Carol A. Hand
As the date of the quintessential celebration of colonial oppression for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. approaches, signaled by loud explosions in the night, an image from my childhood comes unbidden to mind – a child crouching, head bowed, eyes closed, hands tightly covering ears.
Photo Credit: Carol A. Hand
I remember how much I disliked attending these events with my family, surrounded by crowds of people cheering and oohing and aahing in the local park as the symbolic missiles of war blossom like booming “fiery flowers” in the darkened evening sky. I didn’t know the deeper symbolism then for Indigenous Peoples, but the mindless and frenzied fascination of the crowd frightened me. I realize it still does. It brings to mind a story I wrote about my experiences in Missoula, Montana, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Photo Credit: http://www.montanalandtrusts.org/successes/
I moved to this working class neighborhood in mid-August of 2004. From the woodlands of the northern mid-west, with a 3-year sojourn in the prairie lands of the central U.S., my westward-facing backyard view of the steep grassy slopes of a Mount Jumbo was both completely foreign and yet somehow made this feel like home. On my first 4th of July in East Missoula (2005), I admit that I was horrified by the way this normally quiet street was transformed into what felt like a war-zone. My dog cowered and my parakeets grew silent and ill as the unrelenting noise continued day and night for what seemed like an eternity. And the bags of trash I collected, spent fire cracker debris, confirmed the danger of exploding incendiary devices in crowded residential neighborhoods. Fortunately, my house had a metal roof, and although the firecracker debris made sharp clanking noises when they landed, I knew they wouldn’t start a fire.
This year, as I watched Mount Jumbo’s grass and trees burn, the neighborhood boomed and bloomed with what the local newspaper referred to as “fiery flowers.” Yet, this year was different. I have had a chance to reflect on the culture of my new community, a mixture of tiny houses and trailers on little plots of land. I saw families join together in celebration, and neighbors who normally work long hours come together to celebrate as well. Those of us who were new to the neighborhood were invited to participate in the “block party,” and were welcomed. Just as I left the house to join the group, I saw the fire spreading up the mountain’s side. In alarm, I called 911 and ran to let my neighbors know, convinced that they would not be setting off fireworks if they knew. I was shocked by the reactions of those neighbors I joined briefly. They knew the mountain was on fire and were unconcerned. They continued setting off fuses without pause, reminiscing about other fires in years past that burned the more rugged slopes of Mount Sentinel to our east. Chaos reigned in the street as children, teens, and adults haphazardly vied to light the missiles lined up in the middle of the tree-bordered street. As I watched, one neighbor had to dodge a misfired firecracker that must have singed the hair on his leg as it whizzed past.
Photo Credit: Mount Jumbo Fire (makeitmissoula.com)
The celebration and coming together of those who have been in this neighborhood, some for a lifetime, had already set the gently rolling slopes of the mountain aflame. It would be easy to blame my hardworking neighbors for endangering others and the environment out of ignorance. Unrelenting, the barrage continued although the spreading fire on the mountain was visible to all. One family stood alone and lined up their firecrackers in the middle of the street in front of my side garden. They lit one firecracker after the other as I watched the mountainside burn. I had a sense that some of the missiles barely missed me as I stood in my backyard gazing toward the mountain (confirmed the next day as I picked up the debris.) Although I consciously remember to respect other cultures and perspectives, I lost my willingness to tolerate this clear threat to my home and gardens. Finally, I had enough, and turned on every sprinkler, spraying water into the street and the dousing the next missiles ready to be fired. The barrage intensified for a moment, and then blessedly, stopped.
As I look at the blackened slope of the mountain the next morning, I wondered how to preserve a sense of community and celebration in this changing neighborhood while protecting people and property. I am not sure that suggesting that residents here travel to the city’s scheduled firecracker events is a reasonable solution. We live on the other side of the railroad tracks, the other side of Hellgate Canyon. The city proper is not a welcoming place for many residents from my part of town. The class divide is something many residents have lived with for a long lifetime. Longer-term residents fear that the newer members of this neighborhood like me are part of a gentrifying trend. They fear that we will bring our devaluing judgments of them closer to home and restrict the freedom of the community to celebrate as it always has.
As I reread this essay, it occurred to me how far I am willing to go to respect the right of others to walk their paths. It takes a lot for me to act to stop the missiles that rain down on my gardens and threaten my well-being, whether they are real or symbolic. But I can’t silence my thoughts and the growing concern in my heart. As my neighbors lit their firecrackers while Mount Jumbo burned, I thought of the bullets and bombs that were raining down on Iraqi people at that moment. I thought about the symbolism of a nationalistic holiday that celebrates the domination of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and the domination of peoples around the globe. My neighbors’ behavior reminded me of the unconfirmed myth about Nero fiddling while Rome burned. I couldn’t stay to be part of the block party. I walked to the staging area for fire fighters to see if there was anything I could do to help battle the blaze on the mountain. There wasn’t. Trained fire crews were climbing the side of the mountain and fighting from the air. Unlike the air battles in Iraq, the helicopters that flew overhead were not shooting, they were scooping water into large buckets from the nearby river to douse flames, while bombers were dropping fire retardant, not bombs.
Photo Credit: The Missoulian
For me, this 4th of July will symbolize another type of fiddling while Rome burns. Instead of focusing the brilliance of our scientists and skills of our workers on the development of alternative energy and toxic waste clean-up technologies, fracking vents bloom like fiery flowers across the global landscape. Instead of putting on the brakes and changing course on our path toward global destruction, our footprint is pressing “the pedal to the metal” in our race toward Armageddon.
Because I am no longer a child crouching in fear with eyes and ears closed, I wonder how I can turn on the sprinklers to stop the mad volley. I prefer to celebrate peace and balance quietly rather than war and domination with explosions that symbolize battle. The notions of “nations” and patriotism to nations and nationalities only serve to divide the peoples of the world.