Pack my Suitcase with Rocks

Know how sometimes you can hear something a million times but it doesn’t resonate until, one day, it connects?

As an academic I’ve been studying the meaning of “place” in American Indian ways-of-knowing from a distant, theoretical perspective.

Trying to link my personal concept of place doesn’t fit neatly or inform the traditional Native viewpoint, probably because we moved so often my sisters and I could stuff all our belongings and clothing into one suitcase per girl.

On the other hand, my brother loaded his suitcase with rocks.

Once, when we were in the middle of a move, my mother picked up my brother’s suitcase and told him it felt like it was full of rocks.

Turns out, he packed his suitcase with rocks.

Our definition of home became woven with “place.”

And just like the Osage story about the spider who carries her home with her everywhere she travels, we carried our homes with each move.

For many indigenous people, place is described as central to ways of knowing. Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat write that, “Indigenous people represent a culture emergent from a place. And they actively draw on the power of that place physically and personally.”

I’m beginning to think about place as a metaphor, particularly in light that over the last two hundred years many Native people have been displaced. Place, therefore, becomes infused with the concept of home, and you end up carrying your home in your heart.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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6 Responses to Pack my Suitcase with Rocks

  1. Russ L says:

    Nice post. It’s deep, on many levels. It is intriguing to think about how your “nomadic” meaning of place may be the same and/or different from my “tribal” meaning of place. I think of Red Lake as a decent sized reservation. Bigger if you count ceded lands and the Northwest Angle. It makes me think of how in the old days my people camped in different places to take advantage of animals and plants that appeared during particular seasons: fish when spawning / maple sugar in the early spring, morel mushrooms later, blueberries and strawberries in the summer, high bush cranberries and wild rice in the fall, and rabbits and deer in the winter. There was some of that when I lived there, but we still could travel back “home” by car in a matter of hours. The matter of scale comes to mind when I listen to what you say. What is the meaning of a place, or places, no matter on what small or large scale: a house, a reservation, the US or the world–without the experience and feeling of family and friends who inhabit them together?


    • Wonderful insight. How do we reconcile the meaning of place knowing that many native people have been separated from place?


      • M Forner says:

        Is that why so many of us that have little connection with our tribe feel “lost”? Our Tribal ancestrial lands are long gone. I have visited the reservation once but I felt no connection with the land. I now live in a small corner of paradise but without family and tribe to share and work with what do I have? Disconnected from the land, disconnected from the tribe, disconnected from family and yet everywhere I go, I pick up a rock and bring it home.


      • Right: home is where the heart is. Fortunately the Osage welcome home relatives every June, a small way to stay connected.


  2. M Dorman says:

    Growing up I always dreaded the question “where are you from?” I never knew where to call home.


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