Skylark — great questions you’re asking over on the ancestors’ sins thread! Sorry I’m slow to respond. Karissa and I are expecting our first child in the next week or two, and March 31 was the end of MCC’s fiscal year, which meant lots of extra bookkeeping work. Life just doesn’t seem to let up for blogging!
I think I miscommunicated in my “sins of the ancestors” post, and your response is helping me see how. The family research you’re doing is valuable (and by all means I’d encourage you to keep digging into it!), but I’m also talking about “ancestors” on the collective level. Individual family inheritance (of land, wealth, social connections) is one way that privilege (particularly class privilege) is perpetuated from generation to generation, but it’s not the only way. When I say “I benefit from the sins of my ancestors” I’m referring in part, but not solely, to my biological ancestors.
What do I mean by this? I grew up on fertile farmland in northern Indiana. Only a few miles from my parents’ house is the spot where used to stand Five Medals’ Potawatomi village. Five Medals (or Onaska) made peace with the United States in 1795 (Treaty of Greenville) and met with several presidents. Nevertheless, the US Army torched his people’s village and all their surrounding crops in 1812, and then again in 1813. In 1838 Menominee (leader of the last major Potawatomi settlement in northern Indiana) was “tied like a dog” and he and his people were force-marched to Kansas, a journey on which many of them died.
As far as I know, I personally didn’t have any great-grandfathers in the Army divisions that torched Five Medals’ village, or chained Menominee. But I personally did grow up enjoying all the benefits of living on the land that they violently cleared of its Potawatomi inhabitants. The “wholesome rural community” that I grew up in was almost entirely white – every single institution I or my parents had to deal with throughout my childhood was run by white people. In sharp contrast to the few families of color in that rural area, I never had to worry about my physical safety because of my race, never had to deal with racist taunts of other schoolkids on the school-bus, my parents never had to worry that they’d be turned down for a bank loan because of their race. In short, many of the benefits that I and my family enjoyed in that community were benefits that we enjoyed because we are white. That’s one small example of white privilege in my life. And that particular set of white privileges is directly descended from the Potawatomi Trail of Death, which made all that fertile northern Indiana farmland available for farming by German and Swiss immigrants instead of the Potawatomi.
I don’t think it matters all that much whether I am personally descended from the soldiers who set fire to Five Medals’ village, or the soldiers who “hastened the stragglers” with “severe gestures and bitter words” on the Trail of Death, or the squatters who settled on land that had been specifically reserved for the Potawatomi by treaty (like Mennonites did on the Conestoga reservation in Lancaster County, PA in the early 1700s). I am not responsible for their actions, but I believe that I am responsible to understand clearly how their actions still shape the world I live in, and to live responsibly with that knowledge.
I can’t “give back” my entire childhood to anyone. White privilege is far too pervasive for me to be able to find all of the specific benefits that I enjoy because of it and give them back to someone, and then be totally “free and clear.” I only wish it were that easy.
When Karissa and I talk with churches about our work at Pine Ridge, we often use the analogy of a hit-and-run accident. One person (let’s say Peter) runs over a pedestrian (Maria, perhaps) one night, and drives off without stopping. Maria loses years of her life to slow and painful physical rehab. Peter tries to excise the incident from his memory. We ask our audience to generate lists of emotions that Peter and Maria might deal with twenty years down the road. We get remarkably similar lists every time we do the exercise. Peter: guilt, shame, denial. Maria: anger, self-pity, pride. And then we ask what Peter would need to do, twenty years later, if he wanted to connect with Maria and establish a real relationship. The answers are usually obvious to everyone: he has to approach Maria very humbly (by all means don’t lecture her on why the whole thing was her fault, or on how she should get over it and get on with life), he has to be open to the need for him to pay real recompense for what he did (without dictating to Maria what the recompense will be), etc. People often make direct suggestions about reparations (i.e. “Peter should pay her medical bills”).
This is, of course, a massively simplified analogy, and it can’t fully do justice to the deep complexity of the histories of peoples over hundreds of years. Nevertheless, I think the broad strokes apply very well to the situation of Euro-Americans and Native people (I’d also guess that this might be relevant in other cases: slavery, or the sordid history of US imperialism on the Mexico border – but I simply haven’t spent as much time learning about or thinking about those situations).
You ask “what can one white person do”? There’s a verse from Leviticus that Karissa and I often use in churches. Leviticus 26:40-42 (NRSV, abridged): “…if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors… if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
Actually, the Hebrew Bible is chock-full of verses about collective repentance and the critical importance of confessing both present and past iniquities – this is just one of many. But I think it provides a pretty good model. Don’t jump straight to “doing”. Start with “confess the iniquity”. That’s the internal work of re-learning our history, moving from the self-serving Euro-superiority myths that we got such a good look at in the “sins of the ancestors” comments thread, and that many of us were imprinted with to a greater or lesser degree in school, to an honest attempt to understand what history looks like from the perspective of oppressed peoples. It’s also the work that you’re currently doing in exploring your family history as it relates to the experience of oppressed peoples.
Then we have “humble our hearts.” To me as a straight white man, that speaks to the humility of recognizing that my entire life, every nook and cranny, has been shaped by male, white, hetero privilege in more ways than I can even see. And lastly, “make amends for the iniquity.” This is where the rubber meets the road – it could mean political advocacy for reparations or return of the Black Hills, it could mean making some hard choices in my personal life about what to do with land or wealth that I have. It might mean a lot of things. But I don’t think it’s really up to me (or Peter) to determine exactly what the amends are. It’s up to me to start by learning to listen carefully and humbly to people whose voices don’t dominate the airwaves. That’s the only way I can begin to learn what the amends might need to be. It’s up to me to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually, so in those often-unexpected moments when the needed action is staring me right in the face, I am ready to take it instead of running the other way.
When we move back to Indiana, I don’t know yet what I will do about the history of that land. But I’ll start by doing my research (so I can “confess the iniquity” with clarity). Part of that research will also be to learn more about the Pokagon band of Potawatomi in southern Michigan and the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas (descendants of those forced on the Trail of Death) and listen carefully for the issues that are currently important to them (without imposing myself as a burden in the “here I am, educate me!” lazy style). Hopefully, in time, I’ll begin to understand what “making amends” might really look like in that situation – not just something symbolic to make me feel better, but real action towards real reconciliation. Given the current state of denial in mainstream American culture, I don’t even expect to see real amends in my lifetime. But at the very least I can open my eyes, turn around, and try to begin walking in that direction.