February 22, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Wouldn’t it be bizarre if your ancestors a couple of centuries ago seized some other family’s house, killing most of the inhabitants but locking a few away in a spare bedroom, where their descendants still live spare lives, technically free to leave but not really prepared to do so because you don’t let them learn independency? And wouldn’t it be even more bizarre if you felt guilty about the situation but instead of helping the people trapped in your spare bedroom you instead simply announced to guests, “Oh, by the way, my family stole this house from these people’s ancestors?”

That is what has been going on, more or less, in these United States the last few years via so-called “land acknowledgments.” Here is an example of one from Princeton:

“The Land on which this building stands is part of the ancient homeland and traditional territory of the Lenape people. We pay respect to Lenape peoples past, present, and future and their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Lenape diaspora.”

Americans have a First Amendment right to signal their presumed virtue thusly and some indigenous peoples support acknowledgments, if artfully done. The Native Governance Center (NGC), however, suggests that authors of land acknowledgments begin by reflecting on their own motivations. “If you’re hoping to inspire others to take action to support Indigenous communities,” it suggests, “you’re on the right track. If you’re delivering a land acknowledgment out of guilt or because everyone else is doing it, more self-reflection is in order.”

I’ve reflected on land acknowledgments for several years and find that they distract from the main issue, which is the federal regulation of the people still de facto locked up in the spare bedroom, i.e., American Indians living on reservations. The NGC sees land acknowledgments as the first step toward “returning land” but that cannot happen in any significant way because its market value has been vastly augmented over the centuries. To seize it, or even to impose a ground rent, would be an unconstitutional taking and an unconstitutional ex post law if there were any penalty for noncompliance.

Plus, two wrongs do not make a right. How America, and Americans, came to hold title to native lands was a complex process best described by law professor Stuart Banner in How the Indians Lost Their Land (2007). The same process may be underway today, but this time with China as the imperialist, flooding markets with cheap trade goods, buying up land and dividing native born Americans until it becomes cheaper for it to wage war against pockets of resistance (likely again in the Plains and Rockies) than to treat with the recalcitrants unwilling to give up their native cultures and strange (to the Chinese) attachment to liberty at any price. Instead of addiction to alcohol and smallpox, Americans today may be done in by addiction to mobile broadband and the overreaction of some tribal state governments to bat viruses.

Perhaps our presumptive Chinese overlords will one day become Woke enough to offer the remaining handful of our descendants, shackled on western reservations, land acknowledgments, in Mandarin of course:   

“The Land on which this university stands is part of the ancient homeland of New Jerseyans of the once mighty United Tribes of America. Before that, it was part of the traditional territory of the Lenape peoples.”

But I would not count on it, as most conquerors have neither the time nor the inclination to recite the names of the vanquished. It would take an entire semester to provide a full historical land acknowledgment for parts of Central Europe and, my gosh, such an acknowledgment could spark a shooting war in the Middle East because who “really” owned or controlled which dessicated plots remains hotly contested. Contested territory is an issue that even North Americans have to handle with kid gloves, as in this land acknowledgment at Northwestern University near Chicago:

“The Northwestern campus sits on the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa as well as the Menominee, Miami and Ho-Chunk nations. It was also a site of trade, travel, gathering and healing for more than a dozen other Native tribes and is still home to over 100,000 tribal members in the state of Illinois.”

It is difficult to imagine a future Chinese researcher bothering to try to discern if a particular block in Chicago was controlled by the New York or Kansas City mob or if one in Los Angeles was controlled by the Crips or the Bloods. She will be too busy describing how all Americans, save the handful of recalcitrant liberty lovers, begged for Chinese civilization to save them from capitalist corruption.

Tricky questions about privileging historical over prehistoric inhabitants also arise when one begins to consider extending land acknowledgment to the Old World. Indeed, should one cross the presumed species barrier and acknowledge the previous sovereignty of Neanderthals? Denisovans? Tyrannosaurus rex?

If you think going back so far is silly because there are no living descendants of those groups, consider that all animals are related in that they share some of the same DNA. But it does seem untoward to go back too far. After all, American Indians may have displaced earlier waves of Paleoindians, the original discoverers of the New World and hence its true indigenes. But that is a politically inconvenient interpretation of inherently incomplete archaeological, genetic, and linguistic records.

So how about we stop dwelling on the past, fix the present, and don’t suffer the high cost of falling victim to aggressors in the future?

First, we should remove the jackboot of paternalist socialism, as described by Terry Anderson, Naomi Riley Schaeffer, and others, from the economic necks of Indians living on reservations. Second, stop taking remaining tribal lands, a practice that still occurs. (See Waterbuster for a vivid example in living memory.) Third, stop talking about racial issues as if they were only black and white and completely divorced from class. Fourth, stop assuming that one political party or the other will, or even can, solve our social problems. Fifth, stop rewarding mere virtue signalling and start rewarding informed (classical) liberal thinking about complex questions of justice for each and every American, especially those languishing in America’s spare bedroom.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

He is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019).

Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997.

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