Messing around a bit with historical "what-ifs"
|Issues that have been boiling over these past several weeks have been making me sit around and think about my white skin in ways that strike me as, at one and the same time, both old familiars, and strangely new. As a thinking, feeling, and caring human being, it is a strong habit. It’s what I do.
I was thinking about things this evening, for instance, after listening to a bunch of other intelligent people express their thoughts, ideas and opinions, also trying to make sense of things in ways that appeal to me, at times, move me, spark my intellect, and give me lots to think about.
I decided to entitle this piece The Thanksgiving that never happened. And what made me think of that, has to do with recent memories of various occasions recorded and posted online, in which hosts, masters and mistresses of ceremony, moderators and organizers, of conferences, speeches, talks, panel discussions and general presentations, in North America especially, start off the evening’s events by mentioning acknowledgment and respect for the fact that everything on location is happening on what once was native aboriginal land.
Now, over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of eye-rolling and irritation about this, in various people. That sense that it’s a done deal, it’s over with, time to move on, and so forth. As if it’s looked upon like a typically historical anomaly, the result of a grand campaign, a mighty struggle, the battle of equal forces and an outcome of conflict (which is entirely untrue.) Even acknowledging that this conflict did not happen between equal opposing forces does not necessarily go unremarked upon. But there is still very much a sense in many people that the outcome was generally a foregone conclusion. The side that won was the side that had to win because of all the typical reasons that are usually given. This much is pretty straightforward.
But I was thinking tonight, why is it that this is exactly the place where I’ve learned in my life, to leave off and disconnect from the standard narrative? What is it about that, that bothers me, and has bothered me since I wandered into the contemplation of it by my senior year of high school?
It’s not good enough. And it never was good enough. Especially now. Shaming the descendants of the victors, and every other non-aboriginal immigrant who washed up on North America’s shores for the past three centuries, tweaks a few politically-adjusted protocols and policies, perhaps, but for the most part everything just goes on the same as it has done for a long time.
So I was thinking tonight of something a little different. What if on that famous first Thanksgiving, something else had happened? Now this is going to be a stretch, but bear with me for a few moments. Suppose on that first auspicious occasion, a bunch of European Big men had sat down with a bunch of Aboriginal Big men, and decided that whatever they were going to accomplish, was going to happen on equal ground, with understanding and respect? Well, it would have taken some time and some real work for this to have happened. Language, culture, core beliefs, world view…a whole lot of things would have had to be ironed out.
But let’s just suppose that this had happened. And everybody involved pretty much was on board with it, and agreed that it was a good thing. And so it worked. And went on working. For a long time.
Imagine how different that might have made North America grow, from then until now. I agree, it is hard to imagine that difference. Because you see, many of these non-aboriginal presenters who speak of and acknowledge the concept of this ‘stolen’ land, are well aware of their high-end SUVs out there in the parking lot, and their McHouses scattered about exurban landscapes, sporting some three thousand square feet of opulence. They are well aware of their life’s possessions, the result of good income, and no doubt, good educations.
But the fact remains, if you were to wander around their built environments, you would find an easy hundred different examples of how they have savaged the land, along with anyone else residing in the upper two-thirds of society. So yeah, I can find it just a little disingenuous, just a little hypocritical hearing their expressions of virtue.
We do an interesting thing now. We go back in history, and haul forward into the present all the facts we can dig up, all the incidents and actions recorded, and then judge them by the standards of our current illumination. And of course, find great fault. But it is fascinating to see that, while all that furious fault-finding is going on, just what we don’t find fault with. And I suspect that the main reason we don’t find fault with it is because we do not wish to. It just doesn’t suit our plans. The faults are sort of cherry-picked to suit an agenda.
And yet the hard facts give us evidence of how truly we have savaged the land we live upon. We go on doing it, and we stubbornly refuse to admit to or accept the idea that this can have grave consequences for our futures. We feel a little uneasy, a little edgy, that we have so very much invested in development that may not have a lot of lasting power.
Now, I don’t even know if it actually is a god’s honest truth that once upon a time, long ago, aboriginal leaders indulged in the habit of looking forward seven generations. Perhaps they did. And if they did, what did it mean? Because before Europeans showed up, seven generations could go by without a whole lot changing. Everything pretty much staying the same.
This makes me think of the hundreds of times that I’ve cruised through picture collections found in books – pictures that show you what a famous intersection in a famous city looked like in 1870, or 1900, or 1927…..and what it looks like now. Our built environment can so radically change within one generation, that it Is hardly recognizable. We’re busy as beavers, and we don’t ever stop. The only time we did, was during the Great Depression. And that halt was only for a decade. We’ve been rolling ever since.
So I’m left pondering. What if that very first Thanksgiving had set a precedent, established a tradition, that there would always be respected aboriginal voices at our dinner table? In our town halls, state legislatures, and all the way to Capitol Hill? What would our land look like now? What would have changed? What would we not have done? And what would we have done instead? It’s hard to imagine, I know.
How could this even have been accomplished? I don’t rightly know.
But here’s what my active imagination presents me today. Each and every surviving Aboriginal nation (how many are there?) elects and selects representatives. These representatives show up at designated meeting places to carry on an ongoing dialogue with other politically appointed people, on a municipal, state, and ultimately, a federal level. I can imagine that this already goes on, to some degree. But I’m thinking of something a little more organized and consistent. Enough of it to really engage with local, regional and national conversations.
And how much of this conversation would be looked upon now, as something to be kept under control, appeased, shoved aside, because it gets in the way of all that consumeristic economic activity that makes our world go ‘round? Well, that has been the story since pretty much the beginning, hasn’t it?
We either believe that we’re in a good place, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we might be more inclined to believe that perhaps we should have started listening to those Aboriginal voices a long time ago, and paid a little more attention. We always placed a lot of faith in the idea that we knew what we were doing anyway, and could solve all of our problems without much input at all, from those voices. When I consider our future, I have my doubts. We never really did, as a society, fall into the habit of thinking about things the way Aboriginals do.
For them, the white man was a pretty strange human being when he first showed up. In many ways, he still is.