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Children and Politics: Outsiders

How do Hopi or Pueblo boys or girls in Arizona and New Mexico regard the United States of America, its leaders, its political system, and its traditions as a democracy? As one spends time with those boys and girls it is, more often than not, hard to believe that the scene is the United States of America. There is enormous indifference among the children to the political authority that is vested in Washington or the various state capitals. The Indians in theory have their own nations—but for all practical purposes they live on reservations under the control of the federal government, which runs schools and supposedly provides medical care for, and looks after the “welfare” of, half a million rural people. (Perhaps another half million, it is hard to estimate precisely, live in our cities.)

For those who have wanted to work on behalf of or alongside the Indians in their various economic and political struggles, the enemy has rather obviously been the federal government—its schools which for so long taught children to think little of themselves, its thoroughly inadequate medical facilities, sometimes staffed with the rudest and most inconsiderate of doctors and nurses, its administrators, all too willing to operate arbitrarily, with condescension, and sometimes (in connection with land and water rights) quite exploitatively on behalf of whatever white power or principality happened to exert some influence.

To many Hopi children, however, the presence and power of that government bureau—its agents and teachers and bureaucrats of one kind or another—inspire much less animosity. At first the temptation is to call upon various psychological “traits” (culturally induced, of course) in explanation. The Hopis are “passive,” or have trouble expressing directly their “aggressive” feelings, or are afraid to level with themselves, never mind white people, however anxious to be friendly. In a much more sophisticated and subtle vein, both anthropology and psychoanalytic psychology are summoned: the Hopi, who call themselves “the peaceful people,” have a “world view” thoroughly different from ours, hence a certain indifference on their part to the white world and all that it holds precious—among other things the authority of the military-industrial nation-state.

I would to a degree quibble, and say that it is not so much indifference as a sly mixture of bemused resignation, and more actively, however obvious the inconsistency, a sense of incredulity. “Do not ask of these children that they reconcile all their feelings,” a Hopi mother-teacher once warned me—as if she knew in her bones that any number of us white child psychiatrists all the time try to do just that. The woman’s own daughter, at twelve both extraordinarily childlike and on the brink of becoming a woman, had this way of saying a striking yes to the political and psychological analysis made by Simone Weil in her essay “The Great Beast,” which I mentioned in the first article in this series.

We are nothing to the white people; we are a few Hopis, but they are Americans, millions of them. My father told me that their leader, whoever he is, ends his speech by saying that God is on their side; and then he shakes his fist and says to all the other nations: you had better pay attention, because we are big, and we will shoot to kill, if you don’t watch out. My mother says all the big countries are like that, but I only know this one. We belong to it, that is what the government of the United States says. They come here, the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] people and they give us their orders. This law says…another law says…, and soon there will be a new law. In case we have any objections, they have soldiers, they have planes. We see the jets diving high in the sky. The clouds try to get out of the way, but they don’t move fast enough. The water tries to escape to the ocean, but can only go at its own speed.

Everything, everyone, is the white man’s; all he has to do is stake his claim. They claimed us. They claimed our land, our water; now they have turned to other places, and my uncle, who knows the history of our people, and of the United States, says it is a sad time for others; but when my brother began to worry about the others, our uncle sighed, and said: ‘At least our turn is over, and don’t be afraid to be glad for that.’ They are not really through with us, though. They come here—the American police, the red light going around and around on their cars: visitors to our reservation from the great United States of America. ‘There they are,’ my father always says. He tells us to lower our eyes. I have stared at them and their cars, but I will never say anything, I know that. If their President came here, I would stay home or come to look at him, but not cheer. I have seen on television people cheering the President. In school they show us pictures of white men we should cheer. I never want to. I don’t think the teachers expect us to, want us to; just to pretend. So, we do.”

Pretense is hardly indifference or withdrawal into self-preoccupation. The Hopis are indeed a quiet, thoughtful people; and they take pains not to offend even those they do not especially get on well with—their neighbors the nomadic Navahos and their “protectors” the United States of America. A cousin of that girl’s, a boy her age, told me that white men are just that: “they want to be protectors of everyone, all over the world.” Was he making a politically critical remark: the imperialist West, up to its various tricks? Not really, or at least not wholly; he was trying to explain to me how “very strong” white people are, and why:

My father left the reservation; he went to Denver. He said he lived with white people, and he knows them. They are fighters. If they see something, and they want it, they go get it. If anyone is in the way, that is too bad for him. They are very determined. We are not so determined. We stay here; we are determined to remain here. The white people go everywhere, and show how strong, very strong, they are, and soon the people they meet agree, and then the white man is happy and he wants to be of help. That is how the Indians got the protection of the BIA; and maybe the BIA is right: without their protection, we would have troubles we don’t have now. The Navahos say: let the BIA stand aside, and we will settle with the Hopi. My father says the Hopi may be a bird that is dying out. The white man will not let himself become that kind of bird. There is a difference between the white man and us.”

A rather complicated response, that child’s, to the political authority of this nation. He is detached from, yet rather anxious to take notice of a people, a nation, which he can’t in any case avoid coming to terms with. Rather like the Rome which Simone Weil portrayed, America is for a few thousand Hopis not only an enormous empire but, with respect to the smallest details of everyday life, a constant presence of sorts. Sometimes anthropological descriptions of a particular kind of Indian culture (Navaho, Hopi, Pueblo) manage to convey successfully the philosophical and psychological distinctiveness of a given people, as against the ways and assumptions of the “dominant culture,” yet fail to account for the inevitable mix of two worlds that comes about—the point, for instance, in a child’s mental life where he is not only a Hopi but a Hopi who lives in the state of Arizona, one of the fifty United States. Unlike their white middle-class counterparts, the Hopi boys I have met don’t draw missiles, don’t crave airplane models, don’t collect scary “horror” statues, luminous Frankensteins, and on and on. They don’t even play “war”: Hollywood notwithstanding, there are no feathers on their heads, no bow and arrow encounters, no effort to defy invisible cowboys. They do play—a version of hide-and-seek is popular; they also help to herd sheep, and they walk and run and climb. They are not averse to teasing and taunting, however “peaceful” they are taught to be; and very important, they learn, thereby, that they are Hopi and American, however incongruous the combination.

The result is quiet accommodation, a version of the Hopi’s quest for peace—an attitude that has to be contrasted with the intense struggle that black children, say, or poor Appalachian children wage in their minds as they year by year get to see what the future has in store for them. Blacks were brought here forcibly, made slaves, never for a moment let out of the white man’s home and place of business. For black children that historical fact has become an occasion for smoldering resentment, often out of necessity somewhat concealed. For poor white children, in the mountains of West Virginia or our city slums and near slums, it is a matter of the injustice of an economic system—and children, sensitive to rights and wrongs, to the discrepancy in power between themselves and various adults, don’t fail to notice when their parents are given the brush-off or kicked around by a company like Duke Power and told to clear out for some other part of the country if they don’t like the treatment they’re getting. In contrast, Indians sit back on their land, go through their ceremonial experiences, and seem to express the knowing, introspective confusion they feel with a collective shaking and scratching of the head.

Indian children have no trouble taking stock of this nation. By the time they have reached sixth grade, in what we call our “elementary schools,” Hopi and Pueblo children have achieved a rather complex and sensitive vision not only of their own future, but this country’s. The Indian child is content to go his own way, and doesn’t quite understand why the white child won’t let the matter rest there. The Indian child hasn’t developed the firm sense of property, of ownership, that his white friend has. The Indian child doesn’t worry about time, and seems to regard himself as a mere part of a particular landscape, both human and natural, rather than the master of it. A white child in Albuquerque, not unlike other Anglos who lived in America a century ago, talks of crossing the continent, and the faster the better. He says he wants to be a pilot. His Indian classmate wrinkles his forehead and wonders why the hurry and the greed: “Maybe that Anglo kid will be a pilot, like he says. He asked me if I’d ever been in a plane, and I told him no. He thought I was ashamed, but I wasn’t. I told him I’d love to ride our horse as fast as my father does, and never fall off.” The Anglo child regards the miles of land as a distance to be conquered or done away with rather than accepted as part of the universe—a territorial presence, a companion almost.

The Indian is not really angry or envious of the white child; maybe in awe of his future power, maybe afraid of it—even as the white child can’t help wondering whether somehow, in some way, he has missed out on something, and may possibly end up “losing.” I do not believe, however, that the Indian child feels as some of us do—that the white world (its advanced technology, its competitiveness, its acquisitiveness, its absorption in various kinds of swift conquest) is evil, whereas his world is the good one, not merely a contrast, but a necessary alternative. That boy and his brothers, sisters, and friends have watched supersonic jets, carrying God knows what on practice missions, streak across the clear, vast New Mexico sky, and remarked with astonishment at what others can manage to do. Let those others do as they wish, one hears Indian parents and children say: only let us be allowed our rights and privileges, too.

In any event, the Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms, and those noisy, fast-as-lightning planes are yet another version of Simone Weil’s “the spectacle of gladiatorial games.” The Indian boy will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him. Unlike black children, who can be more reticent, fearful, and shy, yet eventually speak out their dissatisfaction, if not rage, the Indian children I have met seem to claim for themselves, on those reservations, a notion of psychological independence that assumes both philosophical and political forms: they are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things—America.

One must shun the temptation to leap from the child’s political awareness to the adult’s political behavior. It is true that the cynicism and resentment one hears black children express toward our political system have, in recent years, become quite overtly expressed in the civil rights movement. However, I know from my own work in the South with black children that in the relatively quiescent late 1950s many rural, politically isolated and inert children had strong ideas about this country, very much like those quoted in the first article of this series; but most of those children were never willing, as they grew up, to become involved with the civil rights activists they met in the middle 1960s. Fear, intense and strong, prevented such involvement—and perhaps most of all (and who is to say incorrectly?) a nagging sense that soon enough the protests would subside, the protestors depart for other struggles (or perhaps, to pay attention to the momentum of their own lives); and remaining, as the segregationists of the day kept saying, would be the same old people: sheriffs, businessmen, politicians, and, always near at hand, intimidating reminders like the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

On the other hand, the apparently infinite patience of the Hopis, their children’s astonishingly high acquiescence in the face of this world’s trials and limitations, their continued veneration of so much that is, inevitably, a bulwark to political quietism, may one day, in a flash, give way to widespread social unrest or protest, even as the Pueblo boy who is reluctant to fight it out with his white classmate nevertheless makes it clear that, pushed hard enough, he stands quite definitely on certain ground (literally and symbolically) and is not averse to self-defense.

Put differently, the attitude that children have toward political authority, toward those who rule them, possess power over them, is often complicated, ambiguous, and sometimes hard to make sense of. As the Pueblo boy makes quite clear, one can at the very least be perplexed by or find oneself alien to a whole culture, including its political authority, yet be brought up with enough realism, if not realpolitik (which is not only something known to Prussian or American diplomats), to know what is and is not possible under a given set of circumstances.

We are left, naturally, with the knowledge that one element in a growing child’s life is his or her political awareness—some of it, actually, destined to be “forgotten” as the demands of a given society exert themselves with ever-increasing urgency. Not everything, though, gets shunted aside into those “deeper” layers of the mind that some of us study. The poor, the racially excluded, the long since subdued (and, to us, quaintly at work on rugs or jewelry on their reservations), the constantly exploited or humiliated who live in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and, certainly, in every part of Africa, have had a way, history shows, of holding on, as Freud says people do, to their earliest impressions, and treating them, in later years, as important reference points—a means, actually, of interpreting “reality.”

Those of us who want to understand how children grow up to become politically and ideologically the various people of this planet—revolutionists, loyal soldiers, restive but apparently obliging “natives,” troubled men of property, confident proponents of one or another government—would do well to recognize that, like adult sexuality, a political inclination has a “developmental history.” There are, of course, enough psychological determinists around; one winces at the thought that “developmental history” will quite soon be read as “developmental imperative.” In fact, both clinicians and historians have reason to know that in the lives of individuals and nations alike there is simply no way of knowing at what moment an apparently unremarkable, even unknowable set of feelings or attitudes will suddenly emerge, to everyone’s surprise, as utterly critical and persuasive in the life of a person or community of people.

Or, as a Hopi girl of thirteen put it, blending a child’s political awareness with a culture’s wisdom—and an intelligent citizen’s practicality: “The news of Watergate is a dark cloud. The sky was clear, and the hunters ran wild; then dark clouds gathered and rain fell, and the hunters stopped for a while. Will we soon get more hunters, just as greedy? Or will we learn to control greed, so that we don’t just pray and pray for bad weather to stop the hunters in their tracks?”

We in America, not to mention others elsewhere, could perhaps profit from such an analysis, made by a “culturally disadvantaged” person, a mere child, who has yet to become as “politically socialized” as her parents, never mind “the people with a long reach,” as some Hopis, with only the thinnest of smiles on their faces, refer to a number of our leaders when intent on characterizing the kind of political authority Washington, DC, possesses. As for those Indian children who fall back upon the tribal imagery they have learned, and represent that political authority in the form of a fierce mountain lion or a nondescript but large, toothy, hungry animal—somewhere in this universe the spirit of Simone Weil, mindful of her essay on imperial Rome with the title of “The Great Beast,” must be attentive indeed.

(This is the third part of a three-part article.)

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