Becoming Naturalized

A midwestern landscape with a river and mountains in the background.
Photo by Bailey Zindel on Unsplash

In life, humans reach a point where they have two options: move along with the commotion of the world, or reimagine everything they thought they knew to come out with a new perspective of life. What I mean by this is that the majority of people (let’s leave the scope to Americans) will go to grade school, maybe go to college to study something their parents told them was reliable, and work to pay their bills. This will be their central goal in life. Other people will have the chance to dive deeper. Uproot their minds and rid themselves of everything they were taught by school and parents alike to form a new path, one that can better the course of the planet. This class has helped me along my journey toward option two. I feel extremely fortunate and blessed to have received the education I have. Yes, I knew what I was taught in school was sugar coated history, but this course forced me to examine why that is. Through the essential readings and enlightening discussion, I have been able to re-educate myself in a concise way that has made me appreciate people and the land we reside upon.

Throughout the readings, I have gone through a whirlwind of emotions. I generally feel an overwhelming sadness for Indigenous peoples being forced from their homes and for the continuation of struggle for black Americans. Their stories encapsulate the true history of America, not the white-washed glorification taught from Kindergarten and so on. Through Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and Carl Zimering’s Clean and White, I was exposed to the harsh realities for people of color in America. These novels laid out a clear timeline from the beginning of settler colonialism to where black and indigenous people stand today as part of our country. Conversely, through Lauret Savoy’s Trace, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I was exposed to what it means to connect with our history through the teachings of nature.

Specifically, in Braiding Sweetgrass, I had the overwhelming feeling that the way of life Kimmerer described, was how I was meant to live. I now have this longing for a way of life that is completely different from the way everything is done today. American political parties are at peak polarization, with one lacking a complete regard for history. For this side of America, the history of the United States is founded by white men who are astronomically glorified in support of a false reality. These people are past the point of restoration, and this land is following close behind. Robin Wall Kimmerer frequently described in her novel how to become “naturalized” to a place. By learning our country’s true history, by telling indigenous and black stories, we can work our way to becoming more “naturalized” and less damaging to our human and non-human communities.

The first two novels we read uncovered the “roots of the problem” or how we began to destroy Native American soil. Dunbar-Ortiz discussed issues like settler colonialism, mass indigenous genocides, and land grabs. Zimering discussed catastrophies like slavery, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, and Redlining. Learning these truths, it can be deeply saddening, uncomfortable, and explicit; but through this education, we can emerge as better, more compassionate beings. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, the novel flows through a progressive timeline, beginning with the origin of America and how European colonization lead to the mass genocide and land grabs of Native Americans. The colonizers arrived with the intent of gaining wealth and they would stop at nothing to ensure that feat. The book goes on to explain that the myth of America’s origin story comes from Calvanist Theory, coming from John Calvin, a French man whose teachings coincided with the advent of the European invasion and colonization of the Americas” (48). Calvin taught that the concept of free will did not exist, that certain people were called upon by God known as the “elect.” This was one of many ways the colonizers were able to justify the extraction of Indigenous peoples from their homes. From here, immigrants have forever been encouraged to repopulate conquered territory that has been “cleansed” of its Indigenous inhabitants.

Similarly, the idea of cleanliness is grappled with in Clean and White. This novel put forward the idea that America was built upon white mens’ ideas of what is considered “clean” and “dirty.” This blatantly aligned with the color of peoples’ skin, whereas darker skin tones were considered “unclean” in both a literal sense and in terms of their place in American society. The book opens by unraveling the life and ideologies of Thomas Jefferson. Who seemed to be the one to first link dirt and urbanization and along with that, immigrants, and people of color. Slavery was justified by the simple thought process that someone like Alexis de Tocqueville emulated. He wrote, “‘the first that attracts attention, the superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment, is the white, or the European, the MAN pre-eminently so called, below him appear the Negro and the Indian’” (40). Even long after the abolition of slavery, black men and women were oppressed by their link to being “uncleanly.” They have been forced to work in disastrous labor sanitation jobs and live in areas where their health was put in jeopardy by the hazardous conditions. This was enforced by organizations such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, who set up the concept of Redlining, which is still widely affecting black families today. The areas outlined in red were meant for black families because they had the least potential as a development and/or had undesirable living conditions. This was also seen true in Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. The people of New Orleans, who were majority black, were not provided the proper safety precautions they needed prior to Hurricane Katrina. In the devastation of the city, stranded, sick, and dying people of color were left without help for an extended period of time. It’s imperative to recognize these hardships and the fact that they are rooted in racism.

Later in the course, we were introduced to literature that told history through the lens of the natural world and posed solutions towards restoration, re-storying, and repair work towards a better future for the United States. Lauret Savoy’s Trace, put into perspective the idea of truth and reconciliation. Savoy discusses how the first step to acknowledging our history is understanding it through the eyes of indigenous and black experiences. She mentions Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, where he stated, “We grieve only for what we know.” (33). The majority of individuals in the U.S. have no clue the extent of which Native Americans and slaves endured at the hands of white supremacy. Thus, with this lack of knowledge, there seems to be no need for grievance, for reconciliation. Trace identifies truths through confronting our past. Within this journey, certain truths must be unveiled and this involves confronting race, enslaved Africans, colonists from Europe, and people indigenous to this land, because the paths of these ancestors have been lost.

Finally, in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous wisdom through prose encompassed by ecology teaches us how to fully become “naturalized” to place. The Indigenous creation stories of Skywoman and Nanabozho deepen our understanding of what it means to be connected to the land we live on. We should think of it rather as living with the land. The earth is not something that is separate from us. The earth is part of our being and we need to live as though everywhere we walk is alive; because it is. Something that resonated with me was the idea that time is circular. Kimmerer notes how “history draws a time “line,”… Some people say that time is a river into which we can step but once… but Nanabozho’s people know time as a circle. Time is not a river running inexorably to the sea, but the sea itself… all things that were will come again” (206–7). When we implore practices like extractive capitalism, and consumerism, we are taking from the land what can never be given back. It only resorts back through the circle of time through the body of trash and pollutants. By forming a more intimate relationship with the earth, we can move closer towards giving back to her, for all she provides for us.

Kimmerer states that in order to become naturalized to a place, we must throw away the mindset of the immigrant. “Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities.” In order to live in this manner, we first need to start by educating ourselves, choosing the alternative path in life, veer away from America’s societal norms to recognize and acknowledge our country’s past through the treatment of people of color. In doing so, we can find peace in our home, in our connection to the land. We can eventually give back hopefully a small fraction of what it has given us.

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Kayla Marino

Kayla Marino

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University of Delaware ’22 English Major and Environmental Humanities minor.