The newest chapter in grievance politics is being written in American schools. This emerging narrative of “land appropriation” and “cultural genocide” is one-sided, divisive, and contrary both to history and to widely accepted ethical and constitutional principles of individual accountability and due process.
On our campus, the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project (UCCKP), together with the American Indian Center, has proposed a land acknowledgment to “demonstrate a commitment to beginning the process of dismantling the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism and genocide.” UCCKP recognizes that this and other “social justice” processes “will probably take nothing less than the democratic socialist transformation of the U.S.”
In grade schools throughout the United States, teachers are beginning to assert that the majority of U.S. land was “stolen” from Native Americans. Non-indigenous landowners living in those areas today must pay reparations or return the land to the descendants of inhabitants who predated the arrival of “white people.” Teachers present these assertions as irrefutable; students are expected to absorb this narrative, perhaps “uncomfortably,” but without questioning.
In fact, the U.S. is an outlier among nations in that much of its land transfers to settlers and the government were negotiated and paid for. Take the experience of one of our families: George Abbot and others purchased the town of Andover from the Sagamore of Massachusetts in 1643. Two of Abbot’s sons later succumbed to an Indian attack while working the family’s land during King Philip’s War (1676), with one killed and the other taken captive. Of course, wars include atrocities on both sides, but the campus narrative of stolen land and oppressed, innocent natives is far from the truth.
In the area known today as Chicago, the first frontier settlers felt too vulnerable and decided to march back east in 1812. The Potawatomi ambushed them less than two miles from their original point of departure, Fort Dearborn, making a point of isolating the children and then tomahawking them to death. Most of the other settlers were killed, too; in one particularly gruesome episode, William Wells had his heart cut out and feasted on by the warriors. This event motivated the United States to negotiate the Treaty of Chicago with the local tribes, receiving Chicago-area land in exchange for money and western territory.
Land acknowledgments leave these “complexities” in the histories of Andover, Chicago, and elsewhere unspecified. The point of the exercise seems to be to desensitize youth to radical, revisionist, and revanchist claims, so that violence against latter-day civilian populations someday will seem like justified revenge. Consider, for example, the full-throated support for Hamas’s massacre of Israelis that we have seen recently from so many academics arguing for “decolonization.”
Land acknowledgments also wrongly treat “white people” and “Native Americans” as monolithic actors. Native American and Chicago-area resident Noel Manley recently called out the “intellectual dishonesty” of the land-acknowledgment narrative, which “follows an established Marxist pattern of applying a broad negative generalization . . . to belittle and destroy [a group’s] standing in the eyes of the community.” He sees parallels with historical “purges of political opponents and kulaks in Soviet Russia.” That process began with the demonization of a group of people (kulaks, or small landowners) who were urged to surrender their land to Marxist officials, purportedly for the benefit of landless peasants. When too many kulaks resisted, violence ensued, and the starvation of millions followed soon thereafter, as the once-fertile appropriated lands were mismanaged and Marxist officials confiscated food.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, among others, emphasize the principle of individual accountability, as in the Book of Ezekiel, where it says, “The child will not share the guilt of the parent.” The principle is also embedded in our legal system; the United States Constitution prohibits penalties for family members of those convicted of treason. If property is to be forfeited, the Constitution says, this must occur during the offender’s lifetime. Even the Potawatomi and the U.S. government agreed in 1815 that “every injury or act of hostility by one or either . . . shall be mutually forgiven and forgot.” Guilt can be established only in an individual, who must be afforded an opportunity to face his accuser and give his own account. Collective guilt, whether argued by research paper or genealogical study, has no justification.
Too many teachers are replacing these essential legal and ethical principles with notions of collective guilt for “white males” and others born hundreds of years after certain lands were supposedly stolen. We hope that students and parents will recognize the real purpose behind this fact-challenged revisionism: to promote division in our society by manufacturing and prolonging resentment for personal and political gain.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images