October 13th, 2015
The word in the Lakota language is Heyókȟa, but the whites who first recognized that these Native Americans were somehow different gave them the name of “Contraries.” In simplest form, they were tribe members who did the opposite of what was expected or normal, whether that be bathing in dirt, or charging into battle when ordered to retreat. This wasn’t occasional behavior, it was all the time, every day.
Contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t an aberration, or a form of mental illness, but a key part of Plains Indian society. Heyókȟa were an extreme form of a what you might call crazy-wise, people who move at a tangent through a culture, violating taboos, questioning authority, breaking norms. Just as the jester might be the only one who could tell the truth to the king, Heyókȟa took those things you couldn’t quite imagine and couldn’t quite say, and made them plain as day, happening right here and right now.
Bizarrely, the USDA went unintentionally Heyókȟa last month, when they announced that the US doesn’t produce enough vegetables to meet the USDA’s own recommendations. What’s more, the bulk of the vegetables grown in the US are — wait for it — potatoes and tomatoes. You might think that this is a simple case of supply and demand, of the “market signal” telling the farmers what people want and so what to grow. That thinking is, I regret to tell you, is crazy.
Some multinational food corporations are doing something unusual and giving it a name that’s revealing of their priorities: pre-competitive research. Chocolate’s uncertain future in a climate-change world is part of what’s driving this, bringing together a number of candy companies to share the costs of finding a way to keep growing cacao on a planet that is an increasingly alien environment. At first blush, this seems encouragingly contrary to business as usual, but I have a hard time seeing it as an unalloyed good thing. After all, one of the reasons they’ve got to do this is because corporations have poisoned the well of university research by pressuring the studies they fund to produce the results they want. And then you’ve got to wonder who’s going to own the data when they’re done. In fact, maybe the only thing crazy about all this is imagining that the competition they’re sidestepping is with some other company.
In the land of Bernie Sanders, which is to say, Vermont, another patently unviable idea is suddenly proving to have a constituency. The husband and wife proprietors of the August First Café decided that a shop filled with laptop/tablet zombies wasn’t how they’d envisioned their place, and so they killed the WiFi. Let’s be clear, economics figured into it; your average device zombie fundamentally rents an office with their latte, and displaces those who might be looking for a café. But once August First dipped a toe into the WiFi-free waters, the proprietors discovered that there was a real audience out there for a place where the attractions were in fact of the place.
Then there are contrarinesses that exist in our own minds. We know, for instance, that companies whose stock in trade is selling fossil fuels are not going to play fair when it comes to anything that threatens their bottom line and only a fool (not the wise kind) would treat them in any other way. Certainly, we wouldn’t ask Shell Oil to sit on a panel about how to reduce oil use. But we’re not so savvy when it comes to the same business wrapped in different packaging.
From Maine to Washington State to Minnesota, you can find casinos booming on tribal lands. I’ve always found this rather funny, a turnabout-is-fair-play retribution for the all the alcohol which my European forebears used to gain advantage over my indigenous forebears. But the Native American tribes are winning the race when it comes to putting ill-gotten gains to good use, because casino money is funding environmental restoration which includes the wild rice which used to flourish around the Great Lakes.
Now these days, the UN is emphasizing agroecology, the Pope is referencing indigenous wisdom, and the international peasant’s movement (La Via Campesina — 200 million members in 73 countries) carries enough weight that FAO has become an ally. I interpret this as meaning that, after just about forever, being poor/non-white/non-western/female doesn’t mean you are officially too dumb to have any wisdom about the food you personally produce to keep your family alive.
Native Americans are part of this movement, but in the States they find themselves at the fulcrum between the loot-it-all imperatives of industrial agriculture and the don’t-touch-anything mindset of greens. It’s a tricky needle to thread, but bucking social norms is the role of the Contrary, even if finding a sane way forward isn’t contrary at all.