The Western Frontier: Lies, Greed, and Ignorance.
By: Amanda Artz
To most Americans, the early West is seen as once being the ultimate frontier; something to be discovered, explored, and established. The frontier was the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization and the line of most effective and rapid Americanization (Limerick). Movies, books, and stories paint a perfect yet unrealistic picture of this monumental time in history, literally draping a pretty sheet over the messy reality of what the West really was. Even long after its establishment, certain legacies stemming from the Western frontier still exist today and have shaped American culture and life forever.
Perhaps the most puzzling image of the early West is that it was new, uninhabited, and unexplored land. Europeans saw themselves as “discovering” the Indians, but of course, the discovery was mutual (Cronon et. al). Native Americans had lived in the West for generations. They had established communities, planned landscaping and propagation methods, complex social systems, and natural resource harvesting regimes. To overlook Native American presence in the West is like overlooking an elephant in a room, and our culture rarely ever notices more than this elephant’s tail. This land was not new, was already inhabited, and had been explored and established long ago. But for many people, living in a frontier area evoked the feeling that one was somehow present at the creation of a new world (Cronon et. al). This feeling helped unleash the most selfish and power-hungry traits of the human species and led to ideas and practices that are still present today.
During the frontier era, boundaries were set as ways of defining property, ways of killing animals, ways of planting fields, ways of building houses, ways of rearing children, ways of praising God: all became symbols of difference between those who stood on opposite frontier boundaries (Cronon et al). These simple activities were perhaps even more effective than overt violence in moving Indians off their lands, for they justified land taking by giving the invaders a permanent sense of entitlement to the landscape around them (Cronon et al). Why did these “invaders”, who had just started living in this preoccupied land, believe that they were entitled to it? That’s akin to visiting a friend’s house, liking it, and deciding it is now yours. Although it seems farfetched, this sense of entitlement has carried on for generations—maybe not as extreme as the case above, but still present at an alarming rate. Our sense of entitlement to natural resources and land that is habitat to other, “lower” forms of life is shameful. The fact that we use resources for our benefit, and our benefit only regardless of who or what we hurt in the process shows that our species hasn’t grown or learned from similar past experiences involving the brutal taking of Native American land. Although the United States doesn’t seem like much of a frontier today, there are still millions of undisturbed areas containing bountiful resources. Instead of treating these rich areas as “resource frontiers”, we should instead think of the health and well-being of species other than ourselves, stop being so greedy, and appreciate the last bit of “wild” Western landscape we have without completely degrading it. But as Cronon states, “the very opportunity that frontiers offered people to abandon their old ways often put a premium on maintaining them”, and the old way of entitlement will be with our species until the end.
The “free land” of the frontier was nothing of the sort, having passed into European hands only through the violent conquest of its early Indian owners (Cronon et al). A combination of fear and greed impelled further growth among the Western frontier, and the new immigrants let nothing or no one stand in their way (White). If they wanted something, they took it; not by peaceful agreements and mutual respect, but by violent means. Violence was the European’s solution to land acquisition and settlement and it drove them into a power-hungry rage. What’s most troubling is that greed-induced violence still goes on today and is in some ways an encouraged legacy of the frontier. Children happily play cowboys and Indians (Limerick), our country has been in wars over natural resources, movies and videogames portray violence as a heroic action, and more money is spent on the military than on education. All of these examples seem to indicate that not only does our culture accept violence, but that we encourage it, and have been doing so for hundreds of years. The American-made cultural divide and power-hungry fear that runs through the veins of this country is a solid barrier blocking us from ever achieving peace and sustainability.
The Western frontier is a mythical world based on lies, greed, and ignorance, and yet it is where many Americans continue to locate a central core of their identity (Cronon et al). Legacies from this time have shaped our culture and continue to do so today despite of what we think has changed within our American values. The saying “history repeats itself” holds forever true, and perhaps someday we can look at the mistakes we’ve made by viewing resources as “our” frontiers and learn from them. Until then, our greed and violent tendencies will continue to shape the growth and existence of our country.
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