The History of Me: My Next Project Begins

At the end of my last reading project, I said that I had an idea for another project and would be telling you about it soon. Well, that was almost exactly one year ago… and I’m finally ready to embark on my next project. But first — a little context.

Where am I?

When I first began doing this reading-blogging-project thing, it was kind of a fluke. I accidentally stacked two books together, realized they happened concurrently, and decided to take it as an opportunity to continue my education on the true history of the Native peoples of this land and how this country came to be. I learned a lot about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation and why it’s important that we admit and honor the truth, even if it’s painful.

Then, I got curious about the land itself — while European invaders and settlers killed and stole their way to pushing the Native peoples out of their homes, what was happening in the eco-realm? The answer I found was that imperialism and destruction happened on both a human level and an environmental level, as settlers tried to literally recreate Europe in both culture and ecology.

These two reading projects answered questions I had about the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which I find myself today, as a Euro-American resident where the Plains and the forests meet. What I learned helped me to know my location — in time, in space, in culture.

But all of these questions and answers just led me to another question.

How did I get here?

Now that I know roughly my sociopolitical and geographical location — now that I’ve surveyed the landscape — what I most want to know is, how did I get here?

I’m just like the plants I read about in Changes in the Land — a European flower, growing here in space cleared by violence and colonization, but also brought here on a specific journey. How did I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, a German/Slovak Lutheran-raised woman, get all the way over here to Dakota/Ojibwe country at the start of the 21st century? Where do I come from? Who are my people? What have they weathered, what have they lost or gained, and what do they pass down to me — both good and bad?

I’ve learned a lot more about the story of this land and its people — and now I want to learn more about the story of the land my people came from before they planted themselves — and me — here.

The Plan

Over the past year, I’ve begun to dive into family history research, based mostly on the incredibly in-depth work of several other genealogically-inclined relatives in several of my family tree branches. As such, I’ve identified five places that (I think) are where my great-grandparents (or their parents) lived before they immigrated to the US.

Great-Grandparents Map v2

  1. Pellworm, Nordfriesland, Germany: Small island home of my mother’s mother’s mother (nee Clausen) and her ancestors going back as far as anyone knows. This is the closest thing I have to a home land place.
  2. Hannover (or Hanover), Lower Saxony, Germany: A fishing town that has been at the center of several kingdoms and was the home of both my mother’s father’s father’s family (Hillmer) and mother’s mother’s father’s family (Heldt), which is pretty funny, since my grandparents met and married in northwest Iowa.
  3. Lachen, Switzerland: A rural, mostly German-speaking town near Zurich at the base of a long lake (hence the name) that was the home to my mother’s father’s mother’s family. (My great-grandmother was only half Swiss, which makes me — if my math is right — 1/16 Swiss. So I won’t spend much reading time on Switzerland specifically.)
  4. Treten, Kreis Rummelsberg, Prussia (now Dretyn, Poland): A small farming town that’s traded political hands quite a few times, and is home to my father’s father’s mother’s family (Schwichtenberg) as well as my father’s father’s father’s family (Schulz).  It was part of Prussia when they left there — now it’s well within the borders of Poland.
  5. Brezno, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia): Nestled in the Lower Tatra Mountains, Brezno and its neighboring towns were the home of both of my father’s mother’s parents, though they didn’t marry until they had both migrated to the US. My grandma was full Slovak — and I’m 1/4 — so I have sprinkled in a few specific resources about Slovakia and the Slavs throughout this project.

Since these places are scattered across mostly Western Europe — though focused in Germany — I’ll be reading a mix of books focused on both Germany and Europe at large throughout the centuries. Here’s my schedule:

HoM Reading Plan v2

Since I now have a full-time job (which I didn’t when I did my last two reading projects), I’ve spread the reading out to one group per month, rather than per week. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track.

As a fun bonus… if I stay on schedule, I will finish this reading project right before my family and I go on a family history trip to Germany/Europe to visit the cities I’ve marked on the map above!!! I’ve been researching and preparing for this project for over a year now, so I’m SUPER excited to get going and prep for our trip, which I’m sure will be very emotional for me, especially since two of my grandparents (my mom’s parents) just passed away last summer. Family history has become a lot more personal for me now.

A Disclaimer, and a Hope

Before I really get into this project, I want to be clear: I’m not really a German person. Or a Slovak person. Or a European person. I don’t speak German, I have a single “ethnic” recipe from my Slovak grandma, and even the most recent of immigrants in my family died before I was even born. Digging back into the roots of my ethnos (people group) will not suddenly make me understand the land, or turn me into an indigenous person, or bring my grandparents back, or answer all the questions I have about who I am and where I come from. As a friend reminded me when I was wrestling with some of these questions, “Germany” is a set of lines on a map, not an actual place, and reading about it won’t restore the stories of my particular ancestors. Europe is a big place, political boundaries change, and for all I know I could be genetically part Italian or Asian or Russian. There is a strong temptation for me (and, I think, for many white folks) to use rediscovering my heritage as an escape. But I can’t turn back time and flee my complicity in American whiteness and become “German” again. (And, especially because what I’d be fleeing to is Germanness, I’m particularly aware that all identities come with their own complicities and responsibilities.)

The purpose of my reading quest is NOT to nail down all the answers, or to return to some idyllic vision of “the way it was.” I know even before I begin to read that my family’s past in Europe was not idyllic, and what has been lost to the sands of the time is comprised as much of pain as of joy.

My goal is simply what it has been the last two reading projects: to emotionally engage with and attempt to understand and walk alongside the stories of a place. In this case, the place where the known stories of my family begin.

I’ve learned from both the Bible (which is full of powerful and complex stories) and the example of Native leaders in my life the immense, immeasurable power of storytelling. So now, I will read stories of Europe and of the place sometimes called Germany — because stories, like rivers, lay down layers of sediment on a place. I hope that digging my toes into each fertile layer will help me understand more about where my family once was rooted, why they chose to leave, and how I can grow my own roots here in another land.


P.S. Here are links to the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to follow along.

Little House, Wounded Knee: Beginning the Journey Toward “Un-Settlement”

NOTE: This post was originally written for and published in the January 2017 edition of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Newsletter. It was also read aloud at a September2016 church service at Church of All Nations (the recording is archived here).


I learned to read books when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology.

little house prairieBy first grade, I was hooked on my first big chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

According to my mother, I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. A book-tent on my face.)

I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. I loved that she was a tomboy who hated bonnets and dresses — just like me. Even as I grew older, I loved to follow along with the Ingalls family’s migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times, too.

Time passed. I went to college, got busier, wrote papers, got jobs, didn’t have much time for pleasure reading anymore.

Then, a few years ago, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved when I was seven. It had been 10 or 15 years since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

bury-my-heart-at-wounded-knee-dee-brownBut as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books lay Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Ding! A lightbulb went on as I realized these two books happened at the same time.

Although what I remembered about Laura’s story was kind and fun-loving Pa, sibling love and rivalry, and the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, all of those beloved pioneer-enshrined events on the prairie happened during a largely unmentioned backdrop of Indian dispossession and genocide, black enslavement and migration, and even the Civil War!

I decided that, while I would reread the Little House books, this time would be different.

And so I began a project that spanned almost a year from conception to completion, in which I read the Little House novels in their historical context. I plotted the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which proceed chronologically from 1838 to 1890, each focusing on a different Indian nation) and the books of Little House (which take place from 1866-1890) on a single timeline and added relevant historical events of the time. Then, since the Little House books are written for children, I searched for other historical children’s novels to help fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. Here’s the reading schedule I came up with:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

Thus began my Little House / Wounded Knee project. Over the next months, I read my reading each week and blogged my thoughts and analysis before moving on to the next assignment. I began with my childhood nostalgia still partially intact, but as the weeks progressed I began to shift my perspective from my Eurocentric view of “westward expansion” to a view of history that “faced east,” as Dee Brown says in his book’s introduction.

Today, so much white nostalgia is focused on “the good old days” when times were “simpler” and things were “better”. But as I discovered, the only reason these nostalgic white daydreams persist is because much of white America is ignorant of what “the good old days” were actually like. We reminisce about stories of our hardworking immigrant forebears, proud of their grit and perseverance. And it’s not that they weren’t determined or hardworking. But we are blisteringly unaware of the fact that our stories — the stories of white America — are told in total isolation, completely divorced from the concurrent stories of indigenous peoples (let alone black and brown immigrants, enslaved people, and settlers).

wisconsin Native tribes wLauraEven from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s very first book — Little House in the Big Woods — the disconnect is apparent. This book takes place a couple-hour drive from my house. So I did a little research to see where Laura’s cabin in the woods was on a map.

You can see that the Big Woods were already quite full of (Native) inhabitants — and yet the following is how Wilder begins book one in her Little House series:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (Little House in the Big Woods, p.1-2, emphasis added)

It’s literally the FIRST PAGE of the book, and already Wilder has erased at least five Indian nations and thousands of people from existence.

Honestly, it kind of gave me whiplash; I could hardly believe the casual ease with which Wilder simply writes “there were no people”. I could feel the violence in that statement when I read it. Because here’s the truth behind that casual opening paragraph: the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, bounty hunted for their scalps, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died before the survivors were legally expelled from the state of Minnesota (a law that is still on the books today). So, there WERE people. But many were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.”

That all took place from about 1852 to 1863. Laura‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blew my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that the renowned Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting white invasion and persuasion further west. And yet, none of this is mentioned, or even alluded to, in Wilder’s Big Woods. There is an enormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

As I continued through my reading list, I began to see these two narratives — that of the settler and that of the indigenous community — side by side.

Where before I only saw the “westward ho” adventures of the intrepid Ingalls family, now I also saw the uprootedness and disconnection of the “pioneer spirit” embedded in the founding DNA of this country.

I saw the entire story oozing with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, treating the land as an empty place upon which European settlers “improved” — as Almanzo’s father says in Farmer Boy, “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9).

I saw the parallels between the way settlers treated the indigenous peoples and the indigenous ecosystems, as alluded to when Almanzo explains to Laura about the tree claim on his homestead. “These government experts have got it all planned. … 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…. 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” (These Happy Golden Years, p.170-1). (This quote spawned my next reading project, “Imperial Geography,” about the impact of white settlement on the land and ecosystems of Turtle Island.)

I also saw the violent disregard for indigenous humanity passed on in these “children’s” books — from less obvious little things, like constantly describing Indians as “savage,” “wild,” “yelping,” “yipping,” and “terrible,” to more apparent giveaways, such as including the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” no fewer than three times in a book whose protagonist is a four-year-old. (Side note: this phrase misquotes American Army General Sheridan, who originated the phrase when the Cheyenne survivors of two massacres cautiously approached his camp identifying themselves as “good Indians,” to which Sheridan famously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 170].)

As I delved deeper and deeper into the ugly, violent, and atrocity-filled history of American Indian “removal”, I began to be really angry at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the culture in this country that continues to think her books are good reading for children. These books are VIOLENT. They erase and dehumanize an entire CULTURE. They persistently portray Indians as subhuman and savage, and they portray a blackface minstrel show as a jolly evening of entertainment.

At first I thought, no one should ever read these books! But the more I sat on it, the more I thought the opposite: everyone — especially white Americans — should read these books, but with a critical eye. Because these stories of Ma and Pa and eking out a living on the “wide open prairie” are inextricably wound up in the mythology of this country.

We still believe this country is founded on lofty ideals, even though it’s actually founded on theft, murder, and slavery. We still believe that the mainstream white narrative is the truest and most important story. We still believe that we can make our country better by using and consuming the land, that we improve the land by our efforts. We still believe that the stories of black, brown, and Native communities are ancillary appendices that we can choose to leave out and not miss much.

These are blatant and harmful lies.

Mark Charles, a Navajo pastor, speaker, and blogger, often speaks of the need for a common memory before the people here in this land can attempt reconciliation. And if white America is ever going to move forward in the effort toward racial justice and healing, we need to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves about the way things used to be. We need to mend the rift in the stories we tell, stitch back together the narratives of the settlers and the indigenous peoples, and look with honest eyes on the tall tales of our pioneer heritage. We need to let go of our nostalgia for a time that never was and instead begin the process of undoing what we have done, of pulling up our stakes, of beginning to be “un-settlers” in a land not our own.

—–

Rebekah Schulz-Jackson lives in Minneapolis with her husband and housemates and works toward unsettled-ness with the beautiful community at Church of All Nations. You can read more about the Little House / Wounded Knee project at thesjs.com/littlehousewoundedknee.

If you’re interested in Rebekah’s reading list, here is a full list of all books/articles she read:

  • Little House on the Prairie boxed set of original 9-book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown)
  • The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner (Laurence Yep)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Diane Wilson)
  • Emancipation Proclamation; Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln; found online)
  • I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Joyce Hansen)
  • The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West (Lillian Schlissel)
  • My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl (Ann Rinaldi)
    **Do not read this book without also reading Debbie Reese’s review of this book, found on her excellent blog, American Indian Children’s Literature.
  • As Long as the Rivers Flow (Larry Loyie)
  • The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee (all by Louise Erdrich)

A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”

‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie destruction: trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“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.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag-and-it’s-yours ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey’s home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Reading this chart, I felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. The supremacy of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.

BUT.

We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.

————

*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry, not “not enough farms.”

‘Names on the Land’: The Book I Should Have Finished Months Ago…

If you’ve been counting, dear readers, you will have noticed that it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I posted my last Imperial Geography post. And for someone who is still quite excited about the rest of the reading list for that project, that’s a long time!

names on the land stewartThe culprit: my current book, Names on the Land by George R. Stewart.

You know how sometimes a book sounds really interesting, and then it turns out that the interesting-sounding part is only like 5% of the actual book? This is one of those books for me.

I was really excited to learn more about the social dynamics behind name-choosing — but it turns out much of this book is very detailed, very place-specific historical (or legendary) anecdotes about why such-and-so town and this-and-that river were given the names we use today. While bits of this were slightly interesting — learning why there are so many “brooks” and “vales”, for example — I just couldn’t make myself slog through another 300 pages. (Yes, this book is FOUR HUNDRED PAGES LONG.)

So I gave up.

I used to be a purist about finishing books I started, but when one’s reading list is as long as mine is, you learn not to waste time on books you don’t enjoy.

To be fair, though, there were a couple interesting things I learned from this book. So I’ll share those, and then we’ll be on our way!

Interesting Things I Learned from Names on the Land

1. Americanism vs. Americana

Stewart defines this binary as the conflict between “two primal forces in the American mind” (p.x): Americanism, which represents the large-scale, manifest destiny-like grandiosity of American character; and Americana, which is small-scale, local, and handmade. I think this contrast helps me to have a little more understanding for the “flyover zone” of the country — many of the people I know who live in rural areas seem to have a distant (but still fervent) relationship with Americanism, but are intimately intertwined with their immediate world of Americana.

2. Names, religion, and empire

Stewart notes at the start of the book that “naming was a part of holding empire” (p.12), which makes sense. But what surprised me a little — and sort of creeped me out, as a Christian — were the religious overtones: “The Spaniards, with their love of pomp and solemnity, sometimes took possession of a new country with high formality…. They set up a cross, and held mass; the soldiers paraded and fired guns. …sometimes water was taken from the ocean or a river, and poured upon the dry land as a kind of baptism” (p.13). This really fleshes out the ideology of the European conquerors that they were agents of a militant Christian campaign to claim and baptize “pagan” lands and peoples for the Christian empire.

3. Fake, romanticized Indian names

At the start of the book, I was annoyed that Stewart didn’t spend much time talking about how Native peoples named the land. So when I skipped ahead to the part about Minnesota (I had to at least skim it before I gave up…) I was glad that he at least addressed the wacky European appropriation and romanticization of these names. (Though I wish he did a better job of contextualizing some of the negative things he says about Indians. You’ll see what I mean.) Here are excerpts from the story of European attitudes towards Indian names, according to Names on the Land:

The earliest English explorers, like the Spanish, had recorded Indian names with respect; they were still hoping to discover another Mexico or Peru. The settlers soon came to look upon an Indian as a treacherous savage, dirty, ignorant, poor, and heathen. Indian names fell into the same disrepute. After the Revolution the Indian menace was wholly removed from the sea-coast areas, and at the same time the new doctrine of the noble savage was growing popular. …

The admiration of Indian names as such began with the new love of the strange, mysterious, and primitive. … The forties [1840s] indeed really saw the revival under way. New Englanders in the middle seventeenth century had been seeking an illusion of peaceful civilization by replacing Agawam with Ipswich; two hundred years later, their desires were reversed, and a new town was established as Agawam.

…Most of the contemporary literary figures either by practice or direct advocacy favored Indian names…. Whitman beat the drum [wow, thanks for that] loudly in his American Primer: “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names…. What is the fitness — What the strange charm of aboriginal names? … They all fit. Mississippi! — the word winds with chutes — it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” …

Although the revival of Indian names rested basically upon a genuine enthusiasm, it picked up much shoddiness and dishonesty. As the religious mind has often been too ready to admit a pious tale without questioning its actual truth, so the romantic mind accepted a pleasing story and shaped facts to its own wishes. With an old-established name, therefor, the romantics merely declared it to be beautiful anyway…. With other words they selected the least ugly forms, and shifted consonants as they preferred. Nibthaska became Nebraska. …

The romantics also desired names with a suggestion of poetry. The simple primitive descriptives supplied almost nothing of this, but such people generally know next to nothing of Indian languages, and so suffered little restraint. Mississippi, “big river,” was a simple Indian name, but a Frenchman’s false translation “vieux Pere des Rivieres,” led to millions of American schoolchildren being taught the falsehood that Mississippi meant “Father of Waters.” It was a falsehood not only about a single name, but about Indians in general — for such a figure of speech would hardly have been used for a river.

The closest American equivalent of Minnesota would probably be “muddy river.”  That would never do! But –sota, the scholars admitted, might mean “cloudy.” Given an inch, the romantics took a mile. “Cloudy” suggested “sky,” and “sky” suggested “blue.” In the end  Minnesota was said to mean “sky-blue water”!

The fanciful interpretation of [a] Florida name supplied perhaps the height of the romantic. Itchepuckesassa, “where there are tobacco blossoms,” was probably only the Seminole’s equivalent of “tobacco field,” but it was rendered: “where the moon puts the colors of the rainbow into the earth and the sun draws them out in the flowers.” …

When such translations were circulated, it is no wonder that people believed Indian names to be sometimes remarkably descriptive, sometimes remarkably fanciful, poetic, and “full of meaning.”

The great majority of our present Indian names of towns are thus not really indigenous. Far even from being old, they are likely to be recent. Ipswich is two hundred years older than nearby Agawam. Troy or Lafayette is likely to be an older name in most states than Powhatan or Hiawatha. The romantics of the mid-century and after applied such names, not the explorers and frontiersmen. (p.275-279, excerpts; emphasis added)

Fascinating. From the Romanticists’ obsession with the “savage and luxuriant” exoticism they projected onto Indians, we get Longfellow’s made-up “Song of Hiawatha” and lots of random, relocated, and often outright false “Indian names” across our country. Not to mention some of the most RIDICULOUS falsehoods about what the words actually mean! As a Minnesotan, I’m glad to learn why I’ve always been confused about the name of our state. And that Florida one — my goodness! Go home, Romanticists — you’re drunk!

On a more serious note, interesting to see that the stereotype about Indian names being overly descriptive and poetic actually comes from white people “improving” translations of ordinary, commonplace Indian words. Just chew on that for a little bit.

Conclusion

Well, I can’t say I’m not glad to move on to the next book. BUT I also must say, I enjoyed learning that tidbit about how Indian names were romanticized and appropriated in the 1800s.

Linguists, if you enjoy an anecdote (or 400) and don’t mind a little dry prose, give this book a try! Perhaps you’ll be more successful than I at finishing it. You can tell me how it ends. 😉

Tune in next time as I FINALLY get to read about the PRAIRIE in Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage.

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

Since my last post 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…

1491 charles c mannWhen 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 the earth looked 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! =)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 15, Twitterpation & Trees

In the fifteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Omakayas and Laura become adults, meet some nice fellows, and get twitterpated! Meanwhile, the US government plants a lotta trees. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

These Happy Golden Years

happy golden years coverWe’re almost there, folks! This, the 8th book in the Little House series, takes place from 1881-1885 and covers Laura’s brief stint as a school teacher and her courtship and marriage to Almanzo Wilder.

By this point in the series, the focus has transitioned from “chronicle of pioneer life” to “personal Romeo-and-Juliet chronicle”. Although there are a few references to current events of the time, and we do learn about courtship and fashion through Character-Laura’s actions, the bulk of the book focuses on the process of Laura and Almanzo spending time together and eventually getting married and moving into their first house on Almanzo’s homestead. A few notes on their relationship:

  • A large part of Laura and Almanzo’s initial interest in each other is due to their mutual love of horses. As we saw in Farmer Boy, Almanzo is all about horses, and the first time Laura ever notices him in De Smet is because of his beautiful team, Prince and Lady. As they court, they go on countless sleigh rides and buggy rides, including many behind a flighty team of half-broken horses that the townsfolk literally bet Laura will refuse to ride behind. (Of course, she goes!) One of the subtle ways we see Almanzo and Laura begin to understand each other is that Almanzo allows Laura (who was probably 16 or 17 at the time!) to drive one of the half-broken horses — and she does it! That is some serious horse-cred right there.
  • Laura is SO SLOW to become interested in Almanzo! Part of it is that he is ten years her senior — they began courting at 15/25 and married at 18/28. But I think another reason it feels so slow to me is that Author Laura is very guarded in what she shares about her emotions, even in her retelling of her childhood and courtship. Even when Laura and Almanzo finally get engaged, Laura is unable to directly express even to her family (or the reader!) how she feels. When they ask her if she loves Almanzo or just his horses, she reponds “shakily” with “I couldn’t have one without the other,” noting that “Ma smiled at her, Pa cleared his throat gruffly, and Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say” (p.217). This is simultaneously adorable (because by this point we’ve been waiting for the inevitable Twue Wuv for 200 pages!) and frustrating, because she never says the words, so there isn’t really much catharsis. It’s just a different level of “propriety” than we’re used to today.
  • Laura actually refuses (with Almanzo’s support) to say “obey” in her wedding vows. I totally didn’t remember this, so it surprised me a little! But then, once Character-Laura explained it and I thought about Laura’s personality, it makes total sense: “I do not want to vote [unlike Almanzo’s sister, who is “for women’s rights”]. But I can not make a promise that I will not keep” (p.269). Laura is totally a stubborn free-spirit, which is part of what makes readers (and Almanzo) love her. So it makes total sense that (a) she could not in good conscience promise to obey without question, and (b) she would marry someone who appreciated and supported her in that. (Though I still don’t know why she doesn’t want to vote.)

So Almanzo drives Laura around, and eventually they sorta like each other, and then they get married — THE END! …Except that there’s one more (short) book in the series about their first four years of marriage. Next week! =)

Government-Sponsored Forestation

Honestly, what was more intriguing to me than the courtship was a quick side-mention about “tree claims” and the planned forestation of the prairie. Here’s the excerpt:

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)

This struck me as strange, because it’s clear THAT the government wants trees… but I didn’t understand WHY they would want to make the prairie look like the forests back east!

I did a little research. The law behind this is an addition to the Homestead Act of 1863, under which the land that had been taken from Indigenous peoples was given in 160-acre sections to settlers provided that they would farm and “improve on” the land for 5 years, after which they owned the land. In 1873, an additional Timber Culture Act was passed, allowing homestead claimants to file for additional land and, as Almanzo says, keep it if they planted and successfully raised trees on it.

Analysis of said Timber Culture Act was scarce, but I did find a quote from premier homestead historian Paul Gates about the rationale behind this initiative: “to get groves of trees growing in the hope that they would affect the weather and bring more rainfall, to provide a source of fencing, fuel wood, and building materials in the future, and to provide another method by which land could be acquired in areas where larger units than the usual 160 acres seemed necessary.” 

Based on this and some reflection, here’s my conclusion: Within a settler-centric framework these reasons make sense — to perpetuate their way of life the settlers need rain for crops and wood from trees — but that still assumes that the settlers’ way is superior and takes precedence over the indigenous way, INCLUDING the indigenous plants! To me, this is just another layer of the white supremacy that takes as gospel that white ways are higher than all other ways and justifies environmental destruction and even human genocide all to fuel its self-propagation.

Seriously, the arrogance of trying to change the weather so that you don’t have to adapt your way of life to a different climate and ecosystem? Please! (Not that I can say that from a high horse as I write in my climate-controlled house, comfortably cool in mid-June… I’m working on it!)

Anyway. This topic is something I’d never considered before, and definitely one I want to learn more about. (Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???)

(**Edited to Note: I investigate this question more deeply in my Imperial Geography project.)

The Porcupine Year

Quill & porcupine
Quill & Porcupine — How adorable is that??

The third Birchbark House book begins with a scene where Omakayas and little brother Pinch are swept away by a swift river current while out canoeing. To me, this opening scene sums up a lot of the themes in this book:

  • The Anishinabe are still exiled to a foreign place. Even the way the river and the forest are described at the very start gave me a feeling of dark, eerie claustrophobia — totally different than the light, magical open feeling when the Anishinabe are on their home island in Lake Superior.
  • Pinch and Omakayas are nearly adults! Just the fact that they are canoeing far from camp by themselves sets this up already. But they are also hunting (taking responsibility to provide for the family) and they talk and relate to each other in a much more adult and sophisticated manner — even though they are still goofy siblings, too.
  • Names are a flexible and important part of Anishinabe life. While on this excursion, Pinch finds a porcupine friend (hence the book’s title) and adopts him, allowing the little guy to ride on his head. Not only does this pet make for some ADORABLE illustrations (see above), but the sight of Pinch with a porcupine on his head gives rise to his new name: Quill! Late in the book, Omakayas is also given a new name in a significant ceremony after she shows bravery and maturity.
  • Omakayas has both a sense of humor and a conscience — which makes for really believable relationships. [SPOILER ALERT!!] When Omakayas and Quill return from getting washed down the river, they discover their funeral in progress, as their families have found evidence that they drowned. Quill decides that they will dress as ghosts and have a little fun. Omakayas goes along, despite her misgivings — but what I love most is how Erdrich allows her to experience BOTH emotions simultaneously: “Omakayas knew that this was a very bad idea, and yet, something in her was thrilled. It was the chance of the situation.” (p.27)

Needless to say, this opening scene and the relationship we see developing between Omakayas and her brother is a perfect encapsulation of why I love these books!

Another thing I particularly love — as I’ve mentioned previously — is how realistically messy the relationships are. A great example of that in Porcupine Year is a confrontation between Auntie Muskrat and her sister (Yellow Kettle / Omakayas’s mom) and mother (Nokomis). Two Strike, Omakayas’s cousin, has grown increasingly arrogant about her hunting skills and demeaning of women’s work and the women in her family, even her mother and Nokomis. After Two Strike orders Yellow Kettle around (I was like YOU DID NOT!!!), Nokomis firmly but kindly rebukes Auntie Muskrat about the way she is allowing her daughter to grow up selfish: “It is not good for her to think that her skills are her own. They were given by the Creator, and the Creator can take them away” (p.152). What’s even cooler is that after some initial frustration, Auntie Muskrat takes this criticism in stride, acknowledges that she has been struggling since she is without her husband, and apologizes to her mother and sister. (After which they hilariously set Auntie Muskrat up with a very eligible bachelor!)  This open and healthy conflict resolution is especially refreshing after reading a whole book of Laura not even willing to write “I love you” about her husband!

There were two things I wanted more of in this book:

  1. Although there is some discussion about the “talk of making one big home for all of us” (p.45), there is relatively little movement on the US-Anishinabe-relations front. Selfishly, since my project is looking at the period of Indian relocation, I wanted to read about how Omakayas dealt with that. But in a way, I can appreciate how nice it is to conclude the main trilogy here when Omakayas’s life still has relatively few limits (other than initial relocation to Bwaaneg territory). (**Note — there is actually a fourth book, Chickadee, which tells about Omakayas’s children — I assume that will take place more into the reservation era? I’m reading it for next week…)
  2. I wanted more about Omakayas’s romance!!! In this book, Omakayas sort of has a crush on this guy… and then at the end of the book they start courting a bit… and they remind Nokomis and Yellow Kettle and Deydey of when Yellow Kettle and Deydey were courting… and then THE BOOK JUST ENDS!!! After reading the archetypal “happily ever after” story in Happy Golden Years I totally wanted more of that in this book too! But, I guess I’ll have to make do with open-ended adorableness and the knowledge that there is one more book….

There are several other significant events in this book — but I really don’t want to ruin them for you, so you’ll just have to read and find out yourself!

Conclusion

As was somewhat my intention when I scheduled the side-by-side reading of LHotP and BBH, the juxtaposition of these two stories makes it clear that whether you’re a young American settler or a young Anishinabe exile, you grow up, you fall in love (probably), and your life with your family goes on. What’s broken about this — and what was my even bigger intention when I scheduled the side-by-side reading of LHotP and BBH — is that the reason this particular young American settler was able to have her story in the location she had it is because of the displacement of this particular young Anishinabe exile and many others. The reason I’m growing up, married, and living my life in the location I’m doing it is because of that same displacement of equally valuable, equally valid, equally important Native lives. This creates a huge cognitive dissonance — it feels icky. It feels wrong. It is. And there’s not an easy solution — I can’t just cry or make a donation or forget about it and make it better. But that’s what happened. And right now I’m just sitting in it.

Hopefully the more I sit in it, the more I will be able to acknowledge that it’s a part of me, that it’s a part of us, and maybe a way forward will emerge, if only because I can’t go backward.

Tune in next week for THE CONCLUSION (!!) of this project — Chickadee (BBH #4), The First Four Years (LH #9), and Wounded Knee Ch. 18 & 19. (I may need multiple posts for this….)