Some books that you read affect you emotionally because you insert yourself into the story and partially absorb the plotline. Other books can change your destiny because no one else can quite explain the lessons on each page. Life may not come with any table of contents written, but it doesn’t hurt to look to the words of fellow travelers who have already gone to where you might be going. Such is the work combining all of the above by Stephanie Elizondo Griest in her 2017 nonfiction release, All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands (UNC Press).
It is rare to find the vision that one has personally seen spoken back to them in some way, from a prior experience or understanding. Ms. Griest captures one part of the equation for me concerning her role as an educator near the Canadian border in northern New York state. She came there from roots borne from the southern U.S. border by way of chance or possible synchronicity. Regardless of the cause for her development, she has struck a chord in me as an enthusiastic Native reader of her story.
The title refers to the modern paradigm of institutions and gatekeeping. The Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Patrol agent is proverbially reflected against the role of the American Catholic Church in establishing a basis for understanding her thesis.
Her attempts are best translated through the words of others that she met along the path of world travel which construes her backstory. Traveling the world has made her better at realizing where she has been.
And where she has been is on Indian land. Just like the Mexican-American War in the 19th century was really a fight between European opportunist settler governments over original Indian titled property, so were the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century. Griest allows the history to speak for itself mostly but is convincing in retelling the ramifications that bind the proverbial Agent and Saint archetypes together on either border region.
Some published reviews of the work try to pigeonhole this writing as pro-Native as if that is a possibly inherently anti-American viewpoint. I am afraid that the current social disorder is now spawning the profiling of non-status quo supporting organizations as fringe movements. In turn, these movements are labeled as “alternative” and then set forth as either left or right. This is too simplistic a characterization and overlooks Griest’s seemingly embedded narrative personality. That is the strength of this book.
True, there are some fanciful tales about the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory spun by those with counter-factual agendas, as I am sure there are for the southern border, but these uncontested perspectives are not the whole cloth of the story. Instead, these voices are like multi-colored string sewing the visions together of the bigger socio-political quilt that America’s two immediate neighbors represent.
For that reason, I encourage the purchase of this book by public and special libraries of all sizes along either border. It is not enough to say that such treatments come along only every five years or so. I participated in a thicker volume by Derek Lundy in 2011 as he rode each border on a motorcycle.
Griest’s work gives me hope that long-form media is yet to be boosted to comparative levels of exposure as pop media has always occupied since colonial pamphlets stirred the revolutionary plot among the colonies. Her opinion counts because no one else is making the case to examine both borders simultaneously.
Fear of the southern border area is a solid seller politically these days. It will not be too hard to envision a future land grab into Mexico under some national security pretense that will geographically make the border wall a lot shorter (and cheaper).
My past book review of the 2009 fictional Uprising by the Canadian author Doug Bland address congruent themes about an identical usurpation of Canadian sovereignty, albeit under sensational red power movement pretenses.
The movement of refugees near each border also strikes a contemporary tone. Where just a few years ago the only border jumpers in significant numbers were attempting to pass into the Lower 48, now the exodus of American-based immigrant populations are rapidly piling up the stats as Canada becomes a preferred destination to those with unsure futures. The likelihood of a northern border wall seems even more far-fetched than I speculated on previously because the implicit disregard for border security is being tolerated daily to facilitate the rag-tag departures through sleepy, fog covered landscapes.
I find this book to be appropriate in gaining a perspective without having to relearn what you thought you knew. It could serve as an accessory reading material for a college course, or as a book club selection. It would be interesting to take a class with the author as the instructor because the challenge would be on classifying it as sociology, history, geography or multi-cultural studies. It combines elements of cooking, weather watching , agriculture, art forms, as well as language to make its points.
The book is a quick read at approximately 300 pages. It is adequately sourced without being exhaustive. There may be future books on the borders of the American empire, but it is highly unlikely that a borderland native will lay out a dualistic treatment of this sort anytime soon. I am thankful the thoughtful author put her best foot forward in retelling my decade spent in the underrepresented North Country. Ample alternative book reviews are available, and the book may be found online and at booksellers everywhere.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.