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  • Palma Joy Strand

The Power of “Both-And” Stories


In our civity work, we have discovered the power of “both-and” stories.


Both-and stories portray people as multi-faceted, as not simply one thing or another. By introducing complexity or even contradiction into narratives about who or how people are, both-and stories counter the single-story stereotypes that seduce us into compartmentalizing and marginalizing other human beings.


This summer, I listened to Crooked Media’s podcast “This Land” about the current U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Muscogee Creek Tribe and the State of Oklahoma. I also attended a screening of the documentary film “Sousa on the Rez” at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC.


Growing up White, I heard mostly “trope” stories about American Indians. These familiar stories feature Native people primarily as supporting actors who appear briefly in the play of our national history and then exit after a few lines.


In the next round of stories I became aware of, members of different tribes took center stage – but primarily as victims of violence and oppression. The Trail of Tears, the Dakota 38 who were hanged at Mankato, the massacre at Wounded Knee – these stories challenge the dominant narratives of Manifest Destiny and of the lawful homesteading and settlement of the United States by people of European descent. Yet in their own way, these stories also one-dimensionalize the American Indian experience.


In contrast, “This Land” and “Sousa on the Rez” offer both-and stories, and these both-and stories invite us into the complexity of Native life, which sets the stage for empathy – and for civity.


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“This Land” is written and narrated by journalist Rebecca Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, one of the Five Tribes removed from their original homelands in the southeastern United States over 150 years ago. The Trail of Tears, a brutal enforced march westward, brought these tribes to reservations in Indian Territory, now the State of Oklahoma.


Though the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1832 that the State of Georgia had no right to impinge on reservation lands surrounded by that state, President Andrew Jackson’s famous line about Chief Justice John Marshall summarized a lack of concern for both Indians and the rule of law: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”


The Federal government’s physical dispossession of Indian land in the southeast in the early 1800s was followed in the late 1800s and early 1900s by its bureaucratic dispossession of Indian land through allotment in Oklahoma (and elsewhere). As a result of allotment, vast amounts of tribal land were transferred to private White ownership.


“This Land” delves into this history as background to a case currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court: Carpenter v. Murphy. Murphy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, murdered George Jacobs, also a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Though Murphy was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the State of Oklahoma, it turns out that the place where the killing took place lies within the Muscogee Creek Nation’s historic reservation.


The question for the U.S. Supreme Court now is whether that reservation still exists. If it does, then the federal government and the Muscogee Creek Nation, which has no death penalty, are responsible for justice in the case. If not, then the State of Oklahoma has sovereignty and Murphy’s conviction and death sentence stand.


The story of the dispossession of Indian land dominates “This Land.” Yet the overall story Nagle tells is one of resourcefulness, of persistence, of survival. In Episode 3, “The Opposition,” Nagle highlights how the tribe’s lawyers, as well as pleading the law, must also refute pervasive stereotypes of tribal ineffectiveness. She offers the tangible counterexample of an essential community health center run by the Muscogee Creek Nation, which serves both Native and non-Native residents. And she pointedly observes that the State of Oklahoma does not need to make the case for its ability to govern, even though recent beyond-the-bone tax cuts in the State have led to measures such as some public school districts moving to four-day-a-week instruction.


A story of stressed Native sovereignty turns out to also be a story of Native competence and generosity.


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My father grew up in the Iowa of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” and he had a deep and abiding love of John Phillip Sousa marches. “Sousa on the Rez” promised – and delivered – a much different story.


A painful chapter in U.S. history is the forced separation of Native children from their parents, tribes, and homelands and their enrollment in the infamous Indian Schools. The Indian School at Carlisle, PA, is well-known; others – such as the Indian School at Genoa, NE, in what was once Pawnee Country – are less familiar. In all of these schools, Native children were taught English and White American ways. In all of these schools, Native children were punished for speaking their own languages and practicing their own traditions.


In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the heyday of Indian schools, pop musicians and music were brass bands and Sousa marches. In place of Native instruments and music, children at the Indian schools were given trumpets, trombones, and hand-me-down military uniforms, and they were taught to march and play band music.


Indian bands, often led by graduates of these school bands, toured the country. Members of these bands wore iconic feather headdresses along with standard band uniforms. These bands played Native as well as Sousa tunes. Though band music was intended to suppress and replace Indian-ness, these bands became a way to affirm Indian identity – so much so that to this day community Indian bands continue to thrive in various parts of the country.


A story of oppression turns out to also be a story of agency and creativity, of resistance and resilience.


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We all have both-and stories. The complexity and contradictions featured in both-and stories are an essential part of being human: We are all both strong and weak; we all experience both success and defeat. Both-and stories about other people remind us of their humanity, call us to empathy, and lay a path toward civity.

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