My friend was trying to explain the concept to me, “My people lived here for centuries,” he waved his hand across the the plains in front of us, “We moved our homes with the seasons, and roamed all over — hunting, fishing and collecting plants for food, medicine and religious purposes.” He indicated the mountains sixty miles to the north and the low hills on the western horizon.
He took a deep breath, “When the white man came, he wanted some of that land … the land we used. White men came and stayed in one place, and they didn’t move with the seasons. They hunted or fished out the places near where they lived and came to where we were hunting and fishing and took our animals.” His fist came down on his open palm.
“One day, the white men came and told us to stay on one piece of land or be wiped out. Some fought, but were wiped out, and some went to that place, the treaty reservation, and tried to live like the white man,” he brushed his hands together to signify ‘done’. “When we went to those places to hunt, fish or collect plants for food, medicine or religion, the white men became angry and chased us off, killing many people.” His hands clapped once.
“Our ancestral lands include the reservation, but also those places where we hunted, fished and collected plants. Our spirits live in those sacred places, and we need to go talk with them, seek their help and give them ours. Many of our people have joined the spirits, and those sacred places are where we can talk to our ancestors and family members who have passed.”
“White men think the land can be owned,” he made a cage of his hands, “but we know it can only be visited.” He flattened his hands out and spread his arms.
The Hanford Nuclear Plant had been created before World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. Large sections of private and government-owned lands were converted for the project and high security had been put in place. Part of the nuclear site included the ancestral lands used by my friend’s tribe on a nearby reservation. Even when the land was designated as open range the tribe was able to access ancestral areas from the reservation without creating issues. Hunting and fishing rights were maintained for the tribe as well as the public. The creation of the nuclear site had eliminated all tribal and public access.
Like most of the government officials, I had a little trouble seeing the ancestral lands argument made by the tribe. My culture doesn’t really see land as available for common use unless the owner specifies it that way. For example, the federal government has done that with Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, although some limitations on use exist.
I think of it as the land all being originally federal government property, subsequently divided up among public and private interests, states, municipalities, and etc. Federal lands are thus owned jointly by all Americans, and we have a say in how or whether they are used.
My friend pointed out to me that actually none of the land belonged to the federal government. They took it away from the native people, before deciding how to parse it out among the white men. And, oh yeah, they’ll let the Indians have little pieces so they won’t fight anymore — and if they promise to abide by the treaties. I started to see his point.
I’d read about pre-Columbian Native American populations and the impacts of European ‘discovery’ and settlement. Native tribal areas always shifted some due to climate changes and warfare, but once the Europeans arrived major changes occurred.
European diseases wiped out large populations and left many areas relatively empty. That’s why some of the early explorers and settlers found unoccupied lands along the east coast. Historically, tribal boundaries shifted to accommodate the changing populations very slowly. However, European encroachment into tribal areas pushed tribes into areas occupied by others, resulting in some warfare and more displacement. Tribes were pushed west until finally the federal government relocated entire populations (‘Trail of Tears’) to the less usable lands no one wanted (at the time) in the desert west.
In some ways, every square inch of North America contains some tribe’s ancestral lands.
The conversation got me thinking about my personal ancestral lands. Unlike my friend, I cannot name my ancestors back for more than a couple of generations, and those people, like me, have lived in many different places. The Scots-Irish relatives moved from Scotland to Ireland, then to the Appalachians, then Georgia, and finally to Texas. The English were a little more direct, coming to the South and ending up in Texas. Of course, I left Texas for Oklahoma, then lived in a series of places before ending up in Colorado for the last forty years.
My friend observed, “You white people are like the wind. You always come through, sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently. Then you leave. And like the wind, more white people keep coming and coming.”
I guess I don’t really have ancestral lands, or maybe, I just have a lot of them. But it seems that, like many ‘white men’, I feel no claim to a particular ancestral place. Like the wind, my place is where I am now — with only a faint connection to the past.