Memory, Place and Story: How Connection to Land Connects us to Self

Some would argue our contemporary consumer-based, productivity-oriented culture contributes to a collective loss of memory—done of being connected to something larger than our everyday selves. As a society, we have become dislocated in time and disconnected from place, leaving us rootless, transient, and opting for sensationalism instead of spirituality; superficiality instead of soul. So much of this malady is due to our disconnect from nature, our bodies, and earth itself. We are no longer grounded in something real that gives us context to understand how our lives play out in a fabric of being, a pattern in living nature with a self-organizing intelligence of its own. As Jung put it,

“Man feels isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree makes a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants and animals” (in Sabini, 2005, p. 79-80).

Blood and memory play a significant role in the ongoing spiritual relationship between the indigenous ancestors and their Native American descendants according to Native American literary scholar Robin Riley Fast, who has written about the work of contemporary Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso. Tapahonso insists, “The land that may appear arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories which hold the spirits of the people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and other worlds ago” (in Fast, 2007, p. 203). Each cliff formation, each watering hole, every boulder or ancient tree had a story that rooted it in the landscape and in the people’s psyche. Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko asserts that stories were often triggered as people passed by a specific landmark or exact place where a story took place (in Halpern, 1987).

So many memories-turned-stories speak of suffering and separation from place. During what is known as “The Long Walk,” the Navajo were tragically displaced during a forced march of the Navajo people after Kit Carson initiated a path of destruction in 1864, burning their homes and crops, stealing their livestock, and forcing them into a state of starvation and surrender. Many of the more than 8500 Navajo forced to march to Fort Sumner, several hundred miles away, died on the walk. Those that did not die from illness, freeze, starve, or get shot by soldiers, were likely drowned while forced at gunpoint to cross the raging Rio Grande river where they were washed away. The poetry of Luci Tapahonso illustrates the stories of the horrors of the forced march, speaking to the murder of pregnant women and the purposeful drowning of elders and children, or of those who were too tired or too sick to travel (in Fast, 2007).

Loss of place and of connection with the land results in profound loss to the collective memory of a people or culture, disorienting them and obliterating their identity. Living in a new place meant a loss of story since there was no memory attached to the landscape around. One might argue that the loss of place at the hands of the white men affected the Navajo forever. “What good is memory if this place does not recognize me?” (p. 203) asks Tapahonso.

Glen Albrecht, professor of philosophy and sustainability, points to a kind of “place pathology.” When you separate people from their land he suggests, “they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life” (in Smith, 2010, para. 4). Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein (2005) points out that when the Navajos were displaced by the Europeans, many of the Navajo simply disappeared. They no longer knew who or where they were. The disorientation initiated by loss of ancestors and memory, of being located in a larger web of meaning, is profound and virtually irreversible. Estrangement from land results in uncanniness, the feeling of not being at home. Thus, to be without place translates to not existing at all. In fact, the Navajo called their land “the Great Self” (Casey, 2009), evoking the idea that separation from place literally results in a separation from self.

Perhaps it is the lack of relationship with the new land and lack of mourning for their own loss of home among the newly-arrived Europeans that initiated a wave of destruction and despair amidst the First Peoples of the so-called New World. Yet, through listening with all our senses, through being fully present, through allowing the living story that is unfolding at every moment in the place where we are to engulf us, we can each begin to reconnect. In her poetry, Tapahonso examines the sense of alienation wrought upon the Navajo which evokes a sense of homesickness for the readers of her work, blossoming into a true feeling of emotional and literal exile as one makes their way through her words. Through Tapahonso’s own perception and the visceral reaction it evokes, it is possible to recoup a shadow of the loss the Navajo have suffered.

Yet, in a poem entitled, “Starlore,” Tapahonso introduces hope, reassuring us that healing ceremony can “restore the world for us” (p. 204). Healing ceremony often includes a narrative, and locating ourselves in the story so that the mythical implications can work on us. In An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field, eco-writer TerryTempest Williams echoes this notion, saying “We are healed by our stories (1994, p. 57). Reconnection to land where-ever we are—land that holds stories both ancient and new—can provide us with a sense of homecoming and healing if we slow ourselves, ground our feet on the earth, open our hearts and our senses, and simply listen to its tale. In this way we may re-member wholeness that somehow slipped from memory in our fast-paced and forgotten hours.

(Note: Parts of this post have been excerpted from my essay, “The Power of Story and Place among the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly” published in Depth Insights scholarly eZine, Fall 2011.

Some References

Bernstein, J. (2005). Living in the borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. New York: Routledge.

Casey, E. S. (2009). Getting back into place: Toward a renewed understanding of the place-world (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Fast, R. R. (2007). The land is full of stories: Navajo stories in the work of Luci Tapahonso. Boston, MA: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Halpern, D. (Ed.). (1987). On Nature: Nature, landscape, and natural history. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press.

Sabini, M. (2005). The Earth has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung

Sandner, D. (1991). Navaho symbols of healing:  Jungian exploration of ritual, image, and medicine. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.

Smith, D. B. (2010, January 27). Is there an ecological unconscious?, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, p. 36.

Tapahonso, L. (1997). Blue horses rush in. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Tempest Williams, T. (1994). An unspoken hunger: Stories from the field. New York: Pantheon Books.

About Bonnie Bright


Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., is a transformative, soul-centered coach (via Alef Trust) and a certified Archetypal Pattern Analyst® (via Assisi Institute). She earned M.A. degrees in Psychology at Sonoma State University and in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she also received her Ph.D.. She is the founder and Director Emerita of Depth Psychology Alliance™, an online community for everyone interested in Jungian and depth psychologies. Bonnie served as Executive Editor of Depth Insights™, a scholarly journal which she created, for six years, and she regularly produces audio and video interviews on Jungian/transpersonal/depth psychological topics. She completed a 2-year training in Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with West African elder Malidoma Somé; and she has trained extensively in dreamwork, Holotropic Breathwork™, and in the Enneagram. Her interests in archaeology, ecology, anthropology, shamanism, history, and culture have led her to travels in nearly 40 countries around the world.