The First North American Civilizations

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Episode 25: North American Peoples and Tribes

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

As Benjamin describes in this lecture, early human civilization developed spontaneously on four isolated continents: the Afro-Eurasian zone, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific. The American civilizations developed 2,000 years later than those of Afro-Eurasia. According to Benjamin, this delay stemmed from difficult climatic conditions that made it difficult to produce sufficient food for the development of complex cities.

Unlike South America, early North American settlements never produced the rigid hierarchies, tribute taking, powerful coercive rulers or organized warfare that characterized most Afro-Eurasian civilizations. That being said, several complex North American societies arose out of sedentary and semi-sedentary settlements that supplemented food production with hunting and gathering.

Woodland tribes east of the Mississippi River lived in semi-sedentary groups that grew corn and beans via horticulture.* Prior to 60 AD, they practiced woodworking, leather working, shelter building and tool production. From 600-800 AD, they abandoned their semi-nomadic life ways to establish permanent villages of up to 40,000 inhabitants and began using a bow and arrow, rather than spear, to hunt. By 1400 AD, the five Iroquois tribes formed a state-like structure referred to as the Iroquois Nation.**

Tribes in the Ohio River Valley traded with tribes across the continent, obtaining mica from the Appalachian Mountains, conch shells and sharks teeth from the Gulf of Mexico and copper from upper Michigan.

In the Southwest, the Pueblo people employed irrigation from 600 AD and built permanent adobe structure. They abandoned these dwellings around 1300 AD to return to a lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Benjamin claims this was due to drought, but in The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow maintain foraging is even more sensitive to drought than agriculture and residents either overthrew a tyrannical regime or simply opted out. See https://stuartbramhall.wordpress.com/2021/12/14/the-dawn-of-everything-a-new-history-of-so-called-civilization/

In the Northwest, Chinook and Yakima tribes established semi-sedentary settlements lasting several thousands of years after bow and arrow technology spread across the Great Plains.

The Nez Perce, Sioux and Cherokee were Great Plains tribes who developed strong tribal leaders and social;y structured hierarchies and experienced a fair amount of inter-tribal warfare.

The Paleo Eskimo tribes became expert fishermen and hunters. They lived in ice houses they heated with fire and crafted fur clothing, canoes and exquisite tool, spears and knives from bone, antler, stone and tusks.

Benjamin notes that all North American tribes developed shamanistic practices and grew corn and tobacco (which were first domesticated in South America).

The Vikings were the first Europeans to make contact with North American tribes in Newfoundland in 1000 AD. They returned to Scandinavia during the Little Ice Age (1400-1600 AD), when it became too cold to produce sufficient food.


*Horticulture is the cultivation of domesticated plants at a small scale garden level, as opposed to agriculture, which focuses on mass production of food.

**Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/north-american-peoples-and-tribes

Standing Rock: The Documentary

Black Snake Killaz: a No #DAPL Story

Unicorn Riot (2017)

Film Review

The main significance of Black Snake* Killaz is the continuous historical record it provides of the 2016 Standing Rock occupation and blockade of the Dakota Access  Pipeline (DAPL). The occupation drew participation from indigenous supporters all over the world, as well as environmental activists and veterans. It also inspired dozens of support protests in cities around the US.

By engaging in continuous direct action, either placing their bodies in the path of construction equipment, vandalizing it or locking themselves down to it, the Water Protectors succeeded in bring pipeline construction to a total halt.

The Full Scale Military Campaign Launched Against Standing Rock

The film also brought home for the first time the full scale military campaign launched against the occupation by federal, state and private security personnel. The basic counterinsurgency strategy employed was drawn up by TigerSwan, a private security company operating illegally in North Dakota. Their battle plan was virtually identical to the military operations launched against jihadists in Afghanistan.

Black Snake Killaz also helped me understand that the DAPL (which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe challenged in Federal Court) was illegal from the outset. Although the private land used for pipeline construction was just north of the Standing Rock reservation, it was routed through sacred land ceded to the Sioux in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Moreover the Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for pipeline construction to start (across this private land) in August 2016 without the legally required comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

At the point Energy Transfer Partners commenced pipeline construction, the Army Corp had yet to grant a permit for the pipeline to cross federal land. In fact, they granted permission for Water Protectors to set up camp (which they named Ocetic Sakowin) on federal land.

Trump Approves Pipeline Via Executive Order

Shortly following Trump’s election in November the Army Corp announced their intention to shut down Oceti Sakowin. They had finally ordered a comprehensive environmental impact assessment (as a condition for granting the easement for the pipeline to cross federal land). However Trump scuppered it four days after taking office, when he signed an executive order directing the Army Corp to immediately approve the easement.

Although the Water Protectors ultimately failed in their efforts to halt DAPL, the massive publicity generated by the nationwide Standing Rock campaign would lead US Bank and a Norwegian bank to withdraw funding for the pipeline. It would also lead numerous cities to divest from Energy Transfer Partners and the banks that fund them.

The pipeline has already caused three oil spills since it began operations in May 2017.


*The Water Protectors refer to DAPL as the Black Snake based on an old Sioux prophecy that a black snake would come out of the North and poison their water.

Genocide American Style

Red Cry

Lakota Solidarity Project (2013)

Film Review

 Red Cry is about past and present genocide of the Lakota nation.

The first third of the film concerns the ugly history of legalized genocide of Native American peoples. Some of the highlights include

• Columbus’s slaughter of 8 million Arouac in Hispaniola
• The 1823 Supreme Court ruling that the “divine right of discovery” took precedence over the land rights of indigenous peoples.
•  The mass slaughter of 1.5 million buffalo by the US army and settlers between 1871 and 1910 with the deliberate intent of destroying the primary Sioux source of food.
• The 1871 Indian Appropriation Act which invalidated the right of Native American tribes to be recognized as sovereign nations and invalidated all prior treaties.
• The criminalization of Native American culture, starting from the 1880s, and forced attendance of Native Americans at “Indian” boarding schools.
• The conscious federal desecration of sacred sites on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the ravaging of native lands with more than 3,000 uranium mines, leading to radioactive contamination of the air, water and food chain.
• The forced sterilization of Native American women by the Indian Health Service in the sixties and seventies.
• The 1973 appointment and arming (by the US government) of half-breed goon squads to terrorize and assassinate tribal elders.

The remainder of the film consists of interviews with tribal leaders describing present day genocidal conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where life expectancy is 44 years for men and 52 years for women (in contrast to 76 years for men and 81 years for women in the general population).

Pine Ridge is plagued with miscarriages, birth defects and the highest cancer rate in the country due to radium, lead, mercury and arsenic contamination of the land and water by the mining industry.

Rape is four times the national average, with only one-third of the perpetrators facing prosecution.

Youth suicide is 1 ½ times the national average.

Eight out of ten families are affected by alcoholism.

One-third of the homes on the reservation lack running water and 40% have no electricity. Eighty percent of families live below the poverty line.

Traditional Lakota governance is matriarchal. For more than a century the US government has deliberately undermined matriarchal rule by only appointing men to positions of tribal authority.