Homestead acts

Wurtz Cabin, U.S. Forest Service


I think a lot about homesteaders. The prevailing themes of my childhood were having a father from the Soviet Union, and being descended from Montana pioneers who’d homesteaded land that my grandfather’s cousin still ranched until his death a few years ago (his son now runs it). Being proud of all of it was expected, even when the other kids ran around at recess time calling me a commie and saying my dad was a spy.

How I think about homesteaders, including my own ancestors, has changed drastically over the last several years (how current generations think about immigrants from Russia has also changed drastically). My mother’s great-grandparents and their many sons were intrepid and hard-working, intelligent and forward-thinking. They would have had to be—the Homestead Act of 1862 granted land to settlers only if they could “prove up” within five years, and barely half of the people who settled land under the Act managed to do so. In Montana, 35% of acreage was “transferred successfully” to homesteaders (what “successful” is meant to imply I’m not certain, unless it’s the simple acknowledgment that land where people had supported themselves for thousands of years had been snatched away and turned into private property for white settlers), but the history of homesteading is rife with stories of crop failures, hunger, loneliness, unbearable winters, and giving up and moving on. This was not a land that was ever meant to be used for intensive agriculture, or cattle, or wheat, and many people couldn’t hold out.

Growing up in Montana in the 1980s, I was taught the state’s, and my own family’s, history as if the land had been sitting here empty waiting for people to live on it until 1870 or so. Almost everywhere I turn this teaching is still, frustratingly, the norm.

We stayed at a U.S. Forest Service cabin recently. It’s a restored cabin originally built by homesteaders in the early 1900s, and while I was impressed by their fortitude and dedication (and heart-rent by the very tragic story of losing two of their children), the silence of the land’s story before the husband and wife came over the mountains to build a cabin and try to farm was unsettling. It’s exactly in line with how I learned history as a child: a gloss of noble patriotism and self-sacrificing pioneers who built lives without, it’s implied, harming anyone else, while trying to maintain the pretense that pre-settler history didn’t exist.

The fact that my children’s generation are the first I’ve seen to be taught something even slightly different, that my son came home from 5th grade one day and said, “Columbus was a jerk” (which instantly made me fall in love with his teacher and also worry about the backlash other parents might subject her to), makes me want to cry and not stop. The fact that so many in our society—tens of millions of people—are determined to stick to the varnished, paper-thin story of American exceptionalism, the fact that they’re threatened by efforts to teach real history, is something beyond exhausting. I’m not sure what the word for it is. It’s as if there’s a deep psychological terror that goes back more generations than anybody can remember, as if telling and learning this history threatens people out of existence. I don’t fully understand what they’re so scared of, not at a deep level. Of shame? Of having everything taken away from them? Of being treated like European settlers treated everyone else all over the world? What is so frightening about acknowledging the truth and vowing to make the future something different?

People keep giving me answers, whether it’s things I read online or in-person conversations, but I’m not sure anyone really knows. I’m told it’s loss of status, of identity, of power, of a place in the world. Of hierarchy? Of meaning? My skin color signals that I’m white, and not only am I descended from homesteaders who made their lives on land violently taken from other people, but the other half of my mother’s line came to this continent in the 1600s and later had a significant role in governing the lands encompassed by the Louisiana Purchase. I can be curious about, and sometimes even proud of, those forebears (or some of them) while also trying to crawl deeper into that uncomfortable space of knowing how they, and I, benefited from genocide and forced relocation and theft. It’s a shitty thing, but pretending it didn’t happen doesn’t make it less shitty.

I don’t feel scared of looking at this history through a vastly different lens from what I was taught growing up. Maybe I’m not looking deeply enough (partly because I don’t have access to most of the stories—weirdly, for someone who’s been writing stories since she was a little kid, most of my ancestors weren’t people who wrote things down). It’s like there’s a vast, shapeless darkness at the center of all of this, something that people are so terrified of that they can’t even look at it straight. What is it about this fear that I’m not getting? What about all the other white people who aren’t afraid of it, or at least don’t act like they are? Are we all broken white people? Are white and white-passing people meant to have a genetic predisposition to denying past and current injustices and our own role in them? It makes no sense to me, but like the shitty history, its shittiness doesn’t decrease by pretending it doesn’t exist.

There’s this homestead cabin. It’s an amazing place to stay and I wish we could have stayed longer because it was beautiful and such a gift to get away from the hectic pace of everything, especially the internet. But I also wish that the Forest Service had some mechanism for telling the stories of the cabin’s footprint in a longer history, of what the land was and who lived on it before it became part of the National Forest Service, and what was done to those people that makes it “public” land. Maybe that’s a small achievable goal in the near future, to make sure those stories are included.

Pretending that dispossession and genocide didn’t happen in this entire region feels like walking on Astroturf instead of soil, as if you can’t really get to know the place at all because there’s a barrier between you and the stories it holds. Knowing the reality wouldn’t change how wonderful the place is to visit, or people’s ability to stay there and recuperate their spirits from the relentless pressures of modern life.

The fear over being given knowledge and stories that might complicate but certainly will enrich all of our lives is something I’ve been trying very hard to understand, but it remains incomprehensible to me. I’ll keep trying, and in the meantime am going to check out a few more of these cabins, with deep gratitude to the friend who stays at them habitually, encouraged me to go, and taught me to appreciate the slice of history behind each place.

I am grateful for all of these places, for the people who’ve lived with them before they became “America,” and what they provide for all of us. I feel privileged to visit them. Maybe that’s all I can say right now.