Home » Progress » Love » My Response To An Open Letter

My Response To An Open Letter

An hour or so ago I read and responded to an important point that was linked to on Twitter, made in the post, “An Open Letter to the Wall Street Activists.” That post was written by John Paul Montano, and his opinion can be read in its entirety at that link. Reading it first would clarify the response I had to it, which I share after the next paragraph.

I see much value in what Montano had to say, because history needs the voices of all its people to insure that it carries the truth. My readers will understand my dedication to the powers of empathy to heal us and show us the way to a better future together on this tiny planet, so I know you’ll understand why I wanted to repeat the comment I left at his post. Here it is:

I think the passage of centuries makes it difficult for your issues to be addressed to your satisfaction. As an African-American, I don’t live here because my ancestors came willingly to participate in what was done to your people. I’m not sure how you would want my people to word their query for permission, considering how upsetting it would be to add that insult onto our existing injury, but I still understand your point. I understand it more than you know.

Perhaps, more than the asking of permission, you might be better served at this date, with a public, all-encompassing acknowledgment of the grievous injustices that have been done to your people over these centuries. I believe you deserve an apology for it, and also thoughtful reparation, but I don’t think either of us should hold our breath for that kind of thing.

The reluctance the “powers that be” have in truthfully acknowledging the scope of the issues that have plagued my people in this country, along with their reluctance to discuss logical ways to make it right,  illustrates the kind of thinking that impedes the conversation you want to have. 

Unfortunately, human beings of countries all over the world have stolen lands from indigenous peoples. With so much history having passed, how could anyone ever say for sure who is the rightful “owner” of what place? In that one regard alone, yours are not the only people to have suffered greatly.

A last point to ponder: I wonder, who else could write something like this — someone whose past in this country is just as painful, but whose story we don’t know because we are each more familiar with our own, the ones our own ancestors lived?

——————————————————————————————————-

I wonder if my response had a bit of a knee jerk in it. I’m open to a respectful conversation about that and the original points Montano made. What are your thoughts on this?

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38 thoughts on “My Response To An Open Letter

  1. I read it and appreciated his thoughts, but ran into some of the same questions you did. My situation is different, though, since at first glance I am one of those hated land thieves – my history is full of immigrants, from my grandmother’s ancestors in 1780’s Virginia to the most recent arrival of my great-great-grandparents from Denmark, via Canada.

    The Virginia relatives, yeah … they probably fall in that category. But what about the others? What about my grandma’s great-grandpa Matthew Scott, who sold his share in the family brewery after he turned from the temptations of whiskey, and used the money to bring his wife and children to a more healthy life in Wisconsin? What about their neighbors on the next farm, her other great-grandparents, whose mixed-social-status marriage caused them to flee England and the prejudices against them? Should my great-grandma, the eventual product of these two families, have been made to return to the United Kingdom because of an indigenous tribe who once lived in Wisconsin?

    And what about me?! Should I go back to Denmark and insist on my tiny little percentage of the family farm, since my great-great-grandfather had it “stolen” from him by his relatives’ insistence on having more sons than would fit on one farm? I suspect they would say something about a) learning Danish and b) renting an apartment in town.

    My other main question with this has always been the issue of the enormous amount of land required for one indigenous tribe to maintain its way of life. Even if they were interested in completely abandoning their modern lifestyles and returning to the old ways, and if they could remove all of the cities in the Willamette Valley (where I live), would that be right? The world keeps continuing to have babies, and they have to live somewhere. At some point, should some sense of global consciousness demand that nomadic cultures (whose traditions require thousands of square miles which are left virtually empty most of the time) change and adjust to allow for the displaced sons and daughters of nations who have simply outgrown their direly crowded native lands?

    If not, we’re talking about population control on a massive scale, and I’m not sure any of us really want to go there.

    • Your reply is another example of why the people of the present can never right the wrongs of centuries past, to the satisfaction of those who have been wronged. As a world, we haven’t taken steps to get rid of the present day’s prejudices and injustice. I think a lot of good, and potential for truly understanding the past, would come from righting those problems first. Thanks for joining the discussion, Bee.

      • I think the phrase “those who have been wronged” is one that could use more attention. I’ve heard this, and used it myself, but now I wonder a little. I think back to my high school friend Danae, a highly intelligent, talented and beautiful young woman whose mother was white and whose father was black. He was a prominent equal-rights crusader in my hometown, and Danae was fully on board with this mindset – when people commented on her striking combination of cafe au lait skin and green eyes, she was happy to tell them that at some point, a white slaveowner had taken advantage of a black slave and passed those genes down through her black family history. She identified, proudly, as black.

        The thing is, had SHE actually been wronged? She lived the same middle-class life that I did. Her dad spoke about civil rights, mine preached on Sunday mornings about loving your neighbor. We were in the same symphony orchestra, and wore the same jeans and T-shirts to school. We both grew up and got married and went to college and had children. Wronged? I’m not sure. Her green eyes were part of a tragic legacy that is an embarrassment to our nation, but it is difficult for me to say “My friend was personally wronged and something should be done to fix that.”

        I think that if I went back to England and pitched a fit because of the strict insistence on socially acceptable marriages that brought my grandmother’s family here, they would be mildly amused but not particularly inclined to make reparations. If I was suffering prejudice and limited opportunities RIGHT NOW because of Great Britain’s class system, that would be one thing. But to yowl about how I should by all rights still be in England with all the rights and privileges that come with being a member of a family of minor nobility? I can’t really see that, somehow.

      • I see your point, Bee. I can’t speak for Danae, but I can see quite a few present day problems in my own neighborhood, and in my family, that have a definite link to a longer history and a consistent ignoring of opportunity. There’s a sad lack of knowledge sometimes that isn’t so much because folks refuse to see, but is more attributable to being taught not to see. It often looks and feels like a ptsd response that’s been handed down so many times that its origin is barely remembered. Toni Morrison has written about that sort of thing more than once. So many people deserve so much more. We can’t all get what we deserve, or even what we need, but just being heard can work little wonders.

  2. When I think about the situation I see that in the long run the problem is bigger than the concept of whose indigenous or the conflicts between ethnic backgrounds. No one should really be held responsible for what their ancestors did, but people should be responsible for what they do now. If you profited from some way your ancestors treated someone else inhumanely, maybe you should realized your huge duty, is to not treat others inhumanely and to continue profiting from the “wrong” doing.

    But unfortunately, it’s easy to continue a cycle of indifference toward others who suffer. We have survival tendencies that make us further the needs of our own descendants and not others. There’s no shame in a parent putting their children in the best schools but they don’t feel worried if someone else’s child might not have that luxury. Well maybe there are a few but the concern still usually stays localized within one’s community. And they want the community they live in to be strong. It’s hard to help everyone simultaneously. But at the same time you can still not actively impose yourself on someone else’s life and make their way of it worse.

    Everyone is so used to a class system that they aren’t really prepared for what the elimination of that system might mean. Apparently one of the wealthiest men in the world, Warren Buffet seems to feel a that his children shouldn’t just inherit all the wealth he made just because they are his descendants. But then again we give our genes to our children why not some money, some privileges, some head start in the world? But the question is how to do it without doing the complete opposite to someone else’s children.

    I watched this documentary called the “Human Family Tree” that basically traced everyone’s descendant back to Africa. Meaning that technically all of the indigenous people came from the same race and their physiological look changed based upon their climate and what would help them survive in the region they decided to live in. So that would actually seem to suggest, no one really has a natural claim to a land, because their ancestors were travelers from a different land once too. But the important thing about it is that it means humans came from the same family. And usually it’s customary for family to look out for one another. And it would be remarkable if humans could just do that.

    Okay I better get off of this soapbox before I get lightheaded.

    • “… the important thing about it is that it means humans came from the same family. And usually it’s customary for family to look out for one another. And it would be remarkable if humans could just do that.” Wow. That’s what it’s all about, and you said it so well. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, Angela. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Lady Sparks, you hit the nail right on the head with this one! We are part of one human family, and should be driven not by selfish inclination, but by our collective progress. By that, I am not reducing these very powerful comments to a singular image of us holding hands singing “Come by Here, My Lord” (Kumbayah); however, I find that focusing on righting some of our modern problems via an examination of the commonalities that define us all, as well as addressing the readily apparent social injustices and inequalities in a civil and yes, empathetic
        manner, is very feasible, despite our origins and/or how we got here.

        I appreciate this post, LadySparks. Also, thanks for directing me to the original article and comments. Very insightful dialogue.

    • Angela, you wrote: “But at the same time you can still not actively impose yourself on someone else’s life and make their way of it worse.” I think this is such a good differentiation here. It is easy to fall into a cultural version of survivor’s guilt, and think, “Wow, maybe I should sell my house and give the money to the homeless.” I know I’m not really going to do that (sorry, I’m just not THAT altruistic), but it can be an easy out, to put forth this ridiculously extreme response, and say “Well, of course we can’t all do that.”

      Maybe the better question is, “Am I making anyone’s way of life worse, and if I am, how can I change that?” I recycle and I’m listed as an organ donor and I donate to various charities, but I had never stopped to think if something I am doing is actually making someone’s life worse – that’s a thought-provoking question!

      Right now I am trying to make someone’s life better – a woman I am vaguely acquainted with (our daughters are friends through church) had the result of her past catch up with her, and is serving a 2.5-year prison term related to actions that were made possible by her substance abuse. Members of our church took her children in, rather than put them in the foster care system, and I took her cat. It’s a small thing, but it’s the sort of thing I want to do more of.

  3. I read it and had a similar response. I’m sorry if this response is a little rambling, as I’m just trying to organize my thoughts and bring understanding to a complex issue.

    In all my readings and interactions with indigenous people, most have them have emphasized the philosophy that nobody can own the land. NOBODY. So, if nobody can really own the land, then how do we regulate? How do we all live together peacefully. Because obviously we have moved too far in the direction of overpopulation to just say, here’s your land back.

    The history of all people has become complex, so much so that many of us don’t have a homeland. I know my ancestors did not have the same experiences as your ancestors, and my existence here is not as fraught with the weight of that history. At the same time, what land can I call home? As Jews, we were not considered citizens. We could not own property. So my ancestor’s came here. I struggle with this issue, because I do realize that we cannot move forward peacefully until we acknowledge the mistakes of our past, but at the same time we cannot turn back time to revert back to the way life once was.

    • I hear what you’re saying, Lisa. I remember the concept that nobody can own the land, that we are more stewards in service of it. I think it’s a better way for us all to think of the earth; it could keep the possessive feelings we have as humans at bay, but only if everyone espoused it. We can’t even get everyone to see that we are all equal no matter how we look or what our religion is, or what someone else has said about us in past. I pretty much feel as you do. Lots of questions, the impulse to do the right thing, and the knowledge that there’s no ‘one right thing’ that can right everyone’s wrongs or bring us all peace. Thanks for joining the disscussion.

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  5. I woke up this morning and found that my subscription to your blog had left me this thought-provoking post in my inbox :). As I read through it, along with the original blog to which you are responding, I could not help but think of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the indelible lesson it had taught me; a lesson that is always there in the recesses of my mind.

    I read through all of the comments on your blog and am reminded that many of us belong to an ancestral line that was either oppressed or oppressor. Either invader or invaded. Either slave or enslaver.

    And I am compelled to be mindful of the fact that we, as the children of our generation, may at some point in the future be looked back upon as having perpetuated similar transgressions or as the ‘victims’ of a similar wrong.

    The past has most definitely defined the present for all of us. But this debate makes me think the best and most important thing we can do as a generation is to ensure the future is the best future we, through our collective efforts, can define.

    • I know that’s what I want, Mark. I want us all to concentrate on what we can do to positively influence all our futures, our collective future. How do we make the Earth a peaceful and healthy place for everyone? I’m glad this post caught your eye. Thanks for visiting and adding to the conversation.

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  7. Ah Sparks,

    Can I just say that it amazes me how we are in synch although miles apart? 🙂 I had read this letter as my nightmare continues to unfold – I am becoming one of the thumb people lol. However, I thought your response to it was wonderful and dead on point. It is unfortunate but realistic. An acknowledgement will likely be helpful but no doubt that will not be enough. Reparation is just without doubt, who amongst is not longing for their 40 acres and a mule, but likely – NO. And what would be the repurcussions of that? Just imagine.

    I have begun following @nicolerabbit on Twitter who is a Native American Indian and most of her tweets are eye opening.

    What disturbs me the most, as an empathetic person, is the isolation, anger and pain of long festering wounds that many of us carry as a result of colonization. But that can’t be undone. I just hope we can move forward in a positive way that lessens those pains.

  8. Some of the toughest issues of all. Ownership of the land (different from ownership of pieces of it). The world is becoming more and more mixed. It seems inborn to humans to move elsewhere in the hope of different things, or just for different experiences.

    Possibly the most interesting now are the European rections to the huge ‘invasions’ of people from Africa and the middle-ish East. Now for a change it’s not the locals adapting to European culture but the other way around, and they are finding it not always easy.

    There is no way to ‘put everyone back in the box where they started’, but there are ways to learn more, to make life more equitable for all.

    Well done to the ‘Occupiers’ the revolution may really be beginning, as it started in Egypt and is spreading, where it will lead, no one knows; hopefully to a more humane world.

  9. I sometimes think I live in a cozy world, safe and secure with little threat. It is easy to become complacent. I am, after all, an accidental product of being born white,educated, healthy and English. None of this sits comfortably with my world view. I admit to being ashamed of the role that Britain played in shaping the 20th Century and, 10 years in to the 21st, our role is little improved thanks to the Bush/Blair Axis of Evil (I mean those two – not the Bush’s wierd view of the world). We lit the blue touch paper in the middle east with the Balfour Declaration. Cooked up a storm with Partition in India. Sat firmly on the fence as fascism stalked Spain. Crap leaders fuelled by self-interest.
    Western “Democracy” is set up to ensure that minority elites rule in self-interest. Systems within systems support the whole. Governments should apologise for the harm they have done and set about reparations to make for a better world.
    The oppression of indegenous peoples is unforgiveable in history and is a sleight on humanity today when advances in knowledge and technology tell us quite simply, we should know better.
    The call must be, therefore, if and when protest against greed, corruption, abuse of power, oppressions of peoples, is successful, that new leaders lead with a different mindset – a different unselfish way. I pray that the 21st century will see a new style of leadership across countries and nation peoples. One of cooperation and peace. It sounds naive, I know, but if we give up then we are lost. I am personally at a stage of manning the barricades again – of taking to the streets in the name of peace and rejection of greed.
    As I type this I’m reminded of a Doors song (http://youtu.be/0bAFITGnjrg) with the refrain…” They got the guns but we got the numbers…”……but I’m not advocating anarchy, I’m advocating strength in numbers in peaceful protest. Sooner or later the cause will be too big to ignore.

    • “… strength in numbers in peaceful protest.” Oh how I agree with what you’re saying, Alan. The cause will soon be too big to ignore. I hope it can stay peaceful once our outspoken numbers have swelled. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this.

  10. This is a tough subject. I’ve discussed something similar (in a much lighter vein) with a German friend who told me about how some snicker at Americans who travel to Germany because they are ‘German’ simply because their ancestors came from that country. My ancestors left Scotland because a law had been passed by the English that they could be killed without threat of being punished for murder (the English were desperate to get rid of troublemakers). Does that make me Scottish? I have the genetic markers, the red hair, etc. I can Scottish dance, I attend highland games, love bagpipes. But I’m not Scottish. I’m American. My ancestors may have come here unwillingly, and some willingly, but their decisions, and what happened to them, affect me only to the point that it is my history. While I value history, it is not who I am, at this point in my life. Should I sue England because they killed my ancestors? Should I hold England to blame for my history? Some would say yes. Should I hold England to blame for who I am? No.

    I have to wonder about time. How much time needs to pass before we are no longer our past? If I was second generation here, if my parents had been persecuted and kicked out of Scotland, I would hold England to blame. If the generation persecuted was my grandparents generation, I would probably still be somewhat angry and sympathize. As each generation moves further past the inciting incident, I think my anger would dissipate with time. And yet of course, I am speaking from a life that has not actively felt the consequences of that persecution. I recognize completely that there are people out there still actively suffering from the actions of the past. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking only about my history and my place on this soil as an American.

    Should I be persecuted and treated as an evil person because my ancestors did something to hurt others? Sorry, I’ve never believed in the sins of the father resting on the child. I am responsible for my actions. If my parents did something horrible to another I would feel horrible, would feel guilt, would feel anger, would want to make sure I never did the same thing. And would probably cut off all ties with my parents. But should I be held accountable for their actions? No. I am accountable for my actions. Again, I think it comes down to time. How could I be held accountable and blamed for something that happened a hundred years ago that I have no influence over?

    I live in the mountains. Near me are three places sacred to Native Americans. I respect those and avoid them, and don’t share those locations with anyone. I am accountable for my actions. I know better and I act accordingly and make sure my child learns the same. I am not my parents, my grandparents, or my great-grandparents other than holding genetic code. I am not their mistakes.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I think you’ve helped bring the things Bee and others were saying into sharper focus for me. I can see how this is actually very close to what I was feeling when I read the original article. When indigenous peoples who have been wronged, and people with histories like mine, bring up the past, I hope we can talk about it without blaming people who couldn’t possibly have had a hand in it. I hope we can talk about it without asking for/demanding things that people in the present have no power to supply without taking severe and unfair responsiblity for their ancestors original wrong.

      I’ve always hoped for a broader focus. We are all human beings. Why can’t we work together to make sure we don’t wander around with blinders on while humans in our own time, on our present earth, repeat atrocities of the past in all the new ways that the present affords? Because so much that we enjoy of life is predicated on so much misery (and so many of those miseries are still reverberating through so many communities) I want us to publicly remember and show a respect that signals the desire to never let these cruelties happen again – to my people, your people, anyone’s people. I always hope that no matter how hurt we are, we can make this our current and future focus when we bring up the past.

  11. I’ve enjoyed this conversation and have little to add other than to express my hope that some of the passion and wisdom with which we speak of past events translates as well to the injustices of today.

    Excellent post, Re.

  12. Ré, I love your thoughtfulness and empathy as always. You’ve sparked a great conversation here. 🙂 I never know what to think when the past and present and so many offenses rub up against each other in this way. Everything is so complicated… my ancestors were certainly wronged by others, but they undoubtedly caused suffering as well. Do I side with the Chinese who were attacked and burned in their homes by white miners, in 1885 Wyoming? Or do I remember that I come from well-to-do families in China, which means my own ancestors may have been those who ate well and slept warmly while others starved outside their doors? Why must it always be one or the other? All life exists at the expense of other life. That fact is no less true because I hate it. We all suffer. We are all complicit.

    I think that’s why I’m an artist, not an activist, though sometimes I wish for the kind of moral certainty that I think drives a lot of activists. We writers, especially, often come to this calling with the knack (and the desire) to see many perspectives. When I read something like this open letter, I hear what the writer is saying and I feel it through my being — yet I also get a knee jerk, like you did, because I know there are other truths that could stand beside this one with equal right. The best I feel I can do is to make sure as many as possible of our voices are heard, because I’m convinced that from our multiplicity will ultimately come communication, friendship, and peace. Even though I’m a writer, I shy away from writing on subjects like these, because I never know what to say. You’re braver, or perhaps more compassionate, than I am because you make the attempt. Thank you. ❤

    • Thanks for this, Lisa. You said so much so well, and I’m grateful for the part that helps me understand why I feel so much more comfortable with whatever I write as an artist than I do with articles like this. Your words brought that into better focus for me.

      And I know I’m not more brave or compassionate than you are. It’s just that at this time in my life, after so much stifling quiet, I often get a knee jerk impulse to “do it” fast before I think about “it.” I squished my eyes shut and almost cried, but I pushed publish before I could talk myself out of it. I feel so much more comfortable when I’m writing “fiction.”

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Friend.

  13. Ré, I have to agree with what Lisa said above; you are very brave to bring up a subject that has the potential to raise strong emotions in people. And not only where you brave to bring it up you were even braver to solicit comments! Everyone here has so many points that I want to take time to ponder, but the one that strikes the strongest chord with me is that we hope past mistakes don’t happen again. Sometimes it feels like those of us who don’t want those atrocities repeated are a minority in this world, but I can hope that the voice of that minority will be like that little mouse that roared.

  14. (This comment isn’t mine; it’s from Barbarann Ayers at Make Mine Memoir.)

    We have “spoken” before, Re, and as I have read your inciteful response to John Paul Montano, I see no place at your blog to respond to your response. So it’s here, where I’m sure it doesn’t belong, and you don’t have to leave it here. Colonialism is a far larger subject than recognized by most responders to John Paul’s letter, and our government currently has an agenda deeply alarming. Its interest is hardly in the plight of any people nations feeling displaced. No, it is something far more sinister to be executed while the likes of us are looking elsewhere.

    Having been to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Israel, it is hard for me to see that any other nation in history has been so persecuted as Jews just because they exist, with every implementation designed to purge them from the whole world. Having said that, it does not minimize what has happened to Native Americans nor to African Americans and the subject up for discussion is a worthy one. But I DID read every single one of the comments at that site and come away with a sense of subjectivity and not objectivity. There is no part of the planet that has not been conquered by some people group and claimed as theirs by domination or capture. I am missing that knowledge there at the discussion. What is hinted at can be seen in Apartheid where what is seen as confiscated lands was returned to native Africans unequipped to maintain what they received. That was stupid and guaranteed to fail. Walking away helped no one. The recovery period and rebuilding should have been done side by side. What I’m saying is that the answers to these wrongs are not easy and certainly not simple. As someone posed, I was born here. What in the world would be reasonable for me to do? Move? Where? I don’t even think that is the expectation of wronged peoples. The dialogue needs to be lifted way, way up, with a determination to seek some level of understanding of what is means to be white, or black, or red, or yellow. There was a time this nation was proud to be called a melting pot, where we all contributed to the delectable stew. Now we concentrate on maintaining difference. Okay, but realize what that breeds. What do we have in common that I care about, you and I? We’re women, writers, achievers, unique individualists who think. My heritage is Scottish and German married to a man with a Welsh/English heritage. And so what? His people arrived here fleeing from religious percution in 1650. Mine arrived here from the Pilatinate in 1710. We are Americans. No one now worries about the banishment of Scots to Ireland because they wore kilts. Putting it simply, my soup is richer because you’re in it. But so am I. Can we stir this pot together, can we add native Americans? Hispanics? Jews? Guatemalans? Muslims? GREAT soup! Why does it have to be more complicated than that? Dwelling on a past that cannot be corrected is an exercise in futility. We need to move on TOGETHER. We have a nation to save.

  15. Wow, 36 responses. Sorry I’m late to this interesting conversation. I cannot speak for any Indigenous folk; however one of my best friends (I’m also on her Board of Directors for a wildlife rehab center) as an Apache woman, has suffered continual exploitation by the government, and oppression of her family. In light of the very serious environmental damage done by these corporations being protested, I think it would be in our best interest to allow Native Americans to herein decide which resources are allocated and to whom. Of course that will never happen, but we ignore native knowledge at our peril.

    I’m not really a “we’re all the same” kind of person. America is wonderful as a melting pot. However, having had the privellege of attending drumming ceremonies, I would hate to see people lose their ancestry and rob us of diversity just because Americans are so overly sensitive about children pointing out a beautiful Muslim veil (don’t point, honey, and don’t ask the woman what it’s all about – we’re all the same) and I don’t think that learning about other cultures is at all the same as racism. I’d be in favor of people asserting their individual beliefs and forcing us to compromise in order to get out of the grips of special interests and the 1 percent.

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts to this conversation, Emmy.

      I, too, hope we can all get together and come up with a thoughtful compromise that benefits everyone and is based in our commonalities as human beings, while honoring the wonderful differences and special knowledge, inherent in each culture.

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