by Rob Roper
Okay… So, by now you have probably heard that Ben & Jerry’s, in a “Hold my Bud Light” attempt to see who can alienate the most customers with one Tweet, kicked off July 4th with the statement, “It’s high time we recognize that the US exists on stolen Indigenous land and commit to returning it.” The PR equivalent of blowing your fingers off with an M-80.
A more detailed press release explained, “Who doesn’t love a good parade, some tasty barbecue, and a stirring fireworks display? The only problem with all that, though, is that it can distract from an essential truth about this nation’s birth: The US was founded on stolen Indigenous land. This year, let’s commit to returning it.” The company, which was purchased by Unilever in 2000 for $326 million, then suggested that we start by giving the Black Hills, including Mount Rushmore, to the Lakota Sioux.
So, here’s my question. If the US government, having stolen this land from the Sioux, gives it back to them, will the Sioux then give it back to the Cheyenne, the Native American tribe the Sioux stole the Black Hills from less than 75 years before the US Government signed the first treaty granting the Sioux rights to the land? Who the Cheyenne stole it from is beyond this author’s knowledge of Native American history, but presumably it was someone. Where are the Clovis people today?
Donning my Woke Hat for a moment, isn’t it a rather Eurocentric view of history and social justice to assign these theoretical ownership rights to whoever happened to be occupying the land at the time white men “discovered” it? Isn’t that a cultural devaluation of all Native American history before the arrival of Europeans on the scene?
The fact is that Native American tribes were constantly at war with one another, taking and occupying one another’s territory through brutal acts of violent conquest, often capturing the members of rival tribes into slavery – sex slavery if you were a young woman, which was the style at the time.
When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, allowed them to stay (breaking a long understood, universal Native policy toward Europeans of “trade then leave”) and gave them aid not so much out of charity, but because the Wampanoags were about to have their land taken away by the Narragansett tribe. Massasoit thought these new immigrants – and their guns – would be handy allies in preventing such an attack. It worked! At least in the short term. Long term let’s just say there are lessons to be learned from the experience.
When Francisco Pizarro began his improbable conquest of the Inca empire, he was greatly aided by the fact that the Inca chief Atahualpa was in the middle of and distracted by his own war for imperial power, his armies away conquering distant lands and not immediately available to protect against conquistadors arriving by sea.
This is not meant to disparage the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, it’s just to show that human history everywhere is the story of one people taking another people’s land one way or another since the beginning of time. We are “One Race, the Human Race” and we all behave the same ways, for good and bad.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Saxons took the land of the Britons. The Vikings took the same land from the Saxons. The Saxons took it back until the Normans conquered England in 1066. The Romans conquered Europe. Mongol hoards swept through Asia. When Alexander does it, he’s Great. When Ivan does it, he’s Terrible. Historical juries are fickle.
If you’re going to start giving land back to its “original” occupiers, where do you start and where do you stop? It’s an impossible task, complicated by the fact that the victims of any injustice have been dead for multiple generations, and those being punished today for those past transgressions are innocent of any crimes, which creates its own new set of fresh injustices and grievances sure to poison the present and future without actually healing the past.
If we all go far enough back in our 23 and Me profiles, we can assuredly find ancestors on both sides of the social injustice scales. Heck, someone calculated that 16 million of us are direct decedents of Genghis Kahn. Should these folks pay reparations for the actions of their ancestor? Or receive them given that their relationship was likely the result of great, great, great, great, great grandma being raped?
At some point you have to accept that the past is the past. It is what it is. Learn from it and use its lessons to move on into a better world for all. Let’s be glad – and eternally grateful – that we now live in a very unique time and place in human history where property rights are respected, and wars of conquest are generally frowned upon rather than glorified. It’s a good thing that we look at the history of how Native Americans were treated and conclude as a society that this was bad behavior that should not be repeated. You cannot fix history, but you can use it to build a better future.
So, how about we use our Independence Day to pledge to keep this new and fragile record of progress regarding human rights, and the continued eradication of poverty and violence worldwide moving in the right direction for future generations to enjoy. Let’s thank the rise of capitalism and the evolution of governing philosophies embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights for their huge role in ushering in this unprecedented time of peace and prosperity where anybody from anywhere can be a success — even two ungrateful hippies getting rich selling luxury ice cream.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com