A few years ago, I was invited by a small liberal arts college in the Northeast to give a series of lectures on ethics and the formation of moral character to a mixed group of juniors and graduating seniors. I began the class with a discussion of how moral character was undoubtedly shaped by cultural norms, mores, traditions, and protocols but that, given the capacity of humans to question the sense-making narratives they inherit from their societies, the development of agency was also an individualist undertaking.
Before I could even finish my introductory remarks, an earnest young woman blurted out that such an undertaking would be immoral. There was no such thing as an ethical milieu in America. There were no uncontested cultural mores, norms and values because these all presupposed a moral space; a location in which ethical agency could emerge. America, she announced, was and continues to be, located on stolen lands. This land was forged in genocidal conditions to eliminate Native Americans from the continent. That we lived on their stolen land without their permission, that we had yet to admit that genocidal policies neutralized any possibility for an ethical space in which moral agency could be developed was not just naïve—it was immoral. The United States of America, she declared, was irrevocably tainted as a country. The concomitant agency that sprung from any spatial alignment within its reaches was bound to be ethically compromised. Just as a criminal can never legally purchase stolen goods and claim to feel reasonably attractive in them, so too, no American could claim to ever have a legitimate ethical identity short of giving back stolen lands to the Native Indians; or, paying them for all illegally acquired lands.
She was breathless at the end of her disquisition and visibly upset. She told me that my approach to the subject was wrong and that, respectfully, I was, perhaps, unknowingly, a participant in a continued colonial settler project.
I remained somber and thanked her for her passionate viewpoint. She corrected me to say that she had uttered an unassailable truth. I asked the class if it had thoughts on the matter at hand. To a person, everyone agreed with the student. Some added that Americans ought to leave the content and relocate elsewhere and give up even their homes to Native Americans. The discussion went on for around thirty minutes during which time I basically functioned as an objective moderator, pointing out, for instance, cases in which land was purchased in a legitimate manner by the Europeans and Americans from the Native Indians.
When one student declared that the moral but impractical thing would be for every American to offer him or herself up for execution to living Native Americans—I’d just about had enough of this malarkey. Almost sensing my frustration, the student who had engaged in her soliloquy told me she wanted my personal viewpoint—not some dispassionate attempt at a scholarly answer, as any such attempt would be jaundiced by historical biases shrouded in linguistic traps meant to ensnare the seeker of truth into a web of falsities.
I remained silent, however, for some reason. I wanted to grasp the magnitude of the spectacle unfolding before my eyes. In the subsequent months I read scores of articles of children in K-12 public schools being taught about America created out of stolen lands. I heard Vice President Kamala Harris deliver remarks on the day after Columbus Day, or what has come to be known as “Indigenous Day,” in October of 2021 to the National Congress of American Indians 78th Convention. There, Harris accused the United States of ushering in a “wave of devastation for tribal nations, perpetuating violence, stealing land, and spreading disease.”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already declared America a crime scene and stated that America was constructed from stolen land; that Hispanics were more indigenous than the white population and more deserving of exemption from immigration laws. They had more of a right to America than whites did.
This article is a response to the malarkey surrounding the idea that America was genocidal towards Native Americans, and the idea that America was created via theft.
To begin with, there is no such thing as genocide of Native Americans, and no land was ever stolen. That is a case of the Big Lie if ever there were one.
There was a war for resources and the Native Americans lost. They came in second. Period. In effect, today, they are war refugees on conquered American soil. The Native Americans were the first genocidal warlords on the continent. They stole the continent from the Holocene Megafauna and slaughtered them into extinction. The French, the Spanish and the English did the same with the aboriginal Americans. For centuries Native Americans had the land and did virtually nothing with it; that is, in terms of emancipating themselves from an animistic biological and cyclical lifestyle. The notion of progress lay unknown to them. They existed outside the historical process.
European settlers acquired land that is now America through bargaining, purchase, and conquest. Most of the Indians died of diseases unintentionally transmitted by Europeans to the natives who had no natural inoculation against them. Genocide denotes a willful intention to exterminate an entire population of a people. Given the technological capabilities of the English and later the Americans, if they had wanted to eliminate the Indians from the continent they could have done so easily. Instead, they subjected many of them to forced inclusion and assimilation. This is not consonant with a policy of extermination. There were isolated cases of European military commanders who did attempt to vanquish hostile Indian tribes by giving them small-pox infected blankets. There is no evidence to indicate that this was systematic policy at all.
The idea that the Indians were not willful participants in land purchasing, and that they did not negotiate with the Europeans for protracted periods of time, is putatively false. The notion that they all constituted a peace-loving assemblage of tribes is naïve at best and a perniciously false attempt to camouflage history at worst. American Indians owned slaves, including African Americans, and they conquered several competing tribes long after Columbus arrived on the continent. They burned villages, kidnapped children, raped women, and scalped their enemies. They behaved like savages. They did all this while remaining outside the historical process and contributing nothing of lasting significance to Western civilization or world civilization at all.
The Native American indigene was a natural creature who had not yet transformed himself out of biological time into an epoch-making world historical person. Having failed to abstract himself from nature by transcending it, the American aboriginal viewed himself as inextricably bound to nature. To enter the historical process, one must see oneself as transcendent of nature. Nature becomes a thing — not that one adapts oneself to as do animals, but rather as a malleable entity that adapts to human needs, desires, aspirations, and creative capabilities.
Only a self that is divorced from nature can enter the historical process. An irrevocable tie to nature condemns one to a life of cyclicality, a range-of-the-moment existence in which innovation, change, moral and political evolution, and creative adaptation are not possible.
Tragically, it took conquest — facilitated by the Europeans — to transplant the indigene into the historical process by inserting him into the civilization crucibles of Judeo-Christendom, with its emancipatory moral narratives and an evolving political philosophy that discovered, recognized and protected the inalienable rights of man. These include freedom and liberty, the right to the pursuit of happiness, freedom of conscience and speech, the right to bodily integrity, and the right to property.
Freed from repetitive cyclical conceptions of life, the descendants of today’s indigenous Native American ancestors are endowed with a legal and public personality and recognized as being beyond exclusion from the human condition. This endowment is an historical achievement.
The republic, the state, and the nation are the milieu in which we matriculate morally, politically, and develop into literal human beings. We each have a duty to ourselves to secure the preconditions of a free, civilized republic that we need as human beings to develop as human beings.
The United States often has functioned like a great eugenics program in the moral and political sphere. It has allowed people to reverse the accidents of birth that would have kept them enslaved in lower forms of life, into an advanced realm of consciousness that now sees them existing as co-equals with their compatriots. This viewpoint is predicated on the fact that not all cultures are equal, and not all forms of life establish optimal conditions for human flourishing.
This viewpoint is controversial in that it holds that not all forms of conquest are evil. Conquest that eventually improves the conditions of those living below the threshold of a certain understanding of what it means to be a full-fledged human being constitutes a moral good. We measure the contributions an action does in striving for a moral good against the harm it does in achieving that good.
Today we may say that very little—if any—of the earth is in the hands of its original owners. The entire earth has changed ownership several times.
Native Americans are part of the sovereign mass. The land was never theirs to begin with, since merely being born on land and doing nothing of significance with it does not entitle you to ownership of it.
To those who won the war for resources and transformed what was a backwater state of nature into a vibrant technological civilization and an unprecedented political republic we say: This Land is Your Land.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.