The New Territory Magazine Wed, 25 Nov 2020 00:26:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The New Territory Magazine 32 32 Review: New Proverbs Wed, 25 Nov 2020 00:11:55 +0000 Defiantly honest stories test the roots of this Kansas City honky tonker’s debut solo album BY JORGE KRZYZANIAK | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 03 The first I ever heard of Adam Lee I was on my couch, in my underwear, watching every video I could find on youtube like I do every time I find a […]

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Defiantly honest stories test the roots of this Kansas City honky tonker’s debut solo album

The first I ever heard of Adam Lee I was on my couch, in my underwear, watching every video I could find on youtube like I do every time I find a new band or musician I fall in love with. I’d been told something like “Check out this guy Adam Lee, he’s got a new album coming. He’s this old-school kinda honky tonker.” and I was sold.

And when that first video began to play, there he was, a roots-rocker with a pearl-snap-shirt and a pompadour greased to perfection as he asked, “Did you guys get some of that brisket?”

Going into it, this is exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Of course my friend knew I was going to fall in love with this guy because I love old school honky tonk. And then I got my hands on the album and it wasn’t honky tonk at all. It wasn’t even any kind of tonk. It was something else, and I love it even more.

The aptly titled “Sincerely Me,” (the newest album from Adam Lee released in summer 2016) is a vulnerable departure from the deeply worn traditions of rockabilly music that Lee played in the youtube videos I’d found.

My mind was blown to find that on this album, Lee defies many of the stubborn rules of his old genre. His honky tonk roots still find their way into the tracks, in certain bits of fiddle and some of the melodies or in a classic country guitar style here and there. But more so, Lee’s creating something new and more interesting here.

The melodies on “Sincerely Me” often wander from the traditional paths cut by old honky tonkers and roots rockers. Lee’s songs begin to remind me of those from Mike Ness and Social Distortion. Lee’s voice, though clearly influenced by heroes among the classic country crooners of yore, is uniquely his own and it remains distinctively country – sometimes revealing tones of Buck Owens and other times Junior Brown.

The lyrics are defiantly honest and it’s what I find so appealing. Traditionally, honky tonkers tell of almost generic woes with women and booze in their songs but on “Sincerely Me” Lee gives us a glimpse at some genuine heartache and history. Lee grants listeners an almost uncomfortable glimpse of himself as his songs confront the personal demons he’s spawned with liquor and life on the road.

He reveals himself to be an amazing storyteller in songs like “Patrick,” a true, tortured tale gleaned from a Chicago restaurant.

I thought that story was tragic and beautiful and I read it on the front of their menu on St. Patrick’s day 2014. I set out to write an Irish song.” Lee said.

Then Lee offers a sad and beautiful twist all his own to the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype in “When she Danced” and from its first strains one can sense a deep and eerie personal connection that lures listeners into the darkness along side him.

On this album, Lee coins some new proverbs that should have been in our vernacular all along. When he struggles with the realization that the booze (that’s served as his sidekick for so long) may be the last thing he needs, he admits “I’d probably get a hardon if you showed me a stiff drink.”

Lee is clearly testing himself with this album, calling upon an unexpected piano jam like Ben Folds here or with a Tom-Waits-like ballad there. Then, in a sort of anthem called “Sing With Me” we get a punk-rock breakdown throwing back to his youth.

This album is a surprising departure for Lee – and in departing, he has left the ever swelling wave of faceless rockabilly acts who stay so close to the tradition that they can’t be differentiated from one another.


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Issue 03 Sponsor: True/False Film Fest

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Ceremony is Protest, Protest is Ceremony Thu, 18 Jun 2020 00:37:41 +0000 “You Can’t Stop the Ceremonies:” The Wakarusa Wetlands

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“You Can’t Stop the Ceremonies:” The Wakarusa Wetlands

The thing about ceremonies is that you can’t stop them. They tried to do that with the ceremonies here at Haskell before. And that’s what the wetlands were for. That’s where the students went to do their ceremonies. But you can’t stop them because . . . it was about something higher. And you can’t ever stop me from doing that.

—Tyler Kimbrell, Haskell Indian Nations University


Here we focus on a decades-long fight by activists in northeastern Kansas to prevent the construction of a four-lane, closed-access trafficway across the Wakarusa Wetlands. The wetlands once covered 18,000 acres1 and were sacred ground for a number of Native nations as well as students enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University, once a federal Indian boarding school and now a thriving tribal university. The South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT), which opened for traffic in November 2016, runs just south of the city of Lawrence on a course directly across the largest intact remnant of the Wakarusa Wetlands. Proposed in nascent form in 1930 and in modern iteration in 1985, the trafficway was finally approved in 2012 after a twenty-five-year fight led by a coalition that included Haskell Indian Nations University, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, student groups at the University of Kansas, and other activists from the region.

The SLT is 14 miles long and is intended to relieve traffic congestion in the city and provide long-haul traffic with a bypass that links Kansas Highway 10, from Kansas City, to Interstate 70, which heads west to Denver, Colorado, and beyond (Map 1). There is speculation that the bypass is part of the far bigger NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) superhighway that runs through Kansas City, which is designated as an international port facility within that system. For the five miles that traverse the wetlands, the road has a 12- to 16-foot concrete noise barrier on both sides and an expanded footprint to accommodate a realigned, four-lane city street running parallel to the trafficway.

During the years when Haskell Indian Nations University was an off-reservation boarding school and education for Indians was compulsory, the wetlands provided students with a ground for resistance and survival. Beginning in the 1980s, the wetlands called Native and non-Native people to its defense in resistance against the SLT. Through this activism, ceremony served as a mechanism of protest, while protest became a kind of ceremony. 

The Wakarusa

The Wakarusa River begins in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and runs eastward some fifty miles before entering the Kansas River near the city of Eudora. It occupies the southern edge of the basin of a pro-glacial lake that formed as the Kansan ice sheet retreated some 300,000 years ago, an event that changed the river’s course from the southeast to the east. With this change, the Wakarusa began to empty into the Kansas, or “Kaw,” River, and when the Kaw floods, its tremendous flow prevents the tributary Wakarusa from emptying. So the Wakarusa backs up and water spills over its northern bank into a backwater swamp, a feature commonly known as a “Yazoo” wetlands (Richardson and Brinson 2001). After countless floods, the Wakarusa dumped enormous loads of river-borne sediment onto the land. And although this flooding mostly ceased after the Army Corps of Engineers built Clinton Dam on the river in the 1970s, during the millennia of floods prior to that time, the accumulation of silt in the bottomlands created a clay soil that prevents water from percolating downward. The water table, which intersects the land surface at the base of the slope, added a constant seep of groundwater. A wet prairie ecology of cordgrass, sedges, aster and gama grass developed, attracting a tremendous diversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and medicinal plants. The place known as the Wakarusa Wetlands came into being.

Elders from the Kanza (Kaw) nation say that before their own ancestors came to the valley in the late 17th century, there was a people, now gone, who had always lived there. These people were probably the Oneota, an Upper Mississippian group whose homeland once extended to the western Great Lakes (Dorsey 1891; Martin 1994). They taught the Kaw about the plants and animals of the Wakarusa and how, with proper care, the wetlands would sustain them. In the bottomlands were abundant medicinal plants that could heal, palliate and restore. Although a few of these plants were found almost nowhere else in the region, the healing power of the wetlands lay in its concentration of medicine all in one place (Kindscher and Noguera 2002). Still today, the Wakarusa Wetlands is a biologically abundant and diverse place. Modern-day counts come to more than 400 species of plants, 265 bird species, forty species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly thirty each of fish and mammal species.2 As a position paper written by Haskell Indian Nations University students put it, the “Wetlands are a nursery, a place where life abounds and where the earth is renewed.”3

Wakarusa Wetlands. HALEY RAINS

A number of tribes have known the wetlands—the Kanza (Kaw), Pawnee, and Wazhazhe (Osage) and, following removal treaties4 of 1825 and 1846, the Neshnabé (Potawatomi), Lenni Lenape (Delaware), and Shaawanwaki (Shawnee). In 1825, the Kanza ceded much of their land, including the Wakarusa Valley, within what would later become the state of Kansas. Over the next three decades, a number of Native nations signed treaties by which they ceded their lands in the east and moved onto reserve land in the region. Their occupation was temporary. In 1854, under pressure to provide land in the newly created territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Indian commissioner George W. Manypenny developed the “extinguishment of title” policy to terminate Indian ownership. The Shaawanwaki and Lenape ceded most of their reserve land that year in exchange for land allotments made to individual families. The Prairie Band of Potawatomi (Mshkodésik) stayed on their reserve until 1861, when it was reduced to one-eighth of its original size. The vast remainder of Indian land was made available to railroad companies, land speculators, and settlers.

The United States Industrial Indian Training School, now Haskell Indian Nations University, was founded by an act of Congress on May 17, 1882. It was renamed the Haskell Institute in 1890 to honor U.S. Rep. Dudley Haskell, the congressman responsible for bringing the school to Lawrence. The school was among the first in a system of off-reservation Indian boarding schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These schools followed Richard Henry Pratt’s vision for compulsory government education5 designed to “civilize” Native people, who, it was argued, would secure their own well-being and prosperity in American society (Adams 1995). A number of religious and philanthropic groups known collectively as the “Friends of the Indian” promoted assimilation as the only way Native people could survive what they saw as the inevitable transition to civilization but what really was the onslaught of government-backed colonization and cultural genocide (Prucha 1984). In Pratt’s infamous wording, the goal was “to kill the Indian . . . and save the man.”6

Haskell’s original 280-acre campus included a portion of the Wakarusa Wetlands that became known as the Haskell Bottoms. By 1916, Haskell had expanded its campus to a total of just over 1,000 acres, most of which were in the bottoms extending to the Wakarusa River about a mile south of the campus buildings. With the exception of three small parcels of “virgin prairie,” much of this 600-acre section was drained using a system of levees and canals with 26-inch diameter subterranean clay-tile pipes that emptied water into the Wakarusa River.7 Once drained, the Haskell Bottoms were put into production for cattle pasture and crops of alfalfa, oat, wheat, potatoes, and corn.8 Student labor was used to drain the wetlands, and under a new course of study introduced in 1916, students were expected to work on the farm for 22.5 hours per week.9

In these early years, Haskell was run in strict military fashion with regimented marches, drill practice, 5:30 a.m. bugle call and a cadet battalion of five companies designed to break up students from the same tribe (Milk 2006). Children who arrived at Haskell with Native names were given English names. They were not permitted to speak their Native languages, wear long hair or practice traditional ceremonies. For those who violated these rules, harsh punishments followed, including solitary confinement in the guardhouse or root cellar, floggings with a belt or confinement in chains (Haines 1997). Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia were rampant (Anderson 1997). Haskell did not have a functional heating system in its first years, and hardtack rations were often the main food source. Malnourished and crowded in their dormitories, sleeping two to four children to a mattress and living in unsanitary conditions where sick children were not separated from the others, students succumbed easily to disease (Dorchester 1889, 320–23). On the official record, 35 children died from 1884 to 1889 (Milk 2006, 24). Elders report a number of other undocumented deaths, allegedly because Haskell officials put sick children on trains to their reservations, an allegation that has been confirmed for at least some children (190–209). These children died either en route or shortly after they arrived back home, so their deaths were not attributed to the school.

Haskell graveyard. HALEY RAINS

The Wakarusa Wetlands nurtured Indigenous resistance and resurgence among the students. The Wakarusa flooded regularly, generally every five years or so, with some floods reaching the buildings on campus. Students were awed by the river (Lynn 2003, 222). Some identified with the Wakarusa—the water’s power to undo the institute’s efforts to tame and farm the wetlands provided students with a concrete vision of their own resistance against being “tamed.” Native families, who were not permitted to stay in Lawrence when dropping off or receiving their children, established a series of campgrounds on the south bank of the river, at the southern edge of the wetlands. These campgrounds provided students with a line of communication back home while enabling relatives to send medicines, information and other materials prohibited by Haskell authorities. Working on the Haskell farm — oppressive as it was — could be an escape for students to a place that enabled Indigenous resurgence. Former Haskell student and current instructor Melinda Adams-Crow told us that the Haskell Farm in the wetlands was 

a place where children could talk their Native language to one another, or talk to family members in their Native language, or practice their ceremonial songs. These were things that were against the rules and were met with harsh punishment if you did them within the walls of the boarding school. So it was a place for escape. It was a safe place. A sacred place is a safe place. A place you could express yourself without the repercussions you would have if you were caught in school.10

Some students fled into the wetlands to escape the institute, and tragically, the Wakarusa is, allegedly, a final resting place for some students (Lynn 2003, 222). Haskell officials estimated some 700 student deaths over the years, but the cemetery contains just over one hundred burials. This circumstance has led many to believe that at least some of these children are buried in the wetlands (Eakins 2001; Low 2003). Some of the children recorded in the Haskell Student Registration Ledger as deceased are not found in the Haskell cemetery, for instance, and there is evidence that Haskell officials used the term “dropped” as a euphemism to minimize the official number of deaths (Milk 2006, 209). One of the major concerns Haskell activists had is that the construction of the SLT would uncover and desecrate the remains of those for whom the wetlands is their final resting place (Indian Country Media Network, February 9, 2012). Coincidentally, the contractors working for the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) were under strict instructions not to remove any earth at the site to use for building the SLT’s roadbed. Instead, they imported fill excavated from other areas to raise the road above the floodplain.11

Haskell’s agricultural education program was transferred to the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma in 1934, and the institute began to lease the reclaimed bottomland to local farmers. In 1953, Public Law 47 authorized the Department of Interior to transfer any land no longer required for federal Indian education to public entities for educational or public purposes. In 1957, the BIA transferred a number of wetland parcels to various state and county organizations, including the University of Kansas (KU). The remaining 573 acres of Haskell’s “surplus” land was eventually transferred to Baker University (a small liberal arts college in nearby Baldwin City, Kansas) in 1968. Over the following decades, Baker professors Ivan and Roger Boyd returned much of the land on this acreage to wet prairie. Haskell’s campus, meanwhile, was reduced to one-third of its size. Only a small section of the southern edge of this property now contains wetlands.

Today, Haskell is a leading institution of Native empowerment through higher education. In 1927, the school reformed its educational curriculum and began offering high school courses accredited by the State of Kansas. In 1933, Dr. Henry Roe Cloud, coauthor of the Meriam Report and instrumental in the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Reorganization Act) of 1934, became the first Native superintendent (Sanders 2004). Under his leadership, Haskell transitioned to include a post–high school, vocational-technical curriculum. Decades later, Haskell was among the first Native educational institutions to develop a college curriculum, leading the way in the nationwide transition to tribal colleges and universities in the 1970s under the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. In 1993, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs approved the board of regents’ recommendation for a name change to Haskell Indian Nations University, reflecting the institution’s role as a national center for Indian education, research and cultural preservation. Currently, Haskell’s annual enrollment consists of approximately 1,000  students from tribes across the nation who are pursuing higher education through baccalaureate programs in elementary education, American Indian studies, business administration and environmental science.

Ceremonial Interventions

Activism against the SLT unfolded in two distinct phases. In the first phase (1985–2000), environmental issues took center stage, at least 

initially. In 1985, Douglas County commissioners announced their intent to consider a $3.5 million bond issue for a bypass south of town, ostensibly to alleviate congestion. Speculation soon arose that this was part of a bigger plan for commercial and residential real-estate development. The first protest against the SLT commenced the next year, when several Douglas County residents organized themselves as the Committee to Elect a True Amphibian and placed Agnes T. Frog (a fictional persona styled after the wetlands’ endangered northern crawfish frog) on the ballot to run against one of the commissioners who was behind the bond initiative. The federal government issued its first plan for the SLT in 1986, which involved building the road through the wetlands on 31st Street, an alignment that crossed Haskell’s property (Map 2). Because the project would involve federal funding — Congress approved $2.7 million for the project in 1987 alone — an environmental impact statement (EIS) was required under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The first EIS was completed in 1990 without input from Haskell.

Activism began to materialize at Haskell at this time. In the fall of 1992, the county failed to include Haskell on the mailing list soliciting input from property owners affected by its application for a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act pertaining to mitigation plans along the proposed trafficway route. With only a few individuals and agencies responding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) approved the permit. Coupled with the blatant lack of consultation in the 1990 EIS, this development compelled Haskell officials to act. In 1993, the university’s board of regents passed a resolution opposing construction of the SLT along the 31st Street alignment. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Douglas County Commission ordered a supplemental EIS that would incorporate Haskell’s input. That same year, the Haskell Student Senate created the Wetlands Preservation Committee, which later became the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO), to coordinate information regarding the SLT “in defense of the student body” and raise awareness among SLT stakeholders and the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO) community about the students’ opposition to the project in defense of the wetlands (Hasselman 2014).

One place played an especially important role in calling Native and non-Native people to this activism: the Haskell medicine wheel near the wetlands on the southern edge of campus. The medicine wheel came into being in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas as part of a collaborative project involving tribal elders, Haskell students, professors Daniel Wildcat and Leslie Evans and crop artist Stan Herd. The wheel is based on the sacred circle of life: four lines cut into the grassland, radiating out from a ceremonial fire pit in the center and ending at cairns that mark the four cardinal directions. Two poles mark the solstices. To the west, a bear claw is cut into the grass and to the east, a large spirit bird effigy. The medicine wheel was blessed by a medicine man and subsequently has hosted sunrise and solstice ceremonies, National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places, ceremonies by the Native American Church, solstice observations and individual prayers and offerings.

Although outside observers may think the medicine wheel was created in 1992, those who were involved in its inception told us they did not create the wheel. Instead, it came from land, out of the many distinct tribal traditions of Indian Country and the “mythic action space” (Cash Cash 2008) of shared cosmological relationship. Its appearance was a healing gesture that consecrated the sacredness of the wetlands. Daniel Wildcat explained it to us this way:

[The medicine wheel] was meant to be a healing gesture. [But some people] were claiming that hey, you built that just so you could make a sacred site there and try to stop the trafficway. And we said, well, you guys are ignorant in the first place because we don’t make sites sacred. They are sacred in and of their own being. That really explains the collision of cultures. Because the students were saying, hey, we just put something here that we’re acknowledging that this is sacred ground — its historical significance for the children who were here; the fact that this is a place that was viewed as an important medicine collection site by the Osage, by the Kaw. We’re not talking about buildings, we’re not talking about property lines. We’re talking about the wetlands and what they represent. And I don’t know if that medicine wheel hadn’t been there, that the whole thing might not have taken so strongly that flavor. Because these things were happening at essentially the same time that the students . . . formed the WPO [Wetlands Preservation Organization]. And I became a faculty advisor, supporter, confidant for them. So my direct activity in many ways had to do with my involvement in the creation of the Haskell Medicine Wheel and then my support for students and their efforts to challenge this trafficway. 

The medicine wheel actively called people to activism and coexistence struggle. It inspired students to form the WPO in 1993 and since that time has taught more than two decades’ worth of students about the history of Haskell, the wetlands and how these places tie into their own tribal identities. Importantly, the wheel is also a place where non-Native people have learned Haskell’s history and participate in ceremonies that both stimulate and affirm their own activism against the SLT. It is a place for nonhumans as well, not only the mythical figures of Thunderbird and Bear but also the birds, mammals, grasses and trees whose own coexistence in the wetlands is guarded by the wheel and the direct action it calls humans to engage.

Beyond calling people to activism, places become agents of activism in their own right, intervening in the struggle through the palindrome practice of protest and ceremony. During the first phase of activism, the WPO worked with non-Native organizations and activists, including the Kansas chapters of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Herpetological Society; women’s groups such as Lawrence NOW and the League of Women Voters; the Douglas County Preservation Alliance; Lawrence activists; KU faculty; and the KU student group Environs. The places of protest included marches and vigils on 31st Street; protests in the wetlands, at public hearings and in downtown Lawrence; and ceremonies at the medicine wheel. At times, these places turned protest activities, both secular (for example, holding signs, stopping traffic, marching) and sacred (for example, singing, dancing, ritual enactment), into a ceremonial occasion through which activists experienced their solidarity as an event with social and political relevance and spiritual and religious significance (Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004, 137). Haskell instructor Bill Welton told us the story of an early 1990s protest against the SLT on 31st Street where WPO students and their non-Native allies lit farolitos, paper bags anchored by sand with candles inside, along the shoulders of 31st Street to guide their protest march:

As we were lighting those farolitos — and this was something the students brought out to me — if you’ve never spent time in this corner of Lawrence, you lose the understanding of how dark it is. How night is truly night. Whether we were working from the medicine wheel, which is right north of 31st Street, how it seemed to — I’m thinking spiritual here — how it seemed to rise above the rest of the City of Lawrence with all of its lights and all of its noise. It was still a special place, unlike any other thing that you would associate with an urban area like Lawrence. So there was some very significant spiritual, cultural things that happened as part of those nonviolent protests.12

On 31st Street, a nondescript two-lane blacktop, the place affected and moved the people, transporting their being-together in the wetlands to a realm “above” the city of Lawrence, toward what Welton described as “something higher,” a sense of transformation through place.

On other occasions, the places involved in the struggle against the SLT intervened by turning ceremony into a form of protest, reversing the direction of this palindrome and disrupting the flow of “everyday life” on behalf of the wetlands. Bill Welton shared another story of a protest on 31st Street that the WPO organized in response to a series of pro-trafficway articles that appeared in the local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World. The students obtained permission from Lawrence police to stop traffic on the roadway for fifteen minutes each hour for an entire weekend. “So,” he told us, 

the cops would stop traffic and we would go out there [on the road] and have drumming or dancing for 15 minutes out of every hour. And I think some people were pretty pissed off, but a lot of people were like, “What’s going on?” And we’d tell them — they didn’t know about the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Similar interventions occurred at public hearings. Mike Dunaway, former WPO president, gave us the example of a public hearing for the trafficway in 1999. He and the student body president had gotten Haskell students together to go to the hearing at South Junior High and submit their opposition on record. They had been at the school for about an hour.

Then in the distance you heard a drum. And you heard it coming closer. And then you heard singing. And it was coming closer. Then you heard footsteps. And they were coming closer. And each time you could tell that the Lawrence community members were getting a little bit more apprehensive, a little bit more apprehensive. And the police officers started unsnapping their guns. They did not know what was going to go on. When they came in, the drum came in first and the students walked in around the drum like you would in a powwow circle. Then they sat in the center of the room and sang. Students just kept coming in, kept coming in, kept singing. One by one, they would leave the circle to go up and sign “We don’t want the road” on these petitions. Then they would come back to the circle. And it was just almost surreal to me because it was like, wow. The students, without any violence, without any real show of force, kind of pushed the community members out of the room through the drumming and the singing and walking as a singular group. . . . It showed the power that can be brought forth by centering people around a drum and a song.

Although Dunaway noticed how the drum circle “pushed the community members out of the room,” the ceremonial dimensions of Indigenous protest can bring non-Native people into the fold of coalition activism, a phenomenon seen in other Indigenous social movements in the United States. The ceremonial activities involved in and surrounding protes t— singing, dancing, ritual enactment, visionary experience — bring diverse people into oppositional solidarity through which “a distinctively ethnic and religious form is adopted, transformed, and expanded to new inclusiveness” (Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004, 137). Consider, for instance, an experience Mike Caron, a longtime non-Native WPO activist, told us about one evening in the fall of 1994. It was the evening before a public hearing to be held at Haskell the following day.

The night before the hearing I went down to the edge of the wetlands [on the Haskell campus] and parked my car. I started walking down across 31st street and heard this thing that sounded like Darth Vader, a slow hissing sound. So I started walking down into the wetlands, and it gets real dark, you know? You really lose the light out there. I kept following the sound until just before I got to the [Wakarusa] river. Back then Williams Gas Company had buildings on both sides of the maintenance road there with big cyclone fences and concertina wire. I walked toward the pumping station and that’s what the sound was, the hissing. I could smell the methane, and seeing all the wire around there, it seemed like an extermination camp. That’s the image that came in my head. It was an extermination camp. I’d heard stories of the kids running away and I thought about the cultural genocide that happened at Haskell and all of that. That whole thing was just a real emotional moment.

     After that I walked back up to my car. And as I got closer I started hearing this drum, like a heartbeat. So I walked towards campus to figure out what that noise was and I ended up at the gazebo [by the powwow grounds]. And there the Kiowa drum group is in the middle of that gazebo and they’re beating their hearts out and there’s all these Haskell students all around it. And I thought, that’s the heart of Haskell. They’ve survived. Having those two experiences in one night, it was mind-blowing.

The Haskell students had convened a drum circle in ceremonial preparation for the next day’s hearing. For Caron, the wetlands vision of a drumming ceremony overcoming a history of extermination was affirmation of not only his oppositional politics but also his ongoing involvement, as a settler-descended person, in Native activism. The intensely affective elements in Caron’s account of the wetlands — the darkness, the hissing, smell of methane, the mirage of the extermination camp in the pumping station — underscore how places generate the liminal atmospheres where ceremony and protest converge into decolonizing effect.

Sumer Mohsen, Haskell student activist. HALEY RAINS

Ceremonial Entanglements

Although the wetlands were singularly motivational for SLT activists, non-Native people initially came to protest largely for environmental reasons, whereas Native people were motivated to protect a sacred place as part of the centuries-long struggle against colonialism. And critics, for their part, targeted this alliance. In 2011, Mike Rees, Kansas Department of Transportation chief counsel, was reported as saying that non-Native activists had “encouraged” Haskell students to protest the SLT and “led” them to the fight, convincing them that it was their sacred land (Lawhorn 2001). The malicious assumption behind Rees’s statement is that the Indians were not sophisticated enough to organize protest on their own; they needed help from non-Native people. Coalition activism, then, was an entanglement of preexisting motivations, aspirations, and histories — in short, an entanglement of worlds, including those of developers and settler-state actors.

The point we wish to draw attention to is not only that these worlds are entangled in and through the wetlands, but that throughout the many years of SLT activism, the place guided Native and non-Native people to solidarity on an “uncommon ground” (Chatterton 2006) of dialogue, interaction and relationship — even as they pursued different goals from different positions within the colonized space of settler-state institutions. In this way, Wakarusa facilitated epistemic friction (Seawright 2014) and productive crossovers in oppositional strategy and vision. Non-Native activists began to articulate the spiritual dimensions of protest while Native activists recognized that the “environmental angle,” as Tyler Kimbrell put it, was an effective communication tool in raising public awareness. In August 1994, when SLT organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony for the nine-mile western leg of the trafficway, non-Native activists realized that Haskell students had not returned to campus from summer break (Mellinger 1994). They quickly surmised that the organizers had selected this date for their ceremony to diffuse Haskell’s involvement at the event (an allegation the organizers denied). So, the Alliance for Environmental Justice, an umbrella group of mostly non-Native organizations, held a protest and vigil to highlight what they perceived as blatant chicanery. Here, the ceremonial dimensions of protest were inverted as a non-Native contingent intervened in a government ceremony to represent a Native voice that had been silenced.

The first phase of SLT activism approached its climax in 1997 when Douglas County, KDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reached an agreement to complete the SLT without federal financing. By removing federal support, they hoped to exempt the eastern leg of the trafficway from NEPA regulations requiring public review through a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Plaintiffs led by Thomasine Ross (former member of the Haskell Board of Regents) and including the WPO and the KU student group Environs, filed for and received an injunction on construction of the trafficway pending the completion of a SEIS. The defendants then appealed this decision, and in November 1998, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Ross v. Federal Highway Administration. The SLT could not proceed until the SEIS was completed, because despite federal withdrawal of funding, the trafficway was still a “major federal action.” This was a substantial victory for the coalition. Then came a second victory when the final version of the supplemental EIS was released in 2000, declaring that “no build” was the preferred alternative. This appeared to mark the death-knell for the SLT.

Yet the SLT was not dead. The very next year, KDOT chief counsel Mike Rees floated a new proposal to build the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment across the property owned by Baker University. This alignment would take the SLT off Haskell property entirely and thereby remove much, though not all, of that institution’s basis for opposition. In addition, the plan called for removing 31st Street itself from Haskell’s property and realigning it alongside the SLT. Rees initiated a series of negotiations with Baker University, whose property the new alignment would cross. Baker ultimately agreed to this plan in exchange for roughly $9 million in funds and a net land transfer of 354 acres for wetlands mitigation (see Map 2). Meanwhile, Haskell’s Board of Regents and federal BIA officials issued a joint statement recommending that the eastern leg of the SLT be built on an alignment south of the Wakarusa River (the 42nd Street alignment), avoiding the wetlands entirely. The Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation made a similar recommendation the following year. Despite this opposition, the Corps of Engineers (Kansas City District) issued its Record of Decision affirming the 32nd Street alignment in December 2003. Now, however, funds were no longer available for the project. So in 2006 Senator Pat Roberts included a $1.5 million earmark in the federal Highway Bill to “jump start” the project and with that, the trafficway was alive again.

These developments launched the second phase of wetlands activism (2000–2012). In contrast to the first phase, this phase of activism relied less on formal alliances among organizations and more heavily on peer-to-peer activism among students from Haskell and KU whose relationships both stemmed from and strengthened their entanglements in the wetlands. Peer-to-peer activism is an “affinity politics” (Day 2005) that builds on interpersonal networks in spontaneous, extemporaneous forms of direct action that unfold alongside conventional organizing. It is, in short, a looser and more fluid kind of activism that depends on strong interpersonal relationships. A number of developments contributed to this transition toward place-based, student-led affinity activism. A new student exchange program enabled Haskell and KU students to take courses on the opposite campus, which created both formal and informal cross-cultural learning opportunities that translated into interpersonal connections and sometimes, lasting friendships. These exchanges set the stage for affinity work. In the mid-2000s, interaction between the WPO and Environs increased, although throughout the decade KU professors began using the wetlands more intensively to teach about ecology and the SLT as an environmental issue, which culminated in a team-taught Haskell-KU course on the wetlands.

In the early 2000s, a group of KU students led by Ecumenical Christian Ministries (ECM) reverend Thad Holcombe started a process of self-education about Haskell, the Wakarusa and the SLT through research-guided tours of the wetlands.13 Once again, the wetlands started preparing and bringing people to activism. The ECM, in turn, became an important place for translating this knowledge into activism against the SLT. Built in 1960, the ECM building is located on private land immediately adjacent to KU campus. Historically, this location has provided an essential distance from the KU campus — much more than what the physical proximity would suggest — for radical activism, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s civil rights movement, women’s rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. The ECM has always been “‘part of KU but not part of KU,’ which gave people who met there autonomy to plan and further their agendas” (Harper 2008, 6). It was one of the few safe places for activists during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s when, as one antiwar activist put it, “there were National Guard rifles pointed at us during protests.”14 In the 2000s, KU Environs held its meetings at the ECM and, with Holcombe, began learning about the wetlands and Haskell’s resistance to the SLT. Entwining with the personal relationships some KU students had with Haskell students, this “safe place” at the edge of KU campus incubated a new group in 2008, EcoJustice, whose mission was wetlands preservation in partnership with WPO members.

By the late 2000s, affinity activism had coalesced among students in the WPO, KU Environs and EcoJustice. Together, they discovered new places of protest. In November 2009, the coalition, which now included KU’s Indigenous Nations Studies Student Association, held the first of several petition drives on KU campus, asking for signatures compelling the university to use its 20-acre parcel in the wetlands for research and education instead of selling it to KDOT for the trafficway. The coalition also took their activism to national venues. In 2009, a group of students traveled to Power Shift, an international annual youth summit focusing on climate change and energy issues, in Washington, D.C. There they gave presentations on the wetlands and tried to raise awareness on a national level, networking with politicians and fellow student activists. Patrick Freeland, WPO president, and Jason Hering, EcoJustice president, even hatched an impromptu plan to talk to the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, sneaking backstage but getting stopped just short by his aide.

The coalition also worked together to care for the wetlands. As former EcoJustice president Jason Hering remembered, “We wanted to come up with some positive projects to work on instead of just protests, you know, something that would actually build community and build something in the wetlands.” The group held the first annual “Swamp Fest” in December 2010 at Jackpot Saloon and Music Hall, featuring local bands and a silent art auction. Proceeds went to the construction of the Haskell Wetlands Eco-Walk, an environmentally friendly,15 raised boardwalk that gives visitors the opportunity to discover the wetlands on Haskell’s campus with access to the medicine wheel. Activists envisioned the boardwalk as a way to help the wetlands — the place itself — raise awareness about the SLT in their absence (Metz 2010). 

The structure provides visitors with access to the place, while signage on a self-guided tour attunes them to issues surrounding the SLT. Swamp Fest III, held in 2013 at The Bottleneck (a Lawrence music venue), again featured live music and a silent art auction. The proceeds from this event went to create a soundscape that “document[s] the environmental and ecological impact of the traffic way project [through] an audio recording of the area before and after construction” (Donovan 2013). The soundscape project engages the very wetlands ambience — in this case the acoustic ambience — that circulates in the affective “charge” among activists in the politics of SLT opposition. The project uniquely demonstrates what the death of the wetlands sounds like through an acoustic illustration of an atmospheric disruption of the place and reduction of its distinctive personality.

At root, the peer-to-peer affinity activism among Haskell and KU students involved negotiating, through their mutual engagements in place, the imperatives of respectful relationship within new and evolving interpersonal connections across the Native/non-Native divide. From the work days building the boardwalk in the wetlands to the National Day of Prayer and Solstice ceremonies at the medicine wheel, Native and non-Native people found themselves in concrete situations in which dialogues, interactions and encounters provided a million little challenges in the invidious social and psychological structures of (post)colonialism that, when reworked, can become decolonizing moments, which, importantly, can involve nonhumans as well. The friendships between Haskell and KU students are living embodiments of place’s transformative agency through the ceremonial crossing into activism, which reminds us that though this crossing can take form in dramatic protest events or developments, it also emerges in the million tiny moments of dialogue and encounter that come from simply by being together in place.

In 2010, the Kansas state legislature passed a 10-year funding bill, and KDOT designated the SLT as its highest-priority project for the state’s northeast district. Construction could now proceed. When the district court affirmed the government’s decision to build the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment, the opponents filed an appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver asserting that the FHWA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs were led by the Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation and included the WPO, Environs and EcoJustice. That May through June, the Haskell–KU student coalition undertook a 1,100-mile “Trail of Broken Promises” walk to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to bring national attention to the environmental and Native American spiritual issues involved in the opposition to the trafficway. Part of the route followed, in reverse, the path taken by Native Americans in the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death from Twin Peaks, Indiana, to Osawatomie, Kansas. The group carried draft legislation endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 “to provide a right of action for protection of Native American Sacred Places.” The students carried the Wakarusa with them on this walk to Washington, sharing the message of how this place — sacred for Native Americans and spiritually important for non-Natives — had brought out this common cause.

Daniel Wildcat. HALEY RAINS

Just seven days after the students’ return from the Trail of Broken Promises, the Circuit Court announced its decision: the 32nd Street alignment for the SLT was upheld. This was one of the last possible options for legal recourse for the opposition. When the plaintiffs let the appeals period expire in October, the legal fight against the road was over. The legal decision to allow the appeals period to expire instead of pursuing the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was based, in part, upon that court’s recent set of rulings against Native American tribes, leading to a diminishment of tribal sovereign immunity (see Wilkins and Lomawaima 2001; Singer 2002).

Ceremonial Transit

In The Transit of Empire, Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd (2011) explains how American imperialism transits through a racialized Indianness that renders Native lands a domestic space subject to dispossession and that codes other populations as Indian and therefore subject to American authority. Here in the South Lawrence Trafficway, we see the literal transit of empire in the form of transportation infrastructure. In the beginning, the Federal Highway Administration and Kansas Department of Transportation tried to enforce the assumption that Haskell’s land was domestic space and therefore exempt from environmental review under NEPA. After Haskell activists succeeded in compelling the government to accommodate their interests through a supplemental impact statement, the government took the road off Haskell property, thereby removing much of that institution’s basis for formal objection. But the road still crosses Indian land that was first taken by treaty, later transferred into federal trust and finally “surplused” to another owner, Baker University, who ultimately agreed to the SLT’s construction. And the SLT crosses land that Native people still consider sacred and that many non-Natives consider to be spiritually significant. The trafficway is infrastructure for vehicular and freight transportation across the domestic space of North America and also the continuing, dispossessing transit of the settler state across Indian land.

But there is another transit at work here, one that is difficult to ascertain except through the scales of coexistence. In our research, the people we spoke with helped us to understand how ceremony and protest are entangled in the agency of place through the process of activism. In their accounts of the ceremonial crossing into activism, those at Wakarusa found the place demanding their respect, asking them to “look again” at their relationships with others. And by asking all of us to look again, the wetlands continue to provoke ontological struggle even as the road is being built, helping activists, their opponents and the (undecided, ambivalent, potentially engaged) public engage the transition discourses of coexistence, now ongoing in the mitigation efforts to restore the wetlands around the trafficway. Ultimately, the fight to save the Wakarusa concerns the intrinsic value of our being together as a more-than-human landscape, of being in relationship through place, in ongoing dialogues and struggles engaging those who occupy different worlds but inhabit the same place. ψ

Modified from Being Together in Place. Reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota Press.


1 The acreage of the Wakarusa is based on the Soil Conservation Service field maps from the Douglas County Soil Survey based on the land area containing Wabash (hydric) soil.

2 Available on the Baker Wetlands website,

3 “Interconnectedness,” a position paper prepared by Haskell Indian Nations University students in response to the South Lawrence Trafficway, 1997. The paper’s position is “Haskell students believe that the SEIS is unjustified, discriminatory, misleading, and fails to adequately address Native American spiritual and cultural concerns,” p. 1.

4 The removal treaties were subsequent to the 1830 Indian Removal Act. These treaties most infamously involved the Five Civilized Tribes but also included a number of other treaties with nations east of the Mississippi. What is now the state of Kansas was once part of Indian Territory prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

5 In the early 1890s, a series of congressional acts effectively made off-reservation education compulsory for Indian children, a policy that would persist in various forms through the 1920s (Cohen 1942).

6 Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–71.

7 Roger Boyd, “History of the Baker Wetlands,” available at According to Boyd’s interpretation of a 1937 aerial photograph, three sections totaling 60 of the roughly 600 acres of wet prairie were not put into production for the Haskell Farm.

8 Letter from Superintendent H. B. Peairs to Commissioner Cato Sells, dated February 8, 1919, available in the Kansas Collection of the Spencer Research Library, Lawrence.

9 Daniel Wildcat (professor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in conversation with authors, June 2014.  Decades later, some proponents of the SLT would dismiss Haskell’s claims that the wetlands are sacred, arguing that, after all, the Indians were the ones farming it. This is a malicious misrepresentation. The decision to drain the wetlands was made with no input from Native people. As Daniel Wildcat told us, “This wasn’t something where we [Native people] all got together and said, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s all go down there and we’re gonna farm the wetlands and tile it so it drains artificially.’ No. Bureau of Indian Affairs did that. And essentially they used enslaved labor to do the work.”

10 Melinda Adams-Crow (instructor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in discussion with the authors, November 2014.

11 Roger Boyd (professor, Baker University), in discussion with the authors, November 2014.

12 Bill Welton (instructor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in discussion with the authors, September 2014.

13 Jason Hering (student activist), in discussion with the authors, September 2014.

14 Rick Mitchell (former KU student during the late 1960s and early ’70s), personal interview by Tom Harper, November 7, 2008.

15 The group consulted existing design principles from the National Park Service and received $800 from the Elizabeth Schultz Environmental Fund to test different building methods and discern the one with the least impact on the wetlands ecology. They recycled old telephone poles from Westar Energy to build the walk, and later received $3,000 from the Fund to complete the project.


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The post Ceremony is Protest, Protest is Ceremony appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

To Catch a Unicorn Sun, 14 Jun 2020 19:20:21 +0000 I love the uniqueness that my presence brings, and while I never set out to do this after getting my degree, my stumbling into this world is exactly the type of thing I imagine for which the phrase “happy accident” was created.

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Chronicles of a pre-school teacher.


“Kiss me, Marcus,” a particularly precocious 2-year-old told me in my class last year. He then marshalled all the romance that both his tiny body and our bathroom could muster, hugging me after I changed his smelly diaper. If his look of earnest gratitude and relief was to be any indication, rescuing him from a portable carriage of his own filth was the best thing anyone had done for him that day, maybe even his life. Definitely in the discussion for best thing done for him that hour, at least. I can understand his getting swept up in the moment — I’d always fancied myself to be something of an unsung hero, anyways. “No need, my boy, I’m just doing my job,” I thought, silently patting myself on the back. Besides, I’d seen the many places his lips had frequented that day; last thing I needed was to know how our door handle tasted. 

Involuntary kiss propositions aside, I suppose the operative question is how I, an African-American male in his late 20s, ended up wiping snotty noses and discarding fecal diapers for a living. You don’t need to visit too many preschools to see that it’s a line of work for which someone looking like me represents the mythical unicorn, a fact that I actually relish. As an African-American male preschool teacher, I’m a rare double minority, which offers me a special opportunity to be the change that we’d like to see in the world. For the young boys there, regardless of ethnicity, it’s important to me to show them what a positive male role model looks like in a setting otherwise missing much testosterone. As an African-American, it’s important for me that the young children of color see that they don’t have to be — pardon my language — a slave to the statistics that say the school system — be it private or public — is just going to weed them out. I love the uniqueness that my presence brings, and while I never set out to do this after getting my degree, my stumbling into this world is exactly the type of thing I imagine for which the phrase “happy accident” was created. 

Right before I turned 26 (when I’d have my brief “Yikes, I’m officially closer to 30 than I am to 20” existential crisis), my mother and I had a pretty frank discussion about my post-grad working life, a tedious and maddening series of affairs to which I’ve since come to lovingly refer to as my “vocational purgatory.” But fresh off the nadir of said purgatory — an insufferable handful of months spent as what equates to a phone solicitor for a political fundraising company — I had unquestionably stagnated. And tired of semi-supporting a son that hadn’t lived close to them for almost a decade by this point, my mother decided it was time for the tough talk. “Find a career or come back home where it’s cheaper for all of us,” was the gist of this meeting, and from the day I moved out to Columbia, Mo., as an eager 18-year old from my home in Richmond, Va., fewer prospects terrified me more. By the end of that next day, I’d have an interview scheduled for what would go on to be the closest thing to a career I’ve had to this day — a job as a preschool teacher. 

I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and had done so since I was old enough to work, so the opportunity was a no-brainer. Indeed, had I done any real research, I’d have seen that preschools seemingly are always looking for help, and I would have jumpstarted this part of my life much sooner. The irony, of course, is that for years, whenever I told anyone that I was getting my degree in English, they’d first ask “Oh, well are you going to be a teacher?” and I always said that I wasn’t. Even now, I’d hardly consider myself a “teacher” in the traditional sense of putting together a curriculum buxom with lesson plans and chalkboard writings. And more than that, it’s not the area where I got my formal training or from where I draw my strengths. For me, the draw was that someone was essentially paying me to find ways to utilize my own childlike qualities: my physical presence, energy, playfulness and capacity to care. Every day is an opportunity for me to put my specific strengths to work, and I’m lucky to have found a profession that needs those specific qualities in droves. The joke of what my future profession would be is now definitely on me, but I’m more than happy to laugh about it. 

That, of course, is not meant to imply that this job is all sunshine and rainbows. In many ways, it’s chaos incarnate. Indeed, at the beginning of my second year, after I’d just made the precipitous switch from 4- and 5-year-olds to twos and threes, a parent aptly summed it up for me: “It’s like herding cats, isn’t it?” I’ve been bitten, slapped, spit on, screamed at, stomped, and cried on, and this is typically before Monday is over. If there’s a quota of the number of times the movie “Frozen” can be referenced in a three-year period before dementia sets in, I must be coming close to it. It is often a famously thankless and underpaying job with not much available in the way of upward mobility. Living in a world for which the costs of living continue to rise, it’s become both prudent and imperative for many of us that work in preschools to supplement that income with additional jobs. I know that going forward, it would be nigh impossible to support a family based on what I do or can potentially make as a preschool teacher. That’s a fact that is probably more emblematic of a fault in the economic system as a whole than it is of the particular job, but still, at some point I’ll probably have to move on. I often go home scratched, clawed, aching and hoarse from spending 8 hours a day as a human jungle gym/megaphone, and much to my dismay, find myself unintentionally peppering my conversation with child-friendly language.

But this job is, heretofore, the only one I’ve ever had that feels and looks like a career. It is something that was important to both me and satisfies the ultimatum given to me by my mother a few years ago. Being eligible for real benefits like paid leave and insurance was most definitely a welcome change in my life. Furthermore, making a positive impact on a small child’s life in ways both tangible and intangible is what brings me back every day. I see it on their faces when I arrive in the morning, and I hear it in their voices when they bid me farewell. Many are the days when a child has found a way to drive me crazy early before turning my hardened demeanor into absolute mush and pulling me right back in later when they get hurt and come to me for consolatory hug. When a parent tells me that their child cracks them up at home just from repeating my phrases and mannerisms, I know this is where I’m supposed to be in my life. They will absolutely drive me up a wall on most days, but if ever I’m away for more than a day or two at a time, I find myself thinking “Boy, I sure do miss that little gang of ruffians.” When I do finally get back and the little ones mob me like the returning hero that I like to think I am, I know this is where I’m supposed to be in my life. It may not be what I set out to do or what I do for the long haul, but for the time being, I am sure that I’m in the right place at the right time.ψ

Marcus Williams is a Mizzou alum who still happily lives and teaches in Columbia, Missouri. He’s slightly older now though. This article originally ran in The New Territory Issue 04, published in February 2017.

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Review: Vanishing Monuments by John Elizabeth Stintzi Tue, 05 May 2020 13:34:17 +0000 Multiplicity is the point. Review by Nathan Thomas At the newspaper where I worked in college, we were taught that a story’s lead was a story’s everything—This. Happened. The lead was the whole and the start, an incision through which a writer’s needle and thread might penetrate, stringing along all the details to follow: the […]

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Multiplicity is the point.

Review by Nathan Thomas

Vanishing Monuments cover depicts a crowbar with a filmstrip wound around its shaft
John Elizabeth Stinzi: Vanishing Monuments. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020.

At the newspaper where I worked in college, we were taught that a story’s lead was a story’s everything—This. Happened. The lead was the whole and the start, an incision through which a writer’s needle and thread might penetrate, stringing along all the details to follow: the characters, the quotations, the decisive, uniform facts.

Vanishing Monuments, the debut novel by Canadian/Kansas City writer John Elizabeth Stintzi, bears the imagery of this form. But in the case of their story, the thread hangs in a darkroom of the mind, and the details strung along its length are less the facts of reportage and more the dripping enlargements of ever-developing photographs. For Alani Baum, the non-binary photographer and narrator of the novel, these murky and blended frames make up their life’s journey, a maelstrom of escape and rumination that, despite Alani’s serious efforts, remains ill-defined, ever open to interpretation. This pain becomes a catalyst for great personal metamorphoses in Alani, and a powerful force that moves readers through a novel that Stintzi frames, reframes, and frames again.

After running away from home and life with their mother almost thirty years ago, we meet Alani Baum at a point of relative stability. A successful artistic career, a professorship, long-standing relationships, the works. When news of their mother’s accelerated dementia arrives, though, Alani is spirited from the world they’ve created in Minneapolis and back to the life from which they fled as teenager. Now, in Winnipeg MB, Canada, the novel straddles a fraught history: the to-do list of obligations the child must contend with on behalf of their aging parent, the haunted world of their shared past, its abandonment, and the ways in which all these elements touch and alter the other. Further, Alani must contend with their own sense of plurality, the membrane through which everything past and present filters—every sigh, every act of love or neglect. 

As readers will learn, perhaps the narrator we’ve met is more rightly named Sofia. Or Al, as Alani later identifies themselves. Or simply, “the girl who runs away,” the girl who threatens to come back into Alani’s bones and “take over, like a surfer on a wave of fear.”

their identity is an ascension to middle space in their interior life

Whether they’re wearing a packer and jeans, or a sun dress, it seems readers have met all and none of these people. Alani navigates the worlds they leave behind and the ones they create, introducing and reintroducing themselves in a variety of forms and names, never exclusively one or the other. For Alani, the multiplicity is the point, and represents a hard-won balancing act in a life spent striving toward truth of identity. Like the story of Icarus that Alani carries around Winnipeg, their identity is an ascension to middle space in their interior life, a space threatened always by rising too far and burning up, or by submerging so low as to lose any sense of the self.

Even that relative stability Alani has achieved by the start of the novel can become a strange and alienating thing—the discovery that they’ve begun to show up on time, dutifully fulfilling obligations to the erasure of other, less punctual aspects of the self still writhing within.

“I’d figured out how to appear ordered, found a way to make my body become a thing I could hide in again,” Alani says. “I was stowed away. Exiled.”

This sense of exile is manifold, at times self-imposed, and emerges from within as much as without. Alani’s first, and most important, escape was from their mother, out of their city and a situation that threatened to sink them both. Later in a new life, Alani would flee again, this time to Hamburg, Germany, a setting which provides another of the novel’s well-woven plot lines. Time moves forward, exiling everyone from the people they used to be, and in an effort to bar against these effects, Alani constructs an elaborate “memory palace.” It is a mnemonic structure, based on their childhood home, and so tangibly imagined and intentionally populated as to be almost indistinguishable from the book’s physical landscape. Indeed, readers will spend a good portion of the novel here, walking its halls with Alani as they examine the memories they’ve hung on the walls, or buried in the back room. Winnipeg itself is often a lively, well-described beast, but it is this palace, both of memory and hard, physical reality, that steals the show. This duality of setting becomes a charged and ethereal center for the narrative, structuring and mirroring the many recurring plot threads and timelines—just as it does for Alani.

For readers, the device provides the imaginative space necessary to fully inhabit Alani’s life, focalizing and framing their story’s ever-developing snapshots, and allowing the time and environment for them to clarify in the darkrooms of our minds. In this, Vanishing Monuments presents a compelling and suspended kind of portrait, a space in which multiplicity of truth can coexist, can even contradict, and still be, at its core, the truth.

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First Glance: The New Territory in Spring 2020 Wed, 15 Apr 2020 13:59:25 +0000 I write this on a Wednesday morning. I know this because I have to keep checking my calendar. I’ve missed two New Territory meetings since the WHO declared a global pandemic because I didn’t know what day it was. We all have. So I check the calendar. It’s important to center ourselves in this way. […]

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I write this on a Wednesday morning. I know this because I have to keep checking my calendar. I’ve missed two New Territory meetings since the WHO declared a global pandemic because I didn’t know what day it was. We all have. So I check the calendar. It’s important to center ourselves in this way. To stay in touch with one another.

I write this on a Wednesday morning after walking with my dog under a blue-black sky. The air felt feathered by leaves and grass emerging, while the third-quarter moon waned away. The dawn chorus began its crescendo. I said good morning to all the birds whose voices I could recognize. It’s important to center ourselves in this way. To stay in touch with where we are.

When our development fellow Kevin first asked me for the magazine’s response to COVID-19, it was in the first half of the week when everything turned on a dime. The magazine itself felt stable, and frankly I didn’t think The New Territory needed to pile another company response email to the barn-sized haystack of company response emails. We’re not exactly a current events publication. We take the long view and are proceeding as planned. I didn’t want to add to anyone’s stress.

And the stress, I know, has been real. My heart goes out to each of you. I sincerely hope your own lives are marked at worst by inconvenience rather than tragedy.

This message is for our very sweet community members who are wondering what will remain when they emerge from hibernation.

What Will Remain?

The New Territory, I’m happy to say, will remain.

Of course, the coronavirus affects even this small indie magazine. While our printer and the blessed USPS are deemed “essential businesses,” and we’re able to print and ship on schedule, all of the Lower Midwest’s literature festivals were cancelled. We had counted on those book fair sales for banking up a deposit for printing.

So we are now solely relying on our Patreon backers to get half down on a full-color, 128-page book. Fortunately, our patrons are amazingly generous, so you can expect to print Issue 09 by June 2020. However, we’ll likely decrease the number of copies we print, so subscribe here to make sure you get one.

We are still mailing back issues each weekend. Our t-shirts and accessories are taking a little longer to print and ship, but you can order now and get a fashionable surprise whenever they arrive.

What Will Change?

It would be impossible to call The New Territory “The Autobiography of the Lower Midwest” without acknowledging this huge social upheaval. Therefore, we’ve made room in Issue 09 for a few new pieces that honor our shared, surreal experience.

The spring festivals are where we do sales, yes, but more importantly it’s where we meet new readers and catch up with old friends. We had looked forward to seeing so many of you in person this year. How do you recreate that? How do you recreate connection, as a magazine built on the unplugged, physical experience of reading? I’m not sure you can.

Nevertheless, our volunteer team is putting love and thought toward our readers right now. You come first. That’s a New Territory principle. While we don’t know what each day will hold in terms of creative reserves, we have some ideas and intend to use this time to make The New Territory an even better experience for each of you.

If you can think of anything, if there’s anything we can do for you, please let me know. My email address is tina [at] I look forward to hearing from you.

How Can You Help?

And if you have the time and the means, there are several ways you can support the longevity of The New Territory:

Buy Books. Become a Patron. Support Stockists.

  • Encourage friends and family to subscribe to The New Territory if they’re able. Subscriptions are how we are able to pay contributors and “keep the lights on.”
  • Sign up for a monthly microdonation on Patreon, and invite your NT-lovin’ friends to do the same! Patreon funds our printing bills.
  • Support your local bookstore (and garden centers! and coffee shops! and pet suppliers!). All of our stockists are doing creative things to keep paying rent on storefronts we’re not allowed to visit. If you have the means, please consider signing up for their subscription services, taking advantage of their new delivery options, or simply buying gift cards. Bookstores contribute to our community’s culture by hosting author talks and book clubs, organizing fun events, and keeping shelves stocked with cool regional indie mags.

Contribute Words or Photos to Issue 09 and Online!

  • We have a call out for a “kids say the darndest things” theme for the Eavesdropping section. Please share what you’ve overheard with this quick and painless form. If we print your story in the mag, we’ll send a free extra copy!
  • We need two more Light Room photos, and are seeking submissions of shots interpreting “social distancing” or empty spaces.
  • Finally, we would love to get our online series out soon. If you have time, please consider submitting something for:
    • Reviews – on events, books, cafes, fashion, music, food, art, monuments, and anything else that you feel deserves to be talked about
    • Literary Landscapes – brief essays + photos on the experience of or connection to an important site related to Midwestern literature.

I live with this agonizing (sometimes limiting) fear of coming across as too self-important. Like, I read a tweet this morning that said, “I like how ads have gone from ‘buy a toyota’ to ‘this is a difficult and uncertain time for us all…buy a toyota.'” My anti-corporate soul struggles to react to any current event. But as I write this on a Wednesday morning, drinking coffee, and thinking of the people who would read it, I realize it’s important to center ourselves in this way. To connect with what matters to us.

Thank you for reading. I wish you health and peace.

Tina Casagrand
Founder & Publisher
The New Territory

The post First Glance: The New Territory in Spring 2020 appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

Literary Landscapes Thu, 12 Mar 2020 17:10:21 +0000 Is there a Midwestern author or book that you love? Have you visited their home or made a pilgrimage to their birthplace? Write about that experience!

The post Literary Landscapes appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

Is there a Midwestern author or book that you love? Have you visited their home or made a pilgrimage to their birthplace? Do you share a hometown? On your commute, do you pass by a site from within their writing? Do you live near a site that has been lost or redeveloped? Write about that experience!

We seek brief essays (400-600 words), accompanied by a photo of the site, to publish on The New Territory website for a series called Literary Landscapes. We hope this will develop into an ongoing series on the website, with highlights published in the print magazine. All contributors will receive a one-year New Territory subscription as a thank-you.

It’s essential that this series represent the diversity of the Midwest, including the authors, contributors, and the types of landscapes and visuals that we publish. With that in mind, we especially seek pitches from indigenous, people of color, disabled, and LGBTQ+ contributors.

Here are a few possibilities from The New Territory team. Select one of these or pitch your own! Send inquiries and pitches to Outpost Editor Andy Oler at

A (limited) list of potential sites:
*We will regularly add to this list and remove names/sites that have been “claimed” by a contributor. List last updated11/1/2020.

  • Gwendolyn Brooks (Chicago, IL)
  • Ana Castillo (Chicago, IL)
  • Violet Kazue de Cristoforo (Jerome War Relocation Center, AR)
  • William Cunningham (sites from the Green Corn Rebellion in eastern Oklahoma)
  • Rita Dove (Akron, OH)
  • Louise Erdrich (Birchbark Books or other Minnesota sites)
  • Susan Glaspell (Davenport, IA)
  • Joy Harjo (Tulsa, OK)
  • LeAnne Howe (Edmond or Stillwater, OK)
  • Lawson Fusao Inada (Jerome War Relocation Center, AR)
  • Meridel Le Sueur (Minneapolis, MN)
  • Elmore Leonard (Detroit, MI, or characters from Detroit, Norman, OK, etc.)
  • Janice Mirikitani (Rohwer War Relocation Center, AR)
  • N. Scott Momaday (Lawton, OK)
  • Lorine Niedecker (Black Hawk Island, WI)
  • Ohiyesa/Charles Eastman (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois)
  • Tillie Olsen (Wahoo or Omaha, NE)
  • Otokichi Ozaki (Jerome War Relocation Center, AR)
  • James Whitcomb Riley (Greenfield, IN)
  • Tomás Rivera (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin)
  • Bienvenido Santos (Iowa City, IA)
  • Hugo Martinez Serros (Chicago, IL, sites related to The Last Laugh and Other Stories)
  • Sara Teasdale (St. Louis, MO)
  • Joyce Carol Thomas (Ponca City, OK)
  • Mark Twain (birthplace in Florida, MO)
  • Taitetsu Unno (Rohwer War Relocation Center, AR)
  • V. “Valhalla” Vale (Jerome War Relocation Center, AR)
  • John Albert Williams (Omaha, NE)
  • Tennessee Williams (St. Louis, MO)
  • Richard Wright (Chicago, IL)
  • Malcolm X (birthplace in Omaha, NE)
  • Ray Young Bear (Meskwaki Settlement, IA)

The post Literary Landscapes appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

Survival of the Storytellers Fri, 21 Feb 2020 23:49:47 +0000 In a dwindling and rapidly changing local news scene, young reporters step in to preserve the stories of their communities and of themselves.  BY DENÉ K. DRYDEN | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 10 (in print November 2020) Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder sat in her desk chair, bare feet tucked cross-legged under herself. It’s a rainy Saturday, so a […]

The post Survival of the Storytellers appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

In a dwindling and rapidly changing local news scene, young reporters step in to preserve the stories of their communities and of themselves. 
BY DENÉ K. DRYDEN | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 10 (in print November 2020)

Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder sat in her desk chair, bare feet tucked cross-legged under herself. It’s a rainy Saturday, so a handful of employees were present at The Hutchinson News. The newsroom is old, long and perfectly built to accommodate the printing press in the back half of the building, right along the railroad tracks. Schroeder explained that trucks now deliver the huge vats of ink and rolls of paper, not the train. In the cold storeroom by the printing press, a hulking machine of ribbony reams and metal arms, the cardboard-covered rolls of newspaper are wound so tightly they cannot catch fire — no air, no breath between the pages just yet.

Schroeder, 26, is the managing editor. She works for one of the few newspapers in Kansas that prints in-house, each and every day, along with 40 other publications each month. It’s not the place she thought she’d end up working.

She graduated from Tabor College in nearby Hillsboro, Kansas. “My whole family went there, so it was kind of a given that I was going to end up there,” she said. “They don’t really have a journalism program, so it was not even close to being on my radar.”

Schroeder enjoyed studying religion, English and philosophy, but her heart called her to theater. By a professor’s suggestion, she entered a section of the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival competition focused on theater journalism — writing a review of a play, essentially, marrying her love of theater and writing skills. She won the regional competition and advanced to nationals in Washington, D.C. Her success convinced her to give journalism a try. 

Naysayers can say print is dead, that local newspapers are dwindling, shrinking. Some of that is true; weekday print circulation among U.S. newspapers decreased by 12% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. In the decade between 2008 and 2018, newsroom employment dropped by a quarter across the country, newspapers taking the hardest hit.

Young journalist standing by The Hutchinson News entrance sign
Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder stands outside of her workplace in downtown Hutchinson, Kan. DENÉ DRYDEN

Despite the downtrends, local journalism still has a strong footing in some communities. For Kansas, over 220 news companies comprise the Kansas Press Association, with just a few of those publications reaching into interstate and national reportage; the rest work within a local lens.

Young journalists like Schroeder have faith in local news’ perseverance. They have faith not just in newspapers but in the persistence of storytelling and the community’s need for news. For reporters like her, that faith comes from the integral role of journalism in society and knowing that the most important stories are often the ones closest to home.

On the other end of the career-planning spectrum, Rafael Garcia knew he wanted to be a reporter early on. Hailing from a Mexican-American family in Emporia, Kansas, Garcia is a May 2019 graduate from Kansas State University. Despite his freshness in the professional world, he is no stranger to journalism. After starting a newspaper at his middle school and going on to be editor-in-chief of his high school paper for three years, Garcia ended up at K-State to study journalism. This is how I met him — as assistant news editor, he sat with me while editing my very first story for print. Later on, Garcia became editor-in-chief of the Kansas State Collegian; I was one of his managing editors for a semester.

The Manhattan Mercury, the city’s daily afternoon paper, picked up Garcia as a reporter right away in his final semester. Before he walked the stage at graduation, Garcia covered the city beat. By mid-summer, the education reporter position opened up, so he switched hats.

“I thought, when would I ever get the opportunity to cover my alma mater? It’s not just my alma mater — it’s also K-12 and surrounding education,” he said. “So I tally that up, it’s about 30 different schools.”

Though education is often seen as the heart of a community in smaller Kansas towns, like my hometown of Palco or in a place like Manhattan with a strong collegiate presence, Garcia said his role as an education reporter is becoming a rare thing to see.

“I’ve got one of the last education reporter jobs in the state,” he said. “Even the Wichita Eagle, they no longer have an education reporter. Bigger publications, such as the Kansas City Star, they still have a dedicated person, but it’s a dedicated person covering all education matters in their metro area, K-12 and their higher education. So they are a lot busier than I am.”

 Education reporter Rafael Garcia stands in the Manhattan Mercury lobby in Manhattan, Kan. Behind him: posters of recent 313 Magazine covers, which the staff of the Mercury creates. DENÉ DRYDEN

Before the advent of social media, local press somewhat served as a community bulletin board, detailing upcoming events at schools like open houses, basketball games, band recitals. Now that parents and students can find that information on their school’s Facebook page, Garcia hunts for the stories beyond school board decisions and resigning administrators.

“Something that I did with the university, I wrote a feature on the marching band,” Garcia said. “While the marching band has had a pretty heavy social media presence, there wasn’t anything like a feature directly describing what band camp was like. It’s not necessarily heavyweight journalism there, it’s not holding anybody to account, it’s not featuring some in-depth issue that people need to be aware about. But it is something entertaining … and it does also build that sense of community.

What connects the pre-internet press and today’s reportage more than anything is the neverending story of us, people knowing people through the printed word.

“I think these feature stories humanize what people go through,” Garcia continued. “My favorite stories are those kinds of stories where I can show somebody overcoming some odds or facing some odds but staying optimistic in those scenarios.”

It is that feeling of humanity and knowing how your neighbors are faring that can be unique to smaller-scale, community-focused journalism. When I asked Garcia if he wanted to stay at the local reporting level, he said he wants to continue working as a journalist as long as he can. But factors like low pay and declining reporting positions nationwide could change that.

“I think some of the positions in journalism, they’re just as much about your skill and your drive as it is about luck and who you know, and I do know a few people, but that luck component is going to be a major factor in where I end up even in just five years,” he said. “It might be that, like a lot of other journalists, I end up taking a job outside of journalism like public relations or communications management. I want to be able to make a living, but with journalism where it is, it’s increasingly difficult.”

One hundred sixty miles away in Hutchinson, Schroeder shared similar thoughts.

“I read an article about how the average person goes through 11 different career paths in their lifetime,” Schroeder said. “I’m in one right now. Looking towards the future, it would be cool to stay in one career path, but if the average person goes through 11, then I don’t anticipate staying in one.”

Despite the overall downtrend in U.S. reporting jobs, there are always exceptions to the rule. I found one when I crossed paths with Emma Loura, part-time reporter for the St. Marys Star.

The St. Marys Star is published weekly. DENÉ DRYDEN

A few years ago, Loura’s family transplanted itself from Rhode Island to the Catholic-rooted town of St. Marys, Kansas, home to 2,600 people and St. Mary’s Academy and College. In 2017, her job at a bakery fell through, so she looked for another job. A woman she knew from high school suggested she apply to work for the newspaper. Loura said it didn’t appeal to her at first.

“Journalism? I do more of creative writing, fiction. It sounds boring,” Loura recalled. “But I thought, OK, you know, I’ll take a chance on it. It’s writing, it’s the only place in town that I can find a job writing something. I could probably be good at it. So I applied, and I did end up getting the job.

“It actually did start with a bit of desperation, I have to admit,” she added.

Balancing her part-time position at the St. Marys Star and her K-State classes, Loura typically covered community events and business news. Like Schroeder, Loura does not have an educational background in journalism (she earned an English degree in December), so starting out, she faced learning curves and criticism. St. Marys residents react to Loura’s reporting in different ways — amid the din of other conversations in the campus coffee shop I met Loura in, she told me how negative feedback from readers can affect how she views her work, especially on tight deadlines.

“I’m just perfectionist; I want to make sure that it’s a good article before sending it in,” Loura said. “I had somebody tell me that over the phone, because I asked her a question. She says, ‘Oh, I want nothing to do with the newspaper. Newspapers are dangerous. … By the way, your articles aren’t even that good.’ I just kind of got, like, what if I’m really not as good at my writing?”

But other community members compliment Loura’s work, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the press and local business she sees in St. Marys.

“It’s just keeping everybody informed about what’s going on in town,” she says. “I think it helps the businesses really, because if I write about what’s going on with the business, whether it’s the anniversary, whether it’s remodeling, it brings awareness, so people go check it out themselves.”

I checked it out myself. Days after chatting with Loura, my fiancé and I traveled to St. Marys for the second weekend of its annual Shakespeare Festival. As writers and students who’ve studied the bard, we immersed ourselves in this hodge-podge festival with its Catholic conservations, Americanized foods and Renaissance dress. The core aspect of the festival remained truly Shakespearean: an open-air performance of Twelfth Night, with St. Marys citizens as the actors, pushing and pulling the vernacular sounds of an older English, families watching from their soft seats of blanketed grass.

The festival is wrapped around the love of words, I realized. Words from the woman portraying Maria, gone as soon as they hit the air. Words from William Shakespeare, preserved posthumously. The words we say in greeting, in the exchange of goods, the “One, two, three, cheese!” from the young girls who ran a Polaroid booth.

It’s the words. It’s the stories, the histories. It’s our stories, our histories. Journalists are aggregators, sifters, collectors in their communities, compiling different stories onto a shared page.

As a member of a tight-knit community, Loura might continue collecting stories through her work in the press.

“This is one thing I’ve been considering doing in the future — maybe I could pursue journalism,” Loura said. “Maybe I could move on to a different publication. Because writing doesn’t have to be just me writing fiction, it could also be doing some freelance journalism.”

It’s unclear how American media at large will overcome its financial problems. In the Cascade Review, Don Varyu pinpoints the key cause of newspaper funding decline — as digital outlets for advertising opened up, advertisers began to turn away from print. With smaller revenue streams, newspapers cut back on staff, which limits the scope and depth of their coverage. The effects compound themselves into a downward slide.

For areas at risk of becoming news deserts, there is a glimmer of hope in a recent Knight/Gallup study: Americans are more likely to support their local paper if they know it is at risk of closing. In the study, 86% of percent of Americans say everyone should have access to local news, but only 20% financially supported a local news organization. The value for community-oriented, locally detailed journalism still exists. Teasing out the issue of funding is critical.

Varyu suggests calling upon Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s multi-billionaire CEO and owner of the Washington Post, to fund papers across the nation. But NeimanLab envisions a publicly funded future: A fledgling trend of local governments investing in community press could be how local press perseveres. New Jersey is moving toward this model with a public fund to invest in journalism, enacted by the Civic Info Bill.

Private versus public money garners split opinions from Americans. In that Knight/Gallup study, 60% opposed funding local news through local tax revenues, but nearly half believe small papers should be saved instead of being left to fail.

Either way, local newspapers face the issue of adapting to a changing country. Garcia recognized that small papers are in a tough spot.

“Right now, I don’t think the industry has a clear direction on how it’s going to adapt,” Garcia said. “I hope it’s for the better, but that remains to be seen.”

No matter what direction the future takes, Garcia knows journalism will never die.

“I think journalism is people, and people are stories. As long as there are people, there’s going to be stories to tell and somebody that needs to tell them,” he said.

Local media can focus in on close-to-home stories with an expertise influenced by that community, something national-scope publications can’t do as well. It’s stories like Garcia’s shortest report for the Mercury so far — a brief 80 words about how the city pool closed for the day because someone vomited in it.

“Those are fun,” Garcia said with a smile. “People like to know about that kind of stuff. People click on that stuff. It’s just rare, silly, absurd-type things.”

However, in places where small newspapers have shuttered, Garcia sees where rural flight seeps in.

“When these papers close,” he said, “they’re either parts of the cause or symptoms of overall rural decline, where people are just moving out or young professionals aren’t coming back in. Without that newspaper, it’s hard to have much a community. And when there’s not a sense of community, that’s when the towns, especially these small communities that rely on those connections, that’s when they start to fall apart.”

The community of Hutchinson is fighting the flight, a sentiment that is close to Schroeder’s heart. Though she is open to career paths beyond journalism, she pointed out a newspaper clipping pinned to the corkboard by her desk, an opinion column she penned titled “High Hopes for Hutch.”

“Hutch was hit very hard by the recession in 2008. A lot of jobs were lost, a lot of businesses closed down. People who live here, who lived here for a long time, remember how nice it was. … I don’t remember that, I wasn’t here. I moved here in August of 2018. I think it’s great,” she said with a laugh.

Schroeder smiled, listing out all the moving parts in Hutchinson’s thriving art scene: the art center, the symphony, the community theater. “If you literally just go outside and look for it, you can find it.

“So there is this grassroots effort here Hutch of people saying, ‘Step outside and look around at what a great town this is.’ And I’m one of them,” she continued, seeing her role as a community reporter as part of that revival.

Stories change — people move and grow, ecosystems deteriorate and birth new lands, businesses fold and successors emerge in those empty husks. Publications are just as subject to this change as anything else, with finances and staff in flux year by year. In a changing rural landscape, in the eyes of Kansans, stories are still there, important and resonant. The responsibility for preserving those tales is shifting to the 20-somethings like Loura, Schroeder and Garcia. These folks want to stay in journalism, but the futures of their community papers and their personal career paths are stories not yet on the page.

Emma Loura sits in the Radina’s Coffeehouse at the Kansas State University Student Union. She graduated in December 2019. DENÉ DRYDEN

Yet storytelling has staying power. It’s a basic service that communities demand.

“The value of community journalism is that it creates a better community on the whole; it’s one piece of that puzzle in order to create a healthy community,” Schroeder said.

The story of how the United States preserves local publications in a changing digital landscape is still in progress. For now, Loura, Schroeder and Garcia keep their practice alive, intimately listening for clues, transcribing stories first through their minds, then through the press on a ribbon of paper. Black ink first, then the pure colors, slick and bright on the sheet.


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The post Survival of the Storytellers appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

The Control of the Missouri Wed, 29 Jan 2020 18:25:56 +0000 A court ruling in 2018 shifted the future of America's longest river away from ecological restoration. But was the science behind its decision accurate?

The post The Control of the Missouri appeared first on The New Territory Magazine.

A court ruling in 2018 shifted the future of America’s longest river away from ecological restoration. But was the science behind its decision accurate? 

Scott Olson brought his plane down on Interstate 29 just north of the exit for Honey Creek, Iowa. Other than a riven black crack gaping along the center strip, the asphalt held. The rest of everything was empty: On both sides of an island of asphalt, a hell of water blew over cropland, half-submerged irrigation wells and grain bins cracked like eggs. For four miles ahead and six miles behind, the interstate was closed. Olson opened the cockpit door, releasing a wave of nicotine-laced air, and stepped out. A reporter tried not to vomit. “It looked like you needed some air,” Olson said, gazing out over the lost commerce. Olson, a registered Democrat who doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming, just successfully sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for causing floods like this. The case leaned heavily on controversial science. “Sad, isn’t it?”

Viewed from a plane, or on a physical map, it seems painfully obvious where you shouldn’t be farming. A valley floodplain looks like a dry river waiting to fill up. But the Missouri River valley is gargantuan. In places the floor is 18 miles wide. Once you enter it, you’re subject to various wetlands, scours, channels, chutes and oxbows such that it might be impossible to even reach the river. When it floods, river sludge washes out roads and all but liquefies the valley, making it literally beyond human reach. 

Olson’s farm and auction company, Lee Valley Enterprises, sits right on the Missouri River floodplain near Tekamah, Nebraska. As Olson brings his plane into the airport, you can see his row crops, like many farmers’ crops, stretching to the water’s edge. 

“It’s a land grab,” he said, referring vaguely to environmentalists. “They want all this land back to nature, and they’re using the Endangered Species Act to do what they’re doing to flood this land and take this land back away.”

In high school, instead of playing sports, Scott and his brother Randy would buy land for $1,000 an acre and farm it after class. In a few years, they’d make enough money to buy more acreage, and a little more. Now, four decades later, they own 3,000 acres. Among their tools are a Rogator chemical dumper, a 31-row John Deere that plants eight acres in one shot, and a 14-yard sediment scraper that, when hitched behind a tractor, drags silt and sediment to regrade land scoured in floods. 

Ten years ago, Olson said, the river changed. The Missouri flooded valley farmers between Omaha, Nebraska, and St. Joseph, Missouri, in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, making farming virtually untenable in the most fertile land in hundreds of miles. On March 5, 2014, Olson and 371 other plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit called Ideker Farms, Inc. v. The United States, named for lead plaintiff Roger Ideker, blaming the Corps for causing those floods. Their case is that the Corps, under pressure from environmentalists, de-engineered the river, breaking down a carefully constructed gutter in order to save endangered species. 

The case pitted two titans — Big Ag and the world’s most powerful civil engineering organization — in a fight for the future of Missouri River management. Had the Corps won, it could have begun transforming the Missouri from the continent’s largest ditch to a more natural waterway. It didn’t. 

The case, in the briefest non-technical terms possible, rested on what happens to dirt and sand in the river. Since 2004, the Corps has been restoring segments of riverbank to its floodplain, carving away edges from the 800-mile-long ditch to recreate diverse river depths and speeds and thereby diverse habitat for endangered species. It’s a small step in what’s necessary to save a fraction of the wildlife devastated by the past century of alterations for the benefit of agriculture and barge traffic. 

Farmers believe the sediment carved off the river walls has settled at the river bottom, creating a hydraulic speed bump, raising the riverbed and causing the river to flood with less water. The Corps argues that that doesn’t make any sense. Muddying the scientific waters, both sides forewent actual field data in court in favor of firing computer models of river hydrology at each other, basically predicting through programs what was happening to the Missouri. In February 2018, Judge Nancy Firestone ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that, except for the historic flood of 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers is liable for the floods. The ongoing case, so enormous and sluggish that it’s largely escaped media attention, has moved on to Phase II, where Judge Firestone will determine how much the Corps owes each plaintiff.

Scott Olson works on his airplane. ROBERT LANGELLIER

From a park abutting Olson’s land, he can see Deer Island, a two-mile-long strip of river that is one of the Corps’ prize reengineering projects at the center of Ideker. From a channelized bank, the Corps dug out a side chute and numerous sandbars in the river. For the Corps, it’s an Endangered Species Act-compliant strip of watery land. For farmers, it’s a flood risk, slowing the water down on its way to the Mississippi. “Whatever they release up north has to go south, and it can’t flow through to the south as fast as what it should,” Olson said. “It’s like plugging half the bathtub drain.”

The pallid sturgeon, as much as anyone in the Army Corps, launched this whole dispute. The pallid sturgeon is a sort of ghost-dinosaur fish, a 70-million-year-old myopic apex predator from the Jurassic that lurks at the bottom of the Missouri River. It wears body armor, its nose looks like a shovel, its whiskers are long and fleshy, and its mouth works like a vacuum cleaner. It has struggled to reproduce for the past 50 years. A hatchery in Yankton, South Dakota, helps keep the species on life support. 

“They evolved in this big sand-based river,” said Gerald Mestl, a former fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “They were totally suited for the environment they lived in. They have very little eyes. They don’t need their eyes to feed in the Big Muddy. It was a very turbid system.”

The pallid sturgeon was listed as the Missouri’s only federally endangered fish in 1990, creating an existential and legal challenge for the Corps. The whole goal of the engineered Missouri — a deep and fast ditch — is antithetical to the fish’s existence.

There is significant evidence in favor of Olson and the farmers. In 2009 alone, for example, the Army Corps dumped 4.8 million tons of sediment from restoration works into the river over a 100-mile stretch. That’s the equivalent of dropping the Great Pyramid of Giza into the Missouri River. In addition, half of the highest flood levels recorded in the plaintiffs’ stretch (the Missouri River from Bismarck, North Dakota to Kansas City, Missouri) have occurred since 2006 in counties where the Corps has done river restoration. As of 2014, the Corps had performed 1,697 dike notches, 63 dike lowerings, 39 side-channel chute actions, 20 revetment chute actions, 14 backwater actions and three channel-widening actions. In the early 2000s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to force the Corps to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Corps resisted for years, fearing it would increase flooding. 

So a case that lasted four years leaned on one tenet. A question so apparently simple as “What happens to dirt in the water?” is now worth $300 million, the future of a river and a 70-million-year-old fish. 

To understand how river sedimentation works, you might first ask the man whose livelihood depends on it.

Steve Engemann of Hermann Sand & Gravel stands in front of one of his company’s barges. ROBERT LANGELLIER

Hermann Sand & Gravel, located at the end of a mile-long dirt river road, is the smallest of five dredging companies on the Missouri River. The ground itself at Hermann Sand & Gravel is eponymous, at the center of which rises an elevated brown double-wide office that looks very much like a drought-beached barge. 

Steve Engemann, a barge captain and dredger with kind, drooping eyes, runs the company. His dredge lowers a 12-inch suction pipe to the bottom, sucks up 300,000 tons of sand a year, and takes them to land for sorting. Engemann and his family have pulled up sand from the same site since 1978, which begs the question of how he hasn’t dug a hole to China by now. 

Imagine a sand dune in the desert, he said. Imagine sand blowing off the top of a dune, and over an extended time-lapse, the dunes would move across the desert like ocean waves. The Missouri River works similarly. On its bottom, tiny sand dunes flow downriver, only instead of wind currents moving them, it’s water currents. 

“When we dredge, there’s this alluvial flow of sediment that’s moving through the system,” he said. “If we did no dredging on the Missouri River, 14 million tons of sand would go to St. Louis. So the river is going to move it through the system whether we take it or not. That’s hard for people to understand, but that’s the design of the Missouri River. It’s like a conveyor belt for sand. It’s a self-scouring river. You can’t out-dredge it. It keeps filling in.”

So if Engemann’s boat sucks out 10,000 tons of sand in a week, he simply floats it a couple hundred feet upriver and waits a week for the hole to fill itself in. And then he starts over.

In the 20th century, America built the continent’s largest reservoir system on the Missouri River. Combined with the channelized riverbed below it, it is the largest single engineering project in the U.S. It makes the Panama Canal look small. Dams receive and regulate half of all the water flowing down the Missouri to the Mississippi, mostly in the Dakotas and Montana. The lower half is left to the vagaries of climate, sending forth as much water as God chooses. In early March 2019, the Great Plains northwest of St. Joseph were still impermeably frozen from a hard winter. 

Starting on March 12, a record-shattering quantity of rain fell onto a parking lot the size of western Europe, which flushed every drop of it, 11 million acre-feet, into Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri. The Niobrara, a tributary, blew its Spencer Dam to oblivion, dumping tons of river ice, buildings and sheet metal into the Missouri’s Gavins Point Dam. Where the Platte River meets the Missouri in the Omaha suburbs, a rush of water blasted through the levees, carving out 62 feet of earth four football fields long. Three people died in the March floods, and hundreds of farmers were inundated by levee breaks, overtoppings and seepages. According to the decision in Ideker v. the United States, all of that was the fault of the man about to take questions. 

In Nebraska City, John Remus, chief of the Army Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division, stood before nearly 200 Nebraska and Iowa farmers filing in to confront him, ready to tell them he would flood them again, and soon. In the room was a lot of camo, some of it military, and armed police. Representatives from Sen. Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst and Ben Sasse shuffled through notes.

One by one, farmers berated Remus, who did his best to defend the Corps’ actions. Donette Jackson stood up first:

“The launch of the (restoration) project marks the moment Corps ceased to be an organization dedicated to flood control and became instead an extension of the environmentalists through the Fish and Wildlife Service. The dam system’s design of flood control has been repurposed to serve an environmentalistic dream of an untamed river, to reclaim the floodplain.”

The meeting’s intensity built with each speaker. Finally, a man stood up in the crowd, visibly shaking, demanding to know why the Corps didn’t warn farmers that the Platte would flood. 

“That is, uh, a Weather Service forecast,” Remus said, turning to a portly National Weather Service bureaucrat accompanying him, who stepped up.

“It’s a good question,” the man said. “The way we come up with the outlooks is we run 34 years of precipitation and 34 years of temperatures per model. So we go from, if I get my math right, 1979 to 2012. We run those historic temperatures and precips through our model for about 30 days. We run those 34 years of precipitation, 34 years of temperatures through. That gives us 34 hydrographs, 34 possible outcomes over the next nine days. And we rank those crests that come from those 34 events. And what happened in March, I would wager we probably had a 5% chance of having major flooding. There’s always a chance that we would see a major flood on the Platte. But it wasn’t a 50% chance, and that’s when we mark it. I hope that answers your question.” 

“Maybe it’s time you put the computer away and look at what’s going on!” a woman yelled, the audience erupting in clapping behind her.

For the farmers, this is the Army Corps standing at the altar and making a science-based argument to the faithful. This is the lived experience versus the statistic, anecdote versus science — in a way, an encapsulation of the lawsuit. 

Scott Olson, who drove down from Tekamah, stood and took the mic at the front of the room.

“I went down the river on the other side and came back on the other side. I stopped in Rock Port, Missouri, on Monday afternoon. I was the only person there. The only person there,” he said, choking up. Rock Port saw some of the worst of the flooding. “Sorry. Just think of the commerce that — ” He paused, emotional. “Argh. Think of the commerce that is lost, the dollars. You guys have all seen pictures of the grain bins. You guys have got grain bins like that. The corn’s gone. The soybeans are gone. The homes are gone. Feed’s gone.” 

In one of the back rows of the room, Marian Maas, a Nebraska Wildlife Federation board member with distressed gray hair, sat quietly. 

Repair work being done on a flooded section of I-29. ROBERT LANGELLIER

“They’re hard decisions,” Remus told me afterward. “That’s why Congress is asking us to make those decisions. And we should not shrink from that responsibility. Even if it means we may be sued or we might get yelled at in a meeting, our job is to make those decisions. If there’s liability, if there’s court cases, if there’s media fallout and public resentment, that’s part of the job.”

Since its conception as a civil defense engineering force under George Washington, the Corps of Engineers swelled to gargantuan 20th-century proportions, redesigning rivers through dams and channelization projects nationwide. A few top-ranking colonels and generals wear fatigues, but most are bureaucrats and engineers benefitting from military-level authority. In the 1940s, preempting the rise of a Missouri Valley Authority that would keep the Missouri in regional hands, the Army Corps coupled with its western counterpart, the Bureau of Reclamation, to propose an unprecedented federal flood control project consisting of dams and channelization structures that would simultaneously create new riverbank land for agricultural development; open the Missouri to barge traffic all the way to Sioux City, Iowa; welcome Montana into the agriculture belt with massive irrigation projects; and prevent floods almost entirely. 

New land was indeed created, at the expense of a nearly equal amount of vitally important Native American land in the Dakotas now under the reservoirs. The barge traffic never materialized. Montana soil didn’t support crops en masse, and the flooding speaks for itself. The project wasn’t fully complete until 1981, and 37 years later, the project’s main function has seemingly fallen apart. The Army Corps, in establishing control over the Missouri River, has also absorbed the blame for everything that goes wrong with it. 

Valley farmers in Nebraska City demand that the Corps do something impossible: Control the Missouri River. And they claim that the Corps promised to do just that. By creating hundreds of thousands of acres of new land and assuring farmers it was safe to cultivate, the Corps made thousands of friends. Now that the bill for that massive movement of land is due, the Corps is finding it much easier to give than to take. 

In 2004 a Minnesota judge, addressing a barrage of lawsuits against the Corps, asserted that the Corps had to comply with both the Flood Control Act and the Endangered Species Act. After years as environmentalists’ No. 1 enemy, the Corps was legally bound to become their ally. The court curiously recognized following both laws was mutually exclusive. Preventing floods hurts wildlife. Saving wildlife causes floods. The Corps, unable to do both, would have to try.

That year, the Corps released a new Master Manual, the Bible of Corps river operations. The previous 1979 Master Manual dictated the Corp’s hierarchy of authorized purposes as flood control followed by everything else. In the new Manual, flood control joined the long list of authorized purposes, with fully one-third of the rest of its vocational paragraph dedicated to the last item: fish and wildlife. A few years later, the valley began flooding.

Marian Maas can’t get to her property. Hamburg Bend, near Hamburg, Iowa, is another of the Corps’ major recovery projects. A straw of an engineered side-channel siphons off part of the river, slowing it down and creating dense habitat. Nearby, in the flooded town of Hamburg, piles of furniture outside each home are speckled with children’s toys. Between the town and the river, Maas spent 22 years restoring a prairie-wetland ecosystem on her property as a place where wounded military veterans could come for therapeutic stays. Suddenly it was buried under water and tons of Platte sediment. 

A lifelong environmentalist, Maas was in a bind. On one hand, she lobbies for ecological improvements on the river. An early 2000s study by the National Research Council determined that immediate and large-scale restoration was necessary to save the Missouri River as a wildlife corridor. On the other hand, doing so puts her land and her retirement dream at risk. “We do walk the walk,” she said. “I haven’t reconciled myself to it yet. We put so much time and work into it.” 

Maas and other environmentalists are the humblest voices raging on the river. They find themselves in the position of receiving blame for a flooding river while feeling like they’ve accomplished only a fraction of their goal. To them it’s correlation without causation. Their river improvements have been marginal, leaving no significant legacy on the river, upstream or downstream. When the Army Corps channelized the lower third of the Missouri, the river lost nearly the size of Rhode Island in riparian habitat. In 1999, the Corps received authority to purchase one-third of that lost habitat from willing sellers. As of 2009, Corps had acquired one-third of that one-third. It hasn’t acquired much since, and its latest Missouri River plan specifically deprioritizes habitat restoration and land acquisition. 

Robb Jacobson is a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Society in Columbia, Missouri. He speaks carefully and winces at a misrepresented fact. Jacobson been working on cases related to Missouri River sedimentation for decades. 

“I think (the Ideker decision) was based on faulty testimony,” he said. “In the sense that it was a scientific argument that was presented by their expert witnesses, I’d say it was faulty or incomplete.”

There’s a difference between science and court science, he said. The Corps’ witnesses were solid engineers but likely dry and unconvincing onstage. The farmers’ argument that the riverbank was eroding into the riverbed and increasing flood potential felt convincing. 

But Jacobson pulled out a graph from a study he did in 2009, a few years after the floods began. It shows that the Missouri River is actually doing what the Army Corps designed it to do: degrade. The channel pushes sediment downriver on its own accord, lowering the riverbed over time, not raising it. Except in one 150-mile stretch, where it doesn’t: the stretch from Omaha to St. Joseph, where, coincidentally, the vast majority of Ideker plaintiffs live. So Scott Olson and the plaintiffs were correct all along. The riverbed is rising where they live. But why? 

Jacobson poses his explanation carefully. The farmers’ blaming the ecological restoration is flawed, he said. Even if the banks eroded into the riverbed and not a single particle went downstream as designed, the river’s container would be the same. It would be shaped different, less like a U than a parenthetical turned on its side, but it would carry the same water.

But Scott Olson’s land still flooded. A theory of river containers doesn’t explain why.

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The real reason why the river is destroying farmers’ lives, Jacobson said, lies in the way the Army Corps designed the river 80 years ago. The Missouri River is a sand-based river. As long as it doesn’t flood, it shuttles sand downriver to Steve Engemann’s dredging boat in Hermann as planned. But when it floods, the suspended sediment follows the overtopping floodwaters and hits riverside vegetation. The water carries on, but the sand drops. When the water recedes, the banks are higher and narrower. Eventually, the river channel rises and pinches. Hold up two fingers in a V and move them closer together. The narrower V floods with less water.

This happens with every single flood. In other words, every flood on the Missouri increases the likelihood of future floods. Remember that Egyptian Pyramid’s worth of sediment the Army Corps dumped into the Missouri? The Platte River, by far the Missouri’s thickest tributary, delivers more than twice that much sand and silt every year. That’s enough to make a difference in bed height. Most Ideker plaintiffs live within 100 miles downstream of Plattsmouth, Nebraska — the only stretch of the Missouri where the bed is significantly rising. 

Couple that with increasing rainfall in the Missouri River basin since the mid-1990s, as Jacobson showed me in another graph, and you have a decade of flood disaster that will only get worse. Climate models suggest even more rain in coming decades. 

The Corps didn’t want to say all this in court, perhaps because they would still be liable. The Corps is responsible for flooding Scott Olson’s land, just not for the reasons he claims. By not admitting that, the Corps allowed the prevailing narrative of the case to be that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ecological restoration are to blame. When the Corps lost, they may have damned the pallid sturgeon to extinction.

The solution, Jacobson said, feels stunningly simple: Move the levees back. In the river’s original design, which included the dams and channelization, the river would have at least a 3,000-foot berth. In many places today, it’s a 600-foot berth. Farmers took every scrap of land available, sowing all the way up to the bank. “The grand bargain would be, to the ag community, yeah, they’re going to take a bunch of land,” he said. “You’ll be compensated for it. But they’ll build a federal levee with a floodway.”

The battle for control of the Missouri is a question of scale. At the scale of human history, the scale we’ve been taught to empathize with, the farmers’ case is undeniably moving. In the world of human history, their mothers’ and fathers’ land, the land they used to fish from as kids, the land that has put dinner on their tables their entire lives, the only land they’ve ever known, is disappearing under their eyes. People working for the government promised to take care of them, and they aren’t. This is all true. But then you have the other scale, the one we’ve only this century begun to consider: the scale of natural history. In that world, you have an apex predator that was practically intelligently designed for a lazy, turbid river, one that has survived there 700,000 times longer than valley farmers, through 25 geologic ages, that is being chucked into oblivion so that we can make the Missouri River flood even worse than it already did.

“Any time you have a catastrophe like this year’s flooding, you have that window of opportunity where maybe people start to think about alternative ways of living and making your living out of your land,” says Jacobson. Maybe they’ll give up fighting the river and say it’s not worth it after all these years.

Scott Olson at his farm in Tekamah, Nebraska. ROBERT LANGELLIER

On his way home, Scott Olson stopped at a gas station restaurant in Tekamah for lunch. He said hi to every person there, each of whom knows his name. Art, a Mexican immigrant with a long face, dragged in.

Scott: Not much of a line at the Cargill, is there?
Art: Nothin’.
Scott: Just roll her on through. They’ve got, what, a nickel over?
Art: I think so. Yup.
Scott: They’re needing corn real bad, aren’t they?
Art: Yeah.
Scott: Yeah, they’re gonna lose a lot of next year’s crop. Next year they’ll be looking for some grain.
Art: Well, they better give me something. I gotta make one more load, I hope.
Scott: Good luck. Give ‘em hell. 

Another farmer chimed in: “I was hoping to maybe do something once I could start getting in the field, but I don’t know. I think I kind of lost hope on that.”

Leaving the restaurant, Olson detoured to check out his riverfront property, which remains unplanted and deeply scoured.

“This river should not be this way,” he said. “It has not been in the past. Why are we now having these problems if not but for what the Corps is doing to it? It’s a changed river. It’s no longer flood control, it’s all birds and fish.”

“If not but for” is a legal term that qualifies fault in a takings case. Olson has internalized, in his everyday speech, a legal mantra that pins the blame for his loss on someone else. And who can blame him? His anger is real, and his father’s legacy on the floodplain is legitimate. His son Blaine just moved home from college and is working full-time on the farm with no intention of doing anything in life but carrying on his father’s work. For him, Jacobson’s simple answer of buying the levees backward doesn’t replace his livelihood. 

“Look at the number of dollars that comes out of all this,” he said, indicating farmland on the west side of a road. “We pay taxes, we buy seed, we buy pickups, we buy food. If we’re all gone, there’s no taxes on this. There’s nothing that comes out of this. I read an article a while back that says every acre of wildlife is worth $10,000 an acre. No. You take one acre of corn. If that acre of corn can produce $200-300 for that acre, it pays for the taxes, it goes to the schools, it goes up and down Main Street America, it buys groceries, boots, clothes, pickups. The money is spent. You take 10 acres of this stuff,” he said, indicating wetland to the east, “Who’s making any money? If the government owns it, there’s no taxes on it. There’s no jobs. I mean, there’s nothing there, is there?

“We can either build our lives like we’ve been doing, support and be part of and contribute to. Or we can walk away and let shit die.”

When Olson talks about the price of corn at the Cargill plant, or the lost dollars in the flooded town of Rock Port, Missouri, he’s not talking about the greed of Big Ag. He’s talking about Tekamah, Nebraska, about a land that can still be plowed, tamed and loved. In the evening, Olson closes the shop and heads down the road, turning west up a hill that climbs the valley wall toward a house. From it, Olson can see the Loess Hills of Iowa rising miles away. The son of one of the men at the restaurant helped Olson build that home, using local materials. It looks out over Olson’s corn and soybeans with the poise of a house safe from harm.

Editor’s note: On January 30, 2020, we modified quotes for accuracy and clarity.


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Here: Oark, Arkansas Thu, 15 Aug 2019 16:01:04 +0000 Making Places Personal. BY ALICE DRIVER | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 06 Within a hundred-mile radius of our house in Oark, Arkansas, you can find industrial pig and chicken farms, places where flesh is only measured in weight, where a half-dead but artificially fattened animal is the norm. Driving down the switchback Ozark Mountain roads, we often pass […]

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Making Places Personal.

Within a hundred-mile radius of our house in Oark, Arkansas, you can find industrial pig and chicken farms, places where flesh is only measured in weight, where a half-dead but artificially fattened animal is the norm. Driving down the switchback Ozark Mountain roads, we often pass semi-trailers full of chickens, their bodies pressed together so tightly that it looks like they will suffocate. When those birds arrived at the Clarksville plant, a line of mostly Mexican workers would rip their innards out, would rip and rip and rip them out for so many days and hours that eventually their nails would become infected, their hands swollen, their joints stiff. In recent years, Tyson, the main chicken-processing company in the state, has replaced Mexicans with Burmese, who proved to be cheaper labor given the desperate situation in Myanmar. As the local Clarksville newspaper reported in June 2013, “The sudden Myanmarese population boom started more than two years ago when management at the Tyson chicken rendering plant in Clarksville hired a Myanmarese recruiter to help address problems with turnover and chronic absenteeism.”

My mom spent time volunteering with the Burmese community in Clarksville, a town 45 minutes from our house. The town of some 10,000 is home to 300 Burmese refugees of the persecuted Karen ethnic minority. They are 8,614 miles from home, and most of them don’t speak English. My mom helped Ler Pwe Paw, the daughter of one family, get the necessary official documents to enroll in high school. “The extended family bought a house, moved in and were doing well with most members working at Tyson, a fate I hoped to help my high schooler avoid,” said my mom.

In a 2013 letter, my mom wrote me, “I am working to get my new Burmese daughters acclimated to life in Clarksville. The 17-year-old is going to start 10th grade and she has almost no English skills. I asked about her clothing situation. She went to Walmart (where else is there?) and things were too big, too long and not colors she liked. She and her sister wear wrapped skirts and loose tops and flip flops, but winter is going to come, and they will need real clothes. I think the one going to high school needs to have the trappings of belonging as much as possible.” I wondered what future would await these daughters, and if they would be able to escape their destiny processing chicken parts. Strife and commercialism collide in global flows, bringing together unlikely pairs like the Myanmarese and Tyson.


The New Territory is a 112-page, full-color, longform magazine published periodically by and for Midwesterners.

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Issue 05 Review: Find Your Medicine And Use It Mon, 10 Jun 2019 19:39:49 +0000 Find Your Medicine And Use It Nahko and Medicine for the People: A band with music so sunny it could change your outlook Review by Jorge Kryzyzaniak Last year, I couldn’t make it to the Mountain Jam Festival, at Hunter Mountain in New York. But I also couldn’t miss out on hearing some of my […]

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Find Your Medicine And Use It

Nahko and Medicine for the People: A band with music so sunny it could change your outlook

Review by Jorge Kryzyzaniak

Last year, I couldn’t make it to the Mountain Jam Festival, at Hunter Mountain in New York. But I also couldn’t miss out on hearing some of my favorite bands perform, so I faithfully tuned in to XM radio to listen to as much as I could. One day, happily leaving work, I tuned in just in time to catch the end of a set from a band I’d never heard of before. Goosebumps rose over my body instantly as the voice sunk into me, and the refrain to “Manifesto” came again and again — slowly and with no musical accompaniment. It was a resounding message, led by a single voice, and then picked up by a crowd of thousands so moved that they refused to stop repeating it. The music filled the entire space within my car and I felt like I was there, rocking back and forth in a crowd of a few thousand friends, raising our voices and our energy back toward this band that had instantly summed up the philosophy we were going to need to navigate the time we’re living in. The words were at once seared into my memory, and I rushed home to type them into my magical internet machine. From its speakers, the words came once more:

Don’t waste your hate, Rather gather and create. Be of service. Be a sensible person. Use your words and don’t be nervous. You can do this, you’ve got purpose. Find your medicine and use it.

I’ve been suggesting music in The New Territory for a year, and I like to think I haven’t steered you wrong yet. So, this time, I’m making a departure from my usual review writing. Trust me as we head off in this new direction together. I’m not writing about musicians in your hometown, or a wunderkind you might find strumming a banjolele in your local deli. I’m not even going to tell you about a band from the Midwest. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a seven-piece, world-traveling band from Oregon that’s going to become important to the Midwest this year. And because I feel like I already know you, I think you’re going to like them.

The band behind “Manifesto” is Nahko and Medicine for the People, and they’re about to become your favorite band. Their music is going to remind you of how you’re supposed to feel inside. And tomorrow, you’re going to feel a little better.

Those first words I heard from Nahko’s “Manifesto” have been important to me, and I think, right now, you could probably use them too. They’re words that have sunk in with my five-year-old son, and when I hear him singing them, I feel proud and hopeful for the future. These days, we don’t often get to feel this way.
And in music, we’re bombarded with mechanical tracks, or lyrics wherein musicians brag about their status as money-makers and lovers, or we’re trying to relate to the woes of singers dissatisfied with life, love, and themselves. And that’s fine — it is important to remember we aren’t alone in these bits of the human experience. But there’s more in this life that’s good. This year, I want all of you to feel good, and to radiate to everyone you meet that such goodness is possible.

[col2 ]Here’s music that delivers the social consciousness of Ben Harper or Michael Franti but with the most positive self-reflection towards the topics. Frontman Nahko Bear is upfront with himself about his shortcomings, but he sings as much about forgiving himself as he does about forgiving others. He inspires his listeners — and himself — to be aggressive about moving forward. With his lyrics, he asks if we’re doing enough to be the best possible contribution to the earth and to the rest of the human race. Then, Nahko and the band put their energy behind legitimate causes and actually create some change. They’re using what fame they’ve already garnered to raise awareness and support for organizations they believe in — groups that support Native American rights, mindful environmental stewardship, and music education.
And while the messages of the music are important, the songs themselves aren’t overwrought — they’re downright fun. Nahko Bear drives many of his rhythms with his acoustic guitar, similar to G. Love, Jack Johnson, or Dave Matthews. The rest of the band, Medicine for the People, moves us with bass lines and horn jams funky enough to make booties shake. Beats alternate between smooth and rowdy, making you bounce along to percussion heavily influenced by tribal music. And even as we dance joyfully, Chase Makai’s 12-string acoustic and Tim Snider’s violin soothe our souls.[/col2][col2 ][/col2]

Nahko considers himself a world citizen, and the influence of his travels stands out in his music. His style visits upon the complexities of his heritage. Musically and lyrically, there is this clear homage to his roots that reach into a bloodline that’s part Apache, part Puerto Rican, and part Filipino. The influences of Hawaii, where he’s lived and has a farm, run deep. His lyrics move through beautiful juxtapositions; between quick delivery and slow melody, or between soft reflection and aggressive vows of self-development or forgiveness. His tongue moves fast, and he drops brilliant, rapid-fire rhyme schemes between measures of smooth, slow melodies.

In mere seconds, Nahko delivers the lines of “Make a Change” with an incendiary cadence. In that time I prioritize and point myself toward making changes of my own.

The clock is tickin’, I can hear it through the static
Now I’m not being dramatic, enemies don’t sleep
In fact some aren’t human and that’s hard to believe
‘Cause I’m such a visual person, my third eye don’t lie
He’s a wise guy inside, even fooled himself twice
Thinking maybe I’m not ready to be leading the way
I mean, fuck, I’m only human, bound to make some mistakes
An earthquake took place within my lifetime of fear
I hear this too shall pass, the beginning is near.

It’s sunny music. You may have to prepare your mind for joy and positivity before delving into it because generally, we’re busy and we’re isolated from each other and from everything real. We just aren’t used to feeling good anymore. In the digital age, we need something more tactile. We’ve cultivated too much stress through the screens of our TVs, computers, and smart phones.

Like many in the midwest, you probably celebrate a personal tie to the land you’re on. It’s okay that in the middle of the day, when you’re in your office, all you want to do is kick off your shoes and walk in real dirt and feel warm sunshine on your skin, or you want to be out with your friends, laughing and loving. And that’s how I know Nahko and Medicine for the People is going to resonate with you deeply in much the same way.

It’s more than just feel-good music for the sake of feel-good music. It feels good because it is the sound of coming together with the earth, with history, and with the people around you.
When Nahko and Medicine for the People come around on tour, go see them. They’re going to hit you with “Dark of Night,” and you’re going to grab onto the hips of your significant other and sway to its rhythm at dusk on a lush lawn at some beautiful outdoor venue on an exquisite Midwestern night. And you’re going to remember this review, and you’re going to say, “Jorge was right.”

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