Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The "Circling the Wagons" Metaphor

One of the things I frankly wrestled with as LGBT or SSA Mormons and their families and friends gathered in Salt Lake City this past weekend under the phrase "Circling the Wagons" was the association of that phrase with a history of destructive imperialistic conflict between U.S. settlers and Native Americans on the U.S. frontier.

A friend of mine recently shared this quote from the "WiseGeek" web-site, discussing the history and true meaning of this phrase:

The idea that settlers of the west were often threatened by marauding Native American tribes and had to “circle the wagons” for protection is something of a myth. This idea has been perpetuated by many western movies that showed settlers in conflict with native tribes who would attack circled wagon trains in their territory. In fact, however, many Native American tribes were friendly to the settlers, and initially welcomed their presence.

When a wagon train was formed into a circle, the most common reason for this was one that was seldom portrayed in popular cinematic representations of the period. Wagon trains brought cattle along with them as they moved into the American West in search of new land to ranch and farm. At night, these cattle would need to be corralled so that they would not wander off, and the easiest way to do this was to bring the wagons into a circle around the herd to keep them fixed in one place. This would protect them from getting lost or injured in unknown terrain, and from being attacked by wild animals.
I love this more inclusive imagery. Settlers circled the wagons to keep in, to keep safe, rather than to keep out or to do battle. Replacing the "cowboys vs. Indians" imagery with the image of a protective, inclusive community is much more in line with the spirit of these conferences.

This image of settlers circling their wagons to keep their cattle safe could certainly also be cross referenced with the parable of the good Shepherd leaving the 90 and nine sheep to go rescue the one that is lost.

I also love the fact that this article points out that the idea U.S. settlers needed to "circle the wagons" to defend against Indian attack is "something of a myth." The dialog that took place over this past weekend in Salt Lake went a long way toward debunking the myth that people who disagree with us on issues related to "homosexuality" or "same-sex attraction" are enemies we need to circle the wagons against. We are all part of the same community, deserving a place within the circle of protection

Thanks, Shelly!


Jo said...

Just because you want to say that you prefer the more inclusive imagery, doesn't excuse the racist premise, nor does it decrease the harmfulness of it. As an LDS Native American, I am not okay with it, and I continue to speak up against a group of marginalized people refusing to acknowledge their usage of something that is harmful to another marginalized group. Not okay, no matter how you couch it.

Brenda said...

I agree with Jo. I like your more inclusive "peace time" metaphor. But when I first hear the name of the conference, I felt outside the circle because I'm heterosexual. Not only that, the "circling the wagons" imagery is one of war. I don't really think the conference intends to declare war on all heterosexuals, or imply that heterosexuals and Native Americans are savages, but one could think that from the "circling the wagons" metaphor. It's not very well thought out.

Anonymous said...

If indeed the original reason for circling the wagons was to keep livestock safe and predatory animals out but was later bastardized for commercial reasons, it seems like progress to take back the phrase to what it really meant. But, I’m not Native American—so I have the white privilege blinders on, and I assume that at the inception of this group they all had my skin color. The LDS were predatory to Native Americans in most ways, so those who are Native American and LDS and gay can really bring a depth even more richness to the group. Maybe it is time to have more volunteers and leaders such as Jo to enhance the message of inclusion. It seems to be a point of view that is lacking.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Jo, Brenda, thank you.

I guess I'm glad now that I brought the subject up.

I agree that even if you focus on the "kinder, gentler" aspect of the metaphor, it's still problematic. It will always be a metaphor borrowed from what is arguably the most tragic aspect of U.S. (and Mormon) history.

I've discussed the "Circling the Wagons" metaphor with the conference organizers, and they acknowledged that it is a problem. The group of people organizing this don't have much in the way of financial resources. It cost a lot of money to develop the logo and the web site, and it's taken a lot of effort to build some name recognition. They literally don't have the financial resources to redo everything at this point. So even though they acknowledge the name of the conference is problematic, they feel kind of stuck with it for the time being.

I know the folks who are involved with this... They are VERY concerned about being inclusive of everybody.

One organizer told me, in regard to the problem in the metaphor: "I think Americans in general just need to admit that what we did was genocide. It's the denial that's disgusting. Perhaps publicly acknowledging that in some way could help.... I am sickened by Americans and get [people's concerns about the name]."

I'm sure this will continue to be discussed, and I suspect that once the organization is better developed and has more resources, they will rebrand.