Unpacking Decolonization Bullshit in Seven Easy Lessons — Lesson One: No Land is Indigenous Land
The first step in decolonization programming is to convince the settler that all land is Indigenous land.
This is the kind of statement that makes sense at first, then makes gradually less sense the more you think about it. Obviously, someone had to be the first person or group to be somewhere, but the longer one considers the problems with this statement, the more ludicrous it seems.
James Anaya, former Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, defines indigenous peoples as “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest”.
Using Anaya’s definition of indigenous people, indigenous land is defined by location and presence; the location where a native population is present prior to being dominated by the invading culture is the indigenous land of those natives.
Unfortunately, location and presence prior to the time of invasion by a colonial power are woefully inadequate metrics with which to define indigenous land for a couple reasons:
- People move. Groups don’t just arrive somewhere and stay there for eternity. How long do I have to occupy a particular spot before it’s considered mine forever? Likewise, if I happen to leave my spot for a while, how soon must I return before I lose title to my indigenous land?
- How much lebensraum is included with that spot? Is that spot 10m, 100m, 1000m? Precisely how are the limits of indigenous land defined?
In the not-so-do-distant past, we had a very simple criterion for defining our boundaries … they consisted of everything we could push people out of while not getting pushed out by someone else. Unfortunately, the establishment of the UN changed the rules and defined your spot as your current boundaries, unchanged, forever. Somehow that’s not better. 😐
Once one starts running through examples, it becomes obvious why defining indigenous land can be very complicated. For instance, if my ancestors are from Europe, may I claim aboriginal title to all of Europe? If not, to what portion of Europe am I entitled, if any? If someone is of Anglo-German descent, would they possess aboriginal title to either Great Britain, Germany, or both? Is my aboriginal title validated by race, genetics, culture, or where someone’s ancestors lived? Given 4,000-year-old Caucasian mummies were found in Xinjiang Province, China, can Europeans claim aboriginal title to that area and accuse the Uyghur population currently residing there of being settler colonists who are occupying a European ancestral homeland? What about Africa? I’m all but certain everyone’s ancestors were there 150K years ago. Does that give the human race aboriginal title to the entire continent?
I’m obviously taking this to the point of absurdity to prove a point. The process used to assign aboriginal title to a particular area is arbitrary and agnostic. Colonialism may seem easy to define at first, but all groups are migratory. All of us have ancestors who brought social, political, and economic systems with them that they forced on the “indigenous lands” they occupied, and had non-native social, political and economic systems thrust upon them when they were occupied by others. Arvin’s definition of indigenous peoples and settler colonialism ignores numerous variables which could be used to validate the aboriginal title of a specific people, not the least of which include the degree to which the indigenous people integrated with, or were assimilated by, the dominant settler culture. Her definitions are, at best, a rule of thumb to guide the decision of an arbitrator, but certainly not adequate to define indigenous lands in and of itself.
With that said, let’s go from the theoretical to the practical and apply this to a controversial topic close to home … indigenous American sovereignty.
If you’re Caucasian and you spend enough time interacting with American Indians, eventually you’ll hear the narrative that you’re occupying stolen land. If you’re Caucasian and you’re anywhere near a #NoDAPL protest, you’ll never stop hearing it. This narrative is drilled into white Americans over the course of their lifetime. I can think of worse fates, but let’s just say that by the time you reach adulthood, you’re aware of a deep, seething animosity for injustices your ancestors perpetrated on indigenous Americans. That you are a thief, by inheritance.
The accusation isn’t entirely without merit, but upon closer examination — using what we’ve learned about the complexities of assigning aboriginal title to indigenous peoples — perhaps it’s worth examining in more depth, from a different perspective.
For illustrative purposes, we’ll use the Sioux Nation as an example. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about Sioux history and culture given the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Given the Sioux are at the heart of the DAPL protests, it’s from them that I hear claims that their land has been stolen, their rights trampled, and their people victimized by settler colonialism. In short, I get the distinct feeling that they blame white people for the state of their tribe today. For a deeper discussion of what is to follow, visit the following: Clarifying the Complicated History of Sioux Territorial Sovereignty
One of the primary issues surrounding the DAPL protests is the concept of tribal sovereignty and the perception that the pipeline is just the most recent example of myriad violations of treaties signed with the Sioux Nation.
The problem is that, when confronted with the ‘stolen lands’ claim, the general public has a very limited understanding of American Indian history. They see a map like this, of “tribal lands”, and think to themselves ,“That’s where the Indians were. Those were their lands.”
The problem is that the statement isn’t complete. It’s more accurately stated, “That’s where the Indians were when settlers encountered them. Those were their lands at a specific point in time.”
Any novice history buff knows that historical maps of Europe, even from 100 years ago, were very different than the maps of Europe today. We understand that boundaries were constantly changing in a dynamic political environment. But for some reason, when we see a map of tribal lands like the one above, we don’t give much thought to the fact that it may have looked very different not too long before settlers arrived. Such a map of tribal lands is better understood as a map of tribal lands when settlers encountered them.
Although the Sioux are listed on the map above as residing in present-day eastern South Dakota, saying they’re from there is like saying I’m originally from the place where someone first encountered me. It’s a very settler-centric means of designated indigenous territorial boundaries, ignoring a dynamic migratory history that was still evolving when American Indians agreed to settle on the reservations recognized by some as “treaty lands” today.
The interesting thing about Sioux history is the insight it provides into the dynamics of Plains Indians migration and the absurdity of the claim that settlers stole their land. When Europeans first encountered the Sioux in the 17th Century, they lived a rather sedentary life near the source of the Mississippi in northeastern Minnesota. It wasn’t until 1730 that the Cheyenne introduced the Sioux to horses. However, after the adoption of horse culture, they were on the move. Nevertheless they couldn’t make too much progress because powerful Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa villages prevented them from crossing the Missouri River. As fortune would have it, the great smallpox epidemic of 1772–1780 destroyed three-quarters of these tribes, allowing the Sioux to venture farther west. Crossing the Missouri River, the Lakota defeated the Cheyenne in 1776, who themselves had earlier taken the land from the Kiowa. The Cheyenne continued west to the Powder River country, while the Sioux settled in the Black Hills, which they had first encountered in 1765 by way of an exploring/raiding party led by Chief Standing Bear.
In 1823, the Sioux helped the US Army attack an Arikara village on the Grand River in present-day central South Dakota. From there the Sioux pressed north, extending their northern boundary to the Heart River of present-day North Dakota. It was this boundary that defined the northern limit of Sioux treaty lands according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. This is important to note because this is the “treaty land” boundary that DAPL crossed and the Sioux claim was stolen from them. However, the Sioux had stolen the land from the Arikara only 28 years prior to the treaty!
The Arikawa weren’t the only ones getting fleeced. The 1851 Treaty gave the Sioux exclusive treaty rights to the Black Hills, which didn’t sit well with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. A Cheyenne historian stated in 1969 that, “the Sioux were given right to the Black Hills and other country that the Northern Cheyennes claimed. [The Cheyenne] home country was the Black Hills.” Likewise, in 1875, Arapaho Chief Black Coal complained,“I have never got anything yet for my land [the Black Hills]. It is part mine, and part the Sioux … they came from the Missouri River and reached this place, and now they have got up this far, and they claim all this land.”
Additional boundary changes were made with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, but their holdings were still impressive for a nation that had barely set foot in that area only 100 years prior.
Sioux reservations today are a shadow of their glory days after being defeated during the Great Sioux War of 1876. These are the lands the Sioux claims were “stolen”. If they had their way, they would return to the 1868 Treaty boundaries.
The Sioux admittedly got a raw deal following the Great Sioux War of 1876, but let’s examine the veracity of their “stolen land” claim in the context of their history.
The Sioux resent the US Gov’t for not holding up their end of the 1868 Treaty and keeping miners out of the Black Hills, which they considered sacred. Keep in mind, these are the same Black Hills that they stole from the Cheyenne and Arapaho barely 100 years prior. The strip of 1851 Treaty land that DAPL crosses (which is not part of their current reservation), that they have been so upset about all year, was land they stole from the Arikawa in 1823. And let’s not forget about the poor, peaceful Ponca whose lands were mistakenly included as part of the Great Sioux Nation in the 1868 Treaty. Did the Sioux show compassion for the Ponca, working things out with them? NOPE! The Sioux demanded the US remove the Ponca from their own ancestral lands and relocate them to Indian Country (i.e., Oklahoma), where they suffered from poor crops and malaria. 😥
Which all begs the question … do the Sioux have a valid claim to the land they’re on and the land they claim was stolen? They moved west from their Minnesota homeland, pushing the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Arikawa, and Ponca off land they had occupied for centuries. Still they had (and continue this day to have) the audacity to claim that lands they’d stolen from others and occupied for all of 30 years prior to being granted official title through treaty, had in turn been stolen from them.
I’m sorry, but after spending hundreds of years of looting and booting their neighbors, they sure have some nerve to wag their fingers at settlers and call us the land thieves.
Given all of the above, the claim that all lands are indigenous lands is absurd. Human populations are constantly in flux. To suggest that an indigenous population will remain forever on their chosen spot for eternity ignores the very nature of humans, which is to move. That is not to say we should abandon the concept of aboriginal title, but perhaps it would be worthwhile to amend the concept to be more flexible.
Coming soon: Lesson Two: Settlers Do Not Unilaterally Benefit from the Disposition of Indigenous Peoples