According to the myth of American exceptionalism, citizens of the newly independent country had a clear mission: To settle the entire continent of North America, bringing European order and civilisation with them, at all costs. This was a driving force of domestic policy well into the 20th century, playing a key role not just in the culture and development of the West, but also US society and culture in general. Yet, the details of Westward expansion are often left vague — sometimes deliberately — in classrooms across the United States, where students have limited access to information about the deeper racialised historical context of how Europeans colonised North America.
There’s a growing understanding and awareness of what should have already been well-established fact: Humans were here long before Europeans arrived, and they were aggressively driven from their native lands, indiscriminately murdered, and forced onto reservations that consisted of lands no Europeans wanted. Indigenous peoples across North America were cruelly used by settlers, whether in the form of broken treaties, bloody wars, racist political and social policies, and other, more insidious ways. Today, Native Americans remain one of the most consistently underprivileged racial groups in the United States, and yet Native American issues — like alcoholism, systemic lack of access to health care, police violence, disconnection from their own culture, loss of sacred lands and artefacts, and much more — aren’t widely discussed. People in the US like to avoid the racial realities of their past.
The narrative surrounding Westward expansion in the US goes thusly: Brave pioneers set forth across unforgiving and harsh lands to colonise the country from sea to shining sea, settling in the lush farmlands, panning for gold on the coast, and staking claims across the country. A glance at the Western states on a globe will show large tracts of land delineated by clean, crisp lines for the most part, reflecting a roughly-scrawled map that divided territories without respect to geographic and cultural features. The same disrespect applied to the people who lived on those lines, who show up primarily as menacing enemies and bogeymen in historical documentation in pop culture, when they show up at all — often, discussions of Westward expansion imply that Europeans moved across vast, unsettled lands, putting down roots where no human had stepped before.
These things tie very intimately into the West’s identity and its opinion of itself. Many non-Coastal Western states are very deeply red, reflecting centuries of social attitudes surrounding white supremacy and entitlement. Colonists arrived and staked their claims, drove off native peoples, and believe that their ownership and control of the land is total and absolute. This applies not just in the sense of personal ownership, but in the sense that many reject the authority of the federal, and sometimes even the state, government, believing they should be able to use natural resources with impunity. The West is still heavily dotted with ranches, but ‘dotted’ is perhaps not quite the right word, because these establishments are huge, with cattle roaming freely (think of the romanticism of the ‘range’) across federal and private lands, a product of agreements between ranchers and government agencies that lease these lands.
Any true history of the West cannot be separated from the white supremacy that dominated Western culture from the very beginning — just as the East was settled by people who exerted power and control based on race, so too was the West. While Western states may not have had slaves, that doesn’t mean they didn’t exploit people of colour as workers, though they may have been called sharecroppers or temporary workers — some indeed were trafficked much like slaves, and disposed of when ranchers didn’t see a need for them. Europeans succeeded in colonising the West because they were ruthless, because they forced indigenous people to flee their path, because they leveraged low-paid labour to stake and hold claims of land or other resources.
These are matters that are sanitised or glossed over in many US history textbooks, which instead celebrate cowboys, the Pony Express, the formation of new Western states (all free, of course), the growth of cities like San Francisco, the bold pioneers who struck out into unknown lands — an entire generation of children grew up playing Oregon Trail and internalising messages about ownership of land and Westward movement. When we talk about problems with polities, racial imbalance, and institutional controls in the United States, things like this are why these problems endure. Because no one openly admits to them, or attempts to educate the next generation of leaders about them, we’re stuck circling the same topics.
Thus people are surprised when they encounter violence from white supremacist groups, which are numerous across the West and a serious threat, taking on an extremely strong anti-government stance and aggressively defending their perceived right to do as they please without interference from Washington. They’re startled that such groups are so active, and that in some areas, they’re a very present and vocal part of the community. Terrorist actions from such groups appear unexpected, when in fact they’re a natural outgrowth of how these groups originated, deep in the entitlement culture of the West. What’s astounding is not that these groups exist, but that they haven’t done more damage.
In a country where people willfully deny their history, the missing context makes it impossible for even progressives to understand the social factors feeding into the aggression of white supremacist groups in the West. Lacking that information makes it even harder for people to understand why such groups are getting more active. Washington is taking a more assertive regulatory role, pushing through tougher environmental protections and land use practices. It’s cracking down on abuse of public resources. It’s addressing tax and fee evasion. It’s more broadly liberalising political and social policy in the US. Which means we need to discuss how and why the West was ‘won,’ because if we don’t, the West will repeatedly nip at our heels and we’ll be eternally unprepared for it.
Image: Tumbleweeds, Denise Rowlands, Flickr