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  • Liz Simmons

This Land is Your Land: On the Legacy of Displacing

I am a Pacific Northwest transplant. I have no roots here, no heritage, no family. If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you about my partner and my children who live in my house, but then I’ll likely rattle off some facts about what casseroles are like in the Midwest. I’ll ask you if you’ve ever experienced a Christmas in Minnesota, if you’ve ever had snot freeze in your nostrils, or if you’ve ever climbed snow mountains made by snowplows in mall parking lots in January. I might talk about driving through a field of fireflies at night in the summer, or measuring myself next to a cornstalk at full height. I’ll tell you how there’s nothing like the Midwest in the Fall with its pumpkin patches and apple orchards and bonfires, its hayrides and haunted corn mazes sometimes mowed into the shape of someone’s face, if you have a bird’s eye view to see it. I'm a transplant; I'm not from here.

These nostalgic mental snapshots are my way of articulating some piece of my identity. I’ve never been to LA (I know, I know – anathema!), but I have dear friends who when they tell stories of LA where they’re from, I hear it: pieces of identity. I’m trying to think if there’s ever been a time when I’ve met a new friend and they didn’t tell me almost immediately where they’re from. This articulation of land and place as identity signifier is ancient. So today, on the day before Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I’m reflecting on the significance of land and place.

I grew up in elementary school rhyming “In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two,” but today I reflect critically on the theological jumping jacks that must have been evoked in order to make sense of the Doctrine of Discovery that whiteness claims in order to justify the evil of the colonialist moment.

In The Christian Imagination: Theology and Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings writes, “Those Christians went knowingly beyond geography into identity. They entered what for them was a frontier of strangeness. Already fearful and angled toward isolationist practices, they enacted a spatial vertigo, renaming places, people, and animals and reconfiguring life” (The Christian Imagination, 42, emphasis mine). He goes on: “The central effect of the loss of the earth as an identity signifier was that native identities, tribal, communal, familial, and spatial, were constricted to simply their bodies, leaving behind the very ground that enables and facilitates the articulation of identity” (The Christian Imagination, 43).

Enacting a spatial vertigo – is this the legacy of whiteness? For European “discoverers” to measure what they didn’t understand by what they did understand and then ascribe value to it – that is to say, the formulation of the racial scale? In the account of his third voyage Christopher Columbus reveals an ideology of supremacy, a comparison of land and of bodies that begins with the known self at the center and ascribes value based on how that land or body differs from the known self. It is the same ideology we see in Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex, two papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 and 1454, respectively. These papal bulls paved the way for the pillaging of lands and peoples in the name of Christ, claiming that “what benefited the European colonial powers would benefit the church” (Unsettling Truths, 16).

This discovering the New World? It was signed, sealed and delivered by European Christians, endorsed by the Pope himself. Under the guise of “advancing the Kingdom,” New Worlds were “discovered,” and genocide, slave trade, and the displacement of peoples were endorsed by Christians as agents of God. One year after Columbus reached the Americas in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull, Intra Caetera, which provided affirmation of European conquest, that “the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself” (Unsettling Truths, 19).

I could go on about ethnocentrism and hypocrisy of the Church, but let me return to the implications of displacement. Jennings writes, “Without place as the articulator of identity, human skin was asked to fly solo and speak for itself” (The Christian Imagination, 64). Well, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with human skin speaking for itself? My privilege is a reminder to me that I don’t have to do that. I grew up in a town where the Wahawks were (and still are) the high school mascot. I was born in Black Hawk county. I moved to a town where a reenactment of the battle for Mississinewa (1812) takes place every year as the height of town engagement and cultural experience. (I attended years ago; I can still feel the boom of muskets in my chest.) Further, the entire enterprise of the slave trade meant that people were forced from their homeland and onto ships, dislocated from the earth they knew, the land that formed them. (I can't even comprehend the gravity of what I just wrote.)

As I am coming to terms with my own complicity with the legacy my ancestors have given to me, I am learning how little I know about the land. I know now that I live on the land of the Kalapuya people, the original people of this land. They are the rightful inhabitants. They kept this land. They toiled upon it, they honored it, they kept it, they received from it and gave back to it. Without them, I would not have the home I have now in the Pacific Northwest. I am learning from my indigenous brothers and sisters, and I am grateful they have had the patience to teach me and help me to understand what I haven’t before now understood.

“All people do make claims on their land,” Jennings writes, “but the point here is that racial agency and especially whiteness rendered unintelligible and unpersuasive any narratives of the collective self that bound identity to geography, to earth, to water, trees, and animals. People would henceforth (and forever) carry their identities on their bodies, without remainder. From the beginning of the colonialist moment, being white placed one at the center of the symbolic and real reordering of space. In a real sense, whiteness comes into being as a form of landscape with all its facilitating realities.” (The Christian Imagination, 59)

And this is why the work of justice requires so much undoing for me as a white person. My landscape is whiteness; it is my mother tongue and my homeland. Out of this landscape I have unknowingly ordered and facilitated my entire world, asking others to abide by its rules and policies. So here’s a start:

  1. Read Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah.

  2. Read Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy Woodley. Then follow him on IG @eloheheagleswings. Donate if you can, or participate in the education opportunities they facilitate.

  3. Read Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way by the late Richard Twiss.

The mountains, I become part of it . . .

The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.

The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters.

I become part of it.

The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen . . .

I become part of it.

(Navajo Hymn)