Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.
(Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories”)
I returned recently from Montana and Wyoming, where I hiked in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, two national treasures I'd not seen before and which represents the very best in public policy legislation in the United States ... at least for the majority of Americans I suspect.
But there was something else besides the state's natural beauty and its wildlife that caught my attention, as my son and I drove from Bozeman, Montana to Glacier National Park near the Canadian border. It was both something seen and something sensed as we traveled toward our destination. It was to me the Caucasian myth (my words) of the discovery of America writ large.
We can thank President Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century for the national park system, but we can also begin with the naturalist John Muir who, in the 1870s, realized that European-Americans (and others) would likely slaughter all the wildlife and possibly harm the region's natural beauty in what is now Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming if an area was not set aside as a “preserve” for every Americans to enjoy in perpetuity.
This—make no mistake about it—is a bone of contention for some Americans, especially among many folks that live in the western states. Even when John Muir raised the issue more than 150 years ago about setting aside wilderness for “public” use (I prefer “Public Trust”), a number of Americans claimed it was, well, sort of un-American. This manifested itself two years ago when Bundy and his white terrorist supporters occupied and trashed the Mahleur Bird Sanctuary in Oregon because the government had “no right” to own the land.
The state of Montana is breath taking in its natural landscape and sheer immensity. It is the 4th largest state in terms of square miles. At the same time, with approximately one million people, it is the 44th most populous state. (Wyoming is the second most sparsely populated state). Montana is also the least “black” state in the country.
It is as well the home of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, some 1.5 million acres located east of Glacier National Park. Montana contains a number of Indian reservations, including the Crow, the Cheyenne, as well as the Little Big Horn Battlefield where General Armstrong Custer, an example of military incompetence and arrogance, met his fate.
Bozeman, Montana, a college town, has a population of some 45,000 people, It is the fourth largest city in the state, upscale, prosperous, diverse—and it's “blue,” at least compared to the very, very conservative state that surrounds it, a not unfamiliar picture in much of what we call “red state” America, the stereotypical city-rural divide and growing wider.
It is when you leave a place like Bozeman that you begin to sense a very different world and perhaps a different time. It is a land of few people but vast space along with a great many cattle, Black Angus being a breed that I saw a lot of. Supposedly there are three head of cattle for every human in
There is also poverty, a lot of it from what I could tell. Not the 19th century “sod buster's” house or the lonely log cabin but a small, rusty looking trailer parked on the side of a hill and perhaps a couple of “ne'er-do-well” vehicles near by. I suspect opiod addiction has also struck rural Montana hard. We passed one broken down shed along the side of the road where on the roof was the word “OPIOD.” On the other side of the roof, which you could see coming from the opposite direction, was the word “DO NOT.”
You see this man? His name is One Stab. He's a venerated elder of the Cree nation. He's counted coup in hundreds of his enemies. He is our friend, and he is thirsty.
(Tristen, in the movie “Legends of the Fall”)
We unmelanated * Americans have been fortunate, in the sense that the United States has not been occupied since the war of 1812 and then only briefly. We have never really been forced to question our essential beliefs, our history or the myths that have guided us for so long. This has now, however, in the present day, become a festering sore that won't go away anytime soon.
The actual Caucasian history of the United States is a story of European genocide, slavery and predatory capitalism. Possibly it was destined to implode all along, at some point. It obviously did not begin with cowboys in Montana, nor the likes of Richard Spencer, a “white” nationalist and apologist for neo-nazis, who happens to be from Montana, a state with perhaps the largest known number of militia groups in the country.
As good a beginning as any would be Christopher Columbus, the European who had the blessing of the Spanish court. We learned in grade school that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” He actually landed in Hispaniola in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Columbus met the Taino people in Hispaniola and was impressed by their peacefulness and generosity. But in letters to the king and queen of Spain he remarked about how easy it would be the make them all slaves. “With fifty men, we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want,” Columbus informed the Spanish court.
Less one think that this attitude was universal at the time, the Chinese in 1405, almost a hundred years before, with an immense armada and traveling in ships far larger than anything the Europeans possessed, began their exploration that lasted some three decades, spanning areas in Africa, the Indian ocean and Southeast Asia.
China did not leave behind the predation, destruction and genocidal intent like the Europeans did. The question is why? This is a story unto itself, but one well worth thinking about, especially in this day and age. For a good beginning read The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History for Humanity's Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent. The rest is as they say European history and later European-American history.
The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.
(Chief Joseph, 1879)
The recent Las Vegas shooting where some 59 people were murdered was horrible and the most recent mass gun atrocity in the United States. It has been called the worst mass shooting in American history. It is not by any means, but it says a great deal about our collective historical amnesia and historical literacy.
A few examples: In 1864 the U.S. Cavalry massacred over 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who were living on their own land in Colorado. In 1873 at least 150 African-Americans were murdered by white supremacists in Colfax, Louisiana. In 1890 300 Lakota Indians were murdered by the U.S. 7th cavalry at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. There are more examples, including those massacres that occurred in the 20th century.
The winning of the West, as I have written about before, is one of the greatest unmelanated fairy tales we have. The reality is not all about some goofy“libertarianism,” subduing empty spaces, respecting the land, the wildlife and, oh yeah, the native folks. It is not about doing “without government” or the endless tales of “little house” on the prairie and the survival of all those devout immigrants arriving from Scandinavia. What is most often left out in the usual and insipid Chamber of Commerce speeches is the actual uncensored truth.
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow....
(President Abraham Lincoln, 1864)
All eyes turned westward at the end of the Civil War. Time to get rich, save souls and civilize the West. Certainly, an especially egregious brand of Christian evangelism proclaimed that “their book” told then they had dominion over damn near everything, which included the land, the wildlife and of course the “savages.”
What was called the Gilded Age was the beginning of government and corporate collusion on a massive scale. It was about scratching each others back, getting rich any way one could and where the ends always justified the means and where nothing was especially sacred except making more money.
It was an era of imperialism, white supremacy, racism, and the collapse of promises of equality after the Civil War. It was about the deliberate removal and murder of the Indians; it was about the slaughter of wildlife; it was about the disrespect and destruction of the land. It set the stage for the twentieth and twenty-first century and where we have arrived at the present time.
For anyone interested in a detailed account of the age, Railroaded by the historian Richard White is excellent. It is full of facts about the part the railroad played in shaping the West for both good and for bad. It also discusses the cattle barons and the depth of corruption and thuggery they wallowed in and how they still have considerable influence today.
Another excellent book, perhaps less academic than White's book, is Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 by Jack Beatty. To know and understand America today it's important to understand the history of the late 19th century.
Who currently resides in the White House is for me a national disgrace and represents a seriously dysfunctional country. The president's cabinet with few exceptions are a collection of rich mediocrities and political hacks, including Ryan Zinke the Interior Secretary (now under investigation) and former congressman from Montana. He is no true friend of national parks and wildlife. But so much is at stake and so much to protect and preserve ... text book conservatism I know. Forget your self pity, depression and disillusionment.
In my ideal world I would like to see more land in many western states set aside as national preserves. Sure, I would be happy to have the livestock industry shrink considerably, both for the sake of the environment and the animals being killed, domestic and well as those in the wild. For that matter, I would like to see the Second Amendment amended in order to reflect the reality of the 21st century, not the 18th. Oh yes, if Montana gets two senators why can't California get maybe four senators. The difference between 1 million and 39 million is a lot. Yet, what would be the consequences for a state like Montana?
No, the above is not going to happen anytime soon and that is why we have to work with the reality we currently have for the benefit of all of us—like it or not.
Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?
While in Bozeman I bought a book entitled Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland: Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, by Miriam Horn. It tells the story of five individuals in different parts of the United States, including a rancher near Choteau, Montana where Glacier National Park is located, who have made a commitment to preserve a way of life yet intend to respect and protect an environment challenged by a twenty-first century world.
These are stories about people willing to engage in different points of view, sometimes radically different. It's about a willingness to listen, to learn how to preserve as well as how to live in a rapidly changing world and ultimately have the patience to gather people in small groups to find common ground. No one is claiming it is remotely easy but it is the one thing we all must do.
This is the lesson: We can not wait for some “other” to do it. We can not just “hope” it will get better. It is not as exciting as waving a banner or shouting out slogans. It requires that we ourselves become thoroughly informed or know where to go when we aren't.
Finally, while knowing the past is critical, dwelling in it will keep us there forever. This is the lesson. I want my children and my grandchildren to blink several times when they stare up at the mountain, watch a pack of wolves saunter across the land or see a grizzly stand up on its hind legs....
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountains.
(Thinking Like a Mountain, by Aldo Leopold)
*NOTE: The word “unmelanated” is not mine, I came across it in an essay by Michael Harriot, a writer for the online magazine The Root. I wish I could say that I had invented it. Melanin is of course dark brown to black pigment occurring in the hair, skin and iris.