American Progress

I like the idea of Thanksgiving as much as the next white guy, I imagine.  I like it as much as most of my Indian, Native American, and Indigenous friends.  Only a fool thinks there is no need for thankfulness for having this shot to live out our particular existence within and of creation; having the chance to wonder—in our particular human way—what it means to think and ponder our connection—from earth dust to star dust—and imagine what has been, what is, what will be.

Thankfulness should matter.  We should remember this life is nothing without relationship: with humans, with water, with animals, with plants, with wind, with microorganisms, with stars, with dirt.  We should remember we are little without the fullness of creation.

In thankfulness though, we should take note of what intrudes upon the wellbeing of creation.  In our comfort we need to voice that which shatters relationship, kills, damages generationally, and hinders creations wellbeing, wonderment, imagination, and spirit.

For many, this month began like any other month.  Morning alarm, breakfast, dressing for work while preparing children for school, a car or bus drive, work, another drive, supper, tv-video-computer, bed.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  The first day of November looked a lot like the last day of October.  Yet the desires of those whose faith is located in nation building, business profits, and stock holder desires—whose thankfulness on this day is a bulging wallet—were greeted with a nationalistic act which enhanced the concept of US exceptionalism and superiority, enriched corporate greed, supported colonization genocide, and buttressed patriotic hate.  And damaged our communal integrity.

On Halloween, President Trump declared November “National American History and Founders Month.”  The declaration is to be a “dedication to promoting liberty and justice,” and give a “deeper understanding of our American story.”  The term National American History is problematic enough.  Combined with Founders Month though, the declaration is nothing less than evil.

Now evil is an awfully harsh word, one which should not be used easily.  So, I best clarify.  What I mean to say is National American History and Founders Month is equivalent to Andrew Jackson/Martin Van Buren’s Cherokee/Choctaw Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, both Wounded Knee’s, and Lincoln’s Dakota 38+2.  Each of those events tore at Creation.  The question is begged, does this new declaration tear Creation from its natural harmonic state?  Is humanity left damaged, mis-identified, and incapable of acting from a character of pure natural care? Can a declared month be compared with historical Indigenous genocide?  Let us consider the thought.

Article 8 (2) (e) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples notes, “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.”  Historically, the US used propaganda to provoke citizens love of country and anger toward those—individual and nations—whom challenge US superiority and those whom stymie US (national and business) expansion.  When propaganda separates and creates barriers between people it bumps up against evil.  When it causes death of body, identity, or spirit it is evil.  Which makes it fair to ask what does historical US propaganda look like and how was it used to mis-identify people and creation?

The 1872 painting “American Progress” by John Gast is one of the best known and most cited works of US propaganda.  In this painting Columbia guides and protects settlers in their westward movement.  Dressed in a Roman toga Columbia represents the light of western reason—herself bringing light to a pagan landscape.  The eastern flake of the painting represents the enlightenment of established cities, commerce, and expansionism.  Alongside her are the seekers, adventurers, and settlers whose manifest destiny is to occupy the landscape in its entirety.  Columbia faces the dark west where she will drive out the bare-breasted Indian, the bear, the buffalo, and the “wild” horse.  The painting presents US virtuousness, superiority, and righteousness.  At its core, American Progress is political propaganda used to convince an eastern populous of the US “right” to occupy and control the landscape from sea to sea.

Where John Gast’s propaganda painting bumps up against evil, an earlier painting, John Vanderlyn’s 1804 “The Death of Jane McCrea,” settles squarely within evil by using death to instill loathing and hatred into the expanding White populace.  In the painting, Jane McCrea takes on Columbiad overtones.  Setting just off centered, McCrea is the feminine Christ figure enmeshed in “the light” of innocence, virtue, God.  Breast nearly exposed, two Indians hold her arms in crucifix fashion.  The two Indians represent both unenlightened criminals each side of McCrea’s Christ figure—one who grasps her and one whom she grasps—anddark, well-muscled, pagan, executioners.  The painting, used to heighten settler anger against the British, is an example of US propaganda placing Indians as the savage who is to be feared, who stands squarely against the enlightened virtuous east, and who must be eliminated.  Gast and Vanderlyn are early US propaganda examples of placing Native Americans in a negative light; which would be repeated in books, handbills, cartoons, radio and television shows, and movies in the decades to come.

Might National American History and Founders Month be its own form of propaganda that is “designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination…against” Indigenous peoples?  First consideration is in 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month.  Each president since, including Trump, has approved some variant, e.g., National Native American Heritage Month.  According to the Law Library of Congress, “National American Indian Heritage Month celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of the peoples who were the original inhabitants, explorers and settlers of the United States.”  Core to the month is the recognition of ancient people, their decedents, their unique presence and contributions to the North American landscape, and to unsilenced their voice(s).  The act is to say a people(s) have a grounded and ancient presence in this landscape.  The act also pushes for a new and different history which speaks both to the ancient people and their struggle against colonization.  For one month each year, the act asks the people of the US to learn and consider a new narrative which includes all of the landscape’s inhabitants.  And, important to our context, this is not a Republican, Democratic, Independent, Socialist, Green concern, but a human one.

Trumps National American History and Founders Month says it is about promoting “liberty and justice” and a “deeper understanding of our American story.”  However, it presents as a Columbiad response to National Native American Heritage Month.  Placing Founders against the Native narrative, heightens non-Native virtue, systemically maintains Founder privilege, and claims a moralistic society of Colonialism.  Founders month undermines the celebration of North American original explorers and peoples in favor of the tired conviction of a terra nulles landscape—an empty land—prior to European settlement.  Founders month is a backward move.  A move based in the conviction of superiority.  A move that endorses systemic Native poverty, inadequate healthcare, historical trauma, shortened life expectancy, silencing, and invisibility in favor of nation building and business profit.  Such is genocide—death by spirit, culture, and being.  Such is evil.

To take a moment and be thankful for the contentment and ease we know is right and just.  Today’s meals should certainly be full of laughter and conversation of good times.  But good times only have meaning if they are contrasted to our hard and troublesome times.  Similarly, our conversations today should enter the depths of those who struggle and our questions should explore why too much of creation on this earth hurts.  For while the Columbia breezes effortlessly in the light of progress, much of creation stands in the darkness of her wake.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s