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The Daily Tar Heel

The Dream of the Last American

He penciled in the trees, row after row circling the lake before tapering off into the bald lead humps of hills.

In the open spaces and among the trees he drew triangles, tepees he'd seen in the history books from the parlor of his father's house.

He was a boy. Triangles made men. They spread.

On the eastern shore of the lake they gathered, with their bronze skin, wading knee-high into the water with arrows in hand, fast as fish, or faster. Over the wide, treeless hills they cut down buffalo with their spears. They wore the skin of the animal on their backs, animals no less themselves.

In the evening, round fires, they sang of their gods, of the spirits among the trees and of the darkness smothering them as it melted down over the sky.

The young sat with their faces in the flames, and the old who watched from the shadows thought both of the end before them and of the beginning it gave. Death itself was the means of new life, from the grave, by feeding life that sprang thereafter. Even savages knew time.

They made their sacrifice, giving what was given them. They wasted. They warred.

Every culture had its darkness.

Then one house, then two the boy drew on the western shore of the lake. Squares with triangular roofs.

It was Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane.

Then fences, neighbors, permanence. They called theirs a "New World," villages made among trees, slate for the unrecognized dream of a culture. They wore the skin of the animal on their backs, animals no less themselves.

They put down their spoken word, and set out over water casting nets from their sailing rigs. They laid pathways through the brush, free to practice, to breathe the free air and seek an uncertain salvation.

This was their sacrifice:

Way led on to way, and eventually the two of them met.

One, starving, asked the other, "How?"

"How?," the other returned. But neither of them knew.

They ate supper at a long table. One taught the other to plant, fertilize, harvest, hunt and smoke. There were promises made, and as promises go, broken. The fair-skinned neighbors, with discovery on their lips and conquest in their hands, and seeing nothing of the Father in their savage counterparts, rose to vanquish them.

Theirs was a quest for the divine. It justified a more stubborn notion of progress. "There must be progress," they wrote, and to its march other things must yield.

He penciled in houses, buildings, towns and forged roads connecting each. There were bridges over the water, and parks and government.

The tepees began to fade from all the times the boy's hand swept over them, as he drew the fair-skinned man's world.

Eventually they were erased, or better, redrawn as the triangular roofs of square houses made beneath them. Souls couldn't live in the same body.

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There was a mystery, or the sense of it, when the air caught a certain way. They sensed a greater mystery, of not whose land it was, but what separated both from it.

But the books didn't tell of this.

On the page there was a war and the sense was lost, suffering with its physical manifestation the fate of being outnumbered and outgunned. Still, in the shadows of his father's parlor, the dream persisted in the boy's fancy. There were spaces between the lines on the page, and in his hand the instrument of creation, of recreation.

On the eastern shore of the lake a western city was made. The city dwellers called meetings and formed committees that built over the sacred grounds of the bronze-skinned dead.

The plain fact was, John Marshall wrote, discovery gave title to the one who made it. Thus it was Cabot's country, not the tribes of savages who inhabited before him, whose occupation was war and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. "To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness."

All things bend toward progress.

It was a sad fate. Still, Marshall surmised, every rule that is made is done so with the appendage of difficulty.

So the boy sat among the shadows of his creation. The books had it easy. The story was that of the victors. But why, he wondered, learn the sadness of the vanquished?

There must have been some bond he felt, stronger than a highway, connecting these grand cities of his forefathers with a simpler time. What was it?

There were physical remnants of an older war, watching from the shadows with their broad fur chests and their finger-claws and eyes half human.

They watched the boy evolve, savages hid among the trees and among the bald lead humps of hills.

Vanquished, their lives half of the world and half thicket, and resisting attempts to track them, they knew, all the while this human devoured not anyone's country but the country with its progress, that ancient conflict: Who am I?

There remained, after the books were read, only the question on the page.

It was an ancient dream.

It was lost, but has been recovered.

So wrote Marshall in the case of Johnson v. M'Intosh. Paul Tharp is a first-year law student. Reach him with questions and comments at

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