The whites and the Indians of Utah may have more in common than either of them thinks. If you collapse the last 140 years.
About that long ago, a belief in something called the Ghost Dance spread rapidly through many Native American nations in the Southwest and Great Plains. It was a religious movement founded by a member of Nevada’s Northern Paiute tribe, a mystic named Wovoka.
During a solar eclipse on Jan. 1, 1889, Wovoka said, he had a vision of a renewal of the Native peoples of North America. If enough Indians would perform a five-day long ritual called the Ghost Dance, he prophesied, the earth would open up and swallow all the white invaders. The grass would grow. The rivers would flow. And the massive herds of buffalo — the physical and spiritual source of sustenance for Native peoples for centuries — would return.
This Rapture-like prophesy spread throughout many Native tribes. The belief, for some, included the idea that properly made garments called “ghost shirts” would be impervious to the U.S. Cavalry’s bullets. A belief that was, disastrously, proven false at the Massacre of Wounded Knee almost two years later.
Today, it is the white folks of Utah who have been led astray by an almost mystic belief not that different, though less beautiful, than Wovoka’s. It is an idea, based on faith rather than reason, that if we are devoted enough to prophets like Cliven Bundy, if we do the right dances and sing the right songs and burn the right herbs — and file the right lawsuits and buy enough guns — an idyllic picture of the American West will magically return. Their warriors will be invincible. The oil will flow and vast herds of cattle will return.
This is the mystical motivation for the action taken Monday when the Great Orange Father traveled to Utah just long enough to eviscerate the protections of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.
Odds are, thankfully, that this mass hallucination will not end in a hail of bullets. But it will end.
The idea that economic and cultural prosperity would swell in the less-populated parts of Utah if only we could get the mean old federal government to loosen its grip on those millions of acres of public land is a fantasy.
The clearest proof of that is to simply look at the data about where population is growing and where it is shrinking. Across the nation, population is shrinking in rural areas, places away from industrial and academic centers, and growing in areas where populations are already large and established.
Population and economic growth are like oil spills and power. They do not naturally disperse. They naturally aggregate on themselves. And that is true whether the rural land that has little or no growth is owned by individuals, corporations or the government.
All across the Great Plains and Midwest, urban centers are growing and small towns are shrinking. Small towns are dying. Schools are closing. People have to drive further and further to get to the doctor or go to high school. And this is happening in states, like Indiana, Nebraska and Kansas, that have virtually no federal land.
Meanwhile the biggest booms in population are in the two biggest public lands states: Utah and Nevada. Of course, as is usually the case everywhere else, all the activity is centered on existing urban centers. As always, the rich get richer.
But it is simply counter-factual that large holdings of federal land discourage economic growth. In some cases, as with the outdoor recreation entrepreneurs who have seized upon the opportunities afforded by the state’s national parks and, especially, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The Native nations of the late 19th century were wrong to follow Wovoka, whether he was a charlatan or whether he really believed all that. The Southwestern states of the early 21st century are wrong to follow the purveyors of today’s deliverance myth.
Today’s Indians, their ancestors having gone down that path once, aren’t the ones being fooled this time.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, has lived in several really small towns. None of which was sorry to see him go. firstname.lastname@example.org