Another unexamined cliché scattered throughout contemporary discourse is stolen land, referring to the Native versus non-Native dynamic in the Americas and elsewhere. Book titles like Stolen Continents, After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands, and Broken Promises, Stolen Land reinforce the message of illegitmate acquisition, which is also repeated by Native activists and their allies, and widely spread through placards, t-shirts, and online memes. The theft by Europeans of territory justly belonging to Aboriginals is so commonly invoked that few have parsed the term, or the concept, in any depth. So exactly who and what are we talking about when we make this serious charge, and how well does the evidence stand up?
Since 1492, obviously, the established human population of two western continents and one southern one has been decimated and displaced by newcomers from Europe, and, later, Africa and Asia. Swaths of geography considered home by various Indigenous peoples six or seven hundred years ago are today known as “Toronto,” “Chicago,” “Missouri,” “Saskatchewan,” “British Columbia,” or “Australia,” and the looks, language, society and tools of those who moved in are very different from that of those who were there first. While modern Native people enjoy the full rights of citizenship under whatever political unit they are part of, it’s true that federal, state, or provincial administrations aren’t the ones that governed their ancestors generations ago. And in some particular local settings – Caledonia in Ontario or Kahnawake in Quebec, for instance – there remain bitter legal disputes over the precise territorial jurisdiction specified in historic treaties between Aboriginals and settlers in centuries past.
Yet none of these facts quite add up to “stolen land.” Through the ages, the rule of many domains has passed from one party to another, whether through brutal violence, gradual influence, or a combination of the two. Usurped might be a more accurate description for what’s been done to Native real estate over the last five hundred years, although the word lacks rhetorical bite; unceded is nowadays fashionably spoken by officials at opening ceremonies and other public events, but as an empty gesture rather than a prelude to tangible reparation; conquered is both a pretty good characterization of the North American and Oceanic realms post-Columbus, and is at the same time virtually unsayable in polite company. A car can be stolen, or a wallet or encrypted data – physical space, however, really can’t. Places can be taken over militarily, demographically, or by some other metric, but we don’t think the Romans “stole” Britain or the Nazis “stole” Poland. We do have laws against squatting, when someone unlawfully occupies a building owned by someone else, and landlords can evict tenants who don’t pay their rent, but those aren’t quite analogous to stolen land. If a bunch of strangers arrived at your door, forced you to live in the attic and proceeded to redecorate your rooms, while inviting their friends over and starting families in what you thought was your home, that might serve as an apt allegory for the supposed injustice of continental land theft. If that ever happened, which it doesn’t.
The biggest problem with calling a city, region or country “stolen land” is that no one – neither the alleged thieves nor the self-described victims – expects the properties to be returned in their original condition. Something that’s been truly stolen, as we understand it, should be given back the way it was found: the car undamaged, the wallet with the cash and the cards, the data with its security. You can’t do that with British Columbia or Australia in the Twenty-First century. The stolen land trope, instead, uses the language of criminality to emphasize Native resentment and play to non-Native guilt. It perpetuates what Canadian scholar Frances Widdowson calls the rentier mentality, whereby Indigenous leaders and their lobbyists are granted royalties and other subsidies by outside politicians and developers for the use of “their” land, which is then worked on or otherwise cultivated by predominantly non-Indigenous populations. Little of these windfalls actually trickles down to ordinary Native persons living in the areas, but the financial transfers conveniently preclude any claims of stealing. Assertions of stolen land also promote ahistorical myths about Aboriginals residing on the same acreage “since time immemorial,” contrary to archaeological and anthropological studies of human migration across the last twenty thousand years. Like the jargonized usages of cultural appropriation or systemic racism, stolen land carries a powerful moral implication with which accusers can shame and silence the accused. They are loaded phrases that are hard to reject without sounding unsympathetic. They reduce complex situations to neat good-bad, oppressor-oppressed binaries. They have become familiar parts of the political lexicon, describing issues everyone thinks they comprehend and identifying wrongs everyone is sure they want to amend. Except the culture isn’t appropriated, the racism isn’t systemic, and the land wasn’t stolen.