There are a set of objective questions one must ask oneself throughout the course of a life. And of course, the answers are mostly subjective, but they must be asked nonetheless.
Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing here? Why are other lives so different from my own? What does the future hold?
An idealistic answer could take varying evolutionary or spiritualistic tones, and often these days it’s a mixture of both. But a material answer can be reduced to this: colonialism. And despite all attempts to convince us that we are living in some kind of “post-colonial” era, this is still the dominant factor that has shaped, and continues to shape, our world.
The awareness of colonialism, unless we are sociopathic, is a deeply troubling process for both native and settler. It first brings forth the consciousness that, liberal philosophies be damned, there still remains the segregation of native and settler, held strongly intact by culture if not so blatantly by law. It then begins to inform us as to whether we are the hero or villain of our own personal narrative. It may seem that most people acquiesce to a life of complicity or assimilation, “getting over it” and not “standing in the way of progress.” But to comprehend the historical trajectory of colonialism on the planet is to glimpse the ecological “apocalypse” that is it’s endpoint, and here the conscious individual cannot muffle the sounds of the “tell-tale heart” beating beneath the floorboards: “Colonialism is alive and well, and you are either complicit in this process, or you must choose to fight it for all you are worth.”
Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon have dealt with this issue in depth regarding the colonial situation in Algeria during the 20th century. In so many ways, the psychological challenges they depict still play out today in the various 21st century colonial contexts, including the one here on Turtle Island. However, the realities of Canada, the US, and Mexico cannot simply be equivocated with each other, let alone 1960’s Algeria, 1920’s Ireland, 1790’s Haiti, et. al. If, following Fanon’s assertion that “decolonization is a historical process,” we are to look at both geography and history to inform us of the varying similarities and uniquenesses of colonial contexts, time and place must become central to our understanding of what colonialism is and how it continues to function.
Here at the far edge of Empire along the Northeast Pacific Rim, colonialism continues to involve the flag you wave and the language you speak, but also most clearly and apparently, it involves the realities of clear cuts, desertification, mining disasters, and the absence of so many Indigenous species who were here in abundance only two or three generations ago. Simply put, colonization and decolonization are not just social and political phenomena, but are profoundly ecological in kind.
I suppose I have dedicated my life to this thesis and it’s exegesis. And I intend to dedicate my life to fulfilling it’s implications, in concert with the many other dedicated lives this will require, that we may, together, butcher the beast of his-story. For each of us, this task asks us to follow the objective to the subjective: to answer these questions for ourselves, and then compare and contrast with each other to reveal both our affinities and irreducible uniquenesses, our differences. We cannot operate with unquestioned assumptions and unexamined expectations; life will put us to the test if we don’t do this ourselves first.
So I begin they only way I really can: with myself exactly where I am at. But is this story Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist or Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native? Or has history indeed left a few pages blank? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
1982. I was born during a time of war. The week of my birth, Lech Walesa was freed from prison in Poland and the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev was held at Red Square in Moscow. The USSR was performing underground nuclear testing. People called this the “Cold War,” even though the US had baited the Soviets to invade Afghanistan a few years before in what turned out to be a successful endgame move. The Last Unicorn, The Still of the Night, and The Man from Snowy River were popular in the movie theaters. Cal Ripken Jr. became rookie of the year.
Thatcher had gone to war in the Falklands earlier that year. Communists in Italy had kidnapped a US Army General. Canada and Turkey ratified constitutions. Ten’s of thousands died when the Syrian army attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. The Pope visited the UK and Ronald Reagan addressed the British Parlament. Ariel Sharon had just invaded Lebanon, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres would ensue after Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel was assassinated in Beirut. Robero Calvi was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. Italy beat West Germany at the World Cup in Spain. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Surinam recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The IMF loaned 3.8 million to a Mexico on the verge of bankruptcy while the worlds affluent visited the EPCOT center in Florida and listened to music from something new called a “CD”. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released and China’s population exceeded 1 billion of the earths 4.6 billion humans, half-way to the 9.2 billion projected for my 70th birthday.
The population of Bend, Oregon on the date of my birth was around 17,800, the mill was still running, Celilo had been flooded for 25 years and the dams on the middle Deschutes were only a few years younger. The 1855 Treaty of Middle Oregon had been signed 127 years, 4 months, and 26 days prior, thought it wasn’t ratified until 1859, after the War north of the river on the Columbia Basin had ended. Black people were excluded from the new State of Oregon then, and despite the Federal 14th and 15th amendments after the Civil War, exclusion laws would remain on the books until 1927. The KKK’s presence in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia was, relatively, a minuscule fringe by the 1980’s. The school I would end up attending did not celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, however, because he was a Communist. There was a picture on the wall of a white guy named Jesus, whom I prayed to.
The year before Oregon became a State in 1859, two Irishmen in New York and two Irishmen in Dublin would shake hands. This would lead to several invasions of Canada between 1866-1871 under a flag with the words “Irish Republican Army,” and an uprising against the British in Ireland in 1867, the year my grandfathers grandfather would leave Roscommon to become a miner in New Jersey. I don’t know which reason he gave himself for leaving. I did learn that I was something called “Irish” before the 1980’s came to and end, but it took me a few more years to learn we had an “Army” and that Doloris O’Riordan hated them. I didn’t really care, but I liked Doloris O’Riordan. I liked CD’s. I had one called War that I listed to in my grandma’s car, because my parent’s cars always had cassette players, but life for an “Irish” kid in small town Oregon was about as far from war as anyone could get, apart from the “New Agers” and “Environmentalists” whom the adults thought were trying to start one. It was a different story back in Ireland however.
The Long War in the north-east of Ireland was accelerating after 10 republican prisoners had died on hunger strike over the course of 1981. 1982 saw IRA bombs killing British soldiers in London, and the DeLorean factory in Belfast ended in bankruptcy and receivership because of something called “cocaine.” Welcome to the 80’s. Charles Haughey interrupted Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach of the 26-county Republic and corporal punishment was banned in schools. Sinn Féin won it’s first five seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Grafton Street was pedestrianized, and the INLA bombed a disco in Ballykelly.
Apparently something called “colonialism” had effected Ireland somewhat, once upon a time, and professors and clergymen argued whether Ireland was still being effected by the lingering issues of “colonialism” or just being effected by “terrorism.” I was unaware of this. But Irish music sounded sad. And beautiful. I liked it.
To learn that “you’re Irish” in Bend was a much different experience than being Irish in Belfast, Boyle, or Ballyshannon. But the idea stuck, and I did my school reports on Ireland, hand-drawing a map of the island on a large poster board and tasting “mutton stew” for the first time when my mom made this “national dish” as part of my homework. I wore out my Ireland t-shirt my grandparents had brought back for me, but never wore in the Union Jack shirt our friends in England had sent my brother and I. A simple aesthetic preference. And yes, I loved Enya. But eventually punk rock and fake British accents would invade my high school years, and my awareness of the politics back on that wee island nation would begin in my mind, just as the Long War was coming to an end. The Good Friday Agreement was signed and I was a 15 year old in a punk band on the other side of the world. It would take me another 16 years to finally set foot on an island that had somehow always been there in the back of my mind.
At the turn of the millennium I fell hard into politics. Seattle had rioted when the WTO came to town. Rage Against the Machine was on the TV playing for students in Mexico City. My friends would be punished for refusing to stand during the pledge of allegiance and wearing Fidel Castro t-shirts to school. I really didn’t understand any of it, but I wanted to. I still had dreams about the Communists invading even after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. I remember a dream where I thought I was one of them, but they ignored me when I tried to explain that I was on their side. But in waking life I found the Anarchists. Also revolutionaries, but different. I moved to Seattle and joined the struggle against capitalism by shoplifting burritos. We’d go to protests in the streets, hoping there would be some action. Sometimes there would be riot police, concussion grenades, and tear gas. There were Socialists around, and the Anarchists mercilessly ridiculed them. We all read Derrick Jensen. Anarchists hadn’t started to mercilessly ridicule him yet. And it wasn’t just capitalism anymore, but civilization itself. We were domesticated and colonized. We had to break free. The city was full of a particular romance, and I loved it, but the city was domesticated and colonized, so I went home. Back to Oregon. Back to Bend. Back to my mountains and forests. And by then I had learned that Seattle and Bend were in the same “bioregion” and my real home was Cascadia. This was magic. This was beautiful. I was Cascadian.
(to be continued)