Indians and Kurds

Indians and Kurds
Chief Sitting Bull and Sheikh Said
Alcohol and Oil

    Chief Sitting Bull   1831 - 1890                                     Sheikh Said     1865 - 1925
In the nineteenth century a great group of tribal, semi-nomadic people inhabited the American west. They had been in the east as well, but as the colonialists invaded the Atlantic seaboard and then moved inland, the Indians were pushed to the west. Throughout the nineteenth century a great struggle between Indians and the white settlers let to the near extinction of the native Americans. Millions died or were forced onto reservations in what has been termed the American Holocaust. [Forgive the use of the word Indian to refer to Native Americans. In the context of the institutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it seems appropriate.]

The similarity of the situation with the tribes of the Kurds and the settled Turks of the Ottoman Empire, and later the Turkish Republic is striking. But there are differences as well. The Indians were almost wiped out. The Kurds live on, forming more stable social connections in the four countries into which their people are divided.  A major reason for this is that the Kurds had an ethnic identity that grew in response to the pressure from the Turks in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The existence of a common set of Kurdish dialects if not a single language helped in this process. Today it is possible to speak of Kurdish nationalism, no matter how fractious.. The Indians, on the other hand, existed with many languages in many "nations" that were rarely able to coalesce into sustainable coalitions.

In both cases the settlers tried to deal with their "problems" through assimilation and annihilation.  This always involved the destruction of the native culture, and with it, the native languages. Prime minister Erdoğan of Turkey once termed assimilation "genocide", and perhaps it is. He was not speaking of the Kurds at that time, however. Attempts to smother a language or culture, often produces a reaction, sometimes violent, sometimes successful, sometimes not.

Indian Resistance to Assimilation: Chief Sitting Bull
A man who is now acknowledged as one of the great figures in American history was Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota (Sioux) Indian nation.  Chief Sitting Bull (1831 - 1890) was both a mystic and a warrior chief.  In the 1870’s the Lakota had been pushed out of their lands and were being marginalized by settlers with the help of the US Army, which forced them onto reservations.

Sitting Bull led his people in their resistance against white incursions into the lands of the Lakotas. And he resisted the pressure on his people to enter reservations and to “settle down”.  In 1876 a group of US cavalry under the leadership of General George Armstrong Custer were attacking Indians who had refused to move onto the designated reservation. Custer did not realize that there 2000 Lakota warriors with Sitting Bull, and he certainly did know that the Chief, as holy man, had a vision of his men defeating the US forces in battle. Inciting his men to attack Custer's forces, he stayed behind and prayed the entire time of the battle, mutilating his body as a sacrifice. Custer and his men were wiped out at the battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.

Sitting Bull himself made a memorable statement about the assimilation that he resisted. "If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, and in my heart he put other and different desires. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows."

In the end, the Indians lost their crusade. Sitting Bull and his followers retreated into Canada. Years later in 1890 he was assassinated by Native American policemen working for the US government, which feared that he would join and empower an India religious movement known as Ghost Dancers. He has achieved greatness in the eyes of the American people, but unfortunately, many of the Lakota people have fallen prey to reliance on welfare and the scourge of alcoholism. About 100,000 survive, half of them on reservations.

Kurdish Resistance to Assimilation:  Sheikh Said
The history of the Kurdish resistance to assimilation was somewhat similar, but the was outcome more positive. During time of the Ottomans the Kurds were on the margins of the empire, but due to the fact that most of them were Muslims, they had a status within it. Often in conflict with Ottoman authorities, at times they cooperated with them. It is a sad fact that Kurds participated in the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians during the "Deportation" in 1915. Some of them had been organized into militias known as Hamidiye, which were partially under Ottoman control They perpetrated a number of  a number of unsavory crimes.

After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the government tried to bring the Kurdish groups under control. They also proclaimed a policy of assimilation to try to unify the Turkish nation into a single ethnicity. The Kurds reacted strongly to this, and a Zaza (Kurdish) leader Sheikh Said, raised a revolt in 1925 with help of Hamidiye forces. The revolt spread in Anatolia, and Said's armies invested Diyarbakir unsuccessfully. In the end, Said and his men were defeated, and he was captured and hung. Because of the tainted history of the Hamidiye , it is hard to portray Sheikh Said in the same heroic colors of Chief Sitting Bull, but the two men had similarities.

Sheikh Said was the head of a religious group of Naqshbandi dervishes as well as being a military leader. For this reason, the official Turkish historiography has tried to portray the revolt as a conservative Islamist reaction to secularism. The fact is that the dominant themes of the movement as expressed in their demands to the government in 1924 concerned the culture and territory of the Kurdish people. Of course, conservative religion played a role, especially in recruiting followers.

Following Sheikh Said's rebellion, the next great outburst of Kurdish anger at assimilation led to the Dersim or Tungele massacre in 1938. This came about as a result of the Turkish Resettlement Law of 1934 which attempted to remove large numbers of recalcitrant Kurds from their villages where they had been resisting the control of the central government. Many Kurds were displaced in the aftermath of this revolt and thousands were killed. It is noteworthy that Kemal Attaturk's adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen flew missions attacking the Kurds. The estimates of those killed range from 8000 to 80,000. On November 23, 2011 prime minister Erdoğan apologized for the massacre and called it a tragic event.

The pressure on the Kurds to assimilate has continued for decades and finally eventuated in a horrendous civil war beginning in the mid-1980 and still going on. The goals of the rebel group, the PKK remain similar to those of Sheikh Said: the cultural and linguistic independence of the Kurdish people and the right to autonomous control of their affairs.  Recently Erdoğan has softened certain restrictions on Kurdish culture and language, and it is possible this process will continue.

Alcohol and Oil
There is one other major difference between Indians and Kurds. Both had access to an intoxicating liquid. In 1956 President Eisenhower lifted the ban on selling alcohol to Indians. The unintended consequence was the deterioration of many Indian communities into a stupor of alcoholism. On the other hand, the Kurds had quantities of equally intoxicating crude oil - lots and lots of, at least it in some parts of the Kurdish lands. This has brought a rising standard of living in northern Iraq. It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences will be.

A Personal Note
In 1956 I was on a student summer work camp in South Dakota at Rose Bud Indian reservation near the town of Yankton. In Yankton we painted buildings belonging to a church boarding school for young Dakota Indian girls. The girls were taken from their home environments, taught English, and raised in the way of proper white women. Assimilation.


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