Opinion Piece

On Receiving Stolen Goods

How would you feel if you found out that your car had been stolen from a murder victim? It’s something to think about for a minute. What is a person supposed to feel if they realize that they are the recipients of stolen goods? Especially goods stolen through a particularly heinous crime? What is a person supposed to do once they find out? How do they make reparations?

A few nights ago I was suffering from a touch of insomnia. I had been reading Autumn of the Black Snake by William Hogeland which is about the Indian Wars of the 1790’s and the creation of the U.S. Army. Recently I’ve been rewatching the classic 90’s show Due South which is a police procedural, and last year I read the book Masters of Empire by Michael McDonnell which discusses the political dealings of Native Americans of the Great Lakes. Last fall, at the Democratic National Convention, then First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech. None of these things may seems to have much to do with each other, but they were all floating around in my head that night and they coalesced into a particular and striking thought.

I am living on stolen property. I am the recipient of stolen goods.

Like many millions of other people, I live in the Great Lakes region of the United States. I have lived here all my life enjoying the comforts and pleasures of calling this land my home. I love the way the grass smells after a spring rain, or the sound of thunder rolling across the land. I love when the sky is blue and it seems to stretch forever in all directions. I love those pearly grey winter days where the sky and snow are the same color. I love heading into the woods with my camera to capture the fleeting beauty of each season as one day rolls into the next. I love seeing the farmers care for the earth and coax food from the soil. This land is home to me, it’s in my very bones.

And it doesn’t belong to me.

Once, this area was inhabited by people who loved it every bit as much as I do. People who watched the sun rise in all her glory each morn as she spilled pink and gold light over the countryside. People who went down to the rivers and played in the water when the hottest days of summer bore down on them. People who laughed and lived under the shade of magnificent trees which were larger than many of us could now imagine. People who tended their fields with loving care, bringing forth the best corn and beans the land had seen. This was their home, it was in their bones first.

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Source:  Pictorial History of Michigan:  The Early Years, George S. May,   1967. Retrieved from Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region.

Michelle Obama remarked in her speech at the DNC that “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves” For her it was a powerful thing to think of the people, people just like her, who had had their lives and freedom robbed from them. That was a striking idea for me, one that forced me to think: I wake up every morning on land that was stolen.

It is no secret that the United States stole land and lives from every nation of Native Americans they – we (for I am one of them) – came in contact with. From false treaties made in bad faith and filled with lies, to outright claiming that the west was uninhabited, the United States has acted criminally through fraud and extortion to steal and plunder the sweet land of my home. Once the United States had overpowered the other nations, the stolen goods were sold to others. People who had every reason to believe that the land they were receiving was stolen from others, but who took it anyway. People like me, who know, like every other person in the country, that we live on land stolen from the many nations of this continent.

We have received stolen goods. We have profited from crime.

In the United States it is a crime to knowingly receive stolen goods. In some episodes of Due South and many other police shows it is often the central plot of an episode where some person buys a car they know was stolen, or a gun, or jewellery. In those shows the thief is always caught, and the goods returned to the rightful owner. The government always brings the perpetrator to justice. Who, then, brings the government to justice?

Reading has helped give me an appreciation of life here before the theft, and given me a better perspective on the people. Books like Autumn of the Black Snake, Masters of Empire, Indian Women and French Men by Susan Sleeper Smith, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky by Bamewawagezhikaquay (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft), and many more. It helps me remember that they were every bit as human as me, and they loved this land every bit as much. It’s almost surreal is some ways to read about the Native American people who lived in areas I know well and have lived in myself when now there is hardly a trace of them. What’s more, it reminds me I have no good reason to assuage my conscious. I cannot let myself off the hook by thinking that maybe the original owners were bad, maybe they didn’t really deserve the land, maybe I haven’t really participated in a crime.

I am now faced with a challenge, one, I think, all Americans are faced with. What now? Where do we go from here? What is the path forward? My challenge is to take into account the people I have defrauded through complicity. They will not go away, nor should they. I must own up to the evil that has been done, and the evil that I have benefited from. I must face it head on, not with my head in the sand. I must seek to restore justice, I must make amends.

Yes, I am being vague here, I am still figuring out how best to be part of the solution instead of compounding the problem. I’m not sure which steps will be the best ones to take, nor am I sure how I might best help. What I am sure of is that I cannot stay silent, and I most certainly cannot stay still. I must act, it would be immoral not to do so.

The path forward from here may be hard, but it is one that must be walked, for it is the only way out.

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