Friday, 8 March 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Exploring Western American Identity, Pt 1

The Shaping of a Western Identity
photo by Karen Murray

In June 2010, The Crab Creek Review sparked debate on a number of academic blogs about the validity of regional classifications of contemporary writers when it published an interview with the novelist David Guterson.  Responding to a question about ‘Northwest writers’, Guterson, who was born and has spent most of his life in Seattle, and whose novels are mostly set in the city and its Northwest environs, was vociferous in refuting regionalism as a valid contemporary concept:

There might have been a time when geography and culture converged in such a way as to make the regional identification of artists a worthwhile practice…. Today, with the exception of the handful of essentially isolated cultures remaining on the planet, human beings have a limited relationship to place, and this is, of course, reflected in the arts.  To be a ‘Northwest writer’ in the 21st century simply means that, like billions of people in other places, your sensibility and view of the world are informed by influences near and far – but mostly far.  Even thirty years ago this wasn’t the case.  There was something quite Northwest indeed about the so-called ‘Northwest School’ of poets…but that now seems a thing of the past.  Today we have a lot of writers who live here but who are in no way representative of ‘place’ in the way those poets were. 
(Agodon 2010) 

Guterson suggests that distinct regional identities cannot exist in a country such as the United States where twenty-four hour television, global branding and ease of travel have brought us into contact with so many of the same influences.  But is Guterson’s claim really valid?  Are regional identities, which he admits were until recent decades regarded as defining features of many authors’ work, no longer pertinent in contemporary society?  Surely regional identities will exist, and will percolate through a writer’s work to give it a distinct flavour, as long as regions themselves exist. 
Despite the influences which Guterson points to, the United States is not a homogenised whole.  Southerners are distinct from Southwesterners; Easterners are distinct from Northerners; and Midwesterners are distinct from Westerners.  Clear differences remain in the ethnic makeup of the various regions, as well as differences in innumerable aspects of daily life such as cuisine, laws, religion, education, and what can only be described as mindset.  Within its borders, there exists in the United States countless pockets of difference which result in place-specific identities. 
It is my contention that the influences which Guterson points to as having undermined regional identities have in fact resulted in only superficial changes in the way we see ourselves.  We may watch the same sitcoms and eat the same franchised fast food as our compatriots in other parts of the United States – and indeed, in other parts of the world – but I would argue that the primary factors responsible for shaping the way Americans define who they are as individuals are the same factors that have always shaped them: our families, and the landscape and history of the place we call home. 

American Identities: modern, mobile, mutable

In his essay ‘Region, Power, Place’, the writer and academic William Bevis describes an image of American society which I believe is at the heart of Guterson’s argument.  This ‘capitalist modernity’, Bevis writes, ‘seeks to create a kind of no-place’ where all Americans can belong and is intrinsically at odds with regionalism (Bevis 1996:21).  What we think of as modern identity, characterised by being ‘mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subject to change and innovation’ (Kellner 1992:142) is not, according to Bevis, an identity at all because it strives to eliminate regional distinctiveness in favour of neutrality.  Euro-Americans, he suggests, particularly those aspiring to positions of power, sacrifice real identity in favour of an indistinct and unidentifiable ethnicity which cannot be linked to any single location.  By adapting our behaviour to become ‘a nobody, from nowhere’ (Bevis 1996:22) in order to reap the economic empowerment modern society offers, we become defined by vocation rather than place. 
          Unlike Guterson, though, Bevis continues to believe in the relevance of regionalism and views western American literature, with its emphasis on nature and landscape, and its distinctive regional voice, as being an important means of resisting the generic not-identity of contemporary America

Western Identities: belonging to place

‘The question of what we are depends greatly on where we are.’
(Ladino 2009:45)

At the close of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ which attempted to chart the development of American identity in relation to the westward movement of the frontier.  As mentioned in Chapter One, this ‘Frontier Thesis’ posited the idea that as each new wave of settlement pushed further and further west, ‘civilisation’ repeatedly came up against the ‘savagery’ of the wilderness and, in the space between these two opposing forces, a distinctive American identity was forged.  To meet the challenges of the unfamiliar environments they encountered, Turner states that Americans were forced to adapt their ways of thinking and that successive waves of pioneers increasingly diverged from their long-settled European cousins.  Over the three centuries in which the frontier was on the move, this evolutionary process also created a marked division between East and West, with the latter becoming, in Turner’s eyes, more independent, more democratic, and more ‘American’ as it drew closer to the Pacific coast.  Turner described the characteristics of American identity produced by the frontier as being:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.
(Turner 1893:59)

Western American writers, as we have already seen in the examples of Wister’s The Virginian and Cather’s O Pioneers!, have actively nurtured the myth Turner created of a West ripe with optimism and opportunity, a land where prosperity awaits the hard-working, the pure-of-heart, the rugged and the self-reliant.  Turner’s vision remains the foundation of Western identity: the way he imagined us is the way we wish ourselves to be.  It is an image, however, that many are increasingly forced to question.

In the introduction to Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Wallace Stegner’s collection of essays on identity and the West, the author acknowledges the ‘unquenchable hope’ and ‘indigenous optimism’ (1992:xxvii) embodied in Turner’s thesis, and refers to the West as ‘hope’s native home’ (ibid:xxi).  Yet he admits that he, himself, struggles to remain hopeful in light of the environmental damage caused by generations of immigrants exploiting the land’s limited resources and delicate eco-system. 
Much of the optimism of the western frontier stems from the availability of inexpensive or free land, particularly from the 1840s onwards.  Land provided people, often for the first time, with the opportunity to support themselves and their families, independent of an employer.  Owning and cultivating one’s own property offered the hope of economic freedom and the ability to decide the course of one’s own fate.  In Stegner’s words, western hopefulness resulted from ‘the common man’s dream of something for nothing’ (ibid:xxvi).  But while free land offered the hope of prosperity, actual prosperity was elusive.  Because of the arid climate found throughout much of the West, it was often only through harsh and exploitative practices that the land could, for a short time at least, be made profitable. 
In his memoir, Hole in the Sky, the writer William Kittredge looks back on the farming and ranching empire his family built in southern Oregon during the early years of the twentieth century – an empire the size of Delaware which he describes as being ‘one of the paradigm ranches in the American West’ (1992:152).  As with many frontier farmers, however, the Kittredge family found the natural world to be an imperfect place, too wet in the shadow of the mountains where the snowmelt collected in the spring, and too dry in the alkali plains which dominated the landscape.  Determined to improve the land’s fertility, the wetlands were drained and the desert was irrigated: ‘We were doing God’s work, and thought we were making a paradise on earth, a perfection of fields’ (ibid:171).  For a few years, Kittredge writes, the ‘new ground’ his family created produced the finest crops found in the country (ibid:43). 
But while the Kittredge family grew wealthy by reshaping the land, their actions had devastating, long-term consequences for the environment.  It is this ever-increasing damage to the landscape which tempers the natural optimism of many contemporary westerners like Stegner.
The American West is an arid landscape which, prior to American settlement, supported a sparse population of Native people who lived within the limits of the resources that were readily available.  Once settlement began, however, it was necessary to find permanent sources of water.  Wells were drilled, dams were built, and rivers were redirected.  As the population has grown, demand for water has outpaced the ability of the ancient underground aquifers to replenish themselves and  access to what is now known to be a finite supply of water has proven to be the major environmental dilemma facing the West.  Stegner makes the point bluntly: ‘in the dry West, using water means using it up’ (xxiii).  High concentrations of people, with a desire for golf courses, green lawns, swimming pools and numerous other water-consuming luxuries of modern suburban life pose a very real threat.  For ecologically-conscious Westerners like Stegner, such concerns can make it difficult to remain hopeful about the region’s future.
Life in the West, though, has always been precarious, and just as the landscape has engendered a sense of hopefulness in Western identity, its challenges have also engendered tenacity.  A fine balance exists between prosperity and failure, and Westerners take pride in their ability to endure the harsh conditions which the West frequently metes out.  As Francis Scott Keister says in That Old Ace in the Hole:

Goddam, I’m a Texas native, I was born right here in the panhandle, right in Woolybucket.  Us native panhandle Texans don’t whine and bitch about wind and dust and hard times – we just get through it.  We work hard.  We’re good neighbors.  We raise our kids in clean air.  We got a healthy appreciation for the outdoors.  We pray and strive to remain here forever.  We are Christians.  We are bound to the panhandle like in a marriage.  It’s like for sicker or poorer, richer or healthier, better or best.  Livin here makes us tough, hard and strong. 
(Proulx 2002:197-8)

The challenging conditions of the Western landscape are part of what differentiates the West – particularly the rural West – from the East, and the ability to cope with these challenges is one of the things which Westerners claim sets them apart from Easterners.
I am not the first to suggest that Western identity is shaped by landscape.  Just as the land is subject to erosion by wind and water, spurred on at times by unwise agricultural and logging practices, in the Western myth the land itself exerts an eroding force on the human psyche.  It sculpts the individual and shapes them into a human version of itself, like Keister’s assessment of Texans as being ‘tough, hard and strong’.  Where this erosion is most effective, landscape and individual fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and the individual develops a sense of belonging to a specific place – a place where he feels complete.  Stegner describes how he discovered his Western identity when he moved to Iowa at the age of twenty-one: ‘the very first time I moved out of the West I realized what it meant to me’, he writes: ‘I was a Westerner’ and once parted from the landscape ‘I also began to realize how deeply it had been involved in my making’ (1992:19,17,18).

Regional identities are just that – regional.  They encompass vast areas of space with diverse population groups, extremes of landscape and climate, and histories which though part of the greater American tapestry contain patterns which are unique to and have particular importance to specific localities.  To talk of a ‘western identity’ is to talk in generalities.  Even if we limit the definition of ‘the West’ to its most westerly environs, excluding everything to the east of the Rockies, the landscape included would take in both the coastal rainforests of Washington and Oregon state and the high deserts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.  It would include the metropolis of Los Angeles and the rural farming communities of north Idaho.  It would include the fourteen million Hispanic Americans who have lived in the Southwest for generations, and California’s 3.5 million Asian-born immigrants.  While there will undoubtedly be some commonalities between the people of the West – what divides us cannot be said to be any less significant than what unites us.  Rather than a single Western identity, numerous local identities exist, formed in part by the unique mix of influences which come together in a specific location.
photo by Karen Murray

Within Idaho, a state roughly the same size as Great Britain but with a population density of just 19 people per square mile,[i] landscape, politics, history and even time zones act to separate the residents of one part of the state from another. Eighty per cent of the state’s 1.5 million people live in south Idaho, along the 400-mile long arc of the Snake River Plain.  Southern Idaho is primarily a desert region of volcanic and alluvial soils and thanks to widespread irrigation, first introduced by Mormon immigrants in the mid nineteenth century, it has become a major agricultural belt.  Thanks to the fertility of this region, automobiles registered throughout Idaho bear license plates sporting the motto ‘Famous Potatoes’.  Since 1865, when north Idahoans claim the territorial capitol was ‘stolen’[ii] from Lewiston and transferred to Boise, south Idaho has also been the seat of political power. Politics, economics and religion have all contributed to the sense of difference between north and south, and these factors have largely been shaped by the landscape. 
       Winding alongside the Little Salmon and Salmon rivers much of the way, Highway 95 is the only road in Idaho connecting north and south.  Prior to the completion of the White Bird Hill segment of the road in 1921, travellers between the two regions had either to travel cross country or via the neighbouring states of Oregon and Washington to the west or Montana to the east.  The historical lack of movement between the two regions has, for the most part, continued to the current day and has fostered a real sense of physical separation.  The feeling remains so strong that since the 1880s, north Idahoans have made repeated calls for secession (Wrobel and Steiner 1997:183-4).
 The first big influx of Americans to north Idaho came in the wake of the discovery of gold on the Nez Perce Indian reservation in 1860.  On hearing that gold could be found ‘in every place in the streams, in the flats and banks and [that] gold generally diffused from the surface to the bedrock’ (quoted in Allen 1990:5), thousands of prospectors quit the expended placer mines of California and headed into the rugged mountain regions of Idaho Territory, above the Clearwater River.  Where prospectors went, merchants, whiskey traders, gamblers and highwaymen soon followed (USDA no date:2) and by early 1861, several boom towns had taken root within the boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation, including the illegal ‘tent city’ at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers which would become the city of Lewiston,[iii] serving as a supply station and a drop-off point for prospectors travelling into the territory by steamboat.[iv]  Josephy (1965:407-8) states that ‘In January 1862, it was estimated that $3,000,000 in gold had already been shipped from mines on the Nez Perce reservation, and it seemed to be just the start.’  An earlier treaty had negotiated access rights for miners, but conflicts grew as Americans poured into the country and ignored the restrictions it imposed.  To the Americans, it was clear that a new treaty was needed.  In June 1863, Nez Perce leaders already living within the boundaries of the proposed reservation signed a treaty that ceded almost ninety per cent of the land previously occupied by the tribe (Josephy 1965:429).
From whichever perspective we choose to look, we can see how the landscape of Idaho, in geographical, geological and economic terms influenced its history and continues to shape the consciousness of its people.

Land and landscape is, of course, also a vital component of Native American identity.  The Cherokee scholar Sean Kicummah Teuton states that ‘Indigenous people, by definition, grow from the land, and … everything else – identity, history, culture – stems from that primary relationship with homelands’ (2008:45).  Not only does the land directly provide the people with the necessities of life, sustenance and shelter, but it also serves as a repository for tribal history.  Past events are connect to and remembered through the places where they occurred, and by remembering, retelling and reimagining these (hi)stories in situ, landscape becomes an active participant in the sharing of cultural knowledge.  Writing about her Laguna Pueblo ancestors, Leslie Marmon Silko discusses the importance of landscape in the oral storytelling tradition, and describes how these stories can be seen not merely as allegorical ‘maps’ but as practical methods for locating oneself in and finding one’s way through a specific space:

. . .[H]unting stories [for instance] were not merely after-dinner entertainment. These accounts contained information of critical importance. . . . Hunting stories carefully described key landmarks and locations of fresh water. Thus, a deer-hunt story might also serve as a map. Lost travelers and lost piƱon-nut gatherers have been saved by sighting a rock formation they recognize only because they once heard a hunting story describing this rock formation.
(Silko 1996:32)

          What Silko describes here is a functional relationship, whereby the land is not only a repository for stories but also serves as an aide-memoire, assisting in the preservation of cultural memory.  By encouraging the recall of the stories attached to it, the earth reinforces the identity of the people. 
Often, though, the Native relationship with landscape is expressed in metaphysical terms.  The poet and novelist Paula Gunn Allen, who also identifies herself most closely with her Laguna Pueblo heritage, describes the relationship thus:

We are the land. . . . More than remembered, the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth.  The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the dramas of our isolate destinies.  It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs, a resource on which we draw in order to keep our own act functioning.  . . . It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. . . .
. . . [T]his relationship [is not] one of mere ‘affinity’ for the Earth.  It is not a matter of being ‘close to nature.’ The relationship is more one of identity, in the mathematical sense, than of affinity.  The Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as ourself (or ourselves), and it is this primary point that is made in the fiction and poetry of the Native American writers of the Southwest.

(Allen 1979:191)

Allen’s assessment follows that of Luther Standing Bear who, when recounting the Lakota creation story, says of the relationship, ‘We are of the soil and the soil is of us’ (1978:45). 
In fiction, we see this same sentiment expressed in Wolfsong, where Jim Joseph is at home in the forest of Washington state, and together with his wolf spirit guide, as he, too, becomes part of the landscape: ‘. . . [H]e became a shadow, and then he disappeared’ (Owens 1991:4).  In Jim Joseph, Owens depicts a traditional culture and traditional forms of identity which are slipping from grasp in a contemporary and quickly changing landscape.  The ancient forests are being ravaged with the help of the local indigenous community, and tribal memory is all but lost in a world where economic pressures outweigh cultural concerns.
          Debra Magpie Earling hints at these same ontological connections in her novel Perma Red when she writes of Charlie Kicking Woman pining for Louise White Elk:
I compare Louise to the land, connect the idea of her somehow to when I was a kid and we’d have to go to wakes in Camas Prairie.  God, I hated that country.  It was hot and dry, nothing but weeds or cold stinging wind at thirty below.  A couple of trees.  An August dust so fine it powdered your knees when you walked, or sand-snow drifting across houses and roads, brutal and blinding.  That was Camas Prairie.  Now I drive that stretch of road in winter and summer.  I come down into that valley and the fields are pale and the sky is pale and peaceful with a sun that lights even the ragged weeds, every distant hill, every rock shimmering a different color.  I can see for miles and I can’t stop looking or thinking about how lucky I am to see this country, to belong here.  I can’t stop looking at this land and I guess that’s what Louise is like to me.  She’s always changing.  I can’t get a fix on her.  But because we have shared close to the same plot of land, because we are from the same tribe, we are alike.  Something about Louise and something about all the Indians here is something about me, a blood kinship, a personal history shared.
(Earling 2002:28)

What Charlie expresses, here, is clearly a spiritual union with the land around him, a land that is deeply familiar, yet also mysterious which, like Louise, he cannot quite fathom.  And while he compares Louise to the land, he also identifies himself and the other members of the Flathead tribe with the piece of ground they occupy.  They are alike because they come from the same land, and because of the cultural history that land contains.  For Charlie, the land itself is key to who he and his community are. 
          This connection is not something he is able to share with his wife, however:

Aida, my wife, is Yakima Indian.  She grew up far from the Flathead, and sometimes that makes me feel distant from her, as if something is missing between us.  Aida can live here the rest of her life, speak pretty much the same language, but her home place is different from mine.  I hold no remembrance of the people and places of my wife’s past.  Louise, on the other hand, has always been a part of everything I have known and loved.  She is part of me.

It would appear that Charlie does not see his wife as having the same sense of belonging to the Camas Prairie that he feels and that regardless of how long she lives on the Flathead reservation (or indeed how long they are married), her identity will remain, at least in part, other.  This admission implies that Charlie believes there is more to identity than can be acquired through long-held familiarity or a desire to belong, an idea we will return to later in this chapter. 

[i] According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2010 population density of Great Britain was 717 persons per square mile (
[ii] In 1863 the first governor of Idaho Territory, William H. Wallace, named Lewiston as territorial capital, partly due to its location at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, which would allow easy passage of Idaho gold to the US Mint in San Francisco. In the very first legislative session, calls were made for the capital to be moved to Boise but these were not passed into law until the second session in December 1864. Questions arose as to the legality of the second session, however, due to it taking place prior to the January 1st 1865 start of term for the voting legislators. Three months later, the new acting governor, accompanied by a party of soldiers from Fort Lapwai, broke into Lewiston’s capitol, and stole the First Great Seal and other territorial documents, taking them to Boise which was eventually given legal status as territorial capital in June 1866.
[iii] The erection of permanent structures was not permitted on Indian land without consent of the Nez Perce, but many of the early buildings set up in Lewiston circumvented the law by having canvas roofs and thus meeting the definition of ‘temporary’. Many others, however, made no pretence at keeping within the law. 
[iv] At a distance of 465 miles from the Pacific coast, Lewiston has the distinction of being the furthest inland seaport city in the western United States (Idaho Dept of Commerce

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