August 29, 2013

LURIE-SPICER: Acknowledging Stolen Land

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As we return to the Hill, let us acknowledge that we are returning to stolen and occupied land. The homes we sleep in, the classrooms we learn in, the quads we traverse for class, the trails we hike with our friends … All of this land is stolen and occupied Cayuga Nation territory. The Cayuga, or “People of the Great Swamp,” are one of Six Nations within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, known as “People of the Longhouse.” Among them are the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora.

Settlers (people who are not Indigenous) of this land must acknowledge the stolen territories we occupy, as a first step to understanding not only the history beneath our feet, but also the genocide that led to the foundation of society as we know it. While there has been genocide across North America (the true name of which is Turtle Island, as understood by many Indigenous Nations), it is pertinent for us, as settlers who benefit vis a vis this city and this University, to understand the context of ongoing colonization. To begin this, we must  learn about the local histories of ongoing land theft here in so-called Ithaca.

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington sent orders to General Sullivan to “not merely be overrun, but destroy …” the Haudenosaunee. The orders resulted in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign — also known as the Scorched Earth Campaign — in which more than 6,200 soldiers (more than 20 percent of the Continental Army) burned 50,000 villages and crops to the ground. This was larger than any other military operation against Indigenous people on Turtle Island before that date. More than 5,000 refugees fled to Niagara for the winter where many more froze to death.

Decades later, the genocide against Indigenous Nations continues across North America as survivors of the initial mass-murderes were forced into American Residential Schools. These schools sought to systematically destroy Indigenous culture, including languages and traditional knowledge, while seeking to force students to assimilate into an American way of life. Today, one of the greatest challenges Indigenous Nations and peoples face is reviving their traditional knowledges, practices and languages from, in some contexts, near extinction.

In the past few decades, efforts to revive Cayuga sovereignty have been suppressed. In 1980, the Cayuga Nation (living in so-called New York) and the Seneca-Cayuga people (living in so-called Oklahoma but with ancestral roots in Haudenosaunee lands) filed a claim against New York State. Their goal has been to reclaim the land they primarily inhabited before the Scorched Earth Campaign. The land they are asking for is 64,015 acres on the northern half of Cayuga Lake, on both sides. This land ranges from Varick to Seneca Falls and Aurora to Montezuma. In 2001, a federal judge awarded $247.9 million to the Cayuga Nation so they could purchase their land back from consenting settler land owners. This occupying-State sanctioned ruling still maintains settler rights to land, and colonial understandings of land ownership. Both sides appealed this ruling and in 2005, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the judgment on the grounds that the tribe waited too long to regain sovereign title to the land. With this reasoning, the federal court has refused to hold New York State accountable for the land that was stolen. The history of the Cayuga people has thus been deemed illegitimate and further silenced.

The silencing of Indigenous history and destruction of Indigenous traditions is surely not unique to the Haudenosaunee, nor to Turtle Island. Around the planet, settler-colonial nations have used these tactics to conquer Indigenous peoples. In fact, globally, one language goes extinct every two weeks. It is settlers’ responsibility to learn the hidden histories and end their suppression by making those histories known.

Doing this not only works to bring light to Indigenous struggles, but it can also help us understand how deep the roots of White supremacy lie in the nation we now call America. This country was founded on the land of Indigenous Nations, exterminated and assimilated through centuries of genocide. The wealth of America was built on the slavery of Africans and continues to grow off enslaved people of color in our jails at home and sweatshops abroad. Meanwhile, White supremacy continues to manifest in both visible and invisible ways by granting White people privileges on cultural, institutional, and interpersonal levels. White supremacy can only be deconstructed by an understanding of its history because it is so deeply imbedded within our culture, within our institutions and within ourselves. For this reason, racism is not only intentionally inflicted, but often unconsciously inflicted. The history and roots of American culture are hidden and silenced, despite being the dominant narrative of Western upbringings. This culture has embedded its White supremacy within us in subtle and vivid ways.

The first step in un-learning these internalized structures of racism is learning their roots and bringing them to the fore. Not only must settlers learn the history of Indigenous people, but they must also take responsibility for communicating this history. Challenge yourself. Next time you speak in front of a group, be it in a meeting, class or public event, take a moment to acknowledge the Indigenous territory that is that space. As settlers, we must take responsibility: this is a step toward ending White supremacy, respecting the land beneath our feet and respecting those Indigenous to it.

Tyler-Lurie Spicer is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at til4@cornell.edu. Personal Politics appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Tyler Lurie-Spicer