Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Version: We brought this blizzard to our home by fightin' and not trustin' each other. Not it's destroyin' this land, too. (Over a Barrel)

My Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 is here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, you can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process)!

Looking back on past posts to create the book versions, some stood out as needing more improvement than others. Here, therefore, is the revised version of one of those articles, as published in My Little Po-Mo Vol. 1. Citations are numbered as in the book; unfortunately, Blogger doesn't allow anchors or superscript so they have been implemented in a fairly primitive way.

It’s March 25, 2011. Lady Gaga is on top for her third straight week, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules is number one at the box office, though only just ahead of the inane Sucker Punch. That latter is something of an achievement, though, as it marks the only time anyone has ever both written and directed a movie using only one hand.

In global news, the U.S., France, and several other countries intervene on the rebel side of the Libyan civil war, Egypt holds a constitutional convention, and the death toll for the Japanese quake is now nearly 10,000, with over 15,000 missing.

This week, Dave Polsky gives us his last episode until the third season. “Over a Barrel” suffers from a problem that will come up a lot in Season 3, namely that it’s trying to tell a story that cannot be told within the limitations of a My Little Pony show.

Lindsey Ellis, in her web-show The Nostalgia Chick, gave an excellent explanation of why Disney’s Song of the South is horrifying: “Imagine if someone made a musical set in Auschwitz in 1950, and it opened with a Jewish chorus singing ‘Nothing bad has ever happened here!’” That’s what this episode is like: it takes a horrifically violent period of American history, a time of genocide, biological warfare, and forced marches, and turns it into a pie fight.

Let’s take a step back, and examine how else this episode could have gone. Take the premise as a given: Friendship Is Magic is going to do an episode about the westward expansion of the U.S. and the conflicts between Native Americans and settlers. Is there any conceivable universe in which this is a good idea? The core values of the show are love, tolerance, and friendship, which means it is obligated to depict both sides as fully human and fully complex. However, this is also a half-hour show intended to be suitable for children, which means the conflict has to be entirely defanged. Of course, that defanging is in turn incredibly disrespectful to the entire peoples systematically slaughtered, and ignores that, by modern standards of morality, the settlers were entirely and completely in the wrong.

Admittedly, the episode does make a good effort in some places. The first few minutes, up until the arrival in Appleloosa, are straight-up hilarious. Fluttershy’s “I’d like to be a tree” is one of her funniest lines in the series. The buffalo, meanwhile, are pure obnoxious stereotype, a genericized representation of the Native inhabitants of the Great Plains, but at least we get to see representatives of the young people on both sides (Little Strongheart for the buffalo and Braeburn for the ponies) who don’t want to be drawn into the conflicts of their elders, but find themselves swept up in it anyway.

This doomed attempt to by the young to reject ethnic conflict echoes a repeated pattern in similar conflicts. In the American Old West, the rise of the Ghost Dance was explicitly an attempt to rekindle respect for and interest in Native American culture in younger generations, who were gradually assimilating into Eurocentric culture.(63) Modern ethnic clashes often also see such a difference, with many young people (often sharing in a quasi-global youth culture of pop music and television) initially taking less hardline stances than their parents, only to be drawn into the conflict as they suffer losses due to it.

But the conflict of their parents is frequently real, and where there is a clear aggressor (which is rarely the case, but does from time to time occur), it is within that aggressor’s power alone to end the conflict. The settlers and Native Americans did fight, and the respective causes for specific battles or skirmishes varied, but ultimately it was the choices of the settlers (and the United States government) that led to the conflict.

The core of the conflict were two incompatible beliefs. On the one hand, the Native American peoples believed that they had a right to live, to continue to occupy the lands of their ancestors, and to maintain their distinct and diverse cultures (which, like Zecora’s apparent cultural ancestry, were more nuanced than a single interpretation would suggest). Far from being “savages” (as they were frequently referred to and characterized as), the native peoples had constructed their own nations, beliefs, and systems of governance, which were often overlooked by the settlers, who hid behind their government, with little-to-no regard for indigenous peoples and their way of life.

On the other, the consensus of the settlers and the United States government was that American settlers both possessed, and were required to exercise, a “manifest destiny” to spread their culture across the entire North American continent,(64) which to modern ears sounds indistinguishable from Britain’s “White Man’s burden” or Germany’s lebensraum: a transparent excuse for land-hungry nationalists to conquer other people’s homes on the sole grounds that they’d very much like to. The justification for this expansion, at least in the eyes of most Americans of the time, was the American experiment in democratic self-rule;(65) that spreading this ideal involved the imperialistic conquest and forcible assimilation of entire cultures seems to have occurred to few.

The buffalo in this episode, as mentioned, seem to be modeled on the Plains Indians, against whom the U.S. fought a series of wars throughout the nineteenth century. These wars were vicious, with atrocities committed on both sides, and the first victim was frequently the sense of proportion. For example, on August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota killed five white men and women in a raid on a farm, then stirred up a larger group of Dakota soldiers to drive the whites off Dakota lands, leading to a series of murders of white farmers and their families across Minnesota.(66) The U.S. military responded in force, but after defeating the militant Dakota, uprooted the entire Dakota people—militant and peaceful alike—from their lands and force-marched them to a new reservation,(67) described by one survivor (who witnessed the murder of her mother by soldiers en route) as “a horrible nightmarish trip.”(68)

This was hardly an isolated incident. Earlier, the government, acting under the auspices of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, emptied the southeast of its native populations of Cherokee, Choktaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee—known at the time as the “Five Civilized Tribes”—along what would later be referred to as the “Trail of Tears.” While this acknowledged atrocity might on the surface appear different from the encroachment of settlers along the Great Plains, it was still a massive, organized movement and manifest destiny imposing its will upon the autonomous populations of the Deep South (calling itself a “cultural transformation”), and would form a “blueprint” for later efforts, including the forced removal of the Dakota and the establishment of the reservation system. The main difference? The “Five Civilized Tribes” had been “pacified” by long-term associations with the European settlers (culminating in a series of eventually broken treaties). The Plains Indians, bereft of this history, weren’t about to take what amounted to an invasion lying down.

Besides manifest destiny, a major root of the conflict was the differing attitudes regarding land ownership and use between Native Americans and settlers. The dominant view among Plains Indians was that social groups held occupancy rights to large regions, not that individuals held ownership rights over small ones. In initial treaties between the cultures, Native Americans believed that they were showing hospitality to new neighbors, while settlers believed they were purchasing the land on which they lived outright, with neither side understanding the others’ beliefs well enough to correct the mistake (69)—a mistake which does not change or justify that the settlers were choosing to try to expand into land that was already occupied by someone else, and prepared to use force if the Native Americans did not agree peacefully to settlement.

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of the episode: by using a single incident as a stand-in for the entirety of the Plains War, and possibly for the entirety of all the wars and injustices that blacken the history of race relations in the United States, “Over a Barrel” loses the ability to distinguish between the root causes of the conflict as a whole and any given instance of strife. In so doing, it also loses the ability to distinguish between a momentary solution and a systemic one, treating a mere bandage as a panacea.

In the end, the solution arrived at by the ponies and buffalo is no solution at all. The immediate source of conflict—the juxtaposition of the settlers’ orchard with the buffalos’ stampede grounds—has been resolved to mutual satisfaction, but the underlying cause remains. The ponies still believe that they can walk onto buffalo land and take it for themselves, and now that they and the buffalo have come to a peaceful settlement, the ponies have no reason to think they won’t get away with doing it again. This agreement even has real-life historical precedent, as an inversion of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which representatives of a number of tribes agreed to allow American settlers passage across their land to reach California on the far side, in exchange for limits on the numbers of settlers and compensation to the affected tribes. The U.S. never enforced the settler limits, and several tribes never received their payments.(70) From a real-world perspective, it is only a matter of time before the ponies encroach on buffalo territory again.

Further, aren’t “friendship” and “getting along” the pony equivalent to democracy, in the sense of being their justification for a belief in the superiority of their culture? Certainly in this case it seems to be applied similarly, with the Mane Six splitting into two groups, one of which befriends each side of the conflict, and then using their superior capacity of friendship and the assistance of Braeburn and Little Strongheart to broker a peace that is massively lopsided in favor of the settlers, who not-so-coincidentally are fellow ponies. The repeated insistence that both sides are being stubborn and must put aside their differences amounts to declaring that invaders and the invaded are equally at fault for conflict, and that the invaded have a responsibility to seek compromise with their attackers. Such dedication to peace is perhaps admirable, but adopted as a global policy it seems likely to work mostly to the benefit of aggressors, and thus encourage aggression.

Which is not, once again, to state that each and every individual settler in the Great Plains was a villain or each and every Native American a saint. There are real, understandable motivations for all combatants on all sides of all conflicts. No one ever picks up a gun and shoots another human being unless it seemed like a good idea at the time. While from the vantage point of history it’s easy to tell that the Native Americans were victims and the settlers were aggressors (admittedly, the reality was a little more complicated than that in specific cases, but it’s a good first-order approximation of what generally occurred), at the time everyone on both sides had what seemed like good arguments that they were “correct.” Unfortunately, those arguments, especially on the side of the settlers, were rooted in the violent, hateful elements of human nature, in greed and pain and rage, and these are things which must not and cannot exist in Equestria.

The result is, necessarily, a pie fight.

But then what is the show to spend its transformative energies on, if not addressing real-world conflicts? The answer lies in the previous episode: it can spend its transformative energies on its viewers. Change every person in a society, and you change that society. Change a society, and you change every event in which that society is involved. To change one person for the better, even a little bit, is thus to take a step closer to a better world.

“Over a Barrel” isn’t a great episode, but not out of any particular failures in its execution (though the depiction of the buffalo was fraught with issues). Rather, it fails because this is an entirely wrong direction for the show to be taking. However, it may be that this was a necessary wrong direction; certainly, it will be quite some time before the show attempts any similarly doomed premises. With this wrong step behind it, it can return to the theme of transformation with new confidence and a more direct approach than its past oblique passes.


63. James Mooney, Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1973).
64.    Norman A. Graebner, “Introduction,” Manifest Destiny (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968).
65.    Ibid.
66.    Thomas G. Shaw, “Prologue,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
67.    Mary H. Bakeman and Alan R. Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
68.    Elsie Cavender, “Army Brutality Marked Death March to Fort Snelling After Indian Uprising in 1862,” Granite Falls Tribune (February 9, 1956). Reprinted in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins, Mary H. Bakeman and Antona M. Richardson ed. (Roseville, MN: Prairie Echoes Press, 2008).
69.    John D. McDermott, A Guide to the Indian Wars of the West (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998)
70.    N.G. Taylor et al., Report to the President by the Indian Peace Commission, January 7, 1868 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1868).

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