Book review: “INHERITED SILENCE: LISTENING TO THE LAND, HEALING THE COLONIZER MIND” by Louise Dunlap, New York: New Village Press, 2022
Reviewed by Alexander Kopytin, October, 2022
This review outlines a book centered on the historic damages caused by the early colonizers of America and how their descendants may recognize and heal the harm done to the earth and Native peoples. Louise Dunlap tells the story of the beloved land in California’s Napa Valley: how the land fared during the onslaught of colonization and its consequences of drought and wildfires that are present today. She looks to awaken others to consider their ancestors’ role in colonization and encourage them to begin reparations for the harmful actions of those who came before. More broadly, the book offers a way for readers to evaluate their current life actions and the lasting impact they can have on society and the planet.
Keywords: сolonization, Native peoples, genocide, California, Napa Valley
Book cover of Inherited Silence: Listening to the Land, Healing the Colonizer Mind by Louise Dunlap, New Village Press, 2022
Inherited Silence: Listening to the Land, Healing the Colonizer Mind by Louise Dunlap is an insightful look at the historic damages caused by early colonizers of America and how their descendants may recognize and heal the harm done to the earth and Native peoples. She looks to awaken us to consider our role and that of our ancestors in the natural and cultural history of unsustainable human expansion. More broadly, the book paves the way to evaluate our current life actions and their lasting impact on society and the planet.
Louise Dunlap is a fifth-generation Californian. In her working years, she taught writing to undergraduates and graduate students in urban and environmental planning, worked with writers in advocacy groups, and began journeys into the hidden history of white supremacy, leading to this book. She honors the spiritual teachings of many traditions and, in 2004, was ordained by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh into the Order of Interbeing with the name True Silent Teaching.
Though her book concentrates on the story of colonization related to Napa Valley in Northern California, it also hits the core of the current global situation and the roots of violence and struggle based on domination. The book reveals how the colonizer mind causes environmental devastation, genocide, and systemic racism as she confronts her settler family’s stories.
As Dunlap emphasized in the Foreword, “Powerful energies continue the ways of domination and control—over the Earth and all her creatures. Yet every day, new insights arise as whole communities struggle to understand and disengage from the harmful mind of colonization. New approaches, new ideas, new voices are being heard and acknowledged and the true story is at last coming clear.” (p.1)
She mentions some methodologies of her biographical/historical study that embrace Critical Family History, Ethnoautobiography, Liberation Genealogy, Antiracist Genealogy, and more. However, having no previous experience in historical research, she developed a way of working through the biographical/historical facts with a certain amount of self-criticism. She recognizes that in order to provide missing information, she would have “to use a classic tool of the colonizer—another settler-version of Native Californians’ history,” her own version. Though her Indigenous friends have read many parts of this book and said they are comfortable with her words, she recognizes that no story she tells can touch their lived truths and may even deepen the problem.
Dunlap’s ancestral story grew complicated as it led further back than California to her relatives arriving from Europe to New England to appropriate and rename the land. Therefore, this book contains not just a California story but a national one as Dunlap follows clues back into America’s silenced history. Pertinent national subjects arise such as enslavement, supremacist ideology, restoration and repair, climate disruption, grief, pandemic, decolonization, and healing intergenerational trauma.
She warns readers that some parts of what they read may cause severe discomfort and cautions against a merely academic approach to the material presented in the book. Dunlap explains facing the history of genocide is difficult to face and even impossible to plunge into without an appropriate attitude to enable healing and genuine openness towards change.
Along with Dunlap’s identified methodologies of Critical Family History, Ethnoautobiography, Liberation Genealogy, Antiracist Genealogy, I found evidence of an environmental, eco-human perspective. Though she doesn’t use these terms, her study embraces both the story of Indigenous people and the land, the web of life and its colonizers in a complex interconnectedness. It is obvious that genocide of native populations was accompanied with dramatic environmental change and loss.
Dunlap claims that “for Indigenous people in California, the network of plant and animal species they had evolved with lost its coherence in a single lifetime. Species that were like relatives to them went extinct—elk, antelope, and more. Alien cattle and pigs trampled their gardens of edible bulbs and seeds and devoured their acorn crops. Invasive plants took over. The very shape of the land was changed by plowing, damming, and dredging. Cultural practices—like burning to clear brush or enhance an acorn harvest—became criminal acts. Food sources were fenced over with barbed wire. Water and air grew toxic. Diseases from other parts of the world ran rampant, killing as much as 90 percent of a community at once. Trusted medicines no longer worked. Community leaders and healers died like everyone else, leaving just a few people to carry on in a world that had fallen apart. Alongside that destruction had come mass slaughter, kidnapping, rape, enslavement, and separation of children from parents—children who would be raised as servants by settler families or sent to boarding schools guided by the saying “Kill the Indian, save the man.” (pp.73-74).
The story of California grizzly—Ursus arctos horribilis to the scientists who named it—provides one example of massive extermination of animal life, forced out of balance by European settlement. These bears had been a central part of the web of life for Californian tribes, who shared stories of their likeness to humans and the bear–shamans with powers to harm and to heal. Eco historians say the way these grizzlies clawed up the soil helped shape the ecosystem.
Dunlap admitted that reading what happened to the bears brought her to tears. The story of the California grizzly was the same story she was painfully uncovering about human genocide in California. When not poisoned with strychnine or attacked and slaughtered, grizzlies were captured and enslaved—serving as pets, performers, and dancers. Like Indians, they were sent on entertainment tours around the world with entrepreneurs. The press used the same disparaging words—brutality and depredations—perhaps rooted in the same unreasoning fear of the wilderness within grizzlies and Indians.
The book is full of examples and facts indicating the most severe crimes of colonizers and their descendants against humanity and the land they captured and controlled. However, the book is also about the search for the ways and action for healing and repair. It servs as an example of how to work through deep trauma with grace and compassion, urging love and forgiveness as people and the more-than-human world face environmental crises together. Dunlap believes that in order to prevent new tragedy we must right our relationship with Indigenous people, the land, and ourselves.
A considerable part of the Dunlap’s book describes her attempts in restoring her connections with the land as a vital step in establishing what I would call eco identity. In doing so, she explores her memories of the place she inherited together with her two sisters. She becomes involved in the care for the land and studies the rich Indigenous heritage of caring for the earth.
She was inspired by Kat Anderson, the ethnobotanist and author of the book called Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, who helped her think about restoring what the land has lost. Anderson learned how California’s tribes had shaped what settlers’ thought was wilderness by cultivating, pruning, burning, seeding, and transplanting to improve habitat for game, control disease, and nourish plant sources of food, basketry, and other necessities. Anderson calls it “protoagriculture.”
Other source of inspiration for Dunlap was botanist-poet Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer bridges scientific and Indigenous worlds by speaking about reciprocity in human relationships with the land and how people can become “indigenous to place.” She says that people who are not Indigenous can become “naturalized” to place, like plants from outside an ecosystem that naturalize when they feel at home. Dunlap believes that “for most Americans, becoming naturalized would mean a major paradigm shift. We’d have to stop trying to control what happens and work in “deep reciprocity” with the natural world, learning from plants and other beings and even taking direction from them.” (p. 92)
This is what Kimmerer calls collaborating, not trying to impose our will. If Kimmerer is right, closeness to the earth can transform the colonizing mind.
For me, this position of human work in “deep reciprocity” with the natural world proposed by Kimmerer and accepted by the author of the book is fully congruent with the ecopoietic stance in the world. An ecopoietic stance is a way in which human beings can respond ethically and aesthetically to the needs of the earth; to take an ethical, practical, and aesthetic responsibility to its fate, and transform devastation into natural and human well-being and beauty.
Looking for ways to change the silence surrounding America’s history and the seeds of a genocidal mind, Dunlap joined four yearly journeys called the Shellmound Peace Walks in the mid-2000s. They were hosted by Ohlone people, who lived in small tribal bands throughout the Bay Area. With them, a group from five continents walked the circuit of the bay, supported by the Japanese Buddhists.
The Shellmound Walkers, joined by the Asian Buddhist and African-lineage people, had a larger view on history and the current situation which transformed Dunlap’s vision of reality. She believes that “Ancestors pass on habits of mind, wounds, and silences that come from the historical context they inhabited. But in the larger, more Indigenous view, they also pass on love and support from a place that is deeper than that history. Much of the world believes that once the old ones enter the Spirit World, they see with true vision. They recognize harm they’ve done and are appalled. No longer able to undo their mistakes, they look to their descendants to clean up after them. And ancestors can provide us with energy to powerfully assist in this. The wider view helped me realize that even my most culpable ancestors are more than bad guys. They, too, have a role to play in healing our genocidal history and the land. To change the legacy of the pioneer Coombses, to clean up their messes, I would need to know them better, to open my heart to their help—as people do in other cultures. This would take enormous effort but was essential to healing.” (pp.72)
I found many examples of poietic stance in the world in the book that inspired me and supported my sense of hope. Here is one of them:
With all the disruptions in our seasons, a beautiful thing is happening that I don’t remember from other Januaries. Usually, birds from farther north winter over in the shelter of the oak canopy. Robins, hermit thrushes, and varied thrushes—a strange, shy bird. Smaller than a robin, they have similar colors in a different pattern, splashes of red, with sharp black lines near the eyes, like markings on a Navajo rug. This year’s migrating flocks are larger than I remember. Ten hermit thrushes near the house. Varied thrushes all over the field. the hillside crop of toyon berries gobbled up before Christmas. Why so many birds this year? Did conditions up north in the deep forests cause their populations to expand? What brought so many to our woods for the winter? Is it a sign of imbalance or return to an ancient balance? I only know that these birds have an evening ritual that brings awe and joy each time I hear it.
At dusk, when the last golden light hits the hill and the treetops, these birds settle down in the branches to roost for the night. Tractors and chain saws across the fence line are quiet now, but thousands of birds make subtle noises, shifting to the best branch and calling softly. The robins’ definitive chirk, chirk and a magnificent collective clucking fill the trees. A few late ones fly in quietly. Behind and above the settling sounds is a sweet, high-pitched, whistling kind of music. Perhaps it’s made by the varied thrush. If I step outside at this magical hour, the music overwhelms me. Sound waves pouring golden out of trees still in sunlight on the hill— chorusing, singing their simple plainsong to the setting sun. Was this the soundscape of the Patwin and Wappo during the winter months? Or is this something new—winged ones from the north adapting to changes, finding refuge in this small piece of oak forest that remains more or less as it was?” (pp.74-75).
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Education (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Reference for citations
Kopytin, A. (2022). Book review, “Inherited Silence. Listening to the Land, Healing the Colonizer Mind” by Louise Dunlap, New Village Press, 2023. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, Vol.4(1). - URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)