Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Invisible Plains

Lots of Native people tend to think of themselves as invisible. I've heard that said here and there, read it in a variety of places. Last month in New Mexico, among the Navajo, I heard it again, several times. No one really sees us--no one really cares.

I think they're right, and I say that on the basis of my last novel, Touches the Sky, as well as the one presently in manuscript. Non-Native people in this country really don't care to read about the Sioux or the Winnebago or the Pueblo or Cheyenne. It's not that they don't like them (although that may be a factor, all of those Indians getting rich on gambling!), and Native invisibility isn't occasioned by our guilt for having displaced them and destroyed their cultures (not that there's no reason). I think we just don't care. We don't look. Hence, we don't see.

But then, sometimes I think Native people can be a little over-sensitive because I'm not sure white folks care about anything that happens between the coasts these days, especially those of us in the underpopulated west and the Great Plains.
This great Steinberg New Yorker cover, "View of the World" has become iconic; but he could have foregrounded Chicago too. Out here where I live, most everyone is invisible, except if there's a triple homicide done by a naked Pentecostal preacher who leaves blood on the walls in the shape of a John Deere tractor or some such thing. Otherwise, all of us out here are invisible.

Take Ted Turner, for instance. For the most part, he's been buying up the thinly-populated West single-handedly. He now owns two million acres out here, in vast chunks of eleven states.

Just this week, he picked up 26,300 acres of prime ranch land in Nebraska for a cool 10 million, pocket change, outbidding locals as if they were the chaff to his wheat.

Nobody knows what he's planning on doing with all that land. Lots of people guess, but nobody really knows. He does keep it up. He maintains it with local people, whom he pays well, I'm told. Folks I know in Montana claim that if he needs work done, he'll walk into the local coop himself and get what he needs. He's not necessarily bad for business, and he certainly alters the tax base in a ton of county seats--raises everybody's, in fact.

But if my family had lived in Sioux County, Nebraska, for a hundred years, and I saw Ted Turner's men drive up to a neighbor's auction in search of land my own kids wanted in order to expand their ranching operation, I'd get depressed fast. If I were a school administrator in west-river South Dakota, someone worried about whether or not his or her school was viable, and I heard Turner was interested in picking up more real estate, I'd start putting out my resume.

The man is altering the shape of things in the Great Plains--and more. The man is slowly buying himself royalty status: not long and he'll be King of Plains. And it's all fair-and-square legal, and seemingly under the radar of the national media--as invisible as Native people.

But sometimes I think--as much as I love this land, respect its harsh character and love its gentle lines (the Great Plains look like a woman on her side beneath a sheet, Ian Frazier wrote, only more poetically), sometimes I wonder if maybe we shouldn't have been here in the first place. Oh, I don't mean here in Sioux County, Iowa, where the land is immensely fertile; but I do mean out there on those broad stretches of land where somehow only the buffalo and the Lakota could live in joy and strength, the land Turner seems to treasure, even if no one else does, except those few who live there.

Sometimes, this romantic heart of mine sympathizes with what he's doing, taking land away from the white folks who, a century and more ago, took it away from the Sioux and the Cheyenne and Arikara and dozens of Great Plains tribes. Sometimes--and I know this is blasphemy--I think the idea of a buffalo commons isn't all that bad. "Our village life would stagnate," Thoreau says, "if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it."

Do we really have to have all those feedlots for all those fast-food hamburgers? Wouldn't we all be better off eating more bison? Wouldn't it be nice to see the Great Plains as wild and free as it once was?

But then, it's not my cattle that are getting gored. If I grew up on the banks of the Missouri, I don't think I'd dream the way I do--or the way Turner does.

Who knows what he's dreaming exactly?

All we know out here is that, to Ted Turner at least, the King of the Plains, none of us, red or white, is at all invisible.

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