Last week I had the privilege of attending the 11th annual Symposium of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) at George Fox University near Portland OR. This is the third time I have attended a NAIITS Symposium and while I do not consider myself an academic, I have to admit I really do enjoy hanging out with a bunch of Natives and discussing Christian theology from a Native worldview perspective. The topic this year was “Indigenous Reality: Moving Beyond Colonial and Post-Colonial Conversations.”
Several good papers were presented:
- First Nations Leadership and the Adaptation Challenge by Dr. Jacqueline Ottmann
- The Western World’s Loss and (Partial) Recovery of Mystery by Charles J. Conniry, Jr.
- Creating Native American Expression of Christian Faith: More than the Looks on their Faces by Casey Church
- Walking the Road of Forgiveness: The Restoration of Love, Justice, and Power by Anne M. Dilenschneider
- The Death of Mission: Rethinking the Great Commission by Gene L. Green
Each presentation was followed by a time of discussion and Q & A with the author. The two papers which I found the most challenging were “Walking the Road of Forgiveness” and “The Death of Mission.”
In her paper, Anne Dilenschneider gave a history of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, otherwise known as the Canton Asylum (located in Canton, South Dakota). A roadside historical marker regarding the asylum reads:
Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians:
Receiving Congressional appropriations in 1899, the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was the second federal mental hospital and the first dedicated to American Indians. The first patient arrived in 1902, and through 1934, more than 370 patients – ages two to eighty, from fifty tribes nationwide – lived here. Patients did domestic and agricultural work onsite, were occasionally shown to paying visitors, and underwent treatment with methods later deemed outdated and dehumanizing. From 1929 to 1933, federal inspectors found intolerable conditions, inadequate staffing, several sane patients kept by force, and numerous other abuses. In 1933, John Collier, the newly appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, ordered the asylum closed. G. J. Moen, with the Canton Chamber of Commerce, filed an injunction to keep the asylum open, but it was overturned in federal court. Many patients were discharged and those who still needed care were sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington D.C. The major buildings used by the asylum have since been demolished. The Hiawatha Asylum cemetery, where at least 121 patients were buried in unmarked graves, is located between the 4th and 5th fairways of the Hiawatha Golf Club. In 1998, the cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Anne went on to describe her involvement in the Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story. “A group (Native and Non-Native) committed to education, preservation and restoration, and reconciliation” regarding the Canton Asylum. She also discussed her background in the work and study of restorative justice. One of the points she made that I found most interesting was how Euro-Americans approach reconciliation and forgiveness from such an individualistic context that they actually mis-interpret the Biblical teachings on this matter. There is a tendency to ask victims to forgive, regardless of the repentance of their oppressors. The call generally is to forgive and forget. But in the tribal, Jewish context repentance and forgiveness are highly relational processes and cannot be separated. In other words, there can be no forgiveness where there is no repentance. She also observes that when Jesus is dying on the cross, because there is no repentance by his oppressors, making his ability to forgive impossible, Jesus instead turns the process of reconciliation over to God, asking him to forgive those who killed him. She also argued that encouraging victims of injustice to forgive and forget their unrepentant oppressors “only supports the perpetrator, reinforces the original trauma and dis-empowers the person who was harmed.” Instead, she proposes that victims in such situations enter a period of mourning.
I found this presentation incredibly helpful as I have been wrestling with the response (or lack thereof) by both the United States government and the American church to the injustices perpetrated against Native peoples. I specifically remember the speech I gave after the reading of the Apology to Native Peoples that the US Congress and the White House buried in H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act.
“…I stepped forward and did what I felt had to do. I didn’t want it to come to this. I have deep respect for President Obama and Governor Brownback, as both men have gone far beyond their predecessors in reaching out to native peoples. And I had hoped and prayed up until the last moment that one of them would step forward to take ownership of these words. But they didn’t. So I took the microphone and encouraged our native leaders, communities, and people to not accept this apology.
I was not trying to be divisive, nor was I trying to shame President Obama or our nation. But I did have an understanding of the situation and an appreciation for who my audience actually was. This event was not about me, nor was it about President Obama, Governor Brownback, or the 111th Congress. This event was about the relationship between indigenous peoples and their colonizers throughout the world. And my audience was not just the 150 people standing in front of me, it was the entire globe. The United States of America is a leader in this world; our words are scrutinized and our example is followed. If Native Americans were to accept this apology, in the vague, politicized, disrespectful, and self-protecting way it was given then we would be condoning our government’s actions and making a model of their methods. We would be communicating to indigenous peoples everywhere that we are still subservient to our colonizers, that we are not their equals, and that we should just be grateful for whatever scraps they bother to throw our way.
I could not let that message get communicated. I have too much respect for myself, for my elders, for my country, and even for my elected officials. So I took a stand, and encouraged our Native peoples to not accept this apology. Not out of anger, bitterness, or resentment, but out of respect. Native peoples deserve better and our country can do better.” (Reflections from the Hogan: A Conversation for Reconciliation)
At the time of that speech I struggled with being a Christian and yet encouraging our people to not accept this apology. For in many ways I had accepted the misinterpretations of Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation that Anne referred to in her paper. But I also knew that accepting this buried apology would not lead to reconciliation, for it would only affirm our oppressor’s actions and reinforce their role as (unjust) colonizers. And I have to admit that after the public reading of the buried apology was over, I did enter into a period of mourning and soul searching. You can read more about that process in a blog article I wrote titled “A Prayer of Indigenous Peoples.”
After her presentation I was able to speak personally with Anne. Her paper did not provide the answers of what I need to do next, but it was incredibly affirming of the steps I have taken and the journey our people are on.
Like I said before. I am not an academic and therefore do not consider myself to be a full blown theologian. But I do love hanging out with the Native community and talking about theological issues from a Native perspective.
This week, on June 18, I have the privilege of traveling to Washington DC to speak at “the Summit” This is a conference hosted by Sojourners that will gather “select leaders from a variety of sectors, stages in their careers, and with different areas of focus to discuss, strategize, and create opportunities to act on some of the most pressing issues in our nation and world.” I will be discussing the Doctrine of Discovery as part of a panel on “Theology, Ethics, and Racial Implicit Bias”. This is not a paid speaking engagement and I still need to cover some of the travel expenses myself. If you would like to help support the work and ministry of 5 Small Loaves including my trip to Washington DC this week, I welcome you to visit our CrowdFunding page at GoFundMe.com/5-Small-Loaves.
Thanks Mark — appreciate your honest and sensitive commentary. Wish I could have been there!