Through Occupied Territory

Dillion Reservoir--There mountains in the background, and island with conifers and shrubs
Dillon Reservoir near Frisco, CO

This post comes to you from Lander, Wyoming. I have so far traveled 3236 miles. Yesterday (June 21) marked two months on the road. Happy Solstice, by the way.

According to this map that shows the territories of the indigenous people prior to the European invasion of the Americas, up to this point on the trip I have traveled through the lands of these people: Penawapskewt (Penobscot), Alnobak (Abenaki), Kanien’Kehaka (Mohawk), Onyt’aa:ka’ (Oneida), Onondagaono (Onondaga), Gayogohono (Cayuga), Onodawaga (Seneca), Wehrohronon (Wenro), Wendat (Huron), Alliwegis, Kiwigapawa (Kickapoo), Shawanwa (Shawnee), Twightwee (Miami), Atchatchakangouen, Kilatika, Mengakonkia, Kaskaskaham, Tamaroa, Cahokia, Neutache (Missouria), Niukonska (Osage), Hutanga (Kansa), and Hinonoeino (Arapaho).

As I continue on the trip, I will journey through the lands of the Tsitsistas (Cheyenne), Banakwut (Bannock), Khogue (Shoshone), Salish, Nimipu (Nez Perce), Nimi (Shoshone), Waileptu (Cayuse), Galasq’o (Wishram), Chepanafa, Chelamela, Atfalati, La’tiwe, Hutyeyu, Nehalem, Tlatskanai, Lat’cap, and Clowwewella.

A wild rose and aspen trunks.
A wild rose and aspen trunks.

I think this is something very important to acknowledge. When taking a trip across the United States from east to west, it is easy for us settlers (which is what we still are to the indigenous people alive today) to glorify the westward expansion of the United States, marking the paths of Lewis and Clark and the wagon trains that followed. It is easy for us to forget that the extent of the United States, from sea to shining sea, was made possible by an incremental ethnic cleansing. The word genocide is perfectly fitting.

As well described by Jered Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, much of the demise of the hundreds of cultures that existed in the Americas prior to 1492, can be attributed to diseases for which native peoples had no immunity. However, I can’t help thinking that many of those cultures might have recovered had they not been finished off with the guns and steel wielded by Europeans. What might have happened if the Europeans came in search of cultural exchange instead of riches?

Perhaps that would have been impossible. The obsession with private property is deeply ingrained in European culture to one degree or another. Maybe it is not so much an obsession but an intrinsic aspect of the European way of life that developed over the centuries. An excellent book that gives a lot of clues as to how that happened is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. However it happened, private property trumped the Golden Rule and whatever “love thy neighbor” sentiments that the Christian invaders professed to believe.

A storm over an open valley in Colorado. There is a could that looks like a nascent tornado.
I was glad to have had already ridden through this storm because that cloud looked scary.

I agree to a point that we cannot lightly condemn the people of the past from the comfort of a more informed modern vantage point. Maybe our ancestors were doing their best with what they knew and the resources they had at their disposal. On the other hand, there is plenty of historical evidence that they did know better. There were people like Bartolome´de las Casas to hold European invaders responsible for atrocities committed against the native peoples.

Paradoxically, even though perhaps we cannot judge our ancestors from better-informed modern circumstances, perhaps we must. If we don’t, do we fail to hold ourselves accountable for moral lapses in current times? Is that how one explains America’s repeated failure to acknowledge any of the crimes it has committed against other nations and cultures right up to the current time?

Mountains in the background, a small lake in the foreground in which there are two white pelicans.
Yes. Those are white pelicans in Colorado.

The Vietnam War and the millions of noncombatants that were killed in massacres and brutal bombings carried out by the Americans did bring our society nearly to the point at which a large percentage of the population was willing to reflect not only upon the tragic mistake that was the Vietnam War, but also the immoral underpinnings of our nation: the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of indigenous peoples.

The trouble with that story is that it does not serve the powerful. The one that does is that which is about the one and only shining city on the hill that has been blessed by God and is somehow exceptional. It is always right. It can never be wrong. In fact, Donald Trump is that concept of America personified. The story of America the Great serves the powerful because nothing can be questioned. It does not matter how blatant the lie may be; it is beyond reproach.

An eastbound Trans America cyclist approaches up this hill in Wyoming, north of Rawlins. There is a wide open valley at the bottom of the hill with a road crossing it. Mountains are in the distance.
An eastbound Trans America cyclist approaches up this hill in Wyoming, north of Rawlins.

When people do start to question the past and how it led up to the present, the powerful get nervous. Next thing you know, people will be demanding a more equitable distribution of wealth and we can’t have that. And since the powerful control the media, and have all the money they need to influence elections and office holders, it is easy for them to determine which narrative prevails. That bright and promising time in the late sixties and early seventies when so many Americans seemed willing to acknowledge the awful mistakes of the past in the hope that we might build a future in which everyone would be guaranteed a life free from the fear of want and injustice was shut down with the election of Ronald Reagan who asserted that Vietnam was a noble cause.

Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the United States was once more at war, either directly or by proxy. In fact, if you examine this list of military operations, you could say that the United States has never been at a true peace. Now the US is engaged in endless wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The atrocities, and the dead and wounded American military casualties, are reported in the news but are soon forgotten. According to this Truthdig article, Donald Trump’s military drops a bomb somewhere every 12 seconds. It all just keeps going. Hardly anyone protests.

A windmill on the high desert in Wyoming.
A windmill on the high desert in Wyoming.

A very unfortunate outcome of World War II is that in order to prevail the US built a Frankenstein that President Eisenhower coined as the military-industrial complex. It is the aforementioned powerful that controls the narrative. So, instead of acknowledging the truth of our circumstances and reacting to it with the bold actions that will be required in order to address economic inequality and ecological collapse, as a nation we live as though we can carry on this way forever.

As I ride my bike across the country, I see so many people driving ridiculously large vehicles. Along with it goes a lot of self-congratulatory flag waving. I remember when I was growing up, patriotism and faith were taken for granted. It seemed impolite to get too pushy with them though. These days, the US has turned into a nation of Pharisees with obligatory citations about the Lord, and Support the Troops everywhere. Every store and every other home must be waving a flag. It is a disgusting display and perhaps indicative of the underlying insecurity in all of us. We can keep denying it out loud but deep down, no matter on which side of the cultural divide you happen to stand, we know our time is at hand. The jingoism and over-the-top religiosity on the right and the technology-will-save-us delusions on the left are so much magical thinking–the real American pastime.

A prairie in the foreground with two hills in the middle distance and mountains in the far distance.
The landforms in Wyoming are quite varied. There is not much vegetation to get in the way of marveling and wondering about the processes that created them.

The Fermi paradox is one in which though it is mathematically probable that there should other civilizations like ours in the universe, there is to date no evidence of it. Carl Sagan proposed that it was because technological civilizations wipe themselves out after existing for only a short period of time.

Here is how it works: our civilization came into “electromagnetic awareness” with the broadcast of the first transatlantic radio signal in 1901. If things keep progressing as they are, how many more years will our civilization have the ability to send and receive radio signals?  For the sake of discussion, let’s say another 80 years. That means our civilization will have been electromagnetically aware for about 200 years.  For another civilization to detect ours, they must become electromagnetically aware just sometime during the two hundred year interval that our broadcasts are reaching their planet.  If that interval falls before or after the two hundred year period during which they are aware, they will have had no idea that we existed. And likewise for the broadcasts of other civilizations reaching our planet.

Fluffy clouds in a blue sky over a plain with granite mountains in the background.
The fluffy clouds on this day played well with the mountain landscape. Near Jeffry City, WY.

This disturbing conjecture is more so when considering nearly all of the great civilizations that came before ours eventually collapsed. In most cases, one can find the pattern of elites refusing to acknowledge changes in environmental circumstances, or refusing to adopt technologies that might have prolonged the life of their society. The difference now is that our civilization is global. And so, as we are seeing, the ecological consequences of our failure to acknowledge the truth and act on it are global.

The inability, or unwillingness, to face up to the truth is a human pattern. So, we should not be surprised that so much injustice of the past and present is never acknowledged, dooming us to making the same mistakes over and over again. Our fate seems inevitable.

I admit that I may be engaging in a form of exceptionalism myself as I work on various campaigns to bring about change for the better. The evidence is not encouraging. But, to do nothing, in addition to making doom a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, seems immoral. There is nothing else to do but keep pedaling.