Author’s Note: After editing this essay it was discovered that while the term “west” was used in an uppercase form to describe western civilization, the term “indigenous” –describing the native peoples of the third world- was written in a lowercase form. As a result of this editing, both terms have been uppercased so as to evoke a respect for each culture.
In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 utopian novel they are faithfully deemed “savages.” We know them as natives, tribes, the uncivilized, primitives, or Indigenous peoples. The existence of such groups in our world today call for an expanded discussion of what “utopia” is and how it affects all societies. The historical effects of utopianism resonate far deeper than the mere conceptualization or visualization of an ideal place.
Karl Hardy’s “Unsettling Hope: Settler-Colonialism and Utopianism” quickly establishes that utopia is not a universal phenomenon. “Utopia proper” as we know it, is distinguishable as a modern notion that was invented in Europe in the sixteenth century (Kumar, 1987). As parallel societies progress through history, it becomes clear that not all realize an identical framework to the classical and Christian sixteenth century definition as famously coined by Thomas More. The current scholarly engagement with utopia needs to be aware of this and must include the discourses and work of non-Western societies in the utopianism discussion. This inclusion at its broadest definition must be known as “intercultural imaginaries of the ideal” (Dutton 2010).
The nature of mankind’s present globalized state has extinguished the possibility of what More called “the good place which is no place.” The technological differences among varying cultural groups is extreme. The rapidly changing West has now mapped the entire planet for its convenience and has entered into a period of intense cultural consumption and mass novelty creation. When examined in comparison to “primitive” peoples there is a clear lack of empathy and an obvious separation between cultures.
Above: Footage of an Indigenous tribe encountering modern people for the first time.
Hardy emphasizes the importance of place to Indigenous peoples. “American Indians hold their lands- places- as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind” (Deloria, 1992). Colonialism utterly disrupts this sense of place for both the natives because it assumes a lack of understanding and rights towards Indigenous populations. Those who colonize an Indigenous “place” are very much attempting utopia or at least what More called “social dreaming.” Thus, utopianism has the potential to explain a theory of colonialism.
Technological advancement or the use of “other-than-human” employments are fundamentally required in the construction of the modern Western utopia. Introducing these advances in a foreign place dehumanizes Indigenous peoples. The idea of “modernity” alone segregates the Indigenous from the “developed.” All of these ideas are caused by the Western belief in what is called “reason.” Such stems the notion that those who don’t have “reason” have not broken from the “primitive” and “natural.”
“A civilization that’s barely invented the wheel happened to see a starship rising out of their ocean!” Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
The belief that the modern Western utopia is a better form of living than Indigenous natural states of living is outright subjective. What is utopian for the colonizing party is definitively dystopian for Indigenous peoples. Colonization and cultural assimilation embrace societal elimination, not cooperation. It is imperative that we recognize this method as dangerous to Indigenous peoples.
More’s Utopia must be acknowledged as an archetypical modern settler society marked by ‘a logic of elimination.’ (Wolfe 1999)
The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is one instance of common ignorance and neglect of Indigenous groups. The act of occupying what is now known as New York City is in fact Indigenous land belonging to the Algonquin tribe. An open letter written by John Paul Montano addressed to the “occupiers” states that “I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we Indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a ‘more just society,’ a ‘better world,’ a ‘land of freedom’ on top of our Indigenous societies, on our Indigenous lands, while destroying and ignoring our ways of life.” (Montano 2011).
New York City: 1609 and 2009 (Eric Sanderson)
“Settler indigenisation” is a concept Lorenzo Veracini describes as a “switching of places” between foreign colonizers and Indigenous peoples. The societal idealization of the once foreign modern subject is rendered natural and therefore “Indigenous” to the modern nation-state, and the original inhabitants are de-humanized, de-naturalized, and made foreign. In the event of settler colonization, dominant cultures are always the colonizers themselves.
Aside from destroying the natives’ future scenarios and a natural advancement born from native peoples, settler colonization affects “all political, economic and cultural processes that both societies touch” (Mogensen 2011). In realizing this, it can also be said that settler colonization never really ends. It is a permanent event within the cultures involved.
Seeing as these ideas are bouncing around in developed areas of discourse, we must recognize our effects on Indigenous peoples and engage in alternative ways of social dreaming with all societies in mind. This involves being conscious of Indigenous peoples’ hopes for a better way of life, but this engagement must occur on the terms of the Indigenous peoples themselves.
Research regarding the use of Native American racism within popular cultural reveals a surprising amount of ignorance regarding racial equality. In a country that prides itself on current racial and gender-rights focus, how is it that the Cleveland Indians “Chief Wahoo” logo has been in use since 1947? There’s also the Jeep Cherokee which had its first production model in 1974, Red Man chewing tobacco (1904), and the Washington Redskins (1972). Clearly the use of such stereotypes demonstrate a lack of respect for Indigenous peoples.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes about the growing interest in primitivism with her work “Going Native.” The art world and bourgeois culture became largely interested and fascinated by Indigenous populations when artist Paul Gauguin renounced elitist society in 1883 at the age of thirty-five. Gauguin left his wife and five children in search of a “purer culture closer to origins.” He ultimately ends up finding solace in Tahiti, where he infamously takes to native women and a hedonistic lifestyle. He writes in 1897: “Just to sit here at the open door, smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of absinthe, is an unmixed pleasure which I have every day. And then I have a fifteen year old wife who cooks my simple everyday fare and gets down on her back for me whenever I want, all for a modest reward.”
The separation between Gauguin’s work and the legacy he left as an advocate of primitivism have increased the West’s fascination with Indigenous peoples for all the wrong reasons. Gauguin is seen as a figure who successfully exploited the breadth of opportunities Indigenous cultures could provide. His success is definitively reflective of the West’s desire to expand modern utopianism ideals upon Indigenous areas.
Fast forward to present day Australia, the national government is purported to provide education for Indigenous peoples in three key ways, as communicated through their current website: “getting children to school, getting adults into work, and building safe communities.” These methods of education are flawed because they involve the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into a different way of life. They assume Indigenous populations want to live a lifestyle predicated on Western ideals. “Building safe communities” is not achieved by simply increasing the number of “successful” Indigenous peoples in a capitalist society.
There is also the topic of giving aid to Indigenous peoples. Do we have a moral obligation to intervene and provide aid to Indigenous peoples in need? Does that intervention disrupt their natural view of social dreaming? If we can agree that Indigenous peoples can benefit from some type of aid, to what degree do we continue to impose our cultures (even though they may be beneficial) upon them? It seems to be the instant reaction to provide reliable sources of food and medication to underdeveloped groups, but does this inevitably lead to the erasure of the Indigenous culture?
Established in 1977 as a result of the 1974 World Food Conference, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has hopes to reduce world poverty in marginalized communities. A discussion paper published by IFAD in 2003 indicates the extent of this reality. “In Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, some 87%, 81%, 79%, and 64% of Indigenous peoples are deemed ‘poor.’” IFAD have formed a respectable approach towards Indigenous peoples in the world today, recognizing their desire for rights, cultures, knowledge systems, and self-autonomy. However, IFAD’s more specific suggestions seem suspiciously capitalist: “The territories inhabited by Indigenous peoples are often located in the world’s most pristine natural settings, which are eminently suitable for ecotourism,” and “Indigenous peoples frequently have great opportunities for economic development as sources of water, power, biological diversity, minerals, and local resources not found elsewhere.” Again these solutions suggest a direction of growth which abide by Western capitalist ideals.
The future for Indigenous peoples should ultimately amount to what they desire and consider “intercultural imaginaries of the ideal.” The power and dominance of Western and developed cultures concerned with “utopia proper” needs to be reconsidered on a global scale. Rather than “the good place which is no place,” we should envision utopia as “the good place which is every place.” If utopianism and social dreaming are to be sincere, should they not adapt to the needs of all people and all cultures?
Karl Hardy, “Unsettling Hope: Settler-Colonialism and Utopianism.” Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal. 2nd series, no. 1. 2012. pp. 123- 136. ISSN 1646-4729.
Dutton, Jaqueline. “’Non-western’ utopian traditions” in Gregory Claeys (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. 2010. Cambridge University Press.
Kumar, Krishnan. “Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times.” 1987. Oxford. Basil Blackwell.
Deloria, Jr., Vine. “God is Red: A Native View of Religion.” 1992. Golden, CO. Fulcrum Publishing.
More, Thomas. “Utopia.” George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (eds.). (1516) 2002. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
J.J. Abrams, Bad Robot Productions, Skydance Productions. “Star Trek Into Darkness.” 2013. Paramount Pictures.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event.” 1999. New York. Cassell.
Montano, John Paul. “An Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Activists.” September 24, 2011. Zashnain.com. http://www.zashnain.com/2011/09/open-letter-to-occupy-wall-street.html
Veracini, Lorenzo. “Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview.” 2010. New York. Palgrave Macmillan.
Morgensen, Scott. “The Biopolitics of Settler Colonialism: Right Here, Right Now.” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 52-76. 2011.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau. “Going Native.” Art in America Magazine 77. July 1989.
Australian Government Dept. of Education and Training. “Indigenous Schooling.” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014. https://education.gov.au/indigenous-schooling
International Fund for Agricultural Development. “Idigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development.” Roundtable Discussion Paper for the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Session of IFAD’s Governing Council. February 2003. http://www.ifad.org/gbdocs/gc/26/e/ip.pdf