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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Indigenous Democracy

To be honest, I don't know how folks in the united states can stand the endless presidential election competition. The campaigning for the upcoming election there has already been underway for it seems to me almost the whole of 2019 so far, and if my understanding of the way voting is actually held for president is correct, the actual event is still over a year away. In the settler state of canada, everyone gets exhausted with the two to three months we have to tolerate, and the official campaign period is much shorter than that. It seems quite possible that the sheer exhausting length of the campaigning process in the united states may be part of what is driving candidates to try to restructure it into a "reality" television show. How else to keep people's attention and hopefully capture their votes when the campaigning never ends, and is perpetually on the edge of vanishing into a wall of dubiously grey noise? On top of that, Simone Weil's wonderful essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties is back in print, in which she argues that political parties are dangerous precisely because they encourage what today we could call "groupthink" or the sorts of factionalism common to sports fans.1 This is not a sensible or stable way for a political community to govern itself.

Photograph of an eighteenth century ballot box used in neuchâtel, switzerland. Photograph by Ludo29 & Rama, via wikimedia commons and following their Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license, may 2012. Photograph of an eighteenth century ballot box used in neuchâtel, switzerland. Photograph by Ludo29 & Rama, via wikimedia commons and following their Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license, may 2012.
Photograph of an eighteenth century ballot box used in neuchâtel, switzerland. Photograph by Ludo29 & Rama, via wikimedia commons and following their Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license, may 2012.

Contrary to obnoxious settler claims, there was, and indeed still are, may forms of Indigenous democracy in practice and ready to be brought back into active use right now. All of us, Indigenous or not, are encouraged to believe that there couldn't possibly have been any just or fair governance in the americas before europeans came along. Never mind that such claims make no sense, because those europeans were not coming from democracies or any other form of governance that involves all responsible adults taking part and somehow developing a consensus decision on what to do when political decisions must be made. Most of them had been living in some form of monarchy or other form of prettied up gangster rule. Insofar as anybody came with ideas about "democracy" what they most likely knew about was the version of it discussed by ancient greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, for whom the term referred to mob rule. That is, decision making by the majority of men, who had been persuaded of what to do by especially skilled speakers. A republic is not in fact a democracy by that definition, and the romans showed all the ways republics are in fact oligarchies that can go as tragically wrong as any other government by what inevitably develops into a group of infighting gangsters.

Many anthropologists and archaeologists insist that most Indigenous communities had no formal governance structures because they were supposedly too small or not sophisticated or complex enough. This absolutist claim is getting ever harder to maintain, because archaeological, anthropological, and historical evidence keeps defying it. First, these evidentiary sources together demonstrate that what most europeans have been busily recording and reconstructing is not actual whole and working Indigenous communities and their governance systems, but the shocked and slowly healing results of incessant european warfare by all means anyone can imagine upon them. I suspect that if Indigenous scholars insisted on reconstructing european governance systems based only on the bits and pieces from the least documented and most deconstructed parts of europe after the fall of the roman empire or even after the end of the thirty years war, we would be upbraided for unfair and decontextualized data selection. Second, as I have already mentioned, there were and are many types of Indigenous governance, not just three or maybe four that somehow perfectly match the teleological pseudo-progression invented by Edward Tylor and his compatriots. Third, I have observed a weird conflation of monumental building construction with having some sort of organized government, so that if such structures can't be found or reconstructed, then the existence of organized government is denied. I am not suggesting this is a conscious rule or principle. It is more like an ingrained expectation based on the way people are taught about government through history.

In the course of my various readings and learnings about Indigenous history, I found myself reading more about the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, including a new written explication of it published in 2018 by Kayanesenh Paul Williams. Near the very beginning of the book, he provides this deeply thought provoking explanation of why the Haudenosaunee ultimately rejected elections as a mode of selecting governments.

The Kayanerenkó:wa establishes a democracy. It creates a system of government in which each person participates and has an effective place and voice. It does not meet the criteria of late twentieth-century participatory democracies, in which all people are theoretically absolutely equal and governments are elected in periodic elections. It answers some basic questions quite differently. It does not assume absolute equality, and instead assigns responsibility as well as authority according to ability, assuming that each person has different gifts to be fulfilled. It avoids elections, because elections divide the people into factions and parties, whereas the law seeks one-mindedness and unity. It also avoids elections because they tend to install governments whose horizon of thought and vision is the next election, whereas the Kayanerenkó:wa admonishes decision makers to cast their minds to the welfare of the coming generations.2

At this very moment, in countries all over the world, people are dealing with the very outcomes of elections that Williams highlights are precisely what the Haudenosaunee hope to avoid: self-destructive disunity, and a perverse incentive to short-sightedness and selfishness.

A common argument I have read the purports to debunk the utility of consensus-based decision making is that it is time consuming, whether it be carried out within the framework of the Kayanerenkó:wa, the community council-based systems more common on the plains, or extended family discussion systems more common in the sub-arctic. Supposedly these ways of making decisions are eviscerated by how much time and effort they take. But we should stop short and ask when and why we should always be in such a hurry. In times of emergency, people can agree on a plan far more quickly, simply because they need to. My recent learnings about the earlier Cherokee forms of governance include that they had White Councils who ruled in peace time, and Red Councils who ruled during war time, and that their decision making practices remained the same while the core membership of the councils and the skills and knowledge they brought to the discussion and weighted most highly for the circumstances were what differed.

Well then, maybe the real point is that if everyone or practically everyone has to take part in the consensus building process, then how is any work going to get done because everybody is too busy politicking. But there again, that is projecting some assumptions onto the process that are not accurate. If the people participating are not professional politicians, they don't have to spend all their time going door to door and striving to gather votes. Nor does there have to be a huge ancillary group of experts who study and write up legislation and papers and the rest of the materials that untutored politicians must use to make arguments and present policies that they will advocate. If everyone is expected to take part based on their ability, which determines their level of responsibility and authority, for one thing not everyone has to work for extended periods on governance at all times. Instead there are peak periods that match up with their areas of particular concern and expertise: i.e. when it is time to decide about whether to move where the crops are planted or seek different trading relationships. Of course, some decisions are so big that every adult must take part in the decision, because no adult and the dependants they care for will be left unaffected by the outcome of the discussion.

Probably a part of what makes it more difficult for people indoctrinated with the idea that only "representative democracy" is a fair or reasonable way to govern is that "consensus" is misrepresented. "Consensus" doesn't actually mean that everyone agrees absolutely, although unity is certainly an ideal that an honest and ethical mode of consensus building aspires to. Instead, it refers to the state of finding the way forward that everyone can live with, even if it is not possible to perfectly meet everyone's needs or demands at that time. So a community faced with a resurgence of malaria associated with the a spread of infected mosquitoes into nearby wetlands may argue over what to do. Draining the wetlands would call for considerable labour, and on top of that, the wetlands do far more than happen to be places mosquitoes can breed in. They play a key role in cleaning local fresh water and moderating local climate and weather, let alone all the amazing and useful animals and plants who provide food, medicines, and key materials for living. So maybe the better answer is to move further away from the wetlands in high mosquito season, to where the prevailing winds and smudges can help chase away mosquitoes together with more rigorously applied individual repellants. There are probably more possibilities, and some combination of several might make sense. It isn't possible to do them all, a subset will have to be selected, and the risks and benefits considered and balanced.

Indigenous modes of decision making don't de facto guarantee that the best decision will always be made, since after all it is human beings engaged in the decision making process, and real life is complex. But on balance, the evidence suggests that Indigenous peoples were not entrapped in the constant and ever growing cycles of internecine warfare that repeatedly shredded europe right into the twentieth century. This appears to be in part a product of Indigenous governance and in part due to different responses to the question of how to manage the temptation to try to resolve conflict and allow young men to show off their physical stamina by fighting. As I learn more about my own culture and those of the First Nations with whom my nation has relationships, I have repeatedly gotten the sense from the knowledge Elders share that everyone doing precisely the same thing when it came to living from day to day was not encouraged. Stories of peoples whose ways of governing themselves and interacting with their neighbours ended badly, typically in warfare that ended those communities say quite clearly, "whoa, we had best not do what those folks did." When it comes to how people govern themselves from day to day and make the major decisions that come up less often, I have been struck at how often basic principles are shared, while their implementation is variable. Principles like: seek unity, consider the next seven generations, assign responsibility and authority according to ability. Handle mistakes firmly and with compassion.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:42:55 MDT