Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Layers of Injustice

Annai hu taitai este na tinige' "Indian tribes buy back thousands of acres of land" gof sinilo' yu'.

The article discusses a centuries old injustice and violence committed against hundreds, perhaps thousands of different Native American groups, and is a perfect case study in how injustice operates and is perpetuated and maintained over time.

Native American tribes tired of waiting for the U.S. government to honor centuries-old treaties are buying back land where their ancestors lived and putting it in federal trust. Native Americans say the purchases will help protect their culture and way of life by preserving burial grounds and areas where sacred rituals are held. They also provide land for farming, timber and other efforts to make the tribes self-sustaining.
The article begins with these sentences, describing how from 1998 - 2007, Native American tribes put close to a million acres in trust. These acres are all purchased in the hopes of rebuilding the land base of tribes and also protecting their ability to practice their religious ceremonies and ensure that they have access to resources and housing. There is a movement on Guam at present to turn Chamorros into a Federally-Recognized tribe, and while in the abstract that proposal might seem tempting or maolek, in reality of Native American tribes and the predatory way in which state and Federal governments treat them, basically amount to benevolent paternal colonialism.

In the opening line of the article it discusses, in a very banal and off-hand way, the centuries-old treaties that the United States government signed, but never ever had any intention of truly honoring. The article was very informative in covering an issue I know some about, but nowhere near the specifics they cite about what activities in terms of sustaining and developing themselves different tribes are undertaking. But for me, as an Ethnic Studies scholar, the most important part of this article is in that first line and the banality with which the legacy of genocide and massive amounts of displacement are discussed.

When an injustice takes place such as the violent displacement of indigenous people and the taking of their land, it can never ever be reduced to a single act or moment. It can never and should never be conceived of in that way. Although you could argue that a particular movement exists in which the violence or the displacement is at its peak or has manifested in the most clear and inexcusable way, the violence itself is only part of an always growing and always expanding foundation. The displacement itself it only the beginning and as it leaves necessary traces of that violence, a universe thus proceeds to form around it, which for those who benefit or profit from it (whether they know it or not) has the ability to insulate them from that violence.

The violence itself is always too revealing, says too much about the lack of civility, lack of morality of those who committed it. It is too revealing in the sense that it can leave in question what was gained through it. It can potentially taint the enjoyment and the profit that is derived from it and implicate those who inherit that power. It is for this reason, that the violence and the traces that will always persist, have to be shrouded in tangles of discourse, tangles of racist assumptions, a web of legal cases, and even perhaps a canon of supporting anthropology. All of these things can congeal together to sustain that violence, to make it seem less violent than it really was, to make its traces that are still around seem less important, to make it seem like that violence was necessary to help someone or to build something greater than before. The result of this is of course that the primal or the original act of aggression can never really be touched, there can never be any justice or restitution for it, as it will always remain beyond this impenetrable mass of discourse that in so many ways says that what is past is past, or that to revisit this violence would destroy everything, or that if some form of restitution would take place, those who would receive it would only squander or ruin it.

The result of this banalization is that eventually that violence can be invoked, but without any twinge of ethical crisis. That you can talk about, as this article does, the way in which the United States has screwed over Native Americans, and how they are now forced to buy back land which was once their's, or land that by so many legally-binding treaties is still their's, and yet that violence which is the source of this tragedy, is someone just a mere footnote to the story.

The creation of this mass of discourse is also ideal in terms of protecting that violence should any process of reparation, restitution or even decolonization ever began or ever be proposed. With this layering and sedimenting, any level can potentially stand in as the site through which decolonization or some form of restorative justice can be focused, and depending on the context, this layer can end up far far away from the violence in question. It is for this reason that so often these sorts of historical injustices are twisted into a depressing and ironic argument that they are about recognition. That rather than land being given back, that rather than reparations being made, or rather than treaties being honored, what needs to happen is that their suffering needs to be recognized.

It is for this reason that any attempts at justice or decolonization must be sedimented and multi-layered in how they attack and change things, in the same way in which an injustice is sedimented in order to defend it.

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Indian tribes buy back thousands of acres of land

By Timberly Ross, Associated Press Writer
Sun Dec 27, 1:42 pm ET

OMAHA, Neb. – Native American tribes tired of waiting for the U.S. government to honor centuries-old treaties are buying back land where their ancestors lived and putting it in federal trust.

Native Americans say the purchases will help protect their culture and way of life by preserving burial grounds and areas where sacred rituals are held. They also provide land for farming, timber and other efforts to make the tribes self-sustaining.

Tribes put more than 840,000 acres — or roughly the equivalent of the state of Rhode Island — into trust from 1998 to 2007, according to information The Associated Press obtained from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Freedom of Information Act.

Those buying back land include the Winnebago, who have put more than 700 acres in eastern Nebraska in federal trust in the past five years, and the Pawnee, who have 1,600 acres of trust land in Oklahoma. Land held in federal trust is exempt from local and state laws and taxes, but subject to most federal laws.

Three tribes have bought land around Bear Butte in South Dakota's Black Hills to keep it from developers eager to cater to the bikers who roar into Sturgis every year for a raucous road rally. About 17 tribes from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma still use the mountain for religious ceremonies.

Emily White Hat, a member of South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux, said the struggle to protect the land is about "preservation of our culture, our way of life and our traditions."

"All of it is connected," White Hat said. "With your land, you have that relationship to the culture."

Other members of the Rosebud Sioux, such as president Rodney Bordeaux, believe the tribes shouldn't have to buy the land back because it was illegally taken. But they also recognize that without such purchases, the land won't be protected.

No one knows how much land the federal government promised Native American tribes in treaties dating to the late 1700s, said Gary Garrison, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The government changed the terms of the treaties over the centuries to make property available to settlers and give rights-of-way to railroads and telegraph companies.

President Barack Obama's administration has proposed spending $2 billion to buy back and consolidate tribal land broken up in previous generations. The program would pay individual members for land interests divided among their relatives and return the land to tribal control. But it would not buy land from people outside the tribes.

Today, 562 federally recognized tribes have more than 55 million acres held in trust, according to the bureau. Several states and local governments are fighting efforts to add to that number, saying the federal government doesn't have the authority to take land — and tax revenue — from states.

In New York, for example, the state and two counties filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 to block the U.S. Department of Interior from putting about 13,000 acres into trust for the Oneida Tribe. In September, a judge threw out their claims.

Putting land in trust creates a burden for local governments because they must still provide services such as sewer and water even though they can't collect taxes on the property, said Elaine Willman, a member of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and administrator for Hobart, a suburb of Green Bay, Wis. Hobart relies mostly on property taxes to pay for police, water and other services, but the village of about 5,900 lost about a third of its land to a trust set up for the state's Oneida Tribe, Willman said.

So far, Hobart has been able to control spending and avoid cuts in services or raising taxes, Willman said. Village leaders hope taxes on a planned 603-acre commercial development will eventually help make up for the lost money.

The nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project has bought back or been gifted hundreds of acres in northwestern Minnesota since it was created in the late 1980s. The White Earth tribe uses the land to harvest rice, farm and produce maple syrup. Members have hope of one day being self-sustaining again.

Winona LaDuke, who started the White Earth project, said buying property is expensive, but it's the quickest and easiest way for tribes to regain control of their land.

Tribal membership has been growing thanks to higher birth rates, longer life spans and more relaxed qualifications for membership, and that has created a greater need for land for housing, community services and economic development.

"If the tribes were to pursue return of the land in the courts it would be years before any action could result in more tribal land ... and the people simply cannot wait," said Cris Stainbrook, of the Little Canada, Minn.-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

Thirty to 40 tribes are making enough money from casinos to buy back land, but they also have to put money into social programs, education and health care for their members, said Robert J. Miller, a professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who specializes in tribal issues.

"Tribes just have so many things on their plate," he said.

Some tribes, such as the Pawnee, have benefited from gifts of land. Gaylord and Judy Mickelsen donated a storefront in Dannebrog, Neb., that had been in Judy Mickelsen's family for a century. The couple was retiring to Mesquite, Nev., in 2007, and Judy Mickelsen wanted to see the building preserved even though the town had seen better days.

The tribe has since set up a shop selling members' artwork in the building on Main Street.

"We were hoping the Pawnee could get a toehold here and get a new venture for the village of Dannebrog," Gaylord Mickelsen said.

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