On April 29, 2014 the inaugural ceremony was held for the John Morton Center for North American Studies at the University of Turku. The event included a live documentary show by Professor Will Kaufman on “Woodie Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travelin.'” Profoundly influenced by the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, Guthrie traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California, where he met famed leftist writer John Steinbeck, and later to the Pacific Northwest, writing and performing folk songs concerned with the conditions faced by working people down on their luck. Guthrie is best remembered for his song “This Land Is Your Land.” Kaufman, guitar in hand, entertained the audience with some of Guthrie’s more controversial songs about social inequality, including several verses of the famous song that have often been omitted in subsequent recordings. This is a more controversial side of American history than the one often propped up in school textbooks, but Kaufman was quick to note that if anyone were to accuse Guthrie (or him) of being un-American, “them’s fightin’ words!”
The conference, “Bridging North America: Connections and Divides,” organized by the Center (August 28-30), also offered various perspectives on history, culture, and identity in North America, including presentations on travel and migration, ethnic identity, multiculturalism, American folk culture, indigenous voices, borderlands and notions of space, to name a few. All of the talks made valuable contributions to better understanding the rapidly changing economic, political, and cultural landscapes of the different countries. Traveling along the West Coast this summer, and visiting some of the places that Guthrie visited and sang about, like the Columbia River Gorge area (Guthrie wrote 26 songs in one month about the Columbia River; “paradise” he called it), I cannot help but feel that the numerous state and national parks, having preserved the (relatively) unspoiled nature and provided generations of families opportunities to reconnect with stories from the past, are one of the country’s best legacies. Guthrie, though, for all his appreciation of the natural beauty of the region, was primarily in the Pacific Northwest to document the damming of the Columbia River and government efforts to create jobs.
Today, tensions are no less heated than they were in Guthrie’s day regarding the role of government in the economy. Since the Great Recession especially, much attention in the United States has been devoted to the growing wealth gap between the wealthy elite compared to the overall citizenry. The Occupy movement of 2011 coined the political slogan “we are the 99%,” reflecting the opinion that 99% of the people are paying the price for the economic greed of a tiny minority within the upper class. The American popular narrative has always faced an inherent tension between the Horatio Alger myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps on the way to fulfilling the American dream and a darker history of the deck being stacked against minorities and generations of working people. In the current heated political climate, there is also renewed interest in focusing on the bottom 1%, predominantly made up of American Indians, to shed light on reasons for the increasing wealth gap and what can be done about it.
A friend of mine and her entire extended family were recently disenrolled from the tribal register of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon. It is part of a larger debate about who is “Indian enough,” cultural identity, and tribal disputes over money. Having reached epidemic proportions in recent years, it has divided communities and stripped members of payments, health benefits, pensions, and scholarships. Are interracial marriages and moving away from the reservation compromising cultural traditions? It depends on how one defines a sense of community. Since John Collier, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under FDR (1933-1945), first revived the reservation system as part of an effort to preserve American Indian culture and traditional economies, in the process helping to define modern tribes in their essentials and raise questions about the nature of tribal sovereignty and cultural identity, debates have continued over how best to deal with persistent economic inequality and a history of disenfranchisement. Should the U.S. government return stolen lands to Indian tribes, as one United Nations investigator studying discrimination against Native Americans advised the government to do as a way of combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination? Or, does the problem reside in the reservation system itself (the government holds the land in trust while at the same time treating the reservation as a separate nation apart from federal and state law)? The first perspective blames the government for not doing enough, whereas the second blames it for already having done too much in marginalizing Indians and making it difficult for them to fully participate in the market economy.
In my time back in the United States for research purposes, I have been struck by a pervasive culture of volunteerism in which people are looking to their neighborhoods and local schools and organizations rather than the state for solutions to problems. But the issue of disenrollment also highlights the dangers of not having enough legal safeguards at the state or national level, of not having the means to borrow money or acquire and safeguard property, of not having access to basic social services, all issues that Woodie Guthrie would have been familiar with in his sympathy for the disadvantaged.
What would Woodie Guthrie have to say about the recent round of identity politics and accusations of a new war on poor people? Probably a great deal. Fortunately, a new generation of folk singers from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Wilco, from Jerry Garcia to the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, to name a few, have paid tribute to his work and are helping keep his life and legacy alive for younger generations of fans who recognize the power of music in the struggle for social justice.