White Birch, Red Hawthorn Recognizes the Roots of Oppression

White Birch, Red Hawthorn cover

University of Minnesota Press

The Twin Cities area is a Midwestern hub of art, culture, and business, but at its center is also one of the most spiritually important sites to the Dakota people. Bdote, now part of Fort Snelling State Park, is the sacred confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, revered by the Dakota people as the origin of life. So how do we, as inhabitants of the Twin Cities from all cultural backgrounds, respect the history of this land when we can grab a burger or see a movie just minutes away from the many significant sites of our nation’s first inhabitants?

Local author Nora Murphy explores this discrepancy and cultural erasure in her new memoir, White Birch, Red Hawthorn, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Murphy will be at Content Bookstore in Northfield on November 16 to discuss and read from her work.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn explores the way in which the history of white settlers relates to the oppression of the original people of Minnesota: the Dakota, Ho-Chunk, and Ojibwe. Murphy’s research into her own family history led her back to the family homestead near St. Cloud, and even further back to when her Irish ancestors were forced to leave Ireland in the wake of the Potato Famine. Though her family flourished in their new homeland, Murphy takes a look at what was happening at the same time to the native inhabitants of the area, who suffered from forced relocation, starvation, and government cruelty.

Each chapter is built around the significance of a particular tree or plant, both in Murphy’s examination of the conquered American land and in her exploration of her ancestors’ Irish homeland. This technique is a brilliant way to make the character of the land stand front and center throughout the book. It is also an effective tactic for making a personal connection; when Murphy holds a memorial for the dying crabapple in her front yard, she asks friends to bring their own tree stories to read aloud. As she notes, almost everyone has at least one—I, too, grew up  with a crabapple in my suburban front yard, and like Murphy, I never considered it a valuable resource. The tiny apples rotted on the lawn every fall until the roots were irreparably damaged by sidewalk improvement and the tree had to be cut down.

Also featured is the giant red pine at Itasca State Park. I have marveled at that very tree myself, but I was stunned when Murphy pointed out that as it’s the only virgin pine left after deforestation, putting it on display this way makes it more like the star of a freak show than a respected remnant of the land as it once was.

In its discussions of culture and tradition, White Birch, Red Hawthorn casts a critical eye on the romantic and subversive stories of domination on which Minnesotans have been raised: the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and the hardworking pioneer life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The retelling of these classics has contributed to the erasure of Native culture, writing a new view of history for the conquerors. The memoir does cover personal elements of Murphy’s life, but it also examines a great deal of Minnesota, US, and Irish history and will definitely inspire deep reflection for those whose immigrant ancestors came here to build new lives for themselves. In the back pages, Murphy helpfully includes a list of treaties between the US government and Native Americans for reference (or for you to just read through and feel your heart sink to the ground).

This memoir led me to take a closer look at my own family history. Like most Americans, I also come from a family of immigrants. Most of them arrived in the early 20th century, but when they came to St. Paul to farm and work in modern industries, the city had already been built upon the bones of its native people. It’s impossible for me to tell whether my ancestors knew or cared about this, but Murphy’s book points out how important it is for us, the next generations of those families, to recognize the harm that has been done and to try to do better.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn is an eye-opening read, to say the least. There is a lot of sorrow in its pages, but the book also details a journey of discovery and healing that lends hope to the future of our state as a community that respects its history.

Nora Murphy will be at Content Books in Northfield at 7:00 p.m. on November 16, 2017, for a reading and signing. Learn more about the event here.

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