Updated: May 24
If there is one thing we must, absolutely must, learn from this epidemic is how to accept limits. This is not the land of “unlimited possibilities.” We cannot be whatever we want to be. We should stay indoors until we learn to accept limits. If we don’t, we will destroy our future on this one planet.
Even with such pleas, in all probability, we will ignore the fact of limits as we return to “normal.” That may seem impossible in light of the epidemic’s overwhelming disruption of our everyday lives. The problem, however, is that the epidemic has only changed the present—our current social and economic conditions—and it’s not the present that shapes the future: it’s the past: a past of injustice at the core of our social structures.
You may ask about the inspiration of the medical caregivers, and the millions of others who have put their lives at risk to do their job of serving us. Yes, their courage and care does support and in some instances has created a micro-climate of justice. In a climate of justice, caring for the vulnerable would be as reasonable as not providing health care is in a climate of injustice. These temporary episodes of hope, however, will have little chance of changing the legacy of injustice that is now pushing us toward a future we do not want.
The momentum of the past controls our future. From the white compromises that allowed slavery and the Jim Crow regime, to the genocide of Indigenous peoples, to the imperialist domination of Asia, we have been carried by what I call the “tailwinds of American prosperity,” which assumes, among other things, a world of unlimited possibilities (for most white people).
To change this trajectory, we have to deflate the momentum of our history. Maybe we can do this by listening to those who have tried to limit American advancement, and then tell a new story that includes our failure to allow others to limit us. If we can tell such a story, we will not only have changed the past, but the future as well.
We actually have lots of resources to re-imagine our past, including Pekka Hamalainen’s book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. Hamalainen presents the Lakota as a Sioux empire that stopped, for a short period, the Western expansion of the Federal government.
The Sioux empire of 2 to 3 thousand warriors defeated the US forces at Little Big Horn. In retaliation, the US massed their larger forces and defeated the Sioux, and then, when the Sioux tried to reclaim their dignity through the ceremony of the Ghost Dance, our military committed the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. Hamalainen’’s book gives us much more than just a description of these wars. He provides us a story of a people who fought to save their territory and families—to limit American expansion. Their failure and our victory prevented us from experiencing the limits of American imperialism.
One may think that we have learned about limits elsewhere—from Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan—but it doesn’t look like it. Even Biden speaks as though we can be anything we want to be. The scholar, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz may be right that the Indian Wars have served as the “template for the United States in the World” (The Indigenous People’s History of the United States). Why else would we have “tomahawk missiles” and “Apache helicopters”? Why else engage in the killing of civilians as a war strategy? Why else refer to war zones as “Indian territory”?
There were treaties made between the American and Sioux empires, to use Hamalainen’s terminology. The treaties represent a moment of co-existence; of the acceptance of limits. The expansion of American prosperity , however, led to the violation of these treaties and a reiteration of the story of American exceptionalism.
The ideology of exceptionalism has always been a threat to other peoples, and now it has become a threat to the earth itself. Could it be that those who are among the most vulnerable today—Indigenous Americans—are the ones who could teach us about limits.