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Saturday, 4 June 2016

""Tribes" - Should we be looking backward for answers today?


“Nasty, brutish and short.”  That’s how tribal life was described by Thomas Hobbes, an old, rich dude with time to write and think back in the 1600s.  Better to have some inbred man or woman originating from one family in charge than allow the chaos of ignorant masses to reign.  

Akha Hill Tribe Mother and Daughter
Dudes we met trekking north of Chiangmai, Thailand.  

Ironically though, it would appear that humankind was happier when we were living like these two little dudes.  Everyone was relatively equal, we didn’t work nearly as hard, and we were never alone or without companions.  This was a point of frustration for the earliest European settlers to North America.  When given a taste of tribal life, they preferred it to their own.  Ungrateful women and children captured by North American Indians and later freed by the army wanted only to be returned to the tribe.  Said one observer back in 1763, "The Shawanese were obliged to bind several of their prisoners . . , and some women, who had been delivered up, afterward found means to escape and run back to the Indian towns."  The desire was never reciprocated.  The indigenous people introduced to European culture never preferred it to their own.     

But why?

Sebastian Junger is best known for the creative non-fiction book, “The Perfect Storm” which was later made into a movie.  After, you’d think Mr. Junger would have pursued similar stories of heroism, lived well and built on his wealth and glory.  Instead, he decides to hang out with Mujahedeen who were fighting the Taliban before the NATO invasion of Afghanistan.  Then, in 2007, he convinces the American army to allow him to film a bunch of American soldiers defending the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, the Korengal Valley.  52 American soldiers had been killed and hundreds injured between 2006 and 2010 when they left, 

Sebastian and fellow film maker, Tim Hetherington, lived with the men of the 2nd platoon and followed them on reconnaissance.  When they were caught in a firefight later dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche, two soldiers were killed and, were it not for the heroics of Salvatore Giunta, more would have followed.  The result of Sebastian’s adventure was the film, “Restropo” which received the Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an academy award in 2011.  (See full movie at end of blog.)

As an adrenalin junky, Mr. Junger sympathizes with the American soldier finding meaning in the hum drum existence of everyday life upon their return to America. As well, he experiences episodes of terror and anxiety in confined spaces like the New York subway.  He understands the origins of post-traumatic syndrome that many American soldiers experience upon their return.  What he questions is their lack of recovery. 

In traditional societies warriors would return after committing and witnessing all kinds of atrocities. (May I suggest “Orenda” by Joseph Boyden for a particularly graphic description of these.)  They too would have suffered episodes of PTSD however, they couldn't lapse into long periods of depression and despair like those experience by the modern soldier.  Otherwise their people wouldn’t have survived.  Warriors were integrated into an egalitarian society where they were surrounded by companions and given tasks that needed immediate completion.  

Mr. Junger argues that we are not so different from our tribal ancestors.  If it takes 25,000 years for genetic adaptations to occur and if agriculture’s only been around for 10,000, then it’s very possible we could look to them for solutions to solve many of the social problems we experience today. 

According to Mr. Junger’s research, we're most unhappy when we're alone, we don’t feel a connection with those around us and feel we feel that we have nothing to contribute.  These would all be feelings the polar opposite to soldiers at war.  Survival on the battlefield requires a mutual trust and cooperation in a relatively egalitarian environment.   

Obviously, Mr. Junger doesn’t argue we should return to tribal life however, we do need to recognize it as our origin.  We need one another.  We want to help one another.  We feel good about sharing when it strengthens that connection.  We like to contribute and we like to feel that our contribution is appreciated.  Our skills are recognized.  Studies have found that our accumulation of wealth and our resultant isolated and independent existence has only made us unhappy.  

So, perhaps, that’s why many Europeans captured by North American Indians weren’t so happy when they were “freed” by the British soldiers.  As stated by Mary Jemison, a Seneca captive, “No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace . . . Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”