Zak listened some more. ‘Ah, this is interesting. The village leaders are asking the logging company personnel who come up the valley, “How can this be your land if you don't know the names or stories of the places?”’
With solemn eyes, he said, ‘Here we see a great difference between Indigenous and Western approaches to land and territories. In the villagers’ understanding, you need a connection to the land to have a claim on it. Land is inextricably linked to cultural identity. A people and their territory are one and the same thing. But in capitalist systems, you can buy and sell land like any other commodity. What might be an ancestral territory to a people or a community is merely an asset on a balance sheet to a multinational company. It’s just a thing to be bought, profited from, then sold.’
‘As an aside,’ he continued, ‘some Westerners ask how traditional communities can have this view. They say it’s bizarre. Okay - but can you buy and sell your grandmother? “I don’t like mine, so I’ll trade her for another one.” Of course not. We’re related to our grandparents. They are not commodities. So Indigenous peoples are related to their lands. Land is not for sale - land is life.’
* * *
Zak looked at me with pensive eyes. His voice had changed; sounding somber. ‘When you read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, don't think of these guys as Cowboy and Indian cut-outs, but as real people living in the American West exactly 150 years ago, fighting over the very same things we see today.’
I sat up a little straighter.
‘Take this book, change the names of the people and the locations, and you are experiencing the same events: members of capitalistic classes using governmental, judicial, military and religious apparatus to expropriate less powerful peoples’ land and resources. To achieve their aims, they happily engage in forced relocation of communities from their traditional territories, individual and collective exploitation, environmental degradation, and the wilful destruction of culture, languages and spirituality. And all this in the name of the one true god: profit, with a capital P.’
I nodded grimly.
‘And guess how they locked in their advantage once Native Americans were on a losing streak?’
‘Indeed. Treaties: utterly cynical approaches to international relations.’ He paused, his face showing the strain of a man about to tell a long-kept and shameful secret.