This topic has been rattling around in my head like a pebble in a rock tumbler. I had one of those as a kid. I loved the shiny jewels that emerged but was way too impatient to wait for them. And so it is with writing. The words for this post have been slow in coming so I’ve just been letting the ideas sit for a while, but now I see other minds are thinking and writing about subjects that dovetail with this one, so I think it’s time has come. Although I might point out to the Powers That Be that their timing really could be a lot better. As a writer, I am not at my best right now, unless you like raw and unpolished rocks. But come to think of it, I love raw and unpolished rocks.
Anyway, I assume that you are all aware, at least in a general sense, of the genocide of indigenous Americans that happened with the arrival of European colonists. While it in no way is meant to deny their/our responsibility, or to downplay the reality or the cruelty of that genocide, I came across the idea awhile back that the Euro-American perpetrators of that violence were themselves victims of violence, and therefore really kind of messed up.
I would like to cite the author of this idea of warped Euro-Americans, but I encountered it years ago on a now-defunct blog and I don’t remember, if credit was even given, who the author was. Maybe there was no single author, but many people arriving at the same conclusion. I’m also pretty sure the idea was a bit more sophisticated and well-thought-out than I’m making it seem here.
Not that Europeans in Europe weren’t capable of doing nasty stuff–nice guys don’t build empires. And the Americas weren’t the only place where European colonists were busy ruining the native cultures as they rapaciously extracted every last resource, be it animal, mineral, botanical, vaginal, spiritual or what have you. Yet the roots of that violence go back long before the proximal causes that drove, or lured, Europeans to other lands. How deep those roots go just depends on what perspective you take. One thing a career in archaeology leaves you with is a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. Technologies come and go, but the overwhelming impression is one of cycles. So I don’t think the Native American holocaust was unique in the long duree of human time, but in terms of sheer numbers it might have been the worst.
I think about this in the context of my ancestors. One line of my Irish* ancestors arrived in the US almost exactly 200 years ago. Although I don’t have direct documentation, all the evidence suggests that they left when industrialization destroyed the household flax-growing and linen-weaving economy in the north of Ireland (County Monaghan, specifically). Monaghan is itself far away (in Irish terms) from the family seat around Waterford and Kilkenny, so I think my ancestors were already displaced. Did they settle in Ulster in hopes of making a fortune in linen? I don’t know. At the turn of the 19th century they must have smelled their impending ruin on the wind, because they left just before it got really bad, but they and their neighbors had already long been enclosed, in Caffentzis’ sense of that word, by capitalist and colonial exchange dynamics:
“Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. …Thus did ‘exchange become more independent of them,’ its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system [and, I might add, into new lands].”
They settled in the area where Ohio, West Virginia (then just Virginia, of course), and Kentucky meet with the Ohio River as their shared border. The native inhabitants of this area had been forcibly ejected and divested of their lands during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. My ancestors were among the first white settlers of southern Ohio, but even so, they didn’t, or couldn’t, stay put. The first couple of generations zigzagged through southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, Illinois, and eastern Missouri. They were still rootless.
By the first and second generations born in the US (my great- and great-great grandparents), they were no longer farmers. Whatever land they owned had been lost, and most of the men worked their way into an early grave as coal miners. The townships and “hollers” (hollows) where they lived have mostly vanished now, abandoned when each local mining operation had finally raped the land to death. They were still rootless.
I haven’t been back there yet, but will be going this fall. My cousin went there years ago and said the whole landscape feels haunted. No surprise there. The little town where my great-grandparents built their home has 22 Adena burial mounds in an area of only 2.3 square miles. Yet the population is only 0.31% Native. From 100% to 0.31% in 200 years. That makes for a lot of ghosts. It always cracks me up when I hear someone claim that their house is haunted because it was built “on an Indian burial ground.” Find me someplace in the US that isn’t an Indian burial ground. But I wonder if the colonists don’t have reason to haunt too.
What sort of lessons learned do these rootless people reify in their new communities? It is instructive to consider what happens to our traditions:
“Pay attention to most any living tradition, though, and you should see that they are never singular. Find one living tradition and you will discover around it at least one other tradition with which it is in dialogue and debate. In most cases, a living tradition is in dialogue and debate with a whole family of traditions. When push comes to shove, it is the dialogue and debate with other practices that defines a tradition. To understand a tradition, we need to appreciate its fellow travelers.
“In most cases, the boundaries between those traditions is [sic] permeable. One is not a member of this tradition or that tradition, but a member of the world in which these traditions play out their tension….
“One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation. A similar conundrum faces a tradition whose fellow travelers become increasingly marginalized from it.”
So it is with people. Removed from our context, we lose our familiar interlocutors and the dialogue begins to stutter. It would be nice if we could always regroup and adapt and enter into new dialogues with new neighbors–and sometimes we do–but too often the result is “dogmatic dissipation” at best and genocide at worst.
In American terms, 200 years is a long time; but it doesn’t seem to have been long enough for us to develop a sense of this land and its inhabitants. This is true of our spiritual and ecological interlocutors just as much as our human ones. First we demonized everything native, then we fantasized it (as “in tune with nature” or as vengeful poltergeists, for example), but we still haven’t met the natives on their own terms. We are cut off from the powers and beings our ancestors knew in their own lands, but we haven’t earned the right to work within indigenous traditions. So we make ridiculous over-the-top celebrations of our ancestral identity that make our relatives on the Old Sod gag and roll their eyes at us, ironically cutting us off even further. And as Gordon says, you can make magic anywhere, but you can’t overlook the importance of physicality and place in magic. You can make magic, you just can’t make the same magic.
Some languages have words for the feeling of rootlessness, the longing to return, and the understanding that “you can never go home again,” like Welsh hiraeth and Gallego morriña. It is a feeling visualized in the sculptures of Moroccan-French artist Bruno Catalano.
“Mr Catalano said: ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back….So the meaning can be different for everyone, but to me the sculptures represent a world citizen.'”
Aren’t we all essentially rootless in this global culture? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer–a botanist of Native descent–argues that without a sense of indigeneity (is that a word?), how can one have a sense of responsibility to and for the land? She is not saying that white Americans should ape Native cultures, but that we should develop our own relationship to this land as our home. I think we might have done that, if globalism (especially globalism qua multinational banks, corporations, and government entities) hadn’t derailed us. Multinationals and genocide are alike fruit of the same root.
I don’t have an answer to what we should do about this. Well, as individuals we stay weird, re-enchant, re-wild, subvert, see our own and others’ hollow spots, and cultivate our minds and spirits as we are already doing. We form relationships to the land we find ourselves on. We plant seeds, we put down roots, hoping future generations will enjoy the shade. Is there anything else we can do?
*I have other ancestral lineages that came to the US much earlier, and a few that came after; but culturally speaking, the Irish side of the family has dominated, because it’s the maternal side. It is the source of our home life and everything that women teach their daughters. So I identify more with these ancestors than some of the others.