Conquest and Compensation: Blacks and Native Americans Haven't Agreed on a Reparations Framework. It's Time to Change the Debate

Article excerpt

"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. …