Plenty Coups and Radical Hope

I’ve been writing about “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” by Jonathan Lear. He looked for a culture that had experienced cultural collapse to see if that would give us some ideas for how to deal with our own culture’s collapse. Knowing some native nations in this country had been forced into collapse, he studied how the last great chief of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups, guided his people through their cultural collapse.

Plenty Coups recognized the slaughter of millions of buffalo by White men meant the end of his people’s culture. The buffalo, as a source of food, blankets and tipi covers, as well as a relation, disappeared in a very short time. So many parts of the Crow culture no longer made sense–training young men as hunters, and curing buffalo hide for blankets, for example.

But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.

Plenty Coups, Crow Chief

Our own culture is collapsing now. The two major components of this collapse are

  • The capitalist economic system and the political institutions based upon that. Capitalism helped create our current crisis. Demanding an ever growing economy, dependent on fossil fuel energy, and seeing natural and human resources as simply inputs to profitable outputs. Valuing monetary gain about all else. Capitalism is failing due to lack of jobs with adequate pay and extreme distribution of wealth. 
  • Rapidly increasing frequency and severity of damage from environmental chaos will impact every aspect of our lives: food, housing, education, healthcare, and break down the infrastructure related to transportation, water and energy systems needed for both communities and for manufacturing.
Forces causing collapse of our culture

The 2010’s may go down in environmental history as the decade when the fingerprints of climate change became evident in extreme weather events, from heat waves to destructive storms, and climate tipping points once thought to be far off were found to be much closer.

New studies showed polar ice caps melting and sea level rising much faster than just 10 years ago. Ocean researchers showed how marine heat waves kill corals and force fish to move northward, affecting food supplies for millions of people in developing countries. They tracked changes to crucial ocean currents and concluded that hurricanes will intensify faster in a warming world.

Climate Science Discoveries of the Decade: New Risks Scientists Warned About in the 2010s. A decade of ice, ocean and atmospheric studies found systems nearing dangerous tipping points. As the evidence mounted, countries worldwide began to see the risk. By Bob Berwyn, InsideClimate News, Dec 28, 2019

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

What if We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped? by Jonathan Franzen

Ever since I read what Plenty Coups said, “the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened”, I’ve had this picture of the hearts of the people here, and around the world, fallen to the ground. “After this nothing happened” captures how we have failed to adapt and respond to the threats from environmental, economic, and political collapse. Now is the time, as Jonathan Franzen says, to “accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”

This is the period in which Plenty Coups grew up: it is the period in which, by his own account, things were still happening. Even this thumbnail sketch of the historical context should suffice to show that the Crow not only knew what they were fighting for; they also had a vivid sense of what they were fighting against. They were fighting to prevent utter devastation at the hands of the Sioux. This was the prospect of a Crow holocaust: a weakened tribe being fatally overrun by the Sioux. In this worst possible scenario, men, women, and children would be slaughtered-the tribe would be exterminated-with perhaps a few survivors taken into captivity as slaves. This was a very real possibility. It is in this context that the Crow tribe decided to ally with the white man, in particular the U.S. government, in what became a common battle against the Sioux.

It seems clear, then, that the Crow were living within a world of possibilities that they understood fairly well: they understood what it was for them to flourish; what it was for them to survive and cope with the challenges of hunting, disease, and war; what it was to face the prospect of utter devastation. It is worth dwelling for a moment on this extreme possibility of destruction. Had there been a Crow holocaust it would have been fair to say that a way of life had come to an end-at least, in some familiar sense of those terms. The tribe would have been destroyed; there would no longer be any people to carry out their traditional rituals. Still, if we think of the inner life of the one surviving Crow slave, he would have the conceptual resources to understand what had happened to himself and his people. This worst possible scenario was one that he well understood. And, however unrealistic, his dreams of escape, revenge-of planting his coup-stick again!-would would make complete sense to him, as well as to his Sioux masters. Let us assume that there was no chance of this dream’s coming to fruition: still, the possibility it describes would continue to make sense.

This is enough to show that the type of devastation the Crow actually endured as they willingly moved onto the reservation in the 1880’s was of a different order from anything for which they could thoughtfully plan.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 250-263). Kindle Edition.

Against a background of unrelenting pressure from the Sioux, the Crow signed the first Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851, in which the United States recognized their right to 33 million acres of what is now Montana and Wyoming. It also promised to pay the tribe $50,000 worth of supplies per year. But, as Frederick Hoxie points out, there were neither enforcement procedures nor established penalties for failing to comply. The United States paid out this amount once. The 1860’s were a period of terrible wars with the Sioux. In 1867 the United States negotiated a second Fort Laramie Treaty, in which it recognized only 25 percent of the land recognized in the first treaty: Crow lands were reduced to 8 million acres. During this period, the Crow fought on the side of the United States against their common enemy, the Sioux; and they inflicted significant damage. But the emerging peace on the northwest plains only increased the immigration of white settlers, and thus placed increased pressure on Crow lands. In 1882 Crow land was reduced again, to about 2 million acres. And in the period 1882-1884 the Crow-their resources depleted, threatened by disease, cold, and starvation-moved to a reservation. Intertribal warfare was forbidden by the U.S. government. Hunting became impossible, both because all the beaver and buffalo had been killed and because the Crow were now forbidden to pursue a nomadic life. There was also devastating mortality. As Hoxie points out, nearly one-third of the 2,461 Crows recorded in the 1887 census died in the 1890’s, as a result of a confluence of poor sanitation in new conditions of confinement, lack of ability to resist diseases carried by white settlers, and malnutrition. The younger generation was all but wiped out. Not surprisingly, those who survived suffered massive disorientation. Ambitious young men, wishing to establish themselves in the tribe, could think only in terms of warfare-but warfare had been forbidden.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 278-289). Kindle Edition.

Those are the practical actions Plenty Coups and the Crow Nation made in the face of cultural devastation. What I hope to write about next is how a vision Plenty Coups had led to these practical steps.

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