In 1876, at the so-called battle of the Little Bighorn when US Cavalry regiments attacked an Indian village along the Little Bighorn River in Wyoming, the first casualty was a ten-year-old Lakota Sioux boy named Deeds. Unaware that US troops were nearby planning an attack, he and his father were combing a hillside looking for a lost pony when US troops encountered and killed him. The next casualties were six Lakota women and four children, who were murdered while in a field gathering wild radish bulbs, one of the many indigenous plants that native people depended on for their livelihood, and hardly a threatening activity.
I think of these events today because of the recent killings of Afghan civilians, not only the 17 women and children killed in villages outside Kandahar, but also two recent and less-publicized atrocities resulting from NATO airstrikes that killed civilians in Kapisa Province, including eight Afghan boys who were tending their sheep. Sheepherding, of course, is an activity as integral to their livelihood as gathering indigenous plants was to Lakota people.
Studying the past can reveal patterns that may replicate themselves in the present or future. The US cavalry was tracking Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux people because they had refused to sell the Black Hills, land in present-day South Dakota that was both an important resource gathering site and a sacred spiritual site. Not many years before, it had been legally set aside as “Indian Territory.” But in 1874, an official US military expedition led by none other than George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills. More gold would be extracted from one of the Black Hills mines than from any other mine on the continent. So, for the love of gold, women and children were killed and an entire culture was under increased threat.
As my friend Randall Amster noted during a presentation last week at Prescott College, “We forget that the US is waging a resource war in Afghanistan.” Randall was referring in part to the known reserves of natural gas resources in Turkmenistan, and the pipeline that the US wants to see built to carry it to burgeoning energy markets in Pakistan and India. The pipeline, on the drawing board since 1995 when Hamid Karzai was a director of UNOCAL, is planned to traverse south-central Afghanistan. Randall also referenced another form of extractable wealth, not gold, but the potentially huge mineral deposits in Afghanistan, especially rare earth minerals necessary for the computer and telecommunications industries. We should be as appalled by blood for natural gas and rare earth minerals as we are by blood for gold.
Our understanding of historical events does more than illuminate patterns of human behavior. It also limits our imagination, influencing our sense of what is possible. Sadly, the popular history of US-Indian relations during the 19th century focuses on military adventures fought on the Great Plains and largely unencumbered by questions of morality. Omitted are the many stories of white settlers who befriended and aided native people. Also omitted is the nonviolence advocated by groups like the Quakers who opposed US expansion and militarism. And what about the native people who would have been willing to share their resources and co-exist with settlers if they could have maintained their sovereignty and their way of life? Their names and their voices are largely lost to us, drowned by the war cries of stereotyped Plains Indian warriors. In California, the earliest European settlers found that native people were good trading partners and good neighbors who exchanged gifts with explorers. In 1595, when the Spanish explorer Sebastian Cermano ran aground on the Marin County coast, native people came to the aid of the crew, providing them with food and other aid, without which they would not have survived. In the late 18th century, looking to establish a fur trading outpost, Russia dropped 12 men off on one of the Aleutian Islands, where a highly developed native culture flourished. For seven years, these men had no contact with people off the island. Again, they survived – indeed thrived, intermarrying with native people – only because of native generosity, hospitality and openness.
Given the “news” from Afghanistan which focuses on military actions, and the popular image of Afghan people as “tribal” with all its attendant associations of “backward, repressive and violent,” can we even envision a home-grown nonviolence movement in Afghanistan? And yet, as hard as it may be to imagine, this is exactly what a group of young Afghans is trying to spark. And they are doing it with courage and determination. Calling themselves the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), they have moved their base from Bamiyan Province – remotely located and largely populated by Hazara and Tajik people – to Kabul, where Pashtun youth have joined them and where they are benefiting from opportunities to interact and work with a diverse group of educated, progressive Afghans, people who are drawn to their infectious energy and determination and their view of the future as a realm they can shape.
These are young people who have direct experience of war and poverty. Every one of them has stories to tell about close family members who have been killed, injured or disappeared. They know what war does to people. They know the history of foreign military intervention in their country over the last four decades, and they reject it. They know the history and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and they embrace it. And they know the stakes: their lives and their futures. They want a legitimate government in power in their country, not the corrupt puppet of an occupying power. They want to share in the political process and in the benefits of local and regional economic activity, including extracting their country’s resources. As one of their members, Faiz, said on a recent phone conversation, “It is important for young Afghans to connect with each other. We are the future. We are the ones who will bring about change.”
They are raising a voice for nonviolence in Afghanistan and speaking out clearly and thoughtfully on important current issues, such as the Strategic Partnership Agreement. And they are doing the hard and risky work of building friendships and alliances. Following Mohandas Gandhi, and knowing that reaching out across ethnic divides is essential for any peace process in their country, they are now engaged in a Caravan of Nonviolence in Afghanistan. They’ve just returned from visits to Parwan Province, to Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, and to Kapisa Province, where the sheepherders were killed earlier this winter.
In addition to these meetings with youth in other provinces, they are preparing actions which symbolize the need for ethnic reconciliation and for nonviolent alternatives to war. Later this year, they plan a multi-ethnic, gender-diverse peace walk from Kabul to Parwan Province. And on December 10, 2012, International Day of Human Rights, they planned an international peace vigil called “2 Million Friends to End the Afghan War.” Vigils, held in Kabul and in other Afghan provinces, included lighting candles, releasing doves, bearing banners, and other symbols and statements advocating nonviolence. Peace and justice groups worldwide were invited to join them through the simple action of lighting candles. Youth they met and spoke with during their Caravan of Nonviolence participated in both of these actions.
It is hard to imagine the US government acting nonviolently in Afghanistan, seeking out and supporting people and processes that engender peace and reconciliation.