The trekker museum--I don't remember it's name back then, and it's been changed since, I'm sure--was an immense, classical structure. What we'd already witnessed and felt was the sheer power of the Afrikaaner heritage among white and Dutch South Africans. Youth organizations celebrated the triumphs of the story--little kids were little trekkers.
But then, the Dutch South Africa story is incredible--and it is ancient, Dutch folks having arrived early in the 17th century, when they also put up shop in New Amsterdam here in North America. To think of the Afrikaaners as Dutch is, after all, a stretch. Hundreds of years of trekker ancestors have been buried in South African soil.
There we were, out front of this massive museum dedicated to telling the really improbable story of the triumph of Dutch South Africans, who, against all odds, had forged a society, a culture, a way of life, even a language, in a place where their presence had been violently opposed, not only by the indigenous people they dispossessed, but also by snobbish, well-heeled Brits who fought them wherever they could find them. The trekker story is worth telling, worth remembering.
But in the new South Africa it became, suddenly, part of a much larger story. In the new South Africa, it would be told in a different way. That huge museum didn't simply require a face lift, it would need a transformation. It had a different context altogether when apartheid ended. I was looking at an artifact, and I knew it. That grand museum would no longer feature the Dutch.
Last week, at the National Homestead Monument, just outside Beatrice, Nebraska, I felt something somehow similar, not because change was in the air but because telling this American "trekker" story--and it too is an incredible saga--is something that simply can't be done without a broader context the monument itself tries very well to do.
Millions of Americans today have descended from American trekkers who, like my own ancestors, came to this country for liberty, an "empire of liberty," Jefferson once dreamed. They came to live, not cower; they came to claim a new life, not wither slowly away in a land where the horizon was a stone fence.
There it stands, this Homestead Monument, in the shape of a plow that, at once, ripped up an entire ecosystem, altered prairie like no other place on the continent has been altered; yet, at the same time, the plow created a bread basket not only for those who broke ground but for hungry people around the world. That plow was as much an instrument of death as it was of life; and homesteading, which brought millions of Americans to what they thought of as unoccupied land, created untold opportunities at the very same time it destroyed hundreds of indigenous cultures and thousands of its people.
It's an incredible story, it's the American story, it's our story, it's my story. But those who are in its cast are not superheroes. They're human, like all of us; and their story is much, much larger than their own indomitable pioneering strength. To my own ancestors, the land was free, unoccupied. It simply had to be "proved up." All land ownership required to make it ours was buckets of sweat and blood. All it demanded was work, and, for most of the American trekkers, hard work was an inheritance, even a calling. Here there was good rich earth to be subdued.
It wasn't easy, not for my ancestors or the Afrikaaner trekkers. Life was no push over.
But when we came, those who were once here left. That's the big story, the story that's much harder to tell and much harder to hear.
Right about here, just down the hill from the memorial building, sits the very first registered homestead in American history.
It belonged to only one family, two generations, the ranger told me. But they weren't the first inhabitants. There's a bigger story.
And that story is ours too.