The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

Vogons Behind NEB Hearings on Kinder Morgan Pipeline

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In a move which has surprised no one in the universe, except for the actual residents of the Earth the Vogons have long wanted to destroy to make room for a hypergalactic speedway, the spacefaring bureaucrats with a penchant for unutterably bad poetry have come out with an official statement supporting the NEB hearings over Kinder Morgan pipeline construction in BC. The hearings have been widely criticised for ignoring public input and for bias towards Kinder Morgan’s pipeline plan, which critics charge will do grievous harm to the local BC ecology and speed up the probable destruction of human civilization itself.

Moved by what apparently constituted ecstatic excitement but appeared to observers as a bad case of gas, one Vogon cleric burst into a poetic ode to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline which began:

Oh freddled gruntbuggly…..

The following lines were not reported after all the human reporters in attendance ran into a nearby river screaming and attempting to pull the ears off their heads. One reporter in attendance, who had cleverly inserted steel earplugs before the onslaught, was Ford Prefect, apparently a visiting alien of unknown origin. When asked about the Vogons and their intentions he pulled out an Hitchhiker’s Guide and read:

Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders – signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

Reflecting on the NEB hearings thus far Chloe Hartley of Dogwood Initiative wrote, “This NEB review has been a carefully orchestrated process designed to defeat the public.” Hartley wrote that in a piece titled What’s a Public Hearing Without The Public? “Public Hearings Without The Public” are, of course, a Vogon speciality, as written above in the Guide.

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

Some Thoughts On Marc Gafni

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A recent article by Mark Oppenheimer in the NY Times, and a more detailed follow-up by him in Tablet, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Jewish world and beyond about the Jewish “spiritual teacher” Marc Gafni. Gafni teaches an approach to Judaism which is uniquely his own, and combines elements of Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” with what you could call a kind of “Hasidic Tantra”.

I first came across Gafni when I was taking a DVD course on Jewish spiritual healing in 2005. The CDs were a melange of Hasidism, Eastern philosophy, Buddhism and Shamanism put together by various Jewish teachers including Tirzah Firestone (see below) and Gafni. As I listened to the Gafni CD I was at first impressed by a sophisticated midrash he was giving about the Keruvim in the Temple, and then it began to sour. What was it? Something about his delivery, his tone, put me on edge. Earlier in my life I had experiences with “bad gurus”, spiritual personas who were masking serious problems with emotional and sexual predation. I picked up a kind of radar for it, and later even taught a course on the “bad guru” phenomenon as part of Yoga Teacher Trainings. I sensed the sickness in Gafni. I cut the CD short, unable to get beyond about 15 minutes for nausea.

A year later, in 2006, I was doing a 3 month summer spiritual retreat at Elat Chayyim, the then flagship of the Jewish Renewal movement, with the woman I would later marry. To my alarm I found out that among the various teachers coming that summer- including mature luminaries like Norman Fischer, Alan Lew, and Dovber Pinson- Gafni would be coming. I discussed this with the Rabbi in residence, David Ingber, who was also unhappy about the impending visit. Unhappy is actually an understatement- Ingber was sick over it- in a state of severe distress. Gafni had been his spiritual teacher and was one of the Rabbis who ordained Ingber but Ingber had realized that Gafni was emotionally manipulative, deceptive, and possibly a sexual predator, and had withdrawn from him. Ingber had discussed his concerns with the Elat Chayyim board but the board held to their decision to invite Gafni.

To make matters worse, a young, charismatic and talented spiritual practitioner in the community who was close to Ingber was planning to be ordained by Gafni during his visit. Ingber and I both expressed our concerns with this person- I told him not to accept the ordination- but the individual decided to go ahead. In the end both Ingber and I participated (along with many others) in the ceremony. I was nauseous throughout, and Ingber was crying what I didn’t think then were pure tears of joy.  

A few days before I had witnessed Gafni in action. It took place in a room full of excited students. They were all pursuing some kind of credential with Gafni, I forget what it was. We all waited in the charged room singing a niggun- a wordless spiritual melody. A beautiful female assistant of Gafni’s- who I think was his girlfriend at the time- revved up the audience, telling us to prepare for the “Rebbe” ( a term of veneration for Hasidic masters usually reserved for revered elders). Gafni finally arrived, 20 minutes late, rushing and looking “aflame” with some kind of passion. He was still wearing his tallit (prayer shawl) and his teffilin (phylacteries). Normally any self-respecting Jew would have kissed and carefully put away these items before appearing in public. Walking in with them on was brazen- a way of advertising both that he had been praying in the Orthodox manner and that he was somehow “above” respecting these ancient Jewish sacred objects. Even worse Gafni took off the tefillin without rolling them up or putting them away in their boxes, simply dropping them in a messy heap on the table. Ironically the tallit was an unusual colour- black, and gave Gafni the appearance of some kind of Tantric Darth Vader, which may not be that far from the truth.

Gafni launched into an impassioned teaching, moving restlessly around the room like a wrestler, his eyes scanning the crowd constantly measuring people’s reactions to him. I sat silent as a stone, frozen, refusing to respond to what felt like a psychic groping. At the first break I left and was unable to continue the weekend of “teachings”. A friend of mine in attendance, a psychologist, later told me that based on what he had seen he thought Gafni had a clinical personality disorder of some kind. Within a few months the allegations against Gafni exploded.

Reading Oppenheimer’s recent piece in Tablet, I am struck by how many spiritual teachers have defended him or continued to work with him. Some of them had quite a lot of information, like the late Zalman Shachter-Shalomi must have, and some had very little. The obvious question that strikes me is- why didn’t they do more research into Gafni when they heard allegations against him? I am not a fan of witch hunts, and I certainly don’t think schools and teachers should fire someone merely because allegations have been made. But surely when allegations have been made they need to be carefully looked into. The evidence against Gafni available on the Internet is enough to raise very serious concerns. Why, though, didn’t they get in touch with the people who knew him and gather more information? Why not reach out to some people close to the allegations?

Some Jewish teachers were admirably canny about what was going quickly, including the revered Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who rescinded Gafni’s ordination early on, and Rabbi Ingber. Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Green and Tirzah Firestone all seem bizarrely over-concerned to defend Gafni, but all later at least took back their support.  Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are interesting cases among Gafni’s supporters in the wider world. Wilber has a bad track record in terms of which teachers he supports- which famously include the deluded megalomaniac and serial sex abuser Adi Da Samraj, and also sex predators Gempo Roshi, Osho, and others. I once warned a female student of mine that she should avoid any teacher lauded by Wilber as a matter of principle. Kempton was herself a disciple of Swami Muktananda, a Hindu Tantric teacher guilty of massive self-enrichment at the expense of students and serial sex abuse of several students in India and the West, including teenage daughters of his own students. I suspect that Kempton may have used a similar defense of Muktananda that she uses for Gafni- that he had difficulty controlling his “shakti”.

A salient aspect of the discussion around Gafni that keeps coming up is talk of the power of his Eros, or Shakti, and the claim that this is a spiritual energy that he is tapped into. The implications are that this energy is a beneficial, desirable one, and it is unfortunate that Gafni is not a perfect master of it. Poor master, it overwhelms him so that he is forced to manipulate, deceive, have sex with, and assault others. “Eros” is just a fancy word for sexual desire, of course, though Gafni wides it’s use to include a kind of pleasurable embodied presence in the world. “Shakti” just means energy, but implies transformative, or creative energy. Usually, in Hindu Tantra, it is used to communicate that the teacher has a super-human power to transmit a beneficial, transformative energy to his students. What kind of excess energy is it exactly that Gafni suffers from? I find it incredible, to put it mildly, that there is a kind of beneficial spiritual energy which, when too strong, inspires irresponsible, immoral, predatory and destructive behaviour. As the saying goes, Detras de la cruz esta el diablo (Satan hides behind the cross).

I would submit that there is only one kind of beneficial, transformative energy. That energy is love, and one can’t have too much of it. It refuses to use other people, refuses to put them in what Buber called an “I-It” relationship. Love regards the other, seeks to really see, to really cherish, and to really celebrate the other as other, both in what they are and what they can become. I have met spiritual teachers with that energy. Most often they were not famous, not rich, and not particularly charismatic. Yet they saw me, and when I spoke with them I felt like they and I were the only two in the world. They saw things in me with a precision and speed that astonished me, yet they didn’t use these things to their own advantage. They used their sight to give me good, loving counsel and to mirror me back to myself in my potential. They did not seek to make me dependent, but rather independent. They didn’t try to make me like them, but more like myself. They did not in any way have their eye on my wallet and they didn’t try to have sex with their students (excuse me, help them “tantrically”).

There are teachers like that, and the sad thing is that the Gafnis of the world convince some people that there aren’t. One colleague once said to me, “Spiritual teachers- they’re all fakes. Exploiters, predators and crooks.” That’s not true (which I attempted passionately to explain to her). As Rumi said, Without real gold there would not be counterfeit.

Why, though, do some teachers defend and befriend the likes of Gafni? Some of it is, no doubt, naivete. Some of it is a well-intentioned desire to avoid a witch hunt. Some of it, though, I think, relates to a simple desire for capital of one kind or another. Why did Elat Chayyim act as a venue for Gafni despite the concerns of their Rabbi in residence? Could it because he was a money-maker? Could it be because his fame and charisma increased the fame and charisma of Elat Chayyim? Some people, at least, are attracted to Gafni because, simply put, they like money or power. Associating with Gafni brings the same pleasure that many would find associating with any celebrity, conman or garden variety mafioso. This is the pleasure of associating with the resource that person has- which could be sex, money, talent, intelligence, or charisma- and the power that confers. Gafni’s friends all assert something along the lines of this: “He denies the allegations. He has great ideas, great energy, great power. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but he denies the charges. I trust him.” Listening to some of the defenses of Gafni reminds me of the reaction Trump had when he was praised by Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat. Trump, who loves a good compliment and the friendship of powerful people, expressed pleasure at Putin’s words. When he was challenged about Putin’s well known involvement in silencing free speech in Russia- even assasinating troublesome journalists, he said: “He denied it. I mean, it’s not like anyone found him with a gun in his hand or anything.” Maybe look into it, Trump. Maybe look into it, Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and community leaders. I’m glad Oppenheimer did.

UPDATE: Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as just released a statement condemning Gafni’s behaviour and making it clear that as far as they are concerned he should not be teaching (see their Facebook page). They point out that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi revoked Gafni’s ordination in 2006.

UPDATE (Jan 5 2016): A petition attracting the signatures of many Rabbis and Jewish leaders, including Avi Weiss (the founder of Open Orthodoxy), Joseph Telushkin and Tirzah Firstone, is now circulating calling for Whole Foods and others to cut ties with Gafni. The petition has gone above 2500 signatures. New articles have appeared in several papers and magazines.  See here.   Meanwhile, in an utterly classless move, non- Jewish “spiritual teachers” Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are on record comparing the Jewish community leaders who are trying to shut down Gafni-which include some of the most important Jewish spiritual teachers and Rabbis alive today- to “neonazis”. Nice. Apparently Wilber and Kempton are specializing both in aiding and abetting abusers and in provoking other people’s most horrific traumas if it helps their friends. So tell me, if a rape victim goes to the police, does that make her a neonazi? Would that only be true if she was Jewish?

Re-Occupation and Resistance: The Rise of A New Type of Indigenous Politics

Unistoten_2Two narratives. The one you’re likely to read in mainstream Canadian media: a group of First Nations people have set up a protest camp in Northern BC to block proposed pipelines.  The other, which you will find championed on sites like unistotencamp.com, says that the Unis’tot’en camp, created by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en, are not a protest camp. They are camping on their own unceded land to protect it from invasion and abuse at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. There is a world of difference between these two stories. One sees the Wet’suwet’en as having sovereignty over their land as an equal treaty partner with Canadians and the other sees them as First Nations resident in Canada and blocking public roads and waterways to protest a Canadian business venture. If the difference seems anything but momentous you have not yet grasped the new era of Indigenous politics in Canada.

As the clan website states, “The Unist´ot´en homestead is not a protest or demonstration.  Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water. Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist´ot´en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory.  Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands.  We recognize the authority of these systems as predating and independent of Canadian law.”

The Unis’tot’en “camp” is not really a camp, it is more like a homestead. Freda Huson, one of the main spokespeople for the camp, has lived there for three years. Several cabins, gardens and other structures have been built specifically to act as obstacles to pipeline construction, and there is currently a project underway to build a healing centre. In accordance with Wet’suwet’en law, entry into Unist’ot’en territory is controlled by checkpoints at two locations on Unist’ot’en Territory. “Free, prior and informed consent protocol”, a concept enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is conducted at checkpoints leading into the camp. Visitors must in effect pass through customs before they can move what from a government perspective is simply one piece of crown land to another, but to the Unis’tot’en is a passage from Crown land to Wet’suwet’un territory.

Support for the camp is not unanimous among the Wet’suwet’en, whose five elected chiefs are in favour of some degree of pipeline construction. The opposition is being lead by the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and particularly the Gilsehyu (Big Frog) clan, within whose territory the Unis’tot’en camp appears to fall (there are some internal disputes over land boundaries). The Unis’tot’en represent a movement within the Wet’suwet’en to lay claim to the authority and heritage of their people in a way which will preserve the land they live on and stop the pipeline projects.

The BC government is considering 6 different pipeline projects which would cut directly through Wet’suwet’en land. The Wet’suwet’en, like most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while the Supreme Court has recognized that these territories are unceded in the landmark Delgamuukw v. the Queen the government continues to issue permits on land whose jurisdiction is disputed. According to the Unis’tot’en, the pipeline projects threaten the land and water of the Wet’suwet’en. There is particular concern over the ecology of the salmon population, as fishing is an essential livelihood for the Wet’suwet’en.

The clan is building a network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become major forces in the Canadian economy. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations, or better “re-occupations”, this year.Throughout BC there are similar stories of small groups of Indigenous Canadians standing up against International energy giants who have been given permits and support from the provincial government. Lax Kw’alaams members voted earlier this year to reject a $1.15 billion benefits package with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is led by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, over environmental concerns. The Lax-Kw’alaams are one of the allied tribes of the Tsimshian people, the largest Indigenous group in Northwest BC. They have set up protest camp on Lelu Island, where Pacific Northwest wants to create a port which would endanger the local ecology. More recently the Lax Kw’alaams went to court to claim title to the land in order to block the project.   “The greatest threat to our traditional territories is that we forget that we own it”, said Christine Smith-Martin, who is identified by the band as a leader in their “reoccupation” camp.

Close to Vancouver a confrontation has been taking place for months between Kinder Morgan and various protesters, including prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous players, on Burnaby Mountain. The City of Burnaby itself has been fighting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion which would go through the Burnaby Mountain conservation area. The dispute dates back to Dec. 16, 2013, when Trans Mountain asked the energy board for a certificate for the expansion project. The City of Burnaby’s bylaw battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline was recently dealt a blow by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who  declared that the National Energy Board rulings take precedence over that of the municipality.The Metro Vancouver city has tried to obstruct the laying the 1,100-kilometre-long pipeline between Alberta and coastal B.C.  The expanded pipeline would ship almost 900,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Burnaby’s fight against Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline now appears destined to go all the way to the Supreme court as  Mayor Derek Corrigan intends to appeal the BC court decision. On Nov 20 Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was arrested by RCMP, joining more than 100 others who had been willingly arrested since police began enforcing a court injunction issued a week before ordering protesters to stand down.

“I don’t know who Kinder Morgan is, they are not lords of my land,” Vancouver Metro news quoted Phillip as saying before his arrest. Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told a crowd of protesters that his nation doesn’t consent to Canada issuing rights to third-party interests with no regard to Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title. Here too on Burnaby Mountain the word of the Chiefs is clear: this is their territory and they are not being consulted.

That these claims are being made in a Metro Vancouver jurisdiction is no longer surprising: last year, the Year of Reconciliation,  City Council, headed by Mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared that the city of Vancouver exists on unceded aboriginal territory. “Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender,” reads part of the motion.

“These lands belong to us,”  Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, recently told Yes! magasine. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”

The new Trudeau government has said that it will implement the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32 of the declaration requires obtaining from indigenous peoples “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories”. For some non-Indigenous Canadians the prospect is frightening. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and chair of the “aboriginal futures research program” at the Frontier Center for Public Policy, warns that endowing aboriginal peoples with too much power could “handicap Canada’s resource industries”.

For some non-Indigenous Canadians, the prospect of handicapping at least some of resource industries (like mining, oil and gas) is actually an attractive aspect of increased power for Indigenous peoples. As Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul recently wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback, “There is already a consensus between Aboriginals and the environmental movement.” That being so, some Canadians are slow to recognize the claims that Indigenous peoples have in accordance with the treaties on which Canada was built, treaties which view them not as subjects but as partners. As Saul recently argued in the same book, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “honour of the Crown” demands that Indigenous peoples be treated not only from a legal-technical perspective but from an ethical one which recognizes the history of Canadian violence and treachery towards Indigenous peoples and treats them in accordance with the original intent of the treaties.  From this perspective economic concerns must take a back seat to the more fundamental question of honourable relations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples. Yet the habit of seeking to limit Indigenous power and control resources is old and well entrenched in Canadian policy and public discourse, both consciously and unconsciously.

Nor is this issue limited to Canada. As Saul writes, “The relationship between the environment, indigenous people and commodities extraction is on the agenda everywhere.” It is clear to anyone breathing fresh air as opposed to sand that the future belongs to the environmentalists if it belongs to anyone. It will need to. This can only bode well for the hopes of those clans and bands who are linking their claims as Indigenous peoples to the defense of the land. It is also true, however, that recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is not inherently a means to protect ecologies. There are many in the Indigenous communities who wish to profit from resource extraction themselves, and recognizing their self-government in their own territiories necessarily means them making decisions which might or might not be ecologically sound. Only time will tell whether Indigenous peoples will be leaders in transforming the resource sector into a sustainable industry or not. Those who say that recognizing their sovereignty is a matter of justice, however, argue that taking a risk on increasing Indigenous power is not only reasonable but is required by conscience.

Meanwhile at Unis’tot’en winter is settling in. Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers are tending the permaculture gardens, hunting, and staffing the checkpoints and lookouts across the land.