I want you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the American frontier.
What did you see? Maybe you saw an expanse of canyons, mountains, and mesas sprawled over open lands. Maybe you saw virgin forests, wild rivers, fertile valleys just waiting to be crossed. Maybe you saw mountain men and scouts like Merriweather Lewis, William Clark, and Davy Crockett scaling the Rockies. Maybe you saw covered wagons, log cabins, and cowboys sitting around a fire. Horses, buffalo, and elk. Or maybe, thinking futuristically, you saw the starry precipice of JFK's new frontier - of space and technology, hope and prosperity. Whichever way you may imagine it, the common thread is this: the American frontier is an open expanse with the promise of an adventure.
But there's one dilemma we didn't account for - what if that expanse is already inhabited? We all know that there were indigenous people in North America long before settlers landed on their shores. So, by default, it couldn't have been that open. If you can't imagine it already, I bet you're curious as to how civilization looked back then - you know, America before all the suburbs, highways, and Walmarts. Ok. Close your eyes again, but this time fill the landscape with tens of millions of men, women, and children. They're organized in complex societies, they have homes built, crops growing, and an endless supply of animals for food, shelter, and ceremony. They believe that all living things are sacred and, with deep reverence, they take from the Earth what they need to survive.
Open your eyes. It's beautiful, isn't it? Perhaps you think it's a bit idyllic, and to that I'll concede that there were some disputes among neighboring tribes that turned lethal. But you can be sure that there was no precedent for the wave of violence and disease that would soon smash upon the shores of the Atlantic. The colonists came in droves. Soon, they needed room to grow and access to precious resources latent in the Earth like coal, timber and gold - the jewels of that fertile valley. They needed railroad lines and room enough to build an infrastructure for industry. There were fortunes to be made. As for dealing with the Native population, manifest destiny, the settler's dogma that God told them to expand through the continent by any means necessary, served as the ideological excuse to justify genocide.
So, let's be accurate. I want you to close your eyes one more time and now, imagine American scouts marching west. They've been sent by the federal government to burn all the crops, kill the livestock, rape the women, spread smallpox, and murder the rest who stand in their way. And they do. Pointing guns at their heads, U.S. representatives make tribal leaders sign away more and more land until they're forced onto reservations, impoverished plots of land intentionally designed to make survival nearly impossible. Uprisings are crushed. People are massacred. Entire villages are burned.
Now open your eyes. Look out the window. If there isn't one, just look around. Think of where you are, how you got here, and how you might define here. Today in the U.S., the ideology that dominates descends from the colonist, so we need to take a full step back and shift perspectives to see where we are. Imagine you are a guest in someone else's home. You might be very courteous, even painfully polite, and you might express your gratitude for being allowed to "make yourself at home" with some kind of reciprocal gesture. It probably wouldn't occur to you to deliberately make your host feel inferior, to claim their property to be your own, destroy it, sweep the ashes under the rug, then conjure up a story of how it was your God-given right to be there in the first place. And yet, that's a large part of the foundation we stand on today. I don't say this to lay the burden of guilt on all of us without Native American ancestry. I say it so that we can make things better now by respecting our host (Native people), the house we live in (the land they cultivated for centuries), get our history straight, and end the cycle of violence that has plagued the U.S. since its inception.
When I was in South America this past spring, I encountered another meaning of the word frontier: la frontera - the border. There are many who believe that a good border is an airtight one, hence the adage "Good fences make good neighbors." It's undeniable that our lives change due to the melding of cultures, and although there are ongoing perils still embedded in past encounters, it's hard to deny some of the benefits we see today. In the U.S., we are blessed with Mexican food and a tenacious work-force. On the reservation, there is no shortage of country music hailing from Nashville to Bakersfield and there's a particular kind of Native Americana that flourishes here. And luckily for us guests, Native Americans have granted us access to national parks filled with rock formations and supernatural skylines that would make your heart melt.
At the time of this writing, I consider myself extremely lucky. I am living in Window Rock, the capital of Navajo Nation in the American Southwest. I get to talk with Native people every day. I get to hear stories about their culture and their own account of history. I get to hear their music in religious and secular settings. I get to work in their fields and grow crops like corn, melons, and squash that they've been cultivating for centuries. And what's most striking to me is that I've never met people so generous, so humorous, so welcoming, and so unhesitant to take me, an obvious outsider, in as a guest.