A Debt We Can, Literally, Never Repay
How does one pay for an entire country? Especially if the original offer was never made, or if made, never accepted, or if accepted, never comprehended?
When my ancestors got here from England, some of them nearly 400 years ago, they came to a land that already had inhabitants. As many as a million Native Americans, belonging to hundreds of independent, distinct, unique groups, that had been in North America for thousands of years. It was their land, as truly as any land can belong to humans. For the most part they honored its soil and plants and animals, weather changes and natural features, in their traditions, their religions, the expressions of their many languages. As, for example, members of the Sioux Nation say even today, ”We are all children of the Earth; all came from her womb, for creation is present in all life if it is . . . defined as the nature that surrounds and sustains us all.”
These peoples were totally unprepared, by anything in their previous experience, for the sailboats that appeared on the eastern horizon bearing pale people from an unknown continent, with strange religious beliefs and a radically different attitude about land and property. People eventually by the thousands and tens of thousands, who were prolific beyond any group of Native Americans. And hungry. Greedy for land and furs and minerals and water resources.
From the start the two peoples did not understand each other. And the natives suffered mightily, only sporadically and ineffectually fighting back, and falling by the thousands to new diseases brought by the Europeans.
My own people were often at the forefront of this avalanche of newcomers, moving onto the land vacated by the fleeing, or expiring, Indians. First in Connecticut, then New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. They were named Blair, Marvin, Reeves, Boone, Linville, McWilliams, Herring, Barnes, Patterson, Rogers, Piggott, Veale, and lots of others in my many-limbed family tree.
Sometimes blood was shed, on both sides, but sheer numbers and firepower made the outcome inevitable. The wilderness that had been dotted with villages and small fields, rich with wildlife and forest and prairies, rapidly was transformed into regimented grids of plow lands and woodlots, fenced pastures, orchards and kitchen gardens. And the Indians received little or nothing for their losses. Most of them were killed, driven away, or confined to tiny fragments of land. And many were just absorbed into the new population and effectively vanished in that way.
Recently the government has announced plans to reimburse the remaining official tribal groups, but only for mismanagement of assigned tribal reserve lands over the past century, not for the original losses. And thousands of non-affiliated individuals, or non-recognized groups, are left out even from this token payment.
What can we many, many millions of beneficiaries of this sorry history do to make amends for the past? Oh, we can say (as do I, at times) “I didn’t do that” or “my people acted in good faith, believing what the Government at the time told them.” Or even “my people tried to help the Indians when they could.” But also many of us (as do I) have to admit “My people were involved in killing or displacing Indians who were just trying to defend their homeland.” So what can we do?
Ultimately there is no way adequately to make up for the past. We literally can’t give it all back. Perhaps a bit, here and there, can be given in restitution. Tribal schools and charities can be supported. Letters can be written in support of tribal litigation. I suppose those so inclined could even make a point of gambling at tribally owned casinos or vacationing on tribally owned lands. (Only a few tribes have these income resources; most remain among the nation’s poorest.) But in some ways this is sort of like original sin – about all one can do is to swear repentance and try to live a better life, learning from the errors of the past. And consider the possibility of revising our notions of history just a bit.
Case in point: I’m descended from Daniel Boone, and I’m proud of that. At one time Boone was glorified as a great Indian fighter. But now it’s believed that he only killed three Indians in his life, only one that he was sure of, all in self defense or to protect others. Most of his life he tried to be friends with the Indians, learned hunting and tracking from them, lived peacefully with them whenever possible. For a few months in 1778, as a captive of the Shawnee, he was even formally adopted into the tribe. (He later escaped to go warn the people at Boonesborough of an impending attack and lead them in defense.) In his later years Boone is reported to have gone fishing with some old Shawnee traveling past his home in Missouri -- remembering no doubt the time when he was an adopted Shawnee himself (named Sheltowee, “The Turtle”).
That’s the picture of Daniel Boone I like to envision. And in my mind I, too, would like to “go fishing” with descendants of the people who lived here first, hoping we can be friends in the future. Let the past be remembered, but the suffering end. I would like to close by quoting the great Ogallala Lakota Sioux Chief Crazy Horse (Ta-Sunke-Witko), who saw this in a vision near the violent end of his life in the 1870s: “There is still the circle of heaven and earth. Yet a little waiting for your people, then what the Wasicus bring will be only a bad dream that shall pass away like a shadow that has never been! In that day some of the Wasicus too will learn the meaning of the Sacred Circle and they will help your people change the earth to beauty.”