What happens when we enter the imaginative space of Walt Whitman’s America? The country widens. Through it strides the Spirit of Hope — “in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard…Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument, / The institution of the dear love of comrades” (128). But Whitman’s also a poet of settler-colonial Westward expansion, is he not? Rather than referring to indigenous people as “Indians,” Whitman called them “the red aborigines.” They appear in Leaves of Grass only as people who have “vanished” — as if there was no violence involved in this “melting” and “departing.” In “Starting From Paumanok,” they’re mentioned in a single stanza, remembered only for “charging the water and the land with names” (26). Whitman’s epic whitewashes American history. During the years of Whitman’s production of Leaves of Grass, Indian Wars were fought by the United States government everywhere west of the Mississippi. The first edition appeared in the wake of the Trail of Tears. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred at the end of 1890, the year before Whitman’s death. Whitman seems to have thought little about his complicity with the evils of a government that wages war on Indians. This despite the fact that he spent the year of 1865 working in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. So, it wasn’t like he was unaware of indigenous people — he just regarded them as “savages,” doomed to demise by the settler-state’s imagined “manifest destiny.” Beyond just casually dismissing indigenous struggles, however, Whitman was also an appropriationist, his English decorated with words poached from native languages, particularly names of tribes and names of places. How do we make Whitman and the past he represents “useful,” as Frederick Douglass said, “to the present and the future”?
What are white people whose grandfathers fought on behalf of the settler state to do? Silko would say begin by acknowledging one’s ancestry and one’s relationship to the land. The land upon which we stand is like the back of a turtle. Native people, along with their ancestors, including nonhuman relatives and kin, are the ones who made this world. I, meanwhile, am a child of people who called themselves “immigrants.” Before that, they were Europeans; upon settling, they became thinkable to themselves and others as “Italian-Americans,” “Irish-Americans,” or what have you. Assimilated into whiteness but for a hyphenated attachment — a sometimes-proudly, sometimes-guiltily-clung-to trace of ethnicity. These latter were everywhere present among members of my extended family. Dialect; manners of eating, speaking, and being together with others; a tendency to gesticulate; a regional accent. Some of what I myself possessed, I lost when I left home for school. Yet here I am now, with a home, and a family, and a bit of land. From this property mortgaged to me by a bank, the settler state exacts its fee.
Indigenous people possess a knowledge of the land that settler people lack. Land is part of their being — their idea-systems, their stories, their practices. Much has been taken from them, but they survive, they persist. The way they do so, individually and collectively, is through creation and performance of ceremony. Hoops, star maps, sand paintings: these are architectures used to shelter acts of healing. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, we encounter the hogan and the kiva (238). A “kiva” is a room used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings. The room is circular and underground. In Ceremony, a tribal council of old men use a kiva to counteract the influence of the world of the “destroyers” — evil magicians who try to bring on the end of the world through what Silko calls “the witchery.” Capitalism, colonialism, primitive accumulation — all are tools devised by the destroyers. History is understood as the handiwork of an occult, esoteric conspiracy of grand, cosmic, spiritual proportion. All of that may be no more than a “poor person’s cognitive map,” as the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said — but it’s one that works, one that allows Tayo and his people to survive. Silko’s ambitions are grand. She weaves into her narrative an awareness of its proximity to Los Alamos and Trinity. When reading, one finds oneself wondering about the meaning of the Manhattan Project as an event in Native American history and cosmology. Native Americans have seen their lands mined, bombed, cut down with US weaponry for centuries. The US tested weapons on native land in the deserts of New Mexico; they then used those weapons against Japanese civilians in 1945. Silko’s protagonist Tayo finds himself caught in that narrative; he and his brother fought the Japanese during their service in the US army during WWII. Tayo returns from the war sick about the loss of his brother Rocky — but sick as well with shame about having left the reservation to serve in the white man’s army.
Some of these recent trance-scripts have been addressing and will continue to address for the remainder of the summer the course I’m planning to teach this fall. The idea is to sit with texts and think with them. Texts belonging to a rebellious current — particular expressions that leap across time, appearing throughout American history in the nation’s literature. Placed in dialogue, these texts reveal the Empire, the settler-colony in its pattern of continuous struggle with the land and its people. Rebellion occurs in these texts in open opposition to settler histories, settler temporalities, settler cosmologies. This course, of course, is a work in progress — and also a critique of progress. Yet here I am also learning to make pizza, dough and all. Or so was my hope before the baby woke. Sarah and I collaborate on a pair of dueling Sicilians.
In the second book in the Parable series, Parable of the Talents, Earthseed’s status as a religion places it into conflict with neighboring creeds, especially hostile, intolerant ones like US President Andrew Steele Jarret’s Christian America. With Earthseed, Butler creates for us a black feminist reimagining of John Africa’s group MOVE and its 1985 conflict with the Philadelphia Police Department during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Butler projects that earlier conflict forward into a twenty-first century America presaged by the LA riots of 1992. If one teaches this book, one should encourage one’s students to sit with Earthseed. Read its verses. Try it on, test it out as a belief system. Which aspects of it appeal to you? Which, if any, trouble you, and why? My attitude toward Earthseed is a bit like Zahra’s when she tells Lauren, “I don’t care about no outer space. You can keep that part of it. But if you want to put together some kind of community where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around, I’m with you” (223). After reading Nick Estes, I also find myself pondering Lauren’s relationship to settler-colonialism. Is Earthseed settler-colonialist, both in its establishment of Acorn (a literal settlement intent on growth) and in its advocacy for the spread of a “survivalistic” earthly biology into outer space? Or is its pursuit of multiracial community in fact the only real alternative to settler-colonialism? Settler-colonialism has already, for the past 500 years, been the case here on Turtle Island, and will remain so, unless and until groups commit to decolonization and antiracism. With Earthseed, Butler imagines for us a movement that does this. Earthseed resists the white settler-colonialist project, given that the biology Earthseed wishes to propagate is ethnically and racially diverse. All are welcome. To join, one simply agrees to live by Earthseed’s creed: a belief system that demands only that we serve and protect each other and come to each other’s aid — no more and no less.
They: the standardizers, the calculators, the settlers. They convert by use of culture, / but cultures need not comply. We can learn other languages, teach other literatures, wise up, rise up.
What is my relationship to US settler-colonialism? For historian Nick Estes and the members of the Red Nation, the US is not a “nation of immigrants” but a “nation of settlers.” My ancestors are said to have arrived to North America from Ireland and Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — after the Civil War. They settled in apartments in urban ethnic enclaves in New York and New Haven, another group in Memphis, TN. After service in the two World Wars, they purchased homes in the new postwar suburbs of Long Island — though “purchased” is perhaps a misnomer, as the banks retained portions of these mortgaged properties, debt in that way a permanent tool of extraction. Both grandfathers launched and ran small businesses. Before I was born, however, both were dealt charges of tax evasion. One settled quickly by paying a fine; the other refused, and may or may not have had minor mafia connections, my parents always denying involvement of that sort (though maybe also hinting at it in secret?). All I know is, expenses ate away at his always-no-more-than-modest wealth, leaving my parents and I no inheritance other than debt. Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve lived in rental homes on land that was several centuries ago stolen from Native people. My parents sent me off to a settler-colonialist boarding school, a “university,” so that by boarding school’s end I was left with the bill, a bill that in its form as debt has sentenced me to life as the equivalent of Staff at another of the system’s boarding schools. Can a person of my circumstance join the Red Nation? What would that mean? What would that entail? The struggle, after all, is worldwide, is it not? All of us occupy a place in it. Time to decolonize the world, from within and without Occupied Territories. (There’s your microcosm and your macrocosm. There’s your cognitive map. There it is: the totality and one’s place in it. It was there, in a sense, in Brave New World and its reservation system, albeit distorted by the particulars of Huxley’s standpoint and powers of vision.)
The white American settler-state has failed in its stewardship of the planet. Let us return power to the Red Nation. Build and strengthen “caretaking economies” to oppose what Nick Estes calls “the caretakers of violence such as the police and military.” Support the Sanders campaign and demand a Red Deal. Honor relations and kin.
I situate myself amid circles of relatives and kin. Friends and family shower Sarah, F. and I with gifts. Each day is lovely. I wish to give back, give thanks. How do I do that properly in light of settler-colonialism? What happens, too, when we view postal systems in that light? Let our view take into its account Thomas Pynchon’s approach to these matters — but also the idea of mail systems as prehistories of the Internet. Wasn’t the Pony Express an arm of the settler state? What happens when texts replace letters as units of exchange? How do we remove or subtract from these relations guns, money, and oil — the tools, in the Whole Earth sense, at the core of the settler toolkit? Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand produced a multimedia slide show which he performed called “America Needs Indians.” His wife at the time was a Chippewa woman named Lois Jennings. How did the commune movement that Brand and Jennings catered to with their Whole Earth Truck Store negotiate its relationship to the settler-colonialist project? Were they attempting an alliance with Native people, or did they think of themselves as cowboys, as in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad Manifesto? For Ant Farm, though, the cowboy was distinct from the settler. The cowboy “carried all his life support systems with him being restricted by what his vehicle (horse) could carry.” Something of the same can be said for the hero of Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. Missing from that figuration of the cowboy, however, is his relation to land. Does the cowboy’s migrancy, his refusal to settle down, absolve him of complicity with the settler-colonialist project? By “migrancy,” I mean his life “on the road,” as Kerouac put it — the latter’s Dean Moriarty character nothing if not a cowboy. Poet Gary Snyder described Moriarty as an embodiment of “the energy of the archetypal west, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (as quoted in Ann Charters’s “Introduction” to On the Road, p. xxix). The hippie counterculture at its best, however, was more than just a collection of “cowboy nomads.” It fashioned itself into a Woodstock Nation, a coming together, a global village, a gathering of the tribes.
I sit in my living room admiring this beautiful, brand new human who, according to a scale, has already grown a whole pound larger since last her pediatrician weighed her. By afternoon the sun has moved us outdoors. I honor mothers and mammalian and marsupial kin by carrying her in a front-facing pouch as I stroll through the neighborhood, talking with Sarah about a Nick Estes book that we’re reading together: a history of Indigenous resistance called Our History Is The Future. As readers we find ourselves wondering: How do we join the resistance to settler-colonialism so as to lessen the latter’s hold on lands, peoples, and nations? Perhaps I can begin by rethinking Hippie Modernist art, literature, and culture in light of Indigenous resistance movements of the 60s and 70s like Red Power and AIM. Rewatch counterculture westerns, movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man, and Midnight Cowboy. Watch, too, as F. lies on a couch listening to songs from Jeremy Steig’s Howlin’ for Judy, Karen Dalton’s “Reason to Believe,” Amen Dunes’s “Lonely Richard,” and Jessica Pratt’s “Moon Dude.”