Viola Cordova, alienation from nature, and extinct megafauna

Viola Cordova had an Apache father, a Hispanic mother, and a PhD in philosophy. How It is: The Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova is an interesting posthumous collection of her writings. It’s a mix of autobiography, Native American philosophy, poetry, short stories, and criticism of white people. Her experience of a Christian mother and non-Christian father was a lot like mine:

“Go [to church],” says my father. “It will make your mother happy.”

Feeling somewhat betrayed but fully understanding why my father has done what he has done, I go.

A great biographical detail is that “the decidedly anti-Christian Cordova once joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses to learn more about them. She was soon expelled when she openly questioned some of the foundations of church belief.” She says that as a child “I began to explore all of the belief systems I could think of.”

The Native American has, furthermore, been placed in the unique situation of having to understand two very different worldviews. He has been exposed, from childhood, to competing and often contradictory value systems. The average Euro-American lacks this experience of the competing worldviews and value systems. His “world” reinforces the dominant view; he cannot know that he exists within a self-referential system of thought.

In a sense, Cordova and Fanon describe similar experiences of living under colonization by white people. Cordova strongly identifies as Apache, while Fanon rejects blackness as an invention of white people. He’s uninterested in things like the accomplishments of ancient African civilizations. “Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century?” More than likely, the difference is that colonization was more effective at destroying the native cultures in some places than others. Malcolm X named himself that to emphasize that his ancestors’ names were literally taken from him, breaking continuity with the past. Most people chose not to go to Liberia. In Fanon’s case, Western values were more completely internalized.

Cordova has some things to say about “psychotherapy with diverse populations”:

Harmony, evidenced in the benefits of cooperation with his group and in man’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances in his environment (the seasons and the change of lifestyles required year in and year out), is in his eyes the right behavior. The war against nature is seen as wrong–futile and destructive. Competition with others is wrong because it leads to disharmony–isolation, selfishness, pain to others.

The psychological theories of the European do not take into account these particular realities of the Native American, because they are outside the frame of reference of the European. European psychological theories are directed to adjusting the mentally ill person to a European reality that stresses man’s superiority to nature, his self-sufficiency, his independence, and the need to acquire (enforce) these latter two through conflict with others.

European psychologies are predicated on the alienation of the individual. Ironically, near total self-sufficiency and independence are methods developed to deal with the effects of alienation. But since they are themselves also a cause of alienation, their reinforcement serves merely to provide a buffer for the individual against the inroads of others. These methods do not eradicate alienation; they provide one with the strength to accept, and live, with alienation.

The Native, when confronted with such “cures,” is actually being coerced into participating in the cause of his own distress. Alienation is not a part of his mental makeup, as it is in the European. The Native’s own reality of oneness with nature, of responsibility to the Earth and to man, is overlooked, discounted. It is irrelevant to the therapist and the world he is committed to; he literally does not see the world of the Native.

It’s a good book. If I had an objection, it would be that the environmental stewardship of hunter-gatherers in general has been exaggerated. An interesting, free book about that is called Megafauna.

The reason why the story of the vanished Serengetis and their destruction by humans hasn’t found its way into the general consciousness, is that it contradicts just about everything we think we know about our species. To many of us it’s still “obvious” that the first humans to settle the Americas and Australia – the “native” or “aboriginal” inhabitants of those continents – lived in harmony with the natural world. It’s widely assumed, in fact, that no members of Homo sapiens wiped out other species before the industrial revolution. Just to conceive of the possibility that our species might have destroyed the vanished Serengetis would, therefore, require an entirely different conception of human ecological history.

That new history would start with the currently unfashionable fact that members of the human family had already learned to hunt animals larger than themselves as far back as the Late Pliocene. It would go on to tell us that, during the early Pleistocene, some 1.4 million years ago, the technological capabilities of one hominid species – Homo erectus – had already became formidable enough to cause the extinction of several big-animal species in Africa and South Asia. It would describe how the growth of those technological capabilities would accelerate toward the end of the Pleistocene, enabling our species, Homo sapiens, to enter Australia, Northern Eurasia, and the New World, where it would encounter, and exterminate, a great many big animal, reptile and bird species which had not – in contrast with the big animals of Africa and South Asia – had the opportunity to develop a measure of resistance against the growing ingenuity of the hominid family.

This new history of our species would inform us, further, that an unbroken flow of human-caused extinctions was to continue after the end-Pleistocene destruction of the Australian, European, North Asian and American Serengetis, and that this flow would swell, in the last century or two, into the enormous mass-extermination which our species is presently inflicting on the biosphere.

It would suggest, finally, that the phenomenon of human-caused mass-extinction was not set in motion by cruelty, greed or thoughtlessness on the part of our species. The first humans to arrive in Australia didn’t want to wipe out the marsupial “rhinos” and “lions” they met up with on that island continent, nor did they even know that they were doing it. To a large extent, present-day humans still lack the consciousness needed to control their impact on the natural world, and it’s by no means impossible that the destructive impact of our species will turn out to be an unstoppable and inevitable process – the price that is paid, for all we know, in every biosphere where a level of intelligence equal to ours develops.

This point of view makes the present bleak circumstances easier to accept, for me. Science is not a religion, but this understanding of evolution makes our current self-extermination the end of an ironic tragedy playing out over millions of years. It gives us a way of feeling connected to the First People. Our extinction basically marks the start of the Anthropocene. The whole chain of events was significant enough to cause geologic scale changes. We cause earthquakes. We changed the weather. We emptied the oceans. There will be a layer of plastic and radioactive stuff. That plastic was once algae, and that carbon was once in the atmosphere. Presumably life will evolve to break down the plastic polymers.

If we were going to reverse this chain of events at this late stage, something like Cordova’s value system would probably be a good place to start.

The Native American’s response to the terror and awe inspired by the universe is to call it sacred. Its mysterious qualities are maintained. It is sacred precisely because it is beyond reification…

The American Indian is a monist. That is, everything that exists is perceived as being the manifestation of one particular thing. In effect, everything that is, is one thing. The oneness is ascribed to the fact that everything is, essentially, Usen, the life force.

One consequence of society collapsing is that scientific progress will come to a halt for lack of infrastructure. There’s something romantic about the thought that there will always be mystery in the universe.

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