Stealing Land From the Indians: Does Might Make Right?

I was recently going through some old essays of mine and found this one from 2002, written two years before I had a website.  I forgot that I even wrote it.  I didn’t expect to like it much, but instead found the opposite:  I really liked it.  It expresses some concepts that I didn’t even realize I was thinking about at that time, and in some ways I find that they may even be more advanced than that which I think about now.  Also, at the end of the essay I will discuss a couple of points this essay brought up for me.  But for now I’ll leave the essay to you…

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I grew up in Upstate New York on what was once Cayuga Indian land.  To me it is the most beautiful country in the world:  rolling hills, crisp, cold streams, cascading waterfalls, towering oaks and maples, white-tailed deer and great-horned owls, fossil trilobites and brachiopods and crinoid flowers bursting from under the layers of sedimentary shale, and rarely, if you’re either very lucky, very persistent, or very observant, arrowheads.  In all my years of roaming the woods, I found but two.  The first was a perfect specimen, two inches long and brilliantly crafted.  I discovered it halfway up the nearly vertical cliff face of an eighty-foot gorge, partially exposed to the elements from the dirt of a narrow rock ledge that apparently no one but me had used for a climbing handhold in hundreds of years.  How it got there was anyone’s guess.  I was seventeen when I found it.

my arrowhead_small

The Cayuga arrowhead I found in 1989.

Holding the arrowhead in my hand, I felt overcome by connection with a people I had so often envisioned.  Many times I had fantasized myself as their descendant, if not genetically then spiritually.  But the genetic descendants of the Cayuga live on a reservation at the north end of Cayuga Lake, the same lake on which my family’s land borders.  The Cayuga, one of the six nations of the Iroquois, had lived on this land for countless generations, through the mid-1700s.  Then came General George Washington, who, along with his troops, cannons, and guns, began clearing out, in his words, these “wolves doomed to extinction.”  He kindly offered them two options – move to Canada or die.  Most chose the former.  Some years later, however, the Cayuga petitioned the United States government for the return of their ancestral land and in time won a typical compromise:  some tiny fractional percentage of their land, in fact, perhaps the worst of it, a tract of questionably uninhabitable swampland on the northern edge of the lake.  So there they moved, and have remained ever since, utterly removed from my life.  And honestly, while I’m not proud of this outcome, I’m not complaining.  I have no desire to give my land back.  It is now my heritage.  And for the time being, with might on my side, I needn’t worry.

And yet I struggle with the deeper significance of whether might makes right.  While I have difficulty accepting the justification of Israelis taking over the land and homes of Palestinians, I do not find a fox unjustified in killing a rabbit family and making their hole its den.  To me this begs the question of what defines right and wrong – or better yet, questions the validity of right and wrong as concepts.  To me, right and wrong are limited concepts, temporary in scope, always relative, necessarily subjective.  And while our social laws list wrongs without compunction and pass down commandments replete with punishment for violations, natural law does not even scoff at our attempts to order our world and give it meaning; natural law accepts all; it encompasses us, as a river shrugs equally to accept both raindrops and toxic waste.

And while on one level I see the place of natural law, I, as a feeling, time-limited human being, cannot help but fail at keeping it as my compass.  Time and again I lose my perspective on the galaxy beyond me, the moon above me, even the simple trees shadowing my head, and I return to the social laws of sentient human beings for my guide.  I do not avoid killing needlessly because nature deems it wrong, but because my heart holds me back.  I cannot stay connected with my own vital life force and at the same time rob other creatures of their potential to connect with theirs.  Only the spiritually dead find the power in their hands to murder, that is, to take the life of another who poses no direct physical or spiritual threat to them.  He who murders does little more than symbolically and externally manifest the attempted murder that was spiritually committed on him by his own parents.  He kills not to defend his connection with his spiritual self but to protect himself from awareness and feeling of his own massacred inner self.  With every corpse that he creates he builds a wall that much thicker between his conscious self and his true and radiant inner core.  Murder is like addiction turned outward.  And yet, it is an odd irony of natural law that while General Washington was a murderer, I, a soul striving for further spiritual connection, have come to feast on the fruits of his labors.  The lands he freed up for my family’s eventual purchasing provided me my acres for solitude and exploration.

Clearly evolution is complex.  It happens on many levels.  The arrowheads of five hundred years past and the fossils of fifty million years ago remind me of its greater scope, but the evolution that touches me most greatly happens on the internal level, the psychological level, the spiritual level.  The rare soul lives not in centuries, experiences change not in generations, waits not for tomorrow or next year, pleads not with the government or with God for his salvation.  He lives now, breathes now, is aware of now, studies himself now, relates to others now.  He avoids actions which will needlessly hurt others not just out of love for others but out of connection with others, rising from connection with himself.  Their spiritual blood is his spiritual blood, and its shedding stains his soul.  For the rare soul, might does not make right.  For the rare soul connection with his deepest essence makes him whole.

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Two thoughts from 2013 regarding this essay:

1)  I wrote about my family’s land in Upstate New York as my own.  I wrote that essay eleven years ago.  At the time of writing I must have been in a period of having more contact with my parents.  Now I have no contact with them, and haven’t for a few years, so my sense of “ownership” of that land is basically gone.  It has been painful for me to let it go, especially since I had such a powerful connection with it as a child, and also because my parents always told me it was mine, but the fact remains:  it isn’t mine, and I might never see it again.  It is theirs.  I find that rather ironic in light of this essay.  Considering the laws of the land, might makes right; they own it.  I don’t.

2) I love that I wrote about natural law versus human law here.  I rarely address that subject anymore.  Mostly now I just wrote about human law as if it were natural law.  But there really is a difference.  And I think I spell it out well here.  And I’m curious what others think about this.

2 thoughts on “Stealing Land From the Indians: Does Might Make Right?

  1. If you dont own it, becouse you recognized that your parents just told you so, then maybe they dont own it neither. Maybe they were just as propagandize by their ancestors as you were? I dont understand why they are victims and your ancestors were just perpetrators. You found arrowheads. They dont use them just for hunting, but conquering other tribes also. Maybe their history was as complicated as new arrivals. Some of their ancestors fought for it and they inherit it. Or some people just homestead some land, just as some indians? I heard that before white people arrived from Europe, there was massive extinction due to some plague, and 90 % of Indians were wiped out. So there need to be massive amount of free land on the continent. Just my few thoughts. Thanks for yours!

  2. To me the essay reminds me of the current debates in radical circles around, “White privilege.”

    White privilege often gets mixed up with White Guilt, and that does no one any good.

    You had a privileged childhood because you were bought up on land that was stolen.

    You walked away from that family because you did not want to suffer the abuses of power that you suffered within it.

    Radicals often ignore, or are not aware of, the abuse of power that is so common in our families and our everyday life. The first abuse of power most of us, probably all of us experience, is as children from our parents.

    Radicals are acutely aware of the abuse of power yet so often fail to see it in their own lives.

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