Shame came late to my life, arriving only after I fully understood my own part in the genocide of the North American First Nations people.
MLK reminded us that the US was born of genocide, but the term didn’t really hit me until I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. If every European-American read it we would have a different country. But it’s tough reading, and shocking, like reading about serial murder, or the Holocaust. The atrocities go on and on and after a while you can’t stand it. And then it sinks in: those white land-thieves who benefited from the genocide of First Nations people were my ancestors, and not so long ago.
Genocide is a term that is casually tossed around these days to describe things that have nothing to do with genocide. But what MLK was talking about was the plan to systematically kill all of the millions of First Nations people in North America, coast to coast. That’s what genocide means.
It was not an economic move, nor accidental displacement as white folks moved in. It was the systematic murder of all the men, women, and children in peaceful Indian villages on their own land, and it was the deliberate government policy of the United States, particularly under Andrew Jackson.
Deliberate murder, by government policy.
Before Europeans arrived in North America it was a vast continent peopled by hundreds of what we call “tribes”, with a population in the millions. Mostly they were farmers, and mostly they got along with one another. These tribes managed the land, wisely, from coast to coast. If the place had been the “forest primeval” that romantic Europeans believed it was, it would have taken an additional century or two for them to overrun it.
The white Europeans viewed the presence of millions of Indians on “their” land as an inconvenience. So it was important to rid the land of these “primitive” squatters. (The Indians thought it was the Europeans who were primitive; Indians bathed or washed every day, and were appalled at the stink of Europeans, who bathed rarely or never. And of course they were not squatting on their own land.)
The conquering Europeans and the US Americans simply killed Indians—men, women, and children—wherever they found them, forcing the survivors off their lands and moving them westward to wide open prisons we called “reservations”. The Trail of Tears marked one of those campaigns. Many of their remaining descendants live in these places today. Their total numbers are now less than 1% of the US population.
Here’s how I fit in: My particular branch of the Pennington family arrived early, in 1642, in New Haven Colony. Over two centuries we moved numerous times, first southward to New Jersey, then westward, with one branch moving to the south. Each time we moved, it was onto land already the property of an Indian tribe, which we pushed out or killed.
After the government and marauding vigilantes had murdered most of the Indians in the midwest, the land was divvied up and sold cheap to anyone who wanted it. My great-great grandfather was one of many who appreciated the rich soil of Illinois, and he settled there in the 1800s, on land belonging to the Illini Indians. Thus my own family background was built on a foundation of genocide of the Illini Indians, who were murdered outright, with the few who survived forced to move west.
But in the South the Pennington family was also complicit not only in genocide, but also the abhorrent practice of lifelong enslavement of African peoples.
I lived in the South for a number of years, in Cherokee County. It had that name because the Cherokee were the tribe either murdered or forced off their own land so a branch of my ancestry could purchase black slaves to work without pay until they died. Slaves often died early, literally worked to death.
The little town where I lived had a very small telephone directory, but it seemed as if half the entries were for the name Pennington. In my innocence I just assumed that the southern branch of the family was prolific. It wasn’t until just recently, after I had read Dunbar-Ortiz’ book, as well as Our America, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, about what happened to indigenous Mexicans in the west, that a truth dawned on me that forced me to recognize my own complicity in the depressing history of the United States: Almost all of those Pennington names in the phone book represented the descendants of Pennington slaves. All the Penningtons of the 1800s “owned” land recently stolen from Illini Indians, most of whom were murdered.
I can do nothing to make up for the endlessly sordid history of the United States, of course, a suppressed and unrecognized history that very few European-Americans even know about, and that continues today as we defend ourselves from terrorist organizations in the Middle East that didn’t even exist until we meddled there too.
The descendants of several parts of the Illini tribes are now consolidated into the Peoria tribe in Oklahoma. They operate a casino and resort.