On this day in 1848, Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially ceding present-day California (and many other Western states) to the United States. Exactly seventy-one years later, in 1919, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the Turkish National Movement that stopped the Allied Powers from partitioning the Ottoman Empire after World War I (the day that Armenia effectively lost all claims to its historical Western provinces).
That these two moments are coincident is a historical irony, for there is a great parallel in the narrative of California and that of Armenia.
As a Californian who’s cognizant of his own state’s history, I can truly understand the sentiment of Turks living in “Eastern Turkey.” One would assume that living in either of these regions implies a sort of burden or guilt of living in someone else’s dispossessed homeland, but that is entirely untrue and unrealistic.
My own personal experience as a Californian sheds light on how Turks living in “Eastern Turkey” do not care for the fact that it used to be Western Armenia. However, a deeper examination of the history of my U.S. state and the region I call home is a useful tool in predicting and carving out an international diplomatic settlement between two clashing nations, one I hope many of my fellow Californian-Armenians can believe in.
A proud Californian, I’ve always accepted my state land to be part of the United States, but that wasn’t always so. Sure, we Americans have been settled here for a long time (over a century and a half), and we view this place as distinctly “ours.” However, just because we’ve been here so long and it feels like it’s ours, doesn’t really objectively make it ours, even though it legally is ours.
Whose land did this used to be? Indeed, the indigenous peoples of North America, the Native Americans, were the first human beings to call this land home. These peoples’ lands were then conquered by the Mexicans, who were themselves a hybrid of Native Central Americans and European Spaniards. They replaced the indigenous Native Americans of California, and became known as the “Californios.” Fifty years later, on this day in 1848, the United States, the country on the eastern part of the continent, in turn came to displace them.
What happened to the “original” indigenous peoples? Were they afforded anything for repeated displacement? Were they assisted in any meaningful way? Nearly a century after the U.S. established total dominion over California, some paltry land was ceded to these peoples, in addition to legal and civil rights initiatives to “even the score a bit.” These achievements, particularly the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, absolutely pale in comparison to the fact that we own all the land, and we, as “Americans,” do what we please with it.
Now let us think about the Armenian claim to Western Armenian lands. In four years, by 2015, they will have been in Turkish hands for over a century. The people who inhabit those lands, “Eastern Turks,” genuinely feel that it’s theirs, just like Californians feel that Los Angeles or San Francisco are truly and utterly theirs. Turks living in Van or Erzurum would surely think:
“Who the hell are these Armenians? We don’t know, we don’t remember, and we don’t care. This is our land.”
This isn’t too dissimilar to a present-day Californian saying:
“Some Native American wants to live in my house? Wants to cultivate and productively use my land? Who do these people think they are?“
Since such a direct “international score-settlement” would be ludicrous after the U.S. has productively used the land of California for over a hundred and fifty years, legal and civic initiatives are invoked to provide redress to displaced peoples.
Realistically, this should be the path both sides seek in reconciliation. Although the U.S. example was not exactly the most equitable one, it is a framework that reasonable people can agree to for policy decisions. These efforts should therefore include:
- the transfer of some lands, most likely lands that are barren and deserted, with minimal productive use and virtually no human habitation (such as the Indian Reservations of the U.S.)
- a few legal, civic, and political concessions within Turkey
- the full opening of borders and resumption of trade and economic activities
This would not mean a wholesale return of Western Armenian lands to Armenians nor an immediate end to a long history of discrimination and violence towards ethnic Armenians living in Turkey. But this would certainly be a slow start to normalization among peoples in a civilized and diplomatic manner that can set the tone for future generations to respect and build upon. As a Californian-Armenian raised under my state’s civic heritage, I could only hope so.