My focus in this series, Whose Land Is It, Anyway, is Israel and Palestine. However, I do not come to this concern as a blank slate. I have history, we all have history, some of which does not directly involve this holy and sacred land in the Middle East.
For me, there is other holy land, too–as a citizen of the United States, there is the land comprising the 50 states. For people in other nations, they may well consider the land of their nation holy.
In fact, all land is holy, part of the divine Creation of which each of us is a part. Without the land of the earth to stand on we would not be.
The native people European explorers and settlers encountered in the Americas knew this truth in a deep and powerful way; it was a core belief on which they all lived. In fact, they rejected the idea than anyone could own land to the exclusion of others. The land belongs to all.
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit (leader of the Wampanoag in what is now Rhode Island; despite this quotation, he did sell land to the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony to keep the peace)
Against this vision of common wealth, resources shared for the good of all, immigrants from other places arrived, many of them wanting to create a new life very different from their former ones, including the real possibility that they could finally own land on which to live and even work. No longer would only a few rich, often titled, persons own land, but everyone, or at least many, could own land, too.
There were inevitable clashes, the newcomers wanting what the natives already had, namely land, and the natives sensing a threat to their ability to continue to live in traditional ways. And as the numbers of immigrants swelled, so did the demand for the land.
What began on the east seaboard became inevitably a push all the way to the west coast, from Atlantic to Pacific. In between were many battles, even real wars, between the increasingly dominant power of the U.S. Government and a land-voracious society on the one side and increasingly desperate native tribes and leaders on the other.
Manifest Destiny, the belief that not only could the United States conquer the entirety of land between the coasts but also was called to do so by divine Providence, became the rallying cry. This nation was understood to be ordained to take possession of all it could see between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Land became the commodity and the native people who sat on it became the victims of an overwhelming power, forced to retreat on to reservations where they were told they could keep their native customs (of course, it is not easy to be a hunting and gathering people without large expanses of land). Most of the time, the promises made to the natives were not kept, certainly when those promises got in the way of settlers claiming the land they wanted.
Today, Native Americans struggle to retain their identity, some still living on reservations and others integrating more into the wider society.
And the land? It is still here, more polluted in many cases, and much of it far more densely populated (as well as much still open space) and all of it is “owned” by someone–according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Report in 2007, about 60 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned. The Federal Government owns 29 percent of the land base, mostly in the West. State and local governments own nearly 9 percent, and Indian trust land accounts for about 2 percent.
The natives never claimed to own it, but they did claim to live on it and from it. Many no longer live on reservations and are part of the majority society (even as many of them retain identities as native peoples). But the part on which they can live in community more as their ancient teachings guide them is very small.
Whose land is it, then?
The answer seems simple: those who control access to the land own the land.
And yet rarely, if ever, was a full and fair price paid to the natives. They may not have wanted to sell, but perhaps we could claim some moral high ground if we finally paid what we said it was worth.
I leave this very simple version of the story at this point, inviting the reader to reflect on the value of land and people, and how we are called to live in peace with all.
How can we find peace standing on holy, yet so often bloodied, ground?