Loving Stolen Land

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We travel East each year to see my husband’s family in Pennsylvania, where we spend two weeks in the verdant, fertile, sticky forests and fields of the eastern states – eating fresh blackberries on the trail by the stream, fresh corn from the roadside stands, peaches that drip juice down your chin. It is glorious. The water, the leaves, the grass, the flowers bursting forth from every crack – life in every crack and corner.

For the trip home last year, we traveled down the coast and across the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina and West Virginia, then down through the swamps of Louisiana, where the highway stands on stilts above the water for miles and miles. Inevitably, travelling invites me into a “grass is greener” attitude, imagining life elsewhere – fantasies of canning peaches with my children all summer and rinsing off our hands in the icy creek behind the house. But then we drove through the hills of eastern Texas, and emerged into the West.

To drive into the West is to watch everything around you fall away. The trees and hills drop back and leave only sky, only distance. Surrounded by this distance, by the rusty colored rocks and clouds that streak an impossibly blue sky, I feel I am falling in love. It is the nervous, giddy, dancing stomach of being as close as you can to someone before you kiss; it’s a full breath; it’s a singing in the air; it’s a knowledge that lives in my sternum and radiates out through my ribs – vibrating, telling me I am home.

Even when I’ve lived other places, the sight of Arizona skies has always been a homecoming. I was raised in Tucson, spending many weekend mornings on long desert drives, exploring small towns, and hiking in the foothills of the mountains that surround us here. My presence here, in the West, is part of a family legacy on both my mother’s side and father’s, a legacy I have learned about from the family historians we are lucky to have on both sides. Our people came from France, England, and the cold expanses of Scandinavia. They were pilgrims who stepped off the boat in what is now Boston and pioneers off the boat from Norway. They set out across the North American continent and created homes on the prairies of Nebraska and the windy flats of West Texas; they made my life now possible. These are the stories, the myths, of our family. They are the stories of our movement West, of how we made this land our home. They give us meaning, and pride, and place.

But other stories have been left out of our family canon – left out, ignored, or erased. The story of European expansion across America – into what is now my home – is not just a story of brave, spirited explorers. It is a story of the genocide of Native peoples. It is a story of the Trail of Tears, which started on the lands where my white European ancestors were planting crops, forcing the last surviving indigenous peoples of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia to march thousands of deadly miles into a land they did not know. The story of my America is a story of an economy built on slavery – slavery that was part of my history, too, as many of my ancestors were “slaveholders.” (That’s an academic way to say that they bought and sold human beings, that they treated people as merely bodies for work and breeding.)

While my white ancestors were living what we like to call “the American Dream” – setting up farms, drug stores, and newspapers; playing basketball, becoming socialites, attending colleges, and building businesses – black Americans suffered under Jim Crow, feared lynching, were fire-hosed for marching, and were beaten for sitting down for lunch.

I cannot change the past, and I also know that not every one of my ancestors was a villain. But I believe that as a white American, especially as a Quaker who portends to live by testimonies of equality and integrity, I must acknowledge that my very existence in Tucson came at a terrible price. The journey my family made here was made possible only by violence. The place I love was taken by blood. To ever hope to make peace with my own history, to ever hope to make amends, I must begin by acknowledging more of the past.

Almost everything I own is part of a legacy of white supremacy. Throughout the history of this land, my white ancestors have acquired and accumulated wealth at the expense of people of color. It is immensely discomforting to admit that. Equally hard is admitting – even seeing – my own role in the ongoing injustices of race-based disparities today. I am certain, however, that one important first step is to remember every day – as I gaze upon the gray-green Catalina Mountains, studded with saguaros – that I live on and love stolen land. ~~~

Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist is an activist, organizer, and mother in the beautiful desert southwest. She serves on the board of Western Friend and is a member of Pima Meeting in Tucson.