Reparations and “Land-Back”

It’s complicated—but here are some first thoughts:

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument for reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves in The Atlantic Magazine. The country, he said, would never be “whole” until it came to terms with the bad chapters of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination in our past.

It occurred to me then that as the reparations issue becomes widely known and discussed, the enormity of past wrongs against Indians will become evident and overwhelming; all the lands in this country were once Indian lands.

The relations between African-Americans and Indians to land and the money economy of the United States are radically different. Slaves were wrested from foreign lands, stripped of tribe and family, then bought and sold as individuals to work on the land, to be cogs in the economic system of a new nation. Indians had extended families, bands, and tribes in the New World—and they had the land that the settlers wanted. They held that land under different notions of ownership and stewardship than that brought by the white men. Today, those Euro-white property values are the laws of the nation, and Indians are left with little of their original lands, tribally or individually.


The white—at first Anglo-American white, but eventually including other settler-colonist groups—treatment of African Americans was, and in some cases continues to be, evil in the simplest terms: kidnapping, murder, rape, human trafficking, cruel and unusual punishment. Establishing the truths of the past, untangling this long string of evil behavior, is now fully engaged, coming to local and national attention daily in the big works of Coates and Kendi and Wilkerson, and in the thousands of stories—of Tulsa and New Orleans, FDR and the crooked New Deal, Tuskegee, and the segregated military—that appear regularly in magazines, documentaries, and podcasts. These historical truths fuel the Black Lives Matter movement, court cases, and police policy and legislative debates.

The sorting out for the purposes of reparation—including the issues of generational wealth and the financial and social impacts on post-slavery African immigrants—is an extraordinary task. But the wheels are going, the small steps of righting old wrongs, the responses of institutions and some brave people are encouraging. There’s a monument dedicated to the horrors of lynching; universities are responding with renamed buildings and new scholarships, a Virginia seminary is making cash payments to the descendants of its slave laborers, and private citizens in Vermont have launched their own voluntary contribution program for reparations to their Black citizens. Coates’ Atlantic essay opened a new chapter in the old concept of reparations.


The Indian land-back movement is both simpler and more complicated. Simpler, because it is at least initially about land and not cash money; more complicated because the ideas of land and ownership in Indian country are categorially different than those ideas as subscribed to in what scholar Beth Piatote calls “settler national” culture.

Indians lived as tribes and nations, large and small groups of people who shared languages and cultures that were different from those of the traders and settler colonists. Indian lands had flowed from tribe to tribe with weather and wars, migrations and marriages for millennia. Indians were part of the land; they did not own it. Indian land tenure, control, and usage varied from tribe to tribe, from authoritarian systems in Central and South America, to matriarchal and class-based systems on the north Pacific Coast, farming communities along the Eastern seaboard and in what is now the Southwest, and seasonal migrations following fish, game, and plants in much of the continent’s middle. But in no place in North America that I have heard or read about was there a concept of land as a commodity to be bought and sold by individuals or corporations. Indians came from the land and returned to the land; they were, and still are after centuries of dispassion, a part of the land.

White Europeans did not understand this concept of oneness and insisted on individual ownership. The settler newcomers’ thirst—and the Jeffersonian idea—was for land to segregate out, to be titled with a man’s name assigned to each parcel. Settler nationalists took Indian lands by purchase, through treaties, rewriting treaties, by war, and in a final surge in the late nineteenth century by trying to destroy tribal-family relationships and cultural practices that tied Indians to land with Boarding Schools and Allotment. The white insistence was on nuclear family tied to plots of land; Indians would have to adapt, to “assimilate.” It’s estimated that the Dawes Allotment Act, envisioned by white reformers as a way to make Indians white-like yeoman farmers, resulted in the loss of 90 million acres of Indian lands—declared “surplus” in Allotment parlance and sold to whites. Indian haters joined the do-gooders in lauding this kind of reform.

In May of this year, The Atlantic Magazine published Ojibwe writer David Treuer’s essay, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.” “The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples,” he argued.

Returning land to Indians will be as complicated as reimbursing the descendants of slaves for wrongs done their forebearers. But like the small steps towards reparations that are being taken by universities and private citizens, the “land-back” movement is gaining its own momentum. Tribes and individual tribal members are purchasing land on and off their reservations; land-grant universities are examining original land takings and looking for remedies; landowners are providing easements and transferring ownership to tribes; and the Sioux, who have been awarded compensation by the Supreme Court for the illegal taking of the Black Hills, hold out for Mount Rushmore and surrounding lands.

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