We spend so much time focusing on the problems of the present day that it can be very easy for us to ignore the past, and to ignore the historical actions and events that have led us to the situation of inequality and injustice that we face today. But as the famous saying goes, ‘those who forget the past are destined to repeat it’, and there are many powerful people out there who would prefer we not explore what our ancestors did in order to maintain the current social structure that favors them.
The crimes of the past are an issue all around the world, but in the ‘old world’ of Europe and Asia things are still a little closer to the surface and more easily visible – think about the ongoing tensions between the Turks and the Armenians stemming from the genocide of 1915, or the various complicated mixings of ethnicities and religions in the Middle East. These problems are ongoing, and will be for some time, but at least we can see them in order to start addressing them.
In North America, things aren’t as clear. When the pilgrims arrived and built a society in the ‘new world’ they considered it as a clean break from the fighting and ideologies of the regions they had come from. Consequently, the conflict on which American society was founded is much more well-hidden. Take a look, for example, at the many independence monuments that scatter a city like Philadelphia. Philadelphia is extremely important to the American memory as the first capital of the new nation after its break from the UK, but much less known is that it was built on the site of the Lenape Indian village of Shackamaxon.
Read the plaques that adorn the monuments and the explanations in the museums, however, and you will barely ever see this mentioned. Instead, we simply read stories of groups of white men fighting each other, as if the land had been empty when they arrived. To some extent, that is the way it was considered at the time – the term terra nullius was often used by colonizers of Australia to suggest that the land belonged to nobody and was therefore ‘up for grabs’. Those exact words didn’t tend to be used in the colonizing of America, but the concept behind them was surely a part of the European mindset – and it continues to this day, where we very rarely acknowledge the former inhabitants of the continent.
This is despite the huge list of problems that continue to face the remaining native Americans. Their land has disappeared to almost nothing. Indian reservations – that is, land which the US government graciously allows the native Americans to govern for themselves – comprises only 290,000 km2 of the US. The total size of America is around 9.37 million km2, meaning reservations take up only 3% of the entire country, the rest having all been stolen. Alcoholism remains a huge problem, even so long after Europeans introduced the substance, with 12% of all native American deaths estimated to be alcohol-related – four times more than the rest of the population. And unemployment is rampant – the average rate of unemployment on reservations is 14%, double that of the US as a whole.
It’s time for Americans to stop forgetting the past, and to stop repeating it on a daily basis. It must be accepted openly, as part of mainstream culture, that the land they live on was stolen. It is too late to change that now, but by acknowledging it we can take the first true steps towards improving things for those people whose land was taken.
Article prepared by Ana Shell