Indigenous People’s Day
Tomorrow, Maine along with 14 other states and several municipalities, will observe Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as Columbus Day.
Columbus set out in search of new land and resources. In his quest, he was empowered by the Church, specifically by something called the Doctrine of Discovery. In essence, the D of D allowed for the subjugation of “pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ”, to “reduce their persons to perpetual servitude”, to take their belongings, including land, to “convert them to you, and your use, and your successor. ”
So when Columbus landed in “the New World”, there was a whole lot of real estate just waiting to be claimed by those “on a mission from God”.
This church-sanctioned appropriation led to the wholesale destruction of Native American tribes and culture- and not just in the 15th century but well into the 20th century. By the 1920’s, over 95% of the Native population of North America (once estimated at anywhere from 3 mil to over 10 million prior to Columbus’ arrival) had been wiped out by wars, ethnic cleansing, and disease.
And the Doctrine of Discovery did not remain an obscure, forgotten proclamation made before the Enlightenment.
Thomas Jefferson, when he served as Secretary of State, claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery was international law which was applicable to the new United States government as well.
And in 1823, it was used by US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall to deny the land rights of Native Americans.
When Black Americans won citizenship with the 14th amendment in 1868, the US government specifically interpreted the law so it did not apply to Native Americans.
Michigan Senator Jacob Howard said at the time,
“I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me,”.
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship and theoretically gave them the right to vote. Still it took over forty years for all fifty states to allow Native Americans to vote. Maine was one of the last states to comply with the Indian Citizenship Act- in 1967.
Steven Charleston, the former Episcopal Bishop of Alaska and a member of the Choctaw tribe once wrote, My family has lived in America for thousands of years. Yet I am a second generation American.
In fact…the D of D is a foundational part of our American history.
In 2012, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori made history by making the Episcopal Church the first church to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Think about that….it took over 500 years for the Church to acknowledge the inherent sinfulness of a document that served as the historical basis and legal precedent for inflicting unimaginable suffering on a group of people deemed less than human.
(Just as an aside, the Vatican only repudiated the D of D in 2023, at the insistence of Indigenous groups.)
Imagine that you are descended from people coerced into converting to Christianity, an entirely foreign spiritual belief system, in exchange for the promise of safety and protection- only to be slaughtered along with those who resisted conversion by early Christian settlers.
Imagine trying, as early colonialists did, to decimate the Native population by giving them blankets contaminated with the smallpox virus.
Or in more recent history, imagine forcibly removing Native children as young as 4 years old from their families and keeping them in government- and Church-supported boarding schools. The Episcopal Church operated at least 9 Indian boarding schools. One government-run school was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in operation from 1879 – 1918. Though its superintendent, a retired cavalry officer named Richard Pratt, believed that Native Americans were equal to European-Americans, his motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man”….a method by which he hoped to advance Native Americans’ standing in White society.
In truth, it was an almost universally traumatizing experience for the children who were subjected to this intense “scrubbing” of their culture- one student described being put in flannel underwear, high-collared shirts, suspenders and stiff leather boots as “torture”. Not to mention the physical abuse many endured. One need only look at pictures of the children in those schools to see the desolation this “civilizing” process caused. Over 10,000 Native children attended the Carlisle school alone- eventually there would be 100’s of federally-funded Indian boarding schools across the country- I worked at one in NM.
“Dawnland”, a documentary about Maine Natives and their boarding school experiences, gives survivors an opportunity to tell their stories. It is, again, heart-breaking- I highly encourage you to see it, if you haven’t already.
I believe we deceive ourselves if we think that these abuses have not had persistent effects on people who suffered at the hands of White society.
Yes, even until today. Rates of substance abuse and suicide among Native Americans attest to that fact.
As PB Jefferts Schori noted in her 2019 Pastoral Letter on the D of D,
“These acts of “Discovery” have had persistent effects on marginalized, transported, and disenfranchised peoples……
There will be no peace or healing until we attend to that injustice. “
In 2020, when Governor Mills signed the bill establishing Indigenous Peoples Day, she said she wanted to recognize,
……. the historic, cultural and contemporary significance of the indigenous peoples of the lands that later became known as the Americas, including Maine, and the many contributions of these peoples, and to observe the day with appropriate celebration and activity.
But what would “appropriate celebration and activity” look like? A Land Acknowledgement statement and a liturgy written, in part, by Native Americans, is a small step.
But how many of us can list any of the “many contributions of these peoples”? Like the models of self-governance practiced by Native tribes long before the arrival of White settlers? Or elements of their spiritual practices which we are only slowly beginning to appreciate….
I have been reading a wonderful book entitled, The Gatherings, which tells about a group of Native and non-Native people who met over the course of several years back in the 1980’s and 90’s, not to problem-solve or debate issues but solely to create relationships by the sharing of stories in a “listening circle”, much like Restorative Justice circles which are, in fact, modeled on Indigenous traditions. The book chronicles the evolution of the group, the difficulties in establishing trust, especially on the part of the Natives. One of the most difficult parts of the book was to read about the disrespect and dismissiveness Natives felt over generations.
In today’s reading from Exodus, God gives the people of Israel, God’s people, a set of commandments by which to order their lives. You shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet…anything of your neighbor’s.
How different would our observance of Indigenous Peoples Day look if our early Christian forebears had heeded these commandments?
And in Matthew’s Gospel, we are given another parable in which we are shown the lengths people will go to get the things they covet. When Jesus calls out this behavior the Pharisees, recognizing that Jesus is talking about them, are seized by fear and want to arrest and silence this inconvenient truth-teller….
The readings for today from the Revised Common Lectionary also included a prayer which we will read after the Prayers of the People today, that includes a line that touched my heart and that I thought much about in preparing my homily for today,
Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid…
Why is it that it took us so long to repudiate a Doctrine so obviously not consistent with the tenets of our faith, of the way of Jesus?
Why were we not taught the real story, or history, of the subjugation and abuse of the original inhabitants of this country?
Why is it that today there are efforts to continue to suppress elements of our history because they cast us in a less than favorable, less than heroic, light?
Is our conscience afraid? Are we afraid, immobilized because we think the enormity of the breach is beyond our ability to repair?
I believe the story of The Gatherings tells us otherwise. And I believe that our faith tells us otherwise, too.
I believe that we, the tenants of a land, a world, that is not ours, are called to do the work the vineyard owner expected, work that produces the fruits of the Kingdom. Fruits like justice, love, humility…
We are called to ask God’s Spirit to work in us, to pour mercy upon us…. to repair breaches in relationship, in community….and to encourage one another and the wider community of which we are a part to do likewise.
Again Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori,
We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination…our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples…we seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.
There is a line in the introduction to The Gatherings, “What we discovered in those Gatherings years ago is that, in spite of our history, understanding is still possible…”
Or in the words of Miigam’agan, one of the Mi’kmaq participants in The Gatherings, “There’s a word in Mi’kmaq: upisktwo. We might say in English “forgiveness” but it means “we return to that original place, and let’s try again”.
May it be so.