March 08, 2010

Empty land in The Gift Outright

According to blogger Macon D., the Stuff White People Do includes think of the Americas as empty before white people came. His examples are:

  • The Hudson Bay Company's commercial showing how the firm invented Cowichan sweaters, and

  • Robert Frost's poem The Gift Outright, which he read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

  • Since I've already covered the commercial, let's look at the poem:The Gift Outright

    The land was ours before we were the land's.
    She was our land more than a hundred years
    Before we were her people. She was ours
    In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
    But we were England's, still colonials,
    Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
    Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves
    We were withholding from our land of living,
    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
    To the land vaguely realizing westward,
    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
    Such as she was, such as she would become.
    Macon D.'s comment on this:Once again, stirring words, inspirational even, until I get to thinking about who Frost's "we" is. The "colonials" were primarily British, and as they created a country, these people came to identify as "Anglo-Saxons," the "real" or "most" white people in an ever-morphing hierarchy of whiteness. And once again, Frost speaks of "the land" as if it was empty--still unstoried, artless, unenhanced--before white people came along to claim it as a gift. Maybe indigenous people are included in that line about "deeds of war"? But even then, they're cordoned off from the real story, the story about "us" and the formation of "our" country, by parentheses.

    I've often wondered--how did Native Americans hear this poem when Frost read it aloud to the nation, in 1961? And how did other non-white people hear it, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam to truly challenge and fight back against that great white "we"?
    This "empty land" stereotype is the pre-contact counterpart of the post-contact "vanishing Indian" stereotype. It probably deserves a catchy name such as "invisible Indians."

    But whatever you call it, you get the idea. When Europeans arrived, the land was uninhabited, so they were free to take it. When Indians popped up and said, "Hey, we inhabit it," Europeans ruled them out on a technicality: "You occupy the land, but you can't show us a deed registered with the Department of the Exchequer back home. Therefore, you don't own it, and we're free to take it."

    The Euro-Americans marched across the continent, taking the uninhabited occupied but not owned land and putting it to good use. A few Indians skulking behind rocks and trees fired arrows to protest this, but they eventually realized the white man's ways were superior. They gave up and vanished into the mists of time.

    Stories Americans tell themselves

    So America's fictional "history" goes something like this:

  • Pre-contact: No Indians. Land is uninhabited.
  • Contact: No Indians worth mentioning. Land is basically uninhabited.
  • Post-contact: No Indians (they've vanished). Land is uninhabited.

  • In other words, Euro-Americans made up fairy tales to justify their rapacious greed and genocidal actions. They behaved exactly like criminals who pillage and plunder someone and then say, "Well, they were asking for it." According to the predominant American myth, Indians were "asking for it" because they didn't use their land productively. Didn't fill it with absolute monarchies, lordships and serfdoms, plague-ridden cities, religious pogroms, etc.

    "Sorry, Indians," they basically said. "If you're going to act like wanton sluts rather than hard-working church women, we're going to have to rape you. It's your fault for making us do it.

    "Once we rape the wildness out of you, we hope you'll stop throwing your legs open to any passing strangers. And start acting like good God-fearing Christians. You know, like us."

    For the latest examples of American myth-making, see Natives Criticize Sid Meier's Colonization and "Bad Guys Aren't Us" in Avatar. For more on the subject in general, see Indians Owned the Land and Those Evil Europeans.

    P.S. No comments on this posting because some white Americans can't handle the truth about their Indian-raping and -killing ancestors.