By Allan G. Johnson. Temple University Press, 2015. 171 pages. $24.50/hardcover or eBook.
When Allan Johnson asked his dying father where he wanted his ashes buried, his father replied that it made no difference to him. This interchange began an unexpected journey for Johnson into discovering a sense of place on our little planet. His ancestors were from Norway, but after careful discernment he knew that his father didn’t have the strong family connections to that distant country, and so he began a search for family in the Midwest, where his father was born.
In this very moving narrative, Johnson explores what it means to be a descendant of those early pioneers who took land from the indigenous people who had been living there for generations. The government recruited people from Europe with promises of free land, just for the price of making the land productive. Those pioneers thought the land was given to them by a government that owned the land. Then they were left to solve the “Indian problem,” which often led to heartbreak and violence. What makes this so timely today is that these were the Dakota people, the same people who are fighting to protect their water and land from the encroaching construction of an oil pipeline.
Johnson takes the box containing his father’s ashes on a road trip where he meets family members for the first time, learning more about his family’s past than he ever learned from his father. He explores each area, trying to find the “right” place for those ashes, but eventually he realizes he is searching for what it means to be white in America. He feels the pain of those who suffered generations earlier, and of who still suffer today. He expresses this by writing, “I have no People, as if I came from nowhere and nowhere is where I am. And yet this [the United States] is where I was born, the only home I have ever known. I am a walking displacement of soul.”
I was often moved to tears as Johnson so openly shares his grief over a lost time when the Indigenous peoples of North America roamed freely and knew this land as home. He writes with awareness:
I have done nothing wrong myself, and yet I know this story is connected to my own. My life is a thread embedded in a web of relation, and the farther down this road I go, the closer I come to Thor, where my great-grandparents lived and died and are buried on the land, the more I feel the presence of the past. I am guilty of nothing, I have nothing to be ashamed of, and yet guilt and shame are woven into the fabric that holds my life.
As Friends we have our own pasts to examine. The early Quaker boarding schools are an example of people with good intentions, who, from our current perspective, were misguided, where Indian children were taken from their parents and forced to leave behind the very lives that connected them to their own ancestors. How do we learn from the past and make way for a different kind of future for all of us that share this land we call the United States? I believe this is a book for all Friends. It’s a spiritual look at our connections to our pasts, and our responsibilities to future generations.