In October 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, he began the fierce destruction of a native people and the land they cultivated. A destruction that would stretch for centuries leaving a wake of chaos that has culminated in such a severe degradation of soils that the vitality—indeed the survival–of future generations is at risk.
When Columbus landed on the island on that fateful day, the peaceful native Arawak greeted him and the other sailors with a warmth and conviviality. To them, this was the natural greeting for other human beings. To Columbus and his men, it was the beginning of mass genocide, enslavement and a perversion of priorities so grossly focused on singular financial gain that countless human lives suffered and the ripple effects, to this day, cause a disdain for the land once honored and cultivated by the natives.
In the years following Columbus’ arrival, and his enslavement of and genocidal practices towards the natives, other European explorers engaged in equally atrocious conquest of native tribes living on the American continents. The unspeakably horrific behavior of the conquerors ravaged a people and land that, to this day, suffers because of it.
Once institutionalized as the United States Government, the atrocities against the natives became “authorized” with this authority granted by government officers to further destroy the lives, traditions and land of those who called these continents home prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
In the litany of barbaric abominations against the American Indians, the United States government repeatedly promised the people reprieve through treaties.
In the first such treaty, on September 17, 1778 the nation of the Delaware Native Americans signed a treaty with the then U.S. federal government for mutual support and aid and land use against the British during the revolutionary war. Prior, the British had tried to gain control of that region so they could claim the lands west of the Appalachians.
The treaty did not last long. In 1782, members of the Pennsylvania militia massacred 96 of the natives in the Gnadenhutten Massacre. This action firmly convinced the Delaware tribe to side with the British.
Years and many broken treaties later, on May 28, 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, prompting war or the exodus of natives in what was aptly later termed the “Trail of Tears,” as multitudes of native people were forced forever from the lands they stewarded and the only places they called home. Screams echo from the silent graves of those who walked to death, blood lining the trail of tears as mechanical footsteps systematically marched them to their graves. Thousands of tribe members from multiple nations died during this exodus, families were decimated and still others were left hopeless. There was no return trip home because there was no more home to return to. Each forced footstep away was an assault against their traditions. The empty expanse of Oklahoma sky reflected the vast holes left in their lives.
The removal of natives from southern acreage was necessary for the white European ”settlers” to take control of the rich soil for the wholly unsustainable practice of growing cotton, profitable only through the blood and submission of yet another race.
Remembering the genocide that occurred in tandem with the broken treaties is a painful reminder of the violence and brutal conquest that laid the foundation of governance in the “new world.” Sadly, the genocide was a necessary component for the land and water acquisition by people claiming to have authority over other people.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the reassignment of land from people stewarding and cultivating the land to an amorphous government where no one accepts responsibility for the atrocities committed against fellow human beings in the name of government.
Many times in the relatively short history of the United States, people in the Federal Government made promises to those whose lives they claimed to have authority over. And many times, they broke those promises by killing people or driving them off the land they loved. These broken promises have not stopped only changed so there is no longer one racial or religious target.
The natives who cultivated and cherished the land believed that we belonged to the land rather than the land belonging to us. They understood the importance of honoring the seasons, the cycles, and the soil. They knew that when the land is poisoned, it is gone for generations. Like the Native Nations, the small farmers of today know this as well.
Using the same claim of “authority,” we witness the government’s modern land seizure as farmers lose their land for the same reasons: centralized control of land, food and water.
Modern farmers are driven from the land they love through “law,” “regulations,” “enforcement,” “public safety,” and many other baseless excuses, so that the federal government can facilitate the transfer of land from small farms to corporate agriculture and other big-money real estate interests (like developers of condos and shopping malls).
This transfer of land to big-money interests was repayment to the politicians for all the special favors, contributions, and such handed out by the corporations. All of this, again, with history repeating itself, to prop up an unsustainable acquisition of financial gain.
A striking example of this is in Siskiyou County, CA where the Shasta Tribe’s treaty is ignored, their culture and customs are at risk and like the ranchers and farmers, together their agrarian way of life is being economically destroyed so that corporate America can profit from their combined local natural resources.
The same soft-genocidal tactics used against Native Americans the government is now using against post European settlers for water and food control. A Trail of Tears that knows not race, but only the control and conquering of all those whose lives and livelihoods come from the land.
As Russell Means stated “’Indian policy’ has now been brought down upon the American people, and the American people are the new Indians of the 21st Century.”
Other examples of farmers driven from their land are too many to list in total but a few are Linda and Larry Faillace, Vermont, Morningland Dairy, Missouri, Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm, California, Frank and Marjorie Meyers Farm, Ontario, Montana Jones, Ontario. These farmers all faced brutal government harassment culminating in government acquisition of their land, property or livestock.
These are a fraction of the cases spanning the US and Canada in only the past few years. The ongoing trend shows the same mentality that drove the natives from cultivating their spaces in favor of industrial growing.
Rather than respecting the cycles and needs of the land and honoring the people who understood those needs, the U.S. government has focused solely on land acquisition and financial gain. Similarly, as governments drive farmers from their homes and soil, contemporary land rapists replace them.
Corporate and biotech agriculture interests disregard the inherent value of human life, the quality of that life, and the soil that nourishes life. Today, land is abused until it can no longer support the people who rely on it—it is systematically destroyed until nothing can grow there, or until what is grown there, does not have the nutrients needed for human health.
In this modern land acquisition, to be sure, there is not the same extent of suffering that the native tribes went through. There is no current race-based genocide occurring. Rather, the burden is spread to us all.
The consequences stretch far greater than the apparent loss. The forced removal of American Indians and the current removal of peaceful farmers from their lands have far greater implications than the loss of another farm or the misuse of a small area of land. As we lose each farm to regulation or government control, each instance weakens a community’s ability to feed itself and we lose something of greater value than just one farm or the land it is on.
Those who cultivate the earth hold in their hands the foundation of life and hope for the future—the soil beneath our feet that lives for us and with us.
As we stand idly by without raising our voices in opposition when one farmer is chased from the land they love, the land they have cultivated for a lifetime, we lose community, vitality, resiliency and quality of life.
Change feels heavy, like a burden. But possibility is light, like the promise of a harvest. Beginning to take responsibility for the land, the water and those who nourish and cultivate it, is the greatest opportunity we have before us.
Embracing the value and rewards inherent in the system that sustains us gives us each the opportunity to transform something that destroys the earth into something that regenerates and restores our energy and honors the soil that gives us life.
Thus it is our opportunity, indeed our blessing, to get our own hands dirty, to once again revel in the stewardship of the land and in understanding the seasons and cycles.
We can produce our own food, even on a very small scale, enjoy the benefits of neighborhood sharing, and we can choose to source our food from the farmers who seek to restore the soils.
True victory is not in conquest but in the joy, love, abundance, appreciation and value of cultivation. These rewards can never come from conquest, but only from listening to the voice of the land and acting in compliance with that.
This article contains contributions from Gary Lake, past Councilman for the Karuk Tribe and Vice Chairman of the Shasta People, two tribes of Northern California and Oregon who are at war with each other over water and treaty issues.
Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.