Not one without the other.
But why? Because these two historical traumas and cruelties are the inextricable and reinforcing ground from which this entity—known as the United States of America—emerged.
Stolen indigenous land and stolen African people were enslaved to work it. If there are only African-American reparations, they will not be truly just, inasmuch as they will only address one of the two massive core injustices that undergird the founding and development of America.
Agriculture was the dominant form of economic activity at the time of ‘discovery’ and early settlement beginning in 1619. Such economic effort persisted all the way through the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Black slaves from Africa and land stolen from Indigenous peoples were the two essential ingredients employed to forge and to advance fledgling capitalism so that it might take root and flourish.
Without these two interwoven thefts, there would never have been such a robust national economy stretching ‘from sea to shining sea.’
Despite this common and joint exploitation, these two original sins are seldom joined together as the twins they surely are. Most often, if at all, they are treated as nothing more than distant cousins several times removed. Yet there is also the heartening call within the Black Lives Matter movement for a new solidarity with Indigenous peoples in the fight against centuries old state-violence. This was most recently seen in the courageous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
As Congress nears the enactment of H.R. 40 into law to establish an African-American reparations commission, an examination of some of the potential gaps and missed opportunities is particularly relevant and timely.
H.R. 40 was originally proposed in 2019 and seeks to “address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865. It will also establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery” and its ongoing racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans.
This is clearly a long overdue, necessary, and just project, but it should not stand alone. If one substitutes the term ‘Indigenous land theft’ for the word ‘slavery’ in the summary of H.R. 40, one can clearly see the appropriateness of reparations for both African-Americans and Indigenous peoples.
Lest we forget: Indigenous peoples suffered systemic land losses of more than 1.5 billion acres and the massacre of thousands of their people. Hundreds of treaties were quickly broken. The sovereignty and self-governance of hundreds of tribes were relentlessly hunted down and dismantled. Age-old cultures, languages, and spiritual practices were crushed and decimated.
Yet as with African-Americans, the will of Indigenous peoples to survive and to persevere was undaunted. They persisted and many tribes are now on the cusp of governmental renewal and cultural reinvigoration.
This common fate of staggering loss and enduring resilience for both African-Americans and Indigenous peoples is not without its differences and even pockets of antipathy. Losses were similar, but not identical.
Indigenous losses involved not only life and land, but also the crippling of self-governance and the government-to-government relationship, along with the loss of many languages and severe cultural erosion. Such differences need to be recognized and acknowledged but without invidious comparison.
All of this adds difficulty and complexity to the reparations journey, but the goal of complete and restorative justice would seem to require it.
One way to address the difficulty and complexity would be the proposal and adoption of a separate ‘H.R. 40’ for Indigenous peoples reparations with its own commission to study and develop reparations proposals and to make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies and other actions.
Such an approach holds the best possibility of developing a simultaneous, powerful, and parallel engagement with these founding traumas.
Despite being common victims of vicious and continuous systemic white cruelty and government-sanctioned violence, African-Americans and Indigenous peoples are often depicted as largely separated from and unknown to each other. But that is the complicity of shadows.
As noted by other scholars of reparations and renewal, “the crimes of the past, when left unaddressed, do not remain in the past.” The time is ripe for a new and collective interrogation of our shared past.
An inquiry that goes deep into historical pain and traumatic loss, but one that might lead to higher ground and a “new story of who we could be.”
Regardless of risk and cost, the fundamental and massive injustice of slavery and the theft of Indigenous peoples lands remain central to the founding of the United States and to its ongoing history.
Enduring justice and meaningful reconciliation are likely to be best achieved by a comprehensive national reckoning that joins, not separates, these twin evils, these inextricable original sins.
Not one without the other.