By Peter d’Errico
The really fascinating thing about Gates’ comments ... is how they shed light on another area of U.S. relations with “tribal” societies: The indigenous peoples of the Americas. The parallels are pretty clear, if we want to admit it. First, there is intervention based on using some elements of tribal societies against other elements and against the enemies of the United States. Then, there is the collapse of traditional governing structures. After that, there is the belated awareness that the traditional structures are needed to maintain social coherence and stability.
An article in the Times, just two days before Dowd’s column, reported the growing problem of gang violence on Pine Ridge. The article said, “5,000 young men from the Oglala Sioux tribe [are] involved with at least 39 gangs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The gangs are being blamed for an increase in vandalism, theft, violence and fear that is altering the texture of life here and in other parts of American Indian territory.” It’s not only Pine Ridge: “The Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, has identified 225 gang units, up from 75 in 1997.”
One response, not surprisingly, is a call for more police. That’s like the call for more troops to Afghanistan. But the article noted there are other voices at Pine Ridge: “Even as they seek to bolster policing, Pine Ridge leaders see their best long-term hope for fighting gangs in cultural revival.” The article quotes Melvyn Young Bear, an Oglala cultural liaison: “We’re trying to give an identity back to our youth. They are Lakota, and they have a lot to be proud of.”
At the time, people claimed Obama was talking about "their" tribes--e.g., those in Muslim countries--and not "our" tribes. But d'Errico puts that distinction to rest. The foreign exploitation of Afghan tribes resembled the foreign exploitation of American Indian tribes. Both sets of tribes weakened or fell apart, which led to factionalism and violence among tribal members. Re-establishing the tribal structures of culture and religion is needed to rescue people from chaos.
So Obama's words do apply to American Indian tribes and he was wrong to utter them. And Steve Russell was wrong to claim this was the dumbest dispute since "niggardly." Wherever tribal cultures are threatened, we need to strengthen them rather than weaken or dissolve them.
To be sure, the wrong kind of tribalism--intolerant and xenophobic--is no good. But tribalism as a concept is more or less neutral. Depending how it's implemented, it can help or hurt.
Tribalism basically means uniting with like-minded people for a common purpose. When we talk about building communities or strengthening local governments, that's tribalism in action. People who play by the same rules, look out for each other, take pride in their neighborhoods--that's what we're talking about. This kind of tribalism is important, even necessary, for society to work.
For more on the subject, see Tribalism in Dreams from My Father and Natives Criticize Obama's Speech.
Below: Good and bad tribalism.