COLUMN: Indigenous people rightly demand for ‘Land Back’

The University of Missouri operates on land stolen from the Osage. Reparations need to be made at a federal and local level.
Graphic by Jacob LaGesse

Noah Wright is a sophomore constitutional democracy major at MU. They are an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

We are on stolen land. Through centuries of violent colonization and broken treaties, western countries like the so-called United States captured Indigenous land. This grand theft continues today and will continue to happen unless systems of white supremacy are demolished and reparations are paid.

MU prides itself as a land-grant university. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which took 11 million acres of seized Indigenous land and sold it to 52 universities across the nation. A two-year study by High Country News calculated the impact of the Morrill Act, and called the land grants a “massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation”.

The land MU is on was ceded to the U.S. in two treaties with the Osage Nation, signed in 1808 and 1825. The Osage, deceived by the terms of the negotiations, gave up all rights to hunt on the land which was sold to the U.S. for an estimated $700. In 1872 the Osage were forced to relocate to a reservation in modern-day Osage County, Oklahoma.

The U.S. government signed 370 treaties with Indigenous people; a majority were later ignored or broken by the expanding U.S.

The impact of genocide and broken treaties continue to this day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 28% of all self-identified Native Americans live in poverty. As a result, Indigenous peoples suffer from an astonishing lack of housing, education and healthcare compared to their white counterparts.

These inequities, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, are tragic. The Navajo Nation experienced the worst per-capita COVID-19 outbreak in America during the spring and summer. In addition to a lack of healthcare access, the Navajo Nation experiences severe food insecurity. While their land spreads some 27,000 square miles, there are only 13 grocery stores. Carpooling and other practices that stem from underlying poverty allowed COVID-19 to spread rapidly in the area.

Indigenous people continue to face state violence. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that Indigenous Americans face an incarceration rate 38% higher than the national average. In addition, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports that Indigenous people are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police.

The U.S. government is stealing Native land to this day, using its federal power to cut up Indigenous land for energy projects. In 2016, the Dakota Access pipeline was met with protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This conflict has not yet been resolved, and Indigenous protestors continue to fight against tear gas and brutality from local and state law enforcement.

To begin righting the wrongs of the past and present, the U.S. must recognize its role in the oppression of Indigenous people throughout North America. It’s not enough to rename Columbus Day or get rid of racist mascots (actions that are decades overdue).

The systems of white supremacy must be destroyed, namely the prison industrial complex and the corporate destruction of Indigenous environments.

The prison system has oppressed minority groups in the U.S. since its inception. We must end these violent means of addressing social issues, and build a society that doesn't use police and prison cells to advance white supremacy. In a Medium article published on Oct. 6, Angela Davis, civil rights leader and revolutionary intellectual, affirms that “both policing and punishment are firmly rooted in racism — attempts to control Indigenous, Black, and Latino populations following colonization and slavery”.

Slavery, Jim Crow and Indigenous removal never left the U.S. It was rebranded. Abolition is the only path forward to undoing the systemic racism the U.S. is built on.

Any discussion of climate action that does not include Indigenous leadership is flawed. The U.S. empire must immediately halt the seizure of Indigenous land and remove the fossil fuel infrastructure destroying our planet. Native Americans fought for the protection of their environment for centuries, and it is evident that they were far better stewards of it.

Indigenous people called for land reparations for years, and the debate is now garnering mainstream attention. Most Americans may immediately dismiss these demands, but this is due to a lack of understanding for what land reparations would look like. Groups like the Lakota Law Project are not asking for a financial settlement when they call for "Land Back," but for the return of specific land to their rightful stewards.

Federal land can be given back to their rightful owners quickly, and descendants of European settlers can contribute to direct mutual aid funds that assist Indigenous communities. It is not a question of culpability. The truth is that America will never be able to make up for the horrific crimes of the past. We can, however, acknowledge this dark history and give back some of the wealth we acquired from it.

The U.S. must honor the treaties signed with Indigenous groups throughout history. In July, the Supreme Court ruled that some 3 million acres of land in Oklahoma rightfully belongs to Native Americans. The ruling was one of jurisdiction, Indigenous people affected by it will now be prosecuted by the federal government instead of the state of Oklahoma. This change honors the treaties made with Indigenous groups in the area by affirming that their reservation is under federal protection.

This is a step in the right direction, but the government needs to cede legal ownership of Indigenous lands to their rightful owners. Not only is this the moral thing to do, but it's essential for humanity’s fight against climate change and the only path towards justice.

For economic equality, investments into Indigenous health care, education and housing are necessary. This can be accomplished by guaranteeing all Americans universal health care, and direct federal investment into Indigenous communities.

MU must reckon with its own history. It would be idealistic to think the current UM System administration would grant land back to the Osage. However, meaningful reparations can be accomplished in other ways: scholarships for Indigenous students, reparations paid to the Osage and a public acknowledgement by the University that properly contextualizes MU’s role in operating on violently seized land.

Consider joining Four Directions, MU’s Native student-led organization for Indigenous peoples and allies. Contribute directly to mutual aid funds for Indigenous peoples and study the history of our communities with a critical lens. Our ability to attend MU is due to the pain and suffering of many, therefore we all have a duty to end oppression that continues to this day.

_As part of our commitment to social justice initiatives, we at The Maneater encourage you to consider making a donation to Indigenous Mutual Aid, an organization committed to decolonization and assisting Indigenous communities as they battle the COVID-19 pandemic. . The link to donate is https://www.indigenousmutualaid.org/donate/

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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