In Part One, I called attention to the specters which haunt as we try to live into more intimate and thoughtful relationships to land. Part Two is designed to call these specters by name. The goal of this series is not banishment or exorcism, but rather genuine, empathetic encounter.
We are all inheritors of different traumas, different histories. We inherit – through story, social history, family traditions, language, wealth, place, resources. psychological complexes, and epigenetic inheritances – differently textured legacies. The specters discussed here haunt all Americans, but they do so differently; what differs significantly is the debt, the burden, the weight of these legacies, which some of us are privileged enough to carry more lightly than others. What follows is not an exhaustive list, for such a list is not possible. I will focus on a troop of specters that I designate the Specters of Empire: War, Dislocation, Slavery, Racism, and Christian Dominionism. I will discuss two contexts in which their burden is felt most heavily: Native American and African American lives.
Native American Lives and Imperial Specters
The “official” relationship between the government of the newly formed United States of America and the First Nations peoples began when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was formed in 1824, as part of the War Department. The Indian Removal Act went into effect only four years later, and was followed in 1838 by the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands on a forced march called the “Trail of Tears.” The removal of other tribes quickly followed. As if programmatically, the Native Peoples were displaced, lives were set out of joint, by the rapid westward expansion of settlers, entrepreneurs, the railroads, evangelists, herd animals, new technologies, armies, violence, diseases, ideologies, languages, academic programs, government policies, ecological devastations, and religions.
But it was not simply “contact” which so disrupted Native American ways of life, no simple, “cultural selection” that decided between competing ways of life. Interruption and disruption of native lifeways were expressions of a deeply rooted ideology of colonial expansion, including the goal of conversion, in the Euro-American mind. This was expressed in a spectrum of behaviors ranging from paternalistic “concern” (manifesting in the assimilationist policies and boarding schools) – to apathy and opportunism (manifesting in the unregulated and exploitative interactions between American citizens and Natives) – to outright hate (manifesting in the many massacres across history, and in the forced sterilizations of thousands of Native women from 1930 to the 1970s).
Christian dominionism and racism have historically distorted and continue to distort relationships between cohabiters of the American continent – human and non-human. While these specters manifest materially through violence, they more commonly haunt historical narratives, inspiring the narratives of Manifest Destiny and (white) American exceptionalism. A form of Christian dominionism emerged when, as explained by Carolyn Merchant, “beginning in the seventeenth century and proceeding to the present, New World colonists have undertaken a massive effort to reinvent the whole earth in the image of the Garden of Eden.”
Coupled with this effort were new technologies, sciences, and economic advantages, fueled by the progressive visions of the Enlightenment. This “recovery narrative” is part of a longer Christian Heilsgeschichte, or sacred history, which unfolds according to God’s plan for humans and the world according to the prophecies of the scriptures. Protestant virtues of labor and evangelism, coupled with European chauvinism, drove a program for the transformation of the American wilderness and its “heathen” peoples from a wild, unproductive “waste” into a useful, Christianized site of “production,” like a pacified woman whose womb is made passive and fertile, subdued by men.
In their 2005 study of multigenerational trauma and its effects on the psychological health of Native Americans across the North American continent, Eduardo Duran, Bonnie Duran, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, and Susan Yellow Horse-Davis trace the consequences of a disastrous historical legacy which continues to the present day. This unresolved, cumulative, inter-generationally compounded trauma takes many forms. Duran et al. describe some common symptoms in the context of the Lakota people: “persecutory fantasies and a perception of the world as dangerous the fantasy of the return of the old way of life, analogous to compensatory fantasies; apprehension, shame, withdrawal, grandiosity in daydreams, and anxiety about aggressive impulses.” Some of the struggles of the inheritors of the colonial legacy are not dissimilar from those of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, according to Brave Heart-Jordan. These include: “the difficult in mourning a mass grave, the dynamics of collective grief, and the importance of community memorialization.”
Christian Dominionism intersected with European chauvinism and racism in powerful ways in the erasure of Native American languages, cultures, histories, and sacred lifeways. Even before the formation of the United States as a political entity, Junipero Serra began establishing missions in Baja, and then Alta California in the mid-18th century. Pope Francis I’s 2015 decision to canonize the “evangelizer of the West” was met with criticism by Native Californians. According to the Washington Post, “a headstone at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, [California], where Serra is buried,” was vandalized with the words “Saint of Genocide.”
The vandalism stands in stark contrast to Pope Francis’ description of “Serra as someone who ‘sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” The Church has its narrative, and the native peoples their own. The difference is that the Church’s history and traditions have been preserved by a powerful, international institution, often at the expense of the history, language, traditions, and lifeways of the native peoples folded into its “embrace.”
African American Lives and Imperial Specters
The Specter of the African slave trade, as well as the institution of slavery in North America that fueled it, still haunts the inhabitants of this continent, fracturing relationships between population and land. The harmful effects of the slave trade are legion, from the vast wealth of labor stolen from generations of slaves, to the inadequate and limited distribution of land, rights, representation, and access to services post-Reconstruction. The structural and systemic wounds abound. Slavery was followed by a century and a half of continued anxiety, precarity, and further, if different, forms of victimization, many of which continue up to this day. We can see this specter’s effects in at least two ways: in its haunting of collective memory, and in the way that memory shapes the relationships between African Americans and the land.
According to Diane Glave, it is not the case that, collectively, African Americans are “physically and spiritually detached from the land,” nor is it true that they lack a sense of environmental care or concern. Rather, according to Glave, the long African American tradition of “[practicing] environmentalism through the lenses of religion, agriculture, gardening, and nature study” is complicated by a relationship to the land also shaped by the collective memory of agricultural exploitation, violence, and multiple dislocations.
“Touching the Earth,” an essay by bell hooks, celebrates the soil as “a source of life,” “the magic of growing things,” and a “reverence for the earth” shared by Africans and people of the Creek Nation, whose collaboration in Florida led to the sharing of agricultural techniques. But at the same time, “overt racial harassment … was a constant in southern life,” and many black people moved north, seeking economic stability or advancement. This had its own consequences. In addition to northern racism, hooks writes,
Without the space to grow food, to commune with nature, or to mediate the starkness of poverty with the splendor of nature, black people experienced profound depression. Working in conditions where the body was regarded solely as a tool (as in slavery), a profound estrangement occurred between mind and body.
hooks argues that this deep connection, between the African American consciousness and an empowering relationship to soil, makes for a “correlation between the struggle for collective black self-recovery and ecological movements that seek to restore balance to the planet…”
Evelyn C. White offers a different take on the estrangement between black bodies and nature, focusing on the fear she experienced while teaching in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Caught between “elation at the prospect of living closer to nature and a sense of absolute doom about what might befall [her] in the backwoods,” White identified the source of her anxiety as a “genetic memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed upon in rural settings…” White found her relationship to nature shaped not only the deep memory of slavery, but also the more recent memories of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the murder of Emmett Till, both of which happened in her own lifetime. In her struggle to summon the courage to go on a rafting trip, she “conjured” her own specters:
I touched the terror of my Ibo and Ashanti ancestors as they were dragged from Africa and enslaved on southern plantations. I conjured Bloodhounds, burning crosses, and white-robed Klansmen hunting down people who looked just like me. I imagined myself being captured in a swampy backwater, my back ripped open and bloodied by the whip’s lash….
But when she finally took to the water, the words of Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” came to her:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
After the experience, White emerged a strong survivor, not unlike the ancestors she envisioned.
We cannot continue to live in ignorance of each other’s stories, or fail to hear the wailing of each other’s specters. What other specters haunt our landscape, our shared social and ecological flesh? Who struggles most under the weight of these legacies? Might this practice of listening to specters reshape our collective relationships to each other and the land? A whole haunted history is implicated in our traumatically fractured, complex present. Recognizing this breaks open the present into something more complicated, full of possibility. The present is composed of and contains the immense diversity of the materiality of the past, as well as the “promise” of the future.
In Part Three, I’ll discuss why encounter with specters is necessary, and how we ought to prepare in order to do so ethically and constructively.
Brave Heart-Jordan, M.Y.H. “The Return to the Sacred Path: Healing from Historical Trauma and Historical Unresolved Grief among the Lakota.” Doctoral Dissertation. Smith College, School for Social Work, Northampton, MA, 1995.
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 69–90. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.
Cross Jr., William E. “Black Psychological Functioning and the Legacy of Slavery: Myths and Realities.” In International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, edited by Yael Danieli, 387–400. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.
Duran, Eduardo, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, and Susan Yellow Horse-Davis. “Healing the American Indian Soul Wound.” In International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, edited by Yael Danieli, 1–17. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.
Eyerman, Ron. “Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity.” In Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (1), edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, and Bernard Giesen, 60–111. Berkeley, US: University of California Press, 2004.
Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.
hooks, bell. “Touching the Earth.” In Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture, edited by Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P O’Grady, 169–73. New York: Longman, 1999.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture, edited by Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P O’Grady, 168–69. New York: Longman, 1999.
ICMN Staff. “4 Native Entities That Opposed the Canonization of Junípero Serra (to No Avail).” Indian Country Media Network, September 25, 2015. https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/4-native-entities-that-opposed-the-canonization-of-junpero-serra-to-no-avail/.
Klein, Karin. “What California Indians Lost under Junipero Serra, Soon to Be Saint.” Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-serra-saint-20150116-story.html.
Merchant, Carolyn. “Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as Recovery Narrative.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 132–59. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.
Miller. “Junípero Serra Statue Defaced Days after Canonization by Pope Francis.” Washington Post. Accessed December 17, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/28/junipero-serra-statue-slurred-as-saint-of-genocide-days-after-canonization-by-pope-francis/.
Rose, Wendy. “Long Division: A Tribal History.” In Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture, edited by Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P O’Grady, 297–98. New York: Longman, 1999.
Tibesar, Antoine. “Serra, Junipero.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
White, Evelyn C. “Black Women and the Wilderness.” In Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture, edited by Lorraine Anderson, Scott Slovic, and John P O’Grady, 316–20. New York: Longman, 1999.
Yuhas, Alan. “Junípero Serra’s Road to Sainthood Is Controversial for Native Americans.” The Guardian, January 25, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/25/pope-francis-junipero-serra-sainthood-native-american-controversy.
Emile’s blog is here.
Amelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and has spent the last two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction through a radical affirmation of lived experience. It was through participating in Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) style rituals that Émile came to embrace Paganism. Émile will be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University in New Jersey from 2016-2019. Their goal is to construct a naturalistic pagan philosophy which engages Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism, while remaining firmly rooted in actual soil and actual lives. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys horseback riding, mystery dramas, and craft beer.
Read Emile’s previous posts here.