As part of my sabbatical project on “place,” I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been lately. I travel a lot: for work, to see family, and for pleasure. In the last year alone, I have crossed both the Atlantic ocean and the Equator, journeyed across the Canada-US border 3 times, criss-crossed Canada’s airspace Atlantic to Pacific twice, and touched down in the northern Boreal forest twice as well. That’s a lot of crossing.
I’ve also just recently finished a book about crossings, place, and identity: Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, the Australian-American’s fictionalized telling of the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag who in 1665 became the first native American to graduate Harvard College. (Incidentally, it took more than 300 years for a second Wampanoag to receive an undergraduate degree from Harvard; Tiffany Smalley did so in May 2011.)
Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer. Her telling (again, fictionalized) of the history of the Sarajevo Haddagah in People of the Book will both break and lift your heart. Interestingly, like Caleb’s Crossing, it is about contested terrain — in recent history you cannot get much more contested than the former Yugoslavia; in North American history you cannot get much more contested than the space that is still uneasily inhabited by both its Indigenous peoples and those of us whose descendants came much later and exerted claim — claim that they justified with scripture, such as Deuteronomy 8:7-9
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams,with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.
It was indeed a good land:
And a fruitful one:
The lead character in Caleb’s Crossing is not in fact Caleb, but Bethia Mayfield, the daughter and granddaughter of English missionaries who desire good relations with their Wampanoag neighbours … albeit within the framework of Christian conversion. Yet even as they seek to convert they also have a degree of respect for Wampanoag ways of farming, and for their right to the land. This places them in conflict with other settlers, just as their missionary zeal places them in conflict with Indigenous spiritual leaders. Only Bethia, who in childhood established a deep friendship with Caleb, comes close to navigating the path between two cultures. And Caleb? Well, Caleb’s crossing –from Martha’s Vineyard to Cambridge, from Wampanoag to white culture– has no happy ending.
My theology is hardly profound but I think our settler ancestors should perhaps have read a little further, or a little more carefully, in texts like Deuteronomy, which advise us to eat only our fill before thanking God for what God has given. Once we have enough, in other words, whether that be food or land or whatever we have taken from the land, we need to stop. And we need to not be arrogant: Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:17)
What horrible history we might have avoided had we but given slightly more critical thought to what places we were crossing into, and how we would relate to those whom we found already inhabiting those places.
How many of us still relate to those people:
My crossings this year took me to many places: the territories of the Kichwa, the Syilx, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Coast Salish,the Chumash, the Shawnee, the Cherokee, the Beothuk the Mi’kmaq, the Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan. I travelled through many others (for example, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Erie), and I of course live in the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. I try hard to remember that when I travel, and when I stay at home.
I try hard to remember that someone was here, in this place, long before I was.