I first became aware of Jago Cooper from Lost Kingdoms of South America, a series he presented in 2013 on the developed cultures of South America, besides the Inca, that are largely unknown in the Anglosphere. Overall, I found it an interesting program – although I was not particularly impressed with Cooper as a presenter. Cooper is an archeologist whose main focus is pre-Columbian South America, but in 2016, he released a two-part documentary series Masters of the Pacific Coast. The Tribes of the American Northwest concerning the Amerindians of the northern Pacific coast of North America; from roughly the Alaska panhandle in the north to Oregon in the south.
In his earlier series Cooper on South America, Cooper seemed eager to point out egalitarian aspects of these societies – even when having to admit they weren’t beacons of equality, for example the existence of aristocracies, hierarchical societal structures including attempts by ruling classes to distinguish themselves physically from the masses, for example the Tiwanaku practice of binding their infants’ heads so that they would develop elongated skulls and thus forever be set apart from the lower orders – and this plus the general trend in academia and the media over the past several decades gave me no illusions as to the liberal nature of Masters of the Pacific Coast. That said, this series is not a total write-off.
The Myth Of The Environmental Native
One of the worst aspects of any program concerning peoples who did not develop sophisticated civilizations is that it very easily denigrates into a simple ‘noble savage’ narrative. To his credit, Cooper generally avoids falling into this trap. However, throughout this two-part series Cooper interviews a number of individuals of Amerindian descent (most of whom look to be mestizo) many of whom do promote this narrative, particularly in terms of environmentalism; the old Amerindians have a special connection to the land trope.
But, as we know, Amerindians as a whole do not have any greater or special connection to the natural world. When their societies reached levels of complexity even greater than those of the northwest which it must be noted were quite complex for Amerindians. Cahokia is generally believed to have disappeared because of environmental mismanagement (although another theory is that they were destroyed by diversity!) and the civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes were more than willing to impact the environment in major ways: the building of temple complexes, cities, roads and mines.
Going back to the program, Cooper notes also that the Makah people are one of the few allowed to whale in the United States, but have only done so once in the last 80 years for environmental reasons. He then makes the comment that why should the Makah not be allowed to whale when they have done so sustainably and others have not; why should the Makah stop “because of the failings of others?” the only reason it was sustainable is because they lacked the technology necessary to whale on a mass scale.
The Myth Of The Peaceful Native
|Louis S. Glanzman’s depicition of the Battle of Sikta between Russian and Tlingit forces|
Another common feature of the ‘noble savage’ myth is that those ethnies that did not develop complex civilizations are somehow less violent and warlike and more prone towards pacifism. To his credit, Cooper does discuss organized violence and its prevalence. For example, he talks with a Tlingit chief who specialises in recreating Tlingit armour and this chief tells Cooper about battles between his people and the Russians. Interestingly enough, the Tlingit and others are known to have acquired Chinese coins from White traders which they used specifically in the making of chain mail armour. Interesting how they thought to use coins in such a manner as opposed to for some other purpose. The Tlingit and their fellow Pacific coast Amerindians were warrior cultures.
Cooper also interviews a Makah historian who notes that her people were head-hunters and that warfare was often for slaves (mainly women and children as the men were killed – he also mentions that indentured servitude existed as well as slavery and that by the 19th century it is estimated some 15% of the population of this area were slaves). We also learn that there were conflicts over women, honour and material goods.
Although it is not mentioned in this documentary, I think it is interesting to note that many groups used to raid up and down the coast. The Haida in particular were feared because of their use of ‘stone-rings,’ weapons designed to destroy enemy ships – arguably they were the Vikings of the Pacific coast. Again, this is not mentioned in the series, but these groups often reacted in a violent manner when dealing with foreigners, even if said foreigners were peaceful. For example, Spanish explorers noted that the Tlingit attacked them even though they’d only the day before been cordial.1 The Tlingit also showed complete disregard for the Spanish, stealing their clothes and any metal objects they could find.
Interestingly, Cooper does not want to entertain the thought that they fought for territory like Europeans. However, one Makah woman he talks to mentions that wars were fought for resources and that tribes would often split apart and fight in civil wars; in other words, there were wars over territory. Clearly, there were acts of conquest as well, that is, for example, how the Kwakwaka’wakw came to gain control of Quadra island in BC. Although I am left to wonder, how going to war over slaves, material goods or honour is really that much better.
Although they never developed complex, sophisticated civilizations like those of Mesoamerica or the Andes, these groups were more developed than most other Amerindian groups. The Spanish, for example, noted that these peoples possessed higher cultural qualities than Amerindians living to the south of them, particularly those in California.2 Part of this higher development can be seen also in their development of gold jewelry and ornaments and also in the development of organized/ritualised modes of social interaction. The most famous example of this is being the potlatch festival.
|James G. Swan’s depiction of a potlatch, in this case of the Klallam people|
The potlatch was a ceremony in which those of high social standing would exchange gifts with each other. Cooper has a mostly positive view of the potlatch and sees it as a practice of wealth redistribution, but in fairness he also notes negative aspects of it. The biggest issue that missionaries had with it was how the potlatch could be used to ruin rivals by forcing people to one up each other. Potlaches could easily become a huge waste of resources and could end up bankrupting (as it were) whole tribes.
Cooper goes with the view that the banning of the potlatch by the US and Canadian governments was entirely for malicious reasons. Although certainly it makes sense to break major cultural practices as a way to spread control, Cooper largely ignores the liberal aspect of trying to change and Westernize these people. He even makes a really strange comment that potlatch and other practices were seen as an affront to European civilization and furthermore as a threat! This reminds me of the paradoxical ‘White fragility’ narrative from the left. Despite being a ‘privileged’ and ‘oppressive’ race which others should fear, Whites are also ‘fragile’ and act erratically out of this weakness.
He ignores how the missionaries, who began the anti-potlatch campaign, were motivated by a desire to save souls and truly help the Amerindians. They saw the potlatches as being to the detriment of the community as a whole as the tribe as wealth goes from chiefs to chiefs. Indeed, the liberalising policies of Christian and secular leaders was a major reason for Westernization and the infamous residential schools (which Cooper describes essentially as evil, genocidal institutions); they wanted to uplift and progress the Amerindians the way Europeans and other peoples had been. It was a progressive project not a conservative one.
I am all for aristocracies for the Amerindians and indeed all racial groups. I couldn’t care less if the aristocracies of other peoples bankrupt their own people, that is not my concern. However, it is the left that lays claim to being against any un-egalitarian and un-democratic system and which claims to care about the well-being and progress of all humanity. Yet when it comes to the potlatch, we see an example of how they are supporting systems which do not mesh with their ideologies, what matters most of all is that these ceremonies are not Occidental in origin. To me this is further proof that they put the desire to undermine the Occident over ‘equality’, ‘democracy’ or any of their other overused buzzwords.
One controversial aspect of the cultures of the Amerindians of the Pacific coast is the presence of cannibalism. This issue is highly debatable and I’m actually surprised Cooper made no mentions of it as it would have been the perfect opportunity for him to condemn Europeans for being so ignorant as to believe cannibalism was a widespread practice when the general consensus is it was probably limited to ritual reasons (and possibly to vanquished enemies). In the case of the Kwakwaka’wakw, cannibalism was accepted in a spiritual manner in the form of the Hamatsa cult, which involved an acting out of cannibalism, as the cult revolved around worship of a cannibal spirit. Evidently, the tribes of the Pacific coast liked to collect body parts of their defeated foes as trophies and this wasn’t limited to heads but included hands.3 Arguably, that in itself is still disturbing.
One of the most unexpected parts of Cooper’s series is how at one point he goes so far as to say that it would be wrong to see these people as solely victims of colonialism as they benefited from trade (for example there was an increase in the number of totem poles after trade opened with Europeans because chiefs now had the wealth necessary to fund building projects) and they also were able to fight back against foreign intrusions; they were not completely helpless. I found this a refreshing take given that so much discussion today on groups that were conquered by this or that European empire is on portraying the non-Whites as eternal victims completely lacking in agency. That said, Cooper sets out plenty of time to discuss the impact of colonialism and chastise European peoples for their actions along this stretch of the Pacific coast of North America.
As with any discussion of European-Amerindian relations the issue of disease makes an appearance. It is well known that Amerindians had no immunity to the Old-World diseases inadvertently brought by Europeans and as a result vast swathes of Amerindians were destroyed. However, it is commonly held that on occasion disease was spread purposely. Cooper entertains a theory from an elderly Haida who with no proof states that the British purposely spread smallpox among Haida. Given how other supposed examples of biological warfare have been disproven, I have no doubts that the old Haida was spouting complete falsehoods — yet another example of people trying to apply the statements of Lord Jeffery Amherst to the entirety of European-Amerindian relations.
Although the Amerindians had no way of combating infectious diseases, perhaps we can still learn from their fate. This seems particularly important now given the number of diseases in the third world including ones that only seem to have developed (or at least gained ground) recently, like ebola and the new Madagascar plague which evidently has the likelihood of mutating. Evidently the Canadian government is worried about the possibilities of a pandemic. Maybe they would be wise to look at how immigration and globalisation would play a role in such an outcome.
From Colonial To Liberalist Order
Cooper labels Canada and US as colonialist which is a typical leftist talking point. With the end of the European empires in Africa and Asia decolonization didn’t die, but it imploded; the radical left decided to use the same narratives but just use them for their home countries. Part of this strategy is to deny Canadians and Americans any rights to the Americas by treating them as if they are transitory rulers of the land just as the British and French were in Africa.
The decolonization crowd are quick to condemn the older assimilation strategy of Canada and the US and their promotion of European immigration. But at the same time they support non-White immigration. In fact, the new policy of multiculturalism which they are so enamored with, is just a continuation of the older assimilation strategy, albeit in a different form. Seemingly, every group is free to practice their own cultures, but in reality, all are still being molded and melded together as a new collective of individuals that are outwardly different in appearance or language, but in reality, are all adherents to a secular liberal order.
In the past, racial nationalism and a belief in the superiority of Occidental civilization were at the forefront of the melding process of Canadian and American citizenship, but now these are out the window in favour of an all-encompassing model which places all emphasis on a subservience to liberalism. All are to be united under one liberal legal and economic system which cares not for racial, ethnic, religious or other differences and autonomy is to be in name only.
 Ibid, p. 464