Earth Matters: The nation’s history is worth remembering | News, Sports, Jobs
By a strange coincidence, I found myself in the middle of Dee Brown’s iconic history book, The American West, on Independence Day.
First published in 1984, Brown’s award-winning book chronicles the best and worst of the westward expansion of white Europeans and the plight of the Native Americans they displaced.
I was struck by two notable sets of contradictions. Amid brave and heroic frontier expansion, European Americans and the United States military often treated Native Americans as if they were hostile invaders instead of native occupiers. And while the industrious nature of New Americans built a thriving economy to improve our collective quality of life, they also frequently plundered the natural environment in the process.
Time and time again, especially in the 19th century, America and Americans did great things while doing terribly terrible things at the same time. Like many societies, we have done much good by committing unpardonable sins – exploiting people (like enslaved Africans), taking what was not ours (like the land and the animals that lived on it), breaking our word (as we have with countless treaties), and destroying vast ecosystems (like Great Plains buffaloes).
There is nothing wrong with singing the praises of a democracy or an economic system that works far more often than it fails. Yet admitting and trying to understand our shortcomings is not un-American as some political extremists might claim.
Much of this history has to do with our use (and frequent misuse) of land, resources, how we share them, and the burden of damage we do to them. To ignore what we did in the first two centuries and more is to deny having done anything wrong.
If we ignore and ignore wrongdoing, we are cursed to repeat the same sins, but with a 21st century twist. Read that previous paragraph again and think about the particular missteps we made in 1860 and the slightly different mistakes we are still making in 2022.
Slavery (used to convert resources into profitable commodities) ended over a century and a half ago. Yet the visibility and actions of white supremacists have increased in recent years, confirming an undertone of racism 160 years later. A civil case relating to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the jury found that the defendants “conspired to intimidate, harass or harm”.
Despite what white supremacists may claim or perceive, Native Americans, African Americans, and poor white people all have fewer financial opportunities, fewer educational options, and are much more likely to live in places where the environment is degraded. Low-income Americans of all races are dying younger and are much more likely to live in places with poor air quality, polluted drinking water and increased exposure to toxic chemicals. And most don’t have the resources to move to a better place.
Whether in 1860 or 2022, America’s incredible successes intertwine with environmental and social injustices that could be avoided.
We should celebrate the great accomplishments of an incredible nation. But it is also important not to ignore struggles and unpleasant events. Dee Brown refused to whitewash the story in his classic book four decades ago. We should do the same in 2022.
For more writings by John Frederick, visit johnjfrederick.com