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  • Mj Pettengill

Unearthing

Who are they—the ones that I refer to as “the 298?” They are our people from another part of our history, long dead and systematically forgotten. From the beginning, I made promises to them and to myself. The first was that I would find them—acknowledge their existence, return their names, restore dignity, honor them and others in their world, and simply discover and share as much information as possible about who they were in both life and in death. Contrary to what one might believe, this kind of realization—discovery, research, and writing—does not perpetuate suffering. It is quite the opposite. To release pain, we must be able to define its origins. It is imperative to trace back to the original source so that the bleeding ceases and transforms buried wounds into scars. Only then, it is possible to leave the pain behind and honor these scars. This is one of the many lessons that I have learned on this rich and meaningful journey. One way to bring about healing is to identify the source of the intergenerational, historical, or cultural wound. In the case of the 298, it was as basic as finding their names. No, the list is not complete. It is likely that it will never be complete. There are over 298 stones at this site. I am certain that there are instances when more than one person was buried in a single grave. The records that were not in place did and still have many blank spaces. Some rows of stones have repeated numbers or gaps in the numbering. To sum it up, it’s a mess. Well, at the very least, we can try to understand that to us it’s a mess, but back then, we can only imagine the true circumstances. It is impossible to ever actually know unless we were there. So, once again, I will make this crucial point: It is about acknowledgment, not judgment. There is no room for judgment, for it keeps us trapped in limited thinking. We must continually ask ourselves, “Are we doing better? What have we learned or not learned? Where do we go from here?” And then, it is time to embrace the learning. It’s remarkable how the unveiling of events previously hidden in our past, enables us to observe a troubled or wounded part of that has been wired deep within our psyches. This is true on historical, intergenerational, and cultural levels. These levels are complex and multi-faceted, functioning as doorway opening to new possibilities leading to our own discoveries. It is not uncommon to collectively and/or individually possess fears or reject that which we cannot explain, that once brought to into the light may be a part of healing or aligning what may have remained hidden and passed on to future generations. It is after practicing the willingness to consider information previously deemed taboo, that we will comprehend that our field of vision is expanded. Fear then evaporates. My second promise was to have a monument crafted and placed at the site to identify and honor them paupers. At first, that process was met with a fair share of resistance as well. Fortunately, it was overcome. The monument is in place. Revelations can be a slow and steady process, but the healing continues. Every year, I post the names of the paupers on the pages of various social media. Sometimes I ask people to read their names aloud. When I give lectures, readings, and do book signings, I haul my photographic displays around with me. One is a large, framed poster of the names of the paupers—268 out of 298. I set it on an easel. People are drawn to it, often surprised by the familiarity of the names. Some have even found possible relatives, and it becomes the beginning of a search for a missing branch of their family tree. I also circulate a booklet with the paupers’ grave number, birth and death date, and birthplace. This information is also available on my website. In addition to hearing from folks who have found missing ancestors, I have been contacted by people who have corrections or additions to make. That is not a part of my work. I direct them to the official record keepers and take notes. Once again, I provide the names of the 298. Through my work, their stories live on, and we have an opportunity to glimpse into the past where until now, there was none.

The stories of the paupers are the foundation for the “Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series.” At first, it was to be one book. Soon, it was realized that many other stories were begging to be told. To honor them, the series continues as long as it must. Mj Pettengill, Author

Book One - “Etched in Granite” Book Two - “The Angels’ Lament” Book Three - “The Book of Samuel” To Be Released Image: Lewis Hine


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