Note: I talk about Gaza and Israel just briefly below, though it isn’t the focus of the piece. Like many of you, it’s been on my mind constantly this week. I know that many folks reading this have people they love who aren’t safe right now— both in an immediate and broader sense. I’m currently donating to Islamic Relief of Canada’s Gaza Appeal and I welcome you to join me.
Also: I’ve been kinder on your inboxes lately (there’ve been some other writing and organizing projects that have eaten up more of my time in the short term) but a bunch of you very kindly reached out for an update about the last piece. The memorial is still up but the gatherings have dissipated. I’m very pleased to report that the young folks made it home safely every night. I’m also pleased to report that I did get to know a couple of them, that we talked about how much I loved and supported them and also about how I’ve got a couple of young kids and we all need to look out for them. We’re all still learning.
There have been a couple of different images that I haven’t been able to get out of my head lately.
The first is of cars, hundreds of cars, fanned out across that brutally flat stretch of Canadian prairie before the mountains rise up to the West and suddenly there is nothing but mountains. They’ve been lining up on the border, these Canadian cars, because there’s arguably nobody better at administering vaccines than the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. The tribe itself is 98% vaccinated now, having accomplished that feat so quickly and efficiently that they have a hearty surplus to give out to others. White folks in neighboring counties, the very people who often greet the Ampskapi Piikani with slurs and legal roadblocks, were extended the first helping hand. The Canadians came next— both the Montana Blackfeet’s First Nation relatives as well as white Albertan truckers and ranchers. It’s a beautiful image and a beautiful story. It is my most beloved traffic jam.
The second image is a grainy cell phone video of a former United States President, an angry man who demands that his acolytes demonstrate their love by lying to his face. There are so many of these videos and they’re all the same. The former President, a man who lives in his own hotels, stands in front of a crowd of people who are paying for each other’s company. He delivers a message. He is deeply aggrieved. His enemies are vicious and vile election thieves. He will be vindicated. The truth will come out. Many people are saying. They are finding things in Maricopa County. We are watching it all very, very closely.
The crowd cheers but nobody is happy, least of all the former President.
There are bombs falling in Gaza right now. There are neighbors being thrown to the curb in Sheikh Jarrah. There are mobs running through Lob. I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian, so I recognize that I’m no expert here. I am, however, the descendent of settlers and colonizers so I know what happens when the residents of a place become an inconvenient truth for a newly founded nation-state. I know all about the fear that presents as violence. I know all about staring down the choice of land and or people and choosing land.
I know all this because I grew up white in Western Montana. I know this because I grew up in and around Glacier National Park in particular. I grew up being taught to love a place and having it feel like home, to have your own relatives buried within its borders, to have it feel sacred…. all while never being quite able to reconcile the truth that it was never actually yours to claim. Glacier is Blackfeet land, or at least it was Blackfeet land until the tribe was given the “choice” to sign away its rights during a long winter of death and starvation. They built a railroad into the park, with some grand lodges to match. There were lots of good jobs to be had building that railroad. There was lots of good money to be made in those grand lodges. Blackfeet folks could have used some of those jobs; after all, their livelihood had just been stolen from them. The wise old men who built my home state chose to bring in European immigrants instead. I mean, it makes sense. If you just robbed a bank, especially if there were casualties, the last thing you want is for the surviving tellers to hang around bumming everybody out at the post-bank-robbery celebration party.
The way I see it, there are two roads forward for white America. There is the road to Mar-a-Lago. And no, I don’t mean the road literally to Trumpism. That man has always been more useful as a metaphor than as an all-encompassing vessel for our collective sins. I mean that there is a very real and sadly predictable path available to us where we throw more pitiful, frightened money after bad, where we double down on white supremacy and bet the house on never having to actually give anything up. We keep our “good” schools and our housing values and our C-Suite jobs and our police forces and our naivete. It’s a seductive choice. It’s the default. The way forward has already been prepared for us. It’s not a particularly hard road to walk— in fact, if you follow it with a particular vainglorious certitude, you can walk it all the way to the Presidency.
And that’s why Trump is such a useful metaphor. Because if all that matters to you is the maintenance of some kind of emotional, intellectual and physical mini-fiefdom, that’s not too hard to pull off. You too can hold court over Your Own Personal Mar-a-Lago. You can surround yourself solely with those who won’t cancel you. And on some days, when the light hits the buffet chicken at the right angle and the applause from those who don’t love you enough to tell you the truth fills the room, you will feel vindicated.
You will stay miserable though. We will all stay miserable.
There is another road available to us, though, and it looks a whole lot like a border highway packed to the gills with grateful vaccine recipients. It is the path that leads towards reparations and sovereignty, of white people saying that our job is neither to cling to power nor to administer “aid” or charity. It’s a path rooted in an understanding that there was a time on this continent had enough for everybody, but that hundreds of years into an experiment in theft and death, it’s beyond time to rediscover that long-lost promise. Reversing that experiment means repayment for what was taken. It means letting groups whose past was dictated by white people call the shots in shaping not just their own but our collective future for a change.
The fact that the Blackfeet Nation was given both moderately reparational access to vaccines (a bit more than white communities got, and just a bit earlier) isn’t revolutionary. Neither is the fact that they received even a modicum of sovereignty to run their distribution program without federal meddling. Goodness knows it’s a beautiful metaphor for what could be possible if that tiny experiment in reparations was extended more broadly— financial repayment, land repatriation, control of their National Park. When the Blackfeet were trusted with their own health for a change, they weren’t the only ones who ended up healthier. When the logic as to “how things are done around here” wasn’t settler colonialist for even a second, we all got a glimpse of what a future of true collective care might look like. Yes, it was a community showing what it truly means to value and love its elders, but the lessons didn’t stop there. It was white Montanans being treated as neighbors even if they hadn’t been particularly neighborly themselves. It was borders made meaningless when they didn’t serve our shared humanity. It was beautiful.
The road to liberation won’t be paved with sympathy, guilt or pity. It won’t be paved with fear or shame. Those motivations have always been more about appeasing our psychic weight as white people than in a vision for a better world. It will, however, be paved with a different type of self-interest— the recognition that all the walls and all the guns and all the power hoarding hasn’t made us safer or happier or healthier. There is something more beautiful for all of us on the horizon, if only some of us get better at walking together rather than racing to the front.