“This Land Is My Land” – Or Is It?

Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was one of the highlights of the presidential inauguration this week. The traditional folk song deeply moved me, like millions of other people. Yet it is also illustrates the founding lie of this country.

Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940. Pete Seeger, whose father taught music at UC Berkeley, still traveled across the country with Woody, and has been the progressive voice and conscience of the United States for many decades. I grew up with his folk songs, and have always admired his strong cultural roots and fighting spirit.

Woody Guthrie’s recurrent theme is that “this land was made for you and me”. I have always wondered how the anthem of the dispossessed can so blatantly misrepresent the country’s origins. From California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was settled by 7-10 million Native Americans when the first Europeans arrived. As James Wilson describes in his harrowing book, The Earth Shall Weep, genocide, disease and starvation had reduced their number to less than 250,000 three centuries later. Woody Guthrie’s song illustrates that they were also purged from public memory.

Pete Seeger is of course aware of this history. The musicians Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, who have often performed together with him, tell me that Seeger sometimes sang the following lyrics: “This land is your land, but it once was my land, until we sold you Manhattan Island. You put our nations on reservations, This land was stole by you from me.” Pete didn’t sing these words at the Lincoln Memorial. But as immigrants, we should not forget them.

Grabbing the lands of the First Nations is not simply a matter of history. With mining and hydropower projects such as the Bonneville, Glen Canyon, Shasta and Klamath dams, the US government and private companies continue to violate their rights to land, water, hunting and fishing rights, and sacred sites. In 1996, an organizer of the Blackfeet Nation filed a lawsuit against the federal government over $47 billion in mineral royalties that the government never credited to Indian trust accounts. Last year, a federal judge tried to end the case by awarding the First Nations a paltry $456 million.

“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans” Barack Obama said during his election campaign. “That will change when I am president of the United States.” Ken Salazar, Obama’s new Secretary of the Interior, has a mixed record on this issue. But he made a point of addressing a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians on the day before the inauguration. “I don’t want to over-promise what we’re going to do, but I’m going to tell you that it’s going to be a very high priority issue”, Salazar said at the meeting.

The commitment of the new Secretary of the Interior is positive, but we can’t just expect changes from the top. Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen made the hundreds of thousands of people at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial sing along with their song, turning the inauguration a people’s performance. Even as we are moved by the historic significance of this inauguration, we can’t just look up to the stage, but need to take change into our own hands.

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.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
Saying this land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

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.

This blog posting has also been translated into Chinese.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard