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25.11.03

Sense Of Place

Doug Merrill has a post over at A Fistful of Euros asking about whether Americans have less sense of place than Europeans. It's an question that plays off the idea that America is a land of immigrants, with a shallow history (like the old joke "What's the difference between a European and an American? The European thinks 100 miles is a long way, and the American thinks 100 years is a long time.").

This is a familiar idea, but we white residents of postcolonial nations more often hear ourselves contrasted in this way with our own indigenous populations than with Europe. White Americans* are said to lack the deep roots in the land that Natives have evolved over thousands of years of living with a patch of country.

One response to this is to valorize a lack of connection to place. Place-connected people can even be portrayed as parochial stuck-in-the-muds. This is popular, and I think there's something to be said for mobility as a lifestyle choice for some people.

Another response is to question the empirical basis of the contrast between white and Native (or American and European). On the one hand, there has been work done that shows that Native Americans were not quite so eternally and holistically connected to their land as the extreme binary would claim. This argument can be politically dangerous, as it threatens a discourse that many Native and pro-Native people have a lot invested in. These people are right to fear that such debunking can be misused to support the claim that Natives' status vis a vis the land is no different from that of other populations (and hence it's no big deal that it was stolen from them). Middle grounds can be tough to hold.

The other side of this response is to hold that, despite the relatively short time that white culture and society have been in America, whites are still able to develop a strong sense of place. Social relations of relatively recent origin are so easily naturalized and made to seem as if they came from time immemmorial that it's very concievable for a reasonable sense of place to have developed in a recent-immigrant culture. The official stance of the Oneida Nation toward non-Oneidas living in the area of their land claim is interesting in this regard. The Nation reassures residents that they will not be kicked out if the land claim succeeds, because the Oneidas know how awful it is to lose one's home. This recognizes that, though the land may have become available for white settlement illegitimately, that doesn't change the fact that the whites who have lived there have developed a connection to that land, made it their home.

Over time, there seems to be a shift in explanation with regard to how Americans teach themselves the nation's history. The classic view of American history is of America as a sort of blank slate, a wilderness to be claimed and a fresh start free of the persecutions and entrenched political interests of ancient England. But more and more it seems that Americans of all races are seeking to adopt Native history (at least pre-1492) as their history. History books are more likely now than before to start with the Paleoindians in Beringia rather than Christopher Columbus in Genoa. This seems to indicate a desire to find deep roots in the land, to look for one's forebears through the lens of place rather than of culture or genes.

*And presumably other non-Native races as well, but when you're talking in binaries the racial picture tends to get simplified to just two groups.

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