Category Archives: National affairs

Thursday, July 30 update: In Old America

In other nations across the world that have passed a certain age — where there are ruined castles and temples dotting the landscape, and other monuments of mighty kings and despots are stacked on each other as just part of the historical scenery — there has also been more than one apocalypse. People take this for granted. Tourists come to take pictures of it. There is no big project going on in these countries any more. Any ones that used to hold sway, have been wiped away by (mostly) war and conquest, migrations and treaties. Now there are just ordinary people pursuing an ordinary existence according to whatever native culture they have practiced for a very long time. We envy them because they seem somehow more relaxed and in touch with the timeless essentials of life.

The ruins of the Great Wall of China, the Appian Way and other Roman roads, the monument fields of Burma dotted with old temples — these are major tourist attractions. And yet New York State’s own ancient ruins are barely noticed even by its own tourism department. The Erie Canal is still sold to the public as an aggressively recreational destination where you can bike, kayak, jog — the new Empire State Trail. But the hundreds of miles of canal remnants — the ingenious, beautifully constructed, highly practical and now half-hidden and romantic ruins of Empire — are marketed to travelers almost not at all. This is a sure sign that the future has not yet arrived.

Someday, some of us who know well where the most obscure stones and ditches can be found, and what purpose they served, might be in a bit of demand as field guides to the curious. But it seems like we have a long hard road to travel before we become anyone’s authentic Old America, even our own. First we have to reach what I call the “Yeltsin on the Tank Moment,” but American-style. (The role of Yeltsin has not yet been cast.) This is a moment described somewhat in one of Dmitry Orlov’s books as a visible manifestation of a previous unseen moment when an empire actually does lose all legitimacy — unseen, but felt as surely as a needle feels the north just before it swings.

During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as “specific difficulties,” or “singular problems” and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix “former” to the term “Soviet Union.” At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous — the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Meanwhile, the Northeastern states — the “cradle of 400-year-old American local government,” and the earliest seat of Empire — are still holding their own most virtuously against the nation’s COVID enemy. Well, we’re in for some chop. Real ‘Muricans in the heartland, of course, are trying to fend off the “fascist” mask cult, while many Northeastern communities are growing scared to death of what happens when school and college starts — so many of them being built around college life, if not actually “college towns.” There’s a distinct chill in the air when you go to work and read stern official memos that sound like wartime orders.

And so we continue to grow apart. Political colors will not fill these lengthening cracks, when so much of what is at stake is dependent on the not the sanctity of lofty ideals, but raw physical space — the Northeast, the Empire State, the city, the community, the hospital, the body. So there isn’t going to be some weird half-and-half “two Americas” composed of a central clot of red states and a bunch of geographically separated blue states, like some secular East and West Pakistan. And I’m not sure how a national government can survive such local conditions, even if it wasn’t already a massive looting operation and wanted to survive.

There probably isn’t going to be any revolution. (As Orlov adds, “It took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.”) Then again, nations and empires shattering is a very ordinary thing, historically speaking. It gave us great nations like France and Germany, and it also gave us the Turkmenbashi — father of all Turkmen, and lover of art and literature. (Like a certain strongman we all know — the one we all love to hate, and hate to love.) But the road from ex-Gaul to the Fifth Republic wasn’t an easy one, and it led through fear and violence — including wars — and was paved with (and actually, by) petty dictators who made the trains run on time, drained the marshes, and maybe also kept the viruses down.

In Old (Upstate) America, we’re just waiting for a change of season, and maybe a glimpse of the future in the still waters.

What does “indigenous” mean?

I have blogged a lot here in the past about our local indigenous people, the Haudenosaunee. But I’ve also been interested in considering “indigenousness” as it relates to other peoples living in the same space – Central New York, or upstate New York as a whole – and how people see or don’t see that concept applying to themselves or to other people. Many native peoples around the world who are called “indigenous” have not actually “always” been there (have migrated from other regions in the distant past, and so on). So, when and how do people become part of the land (indigenous) — with the implication that there are “other people” who are not?

This article about a fight between a local landowner and the Adirondack Park Agency caught my eye because the landowner used the term “indigenous” to refer to himself and his own interests. The first impulse may be to scoff at the guy for cynically co-opting the term. But while he may not be willing to go even further and identify himself as a member of an “indigenous group” living among other indigenous groups who have been here longer, I feel he is probably applying the term to himself sincerely, albeit unthinkingly.

During the NYRI controversy a couple years ago, I saw the proposed power line represented a sort of land grab directed against the land and its people, who were a different people than the downstate people who needed the power line. (Or at least, the corporate types who stood to profit from it). The people living along the proposed line – in my view – were discovering what other indigenous people discovered 200 years ago: that they were now invisible people, part of the landscape to be exploited.

People who self-identify as “indigenous” typically have difficulty communicating to the “non-indigenous” that indeed they do consider themselves part of the landscape in a way that most Americans probably don’t really grasp. Whereas Americans, particularly those living within the dominant culture, tend to see the land as being something they own or deal in. It is something that can be traded away without it affecting their sense of self. This is the tension that causes so many problems when eminent domain is invoked. Eminent domain assumes that land has no meaning or value beyond its economic value. You should be able to exchange it for fair market value without suffering any real loss. Why should you want to save that sad little house or Main Street along the power line? Just take the money, move away and place yourself and your values in some other congenial but interchangeable landscape…

I actually don’t know if the gentleman up in the Adirondack Park really feels on a gut-level that he is “indigenous” to the land beyond all conventional economic consideration. Still, the unprompted use of the word by a white man is intriguing; especially in a time when many people feel economically and socially that they have their backs up against a wall. Our portable American values are supposed to overcome any squeamishness we may have about moving elsewhere, even if coerced to move elsewhere by eminent domain. In America, you’re not supposed to have values, or a state of being, that is not portable.

So, what is an indigenous state of being, and can you become that way? Or, if you can’t “become” indigenous, can new indigenous peoples be born from older, colonizing ones? We’re used to hearing the term applied to native American tribes, but can it be plausibly applied to other groups of people as well? And is the growth of new senses of “peoplehood” (or a return to old senses) a good or bad thing?

As for my own opinion, I’m not sure that such an evolution in personal identification in America, necessarily means strife and bigotry. It could also mean the formation of new and mutually beneficial alliances between peoples who are newly realizing that they are not who they used to think they were.

The nations of CNY

I never thought I’d see the day when major media outlets like CBS News were writing about the Haudenosaunee and talking about sovereignty issues, but I guess that day is finally here. Because these issues are bigger than all of us, it seemed futile to try and write about them while the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team passport issue was in the news last week. (I hope everyone has taken time to read the Sports Illustrated story about the team that was published in the most recent issue.) It was also a little surreal to search on the word “Iroquois” on Twitter and see dozens of tweets a minute about the U.S., the U.K. and Haudenosaunee passports. I’m not sure the Internet peanut gallery really grasped the gravity of the issues over passports and sovereignty, but the response seemed mostly outraged… possibly because we just got done with a World Cup that was triumphantly played out in Africa for the first time; and sports and post-colonial national identity were maybe still entwined in the back of people’s minds.

Now that this difficult week for the team has come to a conclusion (the team arrived back in Syracuse today), hopefully we here in Central New York can also “come home” to this issue as it pertains to us. The national media will quickly lose interest in the subject, leaving us to confront something that was always on our doorsteps, whether we wanted to think about it consciously or not. What does “nationhood” mean? Can you overlay nations on top of each other, like you can overlay area codes? Is it possible that the official, black-and-white, cut-and-dried American motto “Out of many, one” is actually “Out of many… still several?”

I don’t know how to tackle these weighty questions (and neither, I suspect, will the national media), so I will address the most pressing issue for us here locally: What would it mean to live in a New York that is also Iroquoia? Or an Onondaga County that is also a territory called “Onondaga”? What does it mean to grow up in, and live in, a Syracuse that is next to and part of a sovereign nation? All just people living here, but not the same people. All in the same boat, but not.

At this point, you come up against the first mental barrier. Either you accept there is (or even just may possibly be) a sovereign nation besides the U.S. here, or you don’t. Either you can look at it a different way than the history books may say – or you cannot, or do not. So the following isn’t meant to argue for Haudenosaunee sovereignty… just to describe what it’s like for those of us who are at least endeavoring to get our minds around it.

Sovereignty is kind of strange to contemplate anyway. No one extends this status to any group of people, although some nation-states or international organizations pretend that they do or don’t. What is clear that sovereignty, once acknowledged by a people themselves, has to be continually defended. (As Benjamin Franklin might have said to his own people, “A Republic… if you can keep it.“) I won’t go into the history of different kinds of measures the Haudenosaunee have taken to defend sovereignty over the years, except to mention some times and places that should be already known to informed Central New Yorkers — Route 81 in 1971, the Kinzua Dam, Ganienkeh, Oka, and of course the passports that are now world-famous.

To imagine a reality different than the one given in our own history books almost feels like science fiction. It’s funny, because I watch a current TV show that deals with two alternate universes that occupy the same ground — and when I think about it, it’s kind of a helpful metaphor. The two universes don’t just quietly exist separately in separate realities; they share a history. One fateful day, a door was opened between the two, and relations didn’t start off on the right foot; someone from one side stole something precious from the other side, not understanding the implications of what they were doing and the huge disruptions it would cause. On the show, the two worlds are currently readying for war on one another. But the situation is complicated. It turns out that some characters can come and go freely between worlds, and feel some degree of allegiance to both. There are also places where the boundary between universes is particularly thin because of events that happened in the past; and there, confusing things happen that defy the laws of physics. “Reality” is not an either-or thing any more, but encompasses both sets of realities.

Now that I’ve lost 9 out of the 10 people reading this far… let’s return to the real world, or at least, the slightly unreal world that is upstate New York, where real people deal with confusing issues every day. I can only say that I find it easier to explain a convoluted science-fiction TV show, than I find it to explain the twists and turns of Haudenosaunee/New York relations to someone who isn’t from around here. What is the deal with all those weird lawn signs in Cayuga County? Why is the gas at some stations in Oneida County so cheap? Strange phenomena also continue to manifest right here in Syracuse, such as wildly painted billboards along the interstate, and historical markers that are periodically blocked by posters, or disappear altogether without explanation (the corner of Erie and Oswego Boulevards being a particular nexus for such weirdness lately.)

Maybe the best way to characterize it is that we are living in a “thin spot” that defies history-book reality, even as some of us feel or insist that it does not, or should not. It seems that only one nation can occupy a space, but it also seems there might be two nations here anyway. It seems fantastical, but — depending on your vision, experience, knowledge, and perspective — it also seems as if it might be so.

The author of the 1892 U.S. Census Report, The Six Nations of New York, briefly entertained some of the same thoughts, treating the idea of “a nation within a nation” as a then-current issue to be examined rather than peremptorily swept away. It’s pretty amazing that the even the theoretical consideration of two nations in one land made it into an official U.S. document over a century ago, but even more so that the situation described by the report — “too many partial and conflicting laws are nominally in force, but without coherence and general application” — still exists. Clearly, the Haudenosaunee have been somewhat successfully asserting their sovereignty in the interim, and various other overlaid governments and municipalities have been asserting theirs right back. The author of the Census report, back in 1892, recommended “a higher and equally consistent principle of international law” as the “wholesome remedy” to any such confusion (albeit, with an eye toward making the Indian more like the white man), and were reluctant to recommend imposing U.S. citizenship in any case. Oddly enough, that’s still the issue today with those Haudenosaunee passports. (If the Haudenosaunee and other indigenous nations were recognized by the United Nations, as they have been long expecting, maybe they would have allowed to join in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and would have been able to more speedily update their passports to comply with these regulations.)

But here in Central New York and in other parts of the state, we are left to grapple with the implications of more than one nation. We might not just “live next to” each other; we might occupy the same place. We might be more than just neighbors; we might be enemies, or allies. We might not be the same people (and this idea may be very hard for melting-pot Americans to accept), although the same place may have a personal claim on us. (And who are “we” anyway? Who in Washington, in an age of eroding personal rights and Kelo v. New London, defends our sovereignty anyhow? Are we even considered full citizens of our own nation, or do corporations have those rights instead?)

Once you have considered and accepted an alternate view of the Six Nations’ status, you are left only with more questions. These are not new questions. A long time ago, the Dutch and the Mohawks tried to figure out what to do about them. The Mohawks came up with an agreement that is known today as the Two Row Wampum, whose concepts of how two nations ought to relate to one another became the basis for all subsequent agreements between various peoples living together in this “thin spot” known as upstate New York. Including these same British who just refused to recognize Haudenosaunee passports. (The Two Row Wampum was last used as a basis for agreement a few years ago when the Lafayette School District had to decide what to do about Onondaga students’ request to wear regalia at graduation.)

Because we live in a special place, we here in Central New York have to live and work with the fact (or contention, as others say), of another nation’s sovereign existence. So in the end, it doesn’t matter what someone in Britain, or even Washington, says about Haudenosaunee passports. Those of us here in Central New York have to chart our own course about this, by our own lights. And we have been, in ways that may seem strange to non-CNY’ers. The purple flag of the Iroquois League flies over the city square. Native students wear their regalia. Our elected representatives speak on behalf of people who will never vote for them. None of this came about because of a master political plan. It came about because we are making decisions based on our lived experiences confronting “alternate reality” every day.

To those Central New Yorkers who see it this way, it’s very confusing, and sometimes frightening, and very different. But it could be that this is the sort of difference that eventually sets people apart, and makes them a nation… however small.

Arizona, you’ve changed

I spent quite a bit of time in Arizona as a kid, mostly around Flagstaff and Sedona. My grandparents moved out there in the early ’70s, followed by many other relatives on their side of the family, so it was always an extended summer vacation stop. Although Arizona has seen huge growth since then, I’m told that the little community they lived in (Munds Park) hasn’t changed very much.

But Arizona, you blew it. No longer will you be known mostly as the beautiful state with the saguaros, kachinas and the Grand Canyon, the fabulous, exotic Wild West destination that every foreign tourist wants to visit. Now you’ve bought yourself a worldwide reputation as the ugliest ugly-American state, where anyone who “looks suspicious” (i.e., Hispanic) will be harrassed, thanks to your very ill-conceived, myopic, quixotic new measure. I never thought any U.S. state could possibly take the crown away from Texas in the “ugly American” reputation department but with a single stroke of the pen, your governor has done it. Within the space of two years, not only have you lost your formerly booming housing economy to the economic crash, but you’ve also endangered your international reputation and possibly your tourism business.

Each day more than 65,000 Mexican residents are in Arizona to work, visit friends and relatives and shop, according to a University of Arizona study sponsored by the Arizona Office of Tourism. While there, the Mexican visitors spend more than $7.35 million daily in Arizona’s stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses, the researchers found.

Good luck selling those overpriced condos and country club memberships, though.

PS: Also, if you skip class in college in Arizona now (specifically, at NAU), Big Brother will know. Land of the Free!