Once, they covered the grasslands
Like the shadows of clouds,
And now the river gives up
Just one skull, a hive of bone
Like a fallen wasp’s nest,
Heavy, empty, and full of the whine of the wind
And old thunder.
— From ‘A Buffalo Skull’ by Ted Kooser
At one point their population numbered in the tens of millions.
Hunted to near extinction by American market hunters, the once massive bison population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the turn of the century.
Sanctioned by the United States government, the widespread slaughter was proposed to effectively weaken the Native Indians of the West whose livelihood was tied to the bison — central to their culture and heritage.
“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” said Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1870’s. “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds [will] favor our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”
The American settlers realized Native Americans could perhaps be eliminated if the bison were exterminated. Thus, the American government set out to destroy the plentiful buffalo population while enforcing a reservation system to confine the Indians to a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands.
Crippled by the scarcity of bison, the culture of the Plains Indians and other neighboring tribes unraveled.
“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” records Crow Chief Plenty in his personal biography. “After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
There is little singing in America today because it, too, has lost its Buffalo: a common mythology and shared identity; the story, ideals, and illusions which once bound the country together. And an era can be considered over once its basic illusions have been exhausted, playwright Arthur Miller said.
Shut away as we are becoming in impenetrable fortresses of tribalism, nationality, identity politics, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and rigid ideologies, the glue is coming undone and the center cannot hold as poet John Keats warned in ‘The Second Coming,’ adding, prophetically, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and everywhere the best [men] lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
There was plenty of passionate intensity after 9–11, but a nation glued together by hatred does not hold together regardless of how righteous.
In a recent opinion piece, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that the western civilization narrative, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world, came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and, most important, provided a set of common goals. Now, Brooks adds, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding.
A similar phenomenon is occurring with men’s old notions of masculinity which are rapidly eroding under a rising tide of the rightful demands from women to once again be co-authors in the human story. Yet, absent a new definition of what it means to be a man in this evolving narrative, many men are bewildered. This might explain why middle-aged men are committing suicide in greater numbers, and why many young men, as described by Stephen Marche in the Guardian, are mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.
The demise of timeworn ideas is, in my mind, not a bad thing. Who misses the Roman Empire, for example, or cries over the demise of monarchical rule in Europe which ushered-in the age of liberty and democracy?
The danger is failing to write a new and better story out of the vacuum left behind by the demise of old ideas, ideas that seem to be running their course under the rapid changes our world is experiencing.
But as it happens, across the world today, we are handing the pen over to “strong men,” allowing them to author the new story, and we, unwitting characters, are cheering them on with tribal glee. Higher, more impenetrable walls are being built, deeper moats are being dug around our fortresses, and a new arms race is under way as the scorched-earth assault on our planet ramps up.
In a recent conference, author Chetan Bhatt dared his audience to refuse their identity myths.
What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, Bhatt questioned. One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and of course, accelerating inequalities?
Do we really need identity myths to feel safe?
What if the plains Indians would have diversified their diet? Or been less dogmatic about their choice of totemic animal?
What about you, now, listening to this? Bhatt challenged further. What about you and your identity? One stitched together with your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. This person you are when you say, “I,” “am,” or “me,” doesn’t this also include all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you’s that could have been, and includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are? Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong? If we don’t need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.
For the past eighteen months, I have been playing Jenga with my Self.
Jenga is a game where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. But rather than placing back the old blocks, I have examined, removed and discarded all my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed, all which were impeding a more authentic self to emerge. It’s been an unsettling but liberating experience, one which has cleared the way for me to replace those old blocks with new values — my unique values — and write my own script.
As for the world, what if we started by replacing our cherished Buffalos with ‘Earthrise,’ the most famous photograph ever taken?
That was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home, which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy, wrote philosopher Alain de Botton when contemplating that iconic photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968.
“Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God, and it’s only us now who are responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.”
I say it is time to snatch the pen out of the callous hands of “strong men” and write a better story for humanity and our planet.