Native Americans should be in the Reparations conversation

Joshua Adams
May 29 · 4 min read
Native marchers at the Indigenous People’s March in January (photo taken by Joshua Adams)

Several Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on debate on using reparations as restitution for the historical effects of American slavery and structural racism.

Candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro have all voiced support for the idea of creating a task-force to study the effects of slavery and Jim Crow and seek the best options to pursue reparations, as Cory Booker recently co-sponsored a bill for this goal. Bernie Sanders has given mixed responses on the topic, in 2016 saying he thought it was a “divisive” issue, but more recently argued for policies that helped to eliminate the racial wealth gap, not “writing out a check.” Marianne Williamson has proposed the most direct reparations policy idea, between $200 and $500 billion to be put towards educational and economic projects.

Though Sen. Warren said in February that Native Americans should be a part of the reparation conversation as well, there hasn’t been much discussion on this point. Though descendants of American slavery are often the most salient examples of America’s historical and current institutional injustices, we have a moral obligation to not overlook Native Americans claim to reparations as well.

The settling of what would eventually become the United States was a bloody affair. Between 1500 and 1800, as many as 50 million Natives died, mainly from indigenous people’s lack of immunity to European diseases. Over the course of a few centuries, indigenous people were forced to negotiate their dispossession through resistance, war, coercive treaties, theft and massacre.

The removal and relocation of Natives largely from the east to the west of the Mississippi helped spur the American economy. Settlers from all walks of life –homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, railroad workers, soldiers, hunters, prospectors, religious migrants and more– benefitted from the Homestead Act, the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears and westward expansion.

The Dawes Act, which divided Native land into allotments, and offered a path to citizenship as a choice between “extermination or civilization.” And currently, the systemic inequalities endured by African Americans are often even harsher for the five million U.S. citizens from 650 state and federally recognized tribes (with another four hundred tribes that do not benefit from state or federal recognition but still exist as intact cultural groups) who identify as indigenous peoples.

Ironing out the logistics of reparations to descendants of slaves and Native peoples would be a difficult undertaking, but there may be more workable roadmap for the former. While it would be impossible to create an exact dollar amount for the moral ills of slavery and Jim Crow (toil, rape, torture, death, family separation, eugenic experiments, etc.), we may be able to use proxies like wages or GDP (accounting for inflation) to arrive at some tenable estimate. There is plenty of notable research a commission could use as a starting point, like Edward Baptist’s the Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism or Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations.

What makes reparations for Native people much trickier is the lion’s share of the reparations they are owed is land — a resource that can’t be given in proportion to what the debt calls for. The 3 million square miles of stolen land won’t be given back, so what would reparations for Native Americans look like?

(photo by Joshua Adams)

In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, human rights activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote that Natives tend to use the words “restoration” or “repatriation” as opposed to “reparations.” A couple options she suggested are monetary compensation and the return of ancestral remains and burial items.

Restoration for Natives could take many forms: restoration of tribal lands taken for oil drilling, free tuition at fully-funded college at tribal college and universities (the University of Illinois at Chicago plans to offer in-state tuition this fall to students who are members of tribal nations recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs), the repatriation of and full rights granted over Native cultural artifacts and the U.S government honoring the many treaties it has broken over the years. The U.S. government could also pay direct restitution to the descendants of those forced into boarding schools and other nineteenth century assimilation programs that sought to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

In the same way that candidates are calling for a reparations commission on the effects of the historical oppression of black people, there should be one the ramifications of settler colonialism. And for both African and Native Americans, a South African-style public Truth and Reconciliation Commission (could be lead by Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids) with scholars and historians could go a long way in healing historical wounds. It also would be an efficient means to achieve the first imperative in getting Native Americans reparations: ask them what reparations would look like to them.

Polling at around 26 percent, reparations is not a popular policy amongst most Americans. Nevertheless, it is a moral imperative larger than party line.

Americans seems to think we can appeal to our better angels without addressing the country’s twin original sins. Reparations are an important step into rectifying the injustices on which the nation was built. And while the racial history of the U.S. often makes descendants of slaves the most salient parts of the debate on reparations, Native Americans claim to restoration is just as valid and necessary.

Joshua Adams

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Joshua Adams is writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. He currently teaches communication and media at Salem State University. Twitter: @journojoshua