Sunday, November 18, 2007
Yesterday, I stood in the heart of what Iowan's call a section of land, only two farms left within its parameters--one far east, the other far west, a mile of shorn fields between them. I'm a half-mile from the roads that square the fields, but I'm alone, no trees to speak of either. Just about every acre of land around here is off limits to hunters, so I'm always a little leery of being seen on early mornings with a camera--some land-owner might think I'm culling his pheasants or deer.
But it was early, and only an occasional car moves by on the blacktop north. I was alone in the middle of all of that land, as visible, I suppose, as the cottonwood stumps I was hunting. I was there for the dawn.
I was thinking about how I'll never feel exactly what my father-in-law does about the land. His deep regard is a respect only those who've spent their lives as a part of its seasonal movements can have. I'm was born and reared a townie. On clear mornings, I think the land is beautiful--any season. But I don't hazard out in storms. I like its lines, am awed by its dimensions; but my home is the parlor--well, maybe the basement.
One lesson I've learned about Native people is that my father-in-law is more like them than I am, not because they farm the land but because they regard it with a similar respect. To both of them, the land is a character. To some, in fact, that character is divine.
To me, the land is a grand pallette for God's artistry. But to those who really live on it and with it, it's not just a painting. It's much, much more. It plays a role in their lives. It lives and has its being. It has personality and character.
Now I'll grant you that it's silly to think of a single "Indian mind." But out here in the west at least, a Native regard for the land--which does not necessarily mean "the environment"--is far deeper and more profound than most of us have. To most white folks today--farmers too, agri-business--the land isn't really a character anymore, it's simply real estate.
Navajo history--like so much Native history--includes forced relocation, the "Long Walk" from their homelands, to the Bosque Redondo, a place called Ft. Sumter, where they and their Apache neighbors were supposed to settle down and start farming like good, industrious white people.
That awful relocation was a horrific failure--pestilence and starvation reigned; so with the Treaty of 1868, the Navajo people were permitted to return home.
And home is and was the land they inhabit yet today, the largest rez in America. That land is almost impossible to farm, of course, as any Midwest sod-buster will tell you when he's driving through. But it certainly is a land of enchantment, as New Mexico says, and it's theirs. It's where they've lived and loved and had their being. It's home.
I think it was Faulkner, a Mississippian, who once said that the great difference between white Northerners and white Southerners was very simple: "we lost."
Same with the Navajo. The Long Walk isn't ancient history, and it doesn't stick in the Native consciousness simply because of horrific mistreatment and suffering. For a time, they lost their land. It was taken from them. They were displaced. It was grabbed unjustly. And along with it went a way of life. We took their land and their culture.
Most white folks might well say, "Get over it," just as Yankees say to Georgians or Mississippians.
What I've learned from Native people is "they lost." And that story doesn't just go away.
When we were Gallup in August, we visited a Century 21 office, where we learned that not all that much land was available in and around Gallup, NM, because so much of it is either government- or tribal-owned.
But then, there's something about that I like. So much is reservation around McKinley County, New Mexico, that there simply isn't much real estate.
That's what I was thinking yesterday, in the middle of a beautiful section of land not all that far west and south of town.