History, Mystery and Myth



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I am drawn by three southwestern writers—Barry Lopez, Sharman Apt Russell, and Mary Sojourner–into thinking about the intersections of history, mystery and myth and what I understand and believe about the larger world.

I recently finished digesting Barry Lopez’s Winter Count. He pushes the margins of history with stories that clash western empirical knowledge with native teaching stories and symbolic tradition; stories which imply the question, “What is truth?”

Lopez brings into focus how impreciseness, inaccuracies and assumptions become accepted as scientific fact. European naturalists who, in person or by report, encountered animals of North America, assumed those animals were the same as animals from their known world and named them based on a European paradigm. One North American creature that still suffers from this two-century-old-mislabeling is the pronghorn. Africa has antelopes, North America does not. Europeans were familiar with African antelopes, thus named the vaguely similar animal found on the western American plains in familiar terms. And in North America is it ‘buffalo’ or ‘bison’? Here, it’s bison, not buffalo; the latter are denizens of the water-rich environments of Asia and the Nile delta. Again, a name assigned based on an assumption based on only one version of knowledge.

On Amazon’s website, a reviewer of Kill the Cowboy by Sharman Apt Russell writes, “Rising larger than life against the Western horizon, the cowboy sits astride his horse right in the middle of American mythology, husbanding our ideals of freedom, independence, and valor.” Every western movie and TV show we watched growing up (that is, if you’re of a certain age) had this at its root. This is myth at its most essential to Western culture and white mens’ history.

More to Sharman’s point, though, is that the cowboy is both the sustaining story and destructive force that challenges the West we have now. She wrote the book about 25 years ago; the clash between Clive Bundy’s vagrancy on public grazing lands in Utah and the environmental conscience of many modern ranchers across the West tells us that this story is not over. The current challenges and conflicts are no less vigorous now than when Sharman gathered stories in 1994 from ranchers, federal land managers and cowboys themselves. The opposition of cultures and faces of history that appear in Kill the Cowboy suggests the same questions and puzzles as did Lopez’s Anglo academics and naturalists when they encountered Indian spirit teachers on the plains and mountain passes. Who has the right of it? Whose history is it, anyway? Is history one-dimensional, with room for only one story, one point of view, one…history?

In her new book, 29, Mary Sojourner explores the juxtaposition of indigenous values of continuity of spirit and family with the values of environmentalism and capitalism. She puts this forward by spinning the mysteries of human relationships to each other, to their environment and to their stories. She sets up the seeming good of a solar installation which covers a disreputable and violent capitalist scam.

Questions arise. Given the state of today’s environment, is any and every form of solar technology good for the world at any cost? What if the cost is fried birds falling from the air and displaced endangered desert tortoises? What if the cost is the destruction of sacred native lands and fatal interruption of an essential human story of spiritual continuity? It’s a dilemma and a quandary.

Here’s what I find myself wondering. What history do we want? Whose truth do we believe? Aren’t history and truth as faceted, as complex as a diamond?

We can’t know all, and therein rests the mystery.

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