Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Trail of Beauty and...then Tears

Rev. Kit Ketcham, January 19, 2014
         A couple of years ago, I spoke to my Whidbey congregation on the topic of current civil rights issues in America, mentioning several different groups needing expanded civil rights, particularly our gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/intersex friends and neighbors.  I felt pretty good about what Unitarian Universalists have historically done to support civil rights for oppressed groups.
         After the service, a member came to me and said something like, “you listed a lot of groups that need expanded civil rights, but you left out Native Americans.  What about Native peoples?”
         I confess I was embarrassed, because it simply hadn’t occurred to me to include Native Americans, First Nations peoples, in the litany of those whose human rights have been neglected by our country and other countries.  As we talked, she shared some of her story and I apologized, probably feebly, for my oversight.  And I promised that I would speak about the issues of indigenous peoples.  I did so then and now I would like to offer those thoughts to you, updated to reflect my new, more recent insights.
         It’s not as though I didn’t believe that native peoples have any problems.  It’s more that the needs of native peoples had become invisible to me.  I had not been as conscious of the oppression they’ve endured, even though I’ve had native friends who lived on reservations, whose family members have died of alcohol related disease, who’ve been accused of being “dirty Indians” because of reservation conditions and genetic disposition to some diseases and addiction.
         My own white privilege had kept me from acknowledging my complicity in the conditions which affect native peoples, not only here in America but across the globe. 
         For indigenous peoples have gotten a raw deal in virtually every country invaded by foreign explorers centuries ago and policies enacted in those times continue to oppress native peoples to this day. 
         In speaking about this, I realized I was taking on a big topic, one which affects many areas of our comfortable lives and is related to historical policies and acts of our U.S. government, whether the party in power was Republican or Democrat.
         Author Steve Newcomb is a Native American of Shawnee & Lenape ancestry. For several years, he has studied the origins of United States federal Indian law and international law dating back to the early days of Christendom. He has written a book on his findings entitled, Pagans In the Promised Land: Religion, Law, and the American Indian.
         In an essay entitled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice”, he writes this:
         When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island, he performed a ceremony to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. Although the story of Columbus' "discovery" has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western world, few people are aware that his act of "possession" was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today - five centuries later - the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians.
         Newcomb goes on to explain the origins of the Doctrine of Discovery.  In the year 1452, 40 years before Columbus made his journey to the Americas, a statement, or papal bull, was issued by the reigning Catholic pope, Pope Nicholas, declaring war against all non Christians, sanctioning and promoting conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and territories.  He goes on:
         Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to ‘capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,’ to ‘put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property.’”
          This action was taken to expand and strengthen the so-called Christian Empire.  And it affects, even today, the actions of the United States government toward Native Americans, including Mexican immigrants, and the resources of the lands native peoples occupied at the time of conquest and which they occupy today.
         We’ve all watched the immigration battles along the US/Mexico border and the crackdowns on so-called illegal border crossings that have displaced dual-citizenship families, have punished US born children for the efforts of their non-US-born parents to give their children a better life, and have painted an ugly picture of the governments of those states.
         But it has seemed like a problem that didn’t affect our area much so far, even though the problem of Mexican citizens crossing the border without permission has surfaced in the Pacific Northwest.
         But consider this:  Centuries ago, the United States was the homeland of native peoples who roamed freely throughout the continent.  Borders were fluid and even nonexistent---until European conquerors moved in, using the Doctrine of Discovery to claim the native lands of those indigenous peoples and to subjugate them, to Christianize those who were willing to convert, and to kill or enslave those who were not willing to leave their indigenous religion and embrace Christianity.
         Guess what happened because of this religious enactment in the 15th century?  Again from Newcomb’s essay:
         In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that - upon "discovery" - the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. In other words, Indian nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.
         Yes, that’s right.  U.S. law concerning native American rights to peaceful existence in this, their native land, is based on a 500 year old religious dictum which authorized capture, conversion, killing, enslavement, and displacement of peoples whose misfortune it was to have been here first. 
         Since that enactment of U.S. law by the Supreme Court nearly 200 years ago, native peoples have been herded onto reservations, forced to sign treaties to maintain some semblance of existence, massacred if they dared to oppose this treatment, caricatured by popular culture, and robbed of sacred rituals and practices which have been misappropriated by the dominant culture and used for commercial gain.
         The concept which came to be known as Manifest Destiny has been a hallmark of U.S. policy toward the expansion of European-born peoples across the Americas, upheld by politicians of every stripe, ostensibly to promote democracy across the continent and to declare it a moral law that superseded all other law.
         In other words, it was considered the destiny of American democracy to eradicate and subdue, in this country, non-democratic forms of government.  Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:
1.    the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2.    the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
3.    the destiny under God to do this work.
         Since that time, many of us have come to understand what terrible wrongs have been committed against indigenous peoples, both here and abroad, and slowly the tide has turned, our thinking has evolved, and there is a growing undercurrent of support to repeal laws which fly in the face of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, proclaimed and published by the United Nations in September of 2007.
         The Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify the conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.  It was the justification for the appropriation of lands and resources and the domination of native nations and usurpation of their sovereignty.  It formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.
         The Doctrine of Discovery codified, put into law, made legal the oppression of others and it may be the invisible attitude that gives tacit permission to all the bullying behavior we see in society, from the playground to the boardroom and marketplace, and ultimately to the battlefield.
         As a consequence of my recent inquiry into my own ethnic roots, I have learned that I may have blood ties to the indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia----once called Laplanders and now known by their own name:  the Saami.
         The Saami have occupied the northern tier of Scandinavia, up into the Arctic Circle, for many centuries, and with changes in the political boundaries of the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, and Finland, particularly), the fortunes of the Saami have depended on the benevolence of the governments of these nations.
         These indigenous people have not always been treated well by the ruling nation.  Though Scandinavia is considered to be a bulwark of egalitarianism, the truth is that the Saami have always been considered outsiders and as primitive peoples, they were considered “less fit”, both emotionally and intellectually. 
         Over the centuries, my Scandinavian forebears treated the Saami people differently and enacted policies that had racist overtones and outcomes.  I’ve had to consider what it means that my ancestral kin may have both been treated badly OR have treated indigenous peoples badly.
         Here’s what I’ve been thinking, as I’ve researched and considered the implications of this challenging information:  First of all, DUH!  How could I miss this?  How can native peoples have been subjected to this without my recognizing it?  How could they become invisible to me? 
         Just knowing that I may have Saami blood kin eliminates my ability to overlook this miscarriage of justice.  And since we are ALL related, according to what science is learning about how ancient humans traveled from continent to continent, we cannot, in conscience, turn a blind eye.  I may never know for sure whether I am part Saami, but it has changed me to know of this connection.
         When I think of my high school friends, Joyce and Belva Hoptowit, who lived on the nearby Umatilla reservation and went to my high school, I remember that they were both beautiful, both of them were honored as Indian princesses in the Happy Canyon show that was part of the Pendleton RoundUp every year.
         Their pictures were in our high school yearbook---on horseback, dressed in white deerskin, feathers in their hair, looking regal.
         There were two boys, Peter and Paul Quaempts, who were basketball stars at St. Joseph’s Academy in Pendleton.  We all had crushes on these two guys.  I even wrote them an anonymous note one time, at the height of my starry-eyed phase.  What became of these beautiful young men and women?
         Sadly, as I researched the names of these friends and admired ones, I found death notice after death notice----all of these four had died too young, between ages 50 and 60.  Why?  I couldn’t find out why, but knowing the bleak history of health vulnerabilities among indigenous peoples who have been overrun by European conquerors, I could hazard a guess.
         Was it alcoholism taking advantage of the genetic make-up of Native Americans?  Or their high susceptibility to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity?  Did poverty and depression contribute to their deaths? 
         These are questions I had never before thought to ask.  Has the treatment of Native peoples by their conquerors over the centuries resulted in such poor living conditions that their emotional and physical health has been damaged?  That their history from the day Europeans set foot on their lands has been one of death and displacement?  My answer to these questions is Yes.
         And my next question is, logically, what---500 years later---can we do about any of this?
         As Kate and I talked about this service, we had to face the questions that were raised by this issue:  why do we not think of the rights of native people?  Why do we still treat them as the invisible inconvenience of white colonialism?  What is it about human nature that allows us to dehumanize others of our species to the extent that we have?
         We acknowledge that we have within each of us the capacity for both good and evil.  Why do we so often choose hurtful behavior over compassion?  How do we begin to examine our own tendencies to dominate and to oppress?  How do we change our sense of entitlement so that it no longer impinges on the rights of others? 
         Native peoples in this country and others have contributed hugely to our arts and cultural heritage.  We in return have often misappropriated their art, spiritual practices, music, and other contributions, using them for our own material gain.  We do so without understanding their history, the heritage that they represent, and we may even callously adapt those rituals and items to better meet our needs, not caring or even knowing that their originators might feel resentful and hurt.  The beauty they have offered----in art, in music, in ritual, in culture---has often been stolen and misused for financial gain.
         Native lands are always under the gun.  Awhile back, I received notices about proposed mining in Alaska that threatens native fishing rights and  a deal in North Dakota that sold the Fort Berthold Indian reservation’s oil and gas rights.  Large corporations were behind both these acquisitions.          
         In addition, a recent story in the Oregonian revealed that $32 million dollars are owed to Native Americans, the result of negligence on the part of the Interior Department to pay for the many leases of Native lands for mining, grazing and other uses, by both corporations and individuals.  Royalties were to be placed into accounts set up for tribal members.  Mismanagement of these funds has resulted in this large non-payment.  So it is still happening to our Native friends and neighbors.
         Clearly, we must act.  What can we do?  The Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and in 2012, brought a resolution to the floor of our General Assembly in Phoenix,  when the related issue of immigration laws were also a focus of attention.
         The resolution states:  BE IT RESOLVED that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples.  It was passed by a strong margin and is part of our Actions of Social Justice work, authorizing congregations to take action.
         Other religious traditions are also speaking out in favor of repeal of laws which are based on the Doctrine of Discovery and I would like to suggest that we as individuals and as a congregation study the issue deeply and align with other concerned congregations and humanitarian groups, including the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
          Perhaps other congregations in our area are concerned as well and might join with us in educating ourselves and taking a stand for justice for indigenous peoples.
         In addition, we can strongly oppose legislation and corporate actions which impinge upon native lands.  We can educate ourselves and others.  We can reach out in friendship to those affected by these ancient policies and, instead of just feeling helpless and looking away, let’s seek truth, let’s question what we’ve always done, and let’s practice compassion and seek reconciliation.  We can protest the commercialization of native images and practices and refuse to participate in supporting them.
         Let’s do something together as a congregation and let’s turn our individual efforts into action to bring about repeal of unjust laws.  And let’s recognize the dangers of of our own privileged status and take steps to keep it from harming others.
         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
#318, We Would Be One
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, but thinking hard about how our lives have been shaped by the oppressive policies of the past.  May we dedicate ourselves to doing our part to change the laws which hurt others and may we never forget that our privileged lives are, to some degree, bought by the pain of others.  We pray for strength to understand and the courage to change.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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