When patrimony is contraband

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Review of This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair: A Mennonite Homestead on Lenape Land, by John L. Ruth (Cascadia Publishing House, 2021)

As a boy, one of the things that intrigued me was a small collection of projectile points and a stone hatchet head that my maternal grandfather brought out, on occasion, if we kids begged him to. He had unearthed some of the items, but most had been uncovered by his father or by more distant progenitors on the 57-acre farm on which my family had lived, uninterrupted, since 1747, in southeastern Pennsylvania.

That land and the indigenous tools it yielded left me, paradoxically, with both a childhood sense that property conveyed permanence and a belief that the Native people had all disappeared, long ago, leaving only a silent witness in stone. In school, our teachers didn’t dodge the 1763 massacre of the Conestogas, on the other side our county, but did so with a matter-of-factness that implied that the original people were gone – a sentiment that a great many European Americans somehow believed. It would take bracing reminders from the likes of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Legacy Circle or the writing of David Treuer (The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present) to press home for me their truth: We’re Still Here.

Why this reminiscing on my part? Because this kind of remembering and recalibrating memories around land, landedness and displacement is what This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair aims to provoke among white-settler Americans, especially white Mennonites. Noted Mennonite author John Ruth calls his book “a musing” on his relationship with his home on the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek, 29 miles north of Philadelphia. This Very Ground is a confession, a set of reflections, and an inquiry into what white Mennonites remember about land acquisition and what they have forgotten, and the costs of both.

What does it mean to live on land taken from other people, to have one’s patrimony be contraband? How does a Mennonite narrative of refugee outcasts (true enough) become one of casting out others (equally true, though rarely stated as such)? “This is less a ‘history’ than a pondering,” Ruth writes. “[A]n attempt to share viscerally the experience of gaining and giving up a home on this land” (13-14). It is a powerful telling, richly narrated and compassionately provocative.

As a chronological tale, the book tells the story of three near contemporaries whose hopes and dreams collide in what became known among English-speaking Europeans as Pennsylvania. There is Sassoonan, a Lenape boy who goes on to becomes a key leader in the dignified but seemingly futile struggle to preserve a place for his people. There is William Penn, who hopes to create a haven of toleration for European religious dissenters, including his own Quakers, on land he convinces himself he can manage justly. And there is Hans Stauffer, an Anabaptist refugee who lost access to land when driven out of his native Switzerland and then spent decades moving about, seeking some sort of permanency.

Sassoonan was eventually crushed by “the white wave” of Europeans (16), reduced to begging the newcomers to abide by at least some aspects of their Christian promises. In a different way, Penn spends his last days in disappointment, unable to pass his vision on to his children, who jettison his Quaker faith as an impediment to wealth and ultimately decide to remain in Britain and assimilate into respectable society. Of the trio of characters, it is the Mennonite Hans Stauffer who sees his goals largely fulfilled, his descendants remaining in the faith and on the land. In Ruth’s hands, the story that unfolds is, in one sense, a classic tragedy in which all the players hold deep parental concern for their children’s future, but the vastly unequal political resources at play mean that securing one set of futures will necessarily destroy the possibilities for others.

The pacing in the first third of the book is not brisk, and there is some repetition, but the narrative soon picks up speed and poignancy as we crash though one treaty obligation after another, accumulating white claims and Indigenous losses. The so-called Walking Purchase of 1737, one of the greatest frauds in Western history, is something of a dramatic climax to the story, but a climax that provides no narrative resolution. The patterns before 1737 play on and on in a seemingly endless loop. If there is a surprise in this tale it is the persistent trust, patience and goodwill of the Lenape (and other Native people). There are a handful of retaliatory reactions, but if Mennonites were interested in finding living examples of the values they claimed – turning the other cheek and going the second mile – such illustrations were all around them in their Indigenous contemporaries, examples far more numerous and numerically costly than the story of nonresistant Hochstetlers who met a violent end in 1757.

I’ll note three things that stood out in my reading of This Very Ground. First, in the book’s grand arc there is not a lot that is original – and that’s a compliment to Ruth’s reliance on the best scholarship, like the work of historian Daniel Richter. If you’re not familiar with 18th-century Lenape history, the book provides you with the context and background you need. The historian in me wishes that Ruth had footnoted his quotations. But maybe it’s just as well that he didn’t. We would benefit from spending more time doing the hard work of searching out such sources.

Within its overarching arc, the book contains tremendously rich detail, at times almost overwhelming in all its particularity. Such fine-toothed attention to people and motives is, in its own way, a valuable contribution to the work of seeking justice for the dispossessed. My perception has been that sometimes the vital work of dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery has had the unintended effect of “flattening” its subject, by which I mean it has sometimes given the sense that European claims and motives were predicated on a single idea – the Doctrine – that, if simply exposed and confronted, somehow holds a singular key to making things right. The kind of granular detail we find in This Very Ground is an important reminder that Europeans appropriated land for a wide variety of reasons, both conscious and unconscious, and that their motives were often unrelated (or only tenuously related) to abstract claims and theologies. This complex picture reminds us that injustice has many sources, some paradoxical and unexpected, and that effective remedies must be equally varied and multivalent. Recognizing such variability can inject a measure of humility into the justice work of white-settler descendants, prone as we are to certainty and, thus, the snare of unintended consequences.

Finally, I return to where I began: Ruth’s book evokes an awareness of place, self and story that has the ability to launch necessary conversations. As Ruth underscores in his epilogue, Indigenous people have not disappeared and settler-readers of This Very Ground still control, and often own, the land.