I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas… There is Just One Thing I Need… Justice.

Hey friends!

So if you happen to be my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed a lot of pictures of me in a dress over the last week. That’s because… I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of myself in a dress (or more specifically, dresses) all week. The reason? It’s DRESSEMBER!!

dressember days 1-5 2014

Dressember is a month-long fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight slavery and trafficking, especially slavery and trafficking of women and girls. (Hence the dresses.) Funds raised will go to International Justice Mission, which is:

ijm logoBasically, they’re my heroes. They fight for freedom and dignity for women, children, and men, and they do it even in long, boring court proceedings and endless piles of paperwork. (Seriously, if you’ve never dug into IJM, check them out. They have some SERIOUS bad-guy-busting chops.)

Anyway — so here I am at the end of Week 1 of Dressember, and I have currently raised $85. If you have some dollars floating around that need a home, I — and more importantly IJM — and more importantly, the folks IJM works for — would love if you would add those dollars to the fight for justice for women and girls!

You can donate to me specifically at my Dressember page. Or, if you want, donate to the team I’m on, which is a few of us ladies from my church doing Dressember together. My personal goal is $300 (but I’d love to beat it!) and our team goal is $2000 — so please consider chipping in!

OR, if you don’t have any dollars floating around, or if your floaty dollars need to float in another direction but you still want to support Dressember/IJM, consider donating your social media juice! Share this blog post, or share my donate page, and tell your friends why you support the mission of IJM. Then THEY can send THEIR floaty dollars — and it doesn’t cost you a thing!

International Justice Mission is working like crazy to provide much-needed advocacy to end slavery – so thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider financial and/or moral support of this incredibly important cause!

 

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Meditation on a Turkey Carcass

Today was the first day-after-Thanksgiving that I’ve spent processing our leftover turkey carcass.

I’ve made my own broth before — from chicken bones, vegetables, etc — but this is the first time I’ve taken a whole carcass and processed every bit of it. First I boiled the carcass (put it in when we got home last night) to make broth and get all the meat off the bones. Then this morning I strained out all the broth, separated out the meat from the bones, and put the bones back in the crock pot to make bone broth.

turkey bones on day after thanksgivingAs I was sorting through the pile of meat and bones left after the first round of boiling, I actually sort of had fun picking out all the little (and big!) bones. They were fun shapes, and it was cool to pull out a few I could sort of identify — leg bone, wishbone, ribs, and even vertebrae! I inwardly smiled when I recognized one of those spine-y bones — and then as I cleaned the meat off of it, I noticed that there was a stretchy tube left inside the vertebra’s center hole. Maybe a nerve or something.

All of a sudden, I realized that I was picking through the dead body of a formerly living creature. I was holding its bones and cooked muscles in my hands. I was boiling its remains as many times as possible to pull out every bit of usefulness and nutrition from its carcass. It felt a little surreal.

At first I thought I might feel a little grossed out… but as I kept sorting through the bones, it started to feel sort of intimate. Like I was spending time with this turkey, like we had a connection. The growing pile of clean-boiled bones in the crock pot started to feel sort of familiar and friendly and warm (and not just from the heat of the crock pot, either).

I’ve never killed and eaten an animal myself before, but today I felt like I might understand a bit of why many traditional hunters place so much importance on gratitude. Over the course of my reading books about Native history and practice and talking with several Indian friends, I’ve learned that traditionally many Indian people (including Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe — all in my neck of the woods) will often leave tobacco as a thanks when they gather plants or hunt game. It’s meant to be a physical symbol of (and often accompanies) a prayer of thankfulness.

I didn’t have any tobacco — plus that’s not my culture — but as I finished digging through the gelatinous tendons, tender meat, fat-greasy skin, and still-warm smooth bones, I thought a little prayer of thankfulness for that turkey, whose little life will sustain and nourish mine for quite a while, and for the reminder that even though I’m a (relatively) smart creature, I’m still a creature.

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22)

I think I have a new Thanksgiving tradition.

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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

For those of you who have been reading along at home since my last post, you should have had PLENTY of time to catch up with me! It’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

When I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what did the earth look like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70′s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.

Conclusion

Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 – William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)

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Posted in Imperial Geography, What to Read Wednesdays

In which I learn 3 mind-boggling geographical ideas

You know how sometimes you discover AFTER graduation what you really wish you had taken more classes in? For me, it’s geography. I never took a single geography class while I was in college. And since I’m about to dive into an extended reading project focused on geography, I thought I’d better start with an introduction. So… I bought a (used, older version) textbook and read it… cover to cover… for fun.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can tell someone is a serious geek when they do homework in their spare time. (Fun fact: Before I learned to read and write I would color with markers on paper and turn it in to my teacher mother as my “homework”. True story.)

Anyway. The textbook I chose to read was Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture. I think they’re up to edition ten by now, but I got the eighth edition to save a few bucks. I was more interested in the broader geographical principles than in having the most up-to-date stats and examples. And learn broad geographical principles I did! I really enjoyed trying on a new lens through which to view the world — and it even became practically useful, as you’ll see below! There was a lot of new (and some familiar) information in my textbook, but three main ideas really struck me and stuck with me, and I’ll spend a little time delving into each one.

1. Scale covers over a multitude of sins

One of the pretty foundational geographical principles I learned in the very first chapter is the concept of “scale“. Basically, this means that it matters on what level(s) you look at an issue — for example, at a national, regional, or local level.

When I first read this concept, I was like “Duh… I know how to read maps.” But the far-reaching implications of this principle became clear just a few days later.

As a part of Daniel’s and my web presence consulting business, I write blog posts for a client who works in the healthcare realm. In writing a piece about how Obamacare premiums are projected to change for 2015, I found this article whose headline (“Obamacare premiums slated to rise by an average of 7.5 percent”) touts a smaller-than-previously-projected national increase in healthcare premiums for plans provided through the Affordable Care Act. What lurks beneath this title — and what I discovered after reading the rest of the article – is that looking only at the national average TOTALLY OBSCURES the fact that predictions for premium changes state by state vary wildly. For example, the premiums in Indiana may rise as much as 15%, while premiums in Oregon are predicted to drop by about 2%. Not only that, but if you zoom in even further to different sub-markets within states, you find even MORE variation. Some customers in Nevada might have their premiums go up by 36%, and the premiums for some customers in Arizona could drop by 23%.

The point of this is to illustrate how scale can be used to completely twist and spin (or just get more perspective on) any issue, depending how you look at it. If I was a rabid Obamacare hater, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums skyrocket by 36% for some customers”. Or if I was a rabid Obamacare over-zealot, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums predicted to decrease, lower costs by 23% for some”. And those are BOTH TECHNICALLY TRUE.

Basically, in the principle of scale we discover the genesis of the saying “lies, damned lies, and statistics” — because changes in scale enable us to turn statistics into lies. Mind-boggling.

2. The idea of the modern nation-state is… well, modern.

I still remember how I felt back in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. It was something along the lines of, “Countries can still DO that???” After years of schooling and memorizing where everything went on a world map that had nice, solid, unchanging borders, I was shocked to learn that a modern nation-state would ever actually overtly attack another nation-state. They were both internationally recognized by the other nation-states, and all that conflict stuff was ancient history, from before those nice solid boundary lines got put on a map… right? Maps are PERMANENT, right?

Wrong! The textbook gives a brief overview:

The political map of the world… becomes so natural-looking to us that we begin to think it is natural.

The world map of states is anything but natural. The mosaic of states on the map represents a way of politically organizing space (into states) that is fewer than 400 years old. Just as people create places, imparting character to space and shaping culture, people make states. States and state boundaries are made, shaped, and refined by people, their actions, and their history. Even the idea of dividing the world into territorially defined states is one created and exported by people. (p.222)

Whoa. The mind-blowing is exacerbated by the distinction drawn between territoriality (asserting control over a specific geographical area) and sovereignty, which is a complex concept that basically means a body (e.g. a government or a leader) has political and military control over a people or territory – but it doesn’t have to always be the same territory:

American Indian tribes behaved territorially but not necessarily exclusively. Plains tribes shared hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were friendly, and they fought over hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were unfriendly. Territorial boundaries were shifting; they were not delineated on the ground. Plains tribes also held territory communally — individual tribal members did not “own” land. In a political sense, territoriality was most expressed by tribes [rather than individuals] within the Plains. Similarly, in Southeast Asia and in Africa, the concept of sovereignty and state-like political entitles also existed. In all of these places and in Europe before the mid-1600s, sovereignty was expressed over a people rather than a defined and bordered territory. A sovereign had subjects who followed (and happened to live in a place) rather than a defined space to rule. (p.223, emphasis added)

DUDE. So basically, the idea of sovereignty and territory (a) always going hand-in-hand and (b) being fixed and unchangeable on a map is TOTALLY NEW AND WEIRD. Which is funny, because I didn’t really know that until, you know, now. I feel like the entire of history just opened up into a giant realm of WHAT. (Total side note: I feel slightly impressed that this description of Native tribal sovereignty is vaguely similar to Daniel’s metaphor about gas molecules back at the beginning of LH/WK.)

The textbook quips, “Once you become a geographer, you begin to question every map you examine” (p.149). So far I’ve found that to be true — and that has made the idea of the modern nation-state get even fuzzier. When I look at a map now, I find myself asking more questions than I get answers: When did these particular boundary lines get drawn? Who drew them? What ethnic or language groups are present within these borders? How do they feel about the borders — is their group bisected by political boundaries, or do they have some recognition in their political home state? What natural features are contained within or used to demarcate the borders of this country? Who named the country? Who named and designated its capital? What do those decisions say about who holds power and what’s important to this country’s culture and history? 

…And of course, it’s just not possible to cram ALL that information into one map! Which means I have now embarked on the endless quest of geographical question-asking. I guess I’m a real geographer now, because I’ll never look at any map again without thinking of a million questions! Luckily I hope to start answering some of them as I read more of the books in this project (e.g. place-naming… can’t wait for that book!).

3. Where does our crap go?

I like recycling as much as the next gal, but I guess I never really thought very far along the chain of what happens to my trash after the garbage truck picks it up. As such, I was rather shocked to read the following little segment on waste disposal in my textbook:

According to current estimates, the United States produces about 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds) of solid waste per person per day, which adds up to well over 160 million metric tons (just under 180 million tons) per year. … Disposal of these wastes is a major worldwide problem. The growing volume of waste must be put somewhere, but space for it is no longer easy to find. … The number of suitable sites for sanitary landfills is decreasing… and it is increasingly difficult to design new sites. In the United States landfill capacity has been reached or will soon be reached in about a dozen States, most of them in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and those States must now buy space from other States for this purpose. Trucking or sending garbage by rail to distant landfills is very expensive, but there are few alternatives.

Similar problems arise on a global scale. The United States, the European Union, and Japan export solid (including hazardous) wastes to countries in Africa, Middle and South America, and East Asia. While these countries are paid for accepting the waste, they do not have the capacity to treat it properly. So the waste often is dumped in open landfills, where it creates the very hazards that the exporters want to avoid. (p.404, emphasis added)

So basically we’re running out of places to pile our crap. (Side Question: Doesn’t it ever break down? Or are we just producing more trash too quickly?) That’s a bit alarming already, and we haven’t even gotten to the section about toxic and radioactive waste yet…

High-level radioactive waste [emits strong radiation; produced by nuclear power and weapons facilities] is extremely dangerous and difficult to get rid of. Fuel rods from nuclear reactors will remain radioactive for thousands of years and must be stored in remote places where they will not contaminate water, air, or any other part of the environment.

They must be taken OUTSIDE THE ENVIRONMENT!!! …Wait a minute…….

In fact, no satisfactory means or place for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste has been found. (p.404-405, emphasis added)

Okay — I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that being exposed to radiation is BAD. Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Bonus: What about the potatoes?

Oh — and for those of you who got hooked by me asking where potatoes come from back in the last post, look, I already have an answer for you!

The corn (maize) we associate with the American Corn Belt diffused from Central America and Southern Mexico into North America. … The white potato we associate with Ireland and Idaho came originally from the Andean highlands but was brought to Europe in the 1600s where it became a staple from Ireland to the eastern expanses of the North European Plain. The banana we associate with Central America came from Southeast Asia, as did a variety of yams. (p.334)

This world is SO COMPLEX. And I’m just starting to dig into it! =)

Tune in next time for a journey through 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

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Posted in Imperial Geography

Imperial Geography: My Next Stack of Books

Since I finished my months-long self-imposed college course about the context and history surrounding the Little House on the Prairie books, I’ve been enjoying reading whatever I want, whether or not it fits my pre-determined schedule of interconnected research. I’ve blown through a few fluff novels and savored a few books about excellent women.

But my brain has continued to percolate on all the stuff I put in it during my journey through Little House / Wounded Knee. And I still have questions.

The most notable one, for me, is, What happened to the land?

In LH/WK, I explored the human and historical context of the Little House events — I learned what life was like for some contemporary Native and African and Asian Americans —  but I never really thought much about the backdrop. Until I got to the eighth Little House book, These Happy Golden Years. In it, Almanzo and Laura discuss their future, including Almanzo’s plans to gain land by staking his claim (provided for by the Homestead Act, which divvied out land taken from Indians to white settlers in parcels). Here’s the section that made me scratch my head:

There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (p.170-1)

In my post, I pondered whether this was just another form of colonization — the US Government made plans to colonize the environment as well as the people of the Plains. But just supposing that didn’t go deep enough; I wanted to know more!

I asked, “Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???” And after a little thinking and chatting and research, I discovered that yes, that is a thing. It’s called a geographer.

So, long story short, I discovered that there is, in fact, a whole field of study that addresses some of the human-environment questions I’ve been having, and there are plenty of books about said questions, and I have a stack of those books sitting next to me on the floor as I write. And I am going to read them, and blog about what I learn.

As you may have noticed by the title of this blog post, my main theme in this reading project is “Imperial Geography”, better explained as learning about “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America? And what is the fallout for us today?”

Here is my reading list, in the (general) order I’ll be reading them:

  1. Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture — a textbook (for a quick geography primer, since I’ve never studied geography other than maps…)
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  3. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
  4. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by George R. Stewart
  5. Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage
  6. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning
  7. Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World by Fred Pearce
  8. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke
  9. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

Optional Bonus Books That I Might Add In If I Feel Like Reading About Some More Geographical Theories:

Before I dive in, I should say a few more things:

  • I never thought I would care about the environment. Seriously — I grew up with a theology of “subdue and dominate” environmental relations, and even later when I began to soften a bit I still separated the whole world into “human/important” and “everything else/less important”. Very binary. Very separate. But as I’ve been learning and thinking more — and especially after my recent trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — I’ve been thinking a lot more holistically about our existence on this planet. God didn’t just put humans here and then make us a bunch of stuff to entertain and sustain us — God created an entire planet full of beautiful, complicated ecosystems! And we’re all interconnected in ways we don’t even fully understand. So I’m excited for my very first, totally ignorant foray into the world of reading about environmental issues. I seriously know nothing! So this will be fun. =)
  • This reading project is going to be a bit different than the last one. Once I got going on LH/WK, I was very strict with myself about keeping up with my schedule. I’m glad I practiced being disciplined then, but for this project (a) I’m only reading one book at a time, (b) I might not make it through a book every week, and (c) the books are organized in the order I want to read them, not in a tight chronology. Basically, this is a gaggle of somewhat related books that I’ve made a connection between. So come along with me for a fun and slightly more relaxed reading journey!

All right, I think that’s all the notes I have. Let’s do this! =)

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Posted in Imperial Geography

The Road to Hell is Paved with Blind Privilege

I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed today, just taking a little break between loads of laundry, when I saw this video, shared by a friend:

The video explores the phenomenon of Germans who are obsessed with “Native American culture” — both those who “live like Indians” and the followers of the story — now in books, film, and a live-action show-town complete with museum — of a fictional “Apache chief” created by German author Karl May.

The more I watched, the more shocked and angry I got.

As the video begins, it seems as though there’s this nice group of Apache/Lakota-culture-loving Germans who are inspired (though perhaps a bit ignorant and naive) by what they learn from this story of an Apache hero. But as I watched more, I saw all those excuses disintegrate.

  1. They don’t love real Apache or Lakota cultures, because this story and “culture” they keep reproducing is (a) an amalgam of many Native peoples, plus (b) the author never even went to North America before writing his books, so he probably made a ton of it up anyway!
  2. They’re not naive or really even ignorant — or at least the main actors aren’t — because they know the story of the author, Karl May, and they are aware of the fact that he made this story up and that the “Apache” culture they’re peddling is fake.
  3. As regards the other German “Indian hobbyists,” one says it’s fine for him to do this because “black and white people lived with Native tribes all the time.” But he’s not living with Native people — he just copied some of their ways and is now living a semblance of their traditional life in a vacuum in Germany. Not the same.

I can arrive at no other conclusion than that the people involved with this movement and production in Germany are willfully ignoring any pricks at their conscience, and purposefully avoiding consulting (or listening to) the counsel of actual Native people. I mean, at the show they had a German who had studied Indian Art in New Mexico and stood there and said that their dances were fake, stereotypical, and harmful. And the museum with the scalp in it! They had at least the one man the documentary interviewed (if not more) tell them, directly, that keeping human remains from being properly buried was unacceptable. And yet they refuse to release it!

I can’t comprehend why every(white)one seems to think that they know better than actual Native people what will honor or hurt Native peoples. I saw SO many examples of ridiculous, self-centered illogic in this film that I just want to smack something. The fact that this entire thing sits on such a huge throne of lies is proof of the chasm of cognitive dissonance that these German faux-Indians are straddling — and ignoring — every day.

Why does someone not have the right to respectfully bury their relative? Because it’s apparently more important that some museum of white people try to prove (or disprove) whether it’s measurably your relative, and then maybe they’ll think about permitting it. Why is it okay to reproduce on a massive scale a representation that slurs together hundreds of real people groups? Because it’s all in good fun — they don’t WANT to hurt anyone, so surely no one gets hurt!

This kind of willfully blind, arrogant, asinine privilege makes me sick.

If people want to learn from a Native tribe — like one actual group rather than a conglomeration of all of them — they should do it the old fashioned way: sit at their teacher’s feet like disciples instead of stealing their stuff and selling it to anyone who’s feeling existentially insecure.

This is the same sort of patronizing, dehumanizing, self-centered exercise of privilege that gets people saying “But the Washington R**skins ARE respectful!” or even, “Calm down, I’m sure the officer had a good reason to shoot, and more importantly, why do you keep looting stuff?”

When we relate to and talk about our sisters and brothers — whether they’re of the same groups as we are or not — it is incumbent upon us to do it in a way that THEY find respectful and humanizing, not one that meets our own definition of respect.

To look at it biblically, time and time again we see Jesus empathizing with people, differentiating his words and his approach based on who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re feeling. To Zacchaeus, he said, “I’m coming for dinner.” To the woman at the well, he said, “I will give you Living Water, and whoever drinks it will thirst no more.” With Nicodemus, he had a complicated theological discussion and gave no straight answers. With the disciples, he called them to drop everything — literally everything else — and gave them the gift of his physical proximity for three whole years. In dozens and dozens of other stories, Jesus rarely does the same thing twice. He relates to each person not based on the approach that is in his “wheelhouse”, but based on their unique selves.

Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. But the willfully blind privilege of “but I meant well” loves only ourselves, at the expense of our neighbors. Focusing on “good intentions” is about keeping our hands clean, and not about truly loving our neighbor. We are not called to have good intentions. We are called to have compassion.

I truly believe that if Jesus were here today, he would say to the Apache and Lakota (and all the other Indian nations), “What do you think is respectful? How would you like to be treated?” And to the angry, grieving, frustrated black community, “I grieve with you. I feel compassion for you. How can I be with you in your pain?”

I’ll conclude with a quote from a piece that (though I disagree with its assessment of liberation theology) I think speaks powerfully to a Christian response to the Michael Brown shooting, written by Pastor Brian Loritts and titled “It’s Time to Listen”:

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just get over this [the injustices of the past]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each others skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it. Tragedies like Ferguson are like MRIs that reveal the hurt that still lingers. The chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings.

…Facts are a first and last resort in a court of law, but when it comes to human relationships, let us first stop and feel, before we go to facts.The communication pyramid offers a revolutionary paradigm in our journey to understanding.

May we stop and feel what our sisters and brothers feel, as Jesus did. Amen.

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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

In which Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites!

For some of you fellow bookworms who have chatted with me about books, you know that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books. I already loved it to pieces when I read it (and its sequels) as a kid. Then I found an audiobook version where Madeleine herself narrates Wrinkle, and I loved it even more because it feels like you sort of know her  by how she reads the book (which is perfectly how I imagined it).

a circle of quiet lengleI remember my mom once told me, “You know, Madeleine L’Engle has written some adult non-fiction books, too. You should check them out.” But I sort of let it drift into vague-land… until recently.

I found and bought a copy of the first book in “The Crosswicks Journals”,  A Circle of Quiet, and let it sit on my to-read shelf for a bit. I had a full plate working through my Little House / Wounded Knee project, so I didn’t pay Circle much attention. Then about a week ago, when I was lolling around with nothing in particular to read, feeling a little down about life, I saw this book out of the corner of my eye. I picked it up and flipped to read the reviews on the back and found, “My favorite of all Madeleine L’Engle’s books. Lovely, charming, a book to cherish. I know it will give great consolation to ordinary people who sometimes wonder why they bother to get out of bed in the morning.

Needless to say, I was sold!

I snuggled in on the couch and started to read… and was BLOWN. AWAY. by the simple, thoughtful, soulful musings of Madeleine L’Engle, writing her thoughts on life, nature, philosophy, marriage, and writing (among others) from her family’s farm house, Crosswicks, in New England. It really did lift my spirits. It felt like this book was A Wrinkle in Time for grown-ups, because it’s about real life, but it’s the same sensible, spiritual Madeleine at the helm.

Anyways. I could rave about this book all day — I’m really excited to read the second one — but for now I just want to let Madeleine’s writing speak for itself and share a few of the way-too-many-to-write-down-because-I’d-write-the-whole-book passages that really struck me and stuck with me.

On community & identity:

Grandma gave me herself, and so helped to give me myself. (p.58)

On illness, death, and relationship:

She was not our mother, child, wife. Our lives would be basically unchanged by her death, except in the sense that our lives are changed by every death. And I think that we all, except perhaps nurses and doctors who see it all the time, have a primitive instinct to withdraw from death, even if we manage to conceal our pulling away. There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived.

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. (p.118-119)

On community, the Establishment, and revolution:

Because we are human, these communities [family, village, church, city, country, globe] tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our full family and basic establishment. Hence, we must constantly be in a state of revolution, or we die. But revolution does not mean that the earth flings away from the sun into structureless chaos. As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so also do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son. (p.131)

Seriously, so much wisdom and humor and real life words in this book. Go grab a copy and give it a try. You won’t regret it!

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Posted in What to Read Wednesdays

On Reading Women & the Power of Community

This year, 2014, has been dubbed by many in the Twitterverse as the Year of Reading Women.

As an avid bookworm since childhood, I have pretty much always just read whatever grabbed me. In terms of my taste in books at any given time, the scope of what I might pick up is wide. But when I saw the #readwomen2014 hashtag show up on Twitter, it brought to my attention a trend that had been slowly materializing for several months: a lot of the books I’ve been gravitating towards have focused on women.

From fictional biographies of real women (like Memoirs of Cleopatra), to realistic stories about fictional women (like the Dear America books I recently read), to historical research about generations of women (like The History of the Wife or America’s Women), those are just the books I’ve found myself wanting to read.

sotomayor - beloved world coverThis week I finally read a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of it — I try to avoid reading books published by well-known politicians close to major changes in office, because I feel like many of them are just cheesy publicity-fodder to boost their name recognition — but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and connected with Justice Sotomayor’s story.

First, I found her sense of measured practicality, compassion, and justice really refreshing, and very non-politicized. She mentions several times in the book that her purpose in writing is not to give people insight into her case history, but to tell about her journey to the Supreme Court to serve as an example for the children.

Secondly — and related to the first point, I think — I was really impacted by the clear and almost unspoken sense of community and strong relationship in this book. While Sotomayor doesn’t tout the support of her family in a cheesy way (“My family was always there for me…”), it’s clear that she feels a strong sense of interconnectedness with her fellow humans, both relatives and not. This feeling of common humanity bleeds through into the sections where she explains her vocation to public service. In fact, throughout the book, she illustrates how various people in her life — mentors and otherwise — affected her as a person and as a thinker and lawyer.

When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become – whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm – her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than an inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, “Yes, someone like me can do this.” (p. 178, emphasis added)

This idea of physical, embodied mentoring and modeling really struck me. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the importance of relationships, and I think this is a big part of their richness and power. Through relationship, we see possibility embodied.

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Posted in What to Read Wednesdays

Little House / Wounded Knee: A Pine Ridge Post Script

Hello, dear readers.

Yes, it’s been over a week since I got back from my trip to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And no, you haven’t missed anything — I haven’t written about it yet. In all honesty, I haven’t really been sure what to write.

There is so much input in my brain — so much that happened that affected me so deeply — that I’m not really sure how to process or express it yet. But here are a couple things I can tell you:

1. Seeing Mount Rushmore again was really weird.

Mount Rushmore - before & afterI’ve been to South Dakota / Mount Rushmore twice before. I figured going there again would be pretty run-of-the-mill — you know, been there, done that. But actually I was surprised at my reaction. After spending the previous day just looking at the natural landscape of the Badlands and the prairie on the Rez, when we finally got to where we could see the sculpture portion of Mount Rushmore it felt really unnatural. I mean, I had already been admiring all the natural rock formations and the faces and figures I already saw carved by the wind and the rain — the hands of God, if you will. To then see the strangely too-white, polished, tiny (compared to the rest of the mountain) faces of four little American presidents slapped up there… jarring.

Moreover, it felt… futile. And petty. Like kids playing “King of the Mountain” on the playground. I found a plaque that talked about a display of a giant motor that had been used to help fuel the blasting of the mountain rock. It said, “…this is a testimony to the power it took to carve a mountain.” It just felt so… conqueror-esque and dominating. Like “Look at me, I carved this mountain! Take that!” Just so childish and immature and pointless, like peeing your name in the snow.

I’ve thought of our American culture as a lot of different things before, but I’d never before seen so clearly such childish self-glorification. It reminded me of the poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Percy Shelly, emphasis added)

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

2. The Rez was both more awful and more wonderful than I expected.

Until this trip, I had never been to an Indian Reservation. I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect, really — but I had read and heard a lot about poverty and suicide and hopelessness. So I guess a part of me expected it to be awful – ugly and dirty and full of dirty, sad people. We did see some of that. We drove briefly through the “town” of White Clay, Nebraska — hardly far enough over the border to notice a difference — where there are no houses, one gas station, and four liquor stores. It was early in the month, when people had gotten their checks, and although we only spent about 2 minutes driving down the street we probably saw 20 adults — all Native — sprawled everywhere, ostensibly drunk. It was… a soulless place.

hope on the reservationBut at the same time – the Rez was beautiful. The land was some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. And some of the people we met are some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so welcomed by total strangers, especially when I entered with such apprehension and such an expectation of UNwelcomeness, because of what I know about the history of how people who look like me have treated people who look like them in this country. In a film we watched during our stop at Pipestone, MN, the narrator commented that despite all the death and oppression that has been unleashed on Native peoples here, “the people survive.” I was struck over and over again at the incredible strength of a people whose spiritual and cultural center is their connection to sacred God and sacred earth.

I began this trip expecting to feel grief and pity. Instead, I felt admiration, humility, and gratitude.

3. I don’t have many tangible takeaways right now… but I felt lots of feelings!

As our group shared some of our experiences with others from my church, I just kept feeling myself butting up against a fog in my head. So I said, “Well, when we started out talking about this trip we said it was a little nebulous and hard to describe exactly what our purpose was. And now that I went on the trip, I find it’s a little nebulous and hard to describe what happened.”

The trip was unquestionably powerful. We laughed, sang, drove (a lot), conversed, ate good food, worked together, shared stories, met people, cried, sweated, and took in both the hopeless and the hopeful on the Rez.

But as for how it changed me…. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I can tell you about some of the places we went — Pipestone, MN, a sacred site where many Plains tribes came and come in peace to quarry stone for their sacred pipes; the Badlands, a beautiful and arid chasm of strange mountains in the middle of a treeless prairie; the Black Hills, a lush and rolling place where there are faces and images in the beautiful rocks (and also some white guys carved in a stolen mountain); Red Cloud Indian School, which began as a white-washing boarding school and is now a prestigious prep school where Natives can get a great education; Wounded Knee Creek, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where the surviving soldiers from Little Bighorn mowed down women and children who were fleeing US artillery fire.

I can tell you about some of the people we met, or the people I traveled with and came to know — a gentle, grandfatherly man who became a mentor to the whole group; a strong, practical woman who learned deeply about what womanhood means; a thinker whose faith journey reminds me strongly of my own; someone (all of us, really) who wants so badly to be a good human being; a collective of folks who are experimenting with ways to help the earth and help their people.

I can tell you about clouds for miles, or seeing a herd of buffalo on a not-so-distant hill, or feeling incredibly safe as we prayed together in an unforeign-foreign language in total darkness. Or receiving deep hospitality like we’ve never seen before. Or crying when I didn’t expect it.

A lot of stuff happened on our trip. But… I can’t really explain it. It’s just inside of me.

I feel disoriented… “unsettled”, as Pastor Jin says, maybe even a little like an “un-settler.” And maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

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Posted in Little House / Wounded Knee

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 16, Life & Death on the Plains

In the sixteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura, Almanzo, and Omakayas tough out life on the Plains, and we finally arrive at Wounded Knee. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Family

The First Four Years is the only book in the Little House series that was published posthumously. In fact, it was even published after the death of Rose, Laura’s daughter, whose birth takes place in this book and who served as Laura’s editor. As such, this short book is much less polished and feels much more like Laura’s unedited thoughts looking back — which is what it is.

The title of the book comes from a conversation that begins the book: we re-see the story of Almanzo and Laura’s engagement, but this time we hear Laura tell Almanzo that she doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife:

A farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. (p.3-4)

In essence, Laura is asking why she should sign on for a life of dawn-to-dusk toil when Almanzo could easily do something else, live in town, and have a more stable source of income. Almanzo takes the same line as his father did back in Farmer Boy: “But you’ve got it all wrong. Farmers are the only ones who are independent” (p.5). After considering this, Laura agrees to try farming for three years, and Almanzo agrees he will make their living some other way if their farm is unsuccessful at that point.

I found this whole premise really interesting — it presents a much more nuanced partnership between Laura and Almanzo than anything we saw in the last book, which spent most of its time with Laura confused about whether she liked Almanzo or not. Out here in a brand new town, they really are partners. Later in the book, when Laura is pregnant and needs fresh air, she even lets the housework go and joins Manly (as she calls him) out in the fields. We get the sense that they really love each other, and that Manly is truly concerned with Laura’s happiness rather than her wifely submission and/or servitude (which would have been not uncommon at this time).

The main theme of this book, however, is not romance, or even marital partnership. The main theme is the “great American dream” struggle for individual success and against debt. As year after year the little Wilder farm encounters challenges, the debt mounts higher and higher, and Laura’s worry and tension are palpable. There are entire pages devoted to counting their hundreds of dollars of outstanding loans. As Laura struggles to keep up with all the farm chores, especially when she is ill during her pregnancy, she starts to see the farm as a burden rather than a dream like Manly does: “There was so much to be done and only herself to do it. She hated the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, she hated it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether she could work or not” (p.119).

By the end of the book, the Wilder family has added a daughter — Rose — and weathered many storms. Their financial situation is uncertain, but they decide to continue farming because “It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely [Laura] felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p.133). In fact, the prospect has Laura waxing poetic about the Spirit of the American Farmer:

The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that “it is farther on” — only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west. She was still the pioneer girl and she could understand Manly’s love of the land through its appeal to herself. “Oh well,” Laura sighed, summing up her idea of the situation in a saying of her Ma’s, “We’ll always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” (p.134)

And so, what starts as doubt about the viability of farming ends as an ode to the Spirit of Individualistic Farmer Optimism — the American Spirit. And our series concludes. The tiny “Half-Pint” who was such a sassafras back in the Big Woods has now grown up to be a strong farmer woman who fully espouses the American Optimism of both her father and her husband and his father.

Laura Ingalls Wilder… What happened after?

laura and almanzoThe little homestead farm did not succeed, and after a brief few years of rest and recooperation with family the Wilders moved to a farm plot in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. They named it “Rocky Ridge” and this was their home for the rest of their days. There, Laura began to write a column on pioneer life, which began her professional writing career. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also became an accomplished writer. When the stock market crashed in 1929, finances got tough again. Laura asked Rose what she thought about an autobiographical story she had written, and after much expansion and editing with Rose’s help this story was published in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. The rest of the books were published thereafter, and Laura gained her fame as an author as well as financial security for their family for the first time.

Laura and Almanzo lived on their farm at Rocky Ridge until Almanzo’s death in 1949, at age 92. Laura lived on at the farm until her death in 1957 at age 90. You can read more about Laura’s life here.

The Omakayas and Animikiins Family

Chickadee, the fourth book in the Birchbark House series, jumps forward about ten years to Omakayas’s young family. All our favorite characters are still present — including Nokomis, who is still my favorite! — but the narration shifts to primarily focus on Omakayas’s son, Chickadee. I don’t want to spoil too many of the plot twists in this book, so I’ll just sum it up by saying that the story involves Chickadee taking a journey around Minnesota and the rest of the family relocating to the Plains (which is weird for them, as they’re from the North Woods).

One of my favorite things about this book is the loving care with which it shows how the strong familial relationships of the previous three books have expanded, but not weakened in the slightest, with the addition of another generation. Probably the most touching scene in the whole book comes when Chickadee has gone off alone into the forest after being harassed about his “weak” name, and Nokomis comes looking for him:

Although she was ancient, his great-grandmother always saw into his heart. Because she always listened to him, Chickadee always told her the truth. (p.27)

Not only that, but after she finds out that Chickadee is being teased, the next time she hears crap out of the teaser she literally whaps him on the head with her walking stick and squashes his hat. I LOVE NOKOMIS FOREVER!

As Omakayas’s family travels and expands, we start to see a lot more points of interaction between Anishinabe culture and white/Anglo/American/settler culture. A few examples:

  • Chickadee meets a group of nuns who take him in. One is kind, but one is overtly racist and cruel: “He is a filthy savage… He could kill us in our sleep” (p.87). Upon learning that his name is Chickadee, the cruel nun remarks, “He’ll be baptized and given a proper name, a saint’s name. How typically pagan, to be named after a bird!” (p.89)… which got me wondering, what do the saints’ names originally mean?
  • We learn that Quill is MARRIED! His wife is Metis, a people who blended Anishinabe and French culture. When Omakayas and family first arrive, she welcomes them, but “her face said, I wish you’d go away” (p.98).
  • Quill has a job driving an ox cart loaded with furs to trade them in St. Paul. We get to see quite a picture of Minnesota’s capital in 1866. As Chickadee views a big city for the first time, he has this to say: “The ones who built and lived in those houses were making an outsize world. … Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied, thought Chickadee dizzily, until everything was gone” (p.155).

I loved the way Erdrich uses the characters’ travels around Minnesota to give us a really diverse picture of what Minnesota was like for both white/Anglo/American/settlers and Anishinabe and other Indigenous peoples. And, of course, it’s extra delightful to explore all these different types of life with characters that I’ve already grown to know and love in the previous three books.

The Anishinabe: Where are they now?

turtle mountain chippewa reservationSince the Birchbark House books are loosely based on author Louise Erdrich’s ancestors, I’ll focus on the history of her band, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa IndiansChickadee takes place in 1866. In 1863, a treaty was signed by several Ojibwe bands ceding land to the United States. In 1882, the Turtle Mountain Reservation was established in North Dakota. Today, the Turtle Mountain Band has 30,000 enrolled members, nearly 6,000 of which live on the reservation itself. You can read more about the various branches of Anishinabe people here.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek

The last two chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follow Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas and the rest of the Lakota people as they surrender onto the Great Sioux Reservation, are swindled out of much of their remaining land, have a last movement of hope, and then endure the slaughter of innocent people at Wounded Knee Creek.

As I read these final two chapters of the Lakota story (in this book anyway), what struck me was how twisted and convoluted it was.

  • Chief Sitting Bull was still safe in Canada with his people, but then the Long Winter of 1880-1 caused many to surrender rather than starve or freeze — eventually including Sitting Bull himself.
  • Originally all the Sioux had a pretty substantial “Great Sioux” reservation… but then it was carved up and swindled from them even further to the four smaller Sioux reservations we have today.
  • The agent at Standing Rock Reservation and other government officials weirdly made it their mission in life to de-leaderify Sitting Bull: “You are not a great chief of this country… you have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. …The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.” (p.425-6) They fail to mention, of course, that the only reason the Lakota were ever starving and freezing in the mountains is… because of the US government!
  • A “Paiute Messiah”, Wovoka, began to preach Jesus-like messages of hope and deliverance from the oppression of the whites, and to teach the Ghost Dance. Unsurprisingly, many wanted to cling to this hope and joined the dance. Also unsurprisingly at this point, large groups of Native people gathering and doing something that whites didn’t recognize as being basically a Christian revival freaked a lot of white people out.
  • Because Sitting Bull was so respected, the powers that be decided he was the source of the “rebellion” that was the Ghost Dances. They decided to stop it by arresting Sitting Bull. They sent a huge force to do it, and Sitting Bull was shot twice and killed.

As all this craziness got people scared, many fled to Ghost Dance camps for protection, and one group started toward Pine Ridge for safety. They were intercepted by a large Army group who told them they had orders to disarm them and bring them in. They camped overnight at Wounded Knee Creek — 120 men and 230 women and children. In the morning, everyone assembled to be disarmed. Then the Army searched people’s tents. Then the Army searched the people. One Minneconjou man, who was reported to be deaf and who had just purchased a brand new rifle, tried to say that he didn’t want to give it up and waved it around a bit.wounded knee massacre chief spotted elk Shots were fired, at which point the Army immediately began mowing people down. After the first volley, they brought out their huge artillery and fired on this group of innocent civilians, who tried to flee through the snow. As the killing ended, a blizzard began. The bodies were left overnight. When crews and photographers came the next day to clean up the bodies, many were frozen in grotesque shapes.

It seems to me that the Wounded Knee Massacre was a summary — a tipping point — a microcosm — of everything that had happened before. All the theft, all the domination, all the murder and the hatred and the fear and the religious hypocrisy that was planted earlier bore its poisonous fruit at Wounded Knee. And that, I think, is part of why it’s so infamous and remembered — because it contains all the pain that came before it, and it gave birth to all the pain that came after it. It’s like a funnel, or the narrow point on an hourglass.

When I first learned about the Wounded Knee Massacre in history class, I remember thinking, “How could they do that? Why would they ever?” But now that I’ve read about 50 years of US-Native relations, honestly, the circumstances of this massacre don’t really surprise me. It’s the same thing that happened at Sand Creek. It’s the same thing that happened at Camp Grant. The whites had so much fear of and hatred towards Indians in their hearts that the slightest excuse — even made up ones! — set them off and then they just kept firing.

How sad is it that after reading even a short segment of the history of US-Native relations, the senseless massacre of 150-300 women and children doesn’t surprise me?

There is so much brokenness and pain in our collective past here on this land. And because we have never dealt with it — because our government and all of us immigrant settlers continue to benefit from this pain without ever looking it squarely in the eye — there is still so much brokenness and pain, in our collective present. We need healing. Individually, corporately, as a nation, as a family of humans surviving together in the same place. I don’t know yet what that looks like. I don’t know if anybody does. But I’m going to keep trying and muddling and praying and failing and trying again, because we are all still broken.

The Lakota: Where are they now?

By 1890, all the various tribes of the “Great Sioux Nation” had been defeated and relegated to a variety of reservations around the US. The Oglala, the tribe of Red Cloud, are today federally recognized as the Oglala Lakota nation. They primarily reside on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. You can read more about the Oglala here. The Hunkpapa, the tribe of Sitting Bull, today have a large population at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota. You can read more about the Hunkpapa here. In 1973, a group of Lakota associated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over and occupied the Wounded Knee site for several months. You can read more about that incident here, and more about the American Indian Movement here.

We’ve reached the end of my reading list for this project. 

A brief announcement: Next week I will be traveling to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a group from my church on a NON-mission trip. Our purpose is somewhat nebulous, but generally our goals are to learn, be present, discuss, and grieve in a place which has become such a lightning rod for American Indian issues. We will also be visiting the massacre site at Wounded Knee, which I’m sure will be an emotional day. I’m looking forward to a powerful trip, and I will likely write about it after I return.

In the meantime, thank you for reading along with me throughout this journey. I hope you will continue to ponder these issues — I know I will!

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