There seems to be much concern lately over the people being referred to as "illegal immigrants." Let's define our terms: "Immigrant" - somebody who has come to a country and settled there. "Illegal" - forbidden by law. Concern about illegal immigrants has a familiar ring to us Native Americans. We have been empathizing with those concerns for over half a millennium.
Let's see ...Were the first immigrants to America illegal? By every definition - yes! But perhaps if they had a good reason it makes their trespass less offensive. What of their motives? The stated intent of some of the earliest European settlers in America was first to establish military superiority over the inhabitants and then "civilize" them by assimilating them into their form of government and converting them to a foreign religion. Such was the case in the earliest American colonies: From the First Charter of Virginia, April 10, 1606..."[we] may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government."
And talk about attitude ... they even came expecting us to learn their language. For example, I always thought, if you come to Cherokee country, you should speak Cherokee.
Even though the European immigrants said they were fleeing totalitarianism and searching for economic freedom, they did not all come peaceably or with good intent. Attempted genocide, physical force, coercion, and the imposition of colonial structures in order to establish dominance over Native North Americans became their mode of operation. Even many early American Christians' values were evident to the indigene by the settlers' disregard for human life. This supposed Christian witness was evident in their reactions when they arrived on the eastern part of this continent and found that epidemics had wiped out several nations. Such was the case with William Bradford's infamous statement, "The good hand of God ... favored our beginnings ... sweeping away great multitudes of the natives ... that he might make room for us" (Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, page 56).
The devout Pilgrims did not weep for the lost Wampanoag, Patuxet, and Massachuset civilizations. Instead, one of their leaders, John Winthrop, made a "legal" declaration annulling any native claims to the land. "The Indians," he said, "had not 'subdued' the land, and therefore had only a 'natural' right to it, but not a 'civil right.' A 'natural right' did not have legal standing" (Zinn, A People's History of the United States, page 14).
Early American immigrants, now well established, may have conveniently forgotten that their ancestors did not come as law-abiding citizens, but were intent on making their own laws and disregarding any laws already established by the original Americans. They often justified the taking of innocent lives and the removal of the original inhabitants by their religion. I could go on ... believe me ... I could go on. Suffice it to say, when I look at the track record of the current immigrants compared to the first immigrants, I find much hope for the future of our country.
I also wonder if perhaps the earliest immigrants fear the current ones so much because they somehow understand that, historically, retribution often occurs. There is an old Indian adage that says, "whatever you do, comes back to you." I hope not ...
Instead, I would like to remind us of another old idea: "They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, "All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!" (John 8:7 NLT)
Rev. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian teacher, lecturer, poet, activist, pastor and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity (InterVarsity Press). http://www.eagleswingsministry.com/