It's Thanksgiving, the observed American holiday not the Canadian one, and recently I've noticed I identify with being a Montanan more than I do say an American or even being from a particular place in Montana. Perhaps there's a distinction I'm yet to discover amid my interior wanderings, but what got me to that line of thinking was my progressing wrestle with how do I make space for stories often not shared? Especially on a day like today. "Wrighting", as in building, narratives is a vital part of how I (we) see the world, how I (we) interpret the past and present - how to visage the future. Instead of tending to meal preparations, I sat down this morning to a cup of coffee and began browsing ancestral journals. Thanksgiving is a challenging holiday for me. I'm not bound to any traditions, nor do I find the over stuffing of birds and bellies appealing, and the undercurrent of mass purchasing makes me wince.
That's my grapple, not anyone else's though.
However you choose to observe, or not observe, this autumnal holiday is a beautiful action (not that you need my permission). In no way am I advocating that traditions be abandoned or dismantled, or that love and joy should not be shared. I simply need this for myself, and am inviting you along, to see the prism of stories from all sides and how the sun and shadows dance together in my own story. I've slowly distanced from celebrating Thanksgiving over the years and each year it's a little different. For me, today, it was a drifting curiosity, a reflection on origins, lineage, and a desire to revisit how my ancestors arrived on this continent. I'm particularly captured by how well documented some of the stories are by my grandmother who collected beautifully archived documents from published journals, books, and editorials of the Møllerud and Purdon settlers, and the unfolding stories about the Schledorn lineage.
Digging into and unpacking the word 'arrive' or 'arrival' is also of interest to me today and excavating the lives, the stories, that preceded my arrival. In some ways, I consider myself a homesteader still, I willingly choose to carve out the stories of my life in the high eastern plains of Montana, on the land that once belonged to the Apsaalooke' (Crow) Nation. I arrived here in the early 1980's and have chosen to stay, and there's a resilience in that as well as a humility. For some, their stories were blunted the moment their ancestors were placed on ships and sailed across the globe and sold as property, and for others the lines are hard to trace as ancestors were preoccupied with surviving and not able to recount their story, their history.
And on a day that is recognized for its thankfulness and gratitude I think it's also important to roll back the layers of how it all got to this moment, a bit of ancestral stewardship. For me it was more than looking at just one lifetime (my own), but the many generations before my arrival. And in this type of reflection I'm finding ownership, empathy, sympathy, generosity, and connection. Each of us arrive in our own way, in our own time, with our own story; yet the stories all weave under and over each other - and sometimes halting one another from continuing. I'm also drawn to think about the many generations after my tiny echo fades from this planet, an echo that I hope embodies some of the attributes my ancestors carried with them along with some of my own that I'd like to add to or respond to. I've fallen into the words of Anne Bogart over the last year and I keep returning to a handful of quotes that lend to my wanderings:
"The narratives that I choose determine the sort of life that I will live because I create who I am with the stories I tell. I write myself into existence by the stories that I tell about my life. I also write with my posture and with my manner of walking and speaking, and I write with words and with my actions. [...] I write and I am also written upon. My DNA writes upon me and my family writes upon me. I am written upon by the experiences that I undergo, by the people that I meet, the books that I read and the music that I listen to. I am also the inheritor of great stories, myths and parables that formed who I am and how I think about the world, including my morality and ethics. Many of the stories that I tell are adaptations of these formidable fictions. But I can also be a transmitter of new stories. Perhaps I can think of my life as a play I 'wright'. I construct and reconstruct narratives. Ultimately the story that I "wright" is a fragment of an interconnected accumulation of the many stories by many other 'wrighters' in the a worldwide web of linked stories" (Bogart, Anne. What's the Story Essays about Art, Theatre, and Storytelling Routledge New York 2014, 9).
Re-imagining the story of my ancestor Gunder Møllerud, who lived on what was described as an ancient farm 80 miles north of Oslo in a forest with the same name, I am already absorbed into a forest filled with centuries of stories. Gunder's story is partially archived in the book, E.G Inventory by Necessity by Robert Karolevitz (1968). Gunder, known for his strength, agility through out the Solor region, also had a great interest and knowledge of the forests and used his brawn to harvest the trees as a tree farmer. His death at age 36, in 1855, was considered highly controversial, rumors that he was poisoned circulated widely. His widow, Maren Tostensdatter Vold, and her children were deeply affected by the rumors and the loss of the family's farm. This influenced sons Didrik and Oluf, in their 30's, to cross the Atlantic. Didrik arrived first and later met Oluf in Kingsbury County South Dakota, formerly the land of the Sioux Nation. Oluf was stunned by the vast flat land of the Dakota Territory in comparison to Norway's forests and fjords, but was compelled to stay. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, Oluf traveled the territory with a shovel until he found soil that satisfied him. At age 34, he finally found soil that was agreeable and he began a farm of his own in the "Northwest Quarter of Section 8 ..." the former territory of the Arikawa and Yanktonai nations.
I also re-read the journals of an ancestor, William Purdon, who's words were published in a series of articles by the Lanark Ontario Courier in 1892 and 1893 (Perth Courier). Recognizing the gift of having 1st generation ancestors who were literate is something not everyone has in their family lineage, and I'm grateful William was able to capture so much detail with his letters. A detailed account documenting his experience sailing out of Glasgow Scotland in 1821 and arriving on the banks of Newfoundland. Where he, and many others, sailed to Montreal, then Prescott, finally loading into horse or ox drawn wagons headed to Lanark. Once in Lanark, he remarks on the process of obtaining a location ticket from the land-officer, a process that created the Dalhousie settlement under the government of Great Britain after the Napoleonic wars. And named after the Earl of Dalhousie, who was the patron of the settlement which gave "each male 21 years of age, 100 acres of land, a little stock of implements and ten pounds per head." The Dalhousie settlement was transposed onto land that the Algonquin and other members of the Anishnabek Nation had previously occupied.
Of the many detailed accounts William discusses he concludes with final letter on April 28th, 1893 in which he provides a few stories about the pioneer state: staying warm, making clothing out of blankets etc. Through out the letters, he adheres to a strict reporting of remembered timelines, or sequences rarely imparting overt opinion. Which makes the final entry all the more potent for me, and I've read it many times over the years.
"Pope says: 'Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind Sees God in clouds and hears Him in the wind.' I endorse the sentiment, as we are, no doubt trespassers on their soil. When we first came to Dalhousie the Indians were quiet numerous; as many as fifteen to twenty families went up the river every fall to their different hunting grounds. When they first made their appearance we were a little afraid, but as were remarkably civil, we soon were all right. They only wanted to trade with us, offering us mitts, venison and skins on reasonable terms for potatoes, corn and flour, all of which was quite acceptable to us, and quite a trade was carried on for a number of years, quite satisfactorily to both. I am happy to inform you that the settlers always treated them honestly and justly, with only one exception, and I am quite satisfied that if the Indians had been treated by the whites on this continent on sound Christian principles as the great William Penn treated them, there need not have been a drop of blood shed on their account, but as they were ever dealt with."
William Purden could be referring to several instances where William Penn purchased land or bargained for trade routes in a manner that is frequently noted to have created bonds of trust with First Nations, the Leni Lanape in particular. More likely he's referring to the 'Great Treaty' or the 'Treaty of Shackamaxon' that was purportedly signed in 1862 and honored, but his successors later ignored. There's great speculation as to whether historical facts of this event are accurate. For me it's an exploration in story telling, as the source of the story matters as much as the story itself. There's evidence that Penn did meet with Leni Lanape members in Shackamaxon, but it's not verified that a treaty was signed. Regardless of fact, the event was circulated widely, a painting rendered commemorating the event, and even French philosopher Voltaire praised the treaty, albeit referring to the parties as "those people and the Christians". Despite those that find the treaty questionable, there is evidence that an agreement was made between Penn and the Leni Lanape, in the form of a wampum belt depicting two men holding hands. These finely crafted belts were the document. I think my ancestor spoke with the knowledge he had at that time, defining his view by the stories he'd received. The passage is a shaving of his life, in that time, and I'm grateful his words consider the devastating impact of colonization. I'd also add that I found the Pope's reference of the 'untutored' mind a example of how a story can halt another from existing simply because it's different. To say there's no merit in finding 'God in the wind and the clouds' exemplifies the fundamental challenges embedded in so much of the American story. I mentioned before that I'm not religiously inclined, but I do find spirits and spirituality in the energies that surround me, the clouds and the wind are fine examples of that energy. I'll finish this 'lil history escapade by adding that while it is said that Penn was generally fair in his transactions and was held up as a peace maker, he was also a business man and sought to purchase land and expand upon the model of colonization. Often noted was his marked kindness in contrast from his competitors, but his vision for the New World was still similar.
"The more we act in concord with the narrative that we are trying to tell, the more the story [...] becomes a reality. Speak the narrative that you want to realize and then find the appropriate actions to make that story a reality" (12).
There's not much written on how my great grandfather arrived on this continent from a small Dutch town called Enschede. I've slowly collected stories from my mother and my grandfather when I can. Franz Nicolaas Schledorn followed his sibling over to the Dakota Territory by himself. Speaking only Dutch, I'm told that Franz pinned a note to his chest with the town of Edmore written on it, crossed the ocean and made his way west using the note to communicate where he needed to go. He eventually saved up enough money to buy a plot of land and start a farm of his own. Marrying Marie Vanderheiden along the way.
"We can control our own individual contributions to the emergent migration or flow. We can affect the world around us in our every move and thought and action. If each of us brings a dish to the table, a feast may ensue. [...] an infinitely richer meal" (2).
Knowing more about these three stories lends to a wider lens of how it is that I've arrived here: 45.7833° N, 108.5007° W in a city called Billings, in a county defined as Yellowstone County, and a state among many others all carved and parceled by European governments and colonists centuries ago. When asked where I'm from I reply, "Montana" without much attention to how broad that answer is. Yet it's an answer that many from out of state are content with, it's a point of reference on the map. A map we all know and agree upon. (Maps, that's a whole other thing - next time. I digress.) I think I understand myself more as a Montanan than I do an American, at least at this moment, because it's really all I know. The state, particularly the southeastern corner, has held nearly all my stories. I'm the collected stories of bygone settlers from the forests of Norway, the Viking Scots, and the eastern edge of Holland which have all layered underneath the stories in between their existence and my own. All layered over and through centuries informing me how I (we) arrived here on this soil.
But what is 'arriving' exactly? The moment my ancestors stepped off a boat perhaps, but it dismisses their story before crossing the Atlantic. Those stories informed and shaped them just as much as their homesteading story. It all brings up thoughts of a chapter ending and another beginning, a demarcation. And when I consider how Karolevitz described my ancestor's view of the land I understand the deeper weaving of stories beginning and ending: "Buffalo bones were everywhere, giving the impression that an old civilization had died and a new one was about to be born" (Karolevitz, "E.G." Inventor by Necessity, North Plains Press, 1968). The more I consider the tenuousness nature of the word 'arrival' the more I understand the complexities in how stories are held, inherited, and then built upon ... and also destroyed, dismantled, halted.
"Be careful how you interpret the world; it's like that" (Bogart quoting essayist Erich Heller, 3).
The more I shine my flashlight into the corners of my interior wandering, the more I'm aware that my familiarity with Montana is only due to the knowledge I have of the state as I've encountered it. What of the other stories that are woven into this place, this soil? What beautiful tapestry can we weave if we mend and tether our stories together? I don't have the answers, and I don't suspect I ever will, but the questions keep me searching, hoping, and in my search I'm reassured that others are too.
~ Krista Leigh Pasini (November 2017)
While the attribution of First Nations was done with care, I'm only recently familiar with some of the Indigenous nations listed. Please let me know if I've misspelled or listed one incorrectly.