By Tommy Airey, co-editor RadicalDiscipleship.Net
In the early 1980s, historian William Appleman Williams described the state of affairs in the United States in the title of his book Empire As a Way of Life. For centuries, The Imperial Script has called for “manifest destiny,” imposing our political, social and economic policies on people all over the world—from the genocide of native Americans in “the new world,” to importing slaves from Africa, to imperialist wars with countries from Mexico to Iraq, stealing land, resources and cultures. The United States was, and continues to be, built on what Dr. Lily Mendoza calls “the undeniable debris of dead bodies, stolen wealth, and the enslavement of other beings, both human and non-human.” These were the secret steroids injected into my family’s “success” story.
A little more than a century ago, my great-grandfather Tom immigrated to the United States from England with his Irish wife, Mary, and their four sons (photo above). They settled on a plot of “old sage brush land” in the little town of Omak, Washington, arriving right after the completion of the Conconully Dam, a grand irrigation project to industrialize agriculture production. Tame the river and funnel that water into profits.
Tom’s son, Valentine (born on Valentine’s Day 1901), my grandfather, was nine at the time. By the time he graduated from high school, he worked and saved enough coin to attend pharmacy school. He moved seventy-five miles south to operate a drug store in the new town of Mason City, nestled in the hulking shadow of a New Deal monstrosity that would provide jobs for about 5,000 white folks who were unemployed during the Great Depression.
My dad was born just months before the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest man-made concrete structure in the world, providing irrigation to a million acres of farmland and electricity to the entire Pacific Northwest. It powered the nuclear facility that created plutonium for the atomic bomb and enabled Boeing to design and build planes to fight the Nazis in WWII.
Before any of these projects were initiated, a dozen indigenous tribes were forced to sign treaties and were corralled into the Colville Indian Reservation, which shrank and morphed over time, as white settlers demanded the choicest of lands, flush with natural resources. The building of these dams destroyed what sustenance remained, killing off 645 miles of seasonal salmon runs and flooding plains of rich land and sacred burial grounds.
The indigenous population had depended on salmon for centuries. Their work, recreation, feasting and most sacred ceremonies revolved around the summer migration of salmon. In his recently released You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie calls the Grand Coulee Dam “an epic gravestone:”
Spiritually speaking, the Spokane Indians and all other Salish tribes worshipped the salmon as passionately as any other people in the world worship their deities…What is it like to be a Spokane Indian without wild salmon? It is like being a Christian if Jesus had never rolled back the stone and risen from the tomb.
All too often, American job creation crucifies what is sacred to someone else.
Last Fall, Lindsay and I made the pilgrimage to Grand Coulee to sprinkle some of Dad’s ashes off a bridge over the Columbia River, in full frontal view of the epic gravestone. Two blocks away, I discovered the Colville Indian Museum where I met the curator, Jennifer, who’s about a decade younger than my dad. She grew up an hour from the dam, but moved there after extensive research and study in archaeology and anthropology.
Jennifer told me about participating in a conference at Gonzaga University in 1999 where she testified about the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse that her mom suffered as child at an Indian boarding school in Eastern Washington. Immediately after her presentation, a priest got in her face and shouted her down. Then, she said, an amazing thing happened: a 4-foot, 10-inch female Colville elder charged through the crowd to shove him back in his place. Memories like this, she said, keep her going. Jennifer, though, confirmed my deep suspicion: access to the Grand Coulee Dam’s electricity and irrigation was promised to the Colville people, but wasn’t delivered for decades. To this day, the tribes endure high electric and water bills and shoddy irrigation.
The Imperial Script privileged the men in our family for a hundred years, opening the doors wide as they were welcomed into the country. It funded grand water projects and interstate highways, clearing the way for education and jobs and homes for white folks by pushing people of color into reservations, barrios and ghettos.
The Imperial Script built an irrigation system that allowed Great-Grandpa Tom to plant a large apple orchard in a region with very little rainfall. It funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into a project to dam up the Columbia River so that white folks could settle and farm the land, with the side benefit of providing a whole lot of white folks construction jobs for a decade.
Eventually, the Rexall Corporation recruited Grandpa Val–first generation immigrant–to follow the growth generated by more government subsidies. He moved his business to suburban Seattle, the new home of Boeing, contracted to build the new B-29 bomber. They were the first family on the street with a TV and their home had a beautiful view of Lake Washington. By the time my dad graduated from college, Val was making about $150,000 in profit every year (in 2017 dollars).
In his final sermon, just a few days before his murder, Dr. King contrasted the intergenerational story of his family with mine:
[The federal government] simply said “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man—through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest—which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
The genealogies and genograms of my family system powerfully subvert the success stories I’ve been scripted into. “Connect the dots and courageously tell the truth” was the simple imperative Monica Lewis-Patrick gave this week here in Detroit. The intergenerational arc of the moral universe is long and it begins with a holy groaning, unsettling me out of my privilege and entitlement: the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…and for the return of the salmon to the Upper Columbia River.