“American Progress” by John Gast

O’ pioneers, with your braided hair
Dulled with dust and brow sweat
Your prairie skirts and ruffled blouses
How you huddled in those middle states
On flat land, battling air, stone and madness
Relentless winds taunting your sanity, survival through a day
Only to carry you to the next
No task ever finished
No belly ever full

You watched as your children swam in pasture ponds
Gave your girls floral names, biblical for the boys
While the western rivers receded, thawing from a deep freeze
Dropping cattle to their knees
Waiting for warmer days
Swatting swarms of grasshoppers descending upon your crops
Streets slick with insect bodies, towns delirious with their song and death
And all the while the country, rushing to pan gold, seeking better lives,
Knitting together a patchwork quilt of fickle humanity
One steel rail at a time, blasting the Sierras
Through Donner Pass, built upon the bones nourished from familiar flesh
Chinese working east, Irish working west
Meeting at Promontory, Utah
To drive the final, golden spike

When the train came to town
The budding brand of man, Fred Harvey, took your girls
Put them in starched uniforms, white as skin, no stain unnoticed
Gave them sculpted coiffures, housing and rules, pinched dreams of their own
Civilizing land with polished silver, ladling meat with rich creamy sauces
Fruit dripping with ripeness, reinstating decorum, a path to consistency, unification
Tables filled with food picked by Mexican migrants, heads bent and hands bloodied,
Their skins browning in the sun, turning the color of soil
Backs weighted with another man’s civility, waiting for their turn at the table

Towns sprang up overnight, borrowed architecture and Santa Fe style
Arching doorways and sweeping entrances, declared grand and quaint in one breath
And the travelers: the missionaries and immigrants, the Easterners and explorers
All reading their Will James novels
Dreaming of wild mustangs and Billy the Kid
Shoved the Indigenous people to the sides, putting up their imaginary lines
Descending upon them like a plague of locust
Cruel and ruthless
Manifest Destiny

The heavy winds still carry our burdens
Each rail of track our cross to bear
Each silver set a reflection of our former selves,
Of women seeking independence
Of men with no rights
Of people judged for the color of their skin
Those Wild West settlers and thieves, tycoons and builders,
Hard working laborers and Buffalo Solders fighting for their freedom
And natives forced into modernization, leaving behind a trail of tears
We lay upon their foundation
We lay upon their dreams and grit
Humbled by their sacrifices
Bearing the cost of our passage
Lest we forget

-S. S. Hicks


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