Controversies surrounding the celebration of Columbus Day raise a number of interesting questions. Unfortunately, many of the new answers offered are at least as simplistic and historically false as the established answers they are meant to replace.
It is true that Europeans confiscated land on which other people lived, sometimes intentionally killed those people through war or disease, and more often unintentionally killed those people with disease (this was, after all, before the development of the germ theory of disease or any practical means to control its spread).
While there is no doubt that Europeans confiscated land in the Americas from other people, we almost always fail to ask how those people came to possess that land. We regularly refer to the people from whom Europeans confiscated lands as Indigenous Peoples or First Nations, but those terms are clearly inaccurate.
Indigenous means “having originated in and being produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment” and first is defined as “preceding all others in time, order, or importance.” Neither term correctly describes the connection between the people whom the Europeans displaced and the land from which they were displaced. Those peoples neither “originated” from nor preceded “all others in time” on that land. Instead, those peoples confiscated that land from other groups of people who preceded them, often through war and disease. And those displaced people confiscated the land from people before them, and so on.
It would be more accurate to describe the people from whom the Europeans confiscated land as the “T-1? Peoples because they were the people in possession of the land in the prior time period. And those T-1 Peoples confiscated the land from T-2 Peoples, who in turn took it from T-3 Peoples, etc….
This all raises some very messy and complicated questions about how a People can have a legitimate claim to a land. You can’t just declare that history starts whenever it suits you. Being a T-1 People does not make them the “first” or “indigenous.” There was a history before that with its own prior claims of ownership.
Just to illustrate this messiness — much of the land around the Dakotas was in the possession of a group of Sioux known as the Lakota when large numbers of European descendants arrived in the area. The struggle between these European-Americans and Lakota culminated in the massacre of Lakota at Wounded Knee and their confinement to reservations. This chain of events was filled with suffering and cruelty inflicted on the Lakota and has been cited by activists to justify claims of expanded control over land in that area by the Lakota descendants.
But how did the Lakota come into possession of that land before large numbers of Europeans arrived? The Lakota can be traced to the Great Lakes area (and almost certainly came from somewhere else before that). They were pushed west by the Ojibwe as the Ojibwe were pressured by the westward expansion of the fur trade. The Mandan and Hidatsa blocked the Lakota from crossing the Missouri river, but eventually their resistance was weakened by disease and the Lakota were able to conquer the grassland in the Dakotas. In doing so they also pushed west the Shoshone, who were struggling for that same valuable grassland.
So, who has the rightful claim to that land? Is it the Lakota, because they were in possession of it before large-scale arrival of Europeans? What if descendants of the Shoshone, Mandan, or Hidatsa showed up? Could they legitimately claim the land as their own? What about the descendants of the various peoples who preceded all of these groups?
Only simple-minded college students and slogan-shouting activists could say that Europeans stole that land from the indigenous people, massacred its people, and ought to give it back. The problem is that all land has been stolen countless times, with round after round of massacres, and an endless string of confusing claims to rightful ownership. Being the T-1 People is hardly a sufficient justification for the legitimate possession of land.
If college students want to think seriously about these issues, they should discuss multiple, practical criteria for legitimate ownership of land, which might make them appreciate some of the messy compromises that explain status quo arrangements.
Last updated October 12, 2009