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Ask an Estonian: What does a fence symbolize?

Our news department has a visiting journalist this year, Jürgen Klemm, a professional broadcaster from Estonia. His nation borders Russia; in fact, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. We've learned a lot from hearing Jürgen's perspective, and think you will, too.

My stay in the US has been a 3-D reincarnation of my high school geography course. Continental and oceanic climate; drought, El Niño and the formation of fog; tectonic plates and earthquakes; rivers, mountains, and of course, my geography teacher’s favorite: the Grand Canyon. 

If you plan it right, it is a perfect day trip. An early morning flight to Las Vegas, and instead of driving to Grand Canyon National Park, head to Grand Canyon West, which is half the distance. Then lunch with the most amazing view and a flight back in the evening. At least that’s what I thought, because for me, it turned out to be a lesson in history instead. Let me explain.

There's actually a big difference between what we think of as the Grand Canyon and what is known as Grand Canyon West, which is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation territory. That distinction makes a difference. As I was told at the gate, Grand Canyon West is private property. Which is why it is all fenced off. And the entrance fee is five times higher than what would get you into Grand Canyon National Park. After a lot of planning and a 700-mile trip, I found myself a mile away from the canyon, standing behind a fence, being asked to pay a fee that felt unfairly expensive.

The Grand Scam

This felt like a Grand Scam, not the Grand Canyon, the wonder of the world that was on every geography test I took in school, starting in the 5th grade. I had dreamt about seeing it with my own eyes for most of my life. This is something that is hundreds of miles long, three miles across and a 1,000 feet in depth. And they managed to hide this from me. I was blocked from seeing it. I do have to admit, I was a little heartbroken, but also mad. I felt like I’d been tricked out of my dream. This was the first time I felt humiliated since I got to the States.

When the history of the U.S. is taught to European pupils, there is this one story that almost always is told. A story of a cultural conflict, one might even say of civilizational conflict. When the white man came to the New World, put up fences and said “this is private property,” the Native Americans just laughed at this absurd statement — because their worldview simply lacked the idea of ownership of land. I was shocked to realize that the humiliation I felt standing behind the fence at the entrance to the Grand Canyon, must have been the same exact feeling that the natives must have felt, when their freedom was taken from them.

A fence is never a symbol of freedom

I was humiliated because for me a fence has a very strong connotation to it. My worldview lacks the idea of building a fence to uphold freedom. At one point under the Soviet occupation, the whole Estonian coast was pretty much fenced off — not to keep the Western spies out, but rather to keep the people in. And the Berlin Wall in the heart of Europe became the border between democracy and dictatorship. So if you ask an Estonian, a fence is never a symbol of winning. It is a symptom of losing.

For the record, I didn’t pay the price. I didn’t want this experience to ruin my dream. I'm willing to let the Grand Canyon exist just as an idea. My very own symbol of freedom.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991. The language in the audio file has not been updated.