First Voices: Breaking the Cycle

Gray-orange streaks frosted the morning window.  Tiokasin Ghosthorse, the host of “First Voices Indigenous Radio” was interviewing Daygots, an Oneida Wolf Clan artist/activist, while the heavy clouds threatened snow.  Daygots explained that both her organizing work with Native American youth and her music were motivated by a centuries-old effort of the Oneida to break their cycle of anguish.   I stopped reading an article on the proposed troop build-up in Afghanistan when I heard a phrase from the chorus of one of her songs: “the sky doesn’t have to fall down just for us to change our lives around!”

Indigenous peoples have experience with US foreign policy.  The Cherokee Removal, the “Noho Hewa” in Hawaii, and Manifest Destiny are examples of this interaction and the cycle of pain within America.  Some estimate that 85-97% of the pre-contact Native American population perished by the 1890 census.  The peoples who once farmed, traded, and migrated across a 3,000 mile stretch of the continent lost nearly all of their land.  The Oneida Wolf Clan now live on 36 acres.  One could say that the sky had fallen down on the indigenous peoples of North America.  Yet, mindful of this history, Daygots still holds the belief that the cycle of pain can be broken.

As we-the-people enter a period of reform and – perhaps – reflection, we must acknowledge that we are spiraling in a cycle of pain.  We as a nation have become terrifyingly comfortable with high levels of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, and incarceration.  We have developed a habit of taking our fears and molding them into fists and projectiles, while we tell our kids that violence solves nothing.  Then we try to hide our shame behind piles of bodies.  Bodies like Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant worker from Ecuador who was killed on Long Island a few months ago by a gang of teenagers looking “to get a Mexican.”  Bodies like Oscar Grant, a Black youth who was shot execution-style by a Bay Area transit officer in front of hundreds of straphangers on New Year’s Eve.  This isn’t the first time for such violent spasms and it won’t be the last.  We are addicted to delivering and receiving pain.  Afghanistan may be our next fig leaf.

A few months after September 11, 2001 – and as the Bush administration looked for an excuse to invade Iraq – America invaded Afghanistan.  Within a year, thousands of Afgan men were rounded up and detained at Bagram Air Base. One of them was a young cab driver named Dilawar; he wore an orange jumpsuit stamped “PUC-421.”  At the time, American officials were offering $10,000 rewards for each “terrorist” captured.  An Afghan militia that was part of the Northern Alliance detained Dilawar and told the US military that he had been involved in a rocket attack against an American base.  The militiamen who “captured” Dilawar – then turned him over to the American authorities and presumably pocketed the reward money – actually were the ones involved in the rocket attack.  And Dilawar died within five days of his imprisonment at Bagram, a victim of torture.

Why do we persist in this campaign?  Many Aghans think that the entire War on Terror is specious.  The 14 million Pashtuns in the nation, who have been victimized by fundamentalist terror, are increasingly angry about the indiscriminate murder of civilians by American and NATO-led forces.  Hundreds of citizens in Laghman province – site of Saturday’s missile attacks targeting alleged Taliban and/or al Quaeda members – protested for an end to such raids, signaling a turn by our greatest allies in that land.  Thousands of Afghan-Americans have done the same at federal buildings around the US, referring to the American bombing as “state-sponsored terrorism.”  Arguably the most well-known feminist group in the nation, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, passionately rejects the continued American presence.  In their statement marking the seventh anniversary of the American invasion, they said, among other things:

By the installation of the puppet government of Karzai, the US reused its creations and continued its deal with the Jehadi criminal warlords. From the very start, Mr. Karzai shunned the demands and trusts of the people and chose to compromise with the criminals of the “Northern Alliance” and placed the filthiest faces in the key posts of the government. In contradiction to the shameless claims of the ministers and other treacherous and corrupt officials, our people feel more ill-fated; the country has been turned to a mafia state and self-immolation, rape and abduction of women and children has no parallel in the history of Afghanistan.

Many American intellectuals and politicians also fail to see the logic in sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  Some question the assumption that the military can fix social problems.  Others wonder what difference 30,000 women and men can make when a viable counterinsurgency campaign may take upwards of 650,000 troops.  It is possible that President Obama – like Lyndon Johnson in 1965 – finds himself trapped in a political cul de sac; caught between a public and political establishment that will not accept a “loss” for supposed security interests, but weary of war.  I think the conundrum runs deeper.

We are addicted to delivering and receiving pain.  Could a profound sense of shame, guilt, and fear cause us to seek pain.  Pain for Native Americans, pain for enslaved Africans, pain for millions of immigrants, pain for workers, pain for the poor, all of whom considered returning that gift.  We paper over history with heritage, preferring not to see, not to listen.  When the sky fell in on thousands at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our first reaction was that we would feel so much better once we started bombing “them.”  The true identity of the responsible parties did not matter; that’s why vigilantes attacked Sikhs in late 2001, confusing them for al Quaeda, just like we attacked Marcelo Lucero, confusing him for some brown peril, just like we shot Oscar Grant laying face down with his hands behind his back, twisting his prostrate form into a life-threatening situation. Amid the confusion caused by fear, Bush told America and our soldiers that the Iraqis would greet them as liberators.  But American mothers and fathers have buried enough daughters and sons to see through the fog.  We have to break the cycle of pain; we need to listen to First Voices.

We don’t have to wait until it’s too late to deal with our fear, our guilt, our pain.  We don’t have to kill people when we know that the most likely result will be that many of the survivors and witnesses will want to kill us.  Dilawar is dead, not to mention Afghan wedding parties and Pat Tillman.  The sky shouldn’t have to fall down just for us to change.