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Conquest and compensation: Blacks and Native Americans haven't agreed on a reparations framework. It's time to change the debate.

"You can have the mule; but the 40 acres are ours."
--Pamela Kingfisher (Cherokee)

PAMELA KINGFISHER'S COMMENT, made in a dialogue between indigenous and African-descended peoples at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2000, encapsulates the strain between indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent over reparations issues. Although a wide variety of demands are articulated under the banner of "reparations," indigenous peoples generally oppose the demand that the U.S. government give land to African Americans and other peoples of color. From Native peoples' perspectives, it is unreasonable to petition the U.S. for land because the U.S. has no land to give--the land belongs to indigenous peoples. This disagreement was dramatically aired in March 2001 at the non-governmental organization preparatory meeting for the United Nations Conference on Racism in Quito, Ecuador. At this meeting, African-descendant groups called for "self-determination over their ancestral land bases in the Americas." Of course, indigenous peoples took issue with this demand, as it implicitly denied indigenous title to these same land bases.


Another demand often made by reparations activists--for financial compensation to individual victims or descendants of victims of slavery or other forms of oppression--presents a barrier to indigenous peoples participating in this movement. To understand why, one must focus on the history of land-based struggles of Native peoples in the U.S.

The U.S. government has often offered financial compensation to tribes to compel them to extinguish land claims. During the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. government pursued a policy of "termination" against Native nations, which was designed to eliminate the tribal status of Native peoples and therefore end their collective control over their lands. One policy element was compensation for outstanding land claims. In 1946, the U.S. government established the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), which was designed to adjudicate land claims. The ICC's bias was clear from the start, when it became apparent that the agency could deduct money spent by the U.S. government to massacre that tribe, or kidnap its children and put them into boarding school, from that tribe's award.


Tribes have often found that simply by the act of bringing their claims to the ICC, they have given up land title in the eyes of the U.S. government. The primary goal of the ICC was to settle land claims by providing financial compensation, thereby freeing the U.S. government from any ongoing treaty obligations with Native nations. Compensation only further consolidated U.S. government control over Native lands.

For example, in 1992 the Western Shoshone tribe in Nevada filed a claim with the ICC to have title to their lands, which was guaranteed under the 1868 Treaty of Ruby Valley, respected. At stake was the 24.5 million acres of land guaranteed to the Shoshone under this treaty. The Nevada Test Site has been located on this land since 1951. There have already been at least 650 underground nuclear explosions on Western Shoshone land, with 50 percent of these underground tests leaking radiation into the atmosphere. A lawyer named Ernest Wilkinson encouraged the Shoshone to take the case before the ICC. The land is worth more than $41 billion, but the ICC settled the claim for $21 million in 1962. According to the ICC, because the Shoshone lost their land in 1872, it was appropriate to compensate the tribe at 1872 prices. Wilkinson earned $2.5 million for services rendered.

Not surprisingly, as a result of this history, Native activists are reluctant to join a movement whose common demand is financial compensation. For no matter how large the monetary settlement, ultimately compensation does not end the colonial relationship between the U.S. and indigenous nations. The struggle for native sovereignty is a struggle for control over land and resources, rather than financial compensation for past and continuing wrongs.

Despite these tensions, it is critical that indigenous peoples be part of a global movement for reparations. If we think about reparations less in terms of monetary compensation for social oppression and more in terms of a movement to transform the neocolonial economic relationships between the U.S. and people of color, indigenous peoples, and Global South countries, we see how critical this movement could be to all of us. Activists who frame the movement to cancel the Third World debt in reparations terms, for instance, help us to see how this strategy could fundamentally alter these relations. Consequently, it is important to move beyond disagreements that may exist between Native and African Americans on this issue so we can learn from the insights of our respective struggles.

As the history of neocolonialism shows us, we cannot achieve political sovereignty without economic sovereignty. And certainly one of the primary reasons why indigenous peoples in the U.S. often do not articulate sovereignty struggles in terms of political independence from the U.S. is because indigenous peoples know that without a solid economic infrastructure, which the U.S. government has systematically destroyed for most tribes (stereotypes about Indian gaming notwithstanding), political independence in and of itself could contribute to further economic devastation for Indian peoples. A successful struggle for sovereignty must incorporate a struggle for reparations.

However, for the reparations movement to be successful, national efforts must be simultaneously internationalized and pressure must be brought to bear on the U.S. The news about our efforts to struggle against U.S. policies will not reach activists in other countries unless we get that news to them ourselves. If we can expose U.S. racist policies to international activists, they'll be better positioned to challenge the U.S. claim that it is the protector of democracy abroad. As Doug McAdam documents in his study of the civil rights movement, the successes that racial justice activists have achieved have come in large part because the U.S. government wanted to avoid embarrassment in the global arena.

And the reparations struggle has been globalized by African American activists such as William Patterson and Paul Robeson, who brought charges of genocide against the U.S. to the U.N. In 1951, Patterson and Robeson joined with Eslanda Goode, Harry Haywood, Mary Church Terrell, Robert Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford, and Louise Thompson to deliver a petition that charged the United States with genocide. "We Charge Genocide: The Crime of the Government Against the Negro People" exposed the government-supported conspiracy to deny Black people the right to vote, and documented hundreds of cases of murder, bombing and torture. For instance, the petitioners provided evidence of the lynching murders of at least 10,000 Black people since abolition. As reparations activists, we should continue the legacy of these pioneers, remembering that white supremacy is a global problem that requires a global response.

We should also frame reparations as a human rights issue rather than as a civil rights issue; human rights are recognized under international law to be inalienable and independent on any particular government structure. Furthermore, to rely solely on a constitutional framework reifies the legitimacy of the U.S. government, which is founded on the gross human rights violations of people of color and the continuing genocide of indigenous peoples. As anti-violence activists, this is precisely the struggle--forcing the U.S. to be accountable to international law rather than its own claims to power--we must be engaged in. And while we may use a variety of rhetorical and organizing tools, our overall strategy should not be premised on the notion that the U.S. should or will always continue to exist.

The Boarding School Healing Project, a coalition documenting the abuses that Native people faced in boarding schools and demanding justice from the U.S. government and churches, contributes a feminist perspective to reparations struggles. That is, the sexual violence perpetrated by slave masters and by boarding school officials constitutes, in effect, state-sanctioned human rights violations. As a result of this systematic and long-term abuse, sexual and other forms of gender violence have been internalized within African American and Native American communities. Thus, our challenge as reparations activists is to create a strategy that addresses an insidious colonial legacy--violence within our communities. We must also generate an analysis that frames gender violence as a continuing effect of state-sanctioned human rights violations so we can, in turn, challenge the mainstream anti-violence movement to confront the role of the state.

The issue of boarding school abuses forces us to see the connections between state violence and interpersonal violence. Violence in our communities was introduced through boarding schools. We continue to perpetuate it through violence against women, child abuse and homophobia. Similarly, much of the sexual violence in African American communities is the colonial legacy of slavery. That is, under the slavery system, Black women were deemed inherently rapeable by slave masters, who could violate them with impunity. Black men were also often forced by their masters to rape Black women. As scholar Traci West documents, the colonial ideology that Black women are inherently rapeable is evidenced in popular culture--public support for Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson and public scorn for their victims, and the astronomical rates of violence that Black women continue to face.

No amount or type of reparations will "decolonize" us if we do not address oppressive behaviors that we have internalized. Women of color have for too long been presented with the choice of prioritizing either racial justice or gender justice. Activists should ask what would reparations really look like for women of color who suffer the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism through interpersonal gender violence.

From the book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith. Reprinted by arrangement with South End Press.


Andrea Smith (Cherokee) is the interim coordinator of the Boarding School Healing Project and cofounder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Smith, Andrea
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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