‘Land Acknowledgements’ and Cheap Apologies
In recent years, it has become fashionable to offer “land acknowledgements” prior to everything from “soccer games and performing arts productions to city council meetings and corporate conferences.” These “acknowledgments” are “formal statements recognizing Indigenous communities’ rights to territories seized by colonial powers.”
According to one credible estimate, from 1778 to 1871, the U.S. government made 368 treaties with Indian nations and confederacies across what is now our nation. Many were broken in whole, others in part. A relative few were kept, and others were altered under coercion from Washington. Some land was seized without benefit of any treaty. The record is largely one of shame.
So, now have come “land acknowledgements.” Other than the obvious “virtue signaling” attendant to such ceremonies, any competent historian has to feel, at best, a deep sense of ambivalence about this increasingly common practice. On the one hand, yes, land theft is an evil thing and is made all the more evil by the killing and deception that all too often accompanied it as the American government dealt with native peoples.
Yet there is another issue, one related directly to the issue, that is seldom discussed: The land theft by the various tribes from one another. Here are a few examples:
In the 1600s and into the 1700s, the Shawnee tribe fought the powerful Iroquois confederacy and later battled with the Chickasaws and Cherokees. Many Shawnees were displaced by these conflicts, driven from their long-time home in the Ohio River valley region as far south as Alabama.
And consider the Comanches. Originally a branch of the Shoshone people, the Comanches lived in the mountainous area of the Great Basin region until pressed south by the Absaroka (Crow) tribe and the Blackfoot confederacy. The Comanches became, upon their acquisition of horses, fierce and unrelenting warriors. Hampton Sides, author of the Comanche history “Empire of the Summer Moon,” says they “were incredibly warlike. They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches.”
Finally, the relatively small Kiowa tribe lived for generations in what are today the Black Hills of South Dakota. Yet between 1785-95, they moved south — the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Lakota (western Sioux) pressed them out of their long-time home and onto the southern plains.
All of that to ask this: At what point will the culture of apology stop? No one should question the often unjust and sometimes brutal treatment the indigenous peoples of North America received at the hands of European settlers. At the same time, though, we cannot ignore the horrors inflicted by some Native Americans on Europeans — more than just fighting-back at encroachment, frequently Indians committed the most gruesome kinds of suffering on their white victims.
Honesty should prevent anyone from thinking that such land-dispossession was unique. Indians had been fighting and taking one another’s homelands for untold generations. Will the many tribal nations apologize to one another for their wrongs against one another? Is anyone calling for this?
Without question, there are things in our history for which we should be ashamed — including the way we too often treated the first peoples of North America. Rather, it is relentless self-flagellation that is so deeply aggravating. Sin is the great, endemic, universal curse of mankind. As has often been observed, we sin because we are sinners. Our violation of God’s commands is internal and material, within our hearts and minds and expressed in word and conduct. Any even cursory study of world history reveals the depths of human cruelty. Invasion, mass killing, and heartless destruction have been a tragic common pattern since earliest times.
I’m not dismissing the horrid manifestations of our fallenness as acceptable because they are common. We should never cease recoiling at the sordid displays of monstrous inhumanity committed within living memory — the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan massacres.
America has too often failed to live up to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and, in doing so, created cynicism and deep anger among many of our fellow citizens whose mistreatment runs far counter to the promises of American life. At the same time, we must bear ever in mind that no nation has attempted more valiantly to right our wrongs or more perfectly realize its ideals as ours.
Where injustices remain to be corrected, then let right be done, even if its execution is costly. But where grievance becomes a pretext for grasping bitterness and the falsifying of the past, let’s grow up. “Land acknowledgments” are the stuff of artificial sorrow and superficial shame.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” cried the prophet Amos (5:24). Justice, not performative guilt. Righteousness, not trite apology. There’s a difference.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.