I am distressed by the historical inaccuracies in Sy Safransky’s “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995].
Navajos were not, as Safransky states, grazing sheep on high mesas before the white men came. Sheep — like horses — came to their land with the Spanish in 1540. Neither were the Navajos building homes, making pottery, weaving baskets, or growing wheat. Weaving and metalworking were learned from the Spanish and the Mexicans. Pottery was not important for the Navajos, but it was for the Pueblo Indians. And wheat, too, came over from Europe with both the Spanish and British.
Before white men came, the Navajos were a warlike, nomadic people. To state otherwise is to fall into the trap that Sherman Alexie warned Safransky about: promoting “the romantic myth of the spiritual Indian,” who was noble and perfect before the white man arrived. Such fantasies do none of us any good.
A lot of what Safransky says in his essay, however, is pertinent and interesting. As a Southwesterner, I blush to think that someone conned him into paying good money to spend a night on a hogan floor. It’s a little like Tom Sawyer and the whitewash.
Sy Safransky responds:
Thanks to Blythe Brennan for setting the record straight. I should have distinguished between the arrival of Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century and of U.S. settlers three hundred years later — by which time the highly adaptable Navajos had borrowed much from Spanish and Pueblo Indian cultures, and were busy tending their flocks, peach orchards, and farms. Of course, this didn’t prevent the U.S. Army from rounding up the Navajos and sending them into exile. When Brennan calls the Navajos “warlike,” I wonder: compared to whom?
I was incensed by “This Land Is Your Land.” It angered the part of me that is sick to death of tourists. Although I am Caucasian, I was raised on an Indian reservation. I read Safransky’s essay while on one of my frequent trips home to visit my parents.
Safransky writes, “It is easy to feel like an intruder here.” He and his wife are intruders. He eloquently describes the Navajos’ signs of discomfort at their presence, but also his own lack of respect for that discomfort. A tremendous sense of entitlement came through in the essay. He might as well have said, “We paid your price. You have no right to withhold the ingredients of the tea and the food from us.”
As a white person from an Indian reservation, I am used to carrying the burden of guilt and shame for this country’s history. Occasionally I feel that burden is imposed on me by an Indian, but this is rare. I have the knowledge to write an essay about the genocide committed against the native people of this country. I prefer, however, to let Native Americans write that story. Anything else feels to me like further theft of their culture.
In recent years, Sy Safransky has become very sharp at delineating the contradictions and hypocrisies with which we middle-class American soul-searchers live. He always does so in the first person, explicitly indicting only himself, but it’s clear that he writes with an awareness that his audience will relate to his predicament.
In “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995], he depicts the essential distances between our ideals and our lifestyles, between tragic history and any realistic hope for redemption or resolution. (I almost think he feels that the desecration of the planet and the annihilation of indigenous cultures are somehow directly traceable, along some karmic continuum, to his discomfort with sleeping in a tent.)
Yes, the distance between our ideals and the tragic reality is immense. And I know we won’t see that distance bridged in our lifetimes. But we know miracles happen; we know a seed becomes a plant. We also know that we’re each responsible for our own small part.
So how do we begin to heal those distances that Safransky so keenly perceives? I guess we have to give ourselves a little credit for wanting to heal them in the first place. Then we must act as if we could make a difference, as if our every gesture and deed are part of a great ocean of contributions, the collaborative work of redemption and salvation. None of us can see the whole picture as it unfolds, and none of us can really even know if it truly is unfolding, but that’s part of the charm and mystery of being human.