sins of our ancestors

Hey all – I figure it’s about time for my first post. I was writing a comment over at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog, and despite my best efforts it outgrew comment-hood and graduated into post-dom. So I thought I’d just post it over here, for your delectation and discussion.

In the discussion thread, Hugo said this (if you want the full context, you can go read the thread, which is interesting in its own right. And apologies to Hugo for picking on him, he just happened to offer up a softball-sized version of the same diversionary truisms I hear over and over from white people who don’t actually want to think about historical responsibility) :

We need to be honest about the mistakes of our ancestors. We also need to see those mistakes in a historical context, and avoid the tendency to mythologize and glamorize those who were the victims of colonization. Cruelty is a human universal, and sin – at least the capacity for sin – is found in every tribe and nation under the sun. Collectively, some have inflicted both more harm (and perhaps more good) than others.

And I respond:

On the one hand, yes, of course; and on the other hand, no. These are precisely the vacuous truisms that are so tempting to _replace_ substantive reflection on what our collective history means and what it says about us.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard something along the lines of “cruelty is a human universal” from white people as a blanket dismissal of the idea that Euro-American culture might have anything significant to learn from indigenous people. Same goes for the tired bit about “don’t mythologize the victims of colonization.” You don’t have to be a romanticizing, mythologizing, self-hating fool to be willing to simply look at another culture and say, “You know, I value many of the things my ancestors taught me. But I think these folks have some things figured out about how to live on this earth that my ancestors once knew, but lost somewhere along the way.” In my experience, the resistance to this idea is huge – and the cliches in your paragraph are a key piece of that resistance.

By choosing the word “mistakes” to describe the wholesale destruction of peoples, and by emphasizing “cruelty is a human universal”, what you do is close off the possibility of real analysis of the causes of genocide and colonization. You choose to pre-suppose that it was all an accident, a mistake, something that really anyone would have done if they’d been in a similar situation. You a priori eliminate the possibility that there are discernible historical factors in medieval Europe that led to the subsequent colonization of much of the world, and that looking closely at those factors might help us to see parts of our inherited culture that reflect colonizer values rather than values that will help us make this “living on earth” thing work out for everyone.

Many people talk about privilege and “working for a more equitable society” entirely in the present tense, without any reference to the critical role of accepting _real responsibility_ for the sins of our ancestors. Responsibility in this case means recognizing that we benefit from our ancestors’ sins (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land), and then making things right. This choice has very practical implications. Here in South Dakota, there are plenty of well-meaning white folks who will say, “Yes! Let’s work towards a more equitable society!” The unspoken implication is: become a part of my society, on my terms, and I’ll try to help you get your piece of the pie. There are far fewer white people who are willing to hear Lakota people say “We don’t want your society – we want you to give back the Black Hills that you stole, and then leave us alone.” Doing the latter requires an understanding that the theft of the Black Hills is not ancient history, it’s of critical present-day relevance. Same goes for slavery – it ain’t ancient history, folks. We don’t just need “a more equitable society” – we need to make actual, physical reparations! Until there’s been real recompense, the wounds of the past are still open and bleeding – they are, in fact, the continuing wounds of the present.

(One slightly different take is an article I saw years ago – which I can’t find online – on the “Moctezuma Plan” – the New World’s massive loan of precious metals and natural resources to finance the rebuilding of colonial Europe, which the author was suggesting it might be time for the US and Europe to repay to American indigenous people, to the tune of several hundred billion dollars or so). EDIT: Found the article. It’s actually entitled the Marshalltezuma Plan.

For more detailed thoughts on this whole subject (including a bunch of fascinating Bible verses), check out a talk that Karissa and I gave at her home church entitled Sins of the Fathers (yeah, I know that’s sexist. Of course, if we’re talking about colonization and slavery, mostly it is the fathers’ sins we’re referring to).

Comments (22)

  1. Pingback: on history and not repeating it » Young Anabaptist Radicals

  2. Blair

    During medieval times, Europeans were basically occuppied in fighting off invasions from other continents. Asian overran much of eastern Europe and drove to the outskirts of Vienna. Turkish armies invaded and occupied the Balkans. In 700, African armies crossed the Mediterrean and conquered the Iberian penisula. Their conquest of Spain lasted 400 years. During these times, white slaves were transported by the thousands to Asia, Arabia, and Africa.

    European nations participated in the Atlantic slave trade at a time when slavery was a global institution. They did not raid African villages to capture and enslave people. They purchased slaves from African tribes. The European nations later used their military power to abolish slavery, not only at home but in most of the world. As the Europeans withdrew from their colonies, slavery begin to make a comeback. More slaves, many of them children, are trafficked in Africa today than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.

    Human beings originated in Africa and are not indiginous to the Americas. The people we now call Native Americans are the ancestors of Asians who entered the Americas in successive waves, with each wave colliding with and pushing the preceeding wave southward. (The Sioux, close relative to the Cree of Canada, are relatively newcomers to the Black Hills.) Native American oral histories boast of their conquests of other tribes and glorify warrior virtues. Why are they upset that Europeans played by their rules?

    The myth is that Native Americans lived in a blissfully peaceful society prior to the European discovery of the Americas. The reality is that Native American tribes waged inccesant and brutal warfare against one another. The purpose of these wars were to dominant, decimate, or externate rival tribes and conquer territory. The casualty rates, as a percentage of population, was much higher than in European wars, including World War II.

    Native Americans are much better off today than they would have been had Europeans not conquered the Americas. They are not victims of European genocide; the Europeans could have exterminated Indians with relative ease had they wanted to. In the United Sates, the reservation system traps tribes not blessed with revenue-producing casinos in poverty, but their inhabitants are free to join the mainstream of American society. However, even those who remain on the reservation are much better off than they would have been had the Europeans not conquered the Americas.

    The argument against reparations for African Americans is that they enjoy a much higher standard of living than Africans whose ancestors were not transported to the United States. They are beneficiaries rather than victims of the slave trade. (Black Americans as well as whites owned slaves. About 6 percent of whites owned slaves while about 1.6 percent of free blacks owned slaves. Some of the South’s largest landowners and slaveowners were free black men.
    Thousands of white slaves–not to be confused with indentured servants–were also transported to the United States.

    The Spanish were the first to import African slaves to the Americas, but they did not introduce slavery to the Americas. The largest slave market that ever existed in the Americas was the slave market the Aztec maintained outside Mexico City in pre-Colombian days. One of the primary goals of Native American raids on opposing tribes was to capture slaves. Slavery was still legal on tribal lands after the American Civil War. The United States ended slavery within it border by purhcasing slaves from Native American tribes and setting them free. The Cherokees, who were the last to give up their slaves, recently voted to deny tribal membership to the descendants of Cherokee slaves.

    We often hear that we can learn many things from “indigenous people,” but no one seems to be able to put together a list. Why not try making one yourself.

  3. Nathan Eanes

    You seem to have at least three major points in your comment:

    1) White Europeans were not the only people who participated in bad stuff like slave trading and colonialism;

    2) The results of slavery and colonialism were partly good, and not just bad;

    3) The Native Americans are not really indigenous to America, so (presumably) the land is not theirs any more than it belongs to Americans now.

    Your points are well-taken, but I don’t think they really alter the truth in what Carl said. It is true that the Europeans were hardly the only people doing horrific things to other races, and likewise it is true that the Europeans could be quite humane at times. But that does not absolve their guilt for what they did do wrong, nor does it mean that we should stop trying to make up for past wrongs that our ancestors committed and from which we still benefit economically.

    Lastly: Do you have any statistics on your claims that more slaves were traded by the pre-Columbian Aztecs and by modern Africans than were traded by Europeans? Also, can you explain your reasoning behind the claim that Native Americans and blacks are better off today than if Europeans had never colonized them?

  4. Blair

    The Aztec market was the largest single “marketplace” ever to exist in the Americas. The Aztec market wouldn’t have had as much volume as the combined African slave markets, but the Aztec controled an area much smaller than Texas, not an entire continent. But the Aztec was only one of hundreds of tribes that had slaves. After the Civil War, slavery was still legal in the Indian Terrotories (Oklahoma). The United States ended slavery within its borders by purchasing slaves from the tribes. The Cherokee were the last to give up their slaves. A few weeks ago, the Cherokee Nation made headlines by voting to deny tribal membership to descendants of Cherokee slaves.

    “The Native Americans are not really indigenous to America, so (presumably) the land is not theirs any more than it belongs to Americans now.”

    During the 1400 through the 1800s, Europeans played by the same rules as everyone else. They grabbed as much land as they good when they could. American Indian tribes did the same. Only the Europeans felt a need to justify such behavior or now feel they need to apologize.

    “Lastly: Do you have any statistics on your claims that more slaves were traded by the pre-Columbian Aztecs and by modern Africans than were traded by Europeans? Also, can you explain your reasoning behind the claim that Native Americans and blacks are better off today than if Europeans had never colonized them.”

    Modern Day Slavery
    About 10 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. This works out to a little over 33,000 a year. This is fewer than they number of illegal immigrants who cross into the United States from Mexico each year.

    A recent Reuters articles placed the modern-day slave traffic in Central Africa at 200,000 to 800,000 a year.

    “An estimated 200,000-800,000 people are trafficked each year in the sub-region. Children are moved within and between countries to work as domestics, in agriculture or in the markets. Women are tricked with promises of good jobs abroad into forced prostitution in Europe or the Middle East.” (Modern slavery – Some Key Facts), Reuters, March 20, 2007

    Things are much worse in Asia.

    “Slavery is officially banned internationally by all countries, yet despite this there are more slaves than ever before. Today there are an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide: people paid no money, locked away and controlled by violence.–Reuters, March 20,2007

    Most African Americans are solidly middle class; even those who live in poverty are rich compared to people who live in Africa. Do you seriously doubt this?

    Prior to the European discover of America, Indians who occupied the United States had not advanced byond the hunter-gatherer stage of existence, except in the Southwest where a few Pueblo tribes fortified mesas to fend often predatory Apaches, Utes, Navojos and Comanche. Other than dogs, which they bought with them from Asia, they had no domesticated animals. The Spanish introduction of the horse alone was enough to create a population explosion among the Plains Indians. Do you really think Native Americas would willingly give up thier houses, schools, running water, bathrooms, electricity, cars, hospitals, medicines (that work) and other modern day conveniences, not to mention federal assistant, and return to the Stone Age existence they led before the arrival of the Europeans?

  5. Nathan Eanes

    You have some good points. At very least, though, we should come away with the understanding that our European ancestors were at least as bad as their contemporaries; it should blow the lid off our often-glamorized view of them.

    As far as African Americans are concerned, it is true that most of them are better off than modern Africans. That, however, is not a fair comparison, because Africa is very poor today, and it largely is because of colonialism. How about this analogy: Imagine that two people are in a car wreck, and one person is more critically injured than the other. What if you said to the less-injured person, “you are the beneficiary of this accident, since the other person is far worse off than you are.” That wouldn’t be a fair comparison, would it? That, in my mind, is the same as saying that African Americans are “well-off” because they have it better, of average, than Africans.

  6. Blair

    The European colonization of African began in the late 1800s, after slavery had been abolished in Europe and the United States. The people of Europe, particulary the British, supported the colonization and the higher taxes to support it because they were promised it would end slavery. The European colonization virtually ended slavery in Africa. It also bought schools, hospitals, roads, highways and the creation of nation states. However, the colonies were a significant drain on Europeans treasuries. That’s why the “rush to get out of Afirca” was as urgent as the “rush to get in.” Since the Europeans abandoned their colonies, Africa has sprialed back into the type of incessant warfare that existed prior to colonization. Some people say this is because the Europeans gave the Africans modern weapons, but the Africans did just fine at slaughtering one another with spears and assagis. The Hutus massacred millions of Tutus with machetes.

  7. Skylark

    How can we know what Africa “would be like” without European influences? Since the entire globe changed dramatically during Colonization, is it even a fair question?

  8. carl (Post author)

    Blair, your white supremacist mythology lectures aren’t worth the time to respond to point-by-point. Maybe some other day.

    In other news, I’ve arranged for you to be shipped and sold as a slave in Sweden. You’ll be beaten, whipped, forced to work long hours for no pay, and occasionally raped. But I hope you don’t lack in gratefulness for the significantly higher average living standard in Sweden.

    Ok, a few quick thoughts:
    1) Modern-day slavery is a terrible thing. You apparently think it’s due to the inherently violent and inferior nature of everybody who isn’t white. I think it has much more to do with a global economic order that props up a few wealthy countries and keeps most places poor, and with the after-effects of global colonization.
    2) Poor choice of Rwanda as your hand-picked demonstration of the inherent brutality of Africans. I’ve studied that conflict in depth, and it’s hardly disputed by reputable scholars that the Hutu/Tutsi animosity was almost entirely created (intentionally, as a means of control) by Belgian colonists.
    3) No, I really don’t have any more time to devote to this racist nonsense.

  9. Nathan Eanes

    You made some points that I wanted to respond to.

    1) You insinuated that Africans and Native Americans are better off because of the technology, health care, and economic infrastructure the Europeans brought. This is a complex point, and of course it is entirely possible that people would not give these things up if they had the choice to return to their pre-colonial lifestyle. Also, we cannot deny that technology has its benefits; we are using it right now on this blog.

    However, we must not assume that all the people of the world share our mindset that says technology=progress. Technology and liberal economies have their benefits, yes, but there are many people out there that are wary of these things, what with the conflict, disease, and economic degradation they ultimately cause. Furthermore, this technological lifestyle we have today is not sustainable. We will eventually use up our fuels and cause global climate change, and when that happens it is the poor of the world (Africans, Asians, etc) will see the worst of the humanitarian crisis.

    2) I do not think it is fair to say that Africa “has sprialed back into the type of incessant warfare that existed prior to colonization…” Of course, no reputable scholar would argue that Africa was some kind of utopia prior to colonization. Conflict and oppression are universal to humanity. However, the current levels of conflict in Africa, as Carl has said, are due largely to the Europeans. It has to do with who they put in power (as in Rwanda), what kinds of weapons they (and we) sell them, and how they drew the various national borders.

  10. Blair

    The European colonization of Africa lasted roughly one lifetime. The scramble to get out of African was as urgent as the scramble to get in because European nations discovered the African colonies were a tremendous drain on their treasuries. Once the Europeans abandoned their colonies, the industrial, commercial and educational infrastructure that had built began to disintegrate across most of sub-Saharan Africa. Human trafficking made a strong comeback, and tribal warfare resumed, with often genocidal results.
    Africa is tremendously rich in natural resources, particularly oil and minerals. It’s better to export than export. You enrich people when you buy their products. Africa should be growing rich off its oil and mineral exports, which should be creating new industries and new jobs. Instead, African leaders used the money they borrowed from European investors to fatten their private banks accounts. What they didn’t steal outright, they invested in meaningless social programs to buy support from favored segments of society. Some countries divided large, productive farms into small farms operated by native people, a return to subsistence farming that turned nations that were once food exporters to food importers. As a result, most African nations are forced depend on European and American charity for food, clothing and medical supplies. They also rely on European and American military forces and relief organization to stop famines and genocidal warfare. In essence, much of Africa is rapidly reverting to the type of society that existed prior to European colonization.
    Some sociologists now say that European aid hurts rather than help African economies. When you give free food to Africans, African farmers go broke; when you give them free clothing, African textile manufacturers go broke. Africa doesn’t produce its own medicines because it gets them free, or at artificially cheap prices, from European and American drug manufactures. So, perhaps it’s best to do nothing. I think Europeans and Americans could best help Africa by investing only in education for Africans, but this would probably work only if European and Americans built and ran the school systems. Most of the money we contributed for educational purposes would probably be stolen.

    – The Tutus, a pastoral people with larger herds of cattle, dominated the Hutus, who were hunter-gatherers, before Europeans arrived in Africa. The Europeans didn’t put the Tutu in power; they simply dealt with the dominant tribe that was already in power. It had nothing with the Tutus “looking more European” than Hutus. The primary cause of the genocide in Rwanda was tensions create by extreme over-population. Prior to the genocide, Rwanda was one of the most densely populated regions on the planet.
    – I never said whites are racially superior to non-whites. There are lots of explanations for differences in culture that do not include race.
    – I’ve been on Indian reservations in Oklahoma and New Mexico. If they wanted, they could tear down their housing and live in teepees, but they like houses, they like television and personal computers, they like running water and indoor toilets, they like electric lighting, they like air conditioning, they like supermarkets, and they like driving rather than walking.
    – The Earth is not threatened by global warming; only human beings are threatened by global warming–the world would get along just fine without us. Except for technology, most of the billions of peoples now threatened by global warming would have never lived. Technology is what enables us to support large human populations. Some very reputable scientists think global warning is caused by changes in solar radiation rather then greenhouse gases. Mars, which has little industry, is also undergoing global warning. But it’s a moot point. As China and India start using their fair share of energy, global conflict over energy sources will become inevitable. Therefore, we should do everything we can to develop alternate energy sources and, perhaps, a switch to a hydrogen based economy. It should be up to developed countries rather than developing countries to make this happen.
    – Nathan said, “You have some good points. At very least, though, we should come away with the understanding that our European ancestors were at least as bad as their contemporaries; it should blow the lid off our often-glamorized view of them.” I agree, but we should also come away with the understanding that other cultures were at least as bad as the Europeans. For example, Native Americans attacked European settlements before Europeans attack Native American settlements. Icelandic settlers led by Erik the Red found the Greenland uninhabited when they arrived around 982. They established settlements in deep fjords near the very southwestern tip of the island, where they thrived for the next few centuries. These settlements then came under attack by Inuits migrating from North America’s around 1200. After a few small but bloody battles, the two appeared to coexist peacefully for short time, but the Icelandic settlements begin to shrink during the Little Ice Age, which made trade with Europe difficult. The last Icelandic settlement disappeared after 450 years of settlement. Historians believe the settlers were wiped out by bubonic plague or exterminated by the Inuit.

  11. Tim B

    This thread reminds me how much history can be about perspective and context. The question becomes, whose perspective and context do we elevate above others? Those at the top of the global hierarchy? It seems Jesus had a pretty clear and consistent message about this….

    In the end, it seems that when we look at the large picture, trends and movements across periods of time, we see that certain groups of people have benefitted over and over. While others may have benefitted too, there remain fundamental questions of fairness and justice. Have we as a global society ever experienced equity? How level is the playing field? Is it becoming more or less level?

    Carl’s main point–and I make this assumption based on his decision to write in bold print–is that some of us have greatly benefited from our ancestors’ sins, and that furthermore, we have responsibility to make things right. From a social justice standpoint, I think this logic would hold true no matter what group of people had prospered at the expense and detriment of the rest of the world’s peoples.

    The sad truth is that I doubt any of us can make the leap to Carl’s kind of thinking without first examining whose perspective of history we know, accept, and use as the foundation of our existence. Yep, foundation of our existence…because history shapes and creates our identity. I’d say our very souls are on the line. Maybe that’s why Jesus kept talking about putting the first people last and the last people first.

  12. Skylark

    Perhaps Carl or Tim could help me out here. I guess I have some of the same questions as Hugo did–and I don’t want these to be excuses to do nothing.

    What exactly should a white person like me do? Like others have pointed out, there are so many ways in which I could work for social justice, and as just one person I can’t do them all–at least not all the time.

    My ancestry is about as white as it gets. I haven’t traced back every branch of my family, but I don’t know of any slave owners or plantation owners to be able to say, “Aha, I have directly benefitted from this.” My paternal great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from various places in Scotland, Germany and Austria.

    Holy crap, I just realized my maternal grandfather grew up in one of the Dakotas. He moved to PA and then Ohio after he was in WWII. When I asked him questions before, we talked about things like growing up without electricity and cars… and the inevitable war stories that he thinks are wonderful and I think are despicable. I never thought to ask him how close to the Black Hills he lived or how his family got their farm. Sadly, I doubt his family was working on racial reconciliation. When my uncle married an Italian woman, she wasn’t “white enough” for my grandparents.

    If I find out my grandfather’s family acquired their homestead on the broken backs of Lakotas, what do I do? How do I figure out which of the benefits I have today in Ohio came from that? My grandparents helped pay for piano and voice lessons when I was a kid. I can’t give those back. I’d be hard pressed to make a list of every present my grandparents have given me, let alone the opportunities like college I have less-directly because of them. On an emotional level, it’s partly because of my grandpa that I picked this career. Reporters don’t make much money, but I did win an award this year for investigative reporting. When I get that plaque, should I take it to SD/ND and offer it to the descendents of the Lakotas who lived on the land that became my grandfather’s home? I don’t know if the measly amount of money I have in savings would be insulting to offer to give them, too.

  13. blaircase

    Today, the majority of Native Americans live off the reservation, primarily in large cities. Some reservations are very small while others are very large. Twelve are bigger than Rhoad Island.

    Some reservations are relatively prosperous, but these tend to be reservations that have significant mineral resources or oil fields. The oil and mineral countries pay for leases, and the money gets split up among the reservation inhabitants. Many people object to mining and drilling on Indian property because it damages the environment. Others say the companies should be paying more than they do on the leases. “Traditional” Native Americans object to any industrial or commercialization on reservations because it destroys Native American culture. However, “traditional” is a eupheminism for “minority.” Most tribal councils vote in favor of anything–cansinos, strip mining and manufacturing plants, underground radioactive waste storage–that increases revenue.

    The Lakota, a branch of the Teton Sioux, live on one of the poorest reservations. They migrated southward out of Canada relatively recently and pushed other tribes, including the Pawnee and Blackfeet, off their ancestoral lands. (This explains the conflict between Pawnees and Sioux featured in the Academy Award winning film “Dances With Wolves.” The other tribes viewed the Lakota as invaders. The Lakota are proud rather than ashamed of this period in their history.)

    Like Native Americans on many reservations, the Lakota suffer from a high-rate of alcoholism. Whites, of course, sell the alcohol to the Lakota. The laws that once forbade the sell of alchol to Native Indians were regarded as racist and overturned. Federal subsidies trap Native Americans on poor reservations in a cycle of poverty that is difficult to reverse without destroying traditional Native American culture.

    The Great Plains are going empty as Agribusiness, shrinking underground water reservoirs, and the decline in the mining industry continues to drive Americans, who were mostly a rural people just a few generations ago, into urban society. Most of us have lost our land and now live in apartments and tract housings and go to work in factories or high-rise office buildings. So, poverty appears to be the price people of all races and ethnic groups pay to maintain a culture rather than adapt it to a changing socio-economic environment.

  14. Skylark

    I called my grandpa this afternoon and asked him questions about his early days in ND. Most of the information in this post I learned today.

    He was born on a homestead outside Reeder, which is right on the SD/ND line. His parents stayed on the homestead for seven years before giving up on the idea of “free land” from the U.S. government. He was very young when they moved into Reeder and his dad got a job at the railroad. He remembered one time when he was probably five or six when his dad spent a year working on a Lakota reservation in SD, and he visited for a day. He liked playing with the Lakota kids, but he doesn’t remember the cultural differences fondly. He was disturbed by the sight of a dog carcass hanging in a butcher’s window the way he was accustomed to seeing pig carcasses. (It’s beyond me what the substantive difference between a pig and a dog is, though.)

    No Lakotas lived near Reeder, he told me. His uncle Oliver was a wealthy man, by Reeder standards, who owned “fields and fields” of corn. Or maybe wheat. I don’t know. However, my great-grandfather and his brother Oliver did not get along well, so Oliver’s money never benefitted my grandpa. Oliver died before the Depression. During the Depression, my great-grandfather was one of the lucky few who had a steady job. He not only provided for his family but also many other families who were not so fortunate, my grandpa said. I asked if his dad helped out any Lakotas, and my grandpa said there simply weren’t any nearby. After the year of working on the reservation, his dad didn’t have much if any contact with the Lakotas, my grandpa recalled.

    Later, when my grandpa went to college in ND, he worked a part-time job to pay for tuition. That covered tuition then, I guess.

    There’s little obvious in my grandpa’s stories that sticks out to me as a benefit my family acquired from subjugating the Lakotas. Yes, my great-grandparents had a homestead, courtesy of the “free land” mentality common at the time. But it didn’t work out, so they moved into town… and I’m sure the town was also built on formerly Lakota land. When many others didn’t, my great-grandfather had a job. It didn’t sound like they did much more than survive and help others survive.

    Should I cross-reference these stories with historians in Reeder and the surrounding area? The reporter in me doesn’t want to take one person’s word for it. Carl, since you’re in the area, who would you suggest I contact as a “second source”?

  15. Blair

    Europeans explored the Black Hills and Dakotas before the Lakota, but the Lakota beat permanent white settlements to the area by about 40 years. The Lakota began migrating out of the Great Lakes area just before the American Revolution and first reached the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1775 or 1776. They were drawn westward by the evolution of the horse culture on the Great Plains. The Cheyenne, who say that the Lakota followed them onto the plains, claim the Lakota had no horses, but dragged their possession behind them on dog travois, so the Cheyenne took pity on them and gave them horses.

    As they migrated west toward the Black Hills, the Lakota pushed other tribes out of the way. Along the way, the Lakota attacked the fortified villages of the Arikaras, Mandans and Hidatsas, leaving 400 scalped and mutilated men, women and children at one site and 75 at a second site. (By comparison, 150 to 180 Cheyenne and Arapahoes died during the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, the most famous of white atrocities against Native Americans.) The first white settlement in the region was an American fur trading post set up at present-day Fort Pierre.

    The Homestead Act and decades of unusally high rainfall drew farmers onto the Great Plains.. Signed by President Lincoln in 1862, the Homestead Act gave freehold title to 160 acres of undeveloped land in the American West. You had to be at least 21 years old, build a house, and live on the claim for five years before being granted title. German and Norwegian immigrants filled up the Dakotas. Farming, at first, was easy on the great plains, and farmers grew rich as they harvested year after year of records crops, but when the weather returned to normal, most farmers could no longer make a living. The poughed-up top soil simply dried up and blew away on the Southern Plains, creating the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and 1940s. Things weren’t as bad in the Dakota, but farming became, at best, marginally profitable and many farmers gave up their homesteads and moved to cities. The colsolidation of small farms into large farms and the discovery of an immense underground water resevoir revived agriculture, but the land is once again going empty as it become more expensive to pump water from the underground resevoir.

  16. Tim W

    Great post, Carl. I don’t know if this is what you were referring to, but here’s an article that refers to calling in Europe’s “foreign debt” to the Americas — all of the resources extracted and stolen over the last 500 years.

    It’s called “A Modest Proposal for Collecting the European Debt,” by Venezuelan author Luis Britto Garcia.

  17. TimN


    Thanks for sharing the stories your grandpa shared. You asked, “What exactly should a white person like me do?” and I think listening is a good starting point. As a trained reporter you have a special opportunity to talk with those on the margins whose voices often aren’t heard. As you point out, it can be more difficult to find these voices sometimes. I hope that Carl can give you some suggestions for a second or third or fourth source as you explore your family’s history in South Dakota.

    But before we begin the conversation its important to figure out what questions to ask. In order to do this we may need to reexamine a lot of things we’ve taken for granted. For me, it was important to recover an alternative history to the one we grow up reading in our history text books that somehow miss facts like these about our American heros. They read our history through a lens that the violence carried out was necessary for the greater, progress and American expansion. Books likeThe Missing Peace: Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History by Mennonite professor James Junkhe, People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown attempt to listen to historical voices on the margins and challenge the assumptions that shape traditional views of American history.

    Once you’ve listened to some of these voices hopefully you’ll find some new questions to ask people on the margins. And new questions to ask those in the center. Because these sins aren’t just those of our ancestors. The game as old as empire is still being played.

    How we choose to act to challenge the domination system takes prayer and discernment as part of a community. Carl and his wife Karissa have lived on the Pine Ridge reservation for four and a half years working with the people there against the continuing racism they experience in their lives. I’ve felt called to go to Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams and listen to the stories of people. You can’t trace all Colombia’s problem’s back to the United States. And after 40 years of civil war, there’s very little black and white sorting of just and unjust and moral and immoral to be done. But we can listen to people’s stories and try to share them with those back in the United States. We stand with those who choose not to take up arms with the FARC (the leftist guerillas), the AUC (the rightwing paramilitaries) or the Colombian government. We can use our international connections to draw attention to their stories. And we can ask the United States not to send more weapons and military aid to Colombia, but instead to focus on supporting human rights, social aid and challenging corruption.

    I think God calls each of us to repentance and action in hope, but where and what we are called to is different for each one of us.

    I’ll leave you with a quote from The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne:

    Most good things begin with a little guilt, but they never end there. We are all bound up in the filthy system, and if you find yourself particularly bound, take courage, as you will have more grace as you liberate others.

  18. carl (Post author)

    Hey TimW – thanks for the link to the “Modest Proposal” article. Actually, I just found the article I was originally referring to. It’s called “The Marshalltezuma Plan“, which is why I wasn’t finding it before. It’s very similar to the one you linked to. I don’t know which one came first, but I find this one a bit more clearly written.

    Thanks for the great comment, TimN.

  19. Trini

    So I don’t read the site for a few days and this happens? I’m interested in hearing everyone’s side of the story. It seems that the world history and West Indian history that I was taught in school contradicts with what many people have been taught in other parts of the world. But that’s okay I think, considering history is basically someone’s story, from their perspective.

    These comments have so far gone down a road which makes it hard to reply. I appreciate your original post Skylark.

    I do also share an idea of human beings as fallen, and capable of sin. My West Indian history taught me of the cruelity inflicted upon slaves, indentured labourers and indigenous peoples by colonization. It also taught me of the harsh realities of peoples in West Africa who sold peoples from other tribes off into slavery, for a Judas bribe.

    Sin is a natural human condition, yes. But that doesn’t make it right. Many Carib and Arawak peoples died during colonization, I wish there were reparations that can be made to the Arawaks, but their bones are all that’s left to collect the legacy. Colonization happened in the Americas, (not just what’s narrowly thought of as US and Canada).

    My ancestry is Irish, Carib, Indian, African and Spanish, a mixture of the people who found, the people who used, the people who were originally there, the people who were enslaved and those who were tricked into coming after the ‘abolition’ of slavery. My ancestry is that of the abusers and the abused. I identify more with the abused, but what do the sins of my ancestors mean to me? It makes me conflicted, that’s what it does.

    I agree that resolution might never made, and reparations are tricky, because I’ll have to repay myself and stand on both sides of the line. It’s hard to fix the past, but it’s possible to shape the future.

  20. Rich

    Whoever said, “You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem,” wasn’t thinking very clearly. Most of the time, you are probably part of the problem. (Lots of reasons we get started there.) Some of the time, you can also get involved in the solution. At those times, you are almost surely still part of the problem, too. That doesn’t negate the value of making positive contributions.

    I’m thinking of the parable in Matthew 18:23-35. Try reading Potawatomi as the king, European immigrants as the first servant, Mexican immigrants as the second servant, and the land as the debt.

  21. Blair

    Christianity played a major role in the destruction of Native American culture, particularly in Mexico and the Southwest. The British and French settlers, for the most part, could have care less which gods the tribes worshipped, they simply wanted to push them aside, but the Spanish conquistadors wanted to save their souls. As they advanced north from Mexico City, the Spanish destroyed the Native American religions, smashing their religious symbols and executing those who refused to convert to Christianity. In New Mexico, they burned the kivas and forced the Pueblos to build missions. They forced Native Americans to attend religious ceremonies and till the mission fields. They robbed the Pueblos of their religion, as well as their land. The Pueblos hated the new god, which turned out to be no better at stopping draughts or protecting them from Apaches than the old gods had been, but was much more demanding. The Pueblos learned to practice their old religions in secret, and secretly blended many of the old rituals with new Christian religion. When the Pueblos revolted, as they frequently did, the first step was to kill the priests and burn down the missions.

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