I like history museums and historical sites. I’ll often go visit them to get to know the place that I live or the spot that I’m visiting or maybe just to get to know myself a little better.
Today, since it was raining and I had the day off of work, I took a trip down to the Pope County Museum in Glenwood Minnesota. It’s a great little museum. I would encourage folks traveling through the region and those who live here to stop in. It had one of the best displays on Native American history that I’ve seen in a museum of its size. True, I’ve seen some really inaccurate and just plain awful displays of Native history, but this one, it was okay. Overall, the museum was quite good, and, as far as I can tell, accurate.
As I wander, generally aimlessly, through museums and historic sites my mind comes to think of time. I come to understand connections and recognize how huge and small things are at the same time. Today, in the Pope County Museum, I studied a simple display. It was a timeline from the founding of Glenwood through the present. It laid out what seemed to be a rather random collection of historical events at national and local levels. Looking at it got me thinking again how short time really is.
Glenwood was founded in 1866. My great grandparents were just children then. My grandparents would be coming along in a few decades. Three of those grandparents would pass on before I was born, but one I knew. Grandma Mondloch was born in 1900 and would live until 1984. She passed on just after I turned 13.
I looked at that timeline just as I’ve looked at many historic sites. I looked at it thinking in Grandma time, looking at how the world has changed in a lifetime that I knew and still know. It’s not a story in a history book. It is life.
Grandma was the third generation of her family in this country. She grew up with her native language. I remember my Aunt Lucille telling me once how she’d been angry that, as kids, they spoke Luxembourgish at home and that it was tough to learn English as a school kid. Four generations, it took four generations to lose a language. Now, we expect immigrants to give up their language, forget who they are not in generations, not even in years, but immediately on coming to this country. We do this while we still try to find ourselves in festivals and museums, German Fest, Luxembourg Fest, Irish Fest, whatever fest.
I kept wandering through the museum. I turned a corner and a small Nazi pennant caught my eye. It was part of a display of items soldiers had brought home from WWII. My family knew this war. I had several uncles who fought, and well, all families knew this war in one way or another.
Last year I went to Luxembourg. I saw memorial sites and visited museums. I also learned a little something about myself. I learned that my ancestry generations back was Jewish. My branch of my family had left behind that identity generations ago, but it gave me a different perspective on those concentration camps. Those concentration camps became the death places of unknown cousins, aunties, uncles. They left the history books and became real. I had an uncle, Uncle Clarence, who helped free the people in the camps at the end of WWII. I never heard him speak of it. I just learned it some years ago from a cousin. I don’t know if he knew, but he was freeing family.
I look at it now in the question of the detention camps in the US. Is it any different? I mean really, is it any different? Looking back, somewhere we are family. We are detaining our brothers, sisters, cousins. We don’t have that right. We who carry European blood, this isn’t our land. We are, once again, imprisoning those who come from this place based on silly lines we drew on a piece of paper and called a map. The map isn’t real. It’s our lines. The lines we’ve drawn. Why do we keep drawing lines? It didn’t work when we held the Japanese in detention centers or when the Germans put Jews and others into the concentration camps or when we held Native peoples in stockades or for that matter as we still hold Native peoples on reservations or Black people in ghettos.
Stop with the lines, stop with the pretending that maps are reality. History is short. It’s not too big to change. All we need to do is to listen to the stories, learn, and act. Take a trip. Check out a museum, a historic site, maybe sit with an elder. Whatever it is, come to know yourself, where you are. Reach for knowledge. We have a lot to do.