Yesterday’s Thanksgiving celebration was accompanied by a fair bit of commentary about how the November holiday is a “day of indigenous mourning,” a symbol of the theft of the United States from its pre-Columbian population. Yet as I wrote in 2011 in the Schools for Misrule chapter on Indian land claims, the historical premise that Indian land in the U.S. was by and large stolen by the white man is false:
In 2005 a young UCLA law professor, Stuart Banner, published How the Indians Lost Their Land, an extensively researched work that does much to correct the portrayal of white-Indian relations as a mere catalog of thefts, conquests, and usurpations. As Banner demonstrates, the actions and attitudes of white Americans and their institutions have shown a full range of shadow and light, from extreme wickedness and ignorance to as much grace, goodwill, and foresight as could have been expected under the circumstances. Tracing the many twists and reverses of federal Indian policy, Banner notes that it was usually anything but obvious which proposed measures would truly serve the interests of aboriginal inhabitants, that nearly all major changes in policy enjoyed support among some Indians and Indian-friendly white reformers, and that most of the major disasters to afflict America’s Indian population were either unforeseen or not well controllable by the central government.
I also quote the leading 20th Century scholar of Indian law, Felix S. Cohen, architect of the “Indian New Deal” and one of the most progressive law professors and FDR appointees of his era:
Fortunately for the security of American real estate titles, the business of securing cessions of Indian titles has been, on the whole, conscientiously pursued by the Federal Government, as long as there has been a Federal Government. The notion that America was stolen from the Indians is one of the myths by which we Americans are prone to hide our real virtues and make our idealism look as hard-boiled as possible. We are probably the one great nation in the world that has consistently sought to deal with an aboriginal population on fair and equitable terms. We have not always succeeded in this effort but our deviations have not been typical.
It is, in fact, difficult to understand the decisions on Indian title or to appreciate their scope and their limitations if one views the history of American land settlement as a history of wholesale robbery.