What It Means To Be All-American: Lessons Learned at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA

Earlier this Spring, I had the opportunity to tour the Frontier Culture Museum–a living historical museum–in Staunton, Virginia. The museum uses live interpreters who live in part on-site according to period-authentic ways to be able to explain what life was like for our ancestors. They make their clothes by hand all the way from growing and harvesting the product, weaving it into fabric, cutting and sewing their own garments. They raise livestock, bake in old hearths, and cook meals over open fire spits. It is an amazingly hands-on approach to teaching history. Taking walking tours here taught me so much about colonial and early American life. I finally understood my family tree. I listened and learned from the old ways what it really means to be an American. David McCullough explains the museum best in this video.

A Multicultural Past

Colonial America wasn’t “America” yet. It was a bunch of different countries learning how to live well and coexist in a new wilderness. They had a common desire to be successful and common enemies in pestilence, disease, and bad weather. Native Americans taught foreigners how to steward the land and make things grow in it. Foreigners taught each other how to build better houses, forge better materials, and work smarter. It was a partnership amongst all the cultures to live in peace and unity–to grow from each other not in spite of each other. Friendships were made which led to intermarriage. Families became diverse and multicultural. That was life in the New World.

As one country overstepped its bounds and tried to force the New World to pay its debts through higher taxes, rebellion talk filled the New World. The mix of family trees that had grown together into a forest of tangled roots wanted to become its own country. A then outspoken writer and theologian, Thomas Paine, wrote a pamphlet–Common Sense. It made everyone start to think they had rights given to them by God that they were obliged to protect and defend. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for every man began in those early conversations amongst the mixed cultures of our ancestors.

They didn’t know what a country of their own would look like, yet they knew it was necessary and possible. They knew it well enough to defend it and go to war for it. All odds were against us winning, but we did because God was on our side. He had plans to bless the world and get the glory for our new nation.

Once independence was won, ideas were pulled together to form what our new form of government would be. Ideas from early Native American tribal alliances, Christian theology, and old Greek and Roman politics informed the ideas that would become our American system of government. We still operate with that foundation of government today.

Learning From The Past

In today’s climate, we hear the buzz term “critical race theory”. This is the idea that one race (white) held every other race subjective to them in the past. It teaches people to believe that other races were slaves subjected to that superior race and therefore every aspect of their individual identity was erased by them.

Readers, that simply isn’t true.

We know from written records including first-hand accounts in letters and journals that it wasn’t true. We know from our DNA and family trees that it wasn’t true. Not every colored thread in my family DNA came from appropriation or oppression. Love and choice made those lines cross NOT hate and aggression.

So then, what do we learn from history? We learn to work together toward common goals, accept differences, and learn from each other. We learn to treat different cultures with curiosity and adopt behaviors that help us enjoy life and express ourselves better. We learn to love blind to racial differences and antiquated prejudice.

If it is a pie-in-the-sky idea to live with multicultural love and anti-racism, well then, that is the true all-American pie!

What Does It Mean To Be All American

To be all-American means to be constantly moving, learning, and innovating based on what we learn from the community with our neighbors. Americans don’t sit on their butts; they are constantly moving into the next great frontier.

Being all-American means being inclusive. You can’t be a society snob stuck in your own class structure or ignoring certain race groups that you dislike or don’t understand. An all-American spirit finds ways to learn from the ideas of others and adopt new techniques as their own. We make each other’s food. We build like what we learned from our neighbors. We adopt different values based on what we feel speaks to us in the cultures we call home. This is how musical instruments and genres grew as well as everything else we enjoy in America.

If this weekend finds you rejoicing with fireworks like many of us will be in America, then I challenge you to also consider in what ways your heart and life can reflect a more all-American attitude. In what ways can you be Jesus and love others today? In what ways can you explore other cultures than your own and learn from them?

The Language of Oppression

The language of oppression hides

in bitterness and hate, cowers

beneath tables and folds

of a woman’s skirts, lowers

its head and hands

to the feeding trough, surrenders

its body while its insides

scream defiance and resistance

The language of oppression chokes

out Truth, stifles

what really happened

to our mixed race

American



I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I’m wrapped up in poetry and editing books where I am taking the last classes of my master’s degree in English. After reading a lot of Native American poets like Layli Long Soldier, I was moved to respond to the way so many Americans are stuck looking backwards. Even though their narratives are stories happening right now, they are influenced by a perception that some Americans are victims who are owed something by other Americans who were oppressors. There is something wrong with that.

On this blog, I shared a very personal poem from my own struggles with identity and heritage. That poem went on to be published by Sylvia Magazine.

No one would imagine I would have such issues, though, because I am as white as white can be. In our culture, white is synonymous with oppression. In the South, I am particularly aware of the hateful stares of my “minority” neighbors. Everyone assumes that I have had an easier life because I am white and that my ancestors owned their ancestors. If they asked, I’d tell them the truth: my ancestors lived in tiny rooms with newspaper walls on land they did not own. They worked alongside former slaves; they didn’t own any slaves of their own.

Racial identity is a complicated thing in America. We want to claim a strand of our DNA like we are pure bred of that nationality. The truth is that we are all mixed. If it were not so, we would not have survived in this brutal, foreign land. For love or survival, we formed alliances with other cultures and mixed our blood with our neighbors.

I can look back on that and say my poor ancestors were taken advantage of by an oppressive majority race, or I can look back on that truth and say my ancestors made sacrifices to afford a better quality of life for their offspring. I believe both are true, but which one perpetuates peace and harmony in society today?

We can’t change the past. At some point, we have to make peace with what happened to our ancestors and be thankful for the sacrifices that were made to provide a chance for a new life for all of us. The American melting pot is not easy or beautiful to all groups of people, yet we all are that pot. We need to realize that it says more for our resilience and determination that we are still here despite all the atrocities of the past than it does to point fingers at others and claim we are better than them because we were victims. In every family tree, there are both victims and victimizers. Instead of more protests, insincere apologies, and tax-paid handouts, we should embrace our own life story and make the most of the days we are given.

Looking back on history is not where we find our identity; it is where we learn how to do better in our own lives. True identity can only be found in Christ.

A Thimble-Full of Native American Blood

I don’t need a DNA test to tell me who my mother is; I know who she was. –A.D.

I tell you that what you know is wrong;

                we are not natives, we are whites

                more British than the British, in fact

I tell you that your mother

              registered white on the census;

              she was never half Indian

I tell you that the memories of her chewing

a black gum tree twig, dancing

in circles with my father, laughing

while fry bread sizzles

in an iron skillet

are just country

I tell you that the only record remotely

                supporting this identity

                is the marriage record saying

                Colored

It never occurs to me to consider

                                          race was a perception

                                                                  not an identity

                                                                             and perception lies

It never occurs to me

                               that one culture

                                                    can completely erase

                                                                                              another

Yet there it is on paper:

              colored = powerless, vulnerable

                           White = Entitled To Own

There it is on paper:

               my native antecedents slipping

                                      off their indian skins, a thin layer

                                                                 of vanilla ice cream melting

                                                                                                  from their chins


In the mid-1800s following the Emancipation Proclamation and during reconstruction in the South, white plantation owners feared a loss of land to freed slaves and Native Americans. As a result, in North Carolina, the State Constitution made changes to label all non-whites as “colored” and designate that “colored” people could neither own land nor marry. Native Americans were encouraged to assimilate. If they could look white and pass for white, they claimed they were whites. It was the only way they could have a chance for a fair life in the new world, but it was also the way that many Native American tribes disappeared from history….including my own.