The history of the land is a history of blood.
In this history, someone wins and someone loses. There are patriots and enemies. Folk heroes who save the day. Vanquished foes who had it coming.
It’s all in the telling.
The conquered have no voice. Ask the thirty-eight Santee Sioux singing the death song with the nooses around their necks, the treaty signed fair and square, then nullified with a snap of the rope. Ask the slave women forced to bear their masters’ children, to raise and love them and see them sold. Ask the miners slaughtered by the militia in Ludlow.
Names are erased. The conqueror tells the story. The colonizer writes the history, winning twice: A theft of land. A theft of witness.
Oh, but let’s not speak of such things! Look: Here is an eagle whipping above the vast grasslands where the buffalo once thundered bold as gods. (The buffalo are here among the dead. So many buffalo.) There is the Declaration in sepia. (Signed by slave owners. Shhh, hush up about that, now!) See how the sun shines down upon the homesteaders’ wagons racing toward a precious claim in the nation’s future, the pursuit of happiness pursued without rest, destiny made manifest? (Never mind about those same homesteaders eating the flesh of neighbors. Winters are harsh in this country. Pack a snack.)
The history is a hungry history. Its mouth opens wide to consume. It must be fed. Bring me what you would forget, it cries, and I will swallow it whole and pull out the bones bleached of truth upon which you will hang the myths of yourselves. Feed me your pain and I will give you dreams and denial, a balm in Gilead. The land remembers everything, though. It knows the steps of this nation’s ballet of violence and forgetting.
The land receives our dead, and the dead sing softly the song of us: blood. Blood on the plains. In the rivers. On the trees where the ropes swing. Blood on the leaves. Blood under the flowers of Gettysburg, of Antioch. Blood on the auction blocks. Blood of the Lenape, the Cherokee, the Cheyenne. Blood of the Alamo. Blood of the Chinese railroad workers. Blood of the midwives hung for witchcraft, for the crime of being women who bleed. Blood of the immigrants fleeing the hopeless, running toward the open arms of the nation’s seductive hope, its greatest export. Blood of the first removed to make way for the cities, the factories, the people and their unbridled dreams: The chugging of the railways. The tapping of the telegram. The humming of industry. Sound burbling along telephone wires. Printing presses whirring with the day’s news. And the next day’s. And the day after that’s. Endless cycles of information. Cities brimming with ambitions used and discarded.
The dead hold what the people throw away. The stories sink the tendrils of their hope and sorrow down into the graves and coil around the dead buried there, deep in its womb.
All passes away, the dead whisper. Except for us. We, the eternal. Always here. Always listening. Always seeing.
One nation, under the earth. E Pluribus unum mortuis.
Oh, how we wish we could reach you! You dreamers and schemers! Oh, you children of optimism! You pioneers! You stars and stripes, forever! Sometimes, the dreamers wake as if they have heard. They take to the streets. They pick up the plow, the pen, the banner, the promise. They reach out to neighbors. They reach out to strangers. Backs stooped from a hard day’s labor, two men, one black, one white, share water from a well. They are thirsty and, in this one moment, thirst and work make them brothers. They drink of shared trust, that all men are created equal. They wipe their brows and smile up at a faithful sun.