Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Exploring Western American Identity, Pt 3

photo by Karen Murray

Belonging to the Land

The people we become – both in the sense of how we see ourselves and how others see us as individuals – depends on a multitude of influences: the families we are born into and our positions within those families; the friends we choose; our education; our employment; our political and religious beliefs; and the experiences we have in life are just some of the factors that shape our identity.  A few of these factors are constant and unchangeable: most of us will remain the same gender throughout our lives, for example, and regard ourselves as being a particular nationality or race.  Other factors, such as family position, education and occupation, and even political and religious beliefs, can change periodically through a natural process of maturation and individual development.  Others, still, may change numerous times during the course of our lives as our interests change and our attachments and allegiances shift.  And so, at different times in our lives, we will see ourselves and be seen as being different than we were before. 
          Eighty years ago, the writer Mary Austin described the influence of landscape in the construction of identity:

[T]here is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment.  It orders and determines all the direct, practical ways of his getting up and lying down, of staying in and going out, of housing and clothing and food-getting; it arranges by its progressions of seed times and harvest, the rhythms of his work and amusements.  It is the thing always before his eye, always at his ear, always underfoot.  Slowly or sharply it forces upon him behaviour patterns such as earliest become the habit of his blood, the unconscious factor of adjustment in all his mechanisms.
(Austin 1932:97)

Where we are from, that is where we were born and spent our formative years, is at least as powerful a force as any other factor influencing our sense of identity – and, I contend, more powerful than most.  William Kittredge and Wallace Stegner have spent their entire careers exploring the emotional attachments they have with the specific landscapes of their youth.  Where they are from has largely determined who they are as people.  Jim Loney, too, experiences the pull that the landscape can have on an individual, and it is there, in the midst of that wide Montana landscape, that the seeds of his identity eventually begin to grow.
Few would argue against the notion, voiced by Louise Erdrich and many others, that Native Americans continue to have a special relationship with the landscape or that such a relationship contributes to the individual’s sense of identity.  This is undeniably true for those whose formative years have been spent in places of cultural significance for their particular communities, where place, stories and history combine to create a sense of belonging to the landscape.  Whether such claims, when made about ‘urban Indians’[1] or Native Americans no longer in contact with their ancestral homelands are also valid, however, remains open for debate.[2]  But when Euro-Americans make similar assertions about belonging to a particular landscape, they are often viewed with scepticism.  How can one compare the sense of belonging felt by a person of Native American descent, whose ancestors have inhabited a specific place for millennia, with the descendant of white homesteaders whose familial experience of the land is limited to just two or three or four generations?  Is it necessarily the case that the former will always have a greater sense of connection than the latter?  It is a controversial stance, but I would argue that no, Native Americans do not have an intrinsic link to the land.  Connection to landscape is not innate: it is learned through experience and instruction, and each generation has to forge these connections anew.
I do not in any way wish to downplay the fact that Native Americans were, for the most part, unfairly removed from their land, or to devalue the suffering caused them by the western expansion of the United States.  Euro-American treatment of Native Americans was nothing short of genocide, the results of which continue to impact on the lives of Native people to this day.  As Sherman Alexie wrote about Big Mom and the killing of the Indian ponies, the past reverberates in their DNA.  It is partly, I believe, that so many white Americans now regard this part of American history as shameful that belief in an inherent ecological land ethic among Native people is so widespread.  However, this does not and should not preclude acceptance of the idea that Euro-Americans can also connect deeply with the land, or that the land plays a profound role in the shaping of non-Native identity.
While it is an undeniable fact that the first Euro-American settlers in the West regarded the land in commercial terms, assessing its profitability with regards to the animal pelts, the gold and silver, and the timber that could be taken from it, and that the subsequent farmers shaped the land according to their needs and financial interests, it does not hold that these same individuals did not also value the land for its less tangible assets.  Like the Native Americans before them, Euro-Americans developed bonds with the specific places they inhabited, bonds that went beyond the land’s ability to sustain them physically.  Albeit in a different way from Native Americans, the white homesteaders, their descendants, and other Euro-Americans who have bound themselves with a specific place can be said to be of the land.  The land provides them with physical and spiritual sustenance.  It is in them, too, and it is part of who they are.

[1] The 2010 census reports that approximately 64% of those identifying themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native reside outside of tribal lands, with major urban populations found in 19 US cities.
[2] It must be remembered that the majority of Native American tribes were displaced from all or parts of their traditional homelands during the nineteenth century and that subsequent generations have not had direct contact with the landscape where much of their history and many of their traditional stories are set.   

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