What Unites These States?

Philip Caputo traveled from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, asking everyday Americans what holds our country together. In the end, it all came down to one beautiful word.

from the book The Longest Road | Reader's Digest magazine

William Brinson for Reader’s Digest/Courtesy Philip Caputo

Two weeks later, after sojourning in Mississippi and Tennessee, we were camped on Meramec Farm, in the green Missouri Ozarks. It’s owned by Carol Springer, a compact blonde who raises cattle and horses on 470 acres. The farm has been in her family for seven generations.

As we sat in her kitchen sipping lemonade, she gave me her perspective on what puts the unum in our national motto, E pluribus unum: “The glue is a belief that’s not clearly defined: that we have more in common than not, that we’re more alike than we’re different. I’m not sure it’s true, but the important thing is that we believe it is.”

“In other words,” I asked, “the perception becomes the reality?”

Springer shrugged. “I’ve been known to believe I’ll get home in the dark in the rain. I’m not convinced, but I believe I will, and I get there.”

We moved on from Missouri, crossing the oceanic expanses of the Great Plains, to the South Dakota badlands. There, near the depressed Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, we stopped in a diner. “You should meet Ansel Woodenknife,” the cook said after I ordered fry-bread tacos. “He’s quite a guy.”

The next day, I called on Woodenknife, who’d invented the fry-bread taco dish, at his house in Interior. A broad-faced, strongly built man greeted me at the front door. Busy with studying for an EMT test, he couldn’t talk then but dropped by our campsite a couple of nights later.

Woodenknife, too, was amazed by the size and diversity of the United States, and that it didn’t somehow fall to pieces.

“It’s because of change,” he told me. “This is the only country where everything changes all the time. People come here expecting change, and if they’re going to survive, if they’re going to be successful, they’ve got to learn to adapt to change, to different people from different races.”

Woodenknife’s formal education ended in the ninth grade, but he earned a doctorate in adaptation. Born on the neighboring Rosebud reservation, raised as one of 12 children in a cabin without electricity or running water, he was taken from his parents at age nine—against their wishes—and placed in a white foster home in Philadelphia. That happened to thousands of Native American children, caught up in a government program to “de-Indianize” them.

It didn’t work in Woodenknife’s case. He ran away so often that he was branded “incorrigible” and sent back to the reservation, where he learned to cling more fiercely to his traditional culture, eventually becoming a Lakota Sun-Dancer.

He also became an entrepreneur, running a busy restaurant and marketing Indian fry-bread tacos to supermarket chains across the country. In 2003, he was inducted into South Dakota’s Small Business Hall of Fame.

Citing himself as an example, Woodenknife didn’t think the melting pot was the way to national unity. Rather, he said, each American should try to stay true to his or her ethnic heritage while keeping an American identity. The fabric of the country would then be, he said, “a blanket of color, all sewn into the shape of the United States.”

William Brinson for Reader's Digest/Courtesy Philip Caputo

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