In museums we position the objects of our past, the pots, tapestries, war spears and carved planes. From behind the glass, we survey the yellowed pages and raveled canvases of peoples from humanity’s long-gone eras, moving placidly along the timeline of brief historical summaries typed on cardstock squares. As children we are taught to make our way through the past with a similarly dispassionate gaze. We are introduced to gallant pioneers of the West, kindly Founding Fathers, intrepid pilgrims, and nature-loving Indians, crafting America’s narrative in a collage of crayon shades, Thanksgiving stickers, and feathers.
We exit our museums and classrooms with our crafts and leave the interred histories behind; they have no place now among the progressive, the young, the living. But what if the peoples of those histories are still among us? What if the spaces between lines of history lesson worksheets point to peoples who necessitate not only our gaze, but our movement towards them? What if those we internally classify as distant, dead cultures are unable to thrive now because our ignorance of their living acts as a silencer?
Who have we left behind in our efforts to look towards the future and placate our past with indulgent handwaves?
I visited a Navajo reservation last summer in Arizona, and the answer found me. My family and I toured with our guide, a slender Navajo man in his twenties. As our jeep tumbled over the rocky terrain, glazed red in summer sun, he told us of the names of the stone monuments–both the English names from movie directors who filmed in the area, and the names the Nez (the local name for his people) give them. This tour was off the hotel brochures because he and his father had dared to question hotel encroachment on the native lands as companies circumvented federal land policies to build more commercial enterprises on Nez land. He feared that foot by foot, the reservation would shrink, and no one but the people squeezed in would notice…
His story joined that of other accounts I have had the privilege of hearing over these past few years. I attended a pow wow on Randall’s Island last fall and listened to the stories of indigenous groups from across the U.S. as they shared their peoples’ struggles to bring attention to the economic, political, and geographic abuses against them. One older woman was reunited with kin from Hawaii for the first time in years, and they sang together, weaving themes of loss and loneliness. Afterwards, another woman stood on the stage and her voice shook with anger as she told us about how indigenous persons were being arrested in the Midwest for trying to pray on their sacred mountain. Apparently the U.S. government believes that it owns that mountain now, and the people who once communed upon it are restricted from accessing it.
The anger and grief I felt in hearing these stories is not enough, and neither is it the focus here. I can easily grieve hearing about sad things and yet do nothing in my power to help those in need. I can grieve and still have the privilege of warding off the full ache of injustice because I am not a native body.
Now, with indigenous peoples and their allies being arrested for protesting the building of an oil pipeline in North Dakota that would encroach upon 17 miles of land claimed by the Great Sioux Nation by federal treaty, we must act (see more of the historical context here). We are being invited to participate in a movement of justice for those we have forgotten in our neglect and giddy embrace of the future. They are not artifacts, nor the spiritualized romantic figures of an old American West. They are living, growing communities molded by a pattern of negligence and apathy on our part.
When was the last time you heard someone from your school, your church, your peer group speak up about the challenges facing indigenous peoples in this land? For me, it wasn’t until college; it didn’t even ping my radar, despite visiting the Miccosukee reservation in Florida and speaking with the much-alive people there. My indigenous framework was formed by watching Pocahontas and and standing within recreations of Iroquois longhouses in the Hudson River Valley. These peoples always felt relegated to a different category, caught in the void between the past and present, and not quite fully accepted in either. Once I was introduced to other stories, local stories of the relationship between my country and its indigenous peoples, I was faced with a choice: hide from an agonizing past or walk into the tension.
We need to embrace the First Nations of this land as part of us, as modern and relevant to our present livelihood as a nation created from hasty border-making and border-breaking. They do not have the privilege of distancing themselves from the shadows our inaction casts.
My faith in Jesus demands that I seek out the hidden and bring it to light, whether that be the histories beneath the carefully cultivated account of my nation’s sins or the peoples still directly harmed by those sins. I repent on behalf of my nation for the ways we betrayed, persecuted, murdered, and forgot the First Nations of this land. This is one step in the journey of cognizance and lament; then it is time to evaluate how one must step boldly in allyship, not contained solely in the realm of pleasant, poetic words or posts rimmed in trendy #hashtags.
What can we do? Others are already blazing the trail in solidarity. Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, posted this call to action:
- Sign on. Sign the Rezpect Our Water petition and the Pledge of Resistance initiated by the campaign to stop the pipeline.
- Donate. The Sacred Stone Camp is fundraising for legal defense in the face of police repression.Contribute today to help support indigenous land defenders. The Rezpect Our Water campaign is funding Native youth to join the camp. Contribute today to bring youth leaders to block the pipeline.
- Spread the word. Share information from the Camp of the Sacred Stones and the Rezpect Our Water campaign, as well as news from the frontlines, on social media using the hashtag #NoDAPL, and ask your organizations to express their support.
- Join solidarity rallies and actions in your own city or area to stand with Standing Rock and the campaign to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- Join the camp. Travel to North Dakota to answer the call of the Standing Rock Sioux for indigenous and non-indigenous people to join the struggle on the ground.
Black Lives Matter activists have traveled to North Dakota to stand with the protesting communities and bring needed material resources. Those with an intimate relationship to oppression know the urgency vital to dismantling it.
What can we do? We can speak out so no one ignores what is happening. We can protest in the spaces we are placed. We can write to our political leaders and petition them to garner support to halt the pipeline construction. We can challenge companies who would benefit from the pipeline. We can donate funds and material resources to the affected communities. We can pray for wide-scale repentance of these abuses and challenge the silences in our midst.
And we can go, move ourselves geographically and live out Jesus’ call to compassion–to suffer with those who suffer and advocate for their welfare. We can show them by our actions that, like our God, we have not forgotten them.
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:16-17