I had just had a conversation with two authors about Black and Indigenous struggle for place and position in these colonial countries we live in, and one of them brought out what I had thought was a tired trope. It is one that I had previously believed, but have since come to understand is just a vestige of how our movements and actions are stripped for parts and repackaged in a more congenial parcel for export. The idea is that the Civil Rights movement was about seeking place within the settler colonial state and, in that way, erasing and enacting violence on Indigenous people.

Now it is true that every equity seeking group regardless of how they came to be violently pushed to the margins needs to decide who they will be, but it is wrongheaded and patently anti-Black to make broad accusations about the civil rights movement and how Black people let down those others who had adopted their strategies. If the goals and strategies failed you, it is because you adopted that stripped down and repackaged version and the blame for that can be laid squarely on the settler colonial machine. The National Indian Brotherhood, an organization of Indian activists in Canada, was similarly stripped down and repackaged as the Assembly of First Nations. This is something that happens again and again to most movements, they get co-opted and repurposed and somehow many of those involved acquiece to a kinder more inclusive settler colonialism.

So it was hot on the heels of this conversation that I picked up Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition by Katherine Franke. And I was hopeful, it sounded, promising.

It is not. It is an argument for a more inclusive settler colonialism endorsed by Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor and Robin G Kelly, which was really disappointing.

It is 147 pages long and in a discussion about land loss, relationship to land, and reparations/restoration of land it took until page 123 to mention Native Americans. And that discussion about the allotment process, rather than focusing on the massive loss of land suffered by the people who had been forcibly moved from the eastern US (the setting of most of the book) it considers it as a site of possibility, a good idea gone wrong.  Of what could have been had the US similarly alloted lands seized from Confederates. It wasn’t a bad idea, just badly executed.

This portion contains statements like “federal policymakers were realistic about what it might mean to place land titles in the hands of Native people who had never owned land before” and “the government took steps to protect Native Americans ‘from their own improvidence.’” Allotment was understood by the state as a tool to civilize Native Americans that was then denied to the formerly enslaved.  She allows that Native Americans lost a lot of reservation land and that they were not provided the tools necessary to farm but the 5 pages allotted to allotment read like a missed opportunity rather than a colonial tool that worked in service of dispossession.


Allotment was devastating. It came two generations after the ethnic cleansing of the eastern seaboard which had culminated in multiple trails of tears during the 1830s. It took millions of acres known as Indian Country, land promised to those who survived these forced marches as well as those who already lived there (because the land they were moved to was not empty after all) for as long as the grass grows blah blah blah and divided it into a checkerboard so that white settlers could get their hands on it. It was a massive land redistribution project whose sole intention was to eliminate Indigenous title to land and assimilate us into the colonial state. It took another act of Congress to staunch the bleeding but the damage was done and more relocations would follow, incentives for Native people to leave the reserve and go to the city further depleting our communities and severing us from land.

But she talks about it as if through allotment the land was something being given to us rather than something being stolen from us. If it could be given to Indians, why couldn’t it be given to the formerly enslaved. She writes as if the colonial state had the right. Which they didn’t. And don’t.

Franke’s discussion of it is painful to read, not painful like the book I discussed last week, Clearing the Plains, painful like the physical sensation of being stripped for parts and repackaged.

The earlier part of the book is set in the coastal islands of the Gullah Geechee people and discusses their maintenance of their unique language and culture, their refusal of various attempts at relocation. The harms done during and after slavery are real but there is no mention of the Mvskoke Creek or others who had lived there before. They had had been slaughtered and the survivors marched hundreds of miles so that these plantations could exist. These are parallel processes, this movement of people across water and land in service to colonial needs, these promises of land that are then stripped away. Every time we, Black and Indigenous and Black Indigenous, people make home the state finds a way to take it from us and to take us from each other.

Reparations are necessary. That is true, and Franke makes a compelling case for treating the more than a trillion of dollars in generational wealth that currently exists as a trust or a resource for reparations and redistribution. These are moneys that could be invested in Black communities and arguably benefit the country as a whole. But how do you have this conversation without considering the land that generated all that wealth and the Indigenous people from whom it was taken? Where do we fit into this reparation plan?

We don’t. Not in Franke’s framework. Not even when she is talking about reparations and land restoration in Rwanda and Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa. Those acts of land redistribution were directed towards the people who are primarily Indigenous to the lands where colonists drew borders that suited them and took the land for themselves. There is no recognition that in those countries these are Indigenous peoples who are directing and receiving redistributed wealth and land, flawed as these plans are.

Decolonization is not a metaphor. This is the title of an essay by Tuck and Yang and one that I have cited before. The land needs to be given back.  Anything less is just settler colonialism, and settler colonialism is nothing if not malleable and willing to expand itself so long as those at the top get to keep what they kill. The abstract notes that settler colonialism is an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave. Any discussion that does not recognize this triad, and this book does not, is going to be problematic.

The Gullah Geechee people live with the ghosts of the Mvskoke Creek and others. They did not enact the displacement, but they inherited the land that resulted from it. They worked on that land, lived and died on it, and have relationship to it that I am certainly not going to deny or attempt to sever, but the land remembers those who came before. Those who emerged as peoples in that place and were brutally torn from it and those who are descended from others who were similarly torn from the land of their ancestors should find common thread and purpose.  There is nothing redemptive about an abolition built on stolen land.

Land Back is a reconfiguring of our relationship to land and each other. It is not just a transfer of ownership, a balancing of the books so that it’s all fair now and we all have our piece alloted by what, percentage of population? In Canada we’re about 6% of the population and even that would be more than we’ve got now but no, that is not what Land Back is. Land back is full restoration of land to old ways of living and knowing and being in relationship with this place and the guidance for that must come from those who lived here first. Those who greeted the colonists and offered them a way to live together and were instead slaughtered in one of many genocides that persists to this day.

I was also disappointed that Franke did not position herself as a settler until much later in the book. It is increasingly common for authors to position themselves in early pages. That provides context for the book, helps readers to understand the story that is being told. I assumed that the author was Black, given the subject matter, and was surprised when she said “white settlers like me.”  Not to say that Franke suggests or alludes to being Black, she never does, the assumption is fully on me. But that is why authors are including their social position early in the book, because we do create a mental image of the author and that shapes how we read and respond to the text. It matters.

I’ve gotten used to looking for Native people in whatever I read, whether that is fiction or non fiction, and I’ve gotten used to seeing us as ghosts.  Whispers that I notice but are not mentioned or recognized by the author. I see our footprints, hear the sighing of our history, recognize the threads that authors decline to pick up and weave into their stories.

But it’s still painful, this being stripped for parts and repackaged.

Redemption on stolen land

Abolition is for everyone