Back in December, Henry and I took a trip to Zion National Park. I’ve shared some winter-wonderland-type photos of that trip on Instagram, but that’s not the focus of my post today. We drove home through the Navajo Nation and were struck and convicted by the sign above, painted on an abandoned motel building just outside the Nation’s borders, forty miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona: American Rent Is Due.

After returning home, I learned more about this art statement through some online research. The Whiting Motel in tiny Gray Mountain, Arizona, was built in the 1950s as a “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” As newer venues proliferated, the motel gradually deteriorated and was abandoned in January 2005. In the words of one commentator, it was “deserted here to languish without a thought for its appearance or effect on the community or the environment.”

An Indigenous local recently wrote an article about a number of such abandoned properties along Route 89, noting that the motel has been “reclaimed by local artists as part of a beautification movement known as the Painted Desert Project.” It is these artists who wrote American Rent Is Due across the side of the abandoned motel, a clear reference to the taking of Indigenous lands by Americans of European descent.

Though Henry and I drove in and out of the Navajo Nation on our trip, we crossed no border checkpoints. In our church’s antiracism discussion group, we have learned that although over 350 treaties are supposed to guarantee the sovereignty of Native American lands and peoples, those treaties have frequently been broken. Individuals, groups, and even the US government have repeatedly ignored or defiled the promises made to hundreds of Indigenous groups.

So, what American “rent” is due? While there is frequent conversation today about reparations for African Americans whose ancestors endured slavery, there is much less talk about what all Americans owe the Native American Nations whose ancestral lands our predecessors stole and whose people they swindled. The idea of rent being due certainly has logic to it. I do not have answers, but I’m glad for the opportunity to raise questions, because we need to be having conversations about these issues.

As a starting point for learning about this part of our heritage, I invite you to do some research about which Indigenous lands you have inhabited over the course of your life. What can you learn about the people who once cared for the land on which you currently reside? How might God be inviting you to pray and/or work for the betterment of that nation today, if it exists, or to honor their ancestors if the tribe has disappeared?

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