As their last great chief Plenty Coups came to manhood, the outlook for the native American Crow people was beyond bleak. It was not just that the Crow were facing hard times, with straitened economic circumstances, disease and military defeat. The Crow, as philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear points out in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, were confronting the loss of their entire way of life – not just the means of living (the buffalo being exterminated from the plains) but the concepts that made that life meaningful as something beyond mere survival.

We need to pause there, so as not to miss Lear’s essential point, drawn from his study of Aristotle. Human life, however much we doubt it right now, is not just about survival; for it to be human in the full sense, our life must be about not just surviving but flourishing. We are cultural beings, not simply natural ones.

The Crow were hunters and warriors, and their traditional notions of flourishing involved acts of warrior bravado. What counted as a “coup”, essential to warrior status and flourishing, was not just killing, or dropping bombs from the air, but included the following: taking the enemy’s weapons while he was still alive, striking the first enemy in battle with a coup-stick, and stealing a horse from the enemy’s camp. All these, you will notice, involved conspicuous bravery and also something more subtle: making the enemy aware, before death, that he had been worsted.

But in the last decades of the 19th century, the inexorable progress of the white man, with its associated treaty-breaking and environmental destruction, brought an end to the traditional native American way of life. How could the Crow survive such devastation, which went beyond almost anything we can imagine, because it reached so far into the inner constitution of a Crow subject? How could the Crow survive when it was no longer clear what a Crow might be? By the early 20th century, it could be asked, “among the squaws, is there a squaw; among the Crow, is there a Crow?” That is to say, certain members of the tribe might have survived, physically, eking out a life on a reservation, but had they survived culturally?

This is where Plenty Coups’s dream comes in. The young future chief was called to dream on behalf of the tribe when he was nine years old, in 1855 or 1856. The Crow believed, like many cultures, that dream-visions had prophetic power and validity. Young boys, having first taken a sweat bath, were sent out into nature to fast so that they would become receptive to significant dreams.

The dream young Plenty Coups came back with was momentous indeed. It prophesied the disappearance of the buffalo and their replacement by “spotted buffalo” – the white man’s cattle. A storm was coming that would tear down all the trees in the forest except one. In that tree was the lodge of the chickadee, the most insignificant of all forest creatures, a little bird. But the chickadee made up for in mental strength what he lacked in physical power: the chickadee was a great listener, willing to learn from others.

The interpretation given to the dream was that the Crow should learn the wisdom of the chickadee; not succumb to despair or go down fighting in a blaze of futile glory, but form an alliance with the white man (too strong to fight anyway) against the traditional enemy, the Sioux. This approach was not without problems; first of all, the white man was not to be trusted to keep his word; and secondly, in the new order of things, traditional Crow virtues might have no place. But as Plenty Coups put it to his people: “With what the white man knows, he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again.”

The path Plenty Coups eventually chose for the tribe involved what Lear calls radical hope. Radical hope wagers a visceral trust that there is enough goodness in the world for things to turn out – unexpectedly – all right, against the disappearance of familiar forms of the good. Plenty Coups put his trust in a rebirth of the Crow.

The story ends reasonably happily. The Crow managed to hold on to at least a part of their land, and Plenty Coups could end his long life where he began it, near a great tree that still stands, in what is now a state park in Montana. As for Crow culture, that also survives, albeit in a form that might not have been recognised by Plenty Coups’s contemporaries. Writing, a skill learned from the white man, has been used to preserve the tribe’s memory.

Can we learn anything from this? All over the world, cultures face annihilation or assimilation by dominant forces. Radical hope suggests a third way between the tempting alternatives of suicidal despair and gun-blazing glory: the subtle way of the listening chickadee, a way of what JM Coetzee calls “creative adaptation.”

harry.eyres@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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