15 November 2005

Upstate NY Politics

"Although the huge territories just described were inhabited by many native tribes,
one can fairly say that at the time of discovery they were
no more than a wilderness. The Indians occupied but did not
possess the land. ... The ruin of these peoples began as
soon as the Europeans landed on their shores; it has continued
ever since and is coming to completion in our own day.
Providence, when it placed them amid the riches of the New World,
seems to have granted them a short lease only; they were there,
in some sense, only waiting."

- Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America.

Near the start of his recent book, the ongoing moment, Geoff Dyer admits: "I'm not a photographer. I don't just mean that I am not a professional or a serious photographer, I mean that I don't even own a camera. The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take one of them, with their camera. (These rare works are now dispersed around the world, in private collections, mostly in Japan.) It's a handicap, sure, but it does mean that I come to the medium from a position of some kind of purity. I also have a hunch that not taking photographs is a condition of writing about them ...". Although I myself only very rarely take pictures, I apparently am not as pure as Dyer. A couple of weeks ago I spent the better part of a weekend driving back and forth from Rochester to Ithaca so that I could watch my sons play in lacrosse tournaments. (This turns out to be quite ironic given the origins of the game.) However, I set out, digital Canon firmly in hand, hoping I might capture some of the action. I also thought I might manage to get a shot or two of the small campaign signs that dot the roadsides during our election season. What I soon figured out is that the real politics in the area reflects issues significantly less ephemeral than this or that race for Town Board.

The route I took down through the Finger Lakes runs ninety or so miles through Ontario, Seneca, and Cayuga counties. Those Native American place names provide a hint of the conflict, for they mark some of the territories where Tocqueville (summarizing European presumptions) depicts Native populations as just "waiting." At the moment the tribal groupings have laid legal claim to large portions of land from which they were dispossessed by Europeans in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In response some non-Native American property owners have coordinated to contest the court proceedings. The local chapter of one such group - Upstate Citizens for Equality - has erected a large number of signs (not being quantitatively oriented, I did not count them) protesting the challenge to their property rights. The pictures on this post represent a small sampling from the area between Union Springs and Seneca Falls. The larger signs are fairly uniform, but are, in different instances festooned with American flags, as well as with smaller signs, some urging a boycott of Native American business enterprises, others warning that vandalism to the signs will be prosecuted vigorously, and so on.

The political issues here are complex. Some things, however, are crystal clear. For instance it is clear where we ought to start - or, rather, where we should not deceive ourselves into starting. It simply is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that European immigrants dealt fairly the indigenous people's of North America. Treaties and deeds drawn up at the time reflected conquest and worse. Whatever moral force consent conveys is parasitic on the ability to say "no." What might it have meant for Native Americans to, in Tocqueville's words, "refuse to consent?" What circumstances might have made their agreement voluntary? Here, once again, is Tocqueville:

"It is impossible to imagine the terrible afflictions involved in these forced migrations. The Indians leaving their ancestral fields are already worn down and exhausted. The country in which they intend to live is already occupied by tribes who regard newcomers jealously. There is famine behind them, war in front, and misery everywhere. In the hope to escape so many enemies, they divide up. Each one of them in isolation tries furtively to find some means of subsistence, living in the immensity of the forest like some outlaw in civilized society. The long weakened social bond then finally breaks. Their homeland has already been lost, and soon they will have no people; families hardly remain together; the common name is lost, the language forgotten, and the traces of their origin vanish. The nation has ceased to exist. It barely survives in the memories of American antiquaries and is known to only a few learned men in Europe

Of course, current property owners in Cayuga and Seneca Counties did not personally drive the Native Americans off their land. But the origins of the property rights to which they cling are hardly clean. If there is "no sovereign nation" as the signs proclaim, there are some obvious reasons why that is the case. The way forward to - as the signs also proclaim - justice and equality for all cannot come from denying that.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is amazing that people continue to draw the line on the land issue to when the europeans arrived on this continent.

In fact very few of the New York Indians have aboriginal land in New York. Just a mere 100 years prior to the Europeans arriving the current New York Indians came to New York from the north and south and conquered such tribes as the Huron, The Neutrals and the Erie by killing their men and assimilating their women. Discovery and conquest was not new to this continent.

If these acts were committed today we as a society would decry it. However, we cannot take the standards and mores of today and apply them to conduct of times past in order to justify a gift to ease our guilt over the past. There is no remedy to be granted, only a lesson to be learned.

17 November, 2005 19:41  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for your comment. I think we actually agree - or at least we come close. The "justice and equality" that various parties to such disputes claim to seek cannot be made on the basis of past claims. That the Natives (Iroquois) were not the original inhabitants of the land is no different than that the English and Dutch and French settlers were not. But descendents of the latter surely cannot claim free and clear title ont he basis of imagined consent. The geneaology of property rights is always suspect as a basis for making politicla or ethical claims.

17 November, 2005 20:34  

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