It seems quite simple: land belongs to whomever has a deed to it. That seems clear-cut here in the U.S. But things are usually not as simple as they seem on the surface: there haven’t always been deeds--and were the first deeds legitimate? This matter impinges on the issue of the treatment/mistreatment of indigenous peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Claim of the American Indians
As is widely known, for thousands of years the Jews have claimed that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was given to them by the Creator God and it rightfully belongs to them in perpetuity.
While it is not codified in a holy book such as the Jews have in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), Native Americans have also claimed that the lands of North America were given to them by the Great Spirit.
Here are words attributed to Tasunke Witko (a.k.a. Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota, d. 1877):
We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you. The Great Spirit gave us plenty of land to live on, and buffalo, deer, antelope and other game. But you have come here; you are taking my land from me; you are killing off our game, so it is hard for us to live.
In recent years there has been a movement to begin public meetings of people in the dominant U.S. culture with a statement acknowledging that they are gathered on lands that once belonged to others—and not necessarily acquired justly.
Last week Ruth Harder, my pastor, made a land acknowledgement at the opening of the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City. Following her example, I made a similar but much shorter acknowledgement as worship leader at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC) this past Sunday.
Here is what I said:
We acknowledge as we gather at this place that this is land that once was home to the Kaw/Kansa and Osage Native Americans and that it was not necessarily acquired from them in a just manner. We regret the unjust deeds done in the past and commit ourselves now to work for peace and reconciliation with all people and with the natural world in the future.
But as I wrote above, things are not usually as simple as they seem on the surface. For example, while the land on which RMC’s building stands was ceded to the U.S. by an 1825 treaty agreed to by the Kaw Nation, it seems now that it was clearly a treaty that was most disadvantageous for the Native Americans.
On the other hand, the Kaw/Kansa tribe had not been on that land stretching back for centuries. They had migrated there from east of the Mississippi River. Did they ever acknowledge that they were occupying land once claimed as homeland by others? Probably not.
George C. Sibley, an “Indian agent” assigned to Fort Osage (in west-central Missouri) in 1808, noted that the Kaw/Kansa nation was “seldom at peace with any of their neighbors, except the Osage.” The Pawnee Indians, who had been in the region earlier, were their “traditional enemies.”
Much of that tension among the Native American tribes was most likely over the question of who had claim to the land they were on.
What Can We Do?
We can’t change the past, but we can use recognition of past injustices as a spur to work for justice now. Land acknowledgement is not for the purpose of making us feel guilty for the past; rather, it is to encourage us to work for justice in the future.