Native spirit

A season of films celebrates the struggles of indigenous peoples

Coming on the heels of the glamour this month of the London Film Festival, the third Native Spirit Festival, presented by Native Spirit Foundation, offered a quieter, more serious programme. Hidden away from Southbank and the buzz of Leicester Square, the programme location was divided between the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, the 16mm Cafe in Soho, and Fitzrovia's Bolivar Hall.

The Native Spirit Festival aims "to promote cultural exchange, self-respect, social and environmental awareness" by showcasing films and performances about and by indigenous peoples from across the globe, from the Navajos to the Maoris.

The backdrop to most of the films in the programme was the struggle to control the way indigenous people's stories are told to the outside world. Also prominent were the more tangible aims of economic development, education and compensation. For example, Wiek Lenssens's Pidislan's Gold and Nicolas Defosse's La Yerbabuena: a Community in Resistance tell all-too-familiar tales of communities facing eviction from their land and grappling with pollution from industrial development. Pidislan's Gold focuses on the pollution by mining of the north Philippines pastures of the Igorot people. La Yerbabuena celebrates the peasant communities of Colima in Mexico, a town at the foot of a huge active volcano, who are resisting eviction with the aid of the Zapatistas.

Central to the preservation of a people's identity is language. Lena Ellsworth's striking documentary Ulummi is told from the point of view of young Inuit people from Nunavik and Nunavu, in the far north of Canada. Isolated not only by the harsh weather but also by the unresolved battle between Inuit tradition and the ravages of capitalism, the Inuit also suffer higher-than-average suicide rates, as well as devastating levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Decades ago, forcible re-education of Inuit children resulted in a huge decline in the use of the native Inuktitut language. Today, the teaching of Inuktitut (or lack of it) in schools is at the centre of the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. Many parents worry that Inuktituk will fade out in a few generations and are working to reverse the tide.

Bennie Klain's Weaving Worlds, which is focused on the Navajo, shows how hard it is to strike a balance between the preservation of an old culture and survival in a modern economy. Klain is interested in the relationship between the Navajo rug-weavers of New Mexico and Arizona and the traders who helped export their now-famous and expensive rugs (an original antique rug can fetch up to half a million dollars at auction) around the world. Are the white traders -- some of whom have even taken the trouble to learn Navajo -- helping the nation by offering Navajos a way into the global economy, as some of them claim, or are they exploiting the people by paying far less than the rugs are worth?

Although it doesn't enjoy the LFF's crowd pull or its column inches in the press, the Native Spirit Festival's mix of short films and lengthier documentaries offers an illuminating and important alternative. And it reminds us that indigenous peoples across the world continue to struggle with the legacy of five centuries of invasion and colonisation.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times