REPARATIONS VERSUS RECONCILIATION Part 1

by James A. Wilson

James A. Wilson and Rhonda at the Wyoming Capitol

Chinle High School is on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and the set for television’s Basketball or Nothing. The chronicle of a coach and the team he molds with spit, vinegar, and love is really about across-the-board reconciliation.

Most Americans see Native Americans as people of mystery and stereotype, from pow-wow drummers and dancers to casino people. Basketball or Nothing is about boys becoming men and young people with little hope daring to dream big and work for their dreams. It reveals these people as real and personal; it enables us to engage with them. At beginning and end authentic reconciliation is about engagement with people from whom we have disengaged. It is disengagement that makes reconciliation necessary; it is engagement that makes it possible.

There is a lot of talk about reparations in this season and very little about authentic reconciliation. It is easy for progressives to embrace what seems like a graceful concept of making at long last right what was always wrong, the destruction of a way of life – and many lives – alongside the theft of much land in the name of progress. It is just as easy for conservatives like myself to dismiss the notion with quick retorts like, “It all happened so long ago,” “They did stuff to us too,” and the ever popular, “They stood in the path of progress on land they were not using.”

It gets more complicated – and more heated – when the topic is reparations for descendants of slaves. Progressives can cite the obvious facts of history; free men and women chained and dragged far from their homes, labor extracted from them for centuries; Jim Crow restricted and lynched them even after abolition for more than a century. Conservatives cite the equally obvious facts of the bloodiest war in our history fought – primarily by whites – to set the blacks free, the tremendous progress made since the sixties, and the reality that at their worst these progeny of slavery are mega better off than their counterparts in Africa. There is truth and denial on both sides – whether Native American, Black, or any community that has endured exploitation or persecution.

Take the indigenous peoples and the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine states – simply put – any lands discovered by Christian explorers in the hands of non-Christians at the time of discovery become the property of the explorers and those to whom they give or sell the lands. This was the issue in a major US Supreme Court Case – Johnson vs. McIntosh – decided in 1823, and was used to justify the seizure of Indian lands for decades thereafter. The unanimous opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall; he claimed large tracts of land involved in the dispute and should have recused himself over the obvious conflict of interest. Although the doctrine has not been tested in SCOTUS for two hundred years, its continuing impact is a source of serious friction between immigrant and native peoples in our land – quite understandably. However, things are not so simple as this.

If reparations are to be paid to anyone we will have to perform the impossible task of determining to whom they should be paid and how much. Many Native Americans have grown wealthy from the casino business, and many more enjoy better housing and healthcare from the same cause; yet a large percentage continue in the poverty that comes from the utter disrespect immigrant peoples – us – have paid to the treaties we made. We say we cannot sort their legitimate claims because they are so divided within their communities we do not know with whom to work; this is true, but it is also a convenient way to dodge responsibility. The same arguments and counter- arguments can be made when discussing black issues, Asian issues, and so forth. And none of these approaches offers engagement; we are still treating one another as issues instead of as people.

It is the kind of social cesspool that invites demagogues on all sides to do what they do so well. Or…
Arapahoes welcoming them to Wyoming Land

Any American who actually cares about living and justice for all – as the Gettysburg Address expresses it – can take the trouble to research the facts of our history. The next step would be to advocate by example within the communities in which we live, not for reparations per se, but for that engagement that leads to reconciliation and a thirst for justice on all sides of the estrangement. One church I know in California began to make a monthly donation to the local tribe – they called it rent on the land that once belonged to the tribe and on which the church now sits. This gesture led to engagement and the church now partners with the tribe in cultural events and mutual honoring.

A coalition of churches on the Northern California coast began collecting annual offerings to give to a dispossessed tribe seeking to buy part of a small island in Humboldt Bay to honor their murdered ancestors. Hearing of this the city of Eureka gifted the tribe with the whole of the island and the offerings were applied to creating a park and monument. It was not reparations; it was a gift given in respect and repentance.

In my next post I will discuss things any individual can do to seek justice without pandering to the demagogues. In the meantime, anyone wondering why I use only examples of churches is because – for the most part – that is all the examples there are of genuine engagement. That may be because – as people who engage with God – we know we are called to be ambassadors of His reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) first and last.

James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, Kingdom in Pursuit, and his first novel, Generation – available at Bounty Books or at praynorthstate@gmail.com