Native Technology: Colonialism and the Indigenous Technological Ecosystem

We are all living in a technology…

Technology is one of those words wrought with misunderstanding. In its colloquial sense, it stands in for good, beneficent, or helpful. In Barack Obama’s first inaugural speech he alluded to this vague definition: “We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.” What Obama implied in this statement is that technology is inherently wondrous and capable of good.

Of course, even a cursory review of history will show that technology isn’t inherently good. The cutting-edge technology of drone warfare has allowed the U.S. to visit silent, unexpected death on hundreds of Pakistani and Yemeni children. When ISIS used mustard gas against U.S. soldiers in late 2016, it was a 100-year-old technology, but when it was used against my great-grandfather four times during World War I, it was the cutting-edge. Since fission bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the stockpiling and deployment of nuclear warheads has been the most popularly dramatized threat to humanity’s existence. Although the issue is rarely covered, another existential threat to humanity is the irreparable damage caused to our fragile environment through combustive and extractive technologies. Despite Barack Obama’s assertion, these examples demonstrate that technology is not inherently good for our health.

Atomic Bomb Test on Bikini Island (Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives/Flickr)

Atomic Bomb Test on Bikini Island | Source: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives/Flickr

Of course, this doesn’t mean that technology is inherently bad either. The moral value of technology — being the knowledge for creating material and immaterial tools — is partially determined by its creators, but also by its users. In the hands of water protectors, an axe is a tool for providing structure and warmth to thousands at Standing Rock, but in the hands of Jack Nicholson, an axe becomes a tool for terror and violence in The Shining.

The moral ambiguity of technology isn’t difficult for most people to understand. Today it’s not uncommon to see entire news cycles dominated by concerns surrounding new hacking technologies, new weapons, and even self-driving cars. The more elusive aspect of “technology” is the shear breadth that the term encompasses.

“Technology” is often limited to mean gadgets and electronics. Sometimes it is understood in anthropological and archaeological contexts to mean physical tools in general. But technology encompasses far more than the newest iPhone or the oldest 3.3 million-year-old stone tools. Technology includes a huge breadth of objects, materials, organizations, and processes, and it’s imperative that we understand this array of objects and activities as technology.

Taking this broader view of what technology can include provides an important lens for recognizing technology outside of the standard framework.

For example, the United States often proclaims itself the defender of democracy and freedom — a claim disputed by many peoples, including indigenous communities. In this rhetoric, ‘democracy’ is imbued with moral — sometimes even spiritual — implications. However, if we look at democracy as a tool, a structure and process for organizing society, it seems clear that democracy is a technology.

But why does this categorization matter? When we allow ourselves to be told that democracy is a moral system we lose sight of the choices that go into constructing the technology. We also become unaware of how our particular technological configuration creates limitations and possibilities. Let’s continue with the example of democracy as technology.

New York State Demonstration Voting Machine, ca. 1900 (Source: Cornell University Library/Flickr)

A New York state demonstration voting machine from the early 1900s | Source: Cornell University Library/Flickr

Every technology or tool, it can be assumed, will probably have variations depending on the means of its creators and the needs of its users. Just as there is no prototypical axe (e.g. cutting axes, hatchets, shaping axes, and war axes), there is no prototypical democracy. In fact, despite Woodrow Wilson self-appointing the United States as the protector of democracy in 1917, the U.S. rarely promotes U.S.-style democracy — with our strange federalist system and anti-democratic electoral college — abroad. We understand that our democracy is not the only kind of democracy nor the most useful kind in every context.

If U.S. democracy is a version of that set of technologies we call “democracy,” then the Constitution is our democratic blueprint. It outlines the organization and operation of this nation-state; it explains how to build our democracy. Viewing the Constitution as a technological blueprint allows for some instructive (and hilarious) comparisons. For example, the orgiastic moans of Strict Constructionists become comedic when considering how few of these sentimentalists would opt for an appendectomy using 18th-century surgical technology.

Taking this broader view of what technology can include provides an important lens for recognizing technology outside of the standard framework. This allows for an important perspective in discussing how indigenous technologies were destroyed through colonization.

[The] technology of [indigenous] sovereign egalitarianism contrasts sharply with the social technology employed by Western colonialism.

Never Google “Natives didn’t have technology”…

“Natives didn’t even have the wheel,” “I challenge you to show me an indigenous culture that doesn’t use our technology,” and “Why didn’t the Native Americans ever advance technologically over thousands of years, while Europe and Asia advanced dramatically?” are explicit declarations of popular perceptions of indigenous technology. They have been said to me and countless other indigenous people in one form or another.

These statements rely on a few logical and historical flaws. To get the simplest erroneous assumption out of the way, indigenous people did have the wheel and used it in the design of toys in many places over many periods. The more interesting question is why indigenous peoples in the Americas never transformed the wheel into a technology for transportation. The second question illustrates an attitude towards technology that claims ownership without taking responsibility. Can a technology truly be titled “ours” (Western) if it is built on stolen labor using stolen resources? Finally, these statements imply a very narrow definition of technology, limiting it to the tools and gadgets we are familiar with today — the definition that we debunked above. In 1491, thousands of civilizations existed throughout the Americas with thousands of different technologies for organizing members of those societies. In many indigenous societies, one of the fundamental organizing principles is — though this term is a Western imposition — egalitarianism, a structural technology that facilitated a sustainable relationship to the world.

Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon (Source: Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)

Tribespeople Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon | Source: Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

The forms of egalitarianism found in some indigenous communities not only viewed every human being as equal regardless of disability, sex, gender, and skin color, but they also viewed non-human beings such as mammals, birds, fish, plants, and even the inanimate earth as equals too. This equality was not guaranteed by a state with a monopoly on violence, but through the recognition of all beings as sovereign entities. In these frameworks, sovereign beings shouldn’t be coerced through violence but only through relationship building, diplomacy, and consensus. This is evident in human relationships within tribes, but also in the ways that indigenous people interacted with their environment.

If we look at democracy as a tool, a structure and process for organizing society, it seems clear that democracy is a technology.

This technology of sovereign egalitarianism contrasts sharply with the social technology employed by Western colonialism. In the exploitative framework, the sovereignty of humans is limited along lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and so forth. Sovereignty is so mutable in this system that entire populations of people can be enslaved or massacred. In this system, animals, plants, and other beings are seen as having no subjectivity (e.g. unthinking biological automatons simply responding to stimuli) and, by extension, no sovereignty. This means that humans — particularly white men with property who had the most sovereignty — could exert their will in whatever way they see fit, destroying entire landscapes for destructive plantation practices, railroads, and now resource extraction.

Settler-colonialism destroys in order to replace, and this is equally applicable when it comes to indigenous technologies. Discomforted by indigenous sovereignty and driven by a need for possession — informed by their dominant technology of capitalism — colonists sought to destroy indigenous technology, particularly indigenous environmental technology.

Relating to Nature: From Cooperation to Othering

Throughout the last 500 years of colonizations, explorers, colonists, and settlers have marveled at the accomplishments of indigenous technology, even as they simultaneously erased the technological capacity of indigenous peoples. One early explorer, writing about a forest about a mile inland from the shore of what would become Rhode Island, noted that the trees were spaced so that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” In the middle of the 1700s, settlers in the Ohio region described the forested land in terms of English parks, commenting that carriages could be driven through the trees. The first Europeans — Hernando de Soto and his small army —to visit my community’s land were astounded by the plentiful acorns, walnuts, deer, and pearls. These commentators often attributed this bounty to an inherent, God-given productiveness of the American wilderness — a contemporary Garden of Eden, belonging to Europeans as much as the original Garden of Eden belonged to Adam.

More recently commentators have begun to recognize the true source of this land’s fecundity. Describing the beginning of Lewis and Clark’s 1804 journey up the Missouri River, ethnologist Dale Lott observed that the land Lewis and Clarke encountered was “not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.” These lands —along with my community’s land, the lands in Rhode Island, and practically all of the land in the Americas — were not wildernesses but the result of specific human actions. These lands are indigenous technology and failure to recognize them as such has led to disaster.

Yosemite (Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives/Flickr)

Yosemite | Source: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives/Flickr

In 1868 — the same year the United States signed the second Treaty of Fort Laramie with various bands of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Great Sioux Nation — John Muir, who would later establish the Sierra Club, first visited Yosemite. He was in awe of the landscape:

“But no temple made with hands can compare to Yosemite… as if into this mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.”

This romanticized description of the land stands in stark contrast to Muir’s description of indigenous people as “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” Unbeknownst to Muir, these “hideous” peoples were the ones responsible for the gorgeous “mountain mansion” of Yosemite, a technology developed over millennia.

[Indigenous sovereign egalitarianism] is evident in human relationships within tribes, but also in the ways that indigenous people interacted with their environment.

Muir was unable to see the fertile lands of Yosemite as a technological achievement because of his white supremacist belief that indigenous people were primitive and living in a state of constant struggle and subsistence. Concerned by the encroachment of poachers and the perceived volatility of indigenous people, Muir turned to a line of thinking which would eventually lead him to establish the Sierra Club — conservationism.

Medicine Owl (Source: Library of Congress/Flickr)

An Indian known as Medicine Owl | Source: Library of Congress/Flickr

The underlying assumption of the conservation movement is that “wilderness should be preserved,” which presumes that there is such thing as a ‘wilderness.’ This assumption is made explicit in the Wilderness Act of 1961 where wilderness is described as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” For indigenous people who have lived with these lands for eons, this definition is literally nonsensical.

Yosemite is a land with which many indigenous people have developed relationships. Through the reciprocal relationships of being cared for by the land and caring for the land, the Ahwahneechee and other communities were able to develop a fertile land full of medicinal, food, and material plants, as well as a rich ecosystem of large game animals. This land, designed to support a rich community of human and non-human peoples, is what Muir encountered during his first visit to Yosemite.

1800 Map of Yosemite (Source: Yosemite Online)

Map of Yosemite ca. 1800 | Source: Yosemite Online

In response to his sojourn in Yosemite and other travels, Muir joined efforts to preserve the “wilderness” of Yosemite. The project of conservation in Yosemite had begun 17 years prior to Muir’s visit when Major Jim Savage, under orders of California Governor John McDougall and through a special act of Congress, underwent a campaign to punish “offending tribes” in Yosemite. Major Savage’s militia used tactics such as setting entire villages on fire to expel the indigenous people of Yosemite and began a military occupation which would last until 1906 when Yosemite became a national park under President Theodore Roosevelt.

These lands are indigenous technology and failure to recognize them as such has led to disaster.

John Muir first saw Yosemite during the early part of this occupation, but after 100 years of conservation, the delicate ecosystem Muir sought to protect was decimated. The large open meadows which awed Muir and other had been overtaken by bushes and small trees. Many of the large game animals that relied on these meadows for food had migrated away from Yosemite, making hunting exceedingly difficult. Several studies of the effect of conservation on Yosemite summarized the effects of Muir and the U.S. military occupation as “removing the native population from the forests resulted in a decline in both tree diameter and biodiversity.”

By removing indigenous people from Yosemite, the United States also removed the technological practices that ensured its health. One such practice was controlled burning, which freed up resources for Yosemite’s famous old-growth trees, encouraged the growth of supple meadow plants, and destroyed fuel that could lead to the destructive natural forest fires that plague the area today.

This pattern of ignoring landscapes as indigenous technologies, rewriting indigenous peoples as unthinking and primitive, and removing these “primitive” people in the name of conservation has been repeated throughout colonialism with devastating effects. In 2007, Elinor Ostrom — a Nobel-winning economist — and Tanya Hayes published a global study of protected and unprotected areas. In a finding that would be a shock to Muir but unsurprising to indigenous people, they found no significant difference in vegetation between protected and unprotected areas. The single key criteria in the health of these areas is the involvement of local and indigenous peoples in the land management. This study adds further credence to the fact that indigenous leadership and reciprocal relationships mean healthier and less volatile lands.

Mussel Gatherer (Source: Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)

An Indigenous Mussel Gatherer | Source: Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

A Way Forward

Looking back on this history and seeing how indigenous technologies were ignored and destroyed — to the detriment of the very landscapes colonists sought to protect — is instructive. There are other ways of understanding human relationships to and within ecosystems. There are technologies that are being overlooked because they do not fit the modern mold of what technology looks like — and this is why society cannot access their benefits.

By removing indigenous people from Yosemite, the United States also removed the technological practices that ensured its health.

In an era where extractive technologies continue to threaten humanity’s existence and are given more dispensation than entire nations (e.g. #NoDAPL), it becomes urgent that we reimagine the technologies that mediate our relationships to human and other-than-human beings. Instead of using technological blueprints that only pull from the earth (resource extraction), animals (factory farming), plants (megafarms and patented plant strains), and other humans (exploitative capitalism), we can develop technologies that nurture the thick, complex web of life. Although this work is well under way in energy labs, sustainable farms, and the environmental movement, these technologists run the risk of perpetuating colonialism if indigenous peoples, who have developed these reciprocal eco-technologies over millennia, are not recognized as the lead technologists.


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