So there he was, a young Alaska Native man, maybe 30, maybe 35, standing in line with a bag of pre-mixed soil in his arms at Home Depot. A woman is standing in line right behind him. She has stuff in her hands too.
“So what are you planting?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“But you’ve got pre-mixed soil there.” she said.
“No, not planting anything,” he said. “I’m buying my land back, one sack at a time. And I have receipts.”
This little story was told to me by my son Mark, a friend of Kevin O’Halloran, the one who coined what I think is the most profound statement in America.
The symbolism here for Native people everywhere, is likely the greatest story ever told. It’s a story of nearly all of the lands in United States of America, including Alaska, once being thought of as “our land.” When I was a youngster, Dad and us boys went caribou hunting at Denali every year. Along the way, we’d see signs posted: “No Trespassing.” Dad would comment: “This used to be our land.”
That’s how we thought.
Native people have had a hard time wrapping their arms around the concept of “owning land.” Land was the same as air we breathe, freely given by the Creator. So were the waters of the sea and rivers of the countryside.
So it has taken a couple of generations for us to be able to think in terms of buying land and owning it – even at one bag at a time. The comment was probably said in jest, but I can understand the meaning of it.
When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they probably thought they had arrived in a new land. What they didn’t know is that Native American tribes had lived and died there since time immemorial. History books say Columbus discovered America, discounting the fact that Native tribes, the first inhabitants, were there. And Alaska Natives had the same experience.
To put this all in perspective, let’s fast forward to 2018, a time when the words of our founding fathers have dimmed in large part due to American leadership that pays no attention to the U.S. Constitution and the Rule of Law. Felony crimes are being linked to the current president of the U.S. along with criminal indictments and criminal convictions being levied against his top advisors and former advisors. There is talk of impeachment.
This is the stuff of the Wild West.
Despite the breakdown of American culture in general, with incredible chaos, ours remains intact and we will endure. Our bond to Mother Earth is as powerful now as it was in the days of Geronimo. We will not give up a single square inch more and we will continue to demand respect and dignity for everyone.
I for one am glad for the 56,200,000 acres of Indian reservations down south and our ownership to 44-million acres of land here in Alaska. Together Native people own and control 100,200,000 acres of land in the U.S.
It’s a pittance compared to a time we looked to the horizon in four directions and saw “our land.” Now, they both provide a safety net should we as urbanites ever become displaced – guaranteed. That’s not to say will forget how much we have lost to conquests, wars, outright theft, and claims of “settlement.”
Today many Native Americans and Alaska Natives live somewhere other than the reservations or rural villages, often in large cities such as Anchorage and Phoenix. In 2012, there were over 2.5 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives with about 1 million living on reservations.
It was just 50-years ago that we heard almost daily about the “plight” of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Economically we were at the very bottom of the totem pole. Now, some of us have prospered and have gone far beyond that station in life due to hard work, determination, and the motto: We shall endeavor to persevere.
The collective geographical area of all reservations in America is approximately the size of Idaho. While most reservations are small compared to U.S. states, there are 12 Indian reservations larger than the state of Rhode Island. The largest reservation, known among us as Navajo, is similar in size to West Virginia.
Like Kevin O’Halloran, we remain connected to the land, even as we buy a few pounds of it back from Home Depot to make up for lands lost since European contact. We are also extremely proud of the younger generation who have taken over the reins at out Native corporations and have done a tremendous job. Our future is brighter than ever.
John Tetpon, Inupiaq, is a longtime Alaska journalist, musician and artist. His email: johnnytetpon***@***yahoo.com