Have you been to a meeting or worship service lately where someone begins with a Land Acknowledgement? To say with honor and respect and lament the names of the Indigenous Peoples who first inhabited a place is a good start. Yet it is only a start. US citizens and Christians remain largely ignorant of both past and current harms experienced by Indigenous Peoples.
Why does it matter to understand this history of colonization, genocide and land theft? For Christians it matters because we are far from the love of God or neighbor, when we know better, yet keep taking part in these destructions. It matters when we have some idea about how we have sinned against our siblings, yet we keep multiplying our ignorance.
In order to make needed change, I need to displace my centrality as a white person in the narratives of what it means to be an American. I need some genuine humility. I need to expand my understanding of both history and the present moment. Here are five things I’m working on and I invite you to join me and let’s encourage each other to do this much needed work. Today is a good day to commit to begin again.
1. Re-narrate the way you inhabit the land
Like many Americans I learned as a child in public school to believe that “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The happy young adults dressed in red, white and blue sang this in my elementary school gym. I snapped my fingers to the catchy tune, and I never thought to question it until much later.
In school I also learned that manifest destiny was the reason European settlers could and should take the land and use it for purposes they deemed good. I did not question as a child that God called those early pilgrims to the shores of America. Most of them thought so, too.
What I failed to learn was the many ways such versions of the story erases Indigenous Peoples. All the narratives I learned white-washed entire groups out of the story. They taught me as a child about “Indians” a name that came from a mistaken idea that Columbus had landed in India. The stories and facts of America presented a case that glorified European discovery, white pioneers, and progress, while it downplayed everyone else.
The stories I learned failed to mention the many enslaved people came here against their will. I watched Alex Haley’s Roots with my parents on TV as a fourth grader. And my concepts about what it meat to live as a slave began to change. I saw how people from various places in Africa were forced to leave their beloved homes. What still remained hidden for me was how white people forced enslaved African people to labor over land that did not even fairly belong to them.
The stories I learned also failed to tell me how Europeans, who streamed across the Atlantic for the 500 years after Columbus, introduced new diseases, stole land and ideas, and worked to destroy the language and culture of Indigenous Peoples. Instead, my teachers asked me to believe that Indigenous people of this continent were the enemies of progress. They were just part of the barriers and challenged on a white quest to manifest destiny. This map takes you through time to see the disappearing land.
For many years these childhood stories have been crumbling under the light of scrutiny and more honest histories. Much undoing remains. This summer I spent hours and hours trying to dig out a clearer understanding of the places where I live and worship in Nashville. It is a work in progress.
What I know today is that I live on land that was once hunted, fished, farmed and traversed by Indigenous Peoples known as Cherokee/Ani’yunwi’ya, Chickasaw/Chickasha, Creek/Mvkoke Etvlwv. Many other groups and bands of Indigenous Peoples worked together on this land, my current neighborhood, to resist the overtaking of their homelands and defend their neighbors in the late 18th century. In the late 1830s many Indigenous Peoples, a majority Cherokee, were force-marched through Nashville to cross the Cumberland River on the Northern route of the Trail of Tears.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day you can learn your to acknowledge the land where you live. Use maps, books, and websites curated by Indigenous Peoples themselves. Know that these are not simply stories of the past, but acknowledgements about ongoing present struggles. Come a full participant in the place where you live.
2. Learn your watershed address
Another way to know where we are is to follow the water. Where does it flow and where does it go? It was here before white people. The water was here before any people. It is what nourishes and shapes the land that we now walk on, drive on, bike over, fly above, and pollute with impunity.
Learning our watershed address disrupts the geographical boundaries enforced artificially on the land. I live on the Cumberland/Indian Creek watershed. It is part of the larger Middle Cumberland watershed which is part of the Cumberland River basin, a 688 mile river flowing through the land stolen through treaties, wars, and land grabs, and turned into the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. The Cumberland flows into the Ohio River, the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico.
Just a few feet over the hill for me is the Richland Creek watershed. Much of our neighborhood’s water also flows in that direction through Jocelyn Hollow. These tributaries and others all end up in the Cumberland.
The geography of water is also a natural set of boundaries. Water helps us trace how the land changes hands. The place where I am sitting and writing this blog, is property that white people took from Indigenous Peoples around 230 years ago. Treaties were written, and money changed hands. Yet it was a pittance for the massive amount of land, and not everyone agreed to the Cumberland Compact. This is a complicated history and most of the versions that are easily accessible tell the story from the winners’ perspectives. However, I also found a less white-washed account of the battles and skirmishes that happened in my city in this entry on the Cherokee-American wars.
Each time I try to write about where I am and what it means to be here, I find myself going down multiple pathways. I have three more recommendations for you on this Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And I will need to return to them when I can develop them more fully. I hope you might go digging on your own and we might continue this conversation together.
3. Educate yourself and your community about the “Doctrine of Discovery”
Discover the vast history of the Doctrine of Discovery. It is behind the motivations of Columbus and colonization practices around the globe. A papal bull of 1452 launched much of what we now understand to be the doctrine of discovery. That doctrine has allowed and made legal the theft of lands globally.
For more on the trouble with the DD take a look at the Upstander Project.
And also learn about faith communities that have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. You can also lead your community to do the same!
4. Pay Real Rent
Educate yourself and your community about how to pay real rent to Indigenous Peoples whose land you live on. This is a form of reparations that can acknowledge the losses. And it can also help us begin new relationships that lead to more lasting change.
Here are several additional ideas for Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
5. Reject and Reimagine Theologies that Justify Harm
The doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny and the beliefs about American progress are all entangled with Christian beliefs and practices in the US. These three are also a basis for how we get things wrong in this country. As cherished beliefs, they continue to create and foster more harm, more genocide, and more death and destruction than we can really calculate.
Jesus asked followers of the Way to love and care for the least of these. Most Christian theologies profess deep concern and care about love of God and neighbor. Yet it is extremely hard to reconcile these beliefs and commitments with stealing land from Indigenous Peoples.
Not only did my ancestors, white people from Europe, steal land in this country. We also used the doctrine of discovery together with manifest destiny to believe unquestionably that the land was ours. Yet the idea that God gives someone else’s land to us, is a complete fiction. The catalogue of harms is long and terrible.
It is time for lament and repentance. We need more understanding about how greed and deception convoluted our faith. We need to see, and then reject, ways our theology justifies our harmful behavior. Then we need to take time to lament, reject the doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny. And we need to find more ways to live our values in all our relationships.