Monday, February 28, 2011

Wither Small Tenacious Cultures?

I’m reading the novels of Tony Hillerman again, and after the lapse of two decades and counting, they are both fresh and yet familiar. Yet so much has changed! And a thought that I had then now produces a different answer. Back then I viewed the Navajo life and thought that it preserved a genuine cultural deposit and lasting values—but it seemed to me that the relentless advance of modernity would sooner or later inevitably swallow it—despite the fact that large numbers (these days approaching 300,000 people) still lived a more or less traditional herding life in an arid and thinly populated region of the West. Today I wonder.

I wonder because the sunset of the fossil-energy age has become more and more visible, and as it approaches very great changes loom ahead. We remain altogether blind to it collectively, but in another hundred years the fossil sun will set in earnest with unimaginable changes to a peoples staring at computer screens today. With every increase in the price of energy, with every global conflict, with consequent disorders spreading, the Navajo way of life will become ever more adaptive and ours ever more threatened. Hence today I’m far from certain that the vast destructive spread of modernity will actually swallow up the Navajo. If anything they will become ever more ignored. Their way of life produces genuine values—while ours sucks the life right out of what still feebly remains of our pre-industrial traditions. And they will survive—changed but, once more living in harmony with the land and the mountains, better prepared.

Hillerman provides a painless way to obtain knowledge and appreciation of the sophistication and depth of the Navajo culture. It’s a whole lot more complex than reading a few web pages suggests. It must be seen from the inside, not through the distorted and facile lens of our sociology. I recommend his first three especially, The Blessing Way, The Dance Hall of the Dead, and Listening Woman. The early novels featuring Chee are also good. The quality gradually drops off as Hillerman, too, succumbed to the wasting literary disease of overproduction that plagues our times.

Strange to imagine how brief modernity will seem to generations in the future as they look up at a bright and star-filled sky again—star-filled because the harsh light of technical civilization will have dimmed.


  1. Another very interesting observation.
    Thanks for this oddly upbeat thought.

  2. It is, isn't it. Oddly, but yes. Returning to a way of life more adpated to nature and permanent values is...

  3. Yes.... right now I feel like a squatter in front of the pyramids.


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