“Many Have Inhabited These Lands”
by Rina Swentzell of the Santa Clara Pueblo
“What we are told as children is that people when they walk on land leave their breath wherever they go. So wherever we walk, that particular spot on the earth never forgets us, and when we go back to these places, we know that the people who have lived there are in some way still there, and that we can actually partake of their breath and of their spirit.”
Back in 1991 the Washington Post included an article titled, ‘The Lost Tribes of the Eastern Shore’ which noted:
“Those rivers [on the Eastern shore] with their peculiar names are among the few surviving reminders of Native American cultures that began inhabiting the region some 10,000 years ago. The first American tribes to be discovered by the Europeans, they were also the first to fall. In 1600, an estimated 20,000 native fishermen, farmers and hunters lived on the Delmarva peninsula; in less than 150 years after the first English contact, the native people were driven to near extinction. Today there are virtually no physical traces of the peninsula’s dozen native societies.”
We partake of their breath and spirit.
During the last 30 years more research has been done, and more local artifacts have been catalogued. This is true locally and throughout the country. This year was the 29th gathering of the Native American Festival in Vienna, Maryland in Dorchester County, a recognition of the past and present Native American local presence.
We may hear a version of early encounters, say the stories of Captain John Smith encountering the Nanticokes near present day Vienna in 1608, and yet we often don’t finish telling what happened.
It’s not a surprise that there are many versions of any history. A classroom teacher and the high school student in the class may report out on a day differently. Even if they agree on facts, in the telling each highlights different threads and impacts. In all stories there are motivations and there is speculation.
I won’t try this morning to tell the full story of the indigenous peoples of North America, or the current United States, or the state of Maryland, or of the Talbot/Dorchester County region of the Eastern shore. I will offer some snapshots of history from perspectives which are different than what I’d learned in school.
In 2014 scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote, ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,’ a re-visioning of the entirety U.S. history from an Indigenous people’s perspective.
It’s not new to me that there were many, many Native American tribes were present as Europeans arrived in North America. I colored in maps of the locations of tribes and learned ‘these people’ had lived in wigwams, and tee pees. From movies I have images of stand-offs and battles between settlers and Indians. From more recent documentaries I know more of rich and diverse Native American cultures, and I am aware of some communities mired in pervasive poverty.
In current news we hear of Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet Secretary, who currently leads the Department of Interior. (I didn’t know that Herbert Hoover’s VP, Charles Curtis, was Native American.)
Dunbar-Ortiz asks us to not gloss over the layers and to learn the depth of history. She reminds us the Native American tribes had in place sophisticated systems of governance and processes for decision making. There were roads – not little trails, but robust systems of connection. And there were times of inter-tribal dispute and practices for resolution. Of course, there were myths and stories and deep spiritual practices, that were predominantly earth-centered traditions and rituals.
The many tribes present in 1600 had with their own long histories. Groups had and come and gone. 10,000 years of living lives here on the Delmarva – back to 8000 BC or so.
We partake of their breath and spirit.
Dunbar-Ortiz uses the term ‘settler colonization’ to describe the invasion of the Europeans in North America. She uses the term ‘genocide’ to describe the dramatic reduction in Native American populations – often by 90%. She sees it was an intentional genocide. She recognizes the role of disease and sees we can tell this part as ‘well it just happened’ – and presses that we look to how European goals accelerated the losses – even those associated with disease. A compelling read.
As with chattel slavery, and subsequent institutions of Jim Crow to mass incarceration, we can distance ourselves from the history; we can distance ourselves from the atrocities and rationalize, “But I wasn’t there, those weren’t my decisions or actions.” While true, as we’ve learned in our study of slavery and racism, we do however live with the outcomes – the privilege of some, the trauma of others. We are accountable for is the ways in which we work toward equity in the world we do live in.
And that work is informed by the history.
The Europeans who arrived – often described as ‘white men’ – arrived with a mindset of entitlement and a powerful drive to move forward and take lands wherever people were not Christian. The Doctrine of Discovery, issued by the pope in 1493, gave a mandate of sorts to go forth and “conquer.” Explorers and settlers went in the name of trade, commerce and even freedom.
In doing so they took liberation from others. There were promises made and broken.
In Maryland’s in less than a decade newly formed colonial government declared war on three tribes, the Wicomiss, Susquhannocks and the Nanticokes.
Official and informal actions from earliest encounter forward made clear that the humanity of the ‘Indian’ was less than, or non-existent. Or worse, seen as enemy.
By the time Andrew Jackson became president in 1829 he had overseen the taking of millions of acres of Native American lands or public uses and in the process had disposed the inhabitants. In his annual report to Congress in 1833 President Jackson noted,
“Indians…have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire for improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciated the causes of the inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
(Source: “American Nations’ by Colin Woodward, 195, quoting from Andrew Jackson Fifth Annual Address to Congress Dec 3, 1833.)
As we consider celebrating the rich history of Indigenous Peoples on Indigenous Peoples Day, there needs to be an honest telling of how Native Americans were pressed into corners of unfamiliar territory.
In what is known as Trail of Tears, more than 50,000 Native Americans were banished to the West between 1830-1850. Many died. Their loss of place and grounding profound. Many carried forward the trauma of separation and loss.
We partake in their breath and spirit.
And we are learning more of late about forced separation from families and forced assimilation int ‘white’ culture through residential schools.
Education Week noted (Oct 2020):
“For about 100 years, the U.S. government supported a system of boarding schools where more than 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children were stripped of their culture, their languages, and their religions and forced to assimilate to white customs. That policy, which continued until the 1960s, has continued effects on native communities today, says a bill filed this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.The bill …would … compile records and oral accounts of what happened in at 367 Indian boarding schools across 30 states.”
The focus was assimilation into white culture. (hold up children’s book, “I Am Not a Number” (Jenny Kay Dupuis) on the residential school experience.)
And Unitarians were a part of the process. One review notes, “In 1886, the American Unitarian Association established a boarding school on the Crow reservation in Montana called the “Montana Industrial School for Indians” or “Bond’s Mission School” run by Unitarian Rev. and Mrs. Henry F. Bond.” (https://juustwa.org/10113-2/)
What is the full story of the US history that a youngster born in Oklahoma on a reservation might tell? Shouldn’t that history be the shared history we should all understand and tell?
Telling a fuller truth matters. We do so not to spread shame, but to honor truth. The facts are there. The motivations and perspectives can be imagined from informed stories.
The reality is that Native Americans face conscious and unconscious biases. Nationwide there are measurable disparities in education, healthcare, and access to financial resources. There has also been a reclaiming of cultural heritage and pride in the identity.
We learn too from differences. Europeans put a high value on land ownership and having private property. Many of us ‘own’ our homes and land in our country. European arrived with a mindset that land and resources exist to supply commercial enterprise. Many of us assume these attitudes are ‘givens’- yet there are other ways.
Before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans did use the land for food, and hunted for needs – at times losing balance in the ecology, but there was a mindset and spirituality of a ‘oneness’ with the land led to a different sense of stewardship. This could be part of the mindset change needed for addressing climate change as a collective matters.
Earlier this month his past week DC was filled with Climate Change activists and indigenous peoples’ groups were many of the leaders. The speeches emphasized the importance of honoring the land. Lessons for consideration as consider the meaning of Indigenous Peoples day.
Our UU Association finds part of dealing with history needs to consider the roots of the behavior. At the 2012 General Assembly the UUA explicitly addressed the harm done by the Doctrine of Discovery in what Dunbar-Ortiz calls, “a powerful and excellent model.”
In part the UUA language says, “…The UUA repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural and racial biases having not place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples.”
It was over 40 years ago Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first conceived to remind us of the groups who were here first. The goal is not to celebrate Indigenous peoples as if the culture was one other immigrant group part adding to some melting pot. It is a day to recognize those who were here before European’s arrived as offering a culture of important lessons. It is a day to remember there is pain in the history. There is pain still today.
The UUA describes Indigenous Peoples day this way: “Indigenous Peoples Day” reimagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance.”
What else might we do in this coming year to learn more, and to act in solidarity with Native Americans? How does this fit with our commitment to pro-actively move toward a more just and equitable world? How might we see ourselves as stewards of a land with a collective responsibility for caring for our waters, for our air, for our soil?
Not a service today of answers, but a service of awareness. A service pulling us to a greater sense of understanding, inclusion and accountability with all who have inhabited these lands, and all who are yet to come.
We partake of their breath and spirit.
May It Be So
Closing Words –
A Native American proverb,“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children.”
Go in peace, go in love, go knowing love surrounds you wherever you may go.