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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Reviews of Mihesua, Sheehi, Boyle

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Three books recently published by the American radical publisher Clarity Press reflect different aspects of racism in the U.S., which even under a Black president is unfortunately alive and well and promoted in U.S. policy at home and abroad -- if not officially.

Top on the list of course is the continued second-class status of African Americans, who make up an outsized proportion of prisoners, the unemployed and those living in poverty. One's color is enough to keep the black-and-white status quo intact, despite the cosmetic boost that Barack Obama's election gave to the nation's Blacks.

But the endemic racism that Native Americans have experienced despite more or less blending in with the increasingly Hispanic and Asian mix of today's America (most Native Americans are of mixed race) is a sad legacy that is equally endemic.

American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities
American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities
(Image by Clarity Press)
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The irony is that Native American culture is revered around the world and by many Americans, especially by the young, as it appeals to the sense of unity of man and nature and recognizes and respects the mystery of life: the fact that humans are one small part of a vast and beautiful world which is full of magic. It is only as people "grow up" that they lose this sense of mystery and accommodate themselves to a heirarchical, anthropocentric reality with no use for the romantic animism that allowed the natives to live in harmony with nature for thousands of years.

Devon Mihesua, a Choctaw from Oklahoma, sets out the many distortions of the image of Native Americans perpetrated by the mainstream media and demolishes them one by one in American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, already a classic, first published in 1996 and newly republished this year by Clarity.

One of the many images that stands out to someone who grew up in North America and which Mihesua corrects is "Cowboys and Indians," which should be "U.S. Army and Indians" since "cowboys and Indians rarely fought each other. Besides, the first cowboys were Mexican Indians." The English language itself reinforces the worst stereotypes, such as "Indian givers" (read: "U.S. government givers") and Columbus "discovering" America. Indeed, 1492 marks not a step forward in mankind's history, but rather the beginning of the first and most horrific genocide in mankind's history, with the premeditated killing of at least 10 million in North America alone.

The history of Native Americans is full of ironies. War Department officials maintained that if the entire U.S. population had enlisted in the same proportion as Native Americans in WWII, the response would have rendered Selective Service unnecessary. As soldiers, they were respected as disciplined and brave. Comanche soldiers were given the vital task of encoding secret messages in the Pacific based on their native language. The code they developed, although cryptologically very simple, was never cracked by the Japanese; but they never received any special recognition from the government after the war.

Mihesua's book is intended for the general public but also as a school text; and although it deals with grim material, it is full of fascinating details of native life. Living in earth lodges (wigwams), longhouses, grass houses or thatched-roof homes much like Europeans, most Indians never saw a tipi, for example. Indians were "conquered" largely via biological warfare, as they lacked immunity to European diseases. The European claim that they were "heathen" was a mere tactic to condone their decimation. It was the Dutch who introduced "scalping" to North America (to save transport costs for bounty hunters paid per Indian scalp): a revered tradition dating back to ancient Greece.

More than 60 percent of the food consumed around the world today comes from the Indians, including corn, tomatoes, potatoes, many varieties of beans, chili peppers, squash, pumpkins, avocados, cacao, raspberries and strawberries. The main staple of the plains Indians, the 60 million buffalo that grazed the open plains, were wiped out by Europeans eager to steal the Indians' land.

The Indians were just as "civilized" as the Europeans, in terms of technology and culture, though no North Americans had a writing system before the European invasion. Their societies were egalitarian, with division of labor according to sex, where the sexes were considered equal and each had their decision-making traditions. In fact, the Iroquois Confederacy was used as a prototype by the American revolutionaries in writing the American Constitution.

The book has many illustrations. It includes oral histories, discourses on religion, anthropology, politics and economics of Indian societies. The author used the term Indian in the first edition, and writes that she now uses Indigenous, since Native Americans or First Nation are equally European in derivation. There are a mere 2.1 million Indians today, and they refer to themselves by their tribal name (the Navajos are Dinees, for example) -- over 700 tribes are still extant. Mihesua's aim is to encourage teachers to demand history books that truly reflect the country's heritage, not just "feel-good" books which "tell more about the persons writing them than about the Indians".

In Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, Stephen Sheehi, director of the Arabic Program at the University of South Carolina and author of Foundations of Modern Arab Identity, deals with the most recent manifestation of this social plague, which reached a crisis point following 9/11. The victimization of Muslim Americans can only be called racism, since the overwhelming majority of American Muslims are nonwhite, and the few white Muslims are automatically considered even more suspect as potential "terrorists."

The Muslim experience brings the Black and Native American experiences together, though few Native Americans are Muslim. The structure of Islam and native religions seems radically different on the surface -- the former strictly monotheistic, the latter polytheistic; however, the transcendence of spirit and the underlying unity of man and nature are very much central tenets of Islam, as they are for Native Americans. Muslims, like the Native Americans, live their spirituality and find it inseparable from their daily lives and interactions with others and nature, something that threatens the very foundation of secular capitalism.

The mouthpieces of Islamophobia -- fear and hatred of Islam -- in the U.S. today include both academics like Bernard Lewis, Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman, David Horowitz, and many politicians, with John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the vanguard. Their theories and opinions operate on the assumption that Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, suffer from particular cultural lacuna that prevents their cultures from progress, democracy and human rights. It is no surprise that such ex-Muslims as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali feminist-turned-Islamophobe, and revisionist Muslims, such as Indian-Canadian feminist Irshad Manji, are feted by Western media, as their antics reinforce the Islamophobes' arguments.

While Islamophobia is not new, Sheehi demonstrates that it was refurbished as a viable explanation for Muslim resistance to economic and cultural globalization during the Clinton era. Moreover, the "theory" was made the basis for an interventionist foreign policy and propaganda campaign during the Bush regime and continues to underlie Barack Obama's new internationalism.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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