What Is The West?
Jeff P. Jones
The disease caused the growth of large red and black
pustules over the entire body, particularly on the chest. Those
developing red pustules died within a few days, but those who were
plagued by the black pustules died almost instantly. During this
same period the epidemic destroyed another entire nation of savages
who spoke a different tongue and dwelt about five days' journey
from the Flatheads. Of them remained not even the name.
— Jesuit Missionary Gregory Mengarini, 1847
Who’s closer to the land, the one who owns it or the one who longs for it? I hike the nearby ridge and look down into town. Cars and trucks flash like minnows as they swim through the dark patches of trees and shadows of buildings. Motors hum inside the aquarium. Smallpox did its work along the Columbia River drainage; broken treaties and California miners and American soldiers did the rest. The point is that the first white settlers found the place wide open. I’m speaking of the place where I live, the Palouse prairie.
Blind nostalgia covers an array of sins and comforts the sinner’s children. This is by design. We attempt to honor what’s been destroyed by naming it—Indian Hills, Ridgeview, Mountain Meadows, Creekside. It’s like saying a man’s name before executing him. Then there’s Hawthorne Hills, Quail Run, the Orchards—places so confused in their nostalgia that they’re named after the invasive thing that destroyed the first thing. Nowadays, the neighborhoods flush oil and antifreeze into the creek, where they mix with pesticides and fertilizers during spring runoff, etcetera.
What persists are the hills. It’s what a visitor notices first: a rolling carpet, they’ll sometimes say. Beautiful, isn’t it? The soil on the hills is what tempted those first farmers, who bumbled in on the heels of the genocide. Europeans go where the resources are. It’s no use pretending any longer: our ancestors practiced the art of plunder. For the perfection of the practice, for its last act, it requires a forgetting from those who inherit the plunder.
You ask me, What is the West? The west is plunder.
In a geological blink, the Palouse prairie has been tilted and emptied. Emptied of the prairie junegrass and bluebunch wheatgrass and the snowberry and wild rose—plowed up and replaced with monoculture crops so that less than one percent of the native prairie remains. Those pink-skinned ancestors couldn’t even save a tithe portion of the land. I say again, it has been tilted and emptied of streamlets brimming with larvae and fry and dace and chubs and northern pikeminnows. Emptied, too, of the gray wolf and the red fox who made their dens in the lee side hills, emptied of the lynx, the cougar, the bobcat, of the black bear and the grizzly, the black-tailed jackrabbit. Emptied of the golden eagle and the Brewer’s sparrow and the sharp-tailed grouse, the turkey vulture and the American kestrel—each and every last one shotgunned and poisoned and trapped and stomped and run over and squeezed out.
And in the great tilting, the first people—that renegade tribe who lived along the Palouse River and dug camas roots in low-lying meadows—they were exterminated as well. Like vermin. Like pests. The hills will tell you as much if you listen. These hills, sole survivors of the great dying, speak a language. Newcomers can’t hear it because they have no ears for it. Even people born here can’t recognize it if they refuse to attend. You ask me, What is the West? I have no idea. But if you listen, this is what the Palouse hills say in answer to every question: empty…empty…empty…