Hopefully, by now, it isn’t news to anyone that America is stolen land. Hopefully, at least the Trail of Tears has made it into all American grade school textbooks by now, although, there’s so much that’s still left out. We don’t often talk about the massacres at Powder River, Sand Creek, Little Wolf or Wounded Knee. We don’t use the word “genocide,” even though Europeans ended up killing about 90% of the indigenous people who were here before they came. We don’t talk about Native American issues much now; we actually sort of act like the Indigenous people of this land don’t exist anymore. We don’t talk about the ways in which our society and government continue to oppress Native Americans to this day, and how we continue to take what little Native land is left. But by now, we know at least the skeleton of the truth: Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. He came, he saw, he slaughtered, he stole.
But what do we do with that information? (Spoiler: the answer isn’t “stew in white guilt.”)
You might be thinking, “But MY ancestors weren’t the people doing the killing and stealing!” And I get that; my dad was born in the Dominican Republic and came here when he was little and my mom’s family came to the US much more recently as well. But regardless of our personal histories and timelines, if we’re not Native Americans, we’re living on stolen land in a society that continues to oppress the people from whom we stole it. But again, the moral of that story is not “sit in a corner and feel bad about yourself.”
The obligation of a group of people in systemic power over others is to listen to the oppressed group and work in effective solidarity with them to dismantle the oppressive power structure. What does that mean? Native Americans exist, here, in the present. We need to listen to their voices and work with them, following their lead towards effective solutions for equality and survival. Nothing can make up for the atrocities on which our country was founded, but we can work to move forward in a way that includes Native Americans in the struggle for liberation. That comes into play when we march and protest, but it also comes into play in our everyday lives.
…We, as a country, do horrendous damage to the environment…
One of the huge ways in which we oppress Native Americans is by degrading, exploiting, and depleting the land that was stolen from them. It’s no secret that we, as a country, do horrendous damage to the environment, from contributing massively to climate change to depleting resources to polluting just about everything like there’s no tomorrow, largely, as driven by capitalism. The biggest recent example is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux have fought tirelessly in valiant attempt to protect sacred land and water.
In my own life, I see environmentalism as the least I can do and the first step towards standing in effective solidarity. Re-using, recycling, composting, minimizing consumption, minimizing waste, working on environmental campaigns, using alternative transportation, being vegan — all are very much motivated by my status as a colonizer alongside the reality that the Earth is pretty damn important for the survival of all living things. When I got arrested for blockading a fracking facility in 2013, the person standing next to me on the front line was a Native American person who had already lost their home due to mountaintop removal.
Let me be clear that this is not about me and what a good environmentalist I am, namely because I’m not a particularly good environmentalist. There are so many more steps I can and need to take: I still need to call up PNC Bank on Monday and close down my account due to their funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I still need to learn how to grow my own food and take (much) shorter showers. It’s very much an ongoing process, but the goal of minimizing harm remains the same.
It’s important that we not forget the history of how we got here, and it’s important to remember how the issue of Indigenous rights lives on to the present day. To get started, the very least we can do is listen and follow in Indigenous footsteps to be protectors of the Earth rather than destroyers.