The West v. The West

Who has the right to claim a place? Who has the right to keep others out?

There are two senses of the proper noun.

The West: European culture. Classical mythology, branches of Christianity, Crusades, conquest, capitalism. British wit and French coffee and German efficiency. I once read that a complete “Western education” meant the (re)construction of the Canon in one’s own mind as a cathedral: grand, soaring yet solid, orderly yet mystical, thick-walled as a fortress. The West is an abstract worldview certain of us learn from birth, one that demarcates private properties with clear lines.


The West: Wild frontiers for pioneers. A land beyond farms and ranches where cowboys once shot up horse-mounted “Indians” and stagecoaches barreled through deserts bearing gold-rushers and prostitutes. A place where white agitators commandeer federal buildings to hoot and holler over grazing rights while Norteños lay claim to land grants signed centuries ago by Spanish monarchs, who of course exercised the Doctrine of Discovery to parcel out territory that was already inhabited. More tribes than I know of — Puebloan peoples, the Hopi, Athabascan Navajos and Apaches and Comanche, the Ute and Mohave and Paiute, and more. The West is a solid expanse of earth certain of us inhabit, one in which landscapes roll continuously beyond borders.

“The West.”

A mural in the city of Taos, a couple miles from Taos Pueblo.

I was born and raised back east in New York, then spent a decade in Michigan among lakes and lawns and suburbs. For twenty-five years, Eurocentric curricula and Sunday school classes constructed that Western structure in my mind. All the while, watching Wile E. Coyote and John Wayne in my living room, I could only imagine the West as a mythical land of adventure out there beyond my window. It was a place of free spirits and outlaws; I never thought I’d eventually live there.

Less than two years have passed since I moved out to New Mexico on a lark, looking, I guess, for adventure. My life needed a jump-start. To paraphrase Horace Greeley, “Go West, young woman.” Now here I am in Albuquerque, where my apartment has a view of rugged mountains on one side and a string of volcanoes on the other. What could be more exotic to a girl raised a block away from a small-town Main Street than to hike among hoodoos and ride long, winding foothill roads called Jack Rabbit Run and Eagle Crest? Surely this is the Land of Enchantment! I uprooted myself and my Old World worldview to wander in unknown landscapes.

Landscapes that were unknown to me, rather — the people already here know them well.

On one of my first forays into the wilderness after moving: Tent Rocks National Monument.

“We Are of This Place,” proclaims the metal lettering at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s museum entrance. The Pueblo people’s sense of place is everything, it seems. Their ancestors planted crops and perfected stone masonry in nearby canyons over a thousand years ago. They’ve run in these “New Mexican” mountains every generation for more generations than anyone can count. The rivers, the sacred lakes, the rainstorms brought by their drums and dances: everything is connected, and everything is here. No one knows how old the Pueblos’ oral stories are. They stretch back to their Origins, their very Emergence from deep underground up into this place.

This is in contrast to waves of newcomers over the last five centuries from Spain and Mexico and the United States. These invaders can’t have had that deep-rooted sense of place: they relocated away from everything they knew, whether by choice or because they were conscripted as soldiers, slaves, debtors, laborers.

For those who chose: why did they come? Why here? What did they make of this place?

Conquistadors fought their way on a quest for gold and cruelly subjugated the people they found living here, overcoming revolts with the sheer scale of their violence. Spanish-speaking settlers took up farming along the rios, tapping into that precious water on which the Pueblos depend to this day. Eventually the USDA marched through and forced the implementation of “modern” irrigation and pesticides that wrought havoc on soil with which they were unfamiliar. With which they had no business interfering. They were not of this place.

The museum entrance at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Sometimes I wonder whether I belong here in the West — whether I am perpetuating this history of colonization just by being here and living on others’ territory. No, I didn’t march in on horseback with blood-stained weaponry. The only treaty I’ve signed is a 12-month lease, which I’ve so far yet to break. Still, I’m just another white occupier of land that doesn’t belong to me.

But what land could belong to me? My ancestors ceded all claims by setting sail from Holland a century and a half ago. Where do I belong? In Groningen, where my forefathers once farmed — where I don’t speak the language or know a soul? In Grand Rapids, where my fellow Dutch-American descendants have gathered in the last two-hundred years — by displacing the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi who had lived off that land since time beyond memory?

Instead, placeless, I took my Western worldview and went west.

A few months ago, having more or less settled into that Albuquerque apartment, I drove even further west for a weekend’s adventure. First, the Four Corners — everyone knows it’s where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona touch tips, but how many note it’s in the heart of the Navajo Nation? Then deeper into Arizona to the Grand Canyon, where the Hopi believe humans first emerged from within the Earth.

The drive’s first leg through northern New Mexico was beautiful: chalky gypsum mesas and ridges, the iron-rich reds of Jemez, scrubby yellow-tinged desert, silver mountains looming up slowly on the horizon. Blue, blue, blue sky. Eventually conifer forests laden with fresh snow. Along the way my anticipation grew for the burst of newness that would be Arizona.

But crossing state lines didn’t bring what I expected. Somehow, dumbly, I thought there’d be a sudden switch in landscapes. Instead the scenery rolled on, mile after mile, evolving but never breaking.

It gradually crept up in me how artificial my worldview was. What is this dichotomy I’ve believed all my life of sedate eastern towns versus the Wild West? Where was the supposed line between the two? In moving to New Mexico I thought I’d made some crisp switch, leaving one distinct place for an entirely separate one. All I’d really done is travel a flowing continuum of land, slipping from homeland to homeland to homeland along the way.

Of course. Dichotomies are abstractions. Lines are imaginary. They’re part of the architecture of that Western cathedral in my mind, maybe — they’re not tangible in the land itself.

Standing in four states at once at the Four Corners Monument in the Navajo Nation.

What did I expect crossing into Arizona? I suppose my mental image was of flat, glaring desert heat and racist white vigilantes in pickup trucks cocking their guns as they leer across the border to Mexico. Another artificial line. A line through what was once a unified Mexico, and before that New Spain, and before that nothing because there were no lines between names, just the continuous flowing of terrains and trade routes. No passports and visas, no Immigration and Customs Enforcement, just people — communities and the land that gave them life.

Do places belong to people? 
Or do people belong to places?

“We Are of This Place.”

What a fool I’ve been, I thought.

Then I thought of that fool of a man 2,000 miles back east in the White House, suited up for glossy photo ops between hitting green-soaked golf links. We elected a real estate tycoon as head of state. He built his life by building hotels for placeless jet-setters, casinos where values are a game of winning and losing, golf courses where landscaping supplants landscapes. He bought up places and walled them off from unworthy neighbors.

What strange Western cathedral of a worldview does he house in his head? Not a cathedral, perhaps; not a holy edifice of ancient values. A skyscraper. A modern skyscraper of capitalist constructs, empty, with a gleaming façade and thickly-drawn property lines.

And now he’s responsible for this place out here too — Commander in Chief from sea to shining sea, east to west. Does he know anything about this flyover country between Atlantic City and Las Vegas, D.C. and Hollywood? Anything aside from the layout of the Electoral College and the location of the Mexican border?

Ah, the Mexican border. He probably doesn’t know how many multicultural ranchers tend tiny border fences in Texas and New Mexico, across which they shake hands with ranchers in Mexico. He probably never realized that the Tohono O’odham reservation straddles the border between Arizona and Mexico, and new constructions in their sovereign territory would desecrate sacred sites. Did he consider such complexities when he boasted to BUILD THAT WALL out here — the complexities that exist beyond worldviews in the lives of actual people, the place itself?

I can’t conceive of it. The absurdity of building artificial lines up into solid walls: the futility, the waste, the scar upon land he can’t possibly know or understand.

But stranger and more terrible things have happened in the world, not least here in the place that is the West, thanks to the cultural mindset that is the West.

Who can lay claim to this land?
Who can draw lines across it?
Who can cut it up and close it off?
Who would want to?

Who gets to claim that they are of this place?

Now that we’re here — all of us, Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Hispanic, Moorish, Mestizo, Gringo — now that we’ve scattered across the West like invasive tumbleweeds and redefined it, whether our roots are deep or barely threads — now that we have no other homes to blow back to — how dare we tell others to keep out?

The border fence near El Paso, Texas

How dare the West launch Crusades and conquests against the East and “India,” spill blood on others’ homelands, kill, convert, colonize, claim, demarcate, and then keep out? How dare we uproot people from their lives, then declare their land wild, explore it as if it’s unknown, take advantage of it as if it’s unclaimed, invade it for our own adventures?

We Westerners draw lines only to cross them, cross them only to draw new lines. We infiltrate ancient landscapes and erect cruel new divisions across them as if it’s our right.

I am of the West, but then, I am not of the West. I have its cathedral of concepts in my mind, but I do not claim its lands.

Or rather, I feel I shouldn’t… but here I am regardless in this place, drinking its waters and travelings its roads and being here, occupying space.

“We Are of This Place.” Who is? Am I, now? Does my government have the right to claim it? Does it have the right to keep others out?

That January morning in Arizona, having crossed so much landscape, I walked the frozen rim of the Grand Canyon and peered down through geologic strata so distant and ancient the sheer weight of atmosphere rendered them hazy. The depths of the gorge: a place older than all of us, and according to legend, our origins. Or, according to someone’s legend, someone’s origins — I just barely know the story.

I do know that I saw no borderlines in all that petrified earth, just melded layers going deeper than any of us could see, fused into a single complicated breathtaking mass. Of all the many, many people there — visitors congregated from across the world, there to take photos for a day — our feet only walked the surface.