Month: October 2007

Thoughts on the Netherlands, freedom, and social control

Travel is always good for one’s perspective. You see the world, and your own life, anew. My recent travels to the Netherlands (and Iceland) did just that.

The Netherlands is small, resolved, and involved in the grand experiment of controlling and mastering the environment.

There are new cities, recently constructed on reclaimed sea land, that attempt to create an optimum living environment for relatively high-density human population — new downtowns that are, essentially, outdoor malls, but with the aesthetic awareness that uses textures and angles and colors to break up the geometric, hard edged monotony of contemporary urban life; small touches like sidewalk trash receptacles that drop their contents to a central waste location for collection and periodically “flush” themselves; planned communities of modern row houses set among large expanses of forest and green space.

There are massive engineering projects, like the movable sea wall that closes off the Rotterdam harbor with two great gates that are meant to keep out a devastating storm surge, and there are the smaller, everyday realities like a culture of bicyclists who take their road behavior as seriously as we freeway drivers in the States take ours (I know; I got chastised by a woman for taking a casual left turn that caused a chain-reaction stoppage of other bicyclists who were traveling swiftly and intently behind me).

In short, it is a society with an overall vision of what constitutes the civic good, and a tolerance for individual behavior so long as it does not contradict that civic good. But there are severe penalties for violation of expected civic norms, like improper carrying of passengers in the cargo area of a van, or scofflaw attempts to ride public transportation without paying.

It is a real contrast to our contemporary American experience, where the legislation of morality is paramount, but civic freedom is considered sacrosanct. We can drive around talking on cell phones, weaving in and out of traffic, in cars that have are never inspected on tires that can be in any condition; we can recycle if we want to, pretty much build where and how we want to, throw up franchises and strip malls with no regard for traffic patterns or the aesthetic effect on the environment. About the only place where the civic good is seen as more important than individual freedom is in our newfound commitment to stopping smoking in public places. Otherwise, personal rights dominate over public responsibility in almost every situation. Attempts to change things in this regard bring forth frantic cries of “Nazi Germany” and “Social engineering,” while the real movement toward Nazi Germany is taking place in the usurpation of our freedom to live unobserved and unscrutinized by phantom elements of our ominously secretive current governmental regime.

It saddens me to see the direction my country is going, and it enlightens me to see what is taking place in the countries of others. The Netherlands has its problems, but at least governmental intrusion into people’s politics and bedrooms is not among them.

I am, as always, proud to be an American, but it is because our country is so large, so full of potential and optimism, and so rawboned and welcoming of new ideas and new ways to see the world. If we would continue to be the great country we are, we should continue to celebrate these virtues and look more at how other people live their lives and how they have confronted the challenges and opportunities that their particular environment provides them.

That would allow us to stay great — not photographing and fingerprinting every tired foreigner who comes through our airports on their way to see the country that they have been told is “the land of the free.” But that is a story for the next post. Stay tuned.

Amsterdam and NANAI

I’m back from the trip to the settled, resolved civility of the Netherlands and Belgium and my two day stopover in the surreal, almost lunar otherness of Iceland. Like any trip, it is hard to know where to begin. I could write about the astonishing juxtaposition of realities; I could write about each of the countries themselves; I could write about the people I met and the experiences I had.

What I think I’d like to do is write a bit about NANAI and the people associated with it. NANAI is the group that invited me to attend and speak.

NANAI is the acronym for the Netherlands Association for North American Indians. It is a small private foundation started by an amazing woman named Maria van Kints and ably carried on by her son, Leo van Kints. Maria is now 94, and the gathering I attended was, to some extent in her honor, though its actual purpose was to serve as the 35th anniversary and annual meeting of the foundation members.

To a non-Native American who must tread carefully in Native reality in order to have any credibility at all, the NANAI gathering was, at first glance, almost impossible to understand. There were Dutch folks wearing beads and feathers (though they were in the minority), there were displays of substantial and legitimate artifacts and decorative finery such as parfleche bags and beaded moccasins, there was a table and shelves of books for sale that would have been the envy of almost any bookstore dedicated exclusively to the Native American subjects, there was a tipi, there were Peruvian and Mapuchean singers and dancers in traditional costumes, there were boards of jewelry for sale — well, you get the idea. And it was all being held at a stately two-story manor in a beautiful, verdant park in a leafy suburb of Amsterdam. To add to the strangeness of the event, at least to American eyes, in an adjacent area of the park was a scamster who called himself Carl Big Bear selling sweat lodge experiences to willing Dutch participants for, I believe, 50 Euros (about $70) a person. Blessedly, NANAI had no association with him. Nonetheless, to an outsider walking into the whole scene, the Admiral Stockton question quickly rose up: “Who am I and what am I doing here?”

Despite my first inclination to turn and run, several facts and elements caused me to look more closely. The selection of books for sale was impeccable. New Agers do not read Vine Deloria and Father Paul Prucha. The people in attendance (who numbered in the hundreds) had, for the most part, an air of education and erudition about them. Franci Taylor, a Northern Cheyenne/Choctaw scholar and practitioner of traditional ways was involved, as were several traditional folks from Pine Ridge, and Dan Agent, one of the founders of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and a prime force behind the movement to provide free and open press in Indian country. Clearly, this was not a simple gathering that could be easily categorized and understood.

As the day went along, I began to understand. In the Netherlands, the interest in Native subjects does not carry the same ideological freight that it does here in America. Of course there are the New Agers, and New Agers are New Agers wherever you go: they will believe they have a Cherokee grandmother and, thus, an Indian heart, or they will think they have channeled an Indian spirit or will, quite innocently, say they feel an affinity to Native spirituality and create a syncretized belief system that then trails off into crystals and talismen. Some of them will claim they want an Indian baby, a desire which many Indian men will be happy to oblige, and others will simply want to be around Indians. At their worst they will give sweat lodges and charge money; at their best they will be wide-eyed spiritual seekers who truly believe that there is a common spirituality at the heart of all belief systems, and simply feel an affinity for Native cultural practices and beliefs.

However, as you move out from there, you run into intelligent people who wish to know more about a part of American history that has been distorted and poorly told; who are committed to the growing movement to hear and value indigenous voices; who wish to provide assistance and service to native groups that can use financial or political support. These folks are the heart of NANAI.

NANAI itself has evolved from its origins as a relatively political organization that associated with and felt solidarity with the AIM folks, to an organization that now is dedicated to education and correcting stereotypes. The myth of the noble Indian is strong in Europe, in no small part because of a man named Karl May who wrote a series of books that most northern European school children read in which Indians were a pure, untainted race involved in all sorts of rousing dime novel adventures. NANAI wants to correct this, and to establish that the Native peoples of America live ordinary lives with the joys and sorrows of all of us, and live neither in tipis nor on the casino dole — both of which are beliefs that remain current in much of Europe, as well as in certain places on our side of the pond.

They also give grants directly to groups and individuals in the Native communities in America — no strings attached, no controls over the performance of the group or individual other than the honor felt by the recipient to spend the money well and for the purpose for which it was given.

Thus, NANAI is a rather unusual organization.

I got to be close to the people that run it and to some of their friends. We’re all of roughly the same generation, and there is the same cultural grit under all of our fingernails. Paths diverge as we get older, but the folks who were part of the sixties and seventies, who saw the ascent of AIM, who watched the siege of Alcatraz and the second siege of Wounded Knee, all share a common base of cultural understanding, and we all can meet each other at some common place if we spend a little time seeking it out.

This is what happened in the Netherlands and Belgium. I recall fondly, and will always embrace, a simple day riding around the hidden parts of Rotterdam in a funky old yellow van owned by Nico, a Dutch man who goes into schools as a story teller and has taken it upon himself to be a chronicler of his community, accompanied by Leo, who runs NANAI; Franci, the Choctaw/Northern Cheyenne who is studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Leiden; Darlene, the Lakota woman from Pine Ridge; and Bud, her partner, another Pine Ridger who always has a knowing smile but keeps his counsel except to make an occasional salient observation. If you could invent a less likely group of folks, I would be happy to be part of it.

My hope is to be able to continue working with NANAI on projects on both sides of the pond. They bring groups over here periodically and introduce them to real reservation life, and they work hard to bring the truth of contemporary Native reality to the schoolchildren and general public of their home country.

I hope soon to be able to share more about their work with you, so those of you who might wish to join their organization as a statement of solidarity from this side of the ocean are able to do so.

But, for now, I must close this post. I just needed to pop my head out of the hole to let you know that I still exist. Sometimes the act of not writing is a response to having nothing to say; sometimes it is a response to having too much going on and no time or way to say it. This hiatus has been a result of the latter. I hope now to be able to crank out a few posts in the near future, so we can stay in touch in our strange cyberspace way.