Political Tribes, Political IdentityBy
An Apache friend related a story this week that he gave me permission to repeat here. That and recent experiences got me thinking about tribe and identity.
My friend met a young Apache guy who had done some prison time. The young man met others in prison from the Native American church. He’d been adopted, and from them he learned a lot about a heritage he never knew growing up. In prison, the older men had given him a medicine name, Dancing Bear. He asked my friend to translate it into Apache.
My friend asked, “What kind of bear? What kind of dance?”
Apache doesn’t have generic words for bear or dance, he told me. It has words for black bears and grizzlies and mama bears with cubs, etc. Names of dances are associated with rituals and occasions, each with a different purpose and cultural meaning. It’s hard for English speakers to grasp.
He said, “We finally settled on “bak’u ishteh.” Black bear does his victory dance.
He once tried to translate his own name into English, he told me, and stopped after a half a page. Even then, he was missing layers of meaning and nuance.
In native culture, language, dress, style of weapons and tools, body decoration, folk art are all tribal identifiers by which an Apache can spot a Navajo or a Cheyenne can identify a Sioux. Tribe was integral to one’s identity. Even then, there was room for individual variation and creativity. Outside the drugstore, there were no generic “Indians.”
The idea of a Native American identifying as an “independent,” went against upbringing. Being without a people, an outcast, was a form of punishment, and so hard to bear that mixed-heritage tribes formed in the northern plains, the Métis Nation, from children with French, Huron and other ancestry. Rejected by their own tribes, they formed their own. I try to imagine what sort of clothes a Native American without a tribe would wear, what tools and weapons he would use to rebrand himself in the eyes of others.
Tribe is a much deeper concept than our political parties, my friend says. Still, as Digby regularly observes, there is a tribal aspect to our national politics. Considering oneself independent, even fiercely so, is a badge of honor rather the mark of an outcast. It is largely a mavericky thing, an Enlightenment rejection of accepted orthodoxies. “A plague o’ both your houses!” as Shakespeare wrote.
But alongside that exists for many a desire for more ideological purity than is present among the major political tribes, a desire not to be “contaminated” by compromise and cronyism found in traditional politics. It comes, perhaps, from the same impulse for ideological/biological purity behind vegetarianism or veganism, or for ideological/cultural purity among Tea Party members and fundamentalists who reject mainstream churches as corruptions of their own “true” faith.
Until a few years ago, I followed the independent path, nominally anyway. I was never much of a joiner. Then came President George W. Bush, the push to privatize Social Security, the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib. Seeing what he and his enablers were doing to the country, I had to do something. For that, I needed allies. So I went to where I figured I could find a concentration of natural allies, the Democratic Party. Not that all the people I found there were natural allies. Some are not. If close proximity to people you don’t always agree with bothers you, party politics is not for you.
During political combat, rhetoric sometimes flattens an opposing tribe to appear as a featureless monoculture, yet the terms Republican and Democrat are not as generic and flat as “bear” or “dance.” An old Budweiser slogan went, “When you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all.” And for many independents, Democrats and Republicans, being a member of an opposing tribe probably says it all, too. Except it doesn’t.
In 1998, the Washington Post described five kinds of Democrats and four kinds of Republicans. There are probably more of each now. Some kinds have fed for so long at the same troughs of corporate money, they begin to resemble each other. They are tough to dislodge, even more so from the outside.
Last week, I was in a room full of Democrats in Durham to elect new state party officers, starting with Chair. Half the room (plus a few) voted for Randy Voller, the mayor of Pittsboro (of German extraction and from Indiana), who vowed he wasn’t running to lead the Republican-lite party. The other half of the room voted for a familiar North Carolina face and name with Capital Hill connections, but who wasn’t a candidate, didn’t want the job, and wasn’t even in the building. (After dropping by the meeting, he’d left to see his grandson play basketball.) But he had an accent and manner that identified him as a member of the local tribe, while the other candidate comes from distant, northern cousins.
This tribe is hardly monolithic, not all this or that, and prone to some of the same foibles as our opponents. Still, I work inside the Democratic Party as well as outside because I find enough allies and enough leverage to feel as if change is not just possible, but actually happening, even if more slowly than I’d like. This week, David Dayen described how, one step at a time, progressive Democratic reformers balanced California’s books in a feat one consultant described as being “as likely as President Obama winning Alabama.” The next phase may be “legislative Democrats and progressives outside the system” challenging Democratic Governor Jerry Brown on his budget priorities. Sometimes it’s a plague on your own house.
Do left-leaning mavericks find greater purity and more political success among independents hailing from the far right to the far left than do activists working on the inside?