United States of America: A country built on land seized from indigenous peoples

When it comes to colonial rule, I suppose many people have the image that many countries became independent after World War II and the rulers returned to their own countries.

However, countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand were established by settlers who immigrated from Europe and other countries to each land and settled there. Such histories can be explained using the concept of settler colonialism.

For example, in the case of the United States, settlers came mainly from Europe and took over land from indigenous peoples who had been living in the Americas since early times, forcing them to move to certain reservations and other so-called “remote” areas.

Many people may think that not so many indigenous peoples lived in North America, but actually there were many native tribes from coast to coast, each with a different language and history.

Many indigenous peoples were driven out of their land by the sudden arrival of settlers and their descendants.

After that, the places seized by whites were transformed into big cities like New York. On the other hand, most of the reservations for indigenous peoples were desolate areas that were not suitable for agriculture or livestock farming, and many of them were left behind in economic development.

People born and living in a big city rarely have native reservations nearby, and few of them have native acquaintances or friends. As a result, many people do not know the existence of indigenous peoples living today and have the wrong perception that they are lost, historical people.

I feel that the stereotypes of Native Americans are spreading also among us living in Japan. For example, many people may associate Native Americans with the image of the “Indian” that has been shown in movies, such as those wearing feathers on their head and screaming in battle. However, these are misperceptions based on prejudice.

On the other hand, in the middle of the 20th century, it was found that these remote areas, where the indigenous peoples (thought of as lost peoples) lived, were ideal for the construction of facilities for carrying out secret military plans because of their remote locations. Also, valuable minerals were found to be produced in some of these areas, which led to the military utilization.

Land where indigenous peoples live, with little progress in radioactive decontamination

In the 1940s, a group of nuclear development facilities called Hanford Site was built in southeastern Washington, which was one of the sites of the Manhattan Project aiming to build atomic bombs.

It takes only 3-4 hours by car from both Seattle, the home of the major league team Seattle Mariners, and Portland, a city said to be one of the best places to live in the United States. However, once you cross the mountains along the way, the scenery changes completely and you will find yourself in a desolate desert.

The Hanford Site is located at the confluence of three rivers, including the Columbia River. For native tribes of Wanapum, Nez Perce and Yakama, it had long been a living space, where they were hunting and fishing, as well as a special place for religious ceremonies.

Because of the remote location in American society and abundant supply of river water, the land was also the best place to construct facilities for nuclear development, which was being promoted in secret. Actually, the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was produced there.

The US government has been aware of the risk of radiation since the early days when the nuclear development facilities were operated. According to a study by historian Kate Brown, researchers and technicians working in the facilities were continuously monitored for radiation exposure to maintain their health.

On the other hand, however, there was little health care for workers who were working in the facilities. There were many people of color among those who engaged in dangerous work, and the working environment seemed to be linked to the structure of racial and class discrimination.

Indigenous peoples who lived at the site and in the surrounding area were forced to experience the loss of their homeland, which was expropriated by the military, as well as connection with the land they had built over the years. Behind this, there was a structure of racial discrimination, colonialism, and the idea that some sacrifice was inevitable for the major purposes of national defense.

Such ideas and the social structure rooted in the military superpower became even more pronounced after the 1980s, when the facilities were closed. The nuclear development facilities were left unattended for a long time, and the decontamination process of the area was slow. As a result, serious health problems have spread among indigenous peoples and other neighborhood residents.

In recent years, the decontamination work has been proceeding finally, but countermeasures are still insufficient and environmental risks remain serious.

If the nuclear facilities had been closer to Seattle or Portland, the decontamination work might have been quicker. In the first place, no nuclear facilities would have been built near big cities, even for the purpose of national defense.

The same thing happened in Navajo Nation, which is the largest Native American reservation in the United States and spans the southwestern states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

There were a number of uranium mines there, which were mined on a large-scale, but in 1979, a serious accident occurred, and a large amount of uranium tailings leaked out. However, this accident was hardly covered by mainstream media.

In fact, four months before this accident, there was another major accident at a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. And this accident was extensively reported by the media.

While a nuclear accident occurred on the East Coast was reported to the world’s attention, a similar accident that occurred in the depopulated inland area where many indigenous peoples lived, was not noticed, or visualized. The latter was treated as if no accident had occurred.

Furthermore, after that, the decontamination of the uranium mine progressed extremely slow, which naturally caused severe health damage to the people in the Navajo Nation.

It is often said that the United States is a country of immigrants and freedoms, where the American Dream can be realized. In reality, however, this is a story for settlers, and it is difficult to see the history of hardships that the Native Americans have gone through. The country has been created and existed based on the big misunderstanding that the land of the continent was unowned, disregarding the existence of native people. Nuclear development in the United States is closely linked to the history of settler colonialism and the country’s massive military power.

It seems that such forms of the country and its society have led to a social structure that fosters inequality and discrimination.

Movement to begin looking at indigenous peoples

Of course, various environmental issues surrounding nuclear facilities have been brought to the attention by indigenous tribal governments as well as grassroots civil and environmental groups, but it is not easy to solve them.

For example, the construction of the nuclear facilities had the effect of enriching the community and improving the living standards of residents. In remote areas where there are no particular industries, a nuclear facility is an important economic foundation which also provides employment opportunities. As a result, there is a structure where the local communities tend to be divided.

In addition, not only the government but also residents of the area where the nuclear facilities were located have awareness that nuclear development supported national defense. They have patriotic pride in their support of national defense.

In fact, there is a high school around Hanford using a mushroom cloud as its mascot. They have inherited the symbol of the history of nuclear development as local pride.

However, a Japanese exchange student who was surprised to see the mascot explained what had happened under the mushroom cloud and what kind of stories the atomic bomb victims had, at the high school where she studied. This case generated great public interest and was covered by the media in and outside of Washington State.

The question of what and how history is remembered is also related to the interpretation of indigenous history which I mentioned earlier.

For example, I saw my friend, who was very liberal and would never vote for Trump, wearing a costume of Pocahontas (a Powhatan woman who has been mythologized as a heroine who helped British settlers) on Halloween in a picture she had posted on Facebook. She has a strong sense of justice and is so sensitive to racism that she would instantly protest against any discriminatory behavior that is found around her. So, I was shocked when I saw the picture she posted.

This is one example of how misconceptions have permeated our society. Indigenous peoples are considered as a relic of the past, and the history of aggression and stereotypes have been accepted and proliferated. Such examples make indigenous peoples feel anger and sadness, and even past trauma is resurrected, but such a situation is difficult for people to imagine.

In many cases, people in the United States are not aware that many indigenous peoples are still living on the same land and suffering from various hardships as a result of the colonial history.

I think this social division shows the structure of discrimination, which exists not only in United States’ society but also in various places, including Japan.

Let’s think about problems related to the COVID-19 infection. There are data showing that the percentage of severe infection is very high among indigenous peoples. That is because many indigenous peoples originally have chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Some of them were unable to receive satisfactory medical care because of poverty.

Also, some indigenous peoples have no access to water or sewerage in their homes, so basic prevention is not possible. Furthermore, there are areas with no telephone connection, let alone Internet access, where information on the infectious disease was not sufficiently shared, especially at the initial stage.

However, most urban dwellers are unaware of, or have not been informed of this reality.

Again, this division is not just a problem in the United States. Also in Japan, there is a tendency not to pay attention to the situation of people on the periphery of society, who are in a vulnerable position.

Even in Japan, where we live, there are many problems we do not understand, such as Ainu people’s history and the current situation, the historical position of Okinawa, where U.S. military bases are concentrated, and circumstances of areas where a nuclear power plant was built or nuclear facilities are concentrated. These issues are hard to consider as your own problem, unless you are involved in it. There are many things we (including me) should reflect on, which should be continuously discussed going forward.

In the United States, under the Biden administration, a woman from Laguna Pueblo took the key Cabinet post of Secretary of the Interior. This could become a trigger that will change the way the United States is. Of course, there are many aspects that cannot be considered optimistic, but many indigenous peoples are expecting her active participation.

In spite of the seriousness of the reality where the history and existence of indigenous peoples have been made invisible, they are beginning to raise a voice, and solidarity is spreading, so we can see signs of changes. Of course, the situation in the 21st century has improved compared to that of the 19th century, when massacres and invasions were ongoing. Behind the improvements, there was the civil rights movement, followed by the Red Power movement led by Native Americans. Also, in the Black Lives Matter movement, there is solidarity between indigenous and black peoples.

When it comes to land ownership, people in the United States and Canada increasingly show their respect for indigenous peoples of the land before or after events, acknowledging it publicly. At universities and other various situations such as local concerts and festivals, it is becoming more common to announce that “This land originally belonged to an indigenous tribe called XX.” Also, an increasing number of faculty and staff at universities write their e-mail addresses and signatures along with a statement of the presence of local indigenous peoples.

Is there any such movement or change in Japan? I suppose we still have a lot of issues to tackle.

If we neglect inconvenient histories and avoid facing the serious realities such as environmental problems, poverty and inequality, racial problems, and various forms of discrimination, we will end up losing something important. I believe now is the time to realize that.

* The information contained herein is current as of April 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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