Reflections on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Reflections on Indigenous People’s Day
By the Rev. Rachel K. Taber-Hamilton

On May 4, 1493, at the urging of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Pope Alexander VI confirmed their right of possession of all newly discovered lands in the Americas. Even at that point in time, 524 years ago this year, the Christian conquest of the new world was well under way.

Alexander’s papal bull was a continuation of what is now called the Doctrine of Discovery. The history of Europeans “discovering” indigenous peoples in their own land is a tragic one. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V had exhorted Catholic rulers to conquer, even those “in the remotest parts unknown to us,” who all were deemed to be enemies of Christ. The Pope gave explorers (the first venture capitalists) permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans,” take their possessions, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” This was understood to be God’s will, with the new world interpreted as the “promised land” that God intended for them as the “faithful’ to enter and claim as their renewed Eden.

To settle a feud between Spain and Portugal, the papal bull of 1493 divided the world between them, leaving most the Americas to Spain and giving Portugal what is now Brazil and all lands in Africa and Asia. The European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas was informed in equal parts by both profiteering and theology, each reinforcing the validity of the other. What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

Not long after his arrival in the area, Columbus and his men herded the indigenous peoples into pens, enslaved them to mine for gold, and -failing that – shipped them to Europe to be sold as slaves, in payment of accrued debts to his investors. The Arawaks had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. When they fled, they were hunted down with dogs and were killed. This scenario, exemplified by Christopher Columbus, would be reenacted by other Christian European countries throughout the centuries, employing the same theological, economic and geopolitical justifications.

The indigenous peoples of the United States also came under the influence of the Doctrine of Discovery in the founding of the country by its earliest European settlers. The Doctrine was formally indoctrinated into U.S. law in 1823, when Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that the U.S. had derived its right of “dominion” from Great Britain as the nation who “discovered” and settled “unoccupied” land. Justice Marshall concluded that America’s “heathen” natives had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty” and must now live as dependent nations within the U.S.

Nations that have been forged from the forces of colonialism have been built upon the premise of clearing away and subjugating indigenous peoples in body, mind and spirit. The historical trauma of indigenous peoples is intergenerational, both in our physical DNA and in our communal histories. We see the impact of historical trauma manifested in high rates of addiction, poor health, homelessness, incarceration, family breakdowns, violence, suicide, neglect, and abuse/sexual abuse which are all disproportionately high across our peoples.

Struggles for sovereignty and treaty rights continue today and are as much a part of indigenous people’s traditions as prayers, songs and dances. Court rooms, government offices, jail houses, clinics and schools are today’s battle grounds upon which indigenous peoples are still fighting for recognition, dignity, rights, sacred sites, resources, justice and life itself.

So, for indigenous peoples in Washington State, Indigenous People’s Day celebrates our continued survival and cultural pride in the face of profound loss and disparate odds. Coming together as the Church to recognize and support indigenous presence and identity within our diocese, is a vital connection that we can make with one another. Only through an intentional process of partnership, reconciliation and celebration, can we create the Kingdom of God as a Sacred Circle into which, truly, All Are Welcome. The path that is life-giving (not death-dealing) is the path we must mutually commit to walking together, if humanity and all Creation are to continue for generations yet to come.

Book Review – Benediction by Kent Haruf

(Note: I read this book during my vacation and wrote this book review)

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Benediction begins with the terminal cancer diagnosis for Dad Lewis, the 77-year old owner of a hardware store in a small town in Eastern Colorado, and it follows him through his last two months of life.

The story is filled with losses. Even as we watch Dad Lewis experience the end of his life, we learn about the losses of every character – the losses of parents, children, lovers, marriages, relationships. But somehow there is also hope in this story. Even as some things come to an end, we also see the hint of beginnings.

Among the relationship cutoffs in the book, the primary one is the break between Dad Lewis and his gay son, Frank. All through the book you wonder if Frank will come home so they can reconcile, but what reconciliation there is comes only in a dream where Frank appears to his father, and even then it’s incomplete and unsatisfying.

The prose of the novel is as dry and sparse as the Eastern Colorado plains where it is set. We only learn about the character’s interior thoughts and feelings by inferring them from the spare dialogue that is pitch-perfect for this part of the country. Haruf lived in the part of the country and has a good ear for the language.

Although Dad Lewis isn’t religious, he consents to have the newly arrived minister at the Community Church come to visit him. The minister has been sent to this small town as a kind of punishment for speaking in favor of gay rights at his previous church in Denver. He preaches a sermon in church about loving one’s enemies during the Iraq War. Members of the congregation walk out and he loses his position, as well as his wife who is fed up with being a pastor’s wife. His son attempts suicide and he decides to leave the ministry. Haruf grew up in a minister’s family and clearly knows the pain and complexity of pastoral life.

Only Willa and Alene, an old woman and her retired schoolteacher daughter, stand by the minister as he is “crucified” by his church board. The minister is obviously a Jesus figure in the novel.

Although this is not a Christian novel, Christian themes are woven throughout the fabric of the book. When Willa and Alene, who live out in the country, invite eight-year old Alice and Dad Lewis’ daughter to a picnic at their farm, the older ladies have a feast in the grass that resembles Communion. Then they take off their clothes so they can swim in the stock tank. Alice joins them and they teach her to float on her back for what is obviously a baptismal scene.

In the course of the book, Dad Lewis confronts the dark places of his past. His own angry rejection of his father is replicated in his son’s angry rejection of him. He admits to his daughter, “I wasn’t paying attention. I missed a lot of things. I could have done better.”

In his dreams, he wrestles with things he has done and left undone, and comes to terms with them in one way or another. Some are unresolved, some are reconciled, just as in life. Haruf’s gentle wisdom and pastoral touch leave the reader with a sense of pathos and tragedy tinged with hope, a Benediction at the last.

The ending of the novel is somewhat odd. Dad Lewis has died, the body has been taken away, and plans for the memorial service have been made. That would seem like a good place to end the story, but one more thing happens. Little eight-year old Alice is missing. She has ridden away on her bicycle and she hasn’t come back. A frantic search doesn’t find her, but at dusk she comes walking wearily up the road. She got lost on the country roads, had a flat tire, and walked home. This final story is like a parable for all the losses in the novel, like the parable of the lost sheep. Yes, there have been losses, but in all the losses something has been found. Hope abides.

“So you want to talk about race” Episode 3

Here’s the third video of my book study of “So you want to talk about race?” by Ijeoma Oluo. It’s about four and a half minutes long, and in it I discuss chapters 4 and 5 of the book, in which the author talks about “white privilege” and “intersectionality.”

Book study: “So you want to talk about race?” Episode 1

Because of the uproar over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, many people want to learn more about race and racism. Bishop Rickel recommended this book for study, and I’m going to do a series of short videos as I read through the book. Each video will cover one or two chapters and be four or five minutes long. I invite you to join me in this book study!