Thomas Jaggers – Academy Steward and Faculty
Thomas Jaggers has been at the Academy since 2004. In that time, he has been involved in every aspect of the Academy’s programs and management. He is now a member of the Academy faculty, and the co-founder with Molly Sturges of Our Sacred Bodies, a new program series exploring the relationship between our individual bodies, the body of humanity and the body of the Earth.
Thomas holds a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and sociology. He is an activist and leader, who brings a passionate approach to social change and transformation. His particular focus is on the creation and facilitation of forums where people can speak openly and be heard by each other in a space of compassion and vulnerability.
Academy for the Love of Learning
Interview with Thomas Jaggers
Why this journey, why you and why now?
Thomas Jaggers: David Witt proposed last year that we recreate that expedition as part of the Seton Legacy Project. His intent is part historical—finding campsites, retracing Seton’s steps—and part scientific and environmental in terms of whether it is possible to see and track any changes in the landscape and environment due to global warming.
Within the Academy, it was Aaron’s suggestion initially that Patty and I accompany David on the trip primarily to see if there are ways in which we can more fully align Seton and the work of the Seton Legacy Project with the rest of the Academy’s programming and mission.
To be completely honest, when it was first proposed to me and I said ‘yes,’ there wasn’t any great reason for going beyond the fact that it sounds like a fun trip, a chance to go somewhere where most people wouldn’t normally go. To spend six days out in the wilderness is of course something I would want to do.
Seton says in the original preface to The Arctic Prairies, “What young man would not gladly give a year of his life to roll backward the scroll of time for five decades and live that year in the romantic bygone days of the Wild West?” He realized that heading that far north was a chance to go back to an environment and a way of life up there that was from the past. So I guess there is also a part for me that is excited about getting completely away from urbanization and human life and human society.
What are your intentions? Now that the day to leave is drawing closer and you have responded to the call to adventure, it sounds like there is something about experiencing the wild in a certain way. Could you say more about that?
Thomas Jaggers: During the six days that we will be out on the lake, we will be based at a campsite and then doing day expeditions, day hikes, or possibly one or two days of canoe expeditions, and then back to the camp for the night. There will be the three of us, the curator of the Canadian museum, and the guide—maximum six people.
I don’t know how many hundreds of miles we will be from the nearest town or cell phone reception, but we are going to be out in the wilderness in a way that I haven’t been out in the wilderness ever before. Even in the Himalayas when I was there, there were always shepherds and tiny little villages, which was away from Western civilization but it wasn’t away from human life. I think this is going to be my first real time of being completely out in the wilderness—a plane ride away from anyone else.
The landscape doesn’t look so exciting to me: it is tundra. It is just below the Arctic Circle, but it is above the extent of the forest, so there are no trees; it is low grassland and lakes. If you look on Google Earth it looks like a mass of grass interspersed with water and rivers and lakes and streams.
How do you imagine moving into a landscape that sounds like it might not be the easiest landscape for you to relate with?
Thomas Jaggers: I guess that is why I am imagining that the fact of being out in the wilderness so far from anything and anyone is going to be the main thing. As we understand it there is a chance for a lot of wildlife, including grizzly, caribou, wolf, and so on. Mosquitoes are the other aspect of the wildlife. Seton dedicates a whole chapter of his book to the horrors of the mosquitoes, so I am really looking forward to that!
How do you think your relationship to the wild might be changed by going on this journey?
Thomas Jaggers: I do imagine my relationship to what is wild might be changed, but I don’t know how. I think that is part of the anticipation of being out in the wilderness so far, and being out in a different kind of wilderness.
What is going to be different about this is that there won’t be the rhythm of the day. I don’t know whether the sun will actually set or not, but if it does set, it is only going to set very briefly and it is never going to get dark. There won’t be the rhythm of dawn and day and dusk and night and stars to relate to, which is also going to be interesting and challenging.
Thomas Jaggers: Yes, I expect so. I remember being in Scotland when it was still light at 2am in the morning and the disorientation and challenge of that. I am going to take an eye mask to sleep with!
Are there any other intentions you are carrying into this, personally and professionally?
Thomas Jaggers: Personally it is about the chance to be out in the wilderness and the chance to be out with very few people.
And then from an Academy point of view, there are two aspects to Seton’s book, The Arctic Prairies, which were very surprising to me. One was his apparent attitude towards wilderness.
Even in the Preface to the re-publication of the book in 1943, when Seton had long been in New Mexico and towards the end of his life, he was viewing and writing about the expanse of that wilderness as an untapped resource for the betterment of civilization—especially the oil, gold, nickel, and copper that was under the ground that could be mined.
As he has been portrayed, at least by us, as a champion of the environment, an early environmentalist, it was surprising for me to read his attitudes towards untouched wilderness as being a resource for human civilization. There is part of me that is wanting to think about and track that, and how attitudes and perspectives these days within the environmental movement are very much one of preserving wilderness for its own sake and preserving wilderness as untainted wilderness because that has its own inherent value.
The second point in the book is the very strong and apparent racist attitudes that he expresses. The examples are mostly to do with the individuals he encounters. In his expeditions he hires local folk, including indigenous folk, to help with the expeditions—the canoeing, the hunting, the tracking, the portaging etc.—and although he pulls out individuals for praise, for the most part he condemns individuals and then condemns them as a group as being lazy, indolent, sullen, alcoholic, gamblers.
In contrast, he portrays all of the white men whom he interacts with as being the most upstanding, generous, adventurous, strong, courageous men he has met.
So there is this great contrast between the familiarity and the praise he has for the white men he encounters, and the condemnation of the indigenous folk. I could believe that the actual individuals whom he met were sullen and lazy and alcoholic; I have no reason to disbelieve his word about those particular people. But there is no hint in the book whatsoever of him having any understanding that the reason the indigenous people might be like that is as a result of colonization, as opposed to being their natural state of being.
And so that is a real surprise for me, based upon what we know about Seton as a supposed champion of and supporter of Native American rights and wisdom and spiritual traditions. The book to me reads very much as a run-of-the-mill patriarchal white explorer from the early 20th century. There is nothing enlightened about it at all.
So, from an Academy perspective I am very much wanting—through the first-hand experience of doing the trip—to distance our selves from his writings and his perspective. And for me, to not excuse him or make him a product of his times or the culture, but to be very clear that a lack of perspective on the effects of colonization was missing and a fault and something we absolutely do not stand behind.
So, it is about relationship for me—relationship to the natural world, and relationship to indigenous cultures and the effects of colonization.
I hear a struggle in what you say, and a potent one, for the Academy as the stewards of his legacy and his archives. I wonder if you could say more about your feeling about the Seton Legacy at this moment?
Thomas Jaggers: I think the primary feeling in reading his book is one of sadness, in the sense that a lot of what we had understood, what we had been told, what we had promoted ourselves, how we portrayed Seton in the exhibition in the New Mexico History Museum, etc. gave me the feeling—and I take responsibility for this—that he was much more enlightened and much more progressive, and much less a “man of his time” than this book would seem to indicate. I feel that we are dealing with an important historical figure here whom we could also in some ways be inspired by and look up to for his expeditions into the wilderness. To find, through his self-portrayal in this book, that he seems like just another white colonial man is shocking and sad to me.
I contrast it with another British traveler from the early 20th century named Wilfred Thesiger, who traveled mostly in Africa and the Middle East before the First World War and between the wars. At the end of one of his books he shares his stark fear that the discovery of oil in the Middle East is going to prove ruinous—that it is going to ruin the indigenous ways of life that exist there that he was part of, especially the Marsh Arabs, the Kurds in the marshes of Iraq. As I read Seton’s book, I contrasted it with Thesiger’s foresight in seeing that although oil is going to bring great financial wealth, it is actually going to ruin many things—ways of life, land, wildlife, political relationships etc.; whereas, Seton just exhorts people to go up to the Northwest Territories and mine.
You go as a British man. How do you relate to that tradition of British exploration and adventuring and empire?
Thomas Jaggers: It is problematic for me.
The Britishness I really don’t have much relationship to personally. The question of empire and colonialism, I do. And the feeling is mostly one of grief. I have a belief that it is important to feel that grief. In my studies around this I came to the realization, or belief, a few years ago that the only reason the British could do what they did in creating their empire—and I make the assumption that this goes for any empire that has been built, whether it is British or Spanish or Roman or Dutch or whatever —was by forcefully and successfully repressing their capacity for grief.
The British ideal of a ‘stiff upper lip’ is the very embodiment of suppressing grief. It was that lack of feeling, that suppression, that enabled them to kill and plunder and steal, and feel good about it—feel, somehow, that they were doing something right. And so, my feeling in relationship to stories of empire is one of grief. Not so much for what I have lost or no longer have access to, in terms of intact cultures, but simply for what has been lost, for the suffering that has been endured in the world.
Martin Prechtel talks about how grief unfelt and unexpressed gets postponed and gets pushed on to later generations. You see that also in (Bert) Hellinger’s work. Thinking about your question and hearing Martin speak recently made me wonder about whether the grief that many in our generation and the younger people of today are feeling in relationship to the environment, in relationship to a colonialist past, in relationship to slavery etc., is, in part, that historically suppressed grief, which has then been passed down to us, and, for whatever reason, we now have the openness or the capacity to allow in some parts of that grief. I don’t think we have the capacity to allow it in fully, in that we see things like white fragility and aspects of white guilt, for example, but there are also the beginnings of many good movements towards acknowledging the past and towards grieving the past, and that out of that will come presumably redress.
Could it transform the Seton legacy as you see it?
Thomas Jaggers: I think it has the potential to bring in important aspects. I don’t know whether that is so much transforming the legacy as bringing forward things that have previously not been made explicit. In that way, it has the potential to be part of a deeper commitment within the Academy to that kind of work.
Is there reconciliation that can happen? I hear you very clearly saying that you don’t want to adopt the position of apologizing for Seton, or saying that he was a man of his time. I bring up reconciliation because this expedition is happening in the larger context of the Canadian government releasing its Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Thomas Jaggers: I don’t know about reconciliation. That feels a little grandiose in terms of what we are doing, and even in terms of Seton’s book. I could imagine that arising out of this there could be, for example, articles that we write that take Seton and his expedition and our expedition as the starting point and then dive into the subject of the relationship to the natural world and the relationship to our colonialist past. I don’t know whether they would be acts of reconciliation so much as acts or processes of learning and transparency.
Which seems aligned with the Academy mission.
Thomas Jaggers: Yes, that would be Academy work for sure.