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There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
- Audre Lorde

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Women and History (2021-10-18)

Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added. Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added.
Imperial roman mosaic (3rd-4th century CE) depiciting the nine Muses, held at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, via theoi.com 9 august 2020. Annotations added.

Among many other tasks and loose ends I have been sorting out during this strange summer-fall, is a sort of "kernel" project. Not in the software or computer system sense of course, but more in the way of bundling and shaping a set of materials to feed another project that I don't have a clear bead on yet, but is definitely there. The thing about studying history, including seriously reading Karl Marx's work in order to get a genuine understanding of what different people claim "marxist history" is and how it does or doesn't relate to what he actually wrote, is that in time everyone does have to make a choice. It is necessary to decide whether how you see and understand the field is grounded in material reality and social analysis, or leans toward the assumption that everything is ideas and therefore analysis should primarily be about discourse. While I do think that discourse analysis is important and useful, like many, many other historians in training and fully trained up, I am not in a position to deny that material reality often does a serious number on my and every one else's carefully constructed ideas. If we could individually just think ourselves out of messes, well, we'd all lack any problems or challenges whatsoever and nothing and no one could ever change that. As a woman, I have repeatedly observed women's fraught relationship with history and read about it in the archives. When it comes to history, women are given one more set of absurd and contradictory demands by men: be absent from history, but maintain historical memory. No need to take my word alone on this. Silvia Federici describes an expression of this doublebind very well, in her recent book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018, PM Press).

In many parts of the world, women have historically been seen as the weavers of memory – those who keep alive the voice of the past and the histories of the communities, who transmit them to future generations and, in so doing, create a collective identity and profound sense of cohesion. They are also those who hand down required knowledges and wisdoms – concerning medical remedies, the problems of the heart, and the understanding of human behaviour, starting with that of men. Labelling all this production of knowledge "gossip" is part of the degradation of women – it is a continuation of the demonologists' construction of the stereotypical woman as prone to malignity, envious of other people's wealth and power, and ready to lend an ear to the devil. (41-42)

I suspect many women would be surprised to hear that they are maintaining historical memory in western societies, regardless of whether they are trained as historians or end up working on writing explicitly historical narratives for some professional reason. Yet they do. For most of us in northern north america, the people who keep track of all the relatives, including the archive of photographs, birthday and holiday cards, and the various other pieces that make up a family's physically encoded sense of itself, are the women. They curate this material, and if they don't explicitly write it up or put it in labelled boxes, one or more grandmothers or aunties are the ones we sit with who tell the family stories and maybe pull out photos or other objects and tell stories as they show them. In the Indigenous communities I am connected to, it is the women who remember huge swathes of our geography, the places on the land with whom we have ongoing relationships, when we are supposed to visit and what to do at each place. That's who makes sure we know who we are and what we need to do to live in a good way. It's a big job spread among a number of women, otherwise it would be too fragile a system to work. And of course, this task and the techniques used to carry it out are regularly derogated as "gossip" and "old wives' tales." Yet if women's role as historians was not powerful and important, the effort to control them and insult their labour in this area wouldn't happen. As one of my colleagues wisely noted one day, we don't make a rule or act to stop or change how people act in other ways unless someone has done something we consider wrong in some way.

Let's consider a bit more on this topic from Federici. This quote is drawn from her essay "Marxism, Feminism, and the Commons," in Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, also published with PM Press.

Recognizing that social subordination is a historical product rooted in a specific organization of work has had a liberating effect on women. It has denaturalized the sexual division of labour and the identities built upon it, projecting gender categories not only as social constructs but as concepts whose content is constantly redefined, infinitely mobile, open-ended, and always politically charged. Indeed, many feminist debates on the validty of "women" as an analytic and political category could be more easily resolved if this method were applied, for it teaches us that it is possible to express a common interest without ascribing fixed and uniform forms of behaviour and social conditions. (154)

By now it is more than evident that Federici is a scholar committed to a social and historical materialist analysis herself. I am fond of this snippet in part because it draws out the inherent positivity of this sort of approach. If we are willing and able to see things like the sexual division of labour as not only changeable, but positively changeable by us, then we are not doomed to helplessly repeat self-destructive and socially destructive patterns.


Today's Contested Document: All You Needed To Do Was Ask

Stereotypes have a remarkable persistence, popping up even after the general public consensus is that "nobody thinks that anymore." The thing is, stereotypes are the mental equivalent of the old stuff shoved into a storeroom we don't overtly use anymore, that nevertheless impacts us because for whatever reason we have never cleaned out and organized the room. Stereotypes are also never singular in the context of mainstream, european-epistemology derived ideas, because european thought vaunts dualism above almost everything else. As a result, stereotypes arising from those ways of thinking are like coins, they always have two sides rendered valueless if separated from each other. Take for example, the stereotype of the "ecological-viral indian." The "ecological indian" side claims that all Indigenous people in the americas were fundamentally perfect stewards of the land at all times, never making mistakes or deliberately going wrong because of mystic affinities or lack of real humanity until europeans came along. The "viral indian" side – never openly referred to in this manner, by the way – continues exploiting and exploiting and exploiting until the land and their population collapses, doing so again and again forever until finally europeans show up to humanize them. There is nothing nice about either side of this nasty coin, though yes, the "ecological indian" is a relatively lesser evil.

In real life, of course the coin is nonsense. Many Indigenous nations did figure out how to live in a good way with the land, and did so for thousands of years, and were doing so more often than not when europeans showed up. This was not achieved via mindless repetition, and indeed could not have been. Indigenous nations achieved this by means of careful study by experimental means and long observation, including methods europeans tried to derogate as merely "hocus pocus" or "juggling." In fact, special modes of observation such as those achieved in ceremony are anything but trickery or fooling. Over time mainstream scholars have come to grudgingly admit that some of the simpler techniques they might see used day to day were not bizarre "tricks" but sophisticated ways of avoiding over-harvesting by randomizing which harvesting site visits and the like. And we should never underestimate how important observing what other people were doing and noticing that it was working out well or not working out so well as a factor in deciding what to do. Add to that the fact that Indigenous nations did and do have historical records applied to their current questions and challenges, and we get a much messier and harder to disrespect image.

Tongariki platform on Rapa Nui, quoted from *Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction,* by Sue Hamilton, Archaeology International 10 (2008: 49-50), via the internet archive. Tongariki platform on Rapa Nui, quoted from *Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction,* by Sue Hamilton, Archaeology International 10 (2008: 49-50), via the internet archive.
Tongariki platform on Rapa Nui, quoted from "Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction," by Sue Hamilton, Archaeology International 10 (2008: 49-50), via the internet archive.

The unacknowledged hold of the stereotype as led many mainstream scholars into labouring mightily up blind alleys for decades. They have been exercised over many to them "mysteries" of the americas, especially these four: where Indigenous people came from, the extinction of the pleistocene megafauna, the abandonment of the city of Cahokia, and the presumed collapse of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) society. All of these are stubbornly interconnected with the presumed existence of an ecological/viral indian. The first because mainstream scholars decided, because they desperately wanted Indigenous people to have been recent immigrants themselves, preferably destroying all pre-existing polities the way europeans and their descendants in the americas had done. Why travel across a landbridge unless to find new options after depleting northern asia, many of these scholars argued. But admittedly they got far more play out of picking out the Indigenous peoples who had the greatest phenotypical resemblance to Mongolians and insisting they must be the closest relatives of the original landbridge migrants. This is nonsense on multiple levels, not least the growing evidence both archaeological and geological that no, the americas were not populated from asia, nor were they absolutely cut off from asia after the re-submergence of the infamous landbridge. The other three "mysteries" have always had much stronger ties to the ecological/viral indian stereotype.

The pleistocene megafauna are quite famous and fascinating, for understandable reason. Apart from their sheer size, some of them have wild features like the giant incisors of the sabre-toothed tiger or the wooly mammoth's coat. The very idea that there could have been giant beavers, which are spoken of in many Indigenous traditions was taken as nonsense until white people found fossils of them. But of course, today they are all extinct, except for their much smaller cousins, some of whom are no longer so wooly and live only in more temperate climates if left to their own devices. Supposedly, assuming that Indigenous peoples arrived via that infamous landbridge, they arrived among all these megafauna that being unfamiliar with humans, were helpless to resist the newly arrived obsessive hunters. Except, that really doesn't make any sense. Even if we take on board for the sake of argument that humans arrived in a place that until then without any humans at all for at least long enough for no sort of animal to escape a human who decided to kill them, it doesn't. These were giant animals, and even a giant herbivore is extremely dangerous to much smaller humans. The example that more of us should be aware of is the hippopotamus, which in a year often kill more people in the areas of africa they live than crocodiles because they are far faster than they look and are seriously aggressive. Furthermore, the cold climate gigantism is best suited to characteristic of the pleistocene in the americas ended, and by necessity then the megafauna species had to shrink to survive. There would certainly be far more evidence of human predation than there is if Indigenous people had somehow destroyed them all – thousands upon thousands of worked stone projectile points and butchering knives for example in something of a continent-wide destruction layer. Let alone that if Indigenous people had been constantly slaughtering more meat than they could eat, megafauna carnivores would have quickly learned to wait for them to gorge themselves, then chow down on the extra meat and the food-comatose humans.

In fact, it doesn't take long to learn about what it was like for Indigenous people to live with the pleistocene megafauna because different nations have maintained their ancestors' memories of it. Especially in what is currently called canada, the Anishinabeg and Nehiyaw peoples recount how their ancestors struggled to survive among highly dangerous giant animals, until at last the animals lost their extraordinary size. This change comes about through a range of causes, from treaty making so that animals formerly dangerous to people agreed to help feed them in return for respect for their habitat and right to survival as their own nations, to interventions by powerful spirit beings who instruct animals and people alike in how they will behave in future.

Moving away from human-animal relationships to human settlements, in many ways Cahokia and Rapa Nui go together. The once widely accepted mainstream explanation for the abandonment of Cahokia like the reduction of Rapa Nui, was supposed to be human over-exploitation, hence environmental collapse. Jared Diamond made particular hay of the putative fate of the people of Rapa Nui in his claims about human caused catastrophe. There's just one problem in both cases. The real life evidence doesn't match this explanation at all in either case, and if mainstream scholars had taken the time to listen to what Indigenous people were saying, they would have figured this out far sooner. Figured it out sooner, and still been able to study both places.

Cahokia was a major city built near the mississipi river, in a location so good that eventually st. louis was built across the river from its ruins. At its height around 1250 CE, Cahokia was bigger than london, england and included one of the largest built structures in the world. To this day non-Indigenous people still have a habit of referring to its "downfall" or "collapse." Since cities are as overvalued as dualism in mainstream ways of thinking, and european-style cities wreck the environment they are built in, it probably seemed a no brainer that Cahokia was ruined by the sort of catastrophic flooding that is characteristic of the mississippi today. The site includes thousands of mounds houses and other structures were built on, again suggesting a coping strategy for flooding. The material culture, generally referred to as Mississippian was extraordinarily rich artistically and in terms of wealth. Yet over time people left the city empty, and at least mainstream scholars have no idea why. Geoarchaeologist Caitlin Rankin put the flood hypothesis firmly out of its misery by early 2021. I can't reference any stories about Cahokia from Indigenous traditions, but that is because I have not studied very much of the accounts shared to date by the peoples who are most likely the direct descendants of the Cahokians: the Siouan speaking peoples of the northern mississippi valley. Nevertheless, if mainstream scholars had taken account of actual observed Indigenous land use practices sooner in the region, including asking them how they were able to live together in such large communities for so long, then this hypothesis would not have gotten far.

In the case of Rapa Nui there is even less excuse for misrepresenting them and their society before their unasked for meeting with europeans. For one thing, even before better archaeological and ethnological evidence was gathered so that mainstream scholars learned how to differentiate regular household tools from weapons and domestic versus ceremonial sites and the like, there were written records. Europeans knew good and damned well that they systematically sought out isolated island populations around the americas in order to enslave all the inhabitants they could manage to force onto their ships. The Indigenous people of Rapa Nui also remembered how their ancestors moved the great statues that are now so symbolic of the island. Specifically, they remembered that the statues "walked", as the people skilfully applied physical principles to shift the statues by rocking them along on their bases to their final positions. The effort did not require hundreds of people, nor every posible scrap of wood. And as it turned out, there is no evidence of two warring factions on Rapa Nui who fought each other in desperation as the island's food supplies collapsed.

So really, when it comes to starting to understand mysterious happenings in the Indigenous past, all curious outsiders needed to do was ask, and listen.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2022
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2022 20:48:21