Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Whose Land Was/Is It?

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.
Land Acknowledgement
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.


  1. There are several websites that are helpful in promoting land acknowledgement. The one I found especially helpful is that of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (which is not a government agency). Here is the link to their website:

  2. Except for pride, there is no "original sin" anywhere. War always determines boundaries - not treaties or edicts or constitutions. My French ancestors were forced to come to this country as refugees because of a broken treaty and edict. As my Great Grandmother Anna's family (Cherokee) found out when their nation won their land/nation case in the Supreme Court (a Court decision which has never been overturned). But the court has no enforcement power, and the next five Presidents decided differently giving us the Trail of Tears and Manifest Destiny.
    "Justice" has become another loosey-goosey term. Much of "justice" is not - personal experience has taught me that - it is trouble-makers trying make their own claims by force ("war"). May we who follow the Creator try to live by a just measure. But the victors of war determine the outcomes whether we like it or not. As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "Walk softly, but carry a big stick."

    Maybe we should all be damned, for "There is none righteous, no, not one." (Thankfully there are some who live goodwill daily.)

    1. A few brief comments:

      ** The original sin of pride expresses itself in a myriad of ways and is everywhere--and some expressions of original sin are worse than others. America's expression of original sin by racism as evidenced in slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans are among the worst ways original sin has been expressed.

      ** War and violence always determines boundaries -- and that is why war and violence must be resisted. What is (or has been) in no way means that what is good, just, or beneficial for all. Yes, "the victors of war determine the outcomes whether we like it or not"; that is why war must be opposed, for those outcomes are often disastrous to many innocent people.

      ** Every good term -- "peace," "love," "goodness" -- has been used in "loosey-goosey" ways. But that does not mean there is no such thing as peace, love, goodness -- or justice. And those who have promoted and worked for justice the most -- e.g., Gandhi, MLK Jr., Kagawa Toyohiko (who was born 131 years ago today), Desmond Tutu (and Nelson Mandela), and many others like them -- have most certainly not been "trouble-makers trying [to] make their own claims by force." They were trouble-makers because they challenged unjust structures in society, but they used peaceful means to work for greater justice for those most mistreated in society.

    2. People of goodwill should be honored.

      I read the Roosevelt's quote came from tribal South Africa. Probably from the Zulu as they faced off with the !Xhosa who were invading from the north. The Maasai had a similar notion - they referred to the Barabaig/Datooga as the Wamang'ati - Respected Enemy - who had invaded from the north and required proof of killing a lion or a man before manhood rituals. And the great slave-traders were always the Arabs - not a pass for Christianity, but a fact of history which remains. Many tribes (mostly the Muslim tribes) still take slaves. There remains a place for "Just" war.

      (Thankfully, Epstein has again been arrested for his sex-slave trade - and that net may yet take down many other prominent people in our land and around the world.)

      Thank you God for people of goodwill, whether we are similar or not.

  3. Here are comments received yesterday from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "This issue would seem to parallel the issue of reparations to descendants of people once enslaved. Our soul search needs to go deep in both cases. I think back with sincere regret to those days of yesteryear when I watched western movies, most of which featured shooting Indians. Slowly and little by little I’ve developed a conscience about whites’ horrifying injustices inflicted on people of color."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dr. Hinson. Even though I am a few years younger than you, I also watched western movies when I was a boy and played "cowboys and Indians" with my friends--and I feel embarrassed about that now. Fortunately, many of us develop a better understanding of the meaning and importance of justice for all people.

  4. And then these comments from Thinking Friend Rob Daoust in Arizona, who previously (on June 30) made reference (in posted comments) to Howard Zinn and his book "A People's History of the United States" (1980):

    "Hello, Leroy; another timely blog. I've just finished reading chapter 7 from Zinn's 'A People's History of the U.S' ('As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs')--a very informative, if brief, overview of the formidable westward expansion, or as l think of it, 'onslaught.'

    "I was aware of the indiscriminate overtaking of the indigenous peoples' land and lives but as I continue to learn more I become more compelled to learn more history. At the same time as the past is deeply disturbing it is also fascinating. I appreciate the way that Mr. Zinn reminds the reader that what is taught in most High School history books is not exactly how things were. For example, the so called founding fathers were not really nice guys."

    1. Thanks, Rob, for sharing more of what you are learning from Zinn's important book.

      Have you read, or do you know about, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" (1995) by James W. Loewen? "It critically examines twelve popular American high school history textbooks and concludes that the textbook authors propagate false, Eurocentric and mythologized views of American history. In addition to his critique of the dominant historical themes presented in high school textbooks, Loewen presents themes that he says are ignored by traditional history textbooks" (Wikipedia).

  5. Here a brief comment from Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton, an Englishman who lived for many years in Missouri and is now back in England.

    "Very thoughtful. When we bought our house in Independence, I felt I was buying stolen land."

    1. Thanks for writing, Andrew.

      I am wondering about the RLDS when they acquired a considerable amount of land in Independence in the mid-19th century. As the Community of Christ has more and more become a peace church, I wonder if they have done land acknowledgements.

  6. Earlier this morning I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend David Nelson, who will be leading a discussion about Crazy Horse at the Vital Conversations meeting in the Northland of Kansas City next Wednesday.

    "Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words shared at your church. The argument over land will continue until we learn to live in peace and cooperation with each other. Crazy Horse and many other First Nation leaders continue to remind us that we don't own the land, we belong to the land. We don't own the air, the water, the, the earth, we are part of it."

    1. Thanks for your comments, David. But I assume you have a deed to the land for the property on which your house is located (as I do). And I assume you pay property taxes because of your ownership of that land--and that the city you live in is able to function because of taxes that you and others like you pay.

      How could we possibly go back to the time when nobody owned any land? And if nobody owns the land, what kind of chaos would result if people just started freely living on any vacant piece of land they happened to come across?

    2. I remember the government claiming the land, and then rounding up the people at gunpoint to move to a commune nearer the main road (where they starved to death). Government MUST be of/by/for the people, or else... (The modern land of my youth - not all that different from the American Indians - and that was championed by an American revolutionary who though Mao was wonderful.) The other lesson is to never bring a spear to a gunfight.

  7. Thinking Friend Larry Riedinger in Wisconsin posted the following comments on Facebook yesterday:

    "I share your view of facing the actions of our ancestral groups and move forward in compassion, understanding the reasons for how the issues are expressed today.

    "What I wanted to contribute are the several works of James Welch, especially his 'Killing Custer.' With that, and other more historical novels, he opens a window on the lives and understandings participants in events in the 'Old West.' His word pictures provide a glimpse of that world through their eyes, especially the, much ignored, Plains Indian perspective; some just as duplicitous as those on 'our side.' That understanding can help healing, rather like the Reconciliation process in South Africa."

    1. Thanks, Larry. I was not familiar with James Welch, but at your recommendation I have just asked the library to put a copy of his "Killing Custer" on hold for me.