You know how the song goes.
This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
It’s a classic folk tune by Woody Guthrie and it’s sometimes been sung as a protest song. Other times, a patriotic anthem.
And now in 2019, it’s being deemed culturally insensitive, a proponent of white nationalism and blind to the struggles of Native Americans.
Mali Obomsawin writes for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage”
In the context of America, a nation-state built by settler colonialism, Woody Guthrie’s protest anthem exemplifies the particular blind spot that Americans have in regard to Natives: American patriotism erases us, even if it comes in the form of a leftist protest song. Why? Because this land “was” our land. Through genocide, broken treaties, and a legal system created by and for the colonial interest, this land “became” American land. But to question the legitimacy of American land control today instantly makes one the most radical person in the room–even in leftist circles. And because Indigenous critiques of this country are so fundamental, our voices are often marginalized to the point of invisibility.
By critiquing “This Land Is Your Land,” I don’t mean to imply that Guthrie himself promoted conquest, but the song is indicative of American leftists’ role in Native invisibility. The lyrics as they are embraced today evoke Manifest Destiny and expansionism (“this land was made for you and me”). When sung as a political act, the gathering or demonstration is infused with anti-Nativism and reinforces the blind spot. Moreover, my critique is aimed at the nation-state of America, which teaches ignorances about American history so robust and deep-seated that even our society’s most inclusion-oriented activists struggle to transcend them. Just as when Americans call this country a “nation of immigrants,” the proclamation erases Native peoples’ right to exist in the collective consciousness. True allyship–specifically, transcending the anti-Nativism integral to American society—requires first interrogating one’s own ignorances.