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 …

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