When my home city of Minneapolis decided to officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day a tangled mess of opinions descended upon every dinner party and Facebook newsfeed.
And even as I celebrated the name change. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more of symbolic victory than the actual righting of a wrong.
The first time I heard about Indigenous People trying to reclaim their land I was canoeing down a river near my suburban home. “They’re putting together a lawsuit to get this land back,” my dad said as we paddled by at the beautiful oak trees dotted with suburban homes.
“Us? Like our family?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, not just our family. Everyone in town.”
It wasn’t a big secret that our town was built on Native land. The town library was literally built on Indian Mound Street East. There was no doubt that the land had been stolen, but it seemed odd to sue my family for that.
“Isn’t there a statute of limitations on land stealing?” I asked.
“That’s what the courts have to decide.” My dad sighed. When he said “courts,” I imagined a room full of white people with formerly Native American addresses on their licenses.
Years later, I was on the other side of the world deep in the Kenyan desert explaining this story to a group of Indigenous nomadic elders from the Pokot Tribe. We were seated on a hilltop overlooking a thousand acres of land. Land the British colonialist had stolen from their tribe 150 years prior.
These Pokot nomads were not desert people by choice.
Generations ago white men had come to their ancestral lands. The endless chain of rainy and dry seasons was interrupted by foreign guns, gas-powered engines, and a laundry list of European rules. Throughout the 1800s, British surveyors drove into village homesteads looking for fertile land, minerals, or anything else they deemed valuable. And once they found it, they returned a few weeks later with a troop of soldiers and constructed a red brick building. The British flag was raised and the land was declared part of the new British colony of Kenya. And their ancestors were in no place to negotiate.
The khaki-covered officer explained to the village elders that they could only remain on the land if they agreed to produce goods and services for the British as a “tax.” This took a bit of explaining because the elders had never heard of taxes and were altogether unfamiliar with the concept of money. And when the elders asked the British officers how they had negotiated the rights to their land from God, their answer came in the form of a firing squad.
But the nomadic people’s refused to pay the British tax. “We can graze anywhere,” the Pokot elders said in their meetings with the British officers. So they walked north, leaving behind the graves of their ancestors, and the original mountain of their God, Mount Elgon.
They walked north in search of new grazing land, built new huts, and buried the next generation on new hills. But after a few rainy seasons, the British came for those hills too, pushing the nomads farther and farther north, until the Pokot built their huts on the very edge of the desert, grazing their cows on the farthest mountain overlooking the desert’s broken earth. The valleys below were dotted with thorns and seasonal rivers, but finally the British came for the farthest mountain and the Pokot were exiled to the desert.
The British renamed the desert “Northern Rift Valley” and declared it a “Wildlife Refuge.” They sold tickets to European tourists to see the elephants, lions, zebras, and, if they were lucky, a nomad in their “traditional” habitat.
Life in the desert was hard, much harder than life had ever been: long walks down thorny paths, drinking muddy water from seasonal rivers, their cows grazing on patches of brown grass. And after the first long hard dry season, the cows were already showing their ribs, as were their owners. However, hunger and thirst weren’t the only problems facing the Pokot. They soon learned they were not the only tribe forced off their ancestral lands.
The British in the newly founded territory of Uganda had forced the nomadic Karamoja tribe off their lands as well. And in central Kenya the Turkana tribe had recently been relocated into this very same desert. By the early 1900s, three tribes were living nearly on top of each other. Thousands of nomadic people became entrenched in an endless war fought with spears and arrows. Generations of men killing each other over the table scraps of the now colonized East Africa.
And as I recounted the story of the Native Americans putting together a class action lawsuit to the elders one elder stood up his narrowed on me. I waited, wondering whose side he was going to take.
“In 1963 when the British left Kenya, they gave all the land to the new Kenyan government. And our politicians divided all of Kenya between the tribes. But the problem was that there were no Pokot or Karamoja leaders to represent us there. So the politicians gave our land to other tribes. In fact even most of the farmers in town are not Pokot, they are from other tribes. And they bought the land with their money. So it seems a bit unfair to take it from these humble farmers who have been living there for some fifty years now.”
“It’s a huge mess,” the elder shook his head. “We have to send our kids have to school, so they can buy back their land or build a new city in the desert or some other solution we haven’t thought of yet.” He grinned. “But the Native people suing for their land back is a creative idea, by the way.”
I looked out at the valley full of farmers. Farmer’s who bought and paid for stolen land. Just like my family had.
“It’s a huge mess.” I nodded.
This conversation comes back to me every Indigenous People’s Day. The word’s “Its a huge mess.” bouncing between my ears.
Today, I hope we begin the long and messy conversations about actually righting the wrongs. To me, it makes sense to change Columbus Day.
But what about all the Indian Mound Street East’s sprinkled across the globe? Does changing the name to Oak Street East bring us closer or farther away from un-stealing Indigenous Land?
Because the deeper question we need to be asking is, “How do we fix this mess?”
This story is an excerpt from Poor Millionaires: The Village Boy Who Walked to the Western World and the American Boy Who Followed Him Home by Nathan Roberts and Michael Kimpur who together Co-Founded Daylight School in Kenya.