Wednesday, 23 November 2016

'Cowboys and Indians' to 'Oil-boys and Indians'!

What the North Dakota Protests say about America's commitment to human rights and environmental protection.

What does the following photograph demonstrate?

Standoff: Protesters stand waist deep in the Cantapeta Creek, northeast of the Oceti Sakowin

The deplorable record of the US Government in relation to Indigenous Peoples here exposed:

A Kennedy gets in on the act:

Cowboys and Indians

I am of a generation that grew up with 'Cowboys and Indians'. Not in reality of course. It was one of three principal topics for imaginative childhood play. The other two happened to be fighting the Germans and fighting crime. As children we didn't see anything dubious or anomalous in this, nor that our play unconsciously reflected the wider social milieu. 

War had come to an end within a generation. Local cities were still scarred from blanket bombing and we played in bomb craters. Army vehicles were parked on waste land. Rubber gas masks were still around and National Service still in place.

As regards pretending to be 'cowboys', complete with costume and weapons is rather more difficult to explain. It was almost wholly an artificially created imaginative world originating from the United States and specifically a plot of real estate in California, called "Hollywood". We may have been brought up in a Christian country but our day to day interpretation of this was an imitation of killing both Germans and Indians, without even a hint of moral unease or animosity.

The fact that the images that appeared on the new innovation called 'television' promoted intrinsic lies and myths, was never recognised or challenged. The implicit suggestion that this was a battle between good and evil, of 'civilization' versus barbarism, of progress versus the primitive, where of course the white hatted settler or uniformed cavalry officer were representative of the former, and the 'Indian' of the latter, was taken as read. 

The inconvenient fact that in many respects this was the very opposite of the historical reality would have ruined our dream world and the profits of the media companies that put out this thinly veiled propaganda, so eagerly consumed around the world. It all helped to create the invisible world view of a beneficent and freedom-loving United States, and indirectly reinforce its international stance and behaviour.

Just as the portrayal of the European immigrants treatment of the American indigenous people was a lie, propagated by the Hollywood film industry, so in large measure was the rationale for much of its foreign policy and action in the post-war world, predicated at that time by an inchoate fear of Communism to justify any level of violence. 

Can we see a parallel here between the way the decimation of Indian and the mass destruction and military brutality in the post-war period? Both were given moral and political justification, when the real reason was power and the control of assets, be they buffalo or raw materials and that the violence entailed in it was not 'defence' but unwarranted aggression against an innocent party merely trying to protect its own.

An era of oil

The same post-war period in which we played out these games, also happened to be the period when oil and its by-products flooded the world. Oil was King.

From a historical point of view, for at least ten thousand years, power derived from muscle (human or animal), fire, wind and water. Fire where required for cooking, heating or industrial processes such as metal smelting, had to come from predominantly timber. No doubt this contributed to wholesale forest clearance that facilitated the agrarian revolution in northern Europe.

From the medieval period onwards coal deposits became increasingly exploited, first on the surface then following the veins deeper and deeper underground utilising steam technology of Thomas Newcomen (1664-1727), Richard Trevethick (1771-1833),  James Watt (1736-1819) and others, transformed every aspect of British society. The world would never be the same again with numerous advances in transport, communication, industry and inventions dependent on it. It indeed ushered in a quite unique and revolutionary period in human history with all its attendant problems as well as advances.

However when liquid 'hydro-carbon', commonly referred to as 'oil' was discovered, (On August 28, 1859, George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake made the first successful use of a drilling rig at Titusville, Pennsylvania) that essentially could do the same as coal, but better, a new age was introduced in which oil dominated the world.

Not only did it become the major source of fuel for transport and power generation, it also spawned a whole panoply of further discoveries and manufactured products that have defined the 20th Century. Plastics and artificial materials of all kinds. The internal combustion engine. Dyes and chemical compounds. Poisons against pests and diseases also developed for weapons of war. Medicines and many more.

Finding oil and having control of it has not only made huge profits for the companies and individuals so engaged has contributed hugely to the pollution of the planet in land, sea and air, and to the terrible killing and destruction in which the United States has taken a leading role, particularly in the Middle East where the biggest reserves of oil reside.

Only in the last decade has the concept of an oil-guzzling world been challenged, and steps taken to provide power from other sources. Nevertheless we still consume and squander the stuff at a prodigious rate. To take just the example of transport in the UK, virtually wholly dependent on oil (even much of electricity is similarly dependent of course) there appears to be no decline in usage.

During the last year, 320 BILLION miles were covered by British transport, up 4.4 billion or 1.4% over the previous year to 2015. There has been a 23% rise in traffic over the last 20 years, and a 55% increase in motorway traffic over the same period. Now if you consider perhaps an average petrol and diesel consumption figure of thirty miles to the gallon, taking account of heavy goods vehicles, we may assume some 10 billion gallons of oil and additives are converted to a range of gases and contaminants emitted to atmosphere in the UK alone.

Now factor in that this is just one European country of many, doing much the same, and repeated in countries across the world, plus all the other forms of transport and oil use, and you start to see the size of the pollution problem the organic world is expected to accommodate from this aspect of human activity. 

This requires not just minor tinkering but a major change of the human mind-set to significantly less use of oil but there is little sign that it is taken seriously. Change will come when people realise the consequences of their attitudes and actions, and drastically modify them - the need for, and method of travel, being just one of them.

So coming full circle, we see in North Dakota the twin subjects of 'Cowboys and Indians' and 'Oil-boys and Indians' colliding, with age old mind-sets reappearing, except now we know better - or should do. We see the action of the State not as Good against evil, but quite the reverse. It is not the 'native' that is backward and uncivilised but the 'whiteman'. The latter might still have the upper hand in force and weaponry but he has lost the moral high ground. In fact he is floundering in an oily morass of his own making. 

Is it to be left to a few indigenous tribes in the middle of the North American Continent to stand up to the corrupt and polluting oil moguls backed by government, and thus save humanity from its own stupidity?


  1. Marlon Brando Interview 1973 (Pt 1 of 6)
    Uploaded on 2 Aug 2008
    Brando on The Dick Cavett Show, June 12, 1973. With representatives of the Cheyenne, Paiute and Lummi tribes.

  2. "Perpetuating clichés" or promulgating lies? Indians in North Dakota. Black people in Brixton. Muslims everywhere.

  3. "Scars on one's soul." "That's the point. That's the point. We mustn't believe the propaganda."


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