Saturday, October 17, 2015

This land is my land, this land is NOT your land :(

Almost a decade ago, during a vacation in Alaska, we paid for the touristy plane ride from Fairbanks in order to land a kilometer north of the Arctic Circle. It was educational and exhilarating to understand how far--literally and otherwise--I had come all the way from an original home that is near the equator.

The touristy package was a tie-in with a local venture, it turned out.  This tourism was an important economic activity for the "native village."  During the guided bus tour in the village, we listened to his descriptions of the people's history and traditions.  In telling the story, he said, "we lived by ourselves for a long time.  One day, somebody told us that our lands belonged to Russians and we had never seen Russians in our lives.  And then one day they told us that America had bought the lands from Russia and we didn't know what that meant."

He said all that and more in a tone that was very matter-of-fact.  It was like listening to a voice in the documentary narrating the events.  The content of what he said was not new, of course.  But, somehow, to listen to him say that and in that particular setting was very moving.  Very troubling.  I wanted to apologize to him and his people right there.  It might have been because while it is one thing to read about that in history, it is a completely different emotion when one is right there in that part of the history.

In the contemporary life, we rarely ever think about the old stories anymore.  Thanksgiving is slightly more than a month away.  Yet again, I will wonder how a Native American thinks about all the old stories on that Thanksgiving Day.  I will feel awful that my fellow Americans and I have largely forgotten the original peoples.
[The] conquest of the continent is both essential to understanding the rise of the United States and deplorable. Acre by acre, the dispossession of native peoples made the United States a transcontinental power.

A power from the tip of Florida to the settlement above the Alaskan Arctic--by robbing and killing and wiping out the natives.
If slavery was a moral failing, said Lincoln in his second inaugural address, then the war was ‘the woe due to those by whom the offense came’. The rupture between North and South forced white Americans to confront the nation’s deep investment in slavery and to emancipate and incorporate four million individuals. They did not do so willingly, and the reconstruction of the nation is in many ways still unfolding. By contrast, there has been no similar reckoning with the conquest of the continent, no serious reflection on its centrality to the rise of the United States, and no sustained engagement with the people who lost their homelands.
For  one, the Native Americans are such a small percentage of the population--a tiny minority (about one percent of the population) in the very lands that once belonged to them.  There are almost as many Indian-Americans in the US as there are Native "Indian" Americans!  And, after having been exiled to reservations, they became a case of out of sight and out of mind.

Even the great Abe Lincoln was not flawless:
In July 1864, for example, President Abraham Lincoln created a reservation within present-day Washington state for the Chehalis people, reducing their once extensive homeland of 5,000,000 acres (by the measure of the Bureau of American Ethnology) to ‘about six sections, with which they are satisfied’ (according to a letter from the Office of Indian Affairs; the measure of ‘satisfaction’ must be judged by the alternative, which was removal and joint occupation of another reservation). As a section is 640 acres, ‘about six’ would have come to about 4,000 acres.
 We  humans all  over the world have committed so many atrocities that there aren't enough minutes in our lives to apologize.  As one who was born into  the "uppermost" caste of the atrociously tragic caste-ridden India, I know I have plenty to apologize for.  "What would American history look like if native peoples had been kept in sight and in mind?" is a question that perhaps we can ask ourselves as we sit down for Thanksgiving.

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