Now that you’ve gone West, young man

Toward unlearning Manifest Destiny.

 

I inherited the keys to the kingdom on the day I was born into my white and male American body. Every day since then, my success as a man has been determined by how well I’ve grown into my power. Prowess in sports and recreation, check. Titles and letters, check. Ownership of land and property, possession of another through marriage, accumulation of wealth, check. This process felt like work to me, but never impossible. 

Before I was a man, I was a boy learning how to be one in St. Louis, Missouri. One of my earliest sacred places was the Gateway Arch, that glorious neo-futurist national monument to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of Westward Expansion. I was drawn to its shining spectacle, its enormity and promise. I begged my parents to return as often as we could.

I loved everything about our trips to the Arch, including the Mississippi River at its base, where we boarded the moored Mississippi paddlewheels, ships that had brought goods and people here from all over the world on their way to the West. I loved the cavernous underground museum with its herds of stuffed bison and wax figures of stereotypical cowboys and Indians. I learned all about the exciting and beautiful parts of the world that lay to the West, where always the sky was blue, the grass green, the sunsets golden. I learned, too, of the brave (white) people, each with their own romantic story of passage through this gateway into a better, Western future.

Here I was, lucky, ready to walk through that grand gateway, too. The apex of those trips to the Arch, literally and emotionally, was climbing out of the cramped elevator and running to the highest window, trying to make sense of my place in the world from high up, surveying the city below, craning my neck toward the green horizon. I was a prince, and here was my inheritance. I saw in the Arch exactly what I was supposed to see: a monument to conquest and power. The Arch created in me an unquenchable desire to fulfill my destiny — something the “American West” would provide me.

As soon as I could, I went West. I traveled, worked and explored much of this mythical country throughout my 20s. I fished for salmon, ran upon grizzlies, climbed peaks and paddled wild rivers from the high Rockies of Montana to the high desert of New Mexico, the Western Slope of Colorado, the Southern Sierra, Point Reyes, Mount Rainier, all over and then again. Launched westward through the Gateway Arch, I learned how to wear my mantle as a man of the American West.

I’M WRITING THESE WORDS from my current home in Anchorage, Alaska, approaching middle age, at the tattered edge of ongoing American colonization. Maybe with age comes humility. I hope that’s the case, because I am beginning to understand just how much I am going to need. I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to learn other versions of the American story. As an educated, progressive white person, I intellectually understood the violence of America’s creation. But for years, I couldn’t articulate the unfurling personal injustices that the country had enacted. I had failed to understand or care to know who had suffered and who continued to suffer from the great American project. I carried out my role in the project so earnestly that it was impossible for me to see, let alone understand, my own complicity in those injustices.

“I am learning, very slowly to see the people I was taught not to see, to hear stories I was taught not to learn.”

As I write, I’m looking out at a Western scene from my childhood dreams: snow-capped mountains rising above the sweep of the ocean. It looks like a damned oil painting. I was taught to call the nearest mountain Susitna, and this part of the ocean Cook Inlet. But I am learning to see this place as someone else’s home, even today. The Dena’ina have been here for over 10,000 years, with their names, languages and knowledge still alive on these lands and waters. Beneath the mountains are two of their towns, Beluga and Tyonek. The Dena’ina also call Susitna Dghelishla, Little Mountain. The river beneath Dghelishla is Susitna, Big Sandy River. The wide sweep of ocean is called Tikahtnu, Big Water River. 

I am learning, very slowly, to see the people I was taught not to see, to hear stories I was taught not to hear. I first practiced this, I realize, by listening to the thumping of my own heart, a heart that taught me that as a gay man in America, I was born into a nation that seeks to ignore, erase and destroy people like me. Such an understanding comes slowly, but once it comes, it is passage through another kind of gateway. Once I understood my true place here, I could no longer trust the stories I had been told about my nation, my inheritance, or my God, all of these woven into the banner that led me West. The American West is a national myth, part of a collection of myths that actively erase innumerable people and their stories — mine included.

In our mid-20s, my now-husband and I went about canoeing the full 1,800-mile length of the Yukon River. The idea had been romantic, to follow in the footsteps of the Klondike gold rush pioneers. For two months, we paddled down a mud-and-silt-thick river that was at times a mile wide. The river was, indeed, spectacularly beautiful, and the gold rush history fascinating, but day by day, we also learned the stories of a land and its peoples — the Southern and Northern Tutchone, Han, Tanana, Koyukon, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an and Yupik — who were still healing from the trauma inflicted by the rapacious men who once sought their own kingdoms, or at least their fortunes, along the banks of the Yukon River. Many gold-rushers lost their lives, though a few did become quite rich. But I began to realize that neither the tragedy nor glory of that land were theirs to claim.

Just a dozen miles from the Bering Sea, a big storm rolled in that forced us to end our trip in the Yupik village of Emmonak. When we arrived at the small airfield, the local ticket agent asked us if we had made it to the sea. We told him we hadn’t; he said we’d failed in our journey. I still think about him often. He was right: We had sought to conquer the river, and we had failed. Day by day, mile by mile, the beauty of the Yukon gave way to the truth that I was an interloper, a colonizer, re-enacting the grand lie of the West, just as so many other men had before me.

The names of the land were not lost; colonizers and governments destroyed them.

The American West was never an empty land of solitude and vistas, there for the taking by gold rush heroes and the Marlboro Man. It was only explained as such by settlers who benefited from that story. The names of the land were not lost; colonizers and governments destroyed them. The multitudes of Indigenous societies of the West were not somehow rightfully subdued; people who called themselves Americans erased them, or attempted to. To passively accept the stories of the West as I inherited them is to be complicit with the ongoing erasure of living cultures, languages, ways of knowing — even bodies themselves. As I’ve learned all too well, such erasure is a violent and impassive act.

The West was indeed my inheritance, but it was ill-gotten through war, enslavement, forced labor, genocide and conquest. Every American must learn this, must find their own gateway to collective liberation, if we are to someday exist as part of a peaceful nation: Our inheritance is not great wealth, but a terrible debt.

Alex Carr Johnson is a writer and national park advocate in Anchorage, Alaska. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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