My first and most lasting lesson in the power of compound interest arrived on May 24, 1966. It must have been a slow news day. Toward the end of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, David Brinkley announced that 340 years ago, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians (as Native Americans were called back then) for $24 worth of trinkets. He continued, “if the Indians had invested that amount at a 6% interest rate, they could buy Manhattan back today…” Then he concluded in his sardonic tone. “…if they wanted to.”
My eleven-year-old-brain swirled at the idea that the most magnificent city on earth could be repossessed whole if only the thrifty natives had maintained a long-hold investment strategy. Quirky though that idea may seem, the 1966 math is apparently still correct (Morningstar: Manhattan Rate of Return). And although the Indians never tried to buy their island back, the idea that the Dutch settlers ‘purchased’ Manhattan lives in our psyche as a more-or-less fair deal. Whereas the English, French, and Spanish simply took whatever wonders of the New World they chose.
Fast forward to any socially conscious Zoom meeting in 2021. After everyone has renamed themselves with preferred pronouns, we round-robin acknowledgements of the land we occupy. I invoke the Massachusett tribe as I envision natives inhabiting the bluff over Fresh Pond that includes the 9,000 square foot plot the Registry of Deeds has filed under my name.
The motivation for land acknowledgment is noble — to honor those who once lived on the land we seized — but the practice rings hollow to me. Over the past year I’ve sat through dozens of land acknowledgments, yet haven’t heard anyone announce giving their land back. Which reduces the exercise to salving a muddy conscience by thumping mea culpa rather than actually righting our forefathers supposed wrong. What’s the value of our confession if we don’t atone to those we’ve sinned against?
The contrarian in me wonders what Native Americans think of this latest liberal craze. Do they feel honored to be acknowledged? Or are we simply picking at their wound with lofty words, while leaving things exactly as they are?