Wednesday, May 4, 2011

people as wilderness

Inappropriate or offensive references to Native Americans have been in the news recently. Many people objected to the use of the code word "Geronimo" in the Bin Laden killing.

I just got back from a trip on the "Empire Builder", the Amtrak route from Portland/Seattle to Chicago. It provided the easiest and cheapest way to get the whole family to my grandmother's funeral. On the train, I read the brochure [available here], giving colorful details of the route for bored passengers. Here's an excerpt from the first page:

A few generations ago, this route was pure wilderness, roamed by Native Americans and buffalo. Following early traders and gold miners came the merchants, timber men, farmers and – dramatically – railroaders. In the northern plains, the greatest of these was James J. Hill, a freewheeling, big-dealing tycoon who linked St. Paul and Seattle with his Great Northern Railway. He acquired the land, built the tracks, and encouraged homesteading along the route. On the way, this “Empire Builder” Hill came to govern the fate and fortune of a large part of this powerfully beautiful area.

Three comments:
1) According to Amtrak, Native Americans are part of the wilderness, like buffalo. (Never mind this area wasn't "wilderness" in the sense of "untouched by human hands".)

2) Believe it or not, Amtrak, most people don't find the robber barons of the 19th century all that endearing as cultural heroes. James J. Hill was the man Eugene V. Debs most famously worked against in unionizing the rainroad workers. (OK, I'll admit, my background biases me against robber barons. I grew up in one of the most heavily unionized regions of the country, and in the public schools we sang union songs and learned about people like Jimmy Hoffa and Eugene Debs.)

3) I teach a section on colonialism in my intro to cultural anthropology class, and in my experience, students dislike any portrayal of the U.S. as an imperial power. The railway route that Amtrak calls the "Empire Builder" takes its name from James J. Hill. Partly, he got this name from building his railroad empire, but the name has a more sinister meanings. Hill "acquired the land" by helping push bills through congress that allowed him to build across supposedly sovereign Indian lands. He also encouraged European settlers to settle on those lands, building his consumer base while eroding Native American land holdings.

All in all, a very sensitive brochure. Nice work, Amtrak. (Sigh.)


  1. I hope you send helpful suggestions to Amtrak. E.g., rather than "pure wilderness", how about "vast unsettled openness". The clip states JJH was a "tycoon" The reader will view the label negatively (as a person taking advantage of others for their own good) or positively (a successful capitalist living the American dream) based on their own values and background. The clip ends stating JJH "came to govern the fate and fortune...", again a statement which readers will judge independently of text. Amtrak presents the words the reader assigns the value. Anyway, rather than just making comments on your blog, send them a re-written clip with your suggestions.

  2. Actually, I did write a letter to Amtrak, but didn't send it yet. I didn't include a rewritten suggestion, so maybe I'll take some time and try to come up with language that would be less offensive. I suspect it would be very difficult to state the same sentiments in better language. With a name like "Empire Builder", that ship may have sailed.