Narratival Power, Memory, and the Pipeline

It’s odd to think back to high school history class, learning about the founding of the United States—the bloody westward expansion—and thinking, surely at *this* moment the European colonists would have stopped to think and care about the native people they were destroying. No? What about at *this* moment? No? Then when? And this is, of course, assuming that you were taught something at all past the mythologized meal that has become (piously) Thanksgiving (who is giving thanks?), or more cute, “turkey day.” While I don’t remember everything from AP US History, I can’t claim complete ignorance—I remember the gist of things.

Fall semester of last year, in a class called Colonial and National: American Literature to 1830, a trope that surfaced in a few of the readings was that of the voluntarily receding or antisocial native.

A stanza of Philip Freneau:

From these fair plains, these rural seats,
So long concealed, so lately known,
The unsocial Indian far retreats,
To make some other clime his own,
When other streams, less pleasing flow,
And darker forests round him grow.

(From “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country,” 1784)

The speaker finds himself wandering across the American countryside, admiring its beauty, and seems to be thinking, huh, funny that someone would want to leave here. So he chalks it up to the streams, the flow, the forests, while at the same time calling the disappeared subject “unsocial,” and in doing so, (purposefully? subconsciously?) acknowledging that there is perhaps something else at play. What are the “other streams,” the “less pleasing flow,” the “darker forests” that surrounded the “unsocial Indian”? A better question might be, who are they? The poem is from 1784. Is Freneau’s memory so short?

Spring semester of last year, I worked with a local book bank that connects elementary and middle-school aged kids who are behind their grade’s reading requirements with tutors and an ample supply of free books. The several times a student called in sick or didn’t show, I perused the stacks and shelves, eventually finding myself in the history section for young readers. The book bank is run largely by the generosity of a hefty crew of volunteers, but this does mean that the intake screening for what books end up on the take-me-home shelves is somewhat varied. In addition to a book that painted a Black family as being just so happy to be picking cotton, there were several books that rehearsed the story of the courageous settlers fighting the savage natives for land that was clearly given to the settlers by God. While most of the books containing accounts between white colonizers and brown indigenous people were focused on North America, there was also a book about Captain Cook’s encounter with the “unfriendly” Maori people (“Firing over their heads did not make the natives less quarrelsome or more obliging. Cook learned this lesson one day when he ordered his men to discharge their muskets. The Maoris reacted so violently that the Englishmen had to shoot to kill in order to protect themselves.” Yes, how the Englishmen stood their ground.)

I flipped through their pages and took a mental note of their dates of publication (and sometimes a picture of a cover or excerpt) before throwing them into the recycling bin. Needless to stay, the staff was as disturbed by the books as I was. Although my sample size of books was relatively small for any sort of comprehensive analysis, there did seem to be a shift in children’s history books in the last couple decades of the twentieth century toward a hybrid subject position—toward trying to figure out how to reconcile some sort of patriotic account of the founding of this country (still sometimes verging on a nationalistic hagiography) with the fact that this country was founded through the genocide of native people. It makes for some awkward writing.

From The New England Indians by C. Keith Wilbur, first published in 1978:

The New England Indians have long been buried under a mass of indifference, prejudices, hearsay, Victorian ideas about ‘the noble red man,’ and guilt complexes over the racially downtrodden.

Later down the page:

When King Philip’s War in 1675 – 1676 effectively dissolved these New Englanders and their more primitive cultures, their nine thousand years of living gradually faded from memory.

They deserve a better fate.

Passing over the word “primitive” for the sake of time: yes, but what of this nine thousand years of living? Has it “gradually faded from memory”? Whose memory? I’m guessing not the memory of the survivors… so the memories of the white descendants of the settlers? Is our memory so short?

Memory is political because storytelling is political. When people speak of erasure, they are speaking of the ways in which the narratives we generate intentionally and unintentionally write peoples out of existence. And it is exactly this: the “unsocial Indian” drifts further and further beyond the Western horizon. Blip! Gone. Narratival genocide follows genocide.

The characters in the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline should by this point be familiar: a tribe of Native Americans and the United States government, specifically the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Standing Rock Sioux are trying to protect their home and native land with its sacred places and drinking water from the unrelenting drive of the US government to exploit land for profit.

What when the stealing of native land happens in the age of social media? What when there is no time to rewrite the history as one of voluntary recession? What when we see pictures on Facebook or Twitter of indigenous people protesting the theft of their land moments after the pictures are taken? Can we still claim to forget? Is our memory so short? Did our European forbears value the lives of the native peoples they destroyed? No? What about at *this* moment? They deserve a better fate.

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image source: justseeds on instagram

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2 thoughts on “Narratival Power, Memory, and the Pipeline

  1. I recently attended a wonderful exhibit in Montreal that used First Nation tribes’ clothing as an entree to their culture and history. A reminder that for them (and also, I believe, in the US) far away boarding schools and “adoptions” were purposely used to erase even the memory of language and culture, thereby decimating younger generations’ ability to “belong” to their own people and story. Same happened in Australia, I believe.

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