Power of place in Indian Country

red cloud

Memorial to Makhpiya-Luta (Red Cloud)

The power of place and places of power

A friend gave me a newspaper article about the power of place.

The article wasn’t what I expected: it didn’t talk about the indigenous perspective about place—which is how I think about place.

Rather, the article talked about the idea of place as longing and yearning, and I wonder: Is this different from an indigenous perspective?

My sense is that contemporary folks who love to hike and fish and camp search for meaning in the wilderness.

From that perspective, place has power.

For many folks, finding “place” means escaping to quiet: turning off phones and televisions and gas-powered vehicles to flirt with nature.

Nothing wrong with that.

But, for indigenous people, I wonder if the power of place refers to something else.

Does place mean the fundamental, deep-seated connection to a landscape where your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents knew the life of the grass and crows that inhabited the land?

That’s how native scholar Vine Deloria Jr. interprets Native ways-of-knowing.

Is that connection one in which the spirit is calmed by the sound of the wind wafting through the corn?

Is it the smell of the soil when you grab a handful of dirt and wonder if your relative sensed the same loamy umami of life beginning and ending?

My mother’s family moved away from the reservation.

I lack the scaffold of the stories of Oklahoma heat and moist, even though I’ve walked through the scrub oaks and watched the spiders build their homes in dusty afternoons.

My city pals head off to the mountains to hike the trails and pick huckleberries, and then return to the city for the work-week.

I imagine that, for my relatives, place was a constant—not a weekend sojourn.

Although they didn’t write essays about place, my ancestors knew in their bones that place means something that you cannot quite explain, nor sell nor buy.

My mother missed out, because her parents moved away.

They joined a whole movement of Indians that moved to cities, tempted by government promises of a better life.

Today nearly three-quarters of Native Americans live off reservations in suburbs or urban areas.

The lure of dishwashers and paychecks displaced the power of place, which now seems just a romantic notion.

7 October 2017

Photo of the memorial to Makhpiya-Luta (Red Cloud) near Pine Ridge. The town of Red Cloud, named for Makhpiya-Luta, sits across the border in Nebraska. Red Cloud was a descendant of the Bad Face band, who were rivals of the Kiyuska (the Cut-Off Band): my ancestors. 

Photo by Cynthia Coleman Emery























16 October 2017







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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2 Responses to Power of place in Indian Country

  1. Russ L says:

    Hey Cynthia,
    I think the power of place is much more specific and immediate than what you attempt to sketch. If I were to say “String of Lakes on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, you would have to had been there to have a personal memory of that place, and where it is in relation to all the other places there, to know exactly what I meant. In addition, it can only be found/described/known to those who have been there. Something like a house address is a convenient way to locate it, but only experiencing the house would give you a full appreciation for it.

    For me, perhaps a better descriptor would be “The power of a small Place” (Because the knowledge of it is so intimate.) I also believe that the power of place exists beyond the moment in memory, not just in personal memory but racial memory as well. I remember my dad taking a three day weekend to fish at String of Lakes; one day to drive up there from Chicago, one day to fish, and another day to drive back. Perhaps the feeling is like the Canadian Geese, unsettled, driven to migrate in the spring and fall.

    Liked by 1 person

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