15-37 Segment 2: Belonging: Why it’s important to be from somewhere

When you ask an American, “where are you from?” most of them will say it’s where they live now or where they were born. We talk to one man who thought long and hard about that question and went on a journey around the Midwest and Plains States to try to answer it. He learned a lot about his family’s heritage and the cost in lives, land and culture that indigenous peoples paid so European settlers could call themselves Americans.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Allan Johnson, author of “Not From Here: A memoir.”

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Belonging: Why it’s important to be from somewhere

Marty Peterson: Where are you from? You might say it’s the place where you were born or the place your parents are from. You could choose the city and state you’ve spent most of your life in, or perhaps you’d say it’s the place you live now. It’s a simple enough question that most people can answer without much thought, that is unless you are Allan Johnson. Johnson is a sociologist, novelist and speaker who asked himself that question and couldn’t come up with an answer. It’s not that he didn’t have places to choose from, it’s just that he never really felt that he “belonged” in any one place. Johnson writes down his thoughts on belonging and the journey he embarked on to find out where he belonged in his new book, Not From Here: A memoir. The question came up when he asked his dad where he wanted his ashes spread when he died…

Allan Johnson: And his reply was just to shrug and say he didn’t care. It didn’t matter to him at all. And at the time I didn’t think much of that in a sense that it didn’t seem strange to me. He’d lived all over the world, he was fluent in multiple languages, so it just didn’t seem odd to me that he’d be indifferent to that question. But after he died years went by and I still had this little box of ashes and didn’t know what to do with them. As I sat with that, I realized I wouldn’t know what to tell my children what to do with my ashes when I died. I didn’t know where my father belonged, in a way, and I also didn’t know where I belonged.

Peterson: That led Johnson on a journey around the Midwest and the Plains to visit those places where his father lived and where relatives still resided. He was looking for a place where his father belonged. Well, his dad was from Norway, so why not take the ashes there?

Johnson: I didn’t go to Norway with his ashes, first, because he didn’t ask me to. If he had said to me, “I want you to take me to Hardangerfjord. I want you to take me to the village of Måkestad and I want you to pour me wherever, I would have done that in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t have thought about it. But he did not ask me to do that. And secondly, I realized as I sat with this dilemma of what do I do with his ashes, I had a need here. In many ways this journey was more about me and my need to belong someplace than it was about him, because he seemed indifferent to that. And I’m not Norwegian, so if I took my father’s ashes to Norway, which he did not ask me to do, and I left them there, I would then leave that place without a feeling of attachment to it. What I did instead was I felt that I had to find a place that would work for both of us. If there was such a place, I needed to find it.

Peterson: Johnson sees belonging as not merely being born in a city or living in a certain state. Since we are a nation of immigrants, very few people are actually from here except for Native Americans…

Johnson: It’s endemic to this country, our whole history is the history of a people who are from somewhere else, and once you get a few generations in you’re from nowhere. So if you work back a certain number of generations for any of us who aren’t recent immigrants or Native Americans, we reach a point where there is a huge disconnect for all the generations reaching back from that point, they are from someplace. They are part of a people who are from some land. But all the generations forward from that are from nowhere, because they are not indigenous to the United States, and they are not indigenous to the land that their ancestors came from.

Peterson: He says that for him, that feeling of belonging starts with a special relationship a person has with the land. As an American, Johnson doesn’t feel that connection the way that a Native American would…

Johnson: Our whole history has been of a people who are, I think essentially, displaced. And that means that our relationship to land is one not of looking at the land and seeing ourselves as a people reflected back by the land itself – I mean the soil and the rivers and the mountains – but seeing land basically as real estate: as a place to build a house, to exploit natural resources, whatever — but not land as something that actually as some ways helped to define who we are and tell us who we are. So that are ability as a people to go anywhere and sort of regard one piece of land as interchangeable with another – real estate is real estate – is part of the character of this country from the very beginning.

Peterson: Johnson says that he not only wanted to find a place to spread his father’s ashes and see if he, himself, felt connected to his ancestors’ land, he also wanted to uncover the bigger story about his relatives’ claim on their homesteads…

Johnson: That larger story has to do with the history of this country and the history of the land. So the land I was driving across was full of stories. And in many ways they’re terrible stories of what was done to Native Americans so that land would become available to my great grandparents, for example, to become farmers. So in a way, it was about me and my father, but very quickly it became about that and the place of our story in relation to a much larger story.

Peterson: That story, for all Americans, started back in colonial times. Johnson says that there were three reasons why people from Europe ventured off to the New World…

Johnson: One has been to exploit, to get rich. The English first came here hoping that North America would do for them what South America did for the Spanish – they would find gold. In the first Jamestown colony, they were looking for gold, that was their goal. And they were so intent on finding gold, that they didn’t plan on having to, for example, provide themselves with food. That’s how obsessed they were. So there has always been this sense of getting rich, getting powerful, colonization as a way to make the King back in England rich and powerful. So that’s always been, certainly, what drove the elites who came here and have been in charge of things ever since. The second one, I think, was driven by economic hardship at home: overcrowding in Europe, poverty – which is why I think my great-grandparents came to Iowa was that conditions were harsh in Norway in terms of economic opportunity, and so people went here because they were looking for something better. And the third category is that people have been driven here. Millions of people who were kidnapped out of Africa and enslaved in North America, refugees of all kinds from all around the world. In some ways it has occurred to me that the United States over its history has been the largest refugee camp in the world.

Peterson: As Johnson traveled across the Heartland, he visited reservations where Native Americans have created casinos on their land to provide money for their tribes – partly to survive and partly to save their disappearing culture…

Johnson: My impression of Native American communities today is that there is this huge struggle going on to try to reclaim what was taken from them. I mean not only did Whites take away their land, they made a concerted effort to literally destroy Native American cultures – their language, their spiritual practices – I mean this was a deliberate, conscious attempt on the part of White people in the United States to destroy them as a people. So today, my impression is that there are huge efforts underway to reclaim what has been taken away. And at the same time, they have to survive materially. They have to have a source of income because they’re living in a country that’s Capitalist, it’s run on cash and so on. And the lands that they were forced onto, for the most part, don’t offer a while lot in the way of sustainability.

Peterson: Johnson says that the sense of belonging is different for everyone, but he can’t help but think that it affects the psyche of anyone who doesn’t feel connected to a definite place in the world…

Johnson: For me there’s a sense of being lost, of not belonging anywhere. So there is no place where you belong, and you’re conscious of that. Then you feel lost. With the feeling of lost can come a sense of disconnection because I don’t identify myself as being a member of a people. There isn’t an American people that I can go into any gathering of American citizens and say, “Ah, here are my people.” I can’t do that. So there’s a sense of disconnection. Related to that is a sense of isolation out of which comes, what I referred to earlier, a sense of loneliness. And I think that we see the effects of this all over the place in this country historically and today, of people trying very hard to move as fast as they can, with as much stimulation as possible to avoid those moments of silence out of which comes an awareness of “I am not from anywhere.”

Peterson: We’re not going to tell you how the story of the ashes ended up – you can find out for yourself in his book. But it was a very personal journey that he took, and one that made him think about the fundamental meaning of connection and how he could make peace with his own history. Johnson says it’s a journey that we all have to take ourselves and come to our own conclusions…

Johnson: This particular kind of belonging is very powerful, and the lack of it is unique to places like the United States. I think Australia might have a similar phenomenon. Someone can say, “Well, you know, this is what I’ve got and I love this place. I belong here.” I’m not disputing that at all. All I’m saying is that there is another kind of belonging that does not satisfy. And we can push that out of our minds, we can say it doesn’t matter, or we can find ways to live with that. Which I think the remainder of this journey is for me as I go forward, is how do I make peace with that? How do I make peace with my ancestors? How do I make peace with the history of the United States, which continues now? How do we make peace with all of that as individuals who have lives to live, and how do we make peace with that as a nation? And I think those are the big questions that come out of this journey for me.

Peterson: You can read about Allan Johnson’s personal journey and the history of the Heartland that allowed him and his ancestors to settle and prosper in this country, in his book, Not From Here: A memoir, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to his website at agjohnson.us. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

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