The Kids Don’t Go Back

Our schools look like prisons
and our prisons look like malls.
-Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band

It’s a bleak landscape, indeed. Like a stone thunderstorm, I think, surveying the damage from my favorite hill.

I sit in the shade of some rocks on top of a nameless mesa in Nevada, a place I share with soaring red tail hawks, a playful murder of crows, and the lazy desert tortoise, watching clouds form on the updrafts of the mountains to the west. Below me, to the east, lies what was once a lush oasis of meadows and springs in the parched Mojave Desert. It was home to friendly bands of Shoshone and Paiute Indians who had relied for at least thirteen millennia on the underground aquifer lying beneath the valley floor to create the meadows which later lead Spanish conquistadors to grace the basin with its current name: Las Vegas. The Meadows.  But today there are no meadows here.

There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water. [1]

No, there is no water. In just over two centuries the empire that came like a black dawn from the east has sucked it dry. The dry sterile thunder is the monotonous roar of never-ending airplanes and semi trucks on the beltway. The mudcracked houses are stucco model homes that so rarely shelter laughter and livelihood you might never know someone has died next door until the newspapers pile up. Not even the cicada sings here anymore, and one could venture a lifetime without finding dry grass. After publishing this poem, TS Eliot said he most certainly did not have in mind a desolate portrait of the
modern landscape, but I think he was having visions of Las Vegas—a la St. John’s Revelations—and thought only his own deeply troubled mind could produce such unspeakable images. But here it is, spread out below me like a graveyard of stars.

At the very base of my hill is a bulldozed plot of dirt for a planned housing tract that is progressing at such a sluggish pace in such an unfavorable economy that one is tempted to let the developers hang themselves rather than even do them the honor of monkey wrenching the operation. Just beyond that sits a private high school named Bishop Gorman Christian Academy. On its outer fringe, facing my hill, stand three wooden crucifixes lit by floodlights, standing watch over the border between the silent desert and the kingdom of concrete and electricity beyond. Well, they can have it if they want it. The
coyotes go in to steal their trash on Wednesdays, and other than that the critters I share my hill with are perfectly fine with this arrangement.

Where is the university in all of this? Well, it’s quite plain. It is somewhere behind the Las Vegas Strip, a little to the left, hidden in the maze of buildings by its unremarkable rectangular camouflage, perhaps behind one of the mega-casinos. I happen to know that there are a few anarchists there, but I don’t
care to visit them in their native habitat—the coffee shop, or UC housing, or the dorm room which they are probably unaware has the exact same construction as a jail cell.

No, I will sit on my hill and watch the clouds.

Johnnie Bobb, leader of the Western Shoshone National Council which by right of the Treaty of Ruby Valley still holds claim to the Las Vegas Valley and all the rest of their ancestral land (now cruelly irradiated by nuclear testing and partitioned by highways and government fencing), once told me about
his experience with the United States schooling system. “Our mothers would tell us to run,” he said. “When the government came to take us to their schools we would go and hide in the sagebrush. They wanted to take us away from our home.” Johnnie probably had the right idea, considering how government schools served as mills for cultural genocide and often nightmarish abuse. The
government’s policy on “reeducating” Indians curiously mirrored General Pratt’s famous decree: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Sounds like the policy of killing the buffalo and saving the cow.

A little to the east of Las Vegas, following the Colorado River (which is currently so plugged up by the Hoover Dam that it no longer reaches the ocean—thank college-educated engineers and politicians for that), lies Hopiland. The Hopi, or at least a group of them known as the “traditionals”, have successfully resisted the American school system and its devastating consequences to their way of life. They have done so with unwavering resilience and steadfast faith in the old way of life which has brought them
through countless generations.

Back in 1906, the Hopi spiritual leader Yukiuma drew a line in the sand which can still be seen today. It was a vital turning point for the Hopi way of life. On one side of the line stood those who wished to integrate with the United States and its system of housing, finance, and (especially) education; on the
other stood Yukiuma and the traditionals, who wished to continue practicing the spiritual culture of peace and plenty which had given their people life and happiness since time immemorial, and refused to relinquish their children to the government schools. [2]

Despite repeated imprisonment and threats of military violence, Yukiuma and other elders refused all demands from the government that they give up their kids, no matter how sugarcoated these proposals appeared. As one Hopi elder put it, “My father was also against the schools. [He said] you will learn a
language with different meanings. They will teach you their way to behave. Our culture will become strange to you. You will never know who you are.” [3] (Emphasis added.) To the Hopi, it wasn’t just their cultural heritage at stake or an abstract sense of pride which lead them to refuse the system; it was
their very sense of belonging to the world, the fundamental sense of oneness with all of nature—a crucial feeling of wellbeing and at-homeness of which hyper-mediated civilized life is so obviously bereft.

Another elder said, “First they deprive us of our land. If we set foot on such ‘private property’ they kick us off. These poor settlers, they offer no food, no place to sleep—just—a kick in the ass! We did not invent their money and its rules. We don’t want to ‘earn’ our living as they do, forced to buy everything
we need in life.” [4] For the Hopi, the necessities of life are not purchased by earning paper rectangles through some unrelated labor, they go right to the source. The mountain spring for their water, the humble fields for their food. Life is about harmony for them, and tangibly so. They have perfected the
art of being nourished by eternal, cyclical patterns—so that their way of life may go on forever.

It seems the “civilized” government and its infrastructure appeared to traditional Hopis as nothing more than an estrangement from the life of the land—from the rain, the seasons, the rhythms of nature—and they continue to refuse it in order to preserve their balance with the world. Their autonomy and the unmediated fulfillment of their desires are far more valuable to them than cars and electric lights. The Hopi believe that by continuing their ancient ceremonies they hold the whole earth together in harmony, though they admit that the battle is becoming more and more difficult. The younger generation is losing interest in the old way, and more and more of them are leaving their ancestral home for the modern life. As one elder put it, “They don’t have the shops or machines or companies here. I guess that’s why after graduation the kids don’t go back.” Those words keep echoing in my mind. “The kids don’t go back.” And thus the circle is broken that has been turning since before there
was a before.

To this day, traditional Hopis in Hotevilla resist all so-called modern conveniences and any attempt by the government or the “puppet Tribal Council” to legislate, systematize, or co-opt their traditional life
and land. Power lines have been torn down. Water pipes dug up and tossed aside. Fences uprooted in the unshakable belief that, “A division on a map or on the land is another division of the mind.” [5]

The elating hoot of an owl. The afternoon is getting on, and I’ve been daydreaming. What was my mission here? “Another division of the mind.” “Another division of the mind.” “Another division of the mind.” Oh yes, universities.

So what does the Hopi attitude towards education teach us about the role of the university in the quest for liberation? Anarchists seek to dismantle all forms of oppression, both inner and outer. How can the university nurture this ambition, when it is the highest stepping stone of the government school system which has such a bloody and brutal history?

Never mind the fact that the military-industrial complex relies on higher education to supply them with fresh ideas on how to maim and kill innocent people across the ocean. Never mind that student debt might as well be considered a modern form of indentured servitude. Never mind that the level of compartmentalization of knowledge dispersed by university education renders it about as useful for living wholesome living as a nipple on the forehead. Never mind that college is a necessary and integral cog in the system of industrial destruction that is systematically destroying the planet’s ability to produce and sustain life. Never mind that the constraints and structures imposed on student life are inherently oppressive, and are designed to maintain servile, fearful patterns of consciousness. Never mind that “science” and “scientology” hold the belief in common that one must pay to advance through ever-more-elite spheres of knowledge (to what end no one knows). Never mind that the underlying paradigm that runs from kindergarten through grad school is diametrically opposed to spirituality and transcendental revelation, a direct connection to the source and destiny of all life. Never mind all that— Dr. Theodore Kaczynski could have told you that. What I want to highlight is that education does not equal life, does not equal wisdom, and does not equal freedom. They Hopi and Shoshone could see that clearly—obviously the system of education was to be a forceful forfeit of their traditional beliefs and ways of life, a way to cut them off from their autonomy and their land. It isn’t so obvious for those of us born into the belly of the beast. What, then, can the institution of industrial education and its inherent
paradigm offer to anarchism, and how has it infected (sorry, effected) our way of viewing the world? And if academia is not the right place to look for knowledge, then where?

I find it hard to believe that someone can learn to care for the world in such an oppressive and alienating setting as the university, being as it is a kind of human factory for the industrial system. No matter how progressive the curriculum may be, no matter how sensitive to the issues of race, gender,
and culture, how can this form of learning help us to free the world if we cannot free ourselves with it? How can we presume to know what is best for the world when we are not even out in the thick of it, in the grit and grime? Any talk of liberty in the university is speculative, like an abstract quantum theorem that no matter how complex cannot explain the beauty of a Shoshone sunrise ceremony. And no matter how much anarchists pour over tactics and dusty old rhetoric, an essential humanity is still lacking. The world they want to change is somehow unreal to them, and many of the demons they see come from within.

The way of life which has guided humanity through countless eons of peace cannot be drawn on a chalk board, and true wisdom has no tuition. Clear sight cannot be bought and sold. Generosity, grace, and kindness cannot be graded like a test, and there is no graduation into life. The university will not give you warmth at night and food in the morning out of good heartedness and deep humanity, the way that the Hopi or Shoshone would. It’s all for money, money, money—just like all those other buildings I see from up here on my hill. Someone is sucking money out of them, like they sucked all the water out from under Las Vegas—“The Meadows”—and paved over the land with a living tombstone called a city. When it runs bone dry only the clouds will be left. Not a whisper of grass of a drop of water—all for nothing.

There are some things you can only learn from an old timer on a street corner. Some things only a tree can teach you. In fact, I have often thought that there is nothing you cannot learn from a tree. A lifetime of staring up at the night sky isn’t enough for one to unveil all its secrets, and its mysteries demand just as much reverence as all the libraries in the world combined. The only way I have found real truth is by following laughter, and long trails that are wet with snow and tears. That way nothing is left out. I hold to the open sun and sit in the shade, the stones beneath me. Here I am. Everyone must follow their own path.

[1] TS Eliot, “The Wasteland”
[2] Techqua Ikachi, Issue #1
[3] Techqua Ikachi: My Land – My life (Documentary film)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Hopi: People of Peace (Documentary Film)
[6] Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13
[7] Chuang Tzu / the Primitivist, Chapter 11

Further Reading:
Vine Deloria, Spirit & Reason
John Zerzan, Future Primitive, “Division of Labor”, “Silence”
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

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