Why Should We Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day?
I was going to write a story about Indigenous People’s Day except I knew that if I published it yesterday nobody would read it because everyone was celebrating this holiday and thinking about how we have screwed over all those indigenous peoples by going to the mall, buying some crap we don’t need and then walking into 110 Grill to eat lunch.
So here it comes today.
We are told, in a publication no less authoritative than Time Magazine, that we shouldn’t be thinking about how White people from England successfully transformed America into a settled, colonial zone, but rather we should consider how the people already living in that region fought against the arrival and development of post-colonial space from the ‘conquest’ of Hispaniola in 1492, up to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
According to the author, who happens to hold a Chair in American History at Oxford University, “a multitude of Native nations fought fiercely to keep their territories intact and their cultures untainted, frustrating the imperial pretensions of France, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, and eventually the United States.”
The real history of the reaction of indigenous Americans to the arrival of the British and European invaders is characterized by the Oxford University scholar as a series of ‘rebellions’ which not only often forced the newcomers to retreat, but also kept many areas of the North American continent free of exploitation of natural resources until the decades following the Civil War.
What we really should be thinking about on Indigenous Peoples Day is this: “Looking east from the North American West, the history of North America emerges as a single story of resolute resistance that kept much of the continent Indigenous for generations.”
What I find interesting about this view of things is that it neglects what is to me the most important aspect of how colonial America displaced all these brave, indigenous resistors and replaced them with immigrants from England and Western Europe who starting farming and created permanent settlements on territory which previously had been open tracts of land occupied by transient populations that moved from place to place.
This was a very different pattern from what happened when other Western countries developed their colonial zones. When Germany, Portugal and Belgium went down both African coasts, they established their presence by creating coastal harbors and trading posts, but they rarely sent large numbers of settlers into interior zones.
These countries didn’t see colonial territories as places where large numbers of populations from the invading countries could settle down, open farms, and develop a permanent, post-colonial presence the way that England operated not only in North America, but in Australia and South Africa as well.
To move populations from the coast to the interior, the British colonizers had to introduce a unique practice that was heretofore completely unknown within indigenous social gatherings, a concept that Britain had developed beginning in the period after the 1066 Norman invasion and the division of spoils handed out by William the Conqueror to his military band.
The practice was known as private property, which was introduced into the British royal law, the Common Law, in order to both protect as well as define who had access to the land which was transferred from Saxon to Norman control and first compiled in the Domesday Book by order of the Crown in 1085.
To promote settlement away from the coasts in the United States, colonial administrators could sell land to urban dwellers in return for a promise to permanently live and develop these properties, such development requiring that land be marked and fenced.
This process would continue and become even more common after the American colonies became independent and an entire continent needed to be made habitable for farming which would produce the goods necessary to feed urban populations both in America and beyond. Anyone ever hear of the 1862 Homestead Act which opened more than 270 million acres of land to private ownership which had previously been the land traversed by various indigenous tribes?
What happened to all those indigenous populations who suddenly found that what had been the path they followed to get to the watering-hole was now blocked by a chain-link fence? Several times representatives of indigenous populations actually went into colonial courts to demand protection for their ability to move from place to place.
But when these petitioners couldn’t provide written proof of their long-time access to what had traditionally been open lands, they were politely or not-so-politely told to go f*ck themselves and stay the hell away from what was now private holdings of land.
So, the question that maybe we should be asking ourselves on Indigenous Peoples Day is not whether the Lakota Sioux were justified in slaughtering 268 troopers, including General George Custer, of the 7th Cavalry on a hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876.
Maybe we should really be asking ourselves whether the casino located some 500 yards from where the battle took place proves that sooner or later, everyone will end up enjoying the benefits of privately-owned space.