Repentance as the Path to Decolonization: Confessing my family’s role in Manifest Destiny

Recently I ran across an interview with Ann Coulter on the View. In that interview Coulter made a claim that her family wasn’t originally immigrants but were settlers. While I disagree with how Coulter uses this assertion, the truth is that during the period of U.S. expansion and conquest White Europeans were settlers of that expansion and conquest.  My Swedish immigrant great great grandparents and great grandparents settled land recently taken from the original native inhabitants. For Coulter, this reality is a badge of honor, for me it is a reality to lament and with which to wrestle as I must face what it means to be White benefiting from conquest.

Coulter is one extreme example of the lack of grief among White people I wrote about here. This lack of grief or lack of tears is a spiritual problem, it is symptomatic of a failure to repent. For the Desert ammas and abbas, tears are tied to repentance and salvation. Daniel Jose Camacho recently asked what would it look like for Euro-American Christians  to repent of the Doctrine of Discovery. He defines the doctrine of discovery thus:

“… was a Christian invention which justified dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land, parceling it out among emerging nation-states, and turning it into private property for settlers. In this framework, Indigenous peoples are left with either extermination or assimilation.”

Camacho suggests two ways for Euro-American Christians to repent 1) through a radical rethinking of relationship to land and indigenous claims to sovereignty. 2)abandon the Eurocentrism of Modern Christian mission. I add to this that Euro-American (White) Christians need to grieve and lament our support and participation in the Doctrine of Discovery. We find this difficult if impossible to do because our Whiteness as Euro-American is rooted and entwined with the Doctrine of Discovery. In order to grieve and lament, Euro-Americans need to uproot and disentangle from the White Doctrine of Discover through naming the ways we have participated in whiteness and this doctrine.

Here is my beginning of this naming. My great great grandparents who came from Sweden and settled in what is now Minnesota, they weren’t immigrants but were settlers. The Native American nations had recently been driven further west and placed into reservations. The U.S. Government was parceling that land out cheap. In Sweden, Swedes were recruited as settlers through ads in newspapers and elsewhere promising idyllic conditions in the United States of America. I don’t know how influenced my great great grandparents were by those ads, but family stories told us that back in Sweden they were very poor on land that hardly produced enough to eat, they came in hopes that life would be better and they were used to settle lands of conquest.

As far as I Know we didn’t ask why the land was so abundant and so cheap. For reasons unclear my great grandfather didn’t keep or didn’t inherit the land his father first settled.  At the turn of the 20th Century my family was drawn to California with incentives from the railroad company to settle land along its rail lines in the central valley of California, once again cheap land.  Family story goes that the railroad failed to tell the settlers (and thus my great grandfather) that the central valley was desert.

Family stories of our immigration to the U.S. and settling in Minnesota and then California, never questioned why the land was available.  The stories simply assumed the Doctrine of Discovery. What our family stories did focus on was the pain and struggle of assimilation. We did assimilate. Here’s another thing we never asked: why we eventually could assimilate. The answer is that as Europeans we were White.

We ethnic Europeans were molded into White people through the U.S. Government bringing us over to settle its lands of conquest from the Native Americans.  Our being from Europe (Norther Europe even better) was the necessary raw material. We lost a great deal, possibly even our souls, but we gained wealth and power. We didn’t necessarily individually gain great wealth or great power, but we became citizens of the greatest power in the world, the heir of European empires and colonialism. We were rewarded for our assimilation and cooperation through the United States becoming a world power, outstripping its colonial competitors and former sovereign.

Coulter is correct, we Europeans who came to the U.S. were settlers occupying land of conquest serving the Manifest Destiny (the U.S. take on the Doctrine of Discovery) of the United States. This isn’t a badge of honor but it is something to lament and grieve. Yes, we were used as we sought to escape poverty and starvation and at first we were mostly unable to assent to our role in the Doctrine of Discovery. However, now we, in various ways, are defending it tooth and nail. What we Euro-Americans (Whites) decedents of settlers must do is repudiate, repent, and shed tears for our part in the United States conquest and expansion that robed indigenous people of their land.