Saturday, March 30, 2013

Land bridge? We don't need no stinkin' land bridge!

Students in my American Indian literature class are required to make a brief presentation on a tribe that I assign them.  Among the questions I have them answer is this one:

Where does the tribe live today? Where did they live at the time of contact with Europeans?  If there is a difference in locations, tell me why the people moved.

This gives the students an opportunity to discuss the  forced relocations that some tribes endured, or the loss of land for those tribes that remain in or near their homelands.

Yet each semester I get one or two presentations that include information about American Indians migrating across a land bridge from Asia.  This is despite my specific instructions to NOT tell us about some ancient road trip through Sarah Palin's front yard.

Also, there is no way discussing that migration answers the question.  I do not ask about entire migration histories of the tribes; I ask about their location at the time of contact, which means the farthest anyone has to go back in history is 1492, and that is only for the group that presents on the Taino, the first people Columbus encountered on this side of the Atlantic.

Some of the earliest European accounts of Indians claimed they were cannibals.  If only they had been.   If the Taino had been hungry for human flesh instead of such amiable hosts, perhaps history would have turned out differently.  If they had eaten Columbus and his men, this hemisphere would have enjoyed a few more years free from decimating diseases, commercialized slavery, and uncomfortable shoes.

Recently, a student presentation included information on the land bridge.  When it was finished, I reminded students to ignore the land bridge.  Yet the very next week, a student presentation brought us back to the land bridge.  Like a bad penny or America's Got Talent, it would not go away.

Why is that?  Why is discussing something that might have happened tens of thousands of years ago so tempting to talk about?  Why is it so tempting to the students when, for our purposes, it is irrelevant?

Knowing about that ancient migration does not help us understand any particular group of people better.    The land bridge will not help us better understand Hopi, Creek, or Mohawk societies.  If we visited the home of a Navajo family, we would not find a map of Mongolia on the wall with the caption of "Home Sweet Home."

Besides, I tell the students, that is not the story those cultures tell about themselves. You can learn more about those cultures by listening to the stories they tell about their origins.  Pueblo groups, such as the Hopi, will tell you they came out of the ground on what is now called Mount Taylor in western New Mexico.  That is their creation story, and knowing it can teach you something about them.

Whether the creation story is true in a literal sense is not important.  The cultural truths they contain are useful.

Look at the creation story for the United States.  It is filled with mythologizing and untruths.  Most of the folks on the Mayflower were not pilgrims.  Most people were not coming here to "escape religious persecution." The ship was supposed to go to Virginia, and those on board had signed contracts to do so.  No one set foot on Plymouth Rock as they got out of the boat. And so on.  However, the story's lack of literal truths does not take away from its power. Knowing it can be useful for knowing things about American culture, about how American society has imagined itself and how it can be expected to behave.

I do not blame the students for being tempted to report on the land bridge.  (OK.  I do blame them for not reading the assignment instructions carefully.)  Many sources of information discuss the land bridge as if it were relevant.  Even the Associated Press Style Book still states that "American Indian" is preferred over "Native American" because "the ancestors of American Indians migrated from Asia."

Lucy, australopithecus afarensis
But why stop in Asia?  If the American Indians came from somewhere around Mongolia, why stop
there?  Where did the Mongolians come from?  And where did those ancestors come from?  Eventually, we all wind up together back in Africa's Olduvai Gorge with Grandma Lucy.

I found a National Geographic source that says the first Europeans migrated from Asia, too.  I doubt any student presentations on France or Germany start with that information.  Doing that would probably seem ridiculous to a student.  So why does it seem reasonable to do the same thing with a presentation on American Indian nations?

The answer that makes sense to me is this: The migration story appeals to the American conscience.  The land bridge theory supports a narrative that is important in American history and culture: America as virgin territory.

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth is a foundational book for American Studies.  Published in 1950 by Henry Nash Smith, the book explores the myth that the continent was relatively empty of people, and those people who were here had left little mark upon it -- it was waiting for the Europeans to arrive and start changing things.  The notion of the land as virgin helps alleviate any guilty conscience the Europeans and then Americans might have had, since the degree to which the land was unoccupied was the result of the direct and indirect efforts of the newcomers to evict its residents.

Despite all of the evidence of successful and widespread agriculture by American Indians (the first pilgrims would have starved if the local tribes had not possessed surplus corn to feed them), Europeans and Americans insisted on thinking of all Indians as nomadic, as wandering hunters who made no permanent claim on the land.

In other words, the Indians were just passing through, so they were not being truly dispossessed of their land; therefore, there was nothing really wrong with taking it.

The land bridge story supports that larger, national narrative.  After all, the Indians were immigrants, too, just like the Europeans.  They were not native, as the Associated Press reminds us.  So the land was up for grabs.

Here we see a demonstration of the difference between fact and myth.

Is the land bridge migration true?  Perhaps.  Is it useful for understanding American Indian cultures?  No.

Is the virgin land story true?  No.  It is useful for understanding American culture? Most definitely.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Marriage equality is a family value

In art, song, poetry, fiction, and film, Family is perhaps the most common way for imagining membership in a group, including the nation.

Think of the Civil War in the United States and how it was described as being a war between
brothers, which was literally true at times. Think of the HBO series about World War II, Band of Brothers.

Think of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself claiming that all men and women "ever born" are his brothers and sisters.  Although his statement is made in relation to all humanity, the poem is most clearly about his nation; the brothers and sisters he describes in his epic poem are his fellow Americans.

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson considers the ways humans create nations through their imaginations. Nations are rather large groups of people, and often times those people do not have that many things in common.  One way of overcoming potential divisions is by imagining connections.  He writes that a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."

Thinking of themselves in terms of a family allows a group of citizens to imagine they have a shared history and a shared future -- as do members of a family who have common ancestors and descendants.  For instance, a group of school children might have been born in a dozen different countries, but, now that they live in the United States, they are encouraged to think of George Washington as a type of shared father figure. 

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Families and nationhood came to mind recently when Sen. Rob Portman ended his opposition to same-sex marriage after learning that his son was gay.  (And it is especially pertinent now that the Supreme Court is hearing arguments concerning legal definitions of marriage.)

My initial reaction to Portman's announcement was, "How convenient."

He changed his mind only after learning that a member of his family would be negatively impacted by a legal principle he had supported.  While I appreciate his new outlook, I am troubled by what this says about his old outlook -- and the outlook of many others who have not changed.

Although Portman has changed his perspective on same-sex marriage, the reason for his change may mean an earlier principle remains in place: a mindset that extends justice and compassion only to members of one's family and those who closely resemble one's family.

It is a principle that suggests: If you are different from me, I am not concerned with justice for you.  

I would prefer a sense of justice and compassion that extends to everyone, regardless of whether they look or act or think as I do.  In other words, I would prefer we treated all people in the country as if they already were part of the family.  Just as Portman wants justice and equality for his son, we should want the same for all of our "relatives" -- which is to say, "everyone."

When it comes to the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship, we should ask not "What is right and wrong?" so much as we should ask "How would I want my brother or sister treated?  How would I want my son or daughter treated?"

In this sense, I wish Americans more thoroughly imagined themselves as members of the same family, people who can find ways to overcome their differences in order to preserve and honor their greater shared humanity.  I wish we had that kind of "family values," rather than the kind that are often used to justify the limitations of another person's rights or privileges.

+ + +

As an addendum, I would say that the notion of kinship is a powerful tool among Indian tribes in the United States and First Nations people in Canada.  To treat fellow citizens as family members is to seek resolutions to problems in a particular way.  In American democracy, we resolve problems with voting, and the majority rules; the system is built upon power and who possesses it.  The tribal conception of democracy is built more upon consensus; each party in a dispute should consider seriously what the other side wants or needs.  Both sides of a dispute should seek a resolution that keeps both parties healthy and fully engaged and invested in the community.  Like a family.

One articulation of this principle is frequently used by a university colleague of mine in American Indian Studies.  She signs off her correspondence with a phrase in Lakota: Mitakuye Oyasin.  It can be translated as "We are all related." 

I realize this is an ideal.  Many disputes within tribes can get very ugly, and people can behave according to their power or desires rather than their responsibilities to each other.  But that ideal relationship -- citizenship as kinship -- can be a powerful tool.  Perhaps it is a tool powerful enough to remedy our nation's political and cultural paralysis.