By Sophie Croll, Summer 2016 Intern
Professor Rand, PhD student Mary Wise, and I visited the Blood Run State Historic Site in July to do some fieldwork with Lance Foster, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and to learn about a plan for the area’s proposed development into a state park.
We started our day with a tour of the Blood Run site on hay racks. We got off the racks once and stood in the knee-high grass. The land all around us was shifting and alive. Someone nearby pointed out that there were mounds in the field to our right, covered in restored prairie, and mounds to the field to our left, covered in industrially farmed corn.
The contrast was striking and left me with a tangle of feelings. I felt humbled and included, wrapped as another living creature in a landscape that has held so many. I also felt wary. As a city kid who doesn’t know the first thing about her food comes from, I tend to look at all farming and think “good!” But I’m also someone learning to be a historian, and so it is clear that planting a field over Native sacred sites vanish Native lives and histories. Standing in the fact that all-American farms erase Native histories, I was uncomfortable and sad.
After the tour we went to a meeting about the proposed plan attended by the plan’s designers, Native representatives, and local landowners. Though the landowners supported historic preservation and were willing to have individual Native people conduct ceremonies on public and possibly lands, the idea of an expanded state park made them angry. They worried any new opportunities it created would erase their experiences, livelihoods, and histories.
There were many issues at play in the room, but in terms of historical narrative, the landowners’ worries came down to a juxtaposition of “our” history–the history of white settlement–with “their” history–the history of Native land use. They did not seem to see Native history as invalid but rather as fundamentally separate from their experiences with the land. One woman asked with real confusion, “How is the spring on Mrs.—’s farm sacred to the Indians?” The answer, of course, is that Native people continue their sacred traditions today, but the question implies the widespread untruth that Native cultures have vanished.
The question is also an example of the sorts of history-wars skirmishes that occur internally and between individuals, rather than the kind that play out on the national stage. Discomfort with the idea that one group’s history might conflict with another’s was the essence of the woman’s question: how can Native history share space with hers without her history becoming less valuable? My discomfort standing in the field came from similar narratives I’ve learned about ranking the value of people’s pasts. Fortunately for both of us, it is hard but possible work to dismantle these narratives. We can learn treat another’s history as seriously as we treat our own.
Sophie Croll (Knox College, 2016) is our intern. She spent her summer traveling across the Midwest with us and will join us again this spring.