On the Corner

by Robert Docter – 

Is there ever a “last” frontier?

I’ve heard Alaska described that way, but somehow human ingenuity keeps finding ways to “push the envelope” and find new areas for discovery. I guess that frontier spirit never dies. There is something of the pioneer in all of us if we allow it to surface–if we permit it to become evident in our lives. I’m not aware of any new land masses left for discovery. The globe doesn’t seem to present any undiscovered oceans. Nevertheless, there certainly are opportunities for creative, risk-taking adventure still available.

You can be a pioneer. I’m impressed with how “ordinary” most pioneers were in the age of exploration. The “new world” was populated by people like you and me. The trek across the plains brought families and friends in search of a new life–new opportunities. They weren’t scientists or mathematicians. They were very ordinary people. And they had all the same weaknesses and problems–the same illnesses and difficulties–the same fears and concerns that you and I have. They had never taken a course in pioneering–never had instruction in river fording. What they had was a will to make their lives better. And they were willing to risk everything to accomplish that end.

It’s easy to glamorize and mythologize this period of our history. Let’s not get too carried away. These pioneers weren’t all noble and honorable. A lot of their motivation was self-centered. They tended to believe that a change of geography would solve their problems. They did some awful things which we have tended to ignore and disregard. Certainly, they carried with them some magnificent bravery. They also carried with them every evil inclination to curse the human spirit. Land grabs, ethnocentrism, racism, egocentrism, dishonesty, violence, bribery, and deceitfulness were revealed in their characters.

Most believed that power determined ownership. They were helped in this by their government which somehow neglected to see itself as a nation of laws and, instead, seemed to believe that this nation had some kind of “manifest destiny”–a perfect right to span the continent. Any group of people who stood in the way of this goal was eliminated. Few treaties with Native American tribe were ever honored, and our history is replete with examples of massacre and genocide. It is only very recently that our government has sought ways to make amends. We brought disease–and the great smallpox epidemic of the late 1860s killed almost 80 percent of the Indian population. We brought alcoholism, and this curse still spreads its tentacles. A mid-eighties congressional hearing on Indian juvenile alcoholism and drug abuse reported that 52 percent of urban and 80 percent of reservation Indian adolescents engaged in moderate to heavy alcohol or drug use. This was compared to 23 percent of their non-Indian counterparts living in urban settings.

Humans tend to stereotype members of races other than their own. We see them as having the same characteristics–failing to recognize that characteristics, strengths, weaknesses within a given group differ more than those which exist between groups. Indians are extremely heterogeneous. There are, for instance, more than 200 separate tribal entities in Alaska alone.

So, where will we find our pioneering opportunities? They will probably be more internal than external. Our frontier challenges come as we confront the moral immaturity of the human condition; as we turn from easy answers to highly complex questions, and, instead, struggle to examine how we can communicate with each other to manage our problems; as we find ways to care more effectively for those among us who are poor or ill or lonely.

The rivers we must ford will require us to confront the fears and self-doubts within us that restrict our willingness to speak out, to challenge a wrong but popular point of view, to advocate for political candidates who are rooted in a strong, positive ethic. We must conquer the mountains of rage that explode within us and push us toward violent acts. We must allow the warm sun of compassion to illuminate that which is good within us and work to build community so that the energy and heat of our mutual souls will protect us from the ravages of storm.

There’s plenty of “frontier” space still available. Where are the pioneers?

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