History of Me, Part 3: Beliefs and Betrayal

In this episode of History of Me, a look at how Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. (Hint: It’s super complicated.) Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Barbarian Conversion

Two looooong books this time. The first was non-fiction: The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher. If you are interested in an in-depth look into this topic, I recommend reading this because there is LOADS of detail. Here are some of the big ideas that stuck out to me:

  • When Constantine converted, Christianity became the religion of Roman favor. As Fletcher takes pains to clarify, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” This caused a conflation of “Christianness” with “Romanness” in the eyes of many in the empire, and set the stage for…
  • When Rome collapsed, Christianity stepped into the void as a kind of Roman surrogate. Because Christianity had become entangled with Romanness,  bishops and dioceses were set up in the same regional manner as Roman governmental officials and provinces. Thus, when the empire collapsed, it was an easy step for the religious structure to take over and grow on the “trellis” of what had been the imperial apparatus.
  • From there, conversion usually proceeded from the top. Once Christianity took hold among Roman elites, leaders of other cultural groups began to opt in. Since bishops were also often seats of power, church officials often came from noble families and were thus well-placed to convert their relatives and former peers. Thus, “Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity” (Fletcher p. 192). Conversion also happened first at the city centers, and took much longer to spread to rural areas. (As Fletcher puts it, “fuzziness is an essential and important part of the process of barbarian conversion” [p.132].)
  • Early Christianity was not monolithic, but became so over time. Despite how clear theological matters may seem today, early Christianity was rife with disagreements that were later labeled as “heresies” by the winners. For example, check out Arianism or Donatism. This is interesting because  by the time “Christian” missionaries arrived some places, some people had already embraced “heretical” strains of Christianity — which was cause not for celebration, but for re-conversion! I can see this laying the groundwork for later intra-religious conflict…

This gives you the basic big-picture outline of how Christianity was spread. Constantine, to bishops, to nobles, to their vassals and (eventually) to rural country folk.

However, another huge piece that first occurred in Europe was forcible conversion, and for this we turn to Charlemagne. By the 700s AD, the Frankish kingdom in northwest Germany / northeast France was established and Christian, and ruled by the Carolingians. (I’ll read more about this kingdom / time period next time, but for this post we’re jumping a little ahead.) Charlemagne’s predecessor launched a campaign against their Saxon neighbors to the east, but it wasn’t just about a land grab:

By the end of the campaign, the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions of the reign of Charlemagne. (p.210) … [In 30 years] not much headway had been made with the conversion of the Saxons. Were these stubborn people never going to submit? In the [end] they did. The harsher measures… bore fruit, in the short term. In 782 [Charlemagne] massacred 4,500 prisoners. More fortunate ones were enslaved or deported. In 784 he led his army to the banks of the River Elbe: no Frankish ruler had ever before campaigned and laid waste as far to the east as this. In 785 [the eastern ruler] submitted and was baptized. (p. 215) … The Saxon Capitulary [when they finally surrendered] stands as a blueprint for the comprehensive and ruthless Christianization of a conquered society. (p.216, emphasis added)

So basically, Charlemagne and the Franks were the first to forcibly require conversion to Christianity of their defeated foes, on pain of death. Not only that, but like many who experience trauma the Saxons then turned around and when they had the power they reenacted that trauma on others: the Saxons conquered and forcibly converted the Slavic Wends (aka future Slovakians) and Pomerania, a late pagan holdout (where my dad’s German side is from), was subjugated by Poland in 1120.

I’m guessing you can see some parallels to some other colonial forcible conversion and assimilation; I could. Here’s what Fletcher has to say about it:

Christianization in these lands of the northern Slavs meant ‘Germanization’: a colonial church, a church of the German ascendancy, was imposed upon them. Cherished patterns of cultural identity were broken up: immemorial ways of doing things… Little that was positive was proffered in exchange. No native Wendish clergy was encouraged; no Christian literature in Old Pomeranian was developed. The converts were cowed and resentful. (p.450, emphasis added)

Basically Charlemagne took the imperialist impulses that had been first propagated by the Romans, mixed in the Christianity that had become the new elite religion, and began a chain reaction of violent colonial conversion that has continued for centuries. As Fletcher notes, “The spiritual conquest of [eastern Europe] points ahead to that of Mexico and Peru” (p.491).

So when we white folks look at the trauma that Europeans have done to others in the name of God, we can also look at ourselves and know, we were “better” at colonialism and violence by the time we got to other continents, but we practiced on our neighbors first. To me, this is significant not as a way to equalize everyone’s trauma and make it all go away, but as a way to understand that long ago, some of my ancestors chose to prioritize power over neighbor, at the cost of their humanity and many people’s lives. And that choice kept being remade and remade. And it’s still being remade today.

Mists of Avalon

It was interesting to re-read this book. (Also, fair warning, I will discuss major spoilers for this book as well as mentions of abuse, so proceed with caution.)

The first time I read it, I mostly noticed the subtextual and at times very overt theological conflict, because those concepts were really new to me. And those pieces are still there — I noticed lots of themes and plot points that reaffirmed the history I read in Barbarian Conversion including some nobles that were Romanized, the slow “fuzzy” permeation of Christianity into the elite, the even slower trickle-down of Christianity to the peasants, and the gradual radicalization of the Christian missionaries. All line up with what Fletcher describes based on the historical evidence we have.

HOWEVER. That was not what stood out most to me on this read-through. What was painfully, in-your-face obvious to me in this book was the incredible amount of relational brokenness, pain, and loss.

Part of this comes from the structure of the story — it’s a retelling of King Arthur, which requires infidelity, incest, and mass death just to fulfill its core plot points.

Another big part is due to the fact that this go-round, I read as one aware of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of abuse, as told by her daughter. (There were parts of the book that, knowing this information, read wayyyy too creepily. NOT okay.)

Those things aside (and I recognize that for some, those things are too big to put aside, but I’m going to discuss the book anyway) — to me, this book is about the story of patriarchal/imperial Christianity and how matriarchal beliefs struggled to survive. It’s a really complex story with a lot of characters, but I’ll pull out a few points:

  • Women vs. the patriarchy. From page one, this is a book primarily about women, and our protagonist, Morgaine, introduces herself as “sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.” Throughout the book we see how the constricting roles allowed to women by patriarchal Romanized Christianity harm all the women. We see this in how many of the Romanized/Christianized men treat women, and especially how men’s treatment of women finds a focused voice in the internalized oppression evident in King Arthur’s shrinking bride, Gwenhwyfar, who is constantly saying things like “It is unseemly for a woman to raise her voice before the Lord…” (p.288).
  • Women can be part of the patriarchy, too. Although the main theme of this book is about patriarchal/Western/Christian oppression, a lot of the pain in this story also comes from the damage that women in this book inflict on each other in a quest for Avalon to survive. For example, Morgaine’s aunt, who is the high priestess, basically tricks Morgaine into sleeping with her little brother (Arthur), and Morgaine feels so betrayed that she flees Avalon and almost never returns. So painful. Although I understood that the priestess (and eventually Morgaine as well) use people horribly to try to secure the survival of Avalon, that noble goal doesn’t make me feel any better when it ends with everyone Morgaine loves dead and her alone among the ruins of Avalon. They weren’t the cause — they were pushed out by patriarchal Christianity — but I found myself wishing they could at least have loved each other and enjoyed what time they had rather than betraying each other and dehumanizing each other in the face of violence.
  • Earth/Goddess vs. imperial Christianity. In this book, we can see played out in the Arthurian legend the elements of conversion. At first both the druids and the first Christian missionaries to Britain coexist, but as the priests become more closed, rigid, and exacting and begin to call the Goddess rites satanic and evil, the priestesses of Avalon have to fight to keep their way of life alive. The priests demand orthodoxy, and the people are forced to give up the stories and rituals of their land to what (especially for women) is a restrictive, negative system of harsh rules that literally teaches them they are the gateway of sin. (It’s said by a character in the book, but it’s a real teaching of the church at that time.) Even though the priestesses of Avalon have their own issues, it’s sad to watch as the juggernaut of Roman Christianity squelches the old ways and comes down hard on women.

Interestingly, though, the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note amidst all the death and destruction. Despite the demise of Avalon and the cult of the Goddess as Morgaine knows it, she finds a similar group of young women venerating the Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid at a convent on the island of Avalon.

But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if [the priest] thinks so. That is the Goddess as she is worshiped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind. (p.875)

For Morgaine, the fact that the Goddess has found her way into the canon of Christianity means she will live on in some form. For me, I’m not sure I find this ending satisfactory. It took a lot of pain, loss, death, and betrayal to get there. But I do appreciate the idea that the deep spiritual ideas of the land and our ancestors stay with us in some form, in our bodies even, even if they take different forms.


To me, this reading section — like the last section — really helps me to understand how far back some of the toxic strands of empire go. As I said above, some of my ancestors have been choosing power over people for a looooong time. And I understand that some of those times may have felt like survival choices — just like the priestesses of Avalon did horrible things to try to survive — but just because something helps you survive doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.

I’m reminded of the book The Body Keeps the Score (which I HIGHLY recommend), which talks about the impact of trauma in our lives and over generations. When we experience trauma, our brains enact coping mechanisms to help us survive — but we can get stuck with those mechanisms “on” and that’s when we start to have PTSD.

We’re all walking around traumatized to varying degrees, and grasping onto what power we have in order to try to ensure our survival. The sad part of this trend is that people in power (in our country, mainly white people) keep choosing to maintain and consolidate their power. The hopeful part is, that if all this structural inequality and pain is the result of my ancestors choosing power over people, then perhaps if I make a different choice I can begin to unravel what they wove over centuries.

May it be so!

Tune in next time as we jump forward into the early Middle Ages with Ch. 2 of Mighty Fortress and several books by Nobel-winning author Sigrid Undset!


History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.


I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 

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!”

‘Grassland’: The Power and Flaws of the American Environmentalist Movement

This week, on Imperial Geography… my conflicted thoughts about Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning. Let’s dive in!

grassland - richard manningSo, I was actually really excited to read this book, because compared to Prairie, which seemed a lot more scientific, this book seemed like it was going to be really political, and I was excited for an alternate viewpoint. What I got was half a book of pretentious white liberal nonsense and half a book of excellent enviro-economic insights about American culture in general and the American environmentalist movement in particular.

Let me explain.

The Bad News

The book is written as a sort of creative nonfiction travel memoir, from the point of view of the author, as he travels through (mostly) Montana. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to exploring the history of the prairie — mainly the western prairie, since he’s based in Montana — through the people he meets as he drives around to talk to them. This sounds fine and harmless, but I was consistently frustrated by a couple things:

1. No Native people

Despite the fact that the first part of the book is all about the history of the prairie / Montana, Manning talks to a total of ZERO Indians! I kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and there was some mystical Indian hearsay (“I once heard a Native man quoted as saying…”, p.34)… and there was one part where he talked about talking to this old white rancher lady about an old Indian who used to live nearby but left… but that was the closest he got. SERIOUSLY??? Dude — yes, the original inhabitants of what is now Montana were forced off their land and into reservations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY left! I just Googled “Indian reservations in Montana” and there are seven scattered throughout the state. Seven! According to the state of Montana’s video about Indian nations (which I would recommend, BTW), there are over 65,000 Native people living in Montana. That means, Mr. Manning, that in a state of about a million total people Natives make up over 6% of the total population — well above the national average. And you couldn’t even find ONE to talk to about the history of the prairie???

Considering my previous reading — and my own blind spot with regard to including Native voices in said reading project — I get it. It’s easy to be a part of the national “leaving out” of Indians and Indian history, because “every(white)body does it”. BUT here’s the thing. Manning does include a pretty substantial bit about Native people at the end of the book, so you’d think he would have thought to question (or ask for input about) the lack of Natives in the rest of the book. We can’t personally check all our flaws — but we can and should surround ourselves with people to help us check them, and Manning missed a big opportunity here and contributed to the continued erasure of Native voices from the national discourse.

2. Unquestioned manifest destiny writing

In addition to literally leaving Native voices out of the first half of the book, I was frequently frustrated by the author writing things that seemed really pro-colonization or Euro-centric and leaving them completely unquestioned within the narrative. For example, after quoting US General Sheridan’s opinion that buffalo hide hunters who were exterminating the buffalo herds “have done more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” (p.85), Manning then attempts to soften the impact of this quote on the readers: “It is easy to make too much of a statement such as this, as if the extermination of the bison were the product of a willed agenda” (p.85). Clearly Manning anticipates reader outrage at the government / army and is proactively deflecting that outrage and explaining it as “Industrialization drives extermination” (p.86). I agree with that statement in the context that industrialization dehumanizes people and incentivizes production over humanity, but that doesn’t take away the fact that the “vexed Indian question” was one that both the US government and the people who comprised it all were bent on “settling”. Putting the issue into abstraction ignores, but doesn’t erase, the real felt feelings and impacts.

Then on top of defensive language about white settlement, we see a double standard emerge. In a section explaining the irony that white settlers decided to teach Native people how to farm when many Indians had been farming the land long before white settlers came, we read this: “William Least Heat Moon, in PrairyErth, speculates: ‘Surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions'” (p.98). While Manning is uncomfortable with readers extrapolating any sort of larger intention from General Sheridan’s statement, he’s apparently fine with implying that Indians conspired to withhold information from white settlers. Yes, the conspiracy of the Indians could reflect more favorably on them, since it would be an act of active resistance — but STILL. The evidence for this is (a) described as “speculation” and (b) not given any particular source. In contrast, the buffalo hide quote is from a general in the US Army — by name — in his exact words. Seems like a lot of acrobatics to keep the US government clean.

3. Land / Science > Native people

It’s weird, but as I was reading through this book, I kept feeling like Manning was trying so hard to personify and dignify the land that he eclipsed Native people. Like he’d throw in a mystical Indian quote in order to serve his personified land thesis, but not talk to Indians about the history of colonization of them and the land. Or he’d talk about the land teaching us (Americans / white colonists) stuff, like science, but completely skip over any discussion of Native people’s learning from and relationship with the land. It just felt like there was this weird huge gap where Indians SHOULD be in this book.

Additionally, this book (especially the first half) is full of that particular science-worshiping humanism that I find frequently coincides with white male privilege, especially in nerd culture. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, so I’ll just summarize by saying this: Go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation — even just the first episode — and watch Picard defend the “nobility of humanity” and the progress associated with science and the ever-present expansion of the “frontier” (which, by the way, implies that space exploration is a moral and natural outgrowth of westward manifest destiny expansion in the US — whoa.). That’s what I’m talking about. In this book, it shows up in little side comments like “Science is eventually self-correcting” (p.100) and “eventually the wanderings of the plains built a national tradition of science. Credit this to the power of the land” (p.100). It’s as if Manning is implying that the genocide of Native people was just “part of the circle of life” and “the Native people were gone, but at least the land remained to teach us (white Americans) things” and “at least we ended up at science”. Just plain false and bothersome, not to mention icky-feeling.

So basically, the first 150 pages of this book were like pulling teeth for me to read. Let’s just say there are many all-caps sentences scrawled furiously in my notes. But thankfully for my investment in reading this book, the last 130 pages were a lot more positive.

The Good News

It’s clear to me as a reader that the second part of the book, in which Manning begins his diatribe about modern environmental degradation, is where he really begins to hit his stride. To me, it felt like he had always wanted to write the second half of the book and he tacked on the first half to add length and/or make it cooler and more pretentious.

Anyway, the last 130 pages — especially the last 50 — of this book yielded some FANTASTIC insights about our national relationship to the land and the history of the American environmentalism movement. Here are the highlights:

1. Nature is not meant to be pristine

Through a brief history of the creation of the first national parks and forest preserves, Manning effectively argued that the early American environmentalist movement grew from a dualism that separated humans/civilization from nature and preserved nature by keeping it in a pristine little roped-off area for humans’ enjoyment. This coincides with the popular romanticization in the early 1900s of nature, Indian “noble savages”, and childhood — as the author notes, literature at the time frequently equated childhood with “savage” freedom in nature, “as if the state of nature is appreciated only by the unschooled and unspoiled minds of children and Indians” (p.201). In reality, however, nature is not pristine, Indians are neither savage nor uncivilized, and all we humans are a part of the natural world and not its observers in some sort of nature park museum gallery. This point really hit home with me, and I find myself still turning over in my “rock tumbler” of a brain because it’s just so deep into our national narrative.

2. Farming was/is viewed as war with the land

Manning frames settlement as an effort of Europeans to impose an unnatural, measured logic on the land, symbolized by the attempts of early American surveyors to literally map the land into squares (aka “rectilinear cadastral grid”. Look it up, I had to!). Additionally, Manning notes that “throughout prairie literature [e.g. Willa Cather], the landscape is the rock on which European pieties founder” (199) and paints a picture of imposing monocultural wheat (European grass) farming onto the prairie as unnatural, dominating, unsustainable, and even violent. To support this endeavor, government agencies were created to be “in the refuge business” and bend nature to our collective economic will. Manning argues that the Fish and Wildlife Service preserves “have amounted to little more than duck farms,” while “the US Forest Service exists to produce trees; the Bureau of Land Management, to produce grass for cows; and the National Park Service, to produce scenery and rubber tomahawk stores for tourists” (p.248). In this way, the environmentalist impulse in the United States has grown from the dualist view of nature as pristine entertainment into nature as commodity made to serve our economic engine of environmental exploitation even in its preservation.

Interestingly, and in probably the most powerful section of the whole book, Manning uses this idea to challenge the animal rights movement, who questioned the revival of buffalo ranching as a more sustainable alternative to cattle ranching:

The animal-rights movement is urban and derives from people who follow civilization’s idea of progress as it is removed from nature. In their epithets aimed at [a buffalo rancher], we can hear an ancient accusation, the same the Chinese leveled at the Mongol nomad and the same the Jeffersonian yeoman [farmer] leveled at the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Sioux. We hear the epithet: “Barbarian.”

…Why is it unethical to kill and eat a bison when all the rest of the bison and all the prairie life they stand for will go on? Why is it ethical, in the name of rights, to save a few bison in parks and zoos and eat instead wheat, to turn loose the plow that ensures, above all else, that nothing goes on? Why is the plowman not the barbarian simply because no one sees the blood on his hands? (p.245-246, emphasis added)

Essentially here, Manning argues that mass industrialized farming, which completely destroys the prairie ecosystem, is simply a more palatable and “civilized” destruction parallel to but less visible than the European settlers’ destruction of bison herds in the first place. We are appalled at the images of bison hunters standing on mountains of buffalo skulls, and we are appalled at images of mass graves at Wounded Knee, but we’re not appalled seeing images of farmers plowing up the prairie. Manning, I would argue, views them as inextricably linked pieces of the same destruction. He goes on to advocate a new kind of ethic:

The “ethic” that civilization would impose on the land is as artificially derived as the chemical fertilizers it would impose on a corn field. Aldo Leopold began tackling this notion a couple of generations ago with a call for a land ethic, which we took to mean an exhortation for an ethical treatment of the land. This has been the impetus for conservation.

But I think he meant to call for something deeper: an ethic derived from the land. Harley Frank [chief of the Blood Blackfoot, who celebrated the return of the buffalo to their land] had it right to assert that the return of the bison marked the return of the power of his people. Power, when it derives from the land, is a land ethic. (p.246, emphasis added)


So, while this book started out pretty shaky and questionably for me, it came home to end in some pretty thought-provoking and challenging ideas. All in all, a powerful reminder that humans are just a part of God’s creation, not separate from it, and that we are called to live with the land and all creatures, not divide it into boxes for our exploitation and profit.

Next up – All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke. And I’ll try to finish this one a little faster! …especially since I’m already brewing my next reading project… =)

‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

changes in the land - crononThis week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)


It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

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!


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….)