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This is an essay I wrote about a year ago. I'm sharing it here now because I have some extra thoughts to add, and am curious to see what people think on the subject, and also just for the sake of it.
Cultural Sovereignty in the Bajoran Sector
In the words of Captain Jean Luc Picard, the Bajora "were architects and artists, builders and philosophers when humans were not yet standing fully erect." (Ensign Ro.) For several decades, the world and its people were subjected to influence from larger, more powerful political entities, and in the face of this have grown to a fiercely nationalistic people with a strong and multi-faceted cultural identity. Their determination to sustain this distinctiveness has grown from years of struggle and compromise, and is arguably a testament to the adaptability of Bajoran culture.
Memory, history and identity are linked by such personal cultural narratives, fortified in instances of collective struggle and hardship - such as those which may be found in times of conflict. (Mack, 2003, p.20.) The development of community identity is often based on such commonalities, whereby "cultural groups that claim a collective right to property will presumably have [...] 'a common character and a common culture encompassing many, varied, and important aspects of life'." (Gillman, 2010, p.190.)
At least three aspects of sovereignty are suggested by assertions of self-governance and nationhood: political, territorial, and cultural. It is generally agreed that to be considered a "nation", any group first requires some common ideology, genealogy, or shared historical experience. The following relates primarily to so-called "cultural sovereignty", but all of the aforementioned may yet be too close to separate.
This is the context to which we must turn in order to understand the effect of regional politics on Bajoran cultural identity. Evidence is uncertain regarding the exact length of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Whether fifty, sixty, or even forty years is never categorically determined. In part, this might be attributable to the condition under which the planet came to be occupied.
The end of this period is based on a decisive and dramatic event - the Cardassian withdrawal, directly followed by the arrival of Starfleet on Deep Space Nine. However, it is suggested that Cardassian contact with Bajor preceded the Occupation itself by several centuries (Accession; Explorers.) and that they originally approached the Bajorans with offers of "help". (Emissary.) The Cardassian position would seem to confirm that the takeover was more gradual than implied, as according to Marritza: "Bajor didn't resist. It surrendered." (Duet.) Whether this assertion is true - and we must of course treat it with some scepticism - there is little to suggest any sort of quick or dramatic conquest. Picard refers to the Cardassians as having "annexed" the Bajoran home world (Ensign Ro.) - that is, to have incorporated it into their own empire, (Encarta, 2004.) a political rather than a military manoeuvre.
Whatever the conditions under which Bajor was conquered, there can be little doubt that the Cardassians subjected its population to years of abuse. Major Kira describes the actions of the Cardassian overseers atteh Gallitep labour camp, in shocking terms: "Mothers raped in front of their children.Husbands beaten until their wives couldn't recognise them. Old people buried alive because they couldn't work any more." (Duet.) Cardassians themselves are described as "Rigid and totalitarian, but never simplistically so." (Gregory, 2000, p.72.) They are "colonizers and conquerors, prone to using torture and other insidious methods to acquire power." (Bernardi, 1998, p.166.) Captain Jelicoe compares them to timber wolves, always vying for the alpha position within any social situation. (Chain of Command, pt.1.) Regarding these circumstances, even the Cardassians admit that physical and mental abuse were used intentionally - the purpose being to break the Bajorans' spirit (Duet; Ensign Ro.) in a decades-long "holocaust" which led to the deaths of fifteen million people. (Gregory, 2000, p.72; Cardassians; The Darkness and the Light.)
One of the clearest ways to undermine a people's confidence is to disregard or actively destroy the symbols of their cultural heritage. (Gurian, 1999, p.163.) In redirecting the River Glyrhond, (The Storyteller.) poisoning the soil, (Sanctuary; Shakaar.) robbing the Bajora of many essential resources and cultural icons, (Emissary; The Reckoning.) an din many instances actively discouraging the teaching of Bajoran religion, (Rapture.) the Cardassians displayed as little regard for the existing social and political structures as they did for the sustainability of its environment.
Debate on repatriation in particular are often about "reclaiming the past" - a past which in many cases has been appropriated by outsiders - and in doing so, to "[negotiate] questions of unresolved identity." (Mack, 2003, p.21.) In every case, the notion of what constitutes "cultural heritage" for governments has reflected the social and political ethos of the time, (Blake, 2000, p.61-81.) and so the case of heritage on Bajor must be no less connected with its historical context.
From the Occupation emerged a tenaciously proud but politically volatile society, where the hastily assembled Provisional Government is repeatedly criticised as "political opportunists too busy fighting amongst themselves to care what happens to Bajor." (The Homecoming.) Interestingly, this remains "provisional" for years after the Cardassian withdrawal and even after the establishment of free elections. (Shakaar.) On first arriving at Deep Space Nine, Sisko attempts to broker peace by political means, but it is their spiritual identity and connection to a shared heritage which allowed the Bajorans to survive the Occupation, and this which brings the common ground for peace. Importantly, Kai Opaka - their spiritual leader - and not the government, is presented as the best chance of unifying the people and preventing them from descending into civil war. (Emissary.)
From a geo-political perspective, the Bajorans are, at least nominally, unified. They have a central government, and even some of the more insulated societies - such as the followers of the Storyteller tradition - still profess beliefs which are closely tied with mainstream religion. (The Storyteller.) Thus, Linford notes: "Bajoran reliegion has its own sects, its own offices, its own festivals, and its own scriptures. One thing it does not have is the problem of interacting with other faiths. Instead, it must interact with a secular Starfleet." (1999, p.92.) The hierarchical division of class, or D'jarra, has been abandoned - according to Kira, under the ironically equalising influence of the Occupation. (Accession.) However, certain divisions do remain. It is suggested that the outlook and collective cohesion of groups such as the Paku and Navot is based primarily on ancestral ties. Each has its own home territory, its allies, rivals, and hereditary leaders - making them closer to clans or kinship groups than "factions", as termed by Sisko. (The Storyteller.)
Objects of cultural value to the Bajorans include: Orbs, earrings, archaeological sites such as B'hala, artefacts, sacred texts and prophecies. Although located off-world, it is no less essential that the Bajoran wormhole, or Celestial Temple, be found within Bajoran space. Its inhabitants' relationship to humanoids in particular has been presented as one of "disequilibrium" - where status is unevenly distributed, and they themselves are active and clearly "partial" in their influence over galactic events. (Linford, 1999, p.98.) They demonstrate their power to manipulate the corporeal world, for example, when they cause the "de-evolution" of Grand Nagus Zek, (Prophet Motive.) and later in engineering the disappearance of several hundred Dominion ships during Starfleet's battle to reclaim Deep Space Nine. (Sacrifice of Angels.) As Linford suggests, "Beings are not gods in and of themselves, but only in relationship to others of less ability, knowledge, or power." (1999, p.98.)
Further evidence suggests that the Prophets are not disinterested in the behaviour of individuals. Direct communication to the Bajorans' deities is made through study of prophecies and also through contact with Orbs. (ibid., p.79.) According to Kai Opaka, nine were found over a period of ten thousand years, and of these, only two have escaped plunder by the Cardassian military. (Emissary.) Grand Nagus Zek later acquires another, the Orb of Contemplation, which he then brings back to Bajor, (Prophet Motive.) and the Cardassians volunteer to return the Orb of Time. (Trials and Tribbleations.) Of particular value in the religious life of Bajorans are Orb experiences. These take a form not unlike particularly lucid dreams, but nevertheless have definite parallels to real-world events. That such an experience is "rare and priviledged" (Linford, 1999, p.79.) is conformed by Kira's reaction when offered her first encounter. (The Circle.) However, even following the end of the Dominion War and the concurrent destruction of Cardassian Prime, five of the nine Orbs are still unaccounted for.
The attitude of science fiction has long been to dismiss religious practice as primitive, unenlightened and obsolete. (Porter, 2007, p.221; Linford, 1999, p.84-85.) According to Gregory, the Federation of the 23rd century represents a form of political utopia, where class and racial boundaries are no longer extant. However, even the activities of Kirk and his crew suggest a strong imerialist outlook. (2000, p.161.) In this context, technology has replace what might once have been miracles, and "Starfleet replaces the priestly castes of old, as the new ambassadors of their philosophical enlightenment." (Schultes, 2003, para.31.) The Federation's attitude, while nominally different to that of the Cardassians, is no less criticised - compared in particular to the expansionist agenda of, for example, the Borg Collective. (For the Cause.) Tana Los cautions against accepting Starfleet when he says, "Once you're in your comfortable bed with the Federation, you won't be able to get out." (Past Prologue.)
Although his solution of destroying the wormhole is extreme, his doubts are similar to those expressed repeatedly by Kira, that the sovereignty of Bajor is unlikely to be able to withstand the effects of continued Federation presence. The underlying agenda is confirmed by the regular refrain of Star Trek: "Space, the final frontier," where the term "frontier" carries implications of the unknown, but also a sense of Terra Nullius, where the local populations are viewed with condescension. Soon after his arrival, Doctor Bashir expresses his excitement regarding the opportunity to practise "frontier" medicine", and proceeds to refer to Bajor as a "wilderness". Kira's response is also notable: "This wilderness is my home." (Emissary.) In defending the Bajorans' right to be treated as equals, and to maintain self-determination over their own territory, this statement also exposes the latent attitude of the Fedaration newcomers.
Sovereignty, as understood by the Federation's Prime Directive, is primarily concerned with the avoidance of "cultural contamination", and with allowing other nations control over their own internal affairs. (Peltz, 2002, p.635.) In agreeing to joint administration with the Bajoran Provisional Government, and acting as arbiters in the internal conflicts of the planet's inhabitants, Starfleet officers have positioned themselves within the aftermath of a lengthy occupation, of which they themselves were never a part. (Gregory, 2000, p.77.) It is clear that the Bajorans' distinctive culture is integral to their withstanding the influence of outside powers, but their later involvement with the galactic community makes it equally clear that their endeavours are successful.
Bernardi, D.L. (1998.) Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Blake, J. (2000.) On Defining Cultural Heritage. International and Comparative Law Quarterly. 49; 61-85.
Encarta. (2004.) World English Dictionary. Copyright Microsoft Corporation, 1998-2004. [Electronic Reference.]
Gillman, D. (2010.) The Idea of Cultural Heritage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gregory, C. (2000.) Star Trek: Parallel Narratives. New York: St Martin's Press.
Gurian, E.H. (1999.) What is the Object of this Exercise?: A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums. Daedalus. 128:3. 163-183.
Linford, P. (1999.) Deeds of Power: Respect for Religion in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. in J.E. Porter & D.L. McLaren. (ed.) Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion and American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. 77-100.
Mack, J. (2003.) The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures. London: The British Museum Press.
Peltz, R.J. (2002.) On a Wagon Train to Afghanistan: Limitations on Star Trek's Prime Directive. UALR Law Review. 25. 635-664.
Porter, J.E. (2007.) All I Ever Want to Be, I Learned From Playing Klingon: Sex, Honor, and Cultural Critique in Star Trek Fandom. in D.G. Tummina (ed.) Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact. New York: Syracuse University Press. 217-236.
Schultes, J.S. (2003.) Any Gods Out There?: Perceptions of Religion from Star Wars and Star Trek. Journal of Religion and Film. 7:2. [Electronic Resource. Accessed 17 August 2010.]
A couple of afterthoughts:
I became interested in this topic while studying Museum Studies at Massey University, and especially with regard to the cultural significance of objects and the theoretical and practical concepts of "heritage". It is intriguing to me the way that Star Trek portrays these concepts, such as the importance of Kahless' sword to the Klingons -- although it has no mystical powers, Worf and Kor still believe that it could unite their empire -- the Federation's willingness to displace (essentially, plunder) unknown artefacts from the Gamma Quadrant in DS9's "The Adversary"; attitudes to gift-giving among the Klingons, Vulcans, Tamarians, and other Star Trek races; and the sometimes intricately detailed manner in which Star Trek portrays the culture and history of essentially non-existent civilisations.
Another interesting point that occurred to me a few days back: In the episode "Emissary", Bashir's comment is probably closer to the original Star Trek ideal of exploration than a lot of the episode. It is fascinating to me how later Star Trek(s) tend to deconstruct the romantic ideals of frontier adventures and exploration -- and one gets the feeling that although Roddenberry himself expressed a desire not to have Starfleet "conquer the Aztecs" all over again, in some manner there is still that underlying anxiety that such an outcome may be unavoidable.
If you've gotten this far, I guess you must be interested too. What are your opinions?