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.


Anne in Salem said...

It is unfair to judge the actions of those who lived 100 - 250 years ago by the standards of today. We have the benefit of hindsight and know of disastrous results that were likely never intended. While not all acted entirely altruistically, many did act with good intentions. It is likely that some (many?) in the government of 19th century US believed the government's actions were for the best for the Indians. Certainly there were deplorable campaigns, savage attacks, agreements never intended to be kept and all manner of other atrocities. No doubt. But to ascribe evil intentions to all is wrong.

Does a government of people not even alive during these seizures owe reparations? We don't demand such reparations from the children of murderers. What is the difference? How is it possible to determine an appropriate amount? Does merely being of Indian descent qualify one for reparations? Shouldn't there be some measure of accountability for how one has lived in the intervening century? For how long (years? decades? centuries?) can one blame one's misfortune on the actions of long-dead others?

Sriram Khé said...

Nope, it is absolutely fair to judge the actions of those who went before us.

It is one thing not to make fun of the people in the past who believed that the earth was the center of the universe. But, to believe that some humans are so worthless that they can be killed or treated as property, or condemned to a life of cleaning up other people's shit--people who believed that deserve all the harsh judgment and more.

There is no good intention behind slavery, no good intention behind rounding up the natives and placing them in reservations a gazillion miles away from their own lands, no good intention in preaching that some people are superior to others ... Those are all evil, malicious, and there is no other way of interpreting all such acts.

I am not a supporter of reparations per se. Because there is simply no amount that can set right the historical injustices of colossal proportions. What shocks me, disturbs me, is the lack of humility even now among the "superior races" of the past--here in the US and back in India--which continues even in contemporary political discussions. This lack of humility is partly why the old issues continue to remain unresolved.
I will leave it the Colbert of the old to take this on:

Ramesh said...

I would agree more with Anne, than with Sriram. It's very very difficult to judge historical events through the prism of today's values. Judge, we certainly can, but being fair about the judgement is not so easy.

By a future generations' values, our killing an animal and eating its dead body might be total barbarism. I wouldn't castigate today's meat eaters for that. The same argument could be made for the gun culture in the US today - forget future generations; by the standards of every other country today, it is totally intolerable.

Equally making today's generations "pay" for the sins of earlier generations is also not appropriate in my view.

Sriram Khé said...

Nope, I disagree. Because, in slavery, caste, the treatment of Native Americans, in every one of these situations, people knew better than to think that some humans were not even the shit that their bodies produced. Yet, they systematically went about with the slavery, with the wiping out of the Native Americans, and with the caste system. And, even worse, when there were attempts to correct the wrongs, people fought against it (and the fight continues both in India and here in the US.) All these make our actions, and the actions of the generations past (including my wonderful grandmothers) evil and malicious. There is no way out of accepting this.

While I agree with you that raising animals only to kill and eat them is barbaric, that is a completely different set of issues. In this post, I am only interested in the human-human treatment, where one group of humans made sure to enslave or wipe out another group of humans.

The gun culture is not "culture" in the same vein as slavery or the caste system. The gun culture is like the "car culture" and other ways of life, and while there is plenty to debate about them, they are not anything like the issues of slavery or caste or ...

Mike Hoth said...

I would say that while it is difficult to view some interactions fairly through a modern viewpoint, Slavery is not one of them. Enslaving or slaughtering a group of people has never been acceptable, and you can tell this is true by looking at how the enslavers acted when enslaved.

The Ottoman Empire was deeply hated by the Christian nations of Europe for their practice of kidnapping male Christian children and raising them to be accountants or soldiers. It was not seen as deplorable for either the Ottomans or Europeans to enslave Africans. Mind you, those Christian children were granted salaries and lived in far better conditions.

I will defend one thing: the video showing "lost lands" and the quote of Chehalis lands being so large both infer that Americans cost the natives all that land. Washington was a British territory, large swaths of the Southwest were either uninhabited or owned by the often crueler Spanish, and Florida was owned by the Spanish before the United States' oldest founder was born. This does not excuse America because we have many, MANY other atrocities to note, but misleading data doesn't help anybody.

Anne in Salem said...

Well, you definitely stirred debate!! Civil discourse lives.

Sriram Khé said...

Imagine if Faux News and Crappy News Network featured such civil discourse!

It does not matter who (Spanish/British/whoever) grabbed the land when and drove out the Native Americans. At the end of the day, the map shows how the lands that belonged to them no longer does. As the essay that I linked to notes in the opening paragraph:
"Between 1776 and the present, the United States seized some 1.5 billion acres from North America’s native peoples, an area 25 times the size of the United Kingdom. Many Americans are only vaguely familiar with the story of how this happened. They perhaps recognise Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears, but few can recall the details and even fewer think that those events are central to US history."

Most read this past month