Along with declared pronouns, messages to indigenous peoples have proliferated beneath faculty email signatures at American universities during the pandemic. A popular example at my university, located in the central Susquehanna Valley, reads:
I would like to respectfully acknowledge and recognize my responsibility to the original and current caretakers of this land, water and air: the Susquehannock peoples and all of their ancestors and descendants, past, present and future. Today this meeting place is home to many Indigenous peoples from all over the world, including faculty, students, and staff. I hope that my presence and work honors those caretakers of this homeland.
Never mind that the history of Native peoples in this region is complicated; it includes the Haudenosaunee as well as the Susquehannock, in addition to, undoubtedly, other communities going back thousands of years whose names have been forgotten.
Never mind that, along with traditions and tragedy worth remembering and respecting, there are conflicting accounts of the histories of those Native nations. For example, according to a Potawatomi elder friend, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were an aggressive attacker of his own indigenous people. But a Haudenosaunee elder friend contrarily told me that his people were protectors of other Native nations such as the Potawatomi.
And never mind that those signaling this recognition, whatever their own race and ethnicity, are not giving up their affluent suburban properties or upscale salaries and benefits to those displaced peoples.
In our 1619 Project era of anti-racism, academics in higher education condemn “settler culture” and weaponize words such as “native,” “indigenous,” and “settler” to serve their own ideological ends—without realizing that they themselves are the latest “settlers” seeking to displace the native culture. When I was teaching classes and group independent studies related to our university’s region, I debated the issue of terminology of honored “natives” versus villainous “settlers” with a co-instructor. Why should someone whose family has been in the same region for generations not be called “native,” I asked? Why would recent migrants to the area, notably ourselves as faculty at a university, not be considered “settlers”?
In the context of our Appalachian region, university faculty—who come from elsewhere to take positions of greater income and status than most in the area—are “settlers” imposing their own 2020s cosmopolitan neo-colonial culture on the locals. Not only do they try to lecture students and the local area about their worldview, they seek to immerse them in it—from gun control to the evils of Christianity and glories of secularism, to proper sexual anthropology and the decrying of allegedly narrow-minded locals for holding back their social utopia of “equity and inclusion.”
One example of the clash of cultures was the local scene on election night 2016. Many of our faculty gathered in the hip upscale Brasserie Louis restaurant and bar in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to toast Hilary Clinton’s expected election victory with progressive Democrats. Meanwhile, local Republicans gathered in the decidedly more rural and working-class American Legion Hall outside of nearby Selinsgrove—definitely a less upscale crowd. They were expecting a defeat for Donald Trump, but suddenly became elated when they realized that Pennsylvania turned red for the first time in a long memory.
The woke academic deems all those who came after Native nations to be “settlers” in the region. But to be a “native” of northern Appalachia goes beyond having a certain undefined percentage of Native American blood. My friend who attends our rural mission church—who lives on farmland on the edge of an old-growth forest that has been in his extended family for generations, is on call at all hours for the area’s volunteer fire department, and tends a rural cemetery where his ancestors are buried—is as much a native of this valley today.
“Indigenous” cultures in Appalachia include long-time Scots-Irish, Anglo, and black inhabitants, whose families have lived in a place for generations. These can’t all be written off as “evil” settler cultures. A colleague who is a social scientist defends “indigenous” as a term that must scientifically be reserved for people who have always been in a place or were there “first.” But this is problematic; it’s hard to determine what cultures have “always” been in place. We should be able to speak rightly of an “indigenous” French culture in France, as well as an “indigenous” Creole culture in Louisiana—maybe even an “indigenous” black culture in Chicago, shared in music, families, and stories going back generations to the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, which is Midwestern American and not “alien.” The term indigenous itself etymologically means “begotten into”—as in “begotten into” a regional culture.
Following the military removal of Native nations, my mother’s family came to the Chicago area in the mid-nineteenth century. Her grandfather was at Lincoln’s nomination there in 1860. She grew up on a truck farm on the edge of Rosehill Cemetery in what had become Chicago, and was steeped in Chicago geography, history, and neighborhood lore that she passed along to others, teaching in a public school located in the multicultural and low-income Uptown neighborhood. She was a native Chicagoan.
What we need, and what materialistic Marxist woke culture misses, is a Christian sense of dwelling in region and place. The development of the terminology of the words “native” and “indigenous” in English, with roots in Latin and French, originally arose from Christian literary cultures. In a Christian context, growing out of the Jewish scriptures, we are all “strangers in a strange land.” We feel what the Jewish Christian Russian philosopher S. L. Frank called “strange love”—love for a homeland to which we cannot return: Paradise. That involves what it means to become “settled” and “native” and “indigenous” in the deepest sense—to an Orthodox Christian like myself, to be through grace “begotten into” Christ, cosmically yet particularly indigene.
Many of the “natives” of the Susquehanna Valley, termed “deplorables” by faculty-settlers keeping watch from the turrets of their academic forts, understand the spiritual basis of dwelling better than would-be civilizers in today’s systemic secularism.
Fr. Deacon Paul Siewers is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University.
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