Did you know that the Detroit Lions have had two winless seasons in their history? We all remember 2008 – Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of the endzone is burned into my mind. But there was a second one back in 1942, when they went 0-11 and set an NFL record for the most giveaways in a single game with 12.
Why do I bring this up? Well, a recent Morning Watch article asserts that these are worse tragedies than the theft of land from indigenous peoples in North America.
Let me explain. Michigan State has a land acknowledgement. This basically acknowledges that the university exists on the land of several Native American tribes – the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi people, known as the Three Fires Confederacy. The acknowledgement states that “the university lies on land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw”. This land was granted by the State of Michigan to found MSU 36 years later. The rest of the it exists as a way to affirm that the university intends to advocate for the sovereignty of Native Americans and be accountable to their needs. Although a nice gesture, on its own it doesn’t do a lot outside of being respectful, something our administration has had some issues with in the last few years.
Enter our intrepid Watch columnist, David Barton, who spotted the land acknowledgement somewhere in Snyder-Phillips Hall. The sign took hold of him and used its power to try and force him to conform to the bland liberalism of the college. But he was able to resist, and in the blog’s grand tradition of being mad at signs, he wrote about this experience. The resulting column, “ANALYSIS: MSU’s Misguided “Native Sovereignty” Over University Lands”, stands as one of the worst I’ve read since starting this site. It’s Orlovsky running out of bounds in article form. It’s worse than the bike letter we covered months ago in the first couple weeks of this blog’s existence.
The article’s whole premise is that it’s dumb for the university to go around feeling sorry for being on land that the Native Americans just gave away because they were super nice folks. Barton presents a history of the treaty in which after Native Americans fought with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812 (I wonder why), Americans showed mercy to them by having a peaceful negotiation in which the Natives miraculously gave up a massive chunk of land they had lived on for centuries.
There, that’s it. Nothing else to it, move along!
Here’s an alternative history of the treaty. Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan, was tired of bigshots in Washington saying that Michigan, then a territory, was full of worthless, dogshit land that didn’t have anything to offer. So he decided to prove them wrong, knowing it was rich land full of natural resources like timber. He wrote to the War Secretary, John C. Calhoun, to ask for the land “to effect the removal of the Indians to the West side of the Mississippi as speedily as circumstances will permit”. That was his starting position. The final treaty’s terms were a compromise, not an initial offer. And of course, even the most sanitized American history book will tell you what tended to happen when Native Americans resisted giving land away – at best, a treaty that would be inevitably broken, at worst atrocities.
In other words, this outcome was assured from the start. Cass was never not going to get the land once he decided he wanted it. But he had another trick up his sleeve anyway: alcohol. He ordered twelve barrels of whiskey from Detroit and got the Native Americans absolutely plastered. As a college student, I’m well aware that I don’t always make the decisions that I mean when I’m drunk; now imagine that those decisions cost millions of acres of land. You might wonder if there’s a real beef there.
Barton makes sure to note that this is all irrelevant anyway, since obviously everyone who signed the treaty or knew somebody that signed it is dead. In a wildly out-of-place attempt at comedy, he asserts that what occurred 200 years ago in Saginaw is not as bad as the aforementioned winless Lions seasons, which are “things…we should actually be ashamed of.” It’s true that everyone involved in the treaty is dead, but what does it say that after all this time people still feel the need to acknowledge it and talk about how it affected them and their ancestors? I’m a diehard Lions fan and I didn’t even know they were winless in 1942. I bet everyone who played that season is dead too!
The land acknowledgement boils down to “sorry”, as Barton puts it at the end of the article. But it’s a good gesture towards recognizing how exactly the University got here, on this specific land, even though it isn’t the fault of anyone alive right now. And if you don’t like it, it’s a fucking sign. It doesn’t control you, and it definitely doesn’t compel you to write wildly inaccurate summaries of what happened.
Today, the Lions will suit up to inevitably lose to the Bears in the traditional Thanksgiving game at Ford Field, which rests on land ceded in the Treaty of Detroit in 1807. Perhaps one day, it too will have a land acknowledgement – a reminder that as you thank the land you live, eat, and watch football on, it probably wasn’t always yours.