"You wrong, man," Semple said disgustedly. "All most of us got is symbols." He paused to ensure that I got his point, and, when I didn't disagree, continued. "From the Emancipation Proclamation on, the Man been handing us a bunch of bogus freedom checks he never intends to honor. He makes you work, plead, and pray for them, and then when he has you either groveling or threatening to tear his damn head off, he lets you have them as though they were some kind of special gift.”
Derrick Bell, “Faces At The Bottom of the Well”
How much is a genocide worth?
When I was younger and more radical I literally loathed multi-cultural and diversity programs like Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, even affirmative action etc. They were corny, condescending and ultimately pointless.
A box to check off.
To me, they were a way for schools to say, “Sure, let me pay attention to these darkies really quick and then get back to teaching the same destructive things that were intended to crush the spirits of Native and black students.” Crazy. Despite Native American Heritage Month and Black History Month, schools quickly get back to exactly the same lesson plans that almost completely erases Native and black (and Latinx and Arab and Asian and…) contributions to this Nation. And teaching something about Natives or Africans before 1492? Fuggedaboutit.
We didn’t exist before white people got here, apparently. Or if we did exist, we were running around butt nekkid in the woods.
These little tokens and symbols just don’t help, I thought. The fact is that things like affirmative action or days and months like Native American Heritage Month or Black History Month or Martin Luther King, Jr Day or whichever one we’re talking about doesn’t actually help our communities statistically. Even with all of the incredible activism that happened around evolving the horrible Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day in Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities, still there has been no connection shown between changing these days and making the cities actually better for Indigenous people. We do not have better success rates in school or access to more colleges or housing as a result of any of these programs or events. Heck, with affirmative action—a program originally created specifically for black folks—white women are the biggest beneficiary class yet, as in Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin, black and brown people carry 100% of the burden of the notions associated with that program. Some might say that affirmative action actually harms black and brown people with none of the intended benefits.
In short, these programs and days and events are impotent.
They are impotent. But they—Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Indigenous Peoples Day—are also important.
The importance is this: they serve as a placeholder, keeping the conversation fresh for future generations to have a more formal conversation about reparations. See, the United States actually owes a tangible, cognizable debt to Native people as well as black people for crimes committed against both groups. For my legal nerds, there is 1) injuries, 2) causation and 3) redressability—we can make it right! Now granted, we cannot go back and re-litigate those crimes—the folks who committed those crimes are dead and stinking and probably look a lot like Otzi the Ice Man. But think of this like a civil suit that follows a horrible crime, like Rodney King; wrongfully decided at the criminal trial, but some small level of justice at the civil trial. Importantly, in Rodney King’s civil trial the City of Los Angeles had to fork over the dough, and not the individual police officers. Governments pay that cost.
Currently, thanks to a case called Johnson v. M’Intosh and the notion that Native people did not own the land that we’ve lived on for tens of thousands of years, the United States stole approximately 2.3 billion acres of land from Native people. Uncompensated. Real estate is getting kinda pricey these days too. Combine that with the wrongful deaths of, oh, a couple of million Native people and the tab starts to add up really fast. Now some non-smart people have insinuated that because some Native nations signed treaties and as a result some Native people receive health care or an some basic educational benefits, that was reparations. No, my ahistorical friends, that was actually pre-parations—that was simply paying off a piece of a contractual obligation that the United States owed. It was a contract, a treaty, and most of those treaties were broken and so there is likewise liability there. The United States has also entered into specific settlements for specific misdeeds—the Cobell settlement for example, or the Keepseagle settlement. Those settlements, however, were for specific events like leasing and mismanaging Native land and never touched on genocide or stealing Native land.
So how do you payback a group for genocide and wholesale land theft? There is literally no way that the United States could pay a dollar amount to square up with Native people (nor with African-Americans for 246 years of free labor, including the US Capitol, the White House and some of the US’s most beloved monuments). No way.
It would bankrupt the nation. Plus, individual reparations are sloppy and probably destructive toward the individuals who receive them.
But there are ways for the institution—the government— to contend with past bad deeds and create structures to help create future equity and fairness just like in the civil case of Rodney King. One example is to adequately fund Native American health care; Indian Health Services is currently criminally underfunded. Another is to ensure that Native students never have to pay for college. Ever. A by-product of displacement and the destruction of Native economies and kidnapping of Native children is we have always been at a huge disadvantage in our pursuit of western white educational achievement. There are exceptions, of course, but structurally—just like black students—the ghosts of yesteryear rightfully still prevents many from fully buying into this system. Making sure that Native students do not have to worry about paying college tuition would normalize college and, understanding that the land will not end up back with us, give some level of equity in our ability to learn and earn and protect our homelands.
That is the value of these symbols—the Native American Heritage Month, the Black History Month, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the Indigenous Peoples Day; to serve as a reminder that the debt still exists and the repayment must exist one day as well. They are symbolic and they are impotent, but they are also important and otherwise America-as it is inclined to do-might forget that these “reparations” are still coming and that it still owes our forebearers for their contributions.
Happy Native American Heritage Month.
Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and a storyteller. He is a member of the Blackfeet (Amskapikipikuni) Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is the co-host of the Breakdances With Wolves: Indigenous Pirate Radio podcast. He can be reached at Instagram and Twitter at: @BigIndianGyasi