What is your American dream?

Our local public broadcasting service is asking folks to share their vision of the American Dream.

They ask: What is your American Dream?

How have your experiences shaped and changed your concept of the American Dream?

How, if it all, do you see your version of the American dream changing under our next president?

This is a terrific topic: good for a conversation with your friends, family, classes, social media…and blogs.

I tackle such questions by breaking down the terms: what do we mean by American? What do we mean by dream?

America and American can be loaded, depending on the context.

From the perspective of indigenous peoples on this continent, the word “America” evokes a sense of place and belonging, but also colonialism—as the term arises from settlers who arrived and claimed this place as their own.

What is America?

Depends on who you ask.

I wonder how John Steinbeck thought about the American dream while writing Grapes of Wrath in 1939.

He describes migrants to the West as coming together in a common campground.

“In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.”

How would Ta-Nehisi Coates describe the American Dream?

In his book, Between the World and Me, Coates writes that dark-skinned citizens likely consider the American Dream one of—-whiteness.

“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”

I wonder what the American Dream meant for my grandmother, her grandmother and her grandmother—indigenous women carving out their lives on the Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma landscapes.

For them, the basics framed the day: shelter, food, water, family.

Would they survive smallpox and tuberculosis? Hunger and frigid winters?

How would the American Dream seem to the young Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose family moved to Osage Territory in Kansas, in 1869?

And what about my Osage relatives who were compelled to sign away their remaining Kansas land to the US Government?

Once reservation life took hold at the end of the 19th Century, I wonder if the American Dream meant that, in order to survive, you must renounce all you hold dear: your very values and core beliefs—your language, your dress and your family–whatever makes you who you are—and forge an identity and a life that meets the approval of the oppressors.

I can’t help but wonder if—for many North American Indians–the American Dream invokes a renouncement of who they (we) are.






How would your ancestors describe the American Dream?










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.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, communication, Indian relocation, manifest destiny, Native Science, Osage and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is your American dream?

  1. This post goes right to my heartache.


  2. Yes, and like many good questions it evokes complexity and pain. I am reminded that the comfort and safety I now enjoy, came at a high price. Still, I am grateful to my family for their steadfastness in their project of protecting the future generations, even as I wonder whether the price we paid was too high.

    Liked by 1 person

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