On this particular day I find myself reflecting on what it means to be the descendant of colonisers.
My ancestors came from England, Norway, Denmark, and Wales. The first American to bear my name, my great (times nine) grandfather William Washbourne, fled the English Civil War and settled in Connecticut in 1639. I don’t know if he himself took the land (two sizeable farms) from the natives or if he purchased land already conquered, but the fact remains my family found their first toehold on this continent on stolen native land.
Fast forward two hundred years and Daniel Abraham Washburn is travelling with the Mormon pioneers to Utah. Salt Lake City was founded on land that was only seasonally inhabited, but land that the Utes and Shoshones both ranged on. Land that became unavailable for them to use because the Mormons built a city on it, and excluded natives from that city.
Brigham Young despatched Daniel Abraham among others to settle Southern Utah, on land belonging to the Paiutes. His son, Abraham Daniel, went to modern day San Juan County and plopped a farm down on land historically grazed by Navajo flocks. Again, I do not know if my ancestors used guns to take it, but the fact is they settled on land that did not belong to them, and gave no recompense to the people who inhabited that land before.
My great-grandfather, Alvin Lavell, was living in Blanding when the Posey War (also called the Bluff War) broke out in 1915. It was one of the last armed conflicts between Native Americans and the Federal Government. He didn’t have any part in that, so far as I know, but he was a white man on native land, that only 104 years ago was still being taken at gunpoint. Some 150 native bands living in San Juan County, Paiutes, Goshutes, and Navajos were rounded up and deported to the Ute Mountain Reservation during the war. 4,000 people, taken away from their homes and sent to a glorified concentration camp, their land divvied out to white ranchers and miners.
I was born in Salt Lake City in 1994. I spent a lot of my childhood in San Juan county, wondering why the Navajos in Blanding seemed so much worse off than the whites, ignorant of the historical forces that caused them to live in squalor amidst better-off settlers.
Utah is my home, and I love the mountains, red rock canyons, and arches as only a woman born there can. It’s my native soil. I love England and imagine I’d love Norway and Denmark, but the fact remains that I am not English or Norwegian or Danish- I’m an American. I was born here, my family has lived here for nearly 400 years. But we are still settlers, and for three hundred years we were the direct beneficiaries of land seized from native peoples by force.
How can I come to terms with the fact that my birth in Utah, my home, was the byproduct of imperialism and genocide? I didn’t chose it. The forces of history that had my European ass being born on stolen land were obviously not within my power. How to make restitution to the people who’ve lived on the land that I love as my own for so much longer than my people have? How can I make amends while still being happy to have been born amidst the grandeur of the Wasatch Mountains?
All of us white folk can’t go back to Europe. I’m fairly sure the E.U. doesn’t want some 180 million fractious gun-owners trying to resettle in the lands to which we are indigenous. But what is the solution? How can we heal the wound that our ancestors inflicted on theirs? I’m not asking to be trite or glib, I ask because I see how grievous the injustice that my ancestors inflicted on the indigenous people of the Americas was. I ask because I see how people with my skin colour still oppress, mistreat, and misunderstand the indigenous people who’ve survived our genocide. I ask because as a Christian woman I believe that we must confess and atone for our sins, and seek reconciliation and justice. How can we have that justice, knowing that it is impractical and impossible to turn back the clock, for all of us with Caucasian blood to just up and leave? How can we move forward, and try to mitigate the damage done, to make restitution without restoring a past that is forever lost?
I don’t know. But I’ll keep asking the question. Keep seeking out ways to be an ally and advocate for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I understand that I will never fully understand the immensity of their grief, I understand that my white skin and European culture advantages me in this country and likely will continue to do so for years and years to come, and I understand that I am the unwitting beneficiary of one of the greatest crimes in history. With that understanding, I hope I can do my part to redeem my family name, to set myself right with the God of Compassion, and to set myself right with the infinite capacity of humanity to seek justice.