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"Thanksgiving Day & Native American Justice" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 18, 2018

posted Nov 21, 2018, 10:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

On a small rise in Lake Park sits a marker; it looks like a forlorn grave stone.  And in a way it is, for it marks one of the last Indian Mounds in Milwaukee. A cultural group called the Woodland Indians lived throughout Wisconsin from about 500 BC to about 1200 AD.  They built mounds throughout the state - conical ones like in Lake Park but also ones shaped like animals or lines. Sometimes the mounds included tombs, sometimes just objects; their purpose remains elusive.

Milwaukee once had numerous Indian Mounds - 200 - but now only two remain, the one in Lake Park and one more on the State Fair grounds.  White settlers to Milwaukee quickly destroyed the vast majority of the mounds in order to use the land for farms or housing; in the case of Lake Park, Frederick Olmsted destroyed all but one of the mounds to create his own landscape vision of the park.

The Indian Mound in Lake Park seems like a metaphor for many of the ways white Americans have interacted with Native Americans.  The mound was once part of a network of ritual spaces, a sacred geography, which white settlers carved up to give new meaning and shape to.  The mound and its twin across the county now sit isolated. Lone survivors of centuries of conquest, destruction, and removal. (And the one on the Fairgrounds remains isolated in a sea of concrete; a grassy reservation.)  Daily I pass the Indian Mound, but how often do I remember whose land I am on?

Our Christian movement - the United Church of Christ - continues to advance the work of racial equity.  This past summer our Wisconsin Conference of the UCC called on all our congregations to study and engage Native American justice issues.  Much of the effort centers around a concept called “The Doctrine of Discovery,” a theological justification developed by our European ancestors to give a pretense of legitimacy for the conquest and colonization of non-Christian peoples.  Our Plymouth Justice Network is working to develop a plan for how best to engage this issue. And as we do, I want us as a congregation to reflect together on the intersections between our faith, our history, and our witness today in the world.

As we begin this conversation, insights from Anita Phillips shape my thoughts.  Phillips, part of the Cherokee Nation, works as a social worker and United Methodist pastor with Native Americans.  In an open letter to the Church, Phillips asked four questions that get to the root of racial equity:

  • Do you see us?

  • Do you hear us?

  • Do you see Christ in us?

  • Do you claim us?

These four questions took me to the heart of issues of racial equity.  They can lead us to take up questions of Native American justice; but they are also the key questions which take us to the heart of racial equity.  When it comes to the work of justice, these questions can shape our reflection and call us to action. We can ask these questions in regard to Native Americans; but also with other People of Color, Muslims and Jews, transgender people; these questions lay bare the reality of pain and opportunity for change in our society.  Whom do you see? Whom do you listen to? Whom do you see Jesus in? Whom do you claim?

Just as most pass by the Indian Mound in Lake Park without thinking about it, the life and culture and history of Native Americans often goes unnoticed.  Native Americans make up a similar size of our population as Jews, Muslims, and LGBT people but remain “invisible” in many ways in our society. Which is odd because the footprint of Native peoples remains large on our society, from familiar place names like Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic.  But in other ways too - the State of Indiana got its name because at one point the federal government set aside that territory as tribal lands; that treaty, like so many, got broken almost before the ink dried.

Thanksgiving may be the one time when white society does notice Native people and their history.  But we do so with a romanticized version of the story of Native Americans and Europeans eating together.  Colonist Edward Winslow described it in a letter to a friend in 1621, saying, “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.”

I’m struck by the questions we don’t ask of this romanticized version of racial harmony.  How did we go from feasting together to European settlers killing and confining Native peoples?  Jill Lepore in study of early New England looks at how the colonials came to define an identity over-against Native people.  At first, Native people did live side-by-side with the European settlers; many even formed so-called “Praying Towns” of Christianized Indians.  But then, in the generation after Massasoit, the Europeans started a war against his son. They called him “King Philip” but he knew himself as Metacom.  And the major casualties of that war were people in the Praying Towns: thousands were rounded up and confined to Deer Island in Boston harbor, without sufficient food and water, hundreds died and others were sold into slavery in the Caribbean; America’s first internment camp, first deportation program.

The European colonists then set about on a new strategy: instead of living side-by-side with Native people, the colonists committed to pushing Native people west or isolating them on reservations.  While we remember the mythic story of Thanksgiving - feasting together - we forget what happened next - the refusal of Europeans to see Native people as equals in creating a society together, as either a sovereign nation to respect or as citizens to embrace.

Justice for Native people begins in seeing them as equals.  As Chief Joseph said, “We ask to be recognized as (people), let me be a free (person).  Free to travel, free to stop, free to choose my own teachers, free to choose my own religion.  Free to act, think, and speak for myself, and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.”  Justice requires of us the capacity to see another person as a person.

But justice demands more than seeing; we need to hear and take seriously the witness and words of Native people.  Anita Phillips in her letter to the Church asked if we can hear Native Americans. She’s worth quoting at length:

“To hear our story requires the deliberative step of suspending one’s own story which is perpetually ringing in the ears.  As we human begins walk and talk and live our lives, we are continually evaluating, comparing, amending, and listening to our own story.  The mechanism that processes feedback inside ourselves must come under our conscious control. It becomes an act of will to stop listening to one’s own story and begin listening to someone else’s.”

That’s one of the key challenges of justice, not just for Native people but for all: to stop listening to one’s own story and begin listening to someone else’s.

What might we hear if we listened?  We might hear the International Grandmothers, “We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth: the contamination of our air, waters, and soil; the atrocities of war; the global scourge of poverty; the threat of nuclear weapons and waste; the prevailing culture of materialism; the epidemics that threaten the health of the earth’s peoples; the exploitation of indigenous medicines; and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.”

The majority of mining for natural resources like uranium and gold happens on land belonging to indigenous people, often without their consent; just think of the Keystone XL Pipeline crossing tribal lands despite the clear protests of Native people.  They didn’t want the pipeline out of fears it would leak and, of course, in its short period of operation it’s already spilling out pollutants. Can we hear the anger at this injustice? Justice requires of us the capacity to listen to another person’s story.

First justice makes us see; then we hear; and next we recognize Jesus in the other person.  This means acknowledging the “other” as holy.

W.E.B. Du Bois, writing from the black perspective in America, once described what he saw as “white religion.”  And thus he explained that the religion of whiteness works “by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul, that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought, that every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed, that every great dream the world ever sang was a white man’s dream.”  What Du Bois documented a hundred years ago continues to warp us, a religion of white supremacy.

We can subvert white supremacy by finding the holy in the other; to see the sacred in other stories, the greatness in other dreams, the profound in other deeds.  Or, as Anita Phillips said, “This is an essential part of our life in Christ, that we are able to see Christ in one another. It is the great equalizer that Creator God has made available to us.  Before repentance is possible, we must see the face of the sacred in other another.”

This morning we sang “Many and Great” a hymn written by Joseph Renville of the Dakota.  The hymn - as noted in the footnote of our hymnal - became associated with the execution of 38 Dakota after a conflict with settlers in Minnesota.  At the largest execution in American history, the Dakota sang as led to the scaffolds. Can we see these 38 as martyrs like Jesus? Can we find Jesus across the centuries in Native people’s resistance to colonialism and endurance of dignity?

Recognizing Jesus in another leads to the fourth step of justice: claiming the other as our own.  Just as Martin Luther King taught us that “we are all caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” so to do Native people like Anita Phillips point to our interrelatedness.  Phillips explained, “To be related to someone, you claim them as your kin.  They are part of your family.”

One of the readings I came close to using in our worship service came from a speech of Red Jacket, a leader of the Iroquois, who addressed white missionaries before an assembly of the five nations in 1792.  In his speech he pointed to many of the broken promises white people made to him. But what struck me was the way he kept addressing the white missionaries as “brother.” Naming the white missionaries as brothers punctuated the speech.

And it made me realize the very different way white culture conceived of the familial relationship with people of color.  Many whites over the years have claimed people of color as family - you certainly hear that in the south - but the metaphor is parent-child: the white parent, the colored child.  That metaphor underlay legal structures in which people of color were treated as “wards” of the state; and even now we hear it in the language of “minorities.” Minors. Minors to whom?

But we hear a different familial metaphor in the witness of Native people.  Not parent-child but sisters-brothers. I think that’s the ultimate move of justice: to leave behind the old metaphors of some as parents and others as children and to instead embrace the sense of equality between siblings.

I hear an echo of that challenge in Edward Winslow’s description of that first thanksgiving.  Winslow saw Massasoit coming to the plantation as a vassal, subservient: a warrior bringing 5 deer like tribute.  Massasoit saw himself as a sibling, bringing food to a family meal.

Sisters and brothers, this is what the work of justice requires of us.  Seeing the other. Hearing the other. Recognizing Jesus in the other. And finally knowing the other as our siblings.  May we do the work of justice. Alleluia and Amen.