From our readers...to our readers
For indigenous Dinka, the threat of annihilation at the hands of Sudan's Islamic north is ever present. Over the past 30 years, more than a million southern Sudanese tribespeople -- like the Dinka and Nuer -- have been slaughtered in this under-reported, so-called religious war.
The story of Sudan's "lost boys" -- Dinka youth (mostly orphans) who fled their civil war-torn country and journeyed hundreds of miles over arid terrain with few supplies until they reached the comparative safety of Kenyan refugee camps -- is well reported. Moved by their plight, Congress devised a program to allow them to migrate, and after years in the camps, some of the lost boys had the opportunity to come live in the United States and enter the public school system.
With images of southern Sudan's gripping poverty fresh in their minds, a group of lost boys requested from their schools practical training in animal husbandry and farming so that they might help alleviate the famine and lead useful lives when they return to Sudan. But school authorities could not grant their request; there were no such subjects on the curriculum. Instead, the boys were issued a basketball each and copies of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
Projects to buy back thousands of slaves presently held in captivity in Sudan, as well as visits by high profile figures like the Reverend Al Sharpton, have brought Sudanese issues into our living rooms. The U.S. media communicates effectively to readers, listeners, and viewers the day-to-day horror of living in Sudan. But for a range of reasons, largely economic, land rights struggles and the pan-south indigenous resistance movement are not deemed newsworthy. Living in the United States, the Dinka are continually reminded that nothing of their former lives is relevant to their current circumstances. They are told, overtly and subliminally, that providence has smiled on them and that assimilation should be their priority -- their only realistic option. In the context of globalization, indigenous survival strategies are of little consequence -- except, of course, for the large multinational mining conglomerates working hand in hand with the Sudanese government to exploit the country's natural resources and to oppress indigenous landowners.
Until the opportunity was presented at Cultural Survival's biannual education conference, the eight Dinka youth living in an Arlington dormitory had few chances to express their identity. The conference (entitled "Voices: The Importance and Challenge of Preserving Endangered Languages") was held on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. Along with representatives of Diné (Navaho), Tibetan, Kurdish, Aztec, Mayan, and other communities (35 ethnicities in total), the Dinka came prepared to celebrate their distinctive culture and share tales of origin, history, and worldview. While the Aztecs brought a drum and the Tibetans brought religious objects and campaign materials, the Dinka carried a map, a basketball, a badminton racquet, various farming tools, and assorted odds and ends. No one, not even their teacher, knew what to expect. Together with other indigenous youth, they shared stories of their birthplaces and homelands. They listened, played, and laughed; and finally, with great voice, they danced and sang for the assembled crowd, using their basketball, racquet, and farming implements in place of traditional ceremonial objects. And as they performed their ancient energetic rituals, the otherwise boisterous crowd of 230 was hushed.
In a very touching speech, their 18-year-old spokesperson said: "Some of us were very young when we left Sudan. I was only four years old. How would my mother -- if she is still alive -- recognize me? How would I recognize her? Today we will do a dance -- a very meaningful dance. We dance so our families in Sudan will know that we remember them. We remember that we are Dinka and are proud of our heritage." This was not merely theater. The Dinka danced so that we would understand and appreciate the richness of their culture in exile, but they also danced for themselves -- for their lives and futures.
It is in this spirit that we offer to our members and readers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly (CSQ). Cultural Survival Advisory Board Member Ted Downing sets the tone with an exposition of his Plan A/Plan B model for indigenous advocacy (briefly described in the last issue). Simply put, indigenous peoples' stuggle for cultural survival when faced with large-scale development projects is not limited to uncritical acceptance of or resistance to a project. Indigenous peoples may find that some projects improve the quality of their lives and enhance their cultures. Other projects will not, and are resisted. Downing calls both uncritical resistance to and uncritical support for a project Plan A. Plan B, on the other hand, involves surviving and benefiting from likely impacts. The Dinka are engaged in Plan B strategizing. They survived the war, years of deprivation in refugee camps, and having to learn new ways as residents in a foreign land, but the lost boys' thoughts remain centered on their survival as a people: how and when will they return home? Plan B involves networking, negotiating, learning, and also compromising, but most importantly, communicating.
The CSQ aims to establish a forum for effective cross-cultural communication on indigenous issues. There are few outlets for such discourse. One of the most prominent writers on the lack of dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples is Jerry Mander. In his popular book, In the Absence of the Sacred, Mander lays the blame at the feet of the mainstream media. He suggests that the root cause of the cultural majority's myopia is American exceptionalism. Raine (2001) calls it apologetic universalism: the way in which indigenous voices are subsumed within frameworks that disguise or misconstrue them because of a belief in one way of assessing truths -- one way of government, one time scale, one economic social structure, and one set of universal laws.
In the past, the media portrayal of indigenous peoples as savages was a means of justifying the "universal law of progress" and the supposed technological and racial superiority of colonists. Today, however, says Mander, the dominant image of indigenous peoples has shifted. The current media stereotype is that of the noble savage. Indigenous peoples are depicted as part of a once-great but now dying culture -- as relics of a bygone era. As a result, they are portrayed as unable to govern themselves in an industrial age, or as selfish, unreasonably holding up development. Reporting often carries a sense of "foregone conclusion," says Mander. The cause is lost; "stone age" peoples fight in vain to forestall the inevitable march of progress -- it is only a matter of time before the forests are gone and the peoples assimilated. There are also stories of indigenous people succeeding in the West: tales confirming the correctness of adaptation and assimilation. Such apologetic universalism -- the globalizing Western worldview's fundamental means of expression -- presupposes its own absolute totality, says Raine. It denies the truth or validity of other worldviews and gives the impression of steadily overcoming all opposition.
In analyzing the place of Native Americans in the American cultural imagination, Shari Huhndorf (2001) comments on the almost complete failure to recognize indigenous peoples as cultural or political agents. They are instead considered victims -- voiceless. American exceptionalism, Huhndorf argues, allows only one voice, that of the dominant entity, and that voice is all-pervasive. This phenomenon is particularly evident in popular cinema. In movies such as The Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves, for example, non-Indians become the rightful inheritors of the Native American legacy once the First Peoples are expunged from the landscape by bloodthirsty invaders ignorant of Indian ways. Even the recent Western New Age trend -- which envisions native peoples as idealized versions of Westerners; as the embodiment of virtues lost in the modern era -- reinforces the concept of manifest destiny.
In the CSQ we aim to confront this shortsighted approach. By providing opportunities for dialogue, we implicitly confront apologetic universalism. Like the Cultural Survival student conference and our other educational and advocacy fora, the CSQ seeks to create a venue where writers can affirm their indigeneity and engage in a dialogue with non-indigenous peoples on issues of pressing concern. "From Our Readers" is also an opportunity for publication for indigenous scholars and non-indigenous specialists whose fields of expertise do not correspond with our Quarterly themes; we plan to continue a "From Our Readers" section in subsequent issues of the CSQ. Using the Dinka narrative and Downing's Plan B strategizing as guidelines, the implications of apologetic universalism are presented here as a guide for contributors. Confronting apologetic universalism has been, and continues to be, our mission, for such a worldview precludes the possibility of dialogue.
We are experiencing a great paradigm shift. Indigenous peoples demand that their unique worldviews be validated and that their rights to their traditional lands and stewardship practices be respected. They also desire autonomy, and seek reparations for past wrongs. The indigenous cultural renaissance and growing international support for indigenous development practices and priorities are challenging Western universalism. Raine argues that the West has failed in its attempt to convert the world's peoples. No longer is it acceptable to suggest that one culture or nation may control another's ethnic future. Even less acceptable is the expectation that other cultures must blindly follow the Western example. Facilitating dialogue as equals among the world's peoples must be a priority, but it is a process fraught with difficulty. As Raine says, listening to another's belief is quite different from validating it as an expression of another reality. Since 1980, the Cultural Survival Quarterly has accepted this task of validation. We seek out the voices of indigenous peoples and their supporters and foster dialogue between existing and reemerging worldviews.
Reference & further reading
Mander, J. (1992). In the Absence of the Sacred. The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. New York: Sierra Club Books.
Huhndorf, S. M. (2001). Going Native. Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Raine P. (2001). Beyond Universalism. The Shaman and the Ecologist. An Ever Open Horizon. Interculture 140.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.