The dominant ideology of power is rooted in human supremacy, oppressive patriarchy, land, and material resource control. All can come through divine allocation, and are supported by current societal norms, and infrastructure. Fear, distraction, and violence are the primary methods of to keep the system of power benefiting the oppressor.
In this system, power is the right of a man, specifically that of an individual white man. Women and children live an existence below the will of men in a, “seen and not heard” role. Under this system, resources only benefit a small group of individuals who flex their perceived right to dominate over the land and all contained within.
In the early contact period, the euro-centric settler version of a leader was sought after to engage in negotiation with. True community leaders, which sometimes included women and others who didn’t fit the euro-centric power/leader definition were ignored. Then, in the 1800s, missionaries arrived preaching principles of Christianity that forever altered family and community dynamics. These missionaries were the first to insist that women had “a place” and power was the achievement of material and financial resources.
Success in this style of hierarchical, institutionalized power was never intended for the Indigenous communities. Instead, akin to a servant class, children were stolen away to boarding schools to learn cleaning and trades, and to unlearn indigenous concept of being and relating to others and the world around us. Boarding schools were an attempt to assimilate after termination failed. Those who resisted, were still terminated.
Historically, internal personal power and leadership were gained through intimate relationships with the unseen forces of nature. Power achieved in this way wasn’t exclusive, power can be transferred to new keepers who receive a calling to the responsibility. LaPier a Blackfeet Physicist states that “sometimes humans seek power by forming alliances with supernaturals; sometimes the supernaturals seek humans in order to share power.
An individual’s ability to understand and utilize extraordinary knowledge identified them spiritually powerful. People would sacrifice personal possessions in the amount of what they perceived was the value of the knowledge. Power was bestowed on an individual through person to person transfer or acquired in dreams and meditative states that usually involved the supernatural, a relationship with animals, spirit/ancestral guidance and mentorships.
Additionally, gaining material wealth was encouraged, but gifting these displayed internal power and care for people in ones community. The individuals who gifted material items away, display a richness or chief-like status. Power, before contact was the idea of recognizing kinships, place, and purpose not only for men, women and children, but among flora and fauna, and the very land itself.
Though one could be born materially into nothing in traditional Blackfoot society, the conditions one was born into and the chance and ability to achieve power throughout life was not out of the grasp of anyone.
A leader couldn’t use their power in a self-serving way. If the people became unsatisfied with the leadership they were ignored and sometimes people would physically stop following them and go join a nearby band.
This view of power seems very distant to the western idea of the power that focuses on the accumulation of resources at the expense of those around him. The settlers to the North American continent were not capable of understanding the organization in any way recognizable to their western ideologies, ultimately leading them to the idea that Indigenous people held no power, and certainly no valuable knowledge to contribute to humanity. In the spirit of colonialism, anything “tribal” was a threat to western power holders. Still today, western science continues to dominate the epistemological assumptions about what counts as knowledge. What doesn’t conform, isn’t included in theories but added to the fringe, or pseudoscience category. And the assumption to define or categorize knowledge, or not, is an exercise in oppressive power.
As people are finally questioning our current system of power and demanding the inclusion and representation, the value of thousands of years of Indigenous environmental observation (what has survived) is beginning to be included and valued as “Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” An intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has found that, “Earth’s resources have been better protected in areas managed by indigenous communities.”
With the worldwide ecosystem collapse, it would seem the individuals or the system currently in place has failed and it has come time for new power, or perhaps old as in ancient indigenous knowledge with revitalized definitions of power can come into place so that we can sustain our existence on earth. Attempting to return balance, or mutually benefiting systems to the functions of the world around us would require a major shift in thinking and living to get out from under the current (self-destructing) system.
People are demanding new relationships to water that sustains the life and land which provides for the people. After 140 year legal battle the Whanganui Maori won the battle to consider the sacred river a human being with all legal protections of a person. This inspired India’s Uttarakhand high court to protect the Ganges and Yamuna rivers with personhood. While indigenous values, beliefs and practices are as diverse as indigenous people themselves, they find common roots in a relationship to land and water which are radically different from the western notion of property. For indigenous people, land and water are regarded as sacred, living relatives, ancestors, places of origin or any combination of the above.
To not use our collective power to re-define power may be to the detriment of the very world itself since the current ideology of power is based on the violent extraction of (finite) natural resources without regard to their rights and purposes. Under this system, only a few will ever control the resources, wealth, and ultimately humanity’s very ability to survive since without forests we do not have air, and without water we will not have life. In that light, it is ultimately not humans who hold power, but we are at the mercy of the earth’s power.