For millennia before white European conquerors invaded continental North America, Native Americans had developed governance and cultural principles currently receiving attention as insightful and prudent. For example, concerns such as the environmental concept of stewardship of land, natural resources, and generational inheritance did not begin with Jay Inslee.
With the arrival of white settlers along with their experience of English law, Native Americans on the continent’s eastern seaboard were more than puzzled as fences were erected to mark boundaries in lands they inhabited. Too, as mandated by their cultures, they extended hospitality, sharing the bounty of the new land. Native Americans did not adhere to notions of ownership but believed they were mere stewards of the land and its resources. But these principles were no match for the ever-increasing appetites of white settlers and their desires to control acreage and extract and consume natural resources to make fortunes.
Beginning in the 1830s, from Wisconsin and Illinois to Georgia and Florida, the demand among the newcomers for timber and agricultural lands devoured the Native American settlements, culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by President Andrew Jackson. Over the next decade, thousands upon thousands of aboriginal inhabitants were driven from their homesteads past the Mississippi River into western territories. Many thousands of Cherokee perished in the infamous Trail of Tears forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma.
In 1832, the Supreme Court (Worcester v. Georgia) ruled that Native Americans constituted sovereign nations, invalidating state laws regulating relations with said nations. . . . In response, possibly apocryphally, [President] Johnson replied: John Marshall has made his opinion, now let him enforce it.
In 1832, the Supreme Court (Worcester v. Georgia) ruled that Native Americans constituted sovereign nations, invalidating state laws regulating relations with said nations and further holding that the federal government had the sole right to deal with them. In response, possibly apocryphally, Johnson replied: John Marshall has made his opinion, now let him enforce it.
In 1868, the federal government negotiated a treaty with the Sioux nation in South Dakota, setting aside millions of acres, including the Black Hills. After gold was discovered there, Congress reneged on the agreement and seized the land in 1877. As any wronged party might do, in 1923 the Sioux sued the United States, seeking compensation for its treacherous conduct.
About a decade later, Congress adopted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which, among other things, sought to halt the “assimilation” process of Native Americans, initiated in colonial times, and restore self-governance of land and resources to the aboriginal nations. At the same time, the 48 states of the union had been established; some, such as Oklahoma, obliterated treaties and agreements establishing Native American land grants.
In the late 1950s, the Sioux renewed their claim to the Black Hills and in 1979 the United States Court of Claims awarded the Sioux Nation $17.5 million at 5% interest, ballooning the judgment to $106 million. An appeal of the interest award to SCOTUS failed in 1980 on an 8-1 ruling. Some observers believe that the high court engaged in payback for past injustice and President Johnson’s insult.
However, the Sioux rejected this outcome, including the monetary award, and, instead, announced that the nation wished to recover the land itself, fearing that acceptance of the money would forever foreclose possession of sacred ancestral and culture land that the Black Hills represented. According to a recent New York Times obituary of the attorney who represented the Sioux, the money remains unclaimed in an interest-bearing account which, at present, may total $1 billion.
Reparations by governments is not a new phenomenon, as most know in light of some $63 billion euros paid by the German government to survivors of the Holocaust. A number of corporations have joined Germany’s effort, including the Dutch Railway in 2018. In 1971, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Act, restoring some 44 million acres of land to Alaskan Native Americans and creating a fund of $493 million. In 2016, President Obama signed legislation settling $3.3 billion in lawsuits with 17 Native American organizations for $492 million, in recognition of federal mishandling and abuse of water and mineral rights.
The stance of the Sioux nation, however, demonstrates that monetary reparations cannot always adequately satisfy the actual losses caused by the conduct of a dominant government. Canada and South Africa, among other nations, continue to grapple with this issue, even as “truth and reconciliation” studies affirm the necessity to take action.
The irony of recent epithets of “go back to your country” repeated by descendants of European invaders to America qualify as puissant pleas seeking to ignore, first, guilt and, then, responsibility for conduct of the forebears of those pleaders toward men and women equally created, endowed with unalienable rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.
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