THE LINE THAT DIVIDES USNATIO
The boundary between East and West Germany was marked by a wall (like Trump’s plan for a wall against Mexico) that was far more drastic and horrifying than the surveyor’s boundary between the US and Canada across the prairies, barely enforced until recently. The choice of the 49th parallel instead of the more usual river or mountain range was partly because in early days Western Canada wasn’t even a country yet, just a kind of mercantile fiefdom that finally had to be brought under control by “Mounties” because of booze, etc.
In the US we are just beginning to realize that the cultural boundary between the North and the South has managed to persist and become a potent force in our lives through politics, even though we can’t really tell where the edge is or how to manage it. These divisions affect religion, so the Southern Baptist church next to me has picked up on a culture quite different from laissez faire rural extended families and now wants to impose their own 19th century righteousness, namely by cutting boughs off the big cottonwood tree on my southern boundary. (Someone has also thrown herbicide at the foot of it, killing part of the trunk.) Now the town wants to control cats. But no one seems able to define or control the outlaws who take cover here. It’s a culture dilemma.
In the Unitarian world, which originally took root in New England, the educated banking big shots financed the resource development here in Montana. Then when the copper and aluminum were gone, the movement withered into fellowships more like clubs than churches. At the same time the denomination, also shrinking, became “Democrats Lite”, because politics with a progressive edge were so much more exciting. That’s also when, as I complain, theology became therapy. Minorities and ladies began to do the work but the old white guys, as usual, tried to keep control.
A split between the American UUA and the Canadian CUC had always been present and it turned into secession. This happened in 2003 after I was in Valier and far from Unitarian concerns, but Mark Morrison-Reed, married to a Canadian and with a sophisticated world focus instead of an obsession with the Stars and Stripes, stepped into the breach. Thanks to Google I was able to summon up several explanations about what happened. I knew the cast of characters partly through the PNWD which included Western Canada and partly because of the two years in Saskatoon. I’m grateful not to have been involved.
More than that, I was aware that the Blackfoot Nation had been divided between the US and Canada and that the different handling of the reservations and reserves by the two countries had “interesting” impacts. In Canada where the Crown as an empire believed that what they considered to be primitive people deserving of wildlife-style protection, the wealth of the tribe was left communal and white people were forbidden to enter while the “aboriginals” were required to stay in unless they had a pass from their agent. Paternalism reigned.
On the US side, the Piegan tribe was confined so much that they starved because they couldn’t hunt the last of the buffalo, but they were allowed to own acreage in imitation of homesteading. At least that was true after the white “Americans” had taken what they wanted, including Glacier National Park. As time passed tribal members were allowed to be judged “competent” and to control their own allotments. This set some of them up for capture by debt. Those who couldn’t cope simply perished or barely managed subsistence. But those who were shrewd and diligent or who were married by white men with experience and access to credit, things got better. When these ranchers retired, they could sell their land for a nice retirement subsidy. Canadians couldn’t do that.
This is a high-handed and bald version of one consequence of being in one or the other North American nation. In terms of the Unitarians — a tiny but socioeconomically prosperous denomination of about a hundred church congregations and another set of fellowships with no building or minister — the UUA began to consider the Canadian CUC a drag on the system, unwilling to fall into line with the ego plans of Yankees. Thus the split.
In the rez world, this issue is named “sovereignty”. Who gets to be the boss? Do people own their own group, or do historic superiorities continue? The same ambivalence as Canada — resisting the States at the same time that they imitate and depend on them — exists with tribes who want to run their own land but need federal assistance and money. When I was in Saskatoon, I was the only one who ever watched Canadian television — the others all clung to the bloodiest urban cable channels they could access, like Detroit. Canada is full of ex-pats who are horrified by their birth country and glad to be free of it but watch closely.
In 1975 when I went to Leadership School the three leaders (Raible, Stewart, and the Organizational Development guy, Ord Elliot) were trying to solve this kind of puzzle by thinking about sociological architecture and design. If a proper chart of responsibilities and functions could be designed, maybe the tension and rivalries would be resolved. This is what Biden is fervently hoping at the moment. And what I would wish for Valier, Pondera County, and the State of Montana.
But there’s more to it than that. The star at the top of the tree (not just a humanist city on a hill) that signifies the truest shared felt meaning (call it religion if you want to) is what pulls the whole into unity. Science has wiped out superstition, including the old theist fantasy based on kings, but not everyone has developed a sense of the sacredness of the planet that will save us from climate change and new viruses by slapping down our greedy hubris. I thought — and the astronauts thought as well — that the sight of this planet from outer space would be our “lighted chalice.” Maybe it is. Maybe it just takes time to realize it.