When writing Friendly Fire: A Forty-niner’s Life with the Me-Wuk, in 1995, I was acting, and thinking, locally. The impetus had been my indignation when I discovered how completely the story of the genocide of native peoples had been excluded from my education in California’s public schools. Of course I was aware that European people had been laying waste to indigenous cultures for at least 500 years of colonization, but I was only thinking about what had happened in my state, and indeed in my own back yard.
This was surely a good thing for the play. I had chosen to dramatize the journey of a good-hearted but naive man as he confronts the Other, the indigenous American—the presumed enemy of his people that his culture has taught him to fear and despise. It is a journey toward compassion and a change of his self-identification—a change of consciousness, if you will.
The ideas behind the play were ideas of justice and the values of our Declaration of Independence. But successful plays are made out of emotions, choices, and actions. Ideas must be expressed in terms of these if drama is to be created. Living in a landscape, with a climate, and surrounded by flora and fauna that are the same for me as for my character—that gave an authenticity to the writing that would likely have been beyond me if I were including atrocities committed in Australia, Peru, South Africa, Mexico, or any of the myriad of other places that European cultures conquered and then either colonized or eradicated the indigenous people.
But recently I have had mixed feelings about the limited scope of the animating ideas of Friendly Fire. It has become ever more apparent that the abuse of indigenous peoples is part and parcel of actions that, in the long term, threaten the well-being of all life on earth. From the beginning of the post-Medieval era, colonization was about gaining control of natural resources—minerals, food, fuels, luxury items, building materials, water, cheap labor, and arable land. In the post-colonial period the industrialized nations have divested themselves of actually governing the unindustrialized countries, rather the powerful enlist the weak to continue the depredation of resources as their prime source of gross national product. It is the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the Arctic, Indonesia, parts of the United States, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, whose habitats and ways of life are still being destroyed. The assault on the indigenous has become an assault on the future of us all. Friendly Fire does not try to make this point.
Shelley, in his Defense of Poetry, famously wrote, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Auden, on the other hand, wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Neither of these statements can be quite right. Poetry, which is to say literature, can change the way we see the world. The way we interpret the raw data supplied by our senses. We see a man with a dark complexion and a full beard. Does our brain send the message, “probable terrorist?” Or does it send the message, “There but for the grace of God go I?” The answer may depend on the poetry we have read. So, perhaps, my dramatization of a man’s change of consciousness was indeed the right thing to do; I should be satisfied with that and stop aspiring to be an unacknowledged legislator, or lamenting that my work made nothing happen.