EDIT: (zaagibagaa-giizis 2013) My thoughts on this continue to evolve and I’ve come to realize certain weak spots in what I wrote here. Particularly the stuff about mino-bimaadizin as a historical lens. More thinking needed, take with a grain of salt.
Even though mainstream historical/anthropological scholarship doesn’t claim “civilization” to be inherently superior to other way of living anymore, the way they talk about human societies still very clearly shows their belief in the European idea of “progressing” uniformly from a lower, more “primitive” way of life to a more advanced and thus better one.
For example, settler scholars writing about Cahokia, the Anasazi, Tenochtitlan, and the Maya. There’s a strong thread in scholarship about these places that basically like, “Look! The Indians managed to get advanced civilizations too! [ergo they are also worthy of being included history]” And especially with Mississippian and Mayan society, there’s a narrative that when the Europeans arrived, people were living in the “aftermath” of the “ruin” of their great civilizations (and that this made them more susceptible to colonization). I mean, I understand why Western-trained writers talk about them this way. They are making analogies to how, for instance, the ‘fall’ of Rome is dealt with in European history.
But for an indigenous history, we cannot accept that. As an indigenous person, I ask, “Why is one kind of way of life elevated over another, as though it is improvement?” In particular, I question why a major part of the definition of civilization, having a socially stratified society, is considered a good thing. Really? We’re gonna say having inequality is a sign of progress?
Here is the main point of my argument: History is not a linear march of progress and improvement from a primitive state to a better civilized one, but a continuous, cyclical readjustment of life in accordance with the shifting of the environment around us.
While in the European model of history, people are thought to be constantly seeking material improvement of their lives, in an indigenous view, I suggest that people are trying to live mino-bimaadiziwin. Mino-bimaadiziwin is an Anishinaabe word, but I have been taught about it by Cree and Metis people as well (who call it miyo-pimatisiwin). It literally means “good life” but the meaning is very different from the English. To put it simplistically, mino-bimaadiziwin means living a life fully according to your community’s values. It includes both material aspects of life and spiritual ones. (This is a big simplification; mino-bimaadiziwin is a major thing in Anishinaabe thought that has a lot of ideas involved I’m not getting into here.)
When I read and talk about indigenous history, I look for how people were trying to live mino-bimaadiziwin. That is, what they did to try to have good conditions (of having enough to eat, a happy family, shelter, comfort) and to live a good life according to their community’s values (following spiritual practices, connection to the community, respecting and honoring, etc). Where this tends to confuse people in the European model of history is that sometimes, the way to live mino-bimaadiziwin leads people to so-called “primitive” ways of life.
Some examples of how this can be applied to our understanding of history:
Cahokia and the Mississippian cultures. Westerner historians treat this like a standard narrative of the rise and fall of “advanced civilization.” They take it for granted that people would move “towards” a stratified society, and are thus confused and constantly trying to find out why it “fell.” The narrative looks different from an indigenous perspective. People moved to villages and cities because they offered a way of mino-bimaadiziwin: Cahokia has shown that it offered abundant shelter and food as well as a strong spiritual grounding.
Eventually, however, the changing environment made other ways of life offer the best ways of mino-bimaadiziwin. Weather, crop failure, and health problems meant that living in smaller villages or hunting buffalo offered better material conditions, and it’s likely that the political and spiritual situations (because they were tightly interwoven) were similar. There is no reason to regard life in the cities of the Mississippians as superior to the ones they lived in after.
The plains way of life. Although people have always hunted buffalo and lived on the plains, the real height of the horse-based buffalo-hunting way of life didn’t kick off until 1700. To Western eyes, the change from life in sedentary agricultural villages to nomadic hunting ones looks like a regression. But to indigenous eyes, it is a very sensible change in the continuous search for mino-bimaadiziwin.
Before the 1700s, buffalo hunting was very beneficial to communities both from a material and spiritual perspective, but it was also very dangerous and difficult to manage on a long-term basis. Starting in the early 1700s, however, horses and guns began to arrive on the plains. This change in the environment (particularly the horses) made it possible to hunt buffalo more or less full time. Hunting buffalo offered mino-bimaadiziwin: food, shelter, clothing, spiritual fulfillment. Even European accounts record that the way of the buffalo hunt was a constant enticement to Native people.
Thule and Inuit history. I recently read something that described people north of the tree line as having lived roughly the same way of life for thousands of years. While I suspect there’s much more to it than that, I want to address the Western view that living in the same way for a very long time is bad, or at the very least “stagnant.” In the Western view, progress is assumed the default and thus not only “regression” but also a lack of progress is considered a failure.
Looking at this from an indigenous perspective, however, it look instead that people have found a way of mino-bimaadiziwin that is fulfilling within their environment and that the environment has not changed enough to require substantial alterations to that way of living. For certain, it changes constantly and so some changes occurred, but on the whole that method of mino-bimaadiziwin sustained people for a very long time.
There’s a ton more stuff I could get into—I’m really excited, there’s a lot in this way of looking at history that I want to explore. Looking at modern indigenous life as a continuation of our seeking mino-bimaadiziwin. How the mino-bimaadiziwin model of history can even be applied to Europe, with some alterations. The importance of recognizing individual peoples’ approaches to history, recognizing that mino-bimaadiziwin comes from specific groups and may not be the most appropriate for all indigenous people. I’m also really excited to see how the ideas Marimba Ani has suggested in Yurugu (such as asili, utamawazo, and utamaroho) can help in an indigenous (specifically indigenous African) idea of history.