By Peter Gorski and Monica Hofmann
The momentous passing of UWL's Indigenous Land Recognition Policy was glaringly missing from the local news this week. Through dedicated efforts of student leaders in the Native American Student Association (NASA), a resolution passed through all legislative bodies on campus, ensuring that the following statement will be read at the beginning of all university-sponsored events:
"We would like to recognize that the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse occupies the land of the Ho-Chunk people. Please take a moment to celebrate and honor this ancestral Ho-Chunk land, and the sacred lands of all indigenous peoples."
The brief resolution makes a powerful statement honoring indigenous people and acknowledging the reality that our predominantly white university continues to occupy land that was stolen by European settlers from Ho-Chunk people, many of whom continue to live and be marginalized in La Crosse. Though simple words, it is an exciting step and one we hope will prompt reflection from other local institutions. Perhaps the City of La Crosse could adopt such a resolution.
Unfortunately, the reality that we occupy indigenous land is too often far from the minds of white people in La Crosse, even in the progressive community. Attending the growing number of rallies over the past several months (for healthcare, immigrant and refugee rights, and other "resistance" events), it is hard to miss the nearly ubiquitously played sing-a-long song, "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie. While we appreciate the eloquence of our community gathering and harmonizing together, this particular song is a racist affirmation of Manifest Destiny that the progressive community desperately needs to reconsider.
"This land is made for you and me" reinforces the extremely harmful message that the American continent was "God-granted" to European settlers. The spirit of Manifest Destiny was a European justification for appalling violence and attempted genocide of Native American people. To ignore this reality is a violent omission, neglecting the fact that millions of people lived full complicated lives on this continent long before Europeans arrived. "This land is your land" only rings true if you are an indigenous person whose ancestors lived here prior to European imperialism, kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, and various waves of immigration from around the world creating the diverse population of the United States today. (And if you're still not convinced, it feels relevant to point out that Guthrie himself had a history of racism.)
While the song "This Land Is Your Land" may summon nostalgia among progressives, and appears to be a beloved tradition for many local activists, we believe it is important to think critically about who we are and what we are saying. So Coulee Progressives, can we find another heartwarming song? One that is maybe a little less racist?
It is typically easy to see the racism of the right; they tend to be more forward and unabashed in their discrimination and prizing of white supremacy. Racism in the left is far more insidious, as many who identify as liberals, progressives, or even allies against racism are quite comfortable upholding white supremacist systems, even unaware that we are doing it. Local progressives and the Democratic Party still have a great deal of
work to do in dismantling the racism inside of ourselves and our movement if we want to build the multiracial people-powered movement we need to transform this country.