notes: ghost riders, by richard grant
ghost riders; travels with american nomads, by richard grant, abacus 2003
“in recent decades the idea has become lodged in the cultural mainstream that north america was a peaceful, harmonious eden before the european conquest, peopled by gentle-hearted, noble-spirited environmentalists. it’s an idea which attracts understandable support among modern american indians, or native americans if you prefer, although some find it patronizing – a new twist on the noble savage routine and of no use in solving their current problems.” p35
“i turn the key and get the tucson oven-door treatment: a blast of superheated air in the face. i look around at the betrayal of my nomadic principles, the end of the nomadic experiement that was my life. well, maybe it doesn’t look like much to you: a few articles of thrift-shop furniture, a lumpy worthless futon bed, from peace-a-shit hippie futons, the absence of tv and vcr, and the bare walls. but observe the sleek, black, dust-covered nine hundred-dollar stereo system and the stack of cds next to it. for some reason, i can drive happily for days without listening to music, but back here at home base i need it constantly. something about the rhythm and the passage of songs helps to break the feeling of dead, calm, empty stasis.
“observe also the computer, printer and fax machine/answering phone, which i once made a living without, and which have not plunged me into debt. “‘debt: an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver,’ as ambrose bierce defined it.)” p91
“still, if i was trespassing in this valley in the nineteenth century, cultural relativism would not be on my mind. i would have felt, presumably, the same way that almost all whites felt about apaches at the time. gruesome stories, images and stereotypes would have paraded through my mind, and fear, as it usually does, would turn to hatred. call in the army! exterminate the brutes!” p96
“bad planning is the mother of adventure.” p98
“the ancestral conflict of nomad and settler is inbuilt and unavoidable, and founded in these two colliding philosophies of land use. the first settlements began on riverbanks, and as they divided their labor, and formed into hierarchies and states, they yearned to expand their power and take control of the nomad spaces gnawing at their fringes. the free flow of goods and people is a natural affront to a strong state. it calls for the establishment of fixed borders, the building of roads, the imposition of taxes, tariffs and systems of land ownership, the establishment of police agencies and bureaucracies to enforce the new order. the state can’t help itself, any more than a cancer cell expanding its territory in a human body. this is what states do.” p100
“‘I’ve seen the planet on fire, everybody barbecued,’ he says a few minutes later. ‘i was up there with them, you know, looking down, so i asked them straight out, ‘what the hell is going on down there?’ they were real casual about it: ‘oh, the humans blew up their planet again. they do it all the time.’ well, that’s the kind of insanity we’ve got to checkmate. big time. what people need to do is just turn everything off – the computers, the tvs, the lights, the electricity, the nuclear generators – just turn all that shit off and see if there’s still a brain inside your skull. we’ve got to wake up the people before it’s too late.” p104
“this is the secret to a calm and restful night’s sleep in rattlesnake and scorpion country: total exhaustion.” p106
“within their clan structures the ulster scots had strict, patriarchal lines of command but their history had left them with a deep hatred and suspicion for all external, institutional forms of authority – governments, armies, laws, courts, judges, tax-collectors, state churches – and indeed for anyone to whom they weren’t related. in northern britain, before they got to ireland, the border presbyterians had been known as ‘crackers’ (loutish braggarts) and ‘rednecks’ (fiery religious dissenters). these pejorative terms crossed the atlantic with the and are stil used to describe their present-day descentants.* (*the original derivations of these words have been obscured in popular american usage. ‘cracker’ is widely believed to refer to slave overseers, cracking their whips, who were mostly poor southern whites of scotch-irish descent. and ‘redneck’ is generally thought to derive from the strip of sunburned skin between the collar and the hat, common among bigoted rural whites in the south and the west – a region largely pioneered and settled by the scotch-irish.” p121
“sam houston, a scotch-irish frontier boy who went on to become a us senator, fell into the fourth category, running off to join the cherokee as a teenager. ‘the wild liberty of the Red Man,’ he said, was preferable to the ‘tyranny’ of his older brothers, who headed the fatherless family. later in life, after he had been governor of tennessee and taken his position in the senate, houston went back to live with the cherokee, although this time it was for an extended bout of alcoholism, brought on by an unhappy marriage. he pulled out of it and went on to become the president of texas.
“‘thousands of europeans are indians,’ noted hector st john de crevecoeur, a straight-laced farmer who harbored a secret envy for their free and easy lives, ‘and we have no examples of even one of these aborigines having from choice become europeans!’
“it is an undertold story in american history, because it runs contrary to the dominant theme of the conquest, and because it strikes at the european ideas of racial and cultural superiority that were used to justify the conquest, in particular the notion that sedentary christian civilization is the pinnacle of human progress, and god’s plan for north america. the long hunters, the roaming buckskinned traders like jack hayes, the captives who refused to come back, the runaways and later the mountain men: all these groups, to some extent, rejected civilization as too constrictive and went native. as bil gilbert writes:
‘it is small wonder that some white frontiersmen found this life-style appealing. they discovered that simply by joining the savages, they could live and enjoy themselves as only the richest and most powerful europeans, the royalty and rulers, were able or permitted to live – that is, with almost total personal freedom…[it] had a persistent unsettling and subversive influence on the frontier and, therefore, on the american imagination. working like a chronic low-grade fever, the notion that only a feral man can be genuinely free constituted the most ironic legacy of the forest wars – the final revenge of the shawnee, cherokee and iroquois.” p126-127
“‘in america you grow up with that cowboy ideal, that you should be independant and self-reliant and value your freedom above all else. that’s what the films, and tv, and books, and popular culture tell you america is all about. then you find out that, in reality, society wants you to be exactly the opposite: obedient, fearful, dependant, basically a good little wage slave. my reaction was to get a motorcycle, wear a lot of black leather and chains, and develop an extremely confrontational attitude.'” p167
“the science is inconclusive, but there has been a lot of talk lately about certain enzymes and flushing mechanisms that europeans use to break down and process alcohol, and which american indians (and australian aborigines) seem to lack. whether it’s genetic or cultural or both, there is no doubt that the longer a people has lived with alcohol, the less prone they are to alcoholism. mediterranean europeans, with seven thousand years of drinking behind them, have a 10 per cent susceptability to alcoholism. northern europeans, with fifteen hundred years, have a 20-40 per cent susceptibility, with the highest rates among russians, poles, irish and scots. american indians, with three hundred years of exposure to alcohol, have a 80-90 per cent likelihood of becoming alcoholics if they start drinking.” p184-5
“in 1885 senator henry dawes made a tour of indian reservations in oklahoma and delivered his report to the lake mohonk conference – an annual gathering of influential whites who called themselves ‘friends of the indian’, and were dedicated to advancing their red brethren towards white civilization. the senator brought dispiriting news: ‘there is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.’ the tribes were still living within communal social structures. they were still sharing all their food and possessions with their kinfolk. they were more impressed by displays of generosity than the accumulation of private wealth.
“‘we need to awaken in him [the indian] wants,’ said another conferencee. ‘in his dull savagery he must be touched by the wings of the divine angel of discontent…discontent with the tepee and the starving rations of the indian camp in winter is needed to get the indian out of the blanket and into trousers – and trousers with a pocket in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars!…this is the first great step in the education of the race.’
“the result of the conference was the dawes act, which authorized the breaking up of the indian reservations in oklahoma. communal land was to be divided into privately held 160-acre allotments, to encourage respect for private property and the nuclear family. by happy coincidence, the dawes act also freed up 28,500,000 acres of ‘surplus’ land to the clamoring white settlers, and activated the oklahoma land rush.
“it sounds like a cynical excuse for yet another land grab, but the conferencees firmly believed they were doing the best for the indians. it was an article of faith in the nineteenth century, held to by capitalists and marxists alike, that all human societies progressed through inexorable, unwavering stages of history. from wandering savagery, the first stage of progress was sedentary farming, which gave rise to the division of labor, private property and social hierarchies, which in turn produced civilization, feudalism, capitalism and industrialism. and like lenin, stalin or mao, american leaders felt it was their duty to speed the inevitable process along by forcibly imposing a more advanced culture on the laggards.
“of course, these processes are not inevitable, especially when it comes to nomadic tribes. nomadism generally develops in opposition to sedentary agriculture, not as a stage towards it. looking out over the entire span of history, one can produce a few isolated examples of nomad tribes who voluntarily settled down, or were lured into settlement against their better judgement- like the scythians. but it usually takes starvation or military defeat to get tribal nomads to settle – a choice between settlement and death. this has always puzzled the civilized, made them curious what is the big attraction? why would people choose hardship over comfort? the civilized betray the answer through their repressed envy of nomads and their propensity to romanticize nomads once they no longer present a threat.” p195-6
“in addition to rejecting the materialism and competitive individualism of western civilization, medicine wing and his cohorts also came to reject its rationalist underpinnings – the dictates of logic, the demands for empirical evidence and scientific proof, the whole linear cause-and-effect, cartesian logic trip. look what it had produced! a culture of greed and spiritual emptiness nuclear weapons, alienation from nature, a suicidal, matricidal war against the earth.” p220
“traditionally, grandparents have been a rooted, stabilizing force on our societies, orienting their lives around their homes, communities, children and grandchildren. the images and cliches we hold of retirement are sedentary in nature: the armchair and slippers, grandma baking cookies in her kitchen, a well-tended garden. we think of old age as a time of slowing down and solidifying, of moving about less and less until you stop moving altogether.
“the eisenhower generation has staged a mass rebellion against this model of retirement. some thirty million retirees have left behind their homes, families and communities and struck out for new sociological frontiers. the bulk of this movement has come to rest in the new corporate-managed, age-segregated retirement communities in the sunbelt (where no under-fifty-fives are allowed to live), but a significant minority has chosen to abandon sedentary living altogether. after a working life spent paying off mortgages, raising families and accumulating possessions, they were called by the other american dream – ‘burn down the house and saddle up the horse,’ as mike hatfield described it. or more precisely, sell the house and buy an rv with the proceeds.” p287-8
“all the world’s major religions were dreamed up by desert wanders, which is why they focus on deities who live in the sky.” p305