Sometimes a truth looms so large that it fills up a room, a county, a country, yet we don’t see it. It’s this oversized truth itself that blocks our view. Of course, if we can back up a bit, find a place to stand that offers a new angle of vision, it’s obvious.
At least, this has happened for me. My friend Lydia was one of two Black women students at the University of Idaho in 1966. She had grown up in White Plains, New York, and I was sure she must be relieved to get away from the racism she had experienced there.
“Oh, no,” she told me. “It’s much worse here.”
I was astonished. How could that be?
“Because you don’t know you’re racist,” she explained.
I thought of her words as my home state, Idaho, became a haven for neo-Nazis and now whites seeking an “American Redoubt.” Later, one of my own students would tell me she couldn’t write about racism because everyone in her town was white. No one had asked her to wonder why, or taught her about Oregon’s historical exclusion of Black people.
But sometimes I find myself astonished at how blind we can be — or rather, how thoroughly we’ve been conditioned not to see what’s right in front of us. At an event one night, after I had read from my collection of memoir essays “Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land,” a woman asked about the book’s subtitle. Would I have been so aware that land was taken from Native people if I hadn’t grown up on a homestead my grandfather had claimed after the Nez Perce Reservation was “opened” by the Dawes Allotment Act?
I hope so, I told her. Is there a place on this continent where that wouldn’t be true? The earth beneath this very building holds their footsteps. (How can she possibly be unaware of this? I was thinking.)
That story has been erased, then distorted by Hollywood and trivialized by costumes and mascots. No wonder this blind spot is so common.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma’s tribal boundaries, which had shrunk since 1907 statehood, should revert to their original status. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. Unless Congress said otherwise, the government should keep its word.
But Congress can say otherwise, as broken treaties attest. This week my pandemic reading was Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman,” a novel based on her own grandfather’s efforts to prevent the termination of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. As always, she lightens a difficult story with humor, but it was painful to read about our country’s effort to seize what remained of Indian land by relocating indigenous people and writing them out of existence.
Erdrich’s grandfather and local leaders of the CTUIR were successful, but in the book’s afterword Erdrich writes, “113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited. By the end, 78 tribal nations regained federal recognition; 10 gained state but not federal recognition; 31 tribes are landless; 24 are considered extinct.”
Rich Wandschneider, director of the Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon, writes that as he traveled with Alvin Josephy to speeches and book signings for his 2001 memoir “A Walk Toward Oregon,” this great historian of Native peoples would “look for his books and find them with ‘butterflies ... dinosaurs, and dodo birds,’ and would mutter that ‘Indians don’t have history or biography, you know.’ They have anthropology, and are consigned to ‘museums of natural history, not human history.’ Next to the seashells and butterflies on bookstore shelves.”
Yes, systemic racism does exist, as several contributors to this newspaper — Latinx, Native, Black, and white members of our community — have reminded us. And so, I would argue, does systemic classism and systemic sexism. These truths are nationwide, and it would be something of a miracle if they skipped our county.
But if we can learn to see them, together we could change them.