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Mourning the Crimes of Thanksgiving

We recently celebrated a Thanksgiving service at my church. As we sung our way through several hymns, I felt more troubled than grateful. The words to the classic Christian standard Great is Thy Faithfulness stuck in my throat. I couldn’t sing: “all I have needed thy hand hath provided…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

Source: http://nearemmaus.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-genocide-and-reconciliation-with-native-americans/My stomach clenched, my spirit rebelled. I wondered bitterly about people, many of them members of my community, who don’t have all that they need. Is God unfaithful to those people? And what about the ways that God’s so-called provision or bounty or harvest are used as cover words to mask oppressive systems of inequality built and maintained through institutionalized violence, theft and betrayal?

Recently I attended a teach-in at Portland State University on the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving. We watched the video The Truth About Thanksgiving. I learned about the enslavement of indigenous peoples and a Thanksgiving “celebration” in 1637 that included the murder of over 700 men, women and children, about which the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford later wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood…and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands.”

As I sat in church and watched my young daughter join the other children in listening to a story about the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans, I worried.

I worried about the story we are re-creating with each telling.

I worried about how we praise God for providing for “us”…who is the us?

Rev. Dr. Traci West

Rev. Dr. Traci West

During my thesis research, I learned much from the work and writing of Rev. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University. Dr. West argues that white dominance is perpetuated when we ignore racial realities, “pretending they are not relevant in certain kinds of social interactions, like the dynamics within Christian worship services.”*

She asserts that “racialized understandings of ‘us and them’ can be strongly conveyed in prayers about those who are ‘less fortunate than we are’ or projects to reach out and help ‘them’.”**

So, for example, in our prayers for thanksgiving, how do we distinguish between the blessings that we receive as beneficiaries of a legacy of genocide and colonization and the blessings that we receive as “children of God”? How do we reinforce an “us” as aligned with the “pilgrims” and a “them” as aligned with those indigenous “enemies”?

Language matters. It reinforces and remakes reality. Is PILGRIM – a word which means a penitent, humble traveler seeking Spirit – really the right word for a group of invaders, murderers and thieves?

How many of our hymns, our prayers, our common liturgical language reinforce not only a particular view of the Holy as a god who sanctions the invasion of promised lands and murder of that land’s inhabitants, but a view of ourselves – Christian churchgoers – as innocent inheritors of the “bounty” of God’s blessing?

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

If we claim, as my church does, to advocate for justice, then we need to busy ourselves with the work of reconciliation. Many indigenous people today celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, a day of “remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”

I believe that A Day of Mourning is not for indigenous people alone. We who are Euro-American descendants need to mourn the crimes of our ancestors and actively work for an end to racism. We need to critically examine our language and the romantic stories we tell about pilgrims: about the size of their boat, the nature of their courage, or the pureness of their intent. Continuing to tell the story as we have been is an act of racism, but we can change the way we celebrate, and the stories we tell.

*See Dr. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 117.

** Ditto, page 118.


Changing the Story

I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.

Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.

So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)

Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.

Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.

STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.

Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.

STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?

Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…

Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.

Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.

STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?

(end scene)

Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?

The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.

But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.

And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.

Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.


The Silent White in We: Fury and Invisibility

It is late at night but I am too angry to sleep. I’ve been holding this blog in my body for the past few weeks, wondering when I could filch time to write from summer bbqs, family visits, river rafting, term paper writing, poetry manuscript reading, and freelance computer work. I was catching up on my reading tonight for an online class on spirituality and ecology when I discovered I had to make time.

Wendell Berry. I’ve loved him as a poet. When I told my wife, a Kentucky native, that we were reading his agrarian essays for my ecology class, she sighed. What? I asked. She rolled her eyes. Nothing, she said. I persisted, finally gleaning that when Wendell taught at the University of Kentucky while she was growing up it was – you know – that old white guy thing.

Ah yes, the old white guy thing. The no-women-exist-in-my-view-of-reality thing. Got it. Still, he IS a fantastic poet. I started the essays in optimism. There were no women in the first chapter (evidently Kentucky was “settled” entirely by men with plows; they must have begat themselves like God the Father) but I trudged on anyway. The next chapter looked promising: “Racism and the Economy”. Finally…complexity! We’d spent the first four weeks of my class studying the exploitation of the earth with barely a reference to how capitalism intersects with a gendered view of the earth, the genocide and romanticization of indigenous people, slavery, and environmental racism.

I read the essay and must confess that I, a writer, fantasized about matches and the flammability of paper. Book burning. Yes, I considered it. Deeply. Wendell Berry’s essay “Racism and the Economy” was bad.  It is so bad that I refuse to quote it, except to say that a white male writer using racial epithets in the late 1960s is bad enough, but that a publisher, re-printing the book in 2002, believes that frequent use of n-word or redskin is vital to our understanding, is somehow even worse. There was much more, but I am literally trying not to vomit, so I will move on.

The point of this blog is to be helpful, not just to rant, so I wanted to talk briefly about the “we” thing. You know, that thing where when white people say “we” or “us” or “American” or “everybody” it really just means white people, white perspective, white experience.  I sometimes catch myself doing it. Now that I have been hanging out with these old white guys, I can’t escape it. It is SO OBVIOUS. It is everywhere. It is infuriating to read a scholar describe the “American” experience and have that experience be pioneers and fur traders and gold miners and railroad tycoons. No Chinese. No Africans. No Chumash or Nez Perce or Sioux….except, of course, as objects, one-dimensional characters who the “Americans” react against. (See the recent movie “Meek’s Cutoff” for a classic example of this kind of storytelling…the Cayuse man in the film is an object, not a subject.)

My issue with Wendell is the arrogant, condescending attitude he employs toward all non-whites and non-males in his critique of racism and economics. He begins with describing how “we” enslaved the Africans (economic motivation only; no mention of white moral decrepitude) and by the time he gets to acknowledging that he is white (in his attack on busing and its harmful damages on his white children), the damage is already done.

“We” the people, “we” the subjects of history, are white people. When white people write history, it is for other white people. When white people say “we” without labeling it “white”, our speech erases and silences people of color. We are pretending to talk about “everybody” but it is a trick. When the only subjects in our stories are white people, the experience and reality of people of color is made invisible.

Why can’t I expect that a white man writing about racism would identify his audience, reflect thoughtfully on the color of his own skin, question whose experience he describes, consider how his language deeply disrespects people of color?  I do expect it. I hold the white academic community accountable for the ways it perpetuates racism through silence and sleight of hand speech.

I demand that the scholars who teach and the publishers who promote their work radically revise their speech. It was a revelation when feminists realized that by using “he” in all the history books, the experiences and reality of women were rendered invisible. It ought to be a revelation now that when white people use the word “we” in history books, people of color are made invisible…because white people can’t say the word ‘we’ without saying white. White in we is like the k in knife…silent. But when I read these words aloud, I can feel the blade just the same.

What do you think? Should we prohibit the use of “we” and “people” for a generation and make everyone locate themselves on the socio-political-racial-scale? What’s the answer?


Spiritual Theft & Soul Sickness

Stealing has always seemed fairly harmless to me. I don’t mean bank robbery, I mean filching. You know, sampling from the olive bar at New Seasons, running a red light, stealing second base. Breaking the law just a little; seeing how much I can get away with. I suspect that my attitude has something to do with my white entitlement (no one would seriously accuse me of lawbreaking, right?).

Today I’m noticing this kind of thievery of spiritual beliefs and practices. If something spiritual resonates with me, I don’t usually stop and ask: Where specifically did this symbol, sacred story, word, legend, image come from? Who does this story belong to? On what authority does this spiritual leader teach?

Last night I attended a workshop on Native American spirituality. As his primary text, the facilitator used a book by Hyemeyohsts Storm. Researching the author this morning on the internet gave me a massive headache. Not only is Chuck Storm not Native, but he is popular among non-Native people who don’t care that he’s a fraud.

One of the ways racism hurts me as a white person is in fooling me that my actions are harmless. If I make a mistake and accidentally appropriate Native American culture and religion, I can just apologize. After all, I mean well. No harm, no foul, right?

Except that three white people died in 2009 in a fake “sweat lodge” built by a white man who stole and twisted Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions. (This man’s trial is due to conclude this week.) Being purely selfish, death seems like a pretty good reason to pay close attention to what spiritual practices we “borrow” and who we elect to follow for spiritual wisdom.

Every time non-native people hang a dreamcatcher on their rear view mirror, pay to go on a vision quest or sign up for shamanism training, we perpetuate genocide against indigenous people by desecrating and distorting their faith traditions…and we compromise our own authentic spirituality. Stealing is a serious illness and an exercise of supremacy. If we don’t respect the sacred beliefs of another culture how can we truly cultivate lovingkindness and compassion?

For my own part, this morning’s research convicted me to take responsibility for the spiritual practices, symbols and images I put on my altar. I want my ways of knowing and celebrating the Sacred to increase justice in the world….both for others and for my own wholeness. Otherwise my spiritual practice is not merely empty but ultimately destructive.

What do you think? Is it okay to adopt a spiritual practice from a culture/faith which is not yours?

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