This article was originally published in Issue 11 of Malus. Copyright 2020 Melissa Madden. For a print version, please subscribe!
Start By Telling the Truth
by Melissa Madden
This is the third in my series of pieces on the Finger Lakes National Forest in upstate New York for Malus. In the first I sang my ode to the Beauty of Edible Wildness (Issue 7, 2019). In Issue 9 (2020), I focused on the history, the where and how this place went from being occupied by the peoples of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to U.S. government owned land grazed by cows and used by human visitors for recreation.
This piece is about reconciliation and reparations. Why? Because I am goddamn grateful to be a farmer. Because I love wild spaces and I know that I can go to them whenever I wish. Because when I left my own farm, I still had a place of abundance to sooth my wounds and to stay involved in our cider culture. Because I am aware that my love of access to public and private lands for apple growing and cidermaking rests on centuries of theft of lives and land. And because I believe that addressing this theft is a matter as urgent as addressing climate change.
There are many of us seeking and making cider with feral apples, whether they are wild seedlings or the remnants of old and abandoned homesteads. It’s a romantic scene, the committed and maybe a little crazy cidermaker tramping through the brush in search of hidden gems. It makes for nice marketing copy on labels and websites. In truth those apples we seek are gems, and I am so grateful to find them. The harder truth, though, is that they are there to be found as the result of hundreds of years of broken treaties and the forced destruction and displacement of people and communities that once sustained themselves on this land. The lands that we use for our tidy orchards are similarly tainted.
Telling the Truth
In writing this, I am embarrassed, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. I grew up in relative comfort as a middle-class white American, and I benefited from being white in a racist system built to advantage white folk. My access to inherited wealth has allowed me freedom to care for myself and develop my interests and passions. The foundation of my inherited ease is tied into over 400 years of land, lives, and wealth appropriated from indigenous people, as well as Black and other people of color. Acknowledging this fact is an essential first step, a Truth Telling, in the words of Dr. David Ragland, co-director and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project and Director of the Campaign for Truth and Reparations (see his series of articles at www.yesmagazine.org/authors/david-ragland). I believe this means on both a personal and institutional level.
For me, making this necessary acknowledgement hurts every time. Confronting this Truth Telling is hard and frustrating. It will bring on shame and anger. It is still essential to come to terms with our accountability.
Once you have taken this first step, what next? In 2005 the United Nations passed a resolution outlining Basic Principles and Guidelines for states confronting a need to determine reparations for violations of human rights (the United States abstained). Dr. Ragland, in one of his articles for Yes Magazine, outlined them like this:
1. Restitution, or return of what was stolen;
2. Rehabilitation, in the form of psychological and physical support. Consider how the maternal health of Black mothers and the trauma inflicted on Black bodies impacts our daily experience in the White world. But rehabilitation is also for White folks–because it encourages healing from Whiteness, which is an existential or spiritual problem, as it posits White as superior;
3. Compensation, which must incorporate meaningful transfer of wealth. While some of us just want a check, reparations can’t only be transactional, because those most likely facilitating the transaction–large banks–continue to play an active role in keeping our communities disenfranchised through redlining, predatory lending, and so much more;
4. Satisfaction, which requires acknowledgement of guilt, apology, burials, construction of memorials, and education about the true history of this nation’s founding sin;
5. Guarantees of non-repetition, which reinforces reparations as a long-term process that requires systemic and personal change.
Promoting Access to Land
These are important and broad goals that are relevant to Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), and one place that we as cidermakers and farmers, can start is with the first. Restitution, especially as it connects to land, is a key source of both food sovereignty and wealth-based inheritance. In the Northeast, one organization that is promoting this goal is the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC) whose stated mission is “working towards a collective vision of advancing land and food sovereignty in the northeast region through permanent and secure land tenure for POC farmers and land stewards who will use the land in a sacred manner that honors our ancestors’ dreams . . . .” Executive Director Stephanie Morningstar (Oneida Nation) has outlined an approach for 5 Solutions for Land Based Wealth Distribution. I have listed a few (of many) resources that connect with these goals at the end of this essay.
• Rematriation-> Land Return
• Support for BIPOC-focused Land Trusts
• Land-Use Easements–cultural use easements for access to food, medicine, ceremonial sites
• Personhood for Land, Water, Animals, Plants: Rights of Native/Wild Law
In my own reckoning, there is the question of my day-to-day life and the mid-term and longer-term solutions. I am blessed to be welcomed into a community working group for Finger Lakes Land Access, Reconciliation and Reparations. This BIPOC-led group holds Truth Telling as a foundation of progress. We work towards true reconciliation in order to enact real reparations clean from performative actions. In this, working to dismantle my own embedded racism is part of working at “speed of trust” (thank you for this concept to Rafael Aponte, one of our founders).
There are other possible actions. Right down the road from the Finger Lakes National Forest is Redbyrd Orchard Cider. For every bottle of cider they sell, owners Deva Maas and Eric Shatt give $1 to either the Soul Fire Farm Institute (a nonprofit corporation seeking to advance economic independence and racial equity by providing on-farm education and training in community food sovereignty, dismantling racism in the food system, and developing best practices for just and sustainable agriculture) or the Ganondagan State Historic Site, the only New York State Historic Site dedicated to a Native American theme, and the only Seneca town developed and interpreted in the United States.
In a recent email, Autumn Stoscheck of Eve’s Cidery sent me her plan of action, which I have edited a little for space.
"When I first heard the word reparations in the context of addressing America’s brutal and oppressive history of White supremacy I felt overwhelmed. What, in the present day, could possibly be given to African Americans to compensate for the unspeakable crimes of slavery? What could possibly be given to indigenous communities to compensate for the theft of their land and the genocide of their people? . . .
But [feeling] overwhelm[ed] is not an excuse for lack of action. And so even though it’s not enough to make a monthly contribution to the North East Farmers of Color Land Trust, I’m doing it anyway because:
- It is part of a personal practice of paying for some of my unearned privilege. White supremacy is one of the most vile of human creations. It feels like hypocrisy to condemn it and everyday reap benefits from it. Paying a tithe, if you will, while it is not a substitute for actively working to dismantle White supremacy, is a material reminder that I am committed to it with more than just thoughts.
- There are 57,865 farms in New York State, and just 710 of them are owned by people of color. If the 57,155 white farmers each gave $10/month (the price of 2 lattes) for a year, we could buy thousands of acres of land for aspiring young farmers of color whose ancestors have been disenfranchised from owning land in NYS."
What Can You Do?
Specific reparative actions may be different for each of us. If you are cidermaker or farmer, look to some of the resources I’ve listed below to learn about the history of your area and organizations there that are working toward positive solutions. If you are a cider drinker, make a point of supporting companies that are taking actions to advance social justice. If you are able to vote, vote for supporters of these concepts at both the local and national level. Above all, take that first step of Telling the Truth.
Reparations exist within the context of food sovereignty, of health sovereignty. Let us think of reparations as a peace treaty, as proposed by Dr. Ragland. Let us believe that we will all be healed by reconciliation within our communities. Let us not fear potential loss to ourselves, but think of the abundance we might share. This is one of the favorite lessons I re-learn upon each visit to the wild and feral apples of the Finger Lakes National Forest.
A few resources:
• Map of Historic Native Lands: native-land.ca/
• Native Land Trust: nativeamericanland.org/
• Land Reparations and Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit: resourcegeneration.org/land-reparations-indigenous-solidarity-action-guide/
• Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust: nefoclandtrust.org/reparations
• Soul Fire Farm Reparations Map: www.soulfirefarm.org/get-involved/reparations
• Finger Lakes Land Access, Reconciliation and Reparations: www.flxlandreconciliation.com/
• National Black Food and Justice Alliance: www.blackfoodjustice.org/
• People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: www.pisab.org/programs/
Melissa Madden lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State on Seneca and Cayuga Nation land. She is a farmer, advocate for food security, and eager learner. Her tiny art-cider project Open Spaces Cider (OSC) is foraged and fermented by a willing group of collaborators, focused on access to the bounty of public and marginal lands. OSC is made in service of reparations and reconciliation for stolen land and lives, with an agricultural and access focus. Find Melissa on Instagram: @openspacescider