Attending to the Indigenous Voice

Invocation Poem
by Larry Robinson, HERE

Part 1
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
If we would know where we are going, we need to know what we are. If we would know what we are, we need to know where we came from.

We come from the universe that began 14 billion years ago, and the planet earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, and the life that began there more than 3 billion years ago.

We come from the vertebrates that first appeared over 500 million years ago, and from the rise of mammals that was paved by the 5th great extinction 65 million years ago when, probably, an asteroid struck the Earth leading to the extinction of 75% of all species of that time.

We come from the order primates that first appeared 55 million years ago, the family hominid that first appeared 15 million years ago, the genus homo that first appeared 2 million years ago, and the species sapiens that’s been around about 250,000 years, that wandered out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, that transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and settlement starting about 12,000 years ago, and began what is called "civilization" (settlements large enough to be called cities, labor specialization, imposing buildings, trained armies, and at least a rudimentary civil service) about 5,000 years ago.

And then, this thing called Western Civilization. This is where it gets personal. People from Europe dominated the globe – conquered, colonized, oppressed, stole, usurped. Why? How did it happen that Europeans were able to do this?

It won’t do to say that Europeans were superior human beings: they were smart enough to develop writing with a small-set alphabet that made a more widespread literacy possible, and later they made the printing press. All this facilitated the development of learning and technological advantages like guns and steel swords and ocean-going vessels. If there was a technological superiority, there was also what we might call a moral inferiority. The European invaders had a level of greed beyond what the native peoples could imagine, and a casual willingness for mass slaughter, theft, deceit, and promise-breaking in service of their greed.

On the one hand, the Europeans might also be said to have had an organizational advantage. The rise of the nation-state in Europe saw the emergence of institutional and governmental structures by the time of Columbus that were equipped to organize and carry out an invasion of a land area more than 4 times the size of all of Europe. On the other hand, that they would be so keen to do so may suggest a further level of moral infirmity.

What accounts for these differences – technological, organizational, or moral? It’s not genetic. There’s no genetic difference among peoples in their capacity for any of these things. It’s not that God favored Europeans -- nor did God curse them.

Animals -- other than humans, that is -- are part of the story. The fertile crescent that happened to have the wild grasses barley and wheat, also happened to be where the wild ancestors of cows, pigs, sheep, and goats are native. After the harvest, the animals could eat the stubble and turn that into meat, as well as milk, wool, and leather. Domesticable animals made farming much more wealth-producing, which meant larger populations could be supported, all staying in one place. Hence, urbanization and specialization of labor -- which facilitated further technology development to support still larger populations. Those methods became Greek, then Roman, and then European.

Relatively few animals, it turns out, are practical to farm. Elephants take too long to mature. Zebras are too flighty and nervous and have a vicious streak. In the Americas, only the llama and the related alpaca could be domesticated. So geographic fluke is part of the story. Whatever part of the world happened to have both wild grasses like barley and wheat and domesticable animals like cows, pigs, sheep, and goats would eventually initiate a feedback loop that created increasing surplus wealth, technology, and social organization. The technology would inevitably come to include guns and steel for swords and other uses. Moreover, the close proximity to our domesticated animals bred diseases, to which Europeans gradually developed increased immunity. And here we have the "guns, germs, and steel" story that Jared Diamond's 1997 book of that title details.

One of the effects of wealth is that it orients people toward creating still more. In part, this is because wealth creates inequality. Hunter-gatherers or subsistence farming cultures are comparatively egalitarian. With inequality, you have the lower classes oriented toward climbing, and the upper class oriented to staying on top. It’s a giant petri dish for growing greed.

Such a dish of greed was, arguably, a consequence of the geographic fluke of having just the right sorts of domesticable grains and livestock around. But that geographic fluke doesn't account for the unique way the separation of powers between secular and church authority developed in Europe. Europe's church-state dynamic was also a fluke, but it was a fluke that was not determined by the conditions that allowed for highly wealth-producing farming.

In 494, Pope Gelasius articulated the "two swords doctrine" -- foreshadowed in Saint Augustine's City of God almost a century before. The Two Swords doctrine expressed the understanding that Europe largely shared for the next thousand years: that royal power and priestly power were two separate but cooperating authorities divinely established to govern human lives in this world. In theory, the State was to deal with human, temporal concerns while the Church was charged with responsibility for people's eternal salvation and for the worship of God. In practice, the church's interest in addressing all the material obstacles it perceived stood in the way of human salvation lead it to exert influence in ways that overlapped with the secular authorities, creating a constant tension between the two "swords." Kings were fighting against each other, but both sides were answerable, at least a little, to the Pope and Bishops. The Catholic Church, as the Western Roman Empire was falling, was growing into a quasi-independent, transnational power structure that was unique on the planet. A kind of federalism prevailed in medieval Europe, with the centralized power of the church over all of Christendom balanced by the decentralized secular authority of the nobles within their respective realms. A variety of conditions produced this "two swords" arrangement -- and certainly the upward spirals of population centers, technology, and organization initiated by the luck of domesticable grasses and farm animals was among them. The fluke of domesticability, however, while it may have been necessary, was not sufficient for the emergence of Europe's church-state dynamic. A continent that hit upon similarly profitable farming methods might have gone down a very different path.

Yet without Europe's unique church-state dynamic, the Crusades would not have happened. The Crusades, a product of a church that wanted to spread its religion and secular authorities eager to plunder, especially with the church’s blessing, resulted in “unprecedented wealth in the hands of a few.” The Crusades thus further exacerbated the importance of wealth in the minds of Europeans. As Dunbar-Ortiz notes,
“the crusading armies were mercenary outfits that promised the soldiers the right to sack and loot Muslim towns and cities, feats that would gain them wealth and prestige back home.” (33)
And the Crusades proved to be a warm-up for the conquest of the Americas. The culture into which Christopher Columbus was born in the mid-15th century had become highly sophisticated and organized, and oriented toward amassing superfluous displays of wealth – hence the mania for a useless metal, gold. The mixture of religious rationale and drive for wealth fostered by the Crusades against the darker-skinned Muslims was then deployed against the darker-skinned nonChristians of the Americas.

Where do we come from? We who live in North America, whether we are of European descent or of African or Asian descent – live in and are shaped by – we come from -- a culture founded in European invasion, conquest, and genocidal intent – and we all carry those wounds.

What are we? We are people, like all people, prone to fears, greed, and delusions. We are products of our culture, which developed as a particular unique set of strategies for addressing universal human needs. We recognize that strands of the culture that is still with us produced the evils of Conquistadors and settler-colonialism – and that the conditions of our lives were created by those evils.

Where are we going? We are replacing exclusion with inclusion. We aren’t always sure how to do that, so we are learning to attend better to the voices of the excluded. We are replacing dehumanization with respect. We aren’t always sure how to do that, but know it must include attending to the voices of those who have been dehumanized – as well as doing our own work. We are replacing the certainty of our own rightness with awareness that we need to learn, and an openness to understanding in new ways.


Part 2

This year’s Common Read, selected by our denominational body, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If we are going to know who we are, what we are, we have to know this history.

I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, around 1967, I looked forward very much to Thursdays, because Thursday night my two favorite TV shows were on back to back. "Batman" – the campy one with Adam West – was followed by "Daniel Boone," played by Fess Parker. I loved that show. The idyllic relationship between the townsfolk of Boonesborough, Kentucky and the native peoples in the area made sense to me. It was echoed by the sort of story of the nation’s founding that I was getting in school – and was reinforced at home in such celebrations as the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, with romantic images of Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread – and Turkeys – together.

I now know that the colonists that landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 did not call any event in their first years a “Thanksgiving.” The first “Day of Thanksgiving” – as proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony – came 17 years after the Plymouth landing. The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of the massacre of hundreds of Native people – which grew into a general celebration of genocide. For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.

We know about the history of slaughter and deportation, and the trail of tears, the forced relocation of some 60,000 Native people to areas West of the Mississippi.

We’ve heard about the deliberate planting of small pox in blankets given to indigenous people – an early use of biological warfare, disguised as cooperative trade.

We’ve learned about the trail of broken treaties: that 374 treaties between the US and Native nations were ratified, and numerous others – treated as binding on the Natives – were never ratified – and that the US promptly ignored many of them as soon as they found it convenient to do so.

You might not know about the more recent history. You might not know about the Indian termination policy the US pursued for 20 years after World War II. It was a campaign from the mid-40s to mid-60s to try to assimilate Native Americans – get them off the reservation, abandon traditional lives and “begin to live as Americans.” The idea gained support from a 1943 report finding that living conditions on reservations were very poor and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was grossly mismanaged. So getting rid of reservations was seen as a way to improve the lives of people mired in reservation poverty. Federal tribal recognition was withdrawn from over 100 native nations – most of which have since been reinstated. When we recall that the 50s were a time when Jim Crow was in full swing, schools and lunch counters were segregated, and inter-racial marriage was outlawed in 30 states, then we see that what was at issue wasn’t really assimilation into all the privileges of whiteness.

You might not know the ways that rationalizations used for past atrocities against indigenous people may still be invoked – by our government – today – as in the government’s justification of holding prisoners at Guantanamo.
“In early 2011, a Yemeni citizen, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, was serving a life sentence at Guantanamo as an ‘enemy combatant.’. . . In arguing that Bahlul’s conviction be upheld, a Pentagon lawyer, navy captain Edward S. White relied on a precedent from an 1818 tribunal.” (201)
His brief argues,
“Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.”
You might not know that our history with Indigenous people echoes in the government’s recent defenses of torture. Law professor John Yoo, serving in the Justice Department, wrote an influential memo in 2003. He invoked the category, “unlawful combatants” to say that what would otherwise be a war crime did not apply to acts against people deemed enemies of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. His precedent for the concept of “unlawful combatant” was the US Supreme Court’s 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners decision, in which the court said that “
the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier.”
We need this book, and I’m grateful to our Unitarian publishing house, Beacon press, for commissioning it and to Indigenous scholar Dunbar-Ortiz for writing it. The call of compassion is a call to understand.

Every time anybody says anything, there’s a lot that is left unsaid. And that’s not a problem – unless what you’re saying turns out to be part of a strategy for obscuring something else. For example: it’s true that the Europeans’ average immunity to certain diseases had gradually increased after a thousand years of sharing living quarters with their livestock and enduring resulting pandemics – and Native populations’ immunities to those diseases tended to be lower. It’s true that the diseases Europeans unleashed were a factor. But it’s important to know that that fact has been politicized as a strategy for downplaying the role of the colonists’ unrelenting wars in causing the across-the-board reduction of Indigenous populations by 90 percent following the onset of colonizing projects.

If we attend to indigenous voices, they can tell us what words are being used against them, and we can better avoid unwittingly adding to the harm.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we will see come to see ourselves more completely.

If we attend to indigenous voices, recognizing a common humanity while respecting and honoring important differences, we help build our world’s appreciation of cultural diversity.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we can more fully come to terms with our country’s past. Living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did – as Native historian Jack Forbes stresses. They are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. When we today assume responsibility for what is ours to be responsible for – the society we now live in – our lives become forces for survival and liberation of others and ourselves.

Everyone and everything in the world is affected, for the most part negatively, by US dominance and intervention, often violently through direct military means or through proxies – as we continue today to play out the enduring legacy of colonialist thought patterns. It is an urgent concern. So let’s read this book, and let’s talk about it. On four Sundays -- May 3, 10, 17, and 24 -- at 16:00 (4pm), please join our online class to process together the the book.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes:
"Indigenous people offer possibilities for life after empire, possibilities that neither erase the crimes of colonialism nor require the disappearance of the original peoples colonized under the guise of including them as individuals. That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. In the process, the continent will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations." (235-36)
In the words of Acoma poet Simon Ortiz:
"The future will not be mad with loss and waste though the memory will be there.
Eyes will become kind and deep, and the bones of this nation will mend after the revolution.”
May it be so. Amen.


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