America is in the midst of a recalibration. Last year’s police killings, mass protests, and civil unrest brought fresh calls to recenter our politics around the crises of marginalized peoples. Projects to examine what debt we Americans owe to our Black neighbors have led others to try to accomplish similar feats for indigenous citizens. Today, in radical and academic circles, discussions about subjects ranging from unceded land to colonialism, American imperialism, and, perhaps most practically important, acknowledging personal status as a “settler,” have all become culturally mainstream. Before, it was considered normal, if not patriotic, to celebrate—in schools, parades, history books, and commercials—figures such as Columbus and the Pilgrims. Now, however, the discussion has fundamentally been altered to what is even valid to celebrate at all in the United States.
This drastic shift has cleared the space to question those assumptions most fundamental to our political community: is the United States of America even legitimate? is it reasonable to speak of Americans as “native” to the United States? If so, what obligations do we have to the first inhabitants of the continent? These are painful subjects, and those on the right often wish to avoid addressing them altogether, while those on the left often indict American society in its entirety. It is necessary to address these crucial questions, however, if we are to set out toward our true common good. Any answers, whatever they happen to be, will be painful to hear. But America as a nation belongs together, despite its disparate ancestral origins. This does not, however, uncouple us from our past. Our historical development is inevitably bound to indigenous Americans and injustices past and present. To flesh out these answers will require us to examine American nativity, the long, ongoing mistreatment and dispossession of the continent’s first inhabitants, and the ways we can move forward together, as natives and settlers all.
“What Then Is This American? This New Man?”
Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur, a French settler in New York, posed this question to his European audience in the 18th century. While he saw Americans as rooted in Europe, to him they were a new people shaped primarily by their experiences here in America. Through intermixture (“in which you will find no other country”) and their location in the “New World,” where they experienced a “new mode” of living, they became a new people. De Crèvecœur, writing under his American name of James Hector St. John, explained that due to this new mode of living, for the man dislocated from his old country and old ways yet receiving these new experiences, “the name of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost . . . What a change indeed! It is in consequence of that change that he becomes an American.”
To de Crèvecœur, through this process, a European becomes an American. But largely unmentioned in these letters is any reference to those living here when Europeans arrived.
How can it be that, as de Crèvecœur says, it is the land that makes Americans native, when there were others here before early Americans and later immigrants? To most academics and political radicals, the answer is easy: descendents of those Americans are not and cannot be native. After all, most Americans are the cultural, political and linguistic descendants of people from all inhabited continents but this one. The roots of their culture are almost exclusively from Europe, largely the British Isles. They are guests at best, interlopers at worst, no matter how long ago the settlement was. Their right to live on the land is suspect, if not nonexistent. Simple justice demands that the settler-colonial state be abolished.
The problems with this stance are manifold. First, there is its utter impracticality. Indigenous scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang are fond of pointing out that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Anything less than a full abolition of the consequences of 1492 is a functional whitewash, reformism, and a “settler move towards innocence.” The obvious issue is that, if that is the standard demanded, then any decolonization will inevitably be metaphorical. Native Americans make up 1.5% of the population of the United States. There is no scenario in history, absent a violent invasion or collapse, where 98% of a society agrees to their own abolition or relinquishes their own sovereignty. If we are to say that most Americans are eternally suspect due to their settler heritage, making any polity erected by them equally suspect, then this charge relegates decolonization purely to the metaphorical and abstract—an academic parlor game.
Second, this proposition ignores how flexible nativity and nation-hood really are. Advocates of the Tuck and Yang position argue that settlers cannot ever be considered indigenous or as belonging, since they do not fit the United Nations’ definition of “indigenous.” Beyond the oddity of using definitions derived from acme of modern, western, and neoliberal governance, this approach presents nations and peoples as frozen in amber. As Benedict Anderson noted in his seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities, nations are elastic things, constantly creating themselves anew. To put it simply, a nation exists if the community imagines it to be so. (It was for this reason that Ernst Renan, when asking, “What is a nation?” answered it is “un plébiscite de tous les jours,” or “a daily referendum.”) From this malleable origin, nations and their imagined existences can produce incredibly concrete realities. For instance, many Native American tribes derived their specific ethnogenesis in the 17th century via integration and migration due to rapid cultural change.
Do Americans exist? Well, ask any resident of any country and they will tell you: yes there is an identifiable community of people called Americans. This sounds trite, but it isn’t. If it can be said that Americans exist in some way as a distinct people, then that raises the question, “Where do they come from?” Contemporary observers and modern writers of books like Albion’s Seed or American Nations, point out the obvious: Americans are descended from a few main groups, usually British, Irish, German, or African, often Protestant, who arrived on these shores in the early modern era. By the 19th century there was an identifiable nation from those people whose communities went through the settlement, the Revolution, western expansion, and the Civil War. “The war,” President Grant recalled, “begot a spirit of independence and enterprise” in Americans, having been “cut loose” from old surroundings and so “commingling” they lost local dialects yet filled up a transcontinental nation of technology, wealth, and knowledge. The great cultural struggle of the 20th century was undergone to expand this sense of community to those initially excluded (not all of those, to be sure), most notably Black and Native Americans.
For the radical this issue answers the question easily. The roots of American society are from elsewhere and forged in an act of settlement. Thus, Americans are “settlers on stolen land . . . [and] not entitled to live on this land.” This claim is no doubt at least partially responsible for the distasteful and offensive way some try to pass themselves off as Native Americans. The stance is also far too reductive. If nations are imagined communities, then it’s clear that Americans are not from anywhere else. It is true that the English language, sources of American political institutions, culture, and roots are from elsewhere. But it’s equally clear that how we think, speak, and act are not primarily shaped by centuries old European influences. Even our language continues to diverge rapidly from its origin. Rather, by four centuries of cultural, political, and linguistic change and experience, Americans’ orientation to the world is not found in a generic Europe or Africa or Asia but here. The best historical analogy is probably 10th century Anglo-Saxon England. Though the Saxon settlement represented a massive shift and displacement of the original Romano-Celtic inhabitants, after four centuries there was, in fusion with Norse settlers, an identifiable English people who could be considered native in the sense that they were rooted in this new imagined place called England, artificially crafted by kings like Alfred the Great and artfully told by authors like St. Bede. By the late 900s, England was, like America today, still a relatively young nation. But it would be unreasonable to act as if the English people were not native, though not the first inhabitants, for they imagined themselves as one political community.
By facing the truth about the nativity of Americans in this land, we find a nation that loses much of its glamorously caricatured exceptionalism. America is not the end point of Whig history, nor purely a city on a hill straight out of scripture, but neither is it some dark force or parasitic presence. It is a nation, much like others, undergoing change and formation over the centuries. There is a middle ground to recognize both virtues and vices, successes and sins in our shared national history. However, while belonging to this land, we are not its first inhabitants. So, we ask, what is our national obligation given this irony and paradox?
“Give the Indian his rights”
This was the advice of a Methodist minister and Pequot native, Rev. William Apess, to Americans for how to create peace between settlers and natives. Apess used the anniversary of the death of King Philip, known to the Wampanoag as Metacom, to indict American society for its sins against their “brethren.” His indictment was simple, if not brutal:
Now we sum up this subject; does it not appear . . . that the whites have always been the aggressors and the wars, cruelties and blood shed, is a job of their own seeking? What then is to be done? Let every friend of the Indians now seize the mantle of Liberty, and throw it over the burning elements that has spread with such fearful rapidity and at once extinguish them. Let us have principles that will give every one his due, and then the wars shall cease.
While historians can quibble with the simplicity of how Apess described the cause of the American Indian Wars, we must agree that, on the whole, he was correct. The effect of European and later American colonization of the Americas is not an inspiring one to anyone interested in any sort of common good. While there is much an American can be proud of, our treatment of the First Americans is almost never one of them. The arrival of Europeans depopulated the land, sometimes unintentionally through diseases, at times intentionally through forced displacement and warfare. While painting in broad strokes can inaccurately portray Native Americans as little more than pawns, rather than as agents capable of creating their own powerful empires, the overall record is still grim. Devastated by the biological impact, native tribes found themselves at a disadvantage with European settlers who fought and negotiated for land in order to carve out their own permanent settlements along the Atlantic. While the benefits of Anglo-American society are often obvious—decreased intra-societal violence and representative, liberal governance as examples—one could hardly blame Native Americans for feeling less than sanguine about their present place in this society.
Once the American Revolution was over, this new republic expanded across the continent, eventually amassing over 1.5 billion acres of land. While each loss of land was unique, the cycle was tragically familiar. Settlers and land speculators would continue to collide with established tribes along the ever-expanding frontier. There would be an attempt, often genuine, to avoid conflict. But, burdened with the premise that the tribes “must go,” conflict would inevitably come. After the eventual native loss, more land was ceded and tribal populations were often deported to lands to the west. As described by Claudio Saunt in his history of Indian Removal, Unworthy Republic, the epitome of this process came during the Jackson administration. The moral result “will be an indelible stigma fixed upon us,” if in the “plentitude of our power” and “pride of our superiority, we shall be guilty of manifest injustice to our weak and defenseless neighbors,” penned missionary Jeremiah Evarts, a public opponent of Andrew Jackson over the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
Eventually, this systematic takeover and ethnic cleansing paved the way for future expansion into the Southwest, the Great Plains, and finally to the Pacific Coast. By the time of the Battle of Bear Valley in 1918, seen as the last official battle of the American Indian Wars, little more than 200,000 natives remained, largely bereft of any control over their own lands. However, it would be a mistake to imagine this injustice remains something of the past. Today, the federal government continues to keep Native Americans in poverty through a byzantine series of policies that hold tribes in a state of permanent wardship. To this day Native Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty. This is exacerbated by corporations, which see reservations simply as places to pollute for profit, with devastating health effects. But the core of the issue remains one of law and sovereignty. Though proclaimed citizens under the Constitution, Native Americans are legally restrained from protecting their own tribal citizens against acts of heinous violence. Meanwhile, the federal government—perhaps until recently—continues to be incapable of adhering to its word in over 300 treaties with Native American nations, often with ruinous consequences.
On the one hand, it is historically inaccurate, indeed unscrupulous, to deny that Americans belong to this land. Nevertheless, on the other hand, it is unconscionable to pretend that we have no debt to pay to the first inhabitants of this country. It is not a matter of historical reckoning nor is it how we remember certain figures. Rather it involves an ongoing crisis both spiritual and material.
In 1831 the representatives of the Creek nation appealed to Congress, calling them “brethren” and “friends,” with words that should stir us to action still to this day:
We cannot but implore you our brethren, the representatives of a great and powerful
nation, to lend your ears to our entreaties. If we have lost our rights, inform us when
how they have been forfeited. If we have not been solemnly guaranteed that our
possessions were sacred, and should not be wrested from us, inform us what is the
meaning of the language to which we have attached so much value. If our lands may
overrun, and our possessions damaged, and our persons outraged, by white men, to
whom can we look for assistance and aid but you?
Your Land, My Land
If Americans are entitled to live in the land we call the United States, that does not erase our obligation to Native Americans. It compounds it. By sharing this land, we embrace a national responsibility. Some may wish to shut their eyes to this reality, relying upon equivocation and historical forgetting, while others will instead insist no such equilibrium is possible. In their world, there is no scenario in which the settled and native can equitably live together without a complete reversal of all existing political and cultural institutions. Yet, between these extremes, there is a way forward.
The neglecting or the upending of all things are not the only potential futures. The current impoverishment and dispossession was not an inevitability, as if this state of affairs were some black hole consuming a star. At each step of the way, Americans—both native and otherwise—rejected that such a collision was necessary. During the debate over the Indian Removal Act, itself passed by only nine votes in the Senate and four votes in the House, the public space was flooded with protestation. Red Bird, a Miami leader, argued there was no inescapable conflict: “We wish to stay among the whites and be connected with them. Therefore, we will not go.” Writers to newspapers all over the country objected to the proposal as unjust, impugning the very honor of the nation. William Leete Stone, editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, compared the confiscation to Ahab stealing Naboth’s vineyard, calling it a “national sin.” Cherokee leader John Ross noted that it was not contiguity but rather policy that was at fault. Ironically those who sound most similar to modern radicals are the pro-removal faction, insisting that the concept of America innately had no place for Native Americans, that they could not share the land. Neither was the federal government immune to this fierce debate. Histories of federal Indian policy, like Prucha’s The Great Father, consistently show that federal policy was ineffective largely because it could not decide what it was aiming towards. In the 20th century alone, the focus of Washington’s policy wavered between autonomy and termination (with forced sterilizations only a few decades ago.)
Still, if we look to Native voices and postcolonial thinkers, we realize that justice for Native Americans does not require a radical abolition of the United States nor a cultural disinheritance of the descendants of settlers. To lock settlers and natives into an inescapable conflict is to ensure that no common good can ever be created between the two. In his essay, “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities,” Mahmood Mamdani explains how a politics centered around indigeneity gave excessive emphasis to a more restrictive definition that did not take into account more recent ethnogenesis. As a consequence, by "privileging the indigenous over the nonindigenous, we turned the colonial world upside down, but we did not change it."
From our own history, we can look to the example of Zitkala-Sa, a Yankton Dakota writer, political leader, and teacher. As someone who endured the Indian school experience, her writing was critical to challenging the forced assimilation campaign of the 20th century. She later helped found the National Council of American Indians, serving as its president until her death in 1938. For Zitkala-Sa, the way forward was not to declare American society illegitimate due to its settler roots, but rather to expand that society so as to make good on its obligations to the first inhabitants. In her appeal for citizenship, she pointed out that Native Americans were not merely dependent foreigners, but were the truest of Americans, ones whose participation made them part of the fabric of this nation. Zitkala-Sa appealed to Americans to "remember how their early ancestors fled from the autocracy of Europe . . . this memory, together with the proud record of the Indian in the world war must move all those whose hearts are not stone." This eventually led to the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, finally granting American citizenship to all Native Americans, including my great-grand grandmother, until then considered an alien in the land of her own birth.
Naturally, there is still much to do after the activism of the early 20th century. There are debts to be paid, land to be restored, and treaties to be abided. A few policy issues stand out. Increased tribal sovereignty on the legislative level, more deference from federal courts to established treaty law, and finally protection of tribal citizens from violent crime would demonstrate a willingness to take this crisis seriously. Already, the Cherokee Nation has finally seated its promised congressional delegate, opening the door for increased federal-tribal legislative cooperation. While perhaps unexceptionable today, the idea of seating a tribal delegate in Congress was unthinkable in an earlier era. Additionally, America can build on recent positive judicial trends. In the recent McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court found that the Cherokee Nation’s jurisdiction actually extends over most of the eastern half of the Sooner State. While it would be easy to cite elapsed time to wave off Cherokee claims, the Court has rightly decided to hold the federal government to its own standards. This ruling is a key opportunity to build a new relationship between federal, state, and tribal stakeholders as they learn to share jurisdiction. The recent statement from the five tribes and the state government of Oklahoma is encouraging:
The nations and the state are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights. We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone.
Lastly, the United States can ensure that Native Americans are protected from violence, a basic public good and one of the core functions of any legitimate government. Women on tribal reservations face violence far beyond women off reservations, often at the hands of non-natives. Due to the peculiarities of tribal and constitutional legal arrangements, prosecuting perpetrators is often futile. Recent changes to extend prosecutorial power to tribal governments, while protecting basic procedural justice for defendants, are heartening, though there is still much more to do in Indian Country.
However, using Zitkala-Sa’s advocacy as a model, we can look forward to a true common good forged among all Americans, whether they have lived here for thousands of years, hundreds, or have only recently arrived. Americans, confident in their nativity, can realize that our obligation to Native America is not due to our eternal illegitimacy but rather one of a national debt of honor. Like the Psalmist in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have simultaneously inherited the land we dwell in, yet we are sojourners and strangers, as our fathers were. From this dual position, we Americans can approach our responsibility to make things right, not as a way to invalidate this nation, but make it a place where every American is given their due.
Joseph S. Laughon is a writer who has published in Human Events, The Hipster Conservative, Mere Orthodoxy, and other outlets. He is an alumnus of Concordia University. His work can be found at Musings on the Right. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.