Western nativism has a rotten odor

 

Back in my railroad days, we often said that something had "a bad smell."

"I smell a bad order!"— lingo for a car that was rolling wrong and needed to be removed from the train. The alarm was shouted down from the conductor up in the "angel's seat" in the caboose, back when a person actually had a job riding the caboose. The kid brakeman, who, back then, was inevitably me, would trudge up in the snow and dark to find the offending car, called a "hot box." These days, there's a different kind of bad odor here in the West, and I'm ready to shout the alarm.

Each time I read a letter to the editor calling for a stop to immigration, the smell gets stronger. Lately, I've seen letters to the editor calling for Islam to "grow up," or agreeing with politicians like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that we need to stop "Muslim immigration" the the United States altogether. Some small-town publishers are saying the same thing.

I cringe at this kind of talk. Many of us have friends and relatives who are Muslim. Some of our kids marry those folks. Some of our grandkids grow up in Muslim families — even though the kids may end up as Buddhists or atheists or Evangelical Republicans, for all we know. It smells bad enough that I'm ready to call the reaction what it is: a resurgence of nativism.

Nativism is no stranger to the West. The belief that those of us already here are superior to immigrants is part of our history. The Native Americans felt that way when the whites invaded. The Latino farmers in the San Luis Valley were unhappy when Anglo gold-seekers appeared. The Ku Klux Klan tried to keep out Catholics and "Slavs" in the 1920s. To some degree, it's a feeling that isn't surprising: Old-timers feel threatened, and some of them react fearfully. But when intolerance is touted as public policy, we deny the best in our Western heritage of hospitality.

It's never possible to keep out a targeted group for long. Anyone who thinks there are hardly any Muslims in the Rocky Mountain West needs to talk to my goat-farmer acquaintance. His place in southern Colorado sends off a truckload of meat goats to market every week. Some of those animals are destined to become Mexican cabrito, but most are for Muslim consumption. During Eid, one of the Muslim holy days, he'll send off even more. It's sort of like raising turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Muslims in San Antonio, Texas celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan, at Incredible Pizza.

To be fair, not all the concerns about Muslim refugees are caused by nativism. Perhaps better vetting of immigrants is needed, though their vetting already takes a couple of years. But when writers in Western newspapers warn of dangerous "Muslims," with no qualifiers such as "radical" or "terrorist," I smell a bad odor.

Western folks at our best have always welcomed immigrants, and I love the vision of Colorado's first territorial governor, William Gilpin. Though one of his books, "The Cosmopolitan Railway," is full of the usual booster fantasies about the abundance the railroads would bring us, I appreciate his image of railroads "debouching" (his favorite verb) the peoples of the world to help build the West.

He lauded the Chinese for their culinary and laundry skills. He was grateful to Mexicans, who taught us about their system of acequia ditches, which diverted water from rivers for farming. He was probably no more racist than most in the mid-19th century, when he welcomed the musically talented "Africans," who, he said, were suited for working in deep mines because they were able to tolerate the heat.

Gilpin went so far as to argue that our wide-open spaces and mountain air would encourage a new kind of humanity to emerge, with a "hy-brid" vigor based on mutual respect. He didn't quite say all the children would be brighter and all the dogs behave, but he came close in some of his speeches.  True, he did have land for sale, but sorry, writer Wallace Stegner, he never said "rain follows the plow."

The bad smell of nativism can be overcome if we stay true to our tradition of hospitality. Welcoming all has made us what we are. Old Gov. Gilpin was probably right about how our willingness to welcome whoever had the good fortune to get here has strengthened our Rocky Mountain population. We've never gone it alone in the West; we've needed everybody to create a society. This is no time to get on a high horse and tell some people they don't belong.



Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...