Reframing history and adapting to shifting historical narratives
In the third book of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there’s a scene that has stuck with me as a good lesson for many times and circumstances, but especially those that require adaptability when facing great change.
In the book, Eustace, a self-entitled and unpleasant cousin of two of the main characters, has been pulled into Narnia along with them, tumbling from our world onto Prince Caspian’s ship Dawn Treader, and is having a miserable time. One day, as the ship’s crew is exploring an island, Eustace wanders off and finds himself in a dragon’s cave. The dragon is breathing its last just outside, and Eustace, his heart full of the treasure hoard he’s stumbled upon, falls asleep on piles of gold. He wakes up a dragon.
There are lots of little lessons in Eustace’s story about greed and grace (I had read these books many times as a kid before being told they were Christian allegory), but I’ve always been most taken by the scene where the god-lion Aslan tells Eustace what he must do to be free of the dragon self he has become. He has to scrape off the imposed dragon skin and then wash himself clean of it in a well.
Unable to interact fully with the other humans, Eustace is even more miserable as a dragon than he was as a boy; isolation and loneliness have become his defining experiences in just a few days. He is ashamed of himself and desperate to become human again.
So he follows Aslan’s instruction and scraps the skin off, layer after layer, increasingly desperate each time he descends to the well water and sees his reflection, still a dragon. He can’t seem to make any progress. Finally, Aslan tells him he’s not going deep enough. The lion will do it for him but it will hurt. Eustace recounts his experience to his cousins the next day:
“I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”
Aslan then tosses Eustace into the well water, where he discovers himself once again to have the skin of a boy.
I’m told that C.S. Lewis intended this as a tale of conversion and baptism, but I’m far more interested in what it says about the pain of facing change in our own identities, in how we perceive the world and our place in it. Change is hard. Until we face it, we don’t know how painful it is, especially in a culture that devalues or even scorns adaptability and willingness to change.
When we see adaptability as a weakness, we get rupture, fear, and mistrust—we’re almost destined to experience change as something as brutal as ripping off our own skin. It’s a lot easier to lash out with any power we have in an increasingly desperate need to force everyone else into the worldview that makes us feel safe.
Riane Eisler makes sense of this reaction in her book on domination versus partnership cultures, Nurturing Our Humanity, showing, for example, the links between authoritarian upbringings and a tendency to support authoritarian politics. Referencing research from psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswick, developer of the F scale that gauges comfort with fascism, she writes that:
“People who scored high on this F scale had typically grown up with a great fear of punishment in families with powerful authority figures. [Frenkel-Brunswick] also found that people from these kinds of backgrounds—in her words, people from families where roles were ‘clearly defined in terms of dominance and submission’—tended to develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality and to support strongman leaders. . . . People from authoritarian families also tended to lack tolerance of ambiguity and have a strong aversion to complexity.
“And that is not all. Recent brain experiments indicate that the experiences that lead to this mental rigidity actually leave their mark on the brain—and that these brain patterns appear to affect people’s political orientations.”
People who described themselves as “very conservative,” wrote Eisler, were slow to shift away from “preconceived or habitual ideas.”
“For children in abusive domination families, it is far too dangerous to disagree with their parents, let alone blame them for the pain they inflict. . . . Hence the frequent idealization of punitive parents by their adult children, as well as the tendency of people brought up this way to idealize ‘strong’ leaders and scapegoat ‘weak’ out-groups.”
For children raised in this way, authoritarian leaders feel safe because they conform to what the child’s brain was forced into accepting and adapting to as “safe” while they developed and survived.
Eisler’s research came to mind a lot as I finished Blake Watson’s legal academic book Buying America from the Indians, in tandem with listening through the second season of the This Land podcast about the current court cases that seek to dismantle the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
Buying America from the Indians is a hard book to describe. I read it because I wanted a deeper understanding of the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision Johnson v. McIntosh that declared outright that Native American people—the people, if anyone needs reminding, who had been living on this continent for time immemorial or at least tens of thousands of years before Europeans showed up—couldn’t sell land because they didn’t own it. They had right of tenancy, wrote Chief Justice Marshall, but not right of ownership. Ownership, the decision declared, came only with discovery and “improvement”:
“Discovery is the foundation of title, in European nations, and this overlooks all proprietary rights in the natives. The sovereignty and eminent domain thus acquired, necessarily precludes the idea of any other sovereignty existing within the same limits. The subjects of the discovering nation must necessarily be bound by the declared sense of their own government, as to the extent of this sovereignty, and the domain acquired with it. Even if it should be admitted that the Indians were originally an independent people, they have ceased to be so. A nation that has passed under the dominion of another, is no longer a sovereign state. The same treaties and negotiations, before referred to, show their dependent condition. Or, if it be admitted that they are now independent and foreign states, the title of the plaintiffs would still be invalid: as grantees from the Indians, they must take according to their laws of property, and as Indian subjects. The law of every dominion affects all persons and property situate within it; and the Indians never had any idea of individual property in lands. It cannot be said that the lands conveyed were disjoined from their dominion; because the grantees could not take the sovereignty and eminent domain to themselves.”
Because these sovereign nations didn’t share Europeans’ conceptions about property ownership, the decision declared, their right to the land was washed away by European nations’ claims.
“They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion; but their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.”
(There’s a lot more and I’d like to say that it’s all very stomach-churning but that phrase is far too passive for a court decision whose underlying assumptions still dictate America’s legal stance toward land ownership today, including Native land ownership. “Unconscionable” is the word I’d like to use.)
Buying America is specifically about the history of a certain piece of land that a group of white men originally purchased from the Piankeshaw nation, and how changes in the law regarding ownership (bridging America’s Revolutionary War and the question of royal jurisdiction) played out over decades in legal battles, political corruption, broken treaties, and—its most consistent theme—land speculation.
One of the more interesting things about the early part of the book is how many legal arguments, as far back as the earliest settler-invaders, made the case that of course Native people owned the land they lived on. To assume otherwise, these authors said, was nonsensical. Watson includes extensive discourse on this evidence over several chapters before even getting to the Revolutionary War. These settler-invaders couldn’t conceive of a system where people didn’t “own” land but instead lived in relationship with it, but they likewise didn’t believe that they had an automatic right to claim it simply by appearing.
Unfortunately, as shown by the fact that Johnson v. McIntosh enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery (the 1493 papal bull that gave Catholic nations the “right” to own any land they came across and its resources, including its people as long as they were non-Christian) into U.S. law in 1823 and it is still in force to this day, those early arguments remain mostly the knowledge of historians like Watson.
Weirdly, Chief Justice Marshall went on to contradict his own decision in the 1832 case Worcester v. Georgia, stating that:
“The Cherokee Nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of congress.”
“In fact,” writes Watson, “one can credibly argue that Worcester v. Georgia implicitly overruled Johnson v. McIntosh.” But the damage was done. With Johnson v. McIntosh, then-president Andrew Jackson had the tool he wanted to justify forced removal of several Native Nations to Oklahoma. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations suffered horribly in the forced removal, and one quarter to a half of Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole people died as a result of it.
Reading about the lengths that land speculators and political leaders (often the same people) were willing to go to steal Native land—and the ways in which they were willing to justify the theft to themselves—you can almost see later systems like reservations, allotments, and residential schools coming. The This Land podcast gives shape to the ensuing history, picking up the story where Worcester v. Georgia leaves off.
No matter what the other ideals of the Founding Fathers* were, their commitment to taking land was greater than anything else in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson might have written that he had “sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” (in an argument against establishing any form of Christianity as the U.S.’s official religion) and written repeatedly of an “empire of liberty” but he clearly had little interest in extending those ideals to the people who already lived on this continent and whose land he coveted (or anyone who wasn’t white). Jefferson wrote to William Henry Harrison (governor of the Northwest Territory and then the Indiana Territory and responsible for many land-grab “treaties”) that to facilitate greater transfer of land, he wanted to drive Native people into debt as quickly as possible. Watson quotes his letter verbatim in Buying America:
“‘[W]e shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good & influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they come willing to lop [them off] by a cession of lands.’ Jefferson urged Harrison to treat with the Kaskaskias and purchase ‘their whole country’ in light of the impending occupation of Louisiana by the French. ‘Whatever can be obtained,’ he advised, ‘must be obtained quickly.’”
Despite Jefferson’s stance against the establishment of a state religion, I wonder if he would have been opposed to residential schools, used as some of them were to force the relinquishing of land along with culture, language, identity, and life. No empire of liberty for those whose land he wanted.
Buying America portray’s a new nation’s leadership that could afford to see itself as generous in its ideals at first, but who were always ready to force Native Nations off of land when white people wanted it. And it soon became apparent that settlers would never be satisfied, would always want more and would always resort to nearly any means to get it.
This was true back in Europe, too, with England’s enclosure of the commons starting in the 1200s and accelerating in the 1400s and later; and the Highland Clearances, both practices of land theft—appropriation of land used by commoners for subsistence to the wealthy and ennobled, for their private profit—that led in the long run to many people fleeing or being forced to migrate to North America, where they thought that they might be free to carve out a little space to support their families.
But they brought the exclusionary land ownership mindset with them, both the entitlement of the wealthy to hoard as much land as they could (beginning with people like George Washington and many others who dove into land speculation on a massive scale right from the beginning), and its consequence: the terror of scarcity that had defined most Europeans’ lives for generations beyond count.
Some part of their minds must have told Europeans that if they could just get their hands on the land that North Americans lived on so freely that then they, too, could finally be free. But as long as they maintained fealty to the hard models of private property and land ownership that had made life on the European continent untenable for so many, only whose who started out with power and resources, no matter how ill-gained, could prosper, and at the expense of everyone else.
The podcast This Land starts with a season on land theft and continues into a second season on the efforts to further hollow out Native Nations and culture through the taking of children. Host Rebecca Nagle does a far better job of laying out and clarifying these stories than I could do summarizing them, but essentially I think it’s important to see the two practices as intertwined—the illegal taking of land and exerting control through taking of children.
I don’t know how to walk with all of this except to say that those of us who didn’t know much of this history before should learn it. And that no matter how high-minded some of the writers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were in some ways, I’m not sure I’ll ever again be able to see them as anything but land-hungry speculators looking for a quick way to get rich, no matter who suffered in the process.
One of the disconcerting things about learning history through the stories of more ordinary people—rather than what Patrick Wyman and others term the “Great Man” theory of history—is first of all coming to terms with knowing that there have never been accepted narratives of how things should be (otherwise you wouldn’t have revolutions and peasants’ rebellions and fights for human rights), even within a dominant culture; and facing the consistency with which humans can be either shitty or decent throughout that history.
The difficulty of coming to terms with this reality for many Americans is real. Christopher Columbus was nothing more than a “replacement-level” (Wyman again) merchant in debt. But those whose identities are bound up in seeing him as a bold explorer and discoverer, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson et al. as noble patriots, find the teaching of such realities deeply offensive. When your identity is so fundamentally bound up in seeing the world in one particular way, any facts that undermine that worldview feel like an attack. Yuval Noah Harari put it succinctly in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
“If we are outraged that somebody insulted our nation or our god, what makes the insult unbearable is the burning sensations in the pit of our stomach and the band of pain that grips our heart. Our nation feels nothing, but our body really hurts.”
Several years ago, I had a short-term freelance gig writing an index for a book on the history of anti-Semitism. Writing an index is an intensive (and somewhat fascinating, for the logical/order-minded of us) that requires getting to know a book and its subject really well really fast.
It wasn’t pretty. Many of the stories spanning a 2000-year-plus period stuck with me, but the ones that have rooted most deeply are the ones related to the theft of children. There was the practice in Russia of taking Jewish boys as young as nine years old and forcing them to serve in the army, often undergoing torture to pressure them to convert to Christianity. (This is in addition to other limitations on Jewish people—I don’t know how widespread the knowledge is that in the Russian Empire, from 1791 to 1917, Jewish people were only allowed to live in what was called the Pale of Settlement, agriculturally marginal land located mostly in the Ukraine and Belarussia.)
And another story, of a case in Italy where a Catholic maid in a Jewish household secretly got their baby baptized. As a result, the parents later lost custody of their child—Jewish families were not allowed to raise Catholic children.
Histories of Jewish people after the rise of Christianity are full of restrictions, expulsions, limits, forced conversions, pogroms, and massacres—all efforts to eradicate both the religion and the culture. Many practices boiled down to, essentially, stealing children, either physically or spiritually, as well as evicting people from land they’d lived on for generations. In 2015, Spain officially apologized for expelling Jewish people from the then-Catholic country in 1492: 200-300,000 were told to convert to Catholicism, or leave (Spain offered the Sephardim, descendants of those expelled, citizenship when it made its apology).
Taking children as a way to control people is a theme that shows up in dystopian fiction for a reason: it exposes the two-sided coin of “civilization.” We’re sold it as progress, but its endpoint is the worst of humanity.
The obvious example is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where children are taken from undeserving parents and given to childless couples loyal to Gilead. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, children are stolen from those deemed unworthy and raised in properly Christian households. In Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, First Nations people are the only ones in Canada who are able to dream anymore, and their kidnapping and medical experimentation is based on the brutal residential school system. In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, children are either taken or killed when they demonstrate orogeny, the ability to control rocks and tectonic forces (in other words, when they begin to show an ability to connect with land, which terrifies everyone else).
As I listened to the second season of This Land, I couldn’t help but think of those stories, and of all the real Jewish children forced into service or taken from parents at the whim of the dominant culture at the time.
In producing This Land, Rebecca Nagle does a tremendous job of laying bare the entities working to take down ICWA, from Christian church-affiliated adoption agencies and the parents who work through them (in an echo of the church-run residential schools), to the law firms whose ultimate goal is the revocation of Native sovereignty in its entirety—which would open up some of the last large oil, gas, and mineral reserves in the U.S. not already under their clients’ corporate control.
Buying America from the Indians unpacks a tremendous history with a rotting injustice at its heart. That 1823 decision, and the Doctrine of Discovery centuries before, wrapped the right to steal from and inflict horror on people within civilized-sounding legalese. Until the precepts behind these legal precedents are cracked open and dismantled, those injustices will continue to eat away at any pretense our societies have to being “civilized.” Rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery, and all that has followed from it, would be a momentous start. We** just have to be willing to see it for the unwanted dragon skin† it is and be ready to adapt to its absence.
In 1998, Matthew Fletcher, then a law student at the University of Michigan and now its director of Indigenous Law & Policy Center and a judge for several Nations, published a paper on what it was like to learn about Johnson v. McIntosh as a a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. How pivotal the case is, how much it still affects, and how briefly it’s dwelled on when the stories it hides are so enormous:
“The twenty minute talk about Johnson v. M’Intosh lasts only about ten seconds in the weird temporal scene in Hutchins Hall. Before it sunk in, the professor began talking about the property issues of fox hunting. I wanted to raise my hand, but what would I say?
The story was told. It was over. The wheels had been greased over time to make the story move so effortlessly, it made no ripple. No one will argue with it. No discussion. No dissent.
The story is huge. I cannot emphasize that enough. The story’s many strands and fibers contain the fate of ten million, or twenty million, or maybe even 100 million, people living in this land before the Vikings or Columbus arrived. Now imagine how many stories we all have, stories that shape us, define us, restrict us, lead us, teach us, and evolve with us. I have so many, I cannot keep track of them. And I always want more stories.
Now imagine how many stories there were in 1492 or 255 B.C. or 1823 in North America. Where did those stories go?”
A culture of domination requires control to function. It requires absence of nuance and knowledge. It requires that its hearers accept a shared narrative of history that casts the dominant culture in the best light, a narrative that becomes so powerful that millions find questioning it too painful to contemplate.
It doesn’t just want to keep Eustace within the body of a dragon, collecting gold and slowly dying of loneliness; it wants to erase any desire he ever had to be free of it. Keeping the real stories alive, reopening them and reframing history—no matter how painful the process to some—is the only way to ensure it doesn’t win.
*I would like another shorthand for this group of people that doesn’t deify them quite so much.
**I’ve written before about the difficulty of using “We”—I hope in this case “we” know who we are: the people who benefit from this system, but more importantly anyone anywhere who tries to prevent it from changing.
†Absolutely nothing against dragons! I’d prefer they keep their own skins, in all their glory, and we try to find some honor in our own.