Tribalism Writ Large; the American Tribe
Humanity started out tribal.
All of us.
This meeting below is between a white man named Cpt Nathan Brittles, about 800 years after his tribal beginnings, and a Cheyenne chief, still in the waning days of his, just after Custer’s men were wiped out at Little Big Horn. It depicts two eras of tribalism run head-on, one advanced and complex, and the other simple and uncomplicated and almost romantic.
This is also Hollywood, 1949, and while Hollywood was always money-grubbing, they also knew what brought the largest number of fans to the theater, whether it was 1939, when millions could see “Gone With the Wind” for fifty cents or less, or “Star Wars” in 1977, at $2. Hollywood knew early on they’d make 100 times more money selling tickets to the masses at 50 cents a head to millions than $30 tickets to see “Cats” on Broadway in a 200-seat theatre.
So whatever lesson the writers, directors and actors intended to convey, they touched the chords, usually with positive vibes, to the larger end of the American tribe who could afford those fifty-cent tickets. And in doing so, Hollywood proved, when done well, it had far more teachable power of persuasion to the masses than any other media, best seller, sermon, even pop song. Tens of thousands still watch this film free-of-charge, partly because of the star, but also because of simplicity of its message. It still runs well among the American tribe.
This star is John Wayne, and the role he played was almost never-changing in dozens of films…as a man who found great dignity in the American Indian. (He believed that off-screen, too.) This conversation between a 40-year frontier Army captain and a tribal chief, Pony That Walks, was not considered to be an exceptional conversation by audiences in 1949, compared to who would see this today,\; that while quaint and sympathetic, it was as an aberration of the white man’s true nature.
This is why it’s even more teachable today.
This film was a depiction of a conflict between two tribes, one infinitely larger than the other, about a breakout of a reservation of the Cheyenne tribe after Custer’s defeat, to make war on the whites. With Custer’s defeat and the buffalo coming back, both omens they believed, signaled a break-out by their young men who’d been raised as kids to be warriors, as every generation before them had until the bigger white tribe, after skirmishes and defeats, their elders thought it best to settle on a reservation (about the size of two Georgia counties, where the young men could sate their appetites by substituting killing other tribes’ young men with killing deer and antelope. The tribal politics of the tribe told the elders there was nothing they could about this break-out, the “young bucks” of the tribe (Yep, that’s what they called them) were going on a tear come hell-or-high-water, no matter what the elders said. (Set in 1876, it’s a timely theme today with Antifa in Portland, or BLM in Kenosha, or for that matter, with “West Side Story” in 1961, kids with fire in their belly having to go cut somebody or burn something down to sate their thirst… and the wise old chiefs who knew better, only knowing they couldn’t do a thing about it.
Just a different sort of politics.
So, if I told you that this Cheyenne tribe lost because the elders could not control their young hot heads, I’d be right. (Only, in the end, Nathan Brittles spares their lives while only wounding their dignity.) Virtually every American who saw this film (including black males) would have sympathized with this adult view as set out in this short scene about tribal kids getting out of hand. (Why do I know? I first saw the film “Tombstone” in a black neighborhood theater in Cincinnati. I was the only white guy there and I saw no women, just fathers and their sons…but they “oohed and aahed”, cheered and hissed in all the same places I would. And I was 48. I like being tutored about natural law first hand whenever I can.)
The tribal nature of Man, before all that civilization stuff turned him greedy, vain, and mean was largely cooperative and reciprocal. The seven Virtues far outweighed the seven Vices when the survival of the tribe was the principal aim of the group. But this was thousands of years ago, before the rise of the first civilizations. We just know that Good came first and it is built around the survival instinct of social man. They were religious even though they knew nothing of the God of Abraham, or Jesus, and had gods of a very similar disposition, only those “love thy neighbor” rules were practiced only within the tribe. The cardinal virtues were baked into their way of living together for they were survival-enhancing, toward harmony, and yes, the people gave credit to their gods for every blessing; the grain they planted and harvested, the meat they killed, and the social rules they lived by. Even their election of chiefs were largely democratic. This is all proved by their oral legends.
And the name they gave themselves in almost every language (there are thousands) was “We” or “the People”. And every name they gave to their neighbors was a version of “Them”, “the other people”, “Not us”. Very exclusionary. So throughout history, much like Arab Muslim lands today, they lived quiet, peaceful lives inside their borders, but with constant warfare, at least low-grade warfare, on their borders; raids, stealing cattle, women; war-party stuff. Some even created war-cults after the horse found its way onto the Plains, the Cheyenne Dog-soldiers a mix between Spetznaz and Al-Queda.
So tribal harmony depended on “Location, location, location”, or external geographical conditions. “Sky Determines” is a title of a book by Ross Calvin, from 1939, about tribal life in New Mexico at time of the Spanish Conquest. A good read for several reasons, I like the title for it signifies that tribal life (and peace) is often determined simply by the natural environment tribal people find themselves in. Tribes out west’s natural environment differed. There territory might be thousands of square miles, while eastern tribes could sustain themselves in territory no larger than a typical county.
If the climate changed for prolonged periods…a drought, for instance, or the buffalo stop coming…they’d have to move, and that meant into the territory of other peoples, where conflict always occurred. Our knowledge of the prairie tribes of the US and Canada is that AmerIndian tribal territories changed regularly based simply on warfare with one another. Before the white man. It got much worse when the Spanish introduced the horse, which gave tribes with access to them an advantage over neighbors no tribe with them could ignore, or traders started trading steel arrow points and blankets for beaver pelts.
In Canada the French came as a business venture (furs) instead of settlers and some of the tribes, notably the Iroquois confederacy in the East, and Blackfoot of the Rocky Mountain West, made war on neighboring tribes just to lock up the trade-rights with the French, English and later American companies who were seeking fur pelts. The whites also offered a glorious product called “whiskey”, which they literally would trade their wives for. And trapping beaver was easy. The Iroquois literally went on wars of annihilation of smaller, sedentary tribes around the Great Lakes just to lock up the-is role of middle-men with the companies in Montreal. (In the later wars with the English colonies, French and Indian War, 1754-1763) the Iroquois also made fine auxiliary forces for the French, their dark mark in history made when they massacred the troops and families of Ft William Henry in upper New York after they had surrendered to the French and were allowed to depart without harm.)
So the question has to be asked, why is that a people who are living on the edge of survival are always so good to one another, but then when one person or tribe gets a leg up on the others, then some suddenly become tyrants? And how long does it take for this transition to take place? And is there a middle ground where can Man can both “pursue life, liberty, happiness and property” without diminishing that same right in others?
Going all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who began as tribal villagers farming the Nile Delta, and likewise the Mesopotamians, who farmed the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, making up what is called the Fertile Crescent, (where Abraham originally lived, by the way) where the vagaries of survival were less risky than say the plains of Kansas. It was even called the “Cradle of Civilization”, where the first metal age was also born, the Bronze Age, c3500 BC. It’s speculated that the tribal people who farmed there slowly grew in wealth, then power because they had surpluses in grain which they could then trade for other things they desired, thus enhancing their power and wealth. This process could have taken 1000 years or more. (No one knows because writing hadn’t been invented, and even today, no one has still heard any of those ancient languages spoken, just as written Sanskrit in India represents a language that has been unspoken for thousands of years.)
So what emerged, we do know, were king-based empire systems built largely by slave labor, with a very small ruling (and priest) class, backed by a military carrying forged metal swords and spears, and no mention about how the life of the ordinary Egyptian or Sumerian had changed. (This is when “written” history would first emerge. It would another 4500 years before a different class of historians would rise who write about how the lower 90% lived.)
We do know that that early Egyptian-Mesopotamian model was so successful, and also so personally rewarding to the ruling class, that it became a religion of its own, a religion of self, and in modern 21st Century language, the guiding lamp unto the feet of virtually every “ism” that has come in over the transom since Karl Marx, VI Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. A worship of “Me”.
Clearly this was a natural cycle of power, built on the other Sevens, the Vices, (1) vainglory, or pride, (2) greed, or covetousness, (3) lust, or inordinate or illicit sexual desire, (4) envy, (5) gluttony (6) wrath, and (7) sloth.
Of course, my argument is that the Seven Virtues existed first in nature, just as God existed before Satan.
My view also has been that God has been tinkering with a model for Man to govern himself by ever since He inked that covenant with Abraham (then living in the same Fertile Crescent that bore Eden) which began a “thin red line” from Abraham, though Moses and the Promised Land, to Jesus, thence to Europe, and from Europe and England to an isolated piece of real estate in North America neither the French nor Spanish were interested in, settling it with largely various groups of Christians who could at least get along with one another, and over a period of almost 200 years of cohabitation and trial and error, design a format, a template, a model for the people of all nations to able to use to define their own sort of free government.
And the first written offering of that model was the Constitution of the United States.
It has withstood the test of 234 years, and is now standing on very shaky ground. It’s only chance of survival is that the Many reclaim their birthright.
(This line of thinking is going somewhere and you may want to check in from time to time at UnwashedPhilosophy.com as a collaborative longer work is in progress over there.)