New Perspectives

A deadline forced me to finish writing a story from an airplane. But it gave me tremendous new perspectives and insights that flowed into the story.

By Karen Hendricks

Summer assignment: A story about Gettysburg and Adams County, Pennsylvania followed me all the way to Montana.

In 30 years of journalism, I’ve never written a story about Native Americans—until this year. And it was uncanny, how my research and writing intersected with my personal life, to give me new insights—revelations, really—into the Native American experience.

It started when I received an assignment from Jessica Dean at Celebrate Gettysburg magazine. She wanted me to write a feature story, researching Native American history in Adams County—home of Gettysburg, known as the most famous small town in America for its role in the outcome of our nation’s civil war. Wouldn’t it be interesting to dig into its history, long before 1863?

First, I learned that a new museum being created by the Adams County Historical Society would include a full exhibit on Native American history—perfect timing for my article.

Hundreds of Native American artifacts were in their collection, and Andrew Dalton, the society’s executive director, explained that they were primarily found along Adams County’s streams and creeks—clues to Native Americans’ presence, thousands of years ago, long before Gettysburg existed as a town. By the time the first Europeans arrived in Adams County, however, the Native Americans had relocated, presumably to larger waterways such as the nearby Susquehanna River.

Then I learned of a concept that sent chills down my spine. In fact, I’m still trying to process it.

I was interviewing Benjamin Luley, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Gettysburg College.

“When Europeans came over, they saw large swaths of forest and thought of Adams County and this land as unoccupied—there’s a European term from Latin called ‘terra nullius’ which means ‘empty land’—and therefore theirs for the taking,” Luley explained.

The term goes a step further: Native Americans had no concept of land in terms of “ownership.” Their culture didn’t claim land or think of land as belonging to any one person, but rather it was shared by all.

This blew my mind.

I had known, of course, that Native Americans are indeed native, indigenous peoples in what we now call the United States. But I honestly hadn’t realized that they never claimed land as theirs or, for that matter, ever considered that land could be owned by anyone. They had a broader—and it seemed, kinder—view of the land. It existed for anyone and everyone to live on. No one had possession of it, just as no human beings could possess the rivers, sky, and other features of the natural world. How beautiful.

Then, I interviewed Dr. Guy Irwin, as one of Gettysburg’s most distinguished, current Native American residents—president of United Lutheran Seminary’s Gettysburg and Philadelphia campuses.

How did Irwin, born and raised in Oklahoma’s Osage Nation, to a non-Christian family, not only come into Christian faith, but become the first Native American bishop and first openly gay partnered bishop, nationwide, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? 

I had to find out and tie him into the story. Even though our interview took place on the phone, I could feel the sorrow, the poignancy, of his words.

Here’s an excerpt of his interview, to give you the flavor of his tone, and the weight of his words:

“When I lived on the reservation, I knew this was where I was from, in some deep more-than-geographical, almost spiritual, sense,” he explained. “And it’s given me a sense of never quite being where I belong when I’m not there. I feel like I carry with me where I come from. Even here in Pennsylvania, I have Native relatives whose land was lost and who aren’t here anymore … for the most part, they were removed, and I’m always aware of that. I never forget whose land I’m on—it’s the land of the people who were here before the Europeans.”

Journalism is often described as a profession that “gives a voice to the voiceless.”

It’s one thing to listen, understand and write about injustices. But it’s an altogether completely different thing to listen and understand those injustices so deeply that you feel them.

It was July, and as I completed the interviews, I needed time to process everything I’d learned, in order to pull the story together. But the calendar is rarely a journalist’s friend. Not only was my deadline approaching, but so was a very special summer vacation—a trip to Montana, with my husband, to visit our son. He moved there for a job during the pandemic, and this would be our first time visiting him.

It was also our first time flying since the pandemic hit. And I took this assignment—all my notes, the outline of a magazine story I’d started—on vacation. And flying turned out to play a significant role in the story coming together.

Flights to Billings, Montana from any Mid-Atlantic city requires at least one layover and connecting flight. Our total time in the air would be more than five hours. And we had a six-hour layover in Dallas—although we had wonderful plans to meet up with a friend for a few hours over lunch. I figured I’d have no trouble cobbling together a few hours of writing time, either in the air, or in the airport, and then—with this assignment filed and sent to Jessica—I’d fly right into our Big Sky Country vacation, work-free.

Our first flight, from Harrisburg, departed around 7 a.m. I love flying in and out of Harrisburg because it’s always fascinating to see the ribbon of the Susquehanna River from the air.

In fact, it’s my habit to spend more time window-watching than anything else while flying—taking in the neat rows of houses, tiny dots of blue swimming pools, the arteries of roadways, seeing how they all interplay with geographical features, forests, lakes and mountains. Their shapes, from air, are like an endless crazy quilt somehow stitched together. Agricultural areas are a bit more predictable, with neat squares and rectangles in variegated greens and golds. As it unfolds, I take it all in every time I fly, as much as the clouds allow.

Taking flight shortly after sunrise, the sun reflected in the Susquehanna River

On that day in late July, after leaving the Harrisburg area, as we got up to altitude, I went into my phone, where I had all my notes and transcripts of interviews, and I became immersed in my reading.

Next, I read through my rough outline for the story and thought about the article’s structure—which details and quotes I wanted to include. It was all washing over me. Deep in thought, I started gazing out the window again. And then, tears just started trickling down my face. I was seeing the patchwork of land below with new eyes.

Because I realized that patchwork below was the very land I was writing about. Native American land, originally. All sectioned off, measured, properties, claimed and developed. Taken. Owned.

And the story just flowed out of me.

While I’ve always appreciated the unique perspective that flying provides on the land below, this time it helped change my perspective too.

Photo taken mid-flight, around the time I had my “revelation,” and my best guess is that this is the Mississippi River, forming the western border of Tennessee.
Final leg of my flight, approaching Billings, Montana, including the Yellowstone River.

Click here to read my story, “Back to the Beginning: What do we know about Native Americans in Adams County?” published in the September/October 2022 issue of Celebrate Gettysburg magazine.

The reverberations of this assignment actually continued into my trip, all the way to Montana, where I had the chance to explore three caves with 2,000-year-old Native American paintings (more chills down my spine). Excavations show the area in and around Billings was occupied by Native Americans for 8,000 years. Then, we watched a beautiful golden sunset, from the Four Dances Natural Area, overlooking Billings.

Pictograph Caves State Park, 10 minutes from downtown Billings, Montana’s largest city.
Insides one of the caves, the artwork is fading.
Golden hour, Four Dances Natural Area.

On another day, we took in another sunset west of Billings, at the Canyon Creek Battlefield, part of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. In the 1860s, the discovery of gold (by white men) on Nez Perce lands, caused the Native Americans to flee their homeland across what is now Washington, Oregon and Idaho, into Montana—pursued by the U.S. Army. By the time they reached Montana, there were numerous battles. The end result was the defeat and capture of the Nez Perce and their relocation to “Indian territory” in Oklahoma.

Battle of Canyon Creek marker, just west of Billings, Montana.
The monument preserves a fire ring where the Nez Perce stayed and took their stand at Canyon Creek.

The timing and alignment of my first-ever Native American assignment, in my professional life, intersected, uncannily, serendipitously, with my personal vacation time. As a self-employed freelance journalist, the boundary lines between these two areas of my life are constantly blurred.

In Montana, there was something about the sun setting, casting glints of gold across the landscape, the wind rustling, almost echoing around me. It created time and space to think, reflect.

Looking west from the Canyon Creek Battlefield marker, imagining the route and journey taken by the Nez Perce, known as the Nez Perce Trail of Tears.

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