more thoughts on the sins of my ancestors – a response to Skylark

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.

Comments (8)

  1. carl (Post author)

    Heh. Sorry, Skylark – I just wrote a book here and just realized I didn’t even answer your one direct question. You were looking for sources on the history of the Dakotas. I don’t think I have anything to recommend that would be specific to the region of south-western North Dakota where your grandpa grew up. If you’re looking for history of the region, there are relevant chapters in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown), Blood of the Land (Rex Weyler), A People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn) and Black Hills/White Justice (Edward Lazarus). It’s worth noting that every single one of those is written by a white guy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading, but it isn’t the whole perspective. On the web, you could try this site for a brief overview, or go more in depth here.

  2. Justin Neely

    I am a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. Many of the ancestors of our tribe were on the trail of death march. I appreciate your thoughts on the behalf of your ancestors. Its nice to know someone remembers and recognizes the suffering that went on in this country to Native people. I heard recently their were states thinking of doing proclamtions and saving they were sorry for Slavery. I cant ever remember the government wanting to appologize for the Genocide of Native people all over this continent. But for what it is worth. Thanks.

  3. Trini

    Carl, thank you for your eloquent and carefully worded exposition. I leave it taking the point that you made ever so clearly, it is not up to those with the burden of guilt to decide what the reparations are, if any can be made. Guilt sometimes prompts us to do stupid things in pride rather than humility.

    I like the idea of extending relationships and hearing both sides. I know healing comes through forgiveness, but that forgiveness has to be given, not demanded from one side, and reparations might simply be a promise to leave one group of people’s in peace. Let them live their lives. As in any relationship we also have to recognize that both sides may not be at the same place, one might be ready to unburden their guilt, while the other simply may want to get on with their lives.

    Humilty is such a key word here.

  4. Blair

    The European conquest of the Americas certainly fits the modern definition of genocide, but Native American tribes waged genocidal warfare against one another for thousands of years prior to the European discovery of the Americas. The purpose of this warfare was to drive rival tribes from their land, seize their resources, or, when possible, to exterminate them. As a percentage of population, casualties were higher than during the European wars of the 20th century. For example, as the Lakota Sioux migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Black Hills of South Dakota, they pushed other tribes out of their way. Their attack on a fortified Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara village left 400 men, women, and children dead. By way of comparison, the Sand Creek Massacre, the most infamous atrocity inflicted by whites on Native American, killed 180. Once they reached the high plains, the Lakota pushed the inhabitants of the Black Hills off their land. (The French, by the way, explored the Black Hills long before the Lakota arrived; the Lakota arrived around 1775, about 40 years ahead of the first white settlement.

    Native Americans initiated genocidal campaigns against European long before European launched attacks against Native Americans. Greenland was uninhabited when Scandinavians settled there around 950, building settlements in the central portion and southern end of the almost continental-size islands. The settles flourish for 200 years, before Native Americans invaded from North American and begin attacking the Scandinavian villages. The Scandinavians’ first indication that the Native Americans had arrived was when they discovered one of their villages burned and its inhabitants murdered. As a few brief but blood battles, the Native Americans and Scandinavians settled down to 200 years of coexistence, each avoiding venturing into the other’s territory, but the Scandinavian population began to decline as the climate cooled. Many of the Scandinavians returned to Europe, and the Scandinavian villages begin to vanish. Once day a merchant ship arrived in Greenland only to discover the Scandinavians had vanished for the last remaining villages. Many historians assume they were killed by the Native Americans.

    The purpose of the UN genocide is stop current or future genocide from happening, not to assign blame for past genocides.

  5. Skylark

    Wow, Carl, I’m glad my comments could be so inspiring and prompt such a long, in-depth response!

    I hear what you’re saying about the attitude of humility. That is certainly the most important thing. I may have jumped straight to “doing” because I see lots of people talking about doing positive things, but little happens besides lips flapping and white people making themselves feel good. I’d rather not spend 50 years thinking and deciding what to do, and then when I’m 73 realize I don’t have the energy for it anymore. It sounds like I have a massive project ahead of me for re-learning my history and humbling my heart.

    Thank you for the reminder about our collective responsibility. Actually, there’s a reason I focused on my direct lineage. In previous discussions and reading about racial issues, I’ve gotten the impression that it’s appreciated most when someone with a clear link to the atrocities comes and apologizes/offers reparations/etc. I could be wrong on that, so please tell me what you’ve encountered.

    Since I’m fairly new to this, I’ve probably jumped on the idea of the Lakotas partly because they’re the most “real” to me so far. Once I research more into the history of Ohio and find out where the descendents of those tribes live, my thinking may shift. It’d be more complicated to try and track the Mississippians, Hopewells, Adenas, Iroquois, Miamis, Wyandots, Delawares, Shawnees, Mingos, Ottawas and Eries. (Those are the tribes Wikipedia lists for Ohio.) If I remember right, those groups were all pushed west, so I’d be most likely to find them in Central Plains states. Still, it’s like you said. I need to do my research to “confess the iniquity with clarity.”

    I will check into those books you suggested. Apart from that, what are ways I can start re-orienting my thinking and recognizing the white privilege I have? I may not be male, but I’m still white and straight. White privilege in relation to Native Americans has some differences to white privilege in relation to blacks, mainly because the histories are a little different.

    Blair, I don’t doubt that all people and cultures have been sinful and oppressive of others. What I keep coming back to is this: Does it stop with me? Am I willing to not just abstain from overt sin but also work toward a better way?

  6. Blair

    Genocide is a new word that had no exact definition until 1945 when the United Nations General Assembly defined it as part of Resolution 260 (III):

    a)Killing members of the group;
    b)Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    c)Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    d)Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    e)Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

    Under this definition, the European conquest of the Americas and their treatment of Native Americans clearly qualify as genocide, as does the intertribal conflicts of pre-Colombian times. In fact, all of humanity has been guilty of genocide. There are some “small print” exceptions. For example, a nation can intern or move a portion of its population away from its borders if the population cooperates with or aids a hostile neighbor. Forcibly removing Native American children from reservations and placing them in Indian Boarding Schools probably qualified as an act of genocide. Whether forcing Japanese Americans away from the West Coast during World War II and placing most of them in internment camps was genocide is a closer call.

    The UN resolution requires all member nations to provide military forces to stop genocide wherever and whenever it occurs. In practice, this makes UN ambassadors very reluctant to declare that a conflict meets the definition of genocide. During so would obligate the nations they represent to take military action, if necessary, to stop genocide. The result is that the world continues to react to genocide very slowly, as it did during Rwanda, the Balkans and, today, in Dafur, if it reacts at all.

    If the global warming alarmists are right, history is about to offer us an opportunity to learn if humanity has made any moral progression.

  7. Nathan Eanes


    I don’t think anyone doubts that societies other than Europeans inflicted genocides upon each other. Still, while your examples of Native Americans killing each other and Inuit tribes killing Scandinavians represent terrible actions, it is not fair to compare them to the horrible genocides and economic domination caused by European empires thoughout the last 400-or-so years. In other words, individual genocidal actions cannot be compared to wholesale clearing and/or subjugation of entire continents.

    That aside, though, the reason we should care about this today is that the current world economic order exists as a result of colonization, and many of this world’s conflicts happen for the same reason. Yes, almost all humanity has at one time or another been guilty of genocide, but none had such a direct impact on the way we live today than that of the Europeans.

  8. Blair

    The Europeans, of course, were not a single, unified entity. Try thinking of the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Russians and Portuguese as separate tribes. They competed with Native American tribes that were also carving out territory. For example, once they got horses, the Commanche carved out a vast domain called Comancheria, which extended from the Dakotas to Chihuahua City, about 300 miles south of the Rio Grande. What if these tribes had been the same race as Native Americans, would they be thought of as crueler than the Apache, Sioux or Commanche, or would they have been thought of as simply more powerful.

    European colonization put an end to tribal warfare, which was genocidal in nature, throughout the Americas, except in the Amazon Basin. It also eventually ended slavery; the slave trade was brisk among pre-Columbian tribes, including those in North America.

    European colonizations ended genocidal tribal warfare and slavery in Africa; both have returned since the Europeans abandoned their colonies.

    In India, muslims and hindus coexisted relatively peacefully under British rule, but they began slaughtering each other the moment the British withdrew. The body count estimates for the first few weeks of indenpendence alone range from 500,000 to 1 million.

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