Everything is Stolen, What Now?
Like many who grew up in a settler colony such as the United States, I didn’t really know what it meant to live on stolen land until I made it my business to find out. Ironically, those who benefit from conquest are often ignorant of the blood under their feet, and the privileges they have as a result.
I grew up in occupied Lenape territory, lived in occupied Ohlone territory for many years, and currently live in occupied Gabrielino-Luiseño territory. It took some effort to find even this basic information, and without the internet it might have taken me weeks.
Yet the evidence is all around in our everyday lives, in place names, borrowed words, foods, symbols, and more. Where I grew up in the east coast, I lived near places called Metuchen, Piscataway, and Manhattan. I learned romanticized and whitewashed versions of settler stories, especially about the Pilgrims. Just this past weekend, I heard these stories come out of a child’s mouth.
Even when learning US history I didn’t hear how brutal the conquest and exploitation was, and still is. This was true of other injustices on the road to nationhood—slavery, massacre, genocide, rape, sterilization, infection, conversion, treaty-breaking, annexation, relocation, exclusion, deportation, internment, war. I had to go find the information myself.
There are those of us who came here without harmful intent—forcibly brought in chains, tricked into boarding a ship, fleeing from poverty, starvation, war, persecution, and more. And there are those of us who were born here, with no say over the matter. Though we may not have deliberately taken what was not given—per the second precept of not stealing—what does it mean that many of us benefit from some of the largest mass robberies in the last few centuries? Some of us benefit more than others. How do we practice justice?
Although this can seem like a twisted, chicken and egg question, mindfulness practice can serve well here. For me, years of attending silent meditation retreats at primarily white Buddhist centers has been a perfect, though unsolicited training ground. A center for the cultivation of peace, established on stolen land. A center founded by middle-class white US citizens who were able to travel to post-World War II or post-Vietnam War Asian countries to learn Buddhisms. Me, an Asian American learning about Buddhism from this center.
So many complexities. Luckily mindfulness practice has helped me hold complexities without being torn in half. It’s not either this or that, no place of purity where I get to be morally uncorrupted. Very few of us are not complicit in something. That doesn’t make us bad people, just people with a lot of responsibility to examine and carefully unravel the threads that bind us to each other. There is no justification for inertia. Mindfulness creates some space around difficult phenomena so that the best possible action can be taken.
This month Turning Wheel Media is looking at the theme of Stolen Lands, Stolen Culture, Stolen Time through many different lenses. An incredible amount of discussion can be had about this theme, and many sub-themes can be teased out. I invite everyone to join in with an attitude of listening and learning. How do you practice the second precept of “not taking what is not given freely” when all of us are always already embedded in webs of harm?