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Why Native Americans don’t want reparations

Performance artist Gregg Deal at the Lincoln Memorial. (The Washington Post)
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In this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a strong case for reparations for black Americans. But what about payment for the injustices endured by American Indians?

Both groups have suffered centuries of severe damage, courtesy of the U.S. political and economic systems. There’s the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregated housing nationwide. Similarly, the establishment of the reservation system, the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”-inspired Indian boarding schools, and the Dawes Act of 1887 (the largest “legal” colonial dispossession of Native American lands in U.S. history) contribute to the social dysfunctions many American Indians experience daily.

Still, reparations have never figured prominently into American Indian calls for justice. Why?

The greatest harm done to us was the theft of land – our homeland – often accompanied by forced removals and under the cover of law. To American Indians, land is not simply a property value or a piece of real estate. It is a source of traditions and identities, ones that have emerged from centuries and millenia of relationships with landscapes and seascapes.

That territory is irreplaceable.

Reparations are ill-suited to address the harm and damage experienced by people who understand themselves, in a very practical and moral sense, as members of communities that include nonhuman life. For many Native Americans, our land (including the air, water, and biological life on which we depend) is a natural relative, not a natural resource. And our justice traditions require the restoration of our land relationship, not monetary reparations.

Two cases, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians and Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation, et. al, highlight the importance of thinking about reparations in this context.

The first case illustrates the role tribal world views continue to play in our indigenous traditions of justice. The tribes of the Great Sioux Nation have steadfastly refused a money settlement for the illegal taking of the Black Hills, which they consider the sacred center place of their creation. The tribes have repeatedly stated that the Black Hills aren’t for sale. No case more clearly illustrates the ongoing collision of world views between the First Peoples of this land and the settler colonists.

In the second case, the Alaska Native Village, Kivalina, unsuccessfully sued the large corporations they hold responsible for the climate change events literally subsuming the land where their village sits right out from under them. Their unsuccessful suit for damages, a literal loss of their land making them climate refugees like many natives of Pacific islands, may serve as a harbinger for future claims by American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The prevailing culture of the Unites States is a money culture. America’s ceremonies, habits and dominant institutions are all shaped by money. In such a society, it makes sense that monetary reparations will play a role in addressing injustice.  However, I think Coates and I agree that the injustices of slavery and its real legacy may not be recompensed with dollars.

The discussion about reparations may be most useful as a catalyst for the difficult discussions we must have about institutionalized racism in the United States and our tacit acceptance of it. American Indian struggles for justice to date have been framed as treaty rights issues. However, we, like African Americans, have civil rights issues, too. Longtime activist intellectual Suzan Harjo may be right when she states, “The American Indian civil rights movement is really just getting started.”

Anyone want to go to a Redskins game?