Tend to the Living
For some time now, I have been meaning to start a deeper conversation around Native Americans, agriculture, land ownership, power, and truth. I have hesitated because to even begin to unravel that web means much more than one blog post. It requires careful attention to how the story is told so as not to continue to cause harm and perpetuate inequities. It requires careful attention to how the story is told so as not to diminish the important work of small, local farmers who barely make enough money to fund their careers anyway. It requires careful attention to the complexity of land ownership.
It also means knowing when to dive in.
Soon after Thanksgiving seems entirely appropriate.
Farming is a great balancing act between the living and the dead. We must first take care of our living, and then tend to the dead. Weeds taking over your crop must be dealt with swiftly, whereas weeds that you have pulled, and are hanging out in an ugly looking pile, can wait. The plant you dug up out of the nice warm earth that you intend to move else where must be heeled in, but the crop of zinneas that are nearly bloom-spent can wait. Attending to the living is always the first priority.
Since the 2016 election, and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, we have born witness to the Great White Liberal Reminder that we too were once immigrants. It seems as though, everywhere I turn on social media, particularly around Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and any time the news cycle is ripe with immigrant news, I find memes about how we were once immigrants and this wasn’t our land, and ancestors, and Mayflowers, and so on and so forth.
While it is true that our Anglo-Saxon and Western European ancestors are not from the Americas, the very idea implies that we were once just like our Latinx immigrants. And since we were immigrants, we know what it means to be an immigrant.
If this logic model is what we are basing our memes on, then we should certainly anticipate bloodshed, rape, and disease. We should anticipate missionaries, cultural atrocities, and the dismemberment of our land. If the Latinx immigrants were the same as our ancestors, then I too might say: “Put up a wall! Fight back! Keep them out!”
I’m no dummy, I don’t want to die by genocide.
But that is not true.
Recent immigrants to the States are seeking opportunity, advancement, shelter, and safety. We have seen not even a small glimmer that they are looking to take us out, steal our land, rape our women, or kill our horses. If you can even briefly, disregard the history that was spoken to us through our 10th grade glossy textbook, we know that our ancestral past is one of horror, slaughter, and conquer.
It has made us who we are today.
And I can’t possibly get on board with making colonization and immigration synonymous. We all want a better life, but not all of us want it at someone else’s expense.
Agriculture is fundamentally an opportunity to make a buck off the land. This is true of both small local farms and corporate farms. Sure, it’s all sorts of other things, but when it comes down to it we use our land to make money, and we use money to buy the things that support us. As such, it begs the question: Whose land are we on? Whose land are we making a buck off from?
We can’t know what it was like to be a colonizer. We can’t possibly understand what it meant to fully buy into that ideology because we are a few centuries ahead of the fact, but we must accept that the ideology runs deep throughout our history, culture, and present actions. Farming is not my first job and it is not the only way that I have to provide a livelihood for myself. I recognize that I am in a privileged position to even have the room or space to be able to think about these things. Other farmers may not have the capacity because, let’s face it, agriculture has been hurting since the industrial revolution and we have done a poor job supporting our farmers, growers, and literal land movers.
And yet, here I am thinking about this, a week after Thanksgiving.
A few years ago, after finishing my PhD, I went for a walk with one of my most favorite and influential professors. We were talking about her work with Native youth and communities and the lack of funding she receives to do that work. At one point, she turned to me and said point blankly:
“They’re just waiting for us to die so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
In that moment, somewhere hidden beneath happy stories about Indians and settlers, past Plymouth Rock, and way deep beyond my textbook education, three right turns after The Indian in the Cupboard and Dances with Wolves, creeping below my memories of going to the Navajo reservation to buy turquoise, I knew, that she was right. My people were waiting for her people to simply fall into nothingness.
Conservatives accuse liberals of walking around with too much guilt surrounding Native rights and sovereignty. They say: “It wasn’t us. It wasn’t even our grandparents. Are we supposed to apologize forever?” By waiting for an entire people to die, we would be alleviated of our Great White Guilt (at least in this context), of the need to show up and ask the hard questions, of the reminder that there is no such thing as equity through bootstrap pulling, that the deck is not equally stacked. In what is a broad over generalization, but one that serves to make a point, conservatives find a way to ignore the circumstances, whereas liberals find ways to use rhetoric and memes as action. In the end, sovereignty, independence, and healing is forsaken by all of us.
I don’t think that we are supposed to apologize forever, not least of all because apologizing is not super helpful in these circumstances. There is no Hallmark card that can possibly encapsulate the complexity of the situation, no sad beach scene that can possibly hold the weight of our history and the sometimes contradictory, love of our country.
On my little farm in the PNW, I am surrounded by reservations. There are reminders of the history of this place everywhere. As a farmer whose main source of income is not farming, I have the room and space to move from feeling self-aggrandizing liberal guilt, toward a greater understanding of what it means to own and capitalize on land that was once native. As such, I am learning to consider the ways in which I might be able to use my power to untangle the blood web that my ancestors wove, recognizing that it is the same web that continues to emerge in the daily lives of those who have trauma etched in their DNA.
So what do I do? Well, I could use plants that are native to the PNW, put them into bouquets and write about what each of those plants means to our local tribes and how it was used culturally and medicinally. Then I could perform a ritual to make it more meaningful, to honor the history and expertise of our local natives. I could wear a headdress, build a greenhouse out of a teepee and lecture you on how we just need to return to our native roots. If I were to do that though, like so many others who have tried similar measures, I would be no better off than I had started. Not everything is cultural appropriation, but we should be allowed to call bullshit when it’s clearly bullshit.
I could ignore my critical thinking skills and comfort myself in the fact that at least I’m growing things, at least I am returning back to the earth and the dirt and that is enough. I’ll make pretty flowers for pretty people, a little extra cash on the side, and all will be well. I never again have to have these nasty little thoughts. There’s just one problem, once you’ve tasted the sweet heartache of being woke, you can’t possibly go back.
Maybe I could talk to our local tribal members, go to them with my struggles about how to best honor them and expect them to give me answers to questions that only abstractly exist: What do I do about this existential dilemma I am having and my bad feelings? Can you explain to me, oh wise one, a ten-step program to rid me of these thoughts and to make your people happy and accept me as an ally? Nothing says equity quite like getting marginalized populations to solve your own white person problems.
This is so often where we quit because there is no easy answer, and it seems as though all paths lead to dead end where we look like fools or jackasses. This is why it is so hard to stand on the side of equity — it is a battle not just with others, it is a battle within ourselves and with our cultural histories.
You have to take everything you know, love, and hold dear, like your property or spending times with your loved ones on Thanksgiving and pit it against your knowledge and experience of inequity, of a racist and violent history, of all of the times that you have perpetuated violence and racism. You have to track your white guilt, have difficult conversations, choose both the warm fuzzies for property and home and to continue to fight. We hold multiple truths at once, we are incredible that way, but the most important thing we can do is to allow those truths to meld, to push one another, to make a more whole, more complex truth that leads to action.
We have to be able to hold the truth, even if it sometimes burns our hands because that is when you will see the path that tells you to tend to the living.
It is the path of the farmer.
I don’t know how to do right by my local tribes, but I do know that shutting up and listening to them is a good place to start. From that point, acknowledging their existence, expertise, and history and redefining the stories we were told in schools and around the Thanksgiving table is the next most logical step. Voting for native rights, fighting against the sexualization of brown girls, being aware of the stories we carry about natives and native culture, these things all begin to happen the deeper we go.
As for little farmer me, writing this post is the first step. Continuing to write, to explore how my understandings and struggles shift is the second. Donating 5% of all of my sales in this second year to a nonprofit that supports native education is another contribution I can give. But more than anything, being aware, listening, and continuing to push myself to learn is the best way to tend to the living,
because natives are still living — living, thriving, struggling, supporting, loving, and fighting — all over this country.
And once the living is being tended to, only then can we begin to tend to the dead.