that most of us find it inconceivably naïve, foolish even, that Montezuma believed Cortés. He believed him enough to invite him and his armed entourage inside the city’s gates, and to welcome them to a great feast in celebration of the god Huitzilopochtli. The Indians danced, played, and sang until on command the Spaniards drew their swords. According to sixteenth-century historian Bernardino de Sahagún, “The first Spaniards to start fighting suddenly attacked those who were playing the music for the singers and dancers. They chopped off their hands and their heads so that they fell down dead. Then all the other Spaniards began to cut off heads, arms, and legs and to disembowel the Indians. Some had their heads cut off, others were cut in half, and others had their bellies slit open, immediately to fall dead. Others dragged their entrails along until they collapsed. Those who reached the exits were slain by the Spaniards guarding them; and others jumped over the walls of the courtyard; while yet others climbed up the temple; and still others, seeing no escape, threw themselves down among the slaughtered and escaped by feigning death. So great was the bloodshed that rivulets ran through the courtyard like water in a heavy rain. So great was the slime of blood and entrails in the courtyard and so great was the stench that it was both terrifying and heartrending. Now that nearly all were fallen and dead, the Spaniards went searching for those who had climbed up the temple, and those who had hidden among the dead, killing all those they found alive.”

To launch a deceitful surprise attack would have been unthinkable—obviously—to the Aztecs, as unthinkable to them as their traditions of sacred warfare would be to us, wherein it was sacrilegious to use treachery to gain advantage over an enemy. “So important was the notion of fair testing,” wrote Inge Clendinnen, “that food and weapons were sent to the selected target city as part of the challenge, there being no virtue in defeating a weakened enemy.”

Similar rules prevailed north of the Rio Grande, where, for example, in the seventeenth century a Lenape Indian explained the way war works to an undoubtedly incredulous British colonist: “We are minded to live at Peace: if we intend at any time to make War upon you, we will let you know of it, and the Reasons why we make War with you; and if you make us satisfaction for the Injury done us, for which the War is intended, then we will not make War on you. And if you intend at any time to make War on us, we would have you let us know of it, and the Reasons for which you make War on us, and then if we do not make satisfaction for the Injury done unto you, then you may make War on us, otherwise you ought not to do it.” And of course similar rules of deceit prevailed on the side of the civilized, as when, to choose one example among many, during the American Revolution a unit of the Continental militia approached the Delaware town of Gnadenhutten on the Muskingum River, where the Indians, pacifists who had been converted to Christianity, were harvesting corn in preparation to leave the war zone. The soldiers “assured them of sympathy in their great hunger and their intention to escort them to food and safety. Without suspicion, only thankful that they need not perish in Sandusky [where the main body of their tribe had gone for safety], the Christians agreed to go with them. . . . The militia relieved the Indians of their guns and knives, promising to restore them later. The Christians felt safe with these friendly men whose interest in their welfare seemed genuine.” You can probably guess what happened next: “Once defenseless, they were bound and charged with being warriors, murderers, enemies and thieves, having in their possession horses, branding irons, tools, axes, dishes, all articles used by whites and not common to Indians. [These of course were purchased for them by their missionaries.] After a short night of prayer and hymns . . . twenty-nine men, twenty-seven women, and thirty-four children were ruthlessly murdered. Pleas, in excellent English, from some of the kneeling Indians, failed to stop the massacre. Only two escaped by feigning death before the butchers had completed their work of scalping.” The Continental militia, pleased with the ease of the massacre, declared their intent to move on to Sandusky for a repeat performance. But news traveled faster than did the whites, and the next village did not receive them so hospitably.

The early European conquerors often expressed scorn for the way the Indians fought, or, to their way of thinking, didn’t fight. John Mason, whose God laughed as he burned the Pequot men, women, and children, and who caused the Pequot men to not be able to find their hands, despised the Indians because, among many other reasons, their “feeble manner . . . did hardly deserve the Name of Fighting.” Another Englishman, Captain Henry Spelman, complained that when Indians fought, there was no great “slawter of nether side,” but that “’’having shott away most of ther arrows,” both sides “weare glad to retier.” The Indian way of fighting was so undeserving of the name, commented a disgusted John Underhill, who had commanded his men to “entertain” fleeing Indians with the points of their swords, that “they might fight seven yeares and not kill seven men.” The reason, he concluded, was that for Indians, “fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, insisted that “Their Warres are farre lesse bloudy, and devouring than the cruell Warres of Europe; and seldome twenty slain in a pitcht field. . . . When they fight in a plaine, they fight with leaping and dancing, that seldome an Arrow hits, and when a man is wounded, unlesse he that shot followes upon the wounded, they soone retire and save the wounded.” He noted also that as a point of honor Indians “ordinarily spared the women and children of their adversaries.”

Many indigenous cultures, such as the Zuñi Pueblo, Semangs, and Mbutus were, to the best of our knowledge, unwarlike, or as Erich Fromm puts it, “the institution of war is absent.” Yet even for most of the warlike indigenous cultures, war is nothing like we experience or for the most part can even conceptualize.

I’ve heard good things, for example, about how the Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea traditionally fought. They’ve long been considered, accurately enough, an extremely warlike people, yet their battles sound like great fun to me, with lots of leaping and dancing and a little bit of risk, but probably not much more actual damage than a good game of football, and a lot less than many rugby games I’ve heard of. In any case, on some level the Dani would rather not fight: as anthropologist Karl Heider pointed out in his classic, Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors, “The most common Dani way of coping with conflict is simple withdrawal. At a very early stage in conflict one party simply moves away from the situation. Individuals do it, and groups do it.” Sometimes, however, serious troubles would arise, the major cause being the theft of pigs (Heider never encountered the theft of anything else). In common with indigenous peoples the world over, feuds or wars were never fought for ideological reasons, but over tangible and/or personal insults. Among the Dani, if the conflict was not resolved through simple withdrawal, the next step was mediation and restitution. If the two sides were still aggrieved, yet were within the same social unit, involving agunijuma-mege, or “people from here,” the conflict may have escalated to actual violence, yet very rarely did so, and even then the violence was short-lived. If, on the other hand, the enemy was aguni dimege, or “the foreigners,” the conflict could escalate into a war that could last a half a generation, a war in which the ghosts of those slain often demanded vengeance. The length of these wars meant that nearly every Dani village was nearly always at war with one or another of its neighbors.

That sounds terrifying, but the battles were nothing like we Westerners would have expected, given the deadly and total nature of our own warfare. Instead, battles were more like giant games of capture the flag or paintball, with only potentially life-and-death consequences, and with deeper social significance. The battles were formal affairs involving hundreds of men on one of the regular battlefields in no-man’s-land between warring confederations. Each battle would be sponsored by a Big Man, who took responsibility for what occurred. He had a claim on all trophies, but had to share blame if any one got killed.

The night before the battle, the Big Man gathered men together to sharpen their spears and arrows, and to feast on a pig. They sent a messenger to the other village with their challenge. The challenge was usually accepted, and a battlefield was decided upon. On news of the acceptance the entire village erupted in a war whoop, making the sound of the cuckoo dove. This call was both an announcement and an invitation to join the next day’s battle.

The men prepared for battle by covering themselves in pig grease, and arranging feathers in their hair. As Heider put it: “Everyone is attired differently, but all are elegant.” The men carried spears, or bows and arrows, as well as tobacco to make cigarettes for their rest times during the battle.

Participation was strictly voluntary, with no social pressure to join the fray, no epithets of cowardor nonpatriotfor those who’d rather stay home. Given the social freedoms and autonomy that characterize most indigenous cultures (leading, for example, two white colonists who defected to become Indians to say they did so because within the Indian community they experienced “the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us”) this should come as no surprise. It was not uncommon for Indian war parties to melt away before reaching their target as individual warriors changed their minds along the way. In the case of the Dani, most of the young men participated.

Once on the battlefield, the Dani fought as individuals. The Big Men often stood atop hills to the rear, shouting warnings and directions. Heider commented, “It was easy to imagine they were some thing like battlefield commanders, directing their troops. But it soon became apparent that this interpretation comes from the images of our own culture. In fact these men were hardly commanding, and whenever they tried, no one was obeying.”

The battles themselves were relatively bloodless. The two sides shouted insults at each other, then charged back and forth. Archers shot off one arrow after another at their enemy, but since everyone watched every arrow, it was the rare arrow that found its mark. The men rushed to the front to show their courage, dodged arrows, then scampered back to safety. It’s important to note that the arrows were unfletched, making them highly inaccurate, and that the Dani never shot arrows in volleys: If a dozen archers were to target a single man, they would surely have killed him. (American Indians followed similar patterns: John Underhill wrote with some disgust that the Indians “came not neere one another, but shot remote, and not point blanke, as we often doe with our bullets, but at rovers, and then they gaze up in the skie to see where the Arrow falls, and not untill it is fallen doe they shoot againe.”) The Dani also didn’t use guns in their battles, even though thanks to their encounters with the Dutch they were aware of their mortal effect. “If the sole aim of war was killing enemy expeditiously,” Heider noted dryly, “the Dani could not be considered very skillful. We need to consider war as having many functions, and killing is only one of them.”

None of this means no one ever got hurt. Many men walked away with painful arrow wounds, and some were carried home to spend weeks recovering. But for the most part, the battles, Heider stated, were “exhilarating,” and “full of excitement. There is a tremendous amount of shouting, whooping, and joking. Most men know the individuals on the other side, and the words which fly back and forth can be quite personal. One time, late in the afternoon, a battle had more or less run out of steam. No one was really interested in fighting anymore and some men began to head for home. Others sat on rocks and took turns shouting taunts and insults back and forth across the lines, and connoisseurs on both sides would laugh heartily when a particularly witty line hit home.”

In the five and a half months that Heider observed Dani warfare in 1961, there were nine battles (“although two of them never really got going,” he added) and nine raids. Six men and boys were killed in the raids. Nobody died in the battles, although he heard that two men died on the other side from wounds they’d suffered. Death rates from war were generally estimated to be at from a 1/2 to 1 percent of the population per year.

This is not to say that there are neverterrible slaughters among indigenous peoples. In 1966 a group of Dani made a dawn attack on another village (not making a small raid, or declaring a battle, as normally happened, but making a more Western-style attack), burning an entire village, and killing one hundred and twenty-five people as they emerged from their burning huts, entertaining them, I suppose, with the tips of their spears, and the edges of a new weapon, the machete. This massacre was unprecedented among the Dani, and I do not know whether this massacre would have happened had the culture not already been stressed by contact with civilization. I do know that now the culture is under even more stress, as the Dani fight for their independence, and for their survival, against U.S.-backed Indonesian soldiers who kill them with U.S.-made guns, and against U.S.-corporations that kill them directly with bullets or indirectly through the 120,000 tons of mine tailings dumped each day from just one mine into just one river.

I also know that while massacres of one indigenous group by another do happen (for example, in the fourteenth century at least 486 men, women, and children were killed and mutilated on the plains of what is now South Dakota), such slaughters were extremely rare before these cultures encountered our own. As nineteenth-century historian and novelist William Simms said of the Indian: “His wars were seldom bloody until he encountered the Anglo-Norman, and then he paid the penalty of an inferior civilization.”

Instead of being bloody, and full of great “slawter,” warfare among traditional indigenous peoples was, as anthropologist Stanley Diamond noted, “a kind of play” in which “taking a life was an occasionSimms concurred, stating that “The loss of a warrior was a serious event—the taking of a single scalp was a triumph. To gain but one shot at a foe, an Indian would crouch all day in a painful posture.” Even at the expense of their way of life, many Indians could not comprehend the Western concept of total warfare. Long after whites had exterminated most of the Mission Indians of California, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to talk of warfare to the remnants, but “it was impossible. Their misunderstanding of warfare was abysmal. They did not have the basis in their own culture upon which the idea could exist, and their attempts to reason it out reduced the great wars to which we are able to dedicate ourselves with moral fervor to the level of alley brawls.”

A central feature of all indigenous warfare is its personal nature. The Dani shout insults at each other as they shoot their unfletched arrows, and because they are fighting their neighbors they know how to send insults more directly, and perhaps more on target, than the weapons that can actually kill. At least part of the point seems to be to show that in the ways of bravery—and of eloquence—one is a better man than one’s enemy. What would be the point of killing someone if in that particular act I did not show myself to be a better man than he? Oftentimes, even in raids, to kill is not the primary point: it is to have been able to get that close, to have snuck past the enemy’s defenses, to have shown that I can do it. George Bird Grinnell spoke of the Indians of the plains, but his words apply to other warlike indigenous peoples as well: “Among the plains tribes with which I am well acquainted—and the same is true of all the others of which I know anything at all—coming in actual personal contact with the enemy by touching him with something held in the hand or with a part of the person was the bravest act that could be performed…. The bravest act that could be performed was to count coup on—to touch or strike—a living unhurt man and to leave him alive, and this was frequently done. … It was regarded as evidence of bravery for a man to go into battle carrying no weapon that would do any harm at a distance. It was more creditable to carry a lance than a bow and arrows; more creditable to carry a hatchet or war club than a lance; and the bravest thing was to go into a fight with nothing more than a whip, or a long twig— sometimes called a coup stick. I have never heard a stone-headed war club called coup stick.”

The point is the particular. There are no masses of soldiers killing all males ten years and older. No mass destruction of crops. No mass anything. There are individuals who fight or not, as they wish. “No matter what the occasion for hostility,” Diamond wrote, “it is particularized, personalized, ritualized.” This is true not just of hostility but of everything. Diamond continues. “Conversely, civilization represses hostility in the particular, fails to use or structure it, even denies it.”