Being a Native means more than living there

By Charles Finn

Psychologist Carl Jung once made a surprising prophecy about Americans. He said we will ultimately become Indians – Natives of this place. He also said that if we don’t become Natives, we will die, and our place will die, as well.

Some people have the notion that living somewhere for a long period of time finally makes one a native. As a child growing up in a small town on the East Coast, I was half-feral. I knew every inch of the town intimately, including the back alleys, the open fields, the rivers and train tracks. I spent my days wandering the creek – called a brook in the East – that ran through the village.

I took short cuts adults had no idea existed. I knew where to find nesting great blue herons, a rarity back then, and I also knew where the poison ivy grew. I found out the hard way. As I got older, though, I learned to drive and began spending more time indoors in front of the TV. I might have been considered a local at a handful of bars, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Slowly, my nativeness slipped away.

In The River Why, Montana writer David James Duncan observes that Huck Finn had a native intelligence about the Mississippi, Thoreau was native to his pond in Connecticut, and Gandhi had a native’s understanding of jails. They had an intimate and working knowledge of these places. They knew the smells, the cast of light at different times of the day, and the creatures that lived in the neighborhood and their habits. They experienced and absorbed their environment.

I believe that it takes more to be a native of a place than just being born there and that people who choose to move into an area can become just as native as those whose family harks back three generations. This may sound like blasphemy, as the latest influx of newcomers to the West snatches up huge parcels of land and then posts “No hunting” and “No trespassing” signs. These are the folks who arrive knowing little about the land and the place they share their lives with, and what’s worse, they don’t want to learn.

Chances are, most of these newcomers will never stay long enough to become quasi-native, much less local.

I have a friend who moved here years ago from Texas. She is a woodblock artist and wildlife illustrator, and she spends her days crouched in a field, beside a creek or on top of a mountain. She knows the names of nearly all the insects, trees and grasses, and she knows their habits and life cycles. She is the most native person I know.

As we grow more plugged in and less tuned in, we slowly lose our ability to know where we are or even care about it. It makes clear-cuts and shopping malls and urban sprawl all the more easier to accept because we no longer have a bone-deep connection to our environment. Psychologist Carl Jung once made a surprising prophecy about Americans. He said we will ultimately become Indians – natives of this place. He also said that if we don’t become natives, we will die, and our place will die, as well.

This guest perspective was submitted by Cherokee Mangus


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