By Madronna Holden
The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm. This attitude has deep roots in Western history. Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point. Discovery is a prelude to conquest.
Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach. It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire. The Athenian response was to massacre them. In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns. In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.
The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology. It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it. Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”. Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”
Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history. Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.
But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.
The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime. But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.
The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.
Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness: that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.
In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor: as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land. Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.
Or the beaver trade. The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above. This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.
But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.
Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here. The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.
From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right. And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them. As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.
Thus globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in their own right and in their contributions to our survival.
It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food. But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.
The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent. The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program. According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.
There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.
To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem. This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples. In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations. Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.
All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.
Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.
After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Ethics, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: dominator worldview, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, social roots of violence' colonialism and false "discovery" |