, , , , , , , ,

Three Cherokee

Three Cherokee

…and of course that is when it gets really interesting.

By poking an eye out, I am of course talking about a special sort of moment one gets from time to time in the study of anthropology, at least I do. It’s the sort of moment when some cultural practice causes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your stomach tries to dig its way to China (or Antarctica, as would be the case here in Barrow). I’m talking about that kind of moment when you encounter something in an ethnography that just seems like too much. So, you sit there and ask yourself, “How in the Hell could that be anything but wrong?” And for a little while anyway, your mind just doesn’t want to travel down that road, the one that leads to understanding the practice in its own context. You’d rather just say ‘no’. Hell, you’d rather shout it at them across the waters, over the mountains, and even if need be through the ages, cause someone needs to say it somehow, “This is just wrong!”

For the students in one of my classes this semester that moment came courtesy of the Cherokee blood feud, and the sticking point was very clearly collective responsibility for murder. Simply put, the feud enabled the clan of a murdered individual to claim revenge against any member of the clan to which the offending party belonged. More than that, the terms of this blood feud obligate people to do so.

But I said ‘murdered’ didn’t I?



That’s not quite right. In the old way, any individual responsible for killing another Cherokee could initiate the obligation to exact revenge, even if the killing was an accident. As our reading described it, a horse borrowed for the day could start trouble by bucking its rider off, thus triggering a feud between the clan of its owner and that of the deceased rider. So pretending for this paragraph anyway that I am Cherokee – I’m not, …not even the ubiquitous Cherokee grandmother every other white guy seems to have been blessed with – but let’s just pretend for a moment. If my brother’s horse spooks and kills a rider, I could be killed in revenge for this event. They do not need to take the offending party (if there even is such a person in this example); they might prefer to kill a different member of my brother’s clan (someone like ME, perhaps). So, I could die because of something my brother did, …even if that was an accident. The article we read even contained an instance in which a killer talked the avenging parties into killing someone else from his own clan.

And yes, this bothered my students. I can’t really blame them, because I can remember my own feelings years ago as I came to grips with this kind of dispute-system. It violates my sense of justice too, or at least the master metaphors through which I and my students typically process this kind of information.

But it’s worse than that!

You see, the point here isn’t merely that people do this, but that this system is actually normative. In a certain time and place, according to a certain cultural order, this is what was SUPPOSED to happen. This is what’s right, at least as the Cherokee once defined it, and that proved more than a little disturbing to my students this semester.

Proper verdicts thunder!

Proper verdicts thunder!

I’m inclined to think the sticking point is an intuitive sense that guilt is an individual responsibility, at least for myself and the students in my classroom last week. Guilt is the medium through which we seem to want to look at deviant behavior, and that concept does not seem to want to travel in large groups; it resides in the soul of a single individual.

Heh, …I said soul, didn’t I?

It is perhaps part of the legacy of historical Christianity under which all moral failings could at one time be construed as defiance of the Lord. Whether one had committed murder, taken to drink, or charged interest on a loan, all of these crimes and others were testimony to personal defiance of the Lord. And of course, much like Santa Clause, He would know!

I’m inclined to think the projection of an omniscient judge and jury played an important role in shaping the concepts of guilt so familiar to people today. One can even see a trace of this mythic imaginary in secularized notions such as crimes against the state (or against society as a whole). Guilt is personal, it is absolute, and it obtains even when the social facts proceed on without taking notice of it. Even the medicalized notions of deviance stemming from the mid to late twentieth-century seem to be largely focused on the individual. The insanity defense is about the capacity of an individual to grasp right or wrong, and it is one individual after another whose failures in life can be described as due to this or that syndrome. When we withhold the pronouncement of guilt on an individual, it is rather often to pronounce sickness upon him instead. Either way, we do not typically assign counseling as a condition of probation for all the members of his extended family.

In short, we care who dunnit. We really care!

Adam and Eve Hide from God

Adam and Eve Hide from God

That of course has less to do with anything inherently wrong with clan-based blood-feuds than it does the cultural logic of western traditions. What pokes my students and I in the eye as we study this custom has less to do with has less to do with Cherokee society than our moral sensibilities. We just can’t fit their approach into our own world, not without feeling a little violated when doing it.

I’ve learned to regard that feeling as evidence that I have just found something worth studying. For some of my students, the problem was collective responsibility, but the real irony here is that we are not really strangers to collective responsibility. Not by a long shot.

It probably won’t help matters much to mention gangs in this regard, though the logic of a gang hit is certainly comparable in some respects (one needn’t get the original culprit, just one of his home-boys). But of course gang members are hardly the only people in modern America to engage in disputation at the level of collective responsibility. We may have fought a war against Saddam Hussein, but in real-world terms that meant killing a lot of Iraqis. The same can be said of the Taliban whose principal cause of war appears to have been sheltering Bin Laden. The story will not change much for any given war; war is by definition a conflict between collective entities. Either way someone is dying because of what some other bastard did, and folks may be sad about it, we might even make a regretful movie or sing a sad song about it, but such is war.

kcarson2In some cases the absurdity of this collective logic creeps through the practice of war more than others. When I used to teach Navajo history, I used to despair that the first of my two textbooks spent far too much time detailing a pattern of raid and retribution between Navajos and the Spanish. Time and again, the book would describe a raid conducted by Navajos followed by a punitive expedition carried out by the Spanish. It’s a pattern that continued clear up through the Mexican period in the Southwest, and further still into the early years of American occupation. And in all these punitive actions, no-one seems to have bothered to ask if the Navajo communities bearing the brunt of the attack had much to do with those who had been doing the raiding. Collective responsibility was simply assumed.

It should be added that Navajos seem to have taken the brunt of the blame for a pattern of raiding that was fairly ubiquitous in the Southwest. They were certainly not the only group conducting such raids, but that is a gripe for another day.

imagesFor their own part Navajos developed an oral tradition describing a very different allocation of responsibility to the specific raiding parties, viewed as irresponsible young men bringing trouble to their own people. This point becomes that much more clear in the wake of the Long Walk and internment at Fort Sumner. This event marks the nadir of most stories about Navajo history, it is story in which Kit Carson ’rounded up’ the vast majority of the Navajo people and took them to a small reservation in Southeastern New Mexico. The next four years (1864-68) were difficult to say the least for Navajos and damned expensive for the U.S. government. In the end they were allowed to return home.

ManuelitoSome have defended Carson’s actions on the grounds that it had at least ended the raiding patterns of the past centuries. What these historians consistently missed was that the raiding patterns continued in the years after fort Sumner. After Fort Sumner, a raid brought Federal troops who went straight to the Navajo police under the leadership of Ganado Mucho or Manuelito. The Navajo police then brought back whatever livestock had been stolen. Before Fort Sumner a Navajo raid was an act of war with collective responsibility applying to the Navajo people as a whole; after Fort Sumner it was a criminal act, the responsibility for which fell on individual shoulders. The difference that makes this distinction had less to do with actions than understandings.

…and in this case that was all the difference in the world.

Perhaps the logic of warfare is too remote for the majority of us in modern America, but there is one respect in which the notion of collective responsibility is absolutely a part of our every day lives, the business of corporations. As some would describe it, the very point of forming a corporation is to re-allocate responsibility for the actions associated with a business concern. Once a source of great controversy, the existence of these collective entities in American business (and that of the world at large) is easily accepted as an accomplished fact.

It is just the way the world works, so common wisdom would have it. We accept that we will not get to talk to the bastard (or bastards) at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or any other major bank who decided they could reorder your checks from the biggest to the smallest in the event of an overdraft and charge extra fees in the process. We accept that the poor agent who answers our call will be the one to hear whatever we have to say about such an outrage. We accept that CEOs in charge of failing corporations may travel freely on to the next chapter in their bright shining futures, leaving countless lives ruined in their wake. And we accept that (with rare exceptions) lives lost or immiserated by corporations will never result in punishment of those specifically responsible for polluting this river or putting that firebomb of a vehicle on the market.

"I warn you, Sir! The discourtesy of this bank is beyond all limits. One word more and I — I withdraw my overdraft!"

“I warn you, Sir! The discourtesy of this bank is beyond all limits. One word more and I — I withdraw my overdraft!”

Of course, there are circumstances in which charges of criminal fraud or negligence may occur, but this would seem to be the rare exception (except perhaps in Island where they actually have the balls to hold white collar criminals accountable for wrecking a national economy) Under normal circumstances, these giant entities screw customers and maim communities with impunity, and there is little one can do about it. The most one might hope to see in the way of justice from such practices will take the form of financial compensation from a corporate entity, the loss shared out through its stock-holders. Those directly responsible for terrible decisions will in most cases never see any significant retribution for the harm they cause to others.

…and the more I think about it, the more this one starts to feel like another poke in the eye.

If collective responsibility is the sticking point in accepting the justice of a clan-based feud system, it is not because collective responsibility escapes us, or perhaps it is because it escapes us when we actually use such an approach in our own lives. The real question is just why do we allow for collective responsibility in warfare and corporate business activities while insisting on individual responsibility for ‘crimes’? I and my students didn’t follow this question, because of course that wasn’t the task at hand, but it’s the sort of thing I hope will hang in their minds long after they have hit send on their final papers. If it’s done right, a good anthropology course should leave students with more than a collection of facts about other people in other times and places, it should also leave them with a new sense of the communities in which they themselves live.

The cognitive poke in the eye is on the house.


Three Cherokee are from here. The image of Sequoyah is from the Smithsonian Institution. The image of Kit Carson is from the Kit Carson Museum. Ganado Mucho comes from Navajo People.org. Adam and Eve hiding from God comes from an old engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. I got it from istockphoto. Manuelito comes from a class at ASU. The gavel is from Sara Marberry’s Blog. The Bank Cartoon comes origonally from an entry of Punch Magazine published in 1917, but I got it from Wikipedia.