“People are making preparations for Thanksgiving while the North Dakota police are using water cannons and rubber bullets on Native Americans.”
This message braced me yesterday morning on Facebook, and the tension it ignited has not left. For months we’ve been watching the deadlock at Standing Rock between water protectors and the militarized police forces. Now that it is flaring out into disturbing levels of violence, the horror is palpable for those watching from the outside.
I hear people cry out, “It’s 2016! This shouldn’t be happening!” I think this mentality is part of the problem–we assume that we have progressed so much as a society that these blatant displays of discrimination and aggression against marginalized people groups shock us this much. We assume we left this type of atrocity in our past. We were wrong.
Look at the living conditions of many indigenous reservations. Those existed before Standing Rock. Look at the poverty rates and health disparities (more stats here). Those didn’t spike within the last few weeks. Look at the accounts of trauma. There are histories underlying them–and they are harrowing. The past presents the future.
I wrote in an earlier post about our need to collaborate on a common historical narrative for our country because the realities shaping our lenses are so vastly disparate. We’re not all talking from the same starting point, but in moving forward we must prioritize the inclusion of voices that didn’t make it into the foundational narratives of our nation: the voices of those whose rights are being threatened. We must allow them to challenge our understanding of American history and re-work it because they know the ins and outs of their oppression better than the outsiders writing about it.
The images of Standing Rock grip my gaze. The stretched, shivering grief won’t leave. This is happening…and the guilt presses into my shoulders. My ancestors never broke bread with and betrayed the Sioux, the Lakota, the Iroquois, and the other First Nations. But I am an American, and the paths I tread were not always named Washington and Broadway. The government that sets the framework for my daily life uncoiled out of knuckled ambition and promise and innovation…but it was also born of blood–indigenous blood.
What do I do with that? How do I watch Moana and remember afterwards what our country did to many Polynesian peoples–how it colonized Hawaii and deposed her queen? How do I eat Thanksgiving dinner in a warm house when I know water protectors are freezing at Standing Rock as they defend their land?
This is the tension that awakens when the innocence that pieced together Pilgrim hats and feathered Indian bands in elementary school crumples. Our story is not an idyllic table of blended peoples but a war zone reaching for resolution.
When you learn the story of the land, you map it differently. You no longer see Inwood Park but Lenape fields. You no longer see Capitol Hill but a graveyard. You no longer see Mount Rushmore but mountains that once watched its peoples of the Lakota Pahá Sápa, the Black Hills, with faces of stone–not the stony faces of their conquerors.
What do I do with that tension?
The indigenous peoples of America don’t need my guilt. They don’t need me to make them objects of my pity. They need my prayers. They need my phone calls to my government, my petitions, my paper bills marked with the faces of presidents like Andrew Jackson who forced them into containment zones far from home. I never thought of the strength it takes simply to receive those bills when you know the collective grief that men like Jackson provoked among your people. As a black and Latina woman, I sense some of those vibrations within my own body, but this remains: I will never know what what it is to be an indigenous person.
Thanksgiving is coming, but as an iman pointed out at an inter-faith gathering I recently attended: “We don’t look at Thanksgiving the same way.” Some do not have the luxury of disentangling the theme of gratitude from horrific accounts of genocide and broken treaties.
The passage that comes to mind is Isaiah 24, particularly this part:
The earth mourns and withers;
the world languishes and withers;
the highest people of the earth languish.
The earth lies defiled
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched,
and few men are left.
The stark scene this part offers us is heartbreaking. Here the Israelites have broken treaty with God, defiled their land, and their neighbors suffer because of their actions. Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the people are scattered. You would think this apocalyptic vision signifies that the end has come–they are paying the price for injustice.
The book of Isaiah doesn’t end there. There is promise lying in wait within the smoke from the burning wreckage. Undeserved deliverance will come, and joyful songs will the people raise to their Lord. They will rebuild their cities, they will defend the oppressed, the immigrant, the poor. The Messiah will come, and the land will be renewed.
The Gospel message fulfills that promise of restoration for all things broken. The hope offered to Israel is what I pray for my country, that we too will experience and take part in that movement of renewal. We are no chosen land, but we have the choice to align with how God is already moving and rise above the wreckage of our country’s past. Christ has now come, so now we attend to our land. If a pipeline will divide us and poison the waters of our brothers and sisters, we must halt it. If that metal line defies the cries for justice, we must chase it until it bends.
I don’t have the answers–I’m still struggling with the same tensions of many of us non-indigenous folks. I’m a privileged American who could walk away from the struggle, but because I choose not to, I must grapple with twin truths: the suffering and the blessing. There is suffering beneath the veneer of pumpkin spice and gleaning plates piled with turkey. There is also blessing beyond human endeavor and the gratitude that blessing engenders.
I bring these truths, like all things, to my God. The founder of thanksgiving, giver of what things in my life are Good, He is the one I turn to when I can’t make sense of the suffering. He is the one I fix my eyes on during Thanksgiving, and God clarifies my vision so I can better demonstrate how grateful I am to inhabit this Earth with my indigenous brothers and sisters. He planted imago dei in the indigenous peoples who received starving refugees from Europe and fed them. I want my life to evidence the kindness laid out on the table Samoset presided.
As a rabbi explained to me, another lesser-known definition of shalom is, “I see God in you.” This definition intimates both the soul-connections between us and each person’s inherent and equal worth. I see God in these indigenous nations. I see Him through the care and mercy they have shown to those who later took advantage of it. He has not forgotten that example, and He works already to restore their dignity.
The shadow beyond that Thanksgiving feast table remains, like the shadow of the valley of death behind the great feast in Psalms 23. The shadows, past and present, cannot be forgotten, but neither do they define the totality of our lives. We can hold both the mourning of injustice and the morning where we step out of the wallows of our tears and act on behalf of our indigenous neighbors. We will take nothing we have for granted, but instead we will strive to grant others what they need to flourish. If they need security from violence, we will ensure it. If they need shelter, we will offer it. If they need laws that preserve their sacred areas and autonomy, we will rally together to demand them. We can do no less for those we recognize as kindred.
I will sit down with my family on Thursday and cherish my time with them. I will thank God for the food on our table and the faithfulness He has shown us in this past year. And I will leave room at the table for my brothers and sisters of the First Nations because they are my family too. Until they can join me in a land where they are no longer persecuted, my table will lay there, incomplete.
May we walk forward with hope and courage and defend those our Lord loves. I leave you with the vision of restoration from the end of Isaiah…
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her;
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious abundance.”
For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
and bounced upon her knees.
As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.” Isaiah 66:10-14