• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Different Kind of Courage

Radical Hope is first of all an analysis of what is involved when a culture dies. This has been the fate of many aboriginal peoples in the last couple of centuries. Jonathan Lear takes as the main subject of his study the Crow tribe of the western US, who were more or less pressured to give up their hunting way of life and enter a reservation near the end of the nineteenth century.

The issue is not genocide. Many of the Crow people survive; but their culture is gone. Lear takes as his basic text a statement by the tribe’s great chief, Plenty Coups, describing the transition many years after in the late 1920s, near the end of his life: “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.”

Lear concentrates on those last four words. What can they mean? Of course, they could be an expression of dejection, of depression. But he sets that aside for good reasons. He argues that if we interpret the statement psychologically, we are being “guided by our own sense of what is true” and ignoring the question of “Plenty Coups’s humanity” and the particular cultural circumstances in which he found himself. We have to take this expression more literally. We can grasp it if we try to understand the Crow culture when it was fully functioning, when hunting (mainly of buffalo), and then war, which was necessary to maintain a sufficient territory for hunting, were the crucial activities around which excellence and honor revolved. The concept of a “coup” (reflected in the informant’s name) was of a heroic exploit, but of a very special kind. The sense of the word is more or less the same it has in the English borrowing from the French, as when someone says: “I pulled off a great coup.”

Crow coups involved bravery on the battlefield against other tribes, notably when the warrior in face of the enemy put a special stake in the ground, known as a “coup stick.” This was a sign to the foe of a line that he dare not pass, because it would be defended to the death by the Crow warrior. Having planted the stake the warrior was bound either to prevail in defense of his territory or to die. The highest honor belonged to those who made a large number of coups against the enemy, hence the laudatory name of “Plenty Coups.”

Jonathan Lear gives an interesting explanation of why just this notion of excellence and honor prevailed in the tribe. The planting of the coup stick, he explains, was akin to the definition of boundaries, and this was essential to the survival of the Crow way of life:

The establishment of boundaries will, of course, be important to any cultural group. But it is especially tricky when it comes to a nomadic group whose migration depends heavily on hunting. As the tribe migrates, its defensible boundaries will shift, but it needs to be able to exert a proprietary claim over the animals within its (shifting) domain; and it needs to be able to repulse the proprietary claims of its rivals. Counting coups is the minimal act that forces recognition of boundaries from the other side…. Recognition of the Crow boundary is the second-to-the-last thing the Crow warrior wants from [his enemy]. (The last thing is his scalp, but that will serve as a token that he achieved that recognition.)

This background allows Lear to give a real sense of what is lost when a culture disappears. The warrior could try to defend the line of his stake, and fail. But in the condition to which the Crow were reduced on their reservation, where neither hunting nor war was any longer possible, something more drastic occurred. It was no longer possible even to try to defend one’s coup stick, because nothing one did could have such a meaning. As Lear explains, “Counting coups makes sense only in the context of a world of intertribal warfare; and once that world breaks down, nothing can count as counting coups.” Lear imagines someone going to a restaurant to order a buffalo hamburger. He is told that he can’t have it because the last buffalo has been killed. Very different would be the predicament if we were transported to a future where restaurants no longer existed, and words like “ordering” no longer had any meaning. The first case is one of de facto impossibility; the second shows a radical impossibility.

A culture’s disappearing means that a people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can’t draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.”

This is the explanation of the lapidary statement of Plenty Coups: “After this nothing happened.” Nothing of significance could happen anymore. This is a terrible reality, and it is one that we have trouble understanding, but it is a fate that we in “advanced,” more “complex” societies have been imposing for many centuries on “indigenous” or “tribal” peoples.

We find it hard to grasp the full, devastating impact of this kind of culture death because of the differentiated and loosely articulated way of life that seems normal to us. Imagine that you are a smart, imaginative, and entrepreneurial computer designer, or a champion soccer player, or a virtuoso violinist. And then imagine that the entire world of computer design and manufacture, or the World Cup, or the world of classical music concerts, is removed from our lives by a sort of surgical strike—because of terrorist hackers, computers become too dangerous; or strikes by soccer players close the sport down; or classical music ceases to receive support from both the public and governments. It would now become radically impossible to do what really matters to you. But there would still remain many things you could meaningfully do. You could still be a spouse or lover; you might still be able to earn a lot of money; you could still be active in a movement or a church or a school. And success in all these other activities could be largely unrelated to success in what you did before. You would suffer a hard blow, but you could pick up and start again.

The situation is quite different in a society like that of the Crow. There are no alternative careers waiting for an ex-warrior; he probably has a wife and children, but what does it mean to be a father if you can’t hand on the skills of a warrior? If a relatively limited range of significant actions becomes impossible, how can a person find a meaningful life?

Lear quotes the account of an anthropologist, Robert Lowie, who visited the Crow about a century ago:

War was not a concern of a class nor even of the male sex, but of the whole population, from cradle to grave. Girls as well as boys derived their names from a famous man’s exploit. Women danced wearing scalps, derived honor from their husbands’ deeds, publicly exhibited the men’s shield or weapons; and a woman’s lamentations over a slain son was the most effective goad to a punitive expedition….

Most characteristic was the intertwining of war and religion. The Sun Dance, being a prayer for revenge, was naturally saturated with military episodes…. More significant still, every single military undertaking was theoretically inspired by a relation of a story in dream or vision; and since success in life was so largely a matter of martial glory, war exploits became the chief content of prayer.1

Living in a society for which this degree of integration is almost unimaginable, we have great difficulty grasping the full horror of the situation in which the Crow found themselves. That is why we are generally untroubled when we (or “progress,” or “globalization”) impose it on people.

On the contrary, we make a virtue of the kind of “flexibility” that enables people to change jobs, professions, skills. The development of the modern capitalist economy has long been imposing less drastic versions of this kind of culture death on mining villages in Wales and West Virginia, on formerly large and stable workforces of companies that manufacture objects that become obsolete or can be made more cheaply elsewhere, and on many communities in the developing world. The message to younger people today is: don’t become totally invested in one set of skills; you’re bound to have to change your line of work, perhaps many times in the course of your career.2

Of course, these changes are much less radical than those the Crow confronted. My point here is that we have not only developed defenses against cultural changes. We have encouraged an identity, a self-definition, of which the core is the ability to “reinvent” ourselves. Someone who can change his or her situation is free, self-reliant, creative, imaginative, resourceful. In the current talk about “globalization,” this identity and its associated virtues are seen as the highest stage of human development. To such people rightly belong the benefits of economic growth, prosperity, increased mobility, ever-new experiences. In the end, we often come to believe that we’re doing the victims of culture death a favor in breaking them out of the stagnant structures of their lives, and opening for them paths of freedom, equality, opportunity.

Some of us don’t buy this upbeat story in its entirety. But it colors our perceptions enough to hide from us the full devastating force of the total obliteration of a way of life. One of the great contributions of Jonathan Lear’s book is to articulate clearly and concisely what it really means:

The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view…. The very physical movements that, at an earlier time, would have constituted a brave act of counting coups are now a somewhat pathetic expression of nostalgia.

But Lear doesn’t stop there, simply describing a state of despair. Many such culture deaths have already happened. Others are yet to come, and it will be difficult, sometimes impossible, to stop them even with much good will. In the absence of effective countermeasures, the consequences of closing down a culture are obvious enough from the plight of many indigenous people, including many North American aboriginals: widespread demoralization, abuse of alcohol and drugs, domestic violence, and children who drop out of school, perpetuating the pattern in the next generation. Many well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) interventions from governments, such as setting up poorly run reservations, seem just to have made the situation worse.

  1. 1

    Robert H. Lowie, The Crow Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 1983), p. 215; quoted in Radical Hope, p. 12.

  2. 2

    The effects of this on the self-understanding of new generations, even on their understanding of character, have been traced by Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character (Norton, 1998).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print