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Failing to Ford the River: “Oregon Trail”, Same-Sex Marriage Rhetoric, and the Intersections of Anti-Blackness and Settler Colonialism

June 4, 2014
Oregon trail marriage equality

by T.J. Tallie

On May 19, 2014, U.S. federal judge Michael McShane struck down Oregon’s state ban on same-sex marriage, finding that the law violated the constitutional right to equal protection under the law. In his ruling, McShane argued:

My decision will not be the final word on this subject, but on this issue of marriage I am struck more by our similarities than our differences. I believe that if we can look for a moment past gender and sexuality, we can see in these plaintiffs nothing more or less than our own families. Families who we would expect our Constitution to protect, if not exalt, in equal measure. With discernment we see not shadows lurking in closets or the stereotypes of what was once believed; rather, we see families committed to the common purpose of love, devotion, and service to the greater community.

The marriage decision was a cause for much celebration in Oregon and beyond. In response, the California same-sex marriage advocacy group, Equality California, released an image to celebrate the announcement in Oregon. The graphic adapted a scene from the ending of Oregon Trail, the popular 1980s-1990s educational video game, which read, “Congratulations! You have made it to marriage in Oregon!” Equality California likely intended to play upon a sense of shared childhood nostalgia for a historic game, as a means of celebrating a historic achievement for same-sex marriage. However, the image itself demonstrates a profound connection to histories of settler colonialism, anti-black legislation, and anti-Indigenous violence. Indeed, the May 19 Oregon Trail image offers a powerful lens for understanding the invested and intertwined histories of colonial violence and sexual modernity.

As an educational tool, the Oregon Trail game is well known to a generation of elementary school students, offered as a key means of making American history relevant to young audiences. Yet the central premise of the game—a journey from Missouri to Oregon—obscures and indeed naturalizes the violences and marginalizations of settlement within the United States. Students are invited to imagine themselves, through playing the game, as participants in a mass migration of Euro-American settlers across the continent, culling countless herds of animals and despoiling the lifeways of numerous Indigenous peoples, only to reach the ‘promised land’ of Oregon. Native peoples in the game are reduced to ‘guides’ that can be used to assist you by crossing rivers, helping the end goal of settlement. The game offers challenges to American children, presenting them with the potential of a variety of means of death (dysentery, exhaustion, drowning, or others), while erasing the Indigenous peoples who were starved, removed, or otherwise subject to settler violence in the very same project. Indeed, the game offers a collective investment for American students into histories of colonialism and domination, notably through the participation in a game that structures simultaneous removal and forgetting of the very presence of Indigenous peoples, while celebrating the survival and endurance of white pioneers.

The history of the Oregon Trail is not simply a story of anti-Indigenous settlement, however. The history of the Oregon Territory, and subsequent state of Oregon, is one of profound white settler investment in anti-blackness as well. Beginning in 1844, Oregon Territory passed its first exclusion law, banning African-American immigration into the region, and in 1857, had the dubious distinction of becoming the only free state in the United States to have officially codified anti-black immigration into its constitution (decided by popular vote, no less), which was ratified the following year. While theoretically this amendment was invalidated by the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the amendment remained part of Oregon’s state constitution until 1927, successfully resisting four repeal amendments in the early nineteenth century by Oregon’s electorate. The deep-seated antipathy of white settlers to black migration within the state had many sources. As Jesse Applegate, an Oregon resident born in Kentucky, reflected in 1878, “Being one of the ‘Poor Whites’ from a slave state I can speak with some authority for that class—Many of those people hated slavery, but a much larger number of them hated free negroes worse even than slaves.” Soon after statehood was achieved in 1858, Oregon legislators passed a law banning interracial marriage between whites and blacks in 1862—a law that remained on the books until 1951. Additionally, Oregon legislators feared the possibility of united Native American and African American resistance to white settlement. Samuel Thurston, one of the first congressional delegates for the Oregon Territory, not only worked to pass the Donation Land Claim Act, which allowed only whites “and mixed-race Indians” the possibility of owning land in the territory, he also pointedly argued against the potential of Native/Black shared activity within Oregon as a danger to white settlement, stating:

[It] is a question of life or death to us in Oregon. The negroes associate with the Indians and intermarry, and, if their free ingress is encouraged or allowed, there would a relationship spring up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensure inimical to the whites; and the Indians being led on by the negro who is better acquainted with the customs, language, and manners of the whites, than the Indian, these savages would become much more formidable than they otherwise would, and long bloody wars would be the fruits of the comingling of the races. It is the principle of self preservation that justifies the actions of the Oregon legislature.[1]

Thus, the history of Oregon as a state (and particularly in its founding, celebrated in the childhood game of Oregon Trail) demonstrates a profound anti-black and anti-Indigenous origin.

Make no mistake; the history of the state (and the game more broadly) is not merely the story of anti-black discriminatory laws. The rhetoric of men like Thurston and Applegate reveal the profound investments in eliminating black and Indigenous bodies from lands viewed as ‘destined’ for white settlement. If settler colonialism pre-supposes that Indigenous peoples have no real claims to the land, and exist perpetually in a past rather than a present or future, then America’s white supremacist settlers also viewed black people as threats to their claims to the land. Despite so-called abolition of slavery in ‘free states’, white settlers and governments had no desire to share the land they were alienating from Indigenous peoples with free black peoples. Other territories and free states also experimented with brief lived black immigration bans at the same time as Oregon (although none made it into their constitution). Ultimately, the necropolitics of settlement—the deciding of which bodies can live and which ones can (and must) die, a harsh calculus both Indigenous and African-American people have experienced in this country—structured much of the founding and institutionalizing of the state of Oregon. This is the ‘life and death’ of which Thurston speaks; the need to preserve lands alienated from native peoples as the sole beneficiary of white settlers. It is in this rhetorical moment that we can see the enjambment of anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity in the larger structures of settler colonialism.

Returning to the original Oregon Trail marriage image, what is the fundamental message its creators are trying to convey? Other than marshaling a general nostalgic appreciation for the game played by so many elementary school aged children (something I will return to shortly), this image asks us to collectively invest in a sense of accomplishment. The reader is expected to identify with the “you” who has arrived to marriage in Oregon. Such a message invests heavily in an American universal, one that is conveniently unmoored from historic race, gender, or other social markers. Instead, the viewer is invited to view themselves as part of a larger project of enduring and increasing freedom. The struggle for same-sex legal protections is then implicitly linked to the struggle to cross the ‘wildernesses’ of America and become part of the larger national story of expanding freedoms. It is an image invested in a particular form of visual forgetting; by creating a universal, and ostensibly queer, subject arriving at marriage in the paradise of Oregon, the anti-Indigenous and anti-black violences of Oregon’s founding and statehood become purposefully obscured in a rhetoric of equality and freedom. As Anna Tsing has argued, this represents a fundamental contradiction in universalist thinking: “Universalism is implicated in both imperial schemes to control the world and liberatory mobilizations for justice and empowerment. Universalism inspires expansion—for both the powerful and the powerless.” Indeed, the universalizing logics of settler colonialism in the United States—that this land was to be settled by and for white settlers, to the profound detriment of both Indigenous and African peoples—are also deployed by marriage equality campaigners, who use universal rhetorics of rights and equality to justify their claim to a share within American bounty.

What then does it mean to view the Oregon Trail marriage image as a black person, a native person, as a queer person without an immediate attachment to settlement and its attendant nostalgia? To read the image apart from a possessive investment in the normativity of settlement, of occupying space, means a reading that is critical of the rhetorical power such an image possesses. To do so involves a very critical reading of the seductive normative promises of marriage equality, and the collapsing of anti-Indigenous violence at the heart of the project. As Chickasaw scholar, Jodi Byrd, argues:

[T]he queer makes claims to an affective indigenous generosity that can welcome all arrivants in the hope that those moves, those approximations of traditional kinship sovereignties and tribal affiliations will transform the normative and transgress the dialectics of state sovereignty that conscript, expel, and police whose bodies and lives count as full citizens in the United States, the indigenous must be absent both from the contemporary now and from the spaces and tenses of grief. (p. 38)

Such an argument critiques the fundamental assumptions of sexual modernity and freedom promised in the Oregon Trail image. It takes as its starting point, not an investment in expansive and inclusive forms of equality within the American nation-state but, rather, a deep-seated suspicion at the juridical processes that are caught up in the adoption of state-based forms of recognition and the peoples who are inevitably, unequally caught in the violence at the heart of such ‘freedom’ projects. To read the Oregon Trail image critically, apart from the feel-good nostalgia and the too-easy narrative of incremental progress, requires us to take up Chandan Reddy’s critique of contemporary queer politics. Reddy asks “why US law in this historical moment desires gays’ and lesbians’ desire for recognition” (p. 193), inquiring as to the ways in which these moments of ‘extending’ freedoms do not actually challenge structures of violence, dispossession and marginalization against Indigenous or black people in the U.S., but instead offer a limited reform for select privileged gays and lesbians. If the cost of sexual modernity, or of inclusion in the contemporary U.S. nation-state as equal citizens, requires us to invest in nostalgic forgetting of anti-black and anti-Indigenous histories, we need both a critical reassessment of these investments, and a commitment to alternative politics that do not make state recognition the primary aim of transformative social movements.

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NOTES

[1] Robert Hinton, “Harlem Rides the Range: Black Studies and the West,” in Black Cultures and Race Relations, ed. James L. Conyers (Chicago: Burnham, 2002), 183–4.

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T.J. Tallie is a queer black scholar focusing on settler colonialism, race, gender, and sexuality.  He is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  You can find him on twitter @Halfrican_One.

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