My ancestors were Dutch. Not the Dutch of exploratory expeditions and exploitative fur trading — rather, the Dutch of the northern Netherlands and subsistence farming. As far as I know they struggled to survive year by year into the 1800s, simple and illiterate, rooted to their own native soil while European colonialism bled its way across North America for several centuries.
This is what I tell myself as I stand in the ruins of racist military conquest. It’s a bright-sky Sunday morning in the Taos Pueblo of northern New Mexico. I’m listening to a young tour guide explain the forced labor and semi-successful revolts that shaped this, her ancestral home.
The unbalanced warring of her brown ancestors with my white ancestors.
But no, not my ancestors: I may be white, so white my eyes match the blue above, but I am not an inheritor of this history. Elsewhere the Dutch invaded others’ land, but my family was too poor to afford to be brutal, and this pitiful thought is my barricade against racial guilt as my skin burns pink in the sun.
It’s a weak barricade, weaker than the adobe bricks that crumble in the ruined colonial church. I snap a photo of the full cemetery that accompanies it and scurry to catch up with the tour group.
My family’s poverty during the years of colonialism is a convenient crumb of personal solace whenever I confront my race’s larger sins, from slavery to genocide. But it’s only accurate to a point: in the 1860s they too took land from indigenous people. Despite their relative powerlessness back home—because of it — they emigrated to Michigan, cleared newfound timber as if it were theirs, and began farming Ottawa land. They may not have taken lives, but they took livelihoods.
Did they understand what they’d done, those few old farmers of mine? Did they care? If they learned of the tribe who lived there before them, did they consider leaving their land?
All I know is that on Sundays like this, they attended a Christian church like that one. They called their new timber building sacred and whitewashed its walls in the name of als Vader, Zoon en Heilige Geest. They sang hymns in Dutch and prayed for continued blessing.
A century and a half later here I am, another white girl in a country that calls my blonde head beautiful and blameless. And here’s my tour guide, black hair shining as she explains her homeland’s history.
The words fade to buzzing in my ears as I think fiercely how beautiful and blameless she is too — how beautiful and blameless we both are. Right? Please, alsjeblieft, please let me believe we’re equally blameless. Neither of us chose our heritage. We’re just here, the multicolored descendants of pasts that have long since receded beyond anyone’s reach, let alone ours. Blonde and brown, we both stand on bloodied land. We both carry whatever blood survived the centuries to flow in our veins; we both hope to honor the blood that lived and died to get us here.
When the tour ends I tip her generously, as if a few extra dollar bills with green-tinged male faces can pay off some old debt. Someone else’s debt, of course—not mine, not my family’s. Please let me believe. My ancestors were Dutch, the Dutch of subsistence farming, too poor to afford to be brutal.