My first and most lasting lesson in the power of compound interest arrived on May 24, 1966. It must have been a slow news day. Toward the end of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, David Brinkley announced that 340 years ago, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians (as Native Americans were called back then) for $24 worth of trinkets. He continued, “if the Indians had invested that amount at a 6% interest rate, they could buy Manhattan back today…” Then he concluded in his sardonic tone. “…if they wanted to.”
My eleven-year-old-brain swirled at the idea that the most magnificent city on earth could be repossessed whole if only the thrifty natives had maintained a long-hold investment strategy. Quirky though that idea may seem, the 1966 math is apparently still correct (Morningstar: Manhattan Rate of Return). And although the Indians never tried to buy their island back, the idea that the Dutch settlers ‘purchased’ Manhattan lives in our psyche as a more-or-less fair deal. Whereas the English, French, and Spanish simply took whatever wonders of the New World they chose.
Fast forward to any socially conscious Zoom meeting in 2021. After everyone has renamed themselves with preferred pronouns, we round-robin acknowledgements of the land we occupy. I invoke the Massachusett tribe as I envision natives inhabiting the bluff over Fresh Pond that includes the 9,000 square foot plot the Registry of Deeds has filed under my name.
The motivation for land acknowledgment is noble—to honor those who once lived on the land we seized—but the practice rings hollow to me. Over the past year I’ve sat through dozens of land acknowledgments, yet haven’t heard anyone announce giving their land back. Which reduces the exercise to salving a muddy conscience by thumping mea culpa rather than actually righting our forefathers supposed wrong. What’s the value of our confession if we don’t atone to those we’ve sinned against?
The contrarian in me wonders what Native Americans think of this latest liberal craze. Do they feel honored to be acknowledged? Or are we simply picking at their wound with lofty words, while leaving things exactly as they are?
Let’s set aside that snarly perspective and grant that Native Americans appreciate acknowledgment. Perhaps even go a bit further and suggest that land acknowledgments could be an important initial phase—a witnessing if you will—toward increasing our collective conscience of Colonialist violence. That is might, someday, lead to transformation. It’s a cool idea; far beyond even my often-impractical vision. But inscrutable. Because the very notion of how land ‘belonged’ to Native Americans is diametrically opposed to how land ‘belongs’ to us. They ‘owned’ the land collectively, as an integral part of the human/animal/plant/planet interface. We own it individually, with a focus on its extractive capability: how much can we get from it?
This dichotomy is reductive, both in romanticizing Native Americans and demonizing the benefits of private property. It is also impossible to reconcile. Seventeenth century Native American culture could never support seven billion people on our planet. Twenty-first century capitalism cannot support all of us sustainably or equitably. Giving land back to Native Americans four centuries after we took it will not return our world to the bucolic balance we conjure at year Mayflower minus one. The 400 years between our vision of Native Americans living in harmony on the land to becoming marginalized (albeit profitable casino owners) cannot be erased.
The rabbit holes of reparations to all the groups who have been harmed, even eliminated by the Darwinian tide of capitalism are as treacherous as they are—ultimately—necessary. And so, for the present, I will continue to chime in on my turn, and state that I live on land once occupied by the Massachusett tribe. But forgive me if I feel like a cad. For even if someone offered me four hundred years of amortized trinkets, I intend to continue to steward my property for the benefit of the nine current inhabitants and whoever will follow. I have no plans to give it back.