Whence Mother Earth?


John D. James is a senior at the University of Alabama majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in General Business. This book review was written for Dr. Michael J. Altman’s REL 370: Empire and the Construction of Religion course.

In Mother Earth: An American Story, Sam D. Gill begins to articulate and explain with physical evidence that the term “Mother Earth” is commonly misused and presented to audiences as some common knowledge involving Native American thought and belief. Gill takes an interesting approach when trying to carefully argue that Mother Earth is not an ancient central Native American figure. This book’s message is a radical rethinking of how the figure Mother Earth came to be used and ultimately misused by so many who failed to ask questions concerning Mother Earth’s origin.

“The earth is my mother, and on her bosom I shall repose,” is a statement attributed to Tecumseh, a Native American leader, spoken during a meeting in 1810 with General William H. Harrison. This documented statement is commonly used and popularized in order to promote that Native Americans do in fact have a set figure called “Mother Earth.” Gill takes documented evidence of when and where Mother Earth is used in time and begins to unravel the context in which it is used. “There is much more to the statement than appears on the surface. I have found the statement to be the nexus of a number of interwoven stories, stories that must be told” (Gill, 8). Gill’s investigation traces historical events in which Mother Earth is used and popularized. The figure that is Mother Earth, in Gill’s opinion, was influenced by European-American ideas of what was to be understood as Indian. This book argues that Mother Earth was an attempt to try to project identity and purpose upon native peoples who resided in North America during colonization, westward expansion, and eventually resettlement of Native Americans onto reservations.

Gill backs his argument by introducing ideas that question who possesses authority over the term Mother Earth. Why would someone choose to use Mother Earth to classify something being owned by Native Americans? What does the labeling accomplish? In Gill’s book, Mother Earth is a production of European-American and Native American interaction. “The difference in the basis for authority is fundamental and in it much may be learned about the differences between Americans with European ancestry and Native Americans” (Gill, 67). Without the role of either group, Mother Earth wouldn’t have come to be used or popularized in Gill’s opinion. Understanding that Mother Earth was a result from the encounter of two or more groups is suggesting that definition is constructed over time with multiple uses. Gill points out with the help of the term Mother Earth that people help determine what a definition is, who gives it authority, and the many filters an idea goes through before it is presented to audiences.

What worked rather well in Gill’s book on identity was the use of historical context and in depth explanations of material used in referencing Mother Earth’s uses. Gill purposes that users of Mother Earth need to stop and examine the origin of the term and question the identity back to its early uses. I admire Gill’s stance and historian side while writing this analytical book. The difference between religious studies scholars and historians at times may be hard to distinguish when concerned with context. Gill’s book offers an opinion on labeling that sometimes few people ever question–that is question the origin of words and agendas behind the use of these words. Language at times can be used to suppress, command, and rule over a group or groups. Gill makes it a point to show the reader that Mother Earth is a constructed and misused label that is surrounded by assumptions and misinformed persons. 

To note something that did not work for Gill is his overall purpose for writing this book. His writing concerning Mother Earth is contributing to the historical scholarship he himself appears to be upset with and who he holds responsible for confusing the origin of Mother Earth in the first place. His commentary and overall analysis of Mother Earth are part of the problem that he himself is trying to relay to the reader. Mother Earth is in fact taken and used for specific purposes to accomplish certain goals by whoever may be using it. In this case, Gill is using Mother Earth to teach the construction of identity and origin of something involving its many perspectives. Lack of acknowledgment for his position stating what he personally thought Mother Earth was used for shows that Gill won’t state that he himself is just as “guilty” as his misinformed scholars he speaks about who pollute the Mother Earth origin. Everyone has an opinion, and Gill acting as if his opinion is absolute truth is problematic.

Sam D. Gill’s book’s message about identity can help give examples on how identity is formed and constructed. The Mother Earth that is popularized in media and studied by scholars is a prime example of the construction of a term processed over time and given definition by two or more groups through dialogue and encounters with one another. Two or more groups either intentionally or unintentionally provide an environment for meaning to be given to something, whether it is Mother Earth or whatever else can be used as identity. In this semester’s Empire and the Construction of Religion course, we’ve explored the role of colonial contact and the encounter between Europe and its others in the construction of religion as a category of the West. Gill’s book provides an excellent example of how a European-American group influenced the construction of a term used to help make sense of the Native-American Other. Mother Earth is a label given religious significance by an outsider party that is completely misinformed and misuses it entirely.

The myth that surrounds Mother Earth is elaborated on and studied in Mother Earth: An American Story by Sam D. Gill. His attempt to reveal that Mother Earth is created from historical personal accounts helps to bring physical truth to the term. Gill brilliantly argues that story and history are one in the same. History, although understood by some to mean truth, is also just a story that someone has produced and constructed.