Updated: May 20, 2022
What does watching the pain and resistance of Ukrainian civilians trigger for you? What do you remember? American memory, of course, is complex and complicated, but in this case, Putin’s war surely triggers different memories for different Americans
Ukrainian civilians say to us that they are not fleeing, because Ukraine is their home, their land. This is an indigenous argument, not available to those of us whose ancestors were colonists and settlers, but clearly available to Native Americans, who viewed the land as sacred, as I point out in A Climate of Justice.
The Westward expansion on other people’s land took off following the War of Independence. The Treaty of 1763 between the British and the French prevented colonists from moving westward beyond their colonial settlements and recognized the land between their settlements and the Mississippi river as ‘Indian Territory.” One result of the American Revolution, if not one of the causes, was to open this land to speculators and settlers.
The successful Haitian revolution against Napoleon’s army at the beginning of the 19th century led Napoleon to sell what became known as the “Louisiana Purchase” in 1803, opening the land from the Mississippi river to the border of ‘New Mexico.” The Mexican war of 1846-1848 completed our expansion “from sea to shining sea.”
Westward expansion also included the “Trail of Tears” from 1830 to 1850, the massacres of Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, and the displacement of many of the 500 tribes that inhabited the territory. Although I don’t know, I could imagine that American Indians have the experience to know what it’s like to be Ukrainian.
Those who attended school like mine know something about American history, but we learned about it as settlers, not as Natives. Our white memory, in other words, makes our past heroes look much more like Putin than like Zelensky. So, what do we do?
One option, of course, is to forget. Not to remember. Some Republican lawmakers have taken this option. “Let’s ban from school whatever makes our white children uncomfortable.” The other option is not simply the contrary. It’s more complicated. We are not Putin, but we have been. We have practiced genocide. We have killed civilians. If we are Americans, we must remember this. But we are more than our memory. The second option is to say that we have committed crimes against humanity. We know the suffering our nation has caused, and we will never do it again. We could say that instead of bringing suffering to others, we will protect them. We are “recovering imperialists.”
If truth be told, settler communities do not have the grounding relationship to the earth that Indigenous communities have, but we can learn from them. Frankly, I don’t know how we will get out of this mess, but it seems like a good idea to not block out American memories.