Finding Balance

SunsetSpring is near, although the weather remains cold and snowy. The maple sap is flowing intermittently and, on warmish, sunny days, birdsong fills the air. The equinox arrives Friday, and Passover and Easter follow.

This morning I had coffee with a dear friend who is Mohawk. He was adopted into a European family and, like me, came to his Native identity late. He’s fiercely proud of his heritage and excited about the return to traditional values that underlies the rebirth of the Mohawk Nation. He and I have been asked to speak, together, about Native America at the upcoming community Sedar, and met this morning to consider what we might say.

My friend suggested we tell the story of his people’s return to upstate New York, that we use that story of rebirth to offer hope for the future. I, being angry, was focused on the fact we are, for the most part, exiles in our own land. I want to share the outrageous facts about Native life in the U.S., and fear that any optimism we offer will be used to erase Native experience. We tabled any decision in favor of a conversation with the Rabbi.

My anger arose yesterday, while at a service at the church we attend. The morning’s focus was on building an inclusive congregation. A former minister spoke about being in Selma in the summer of 1965. Then the current minister spoke about the unfinished task of creating a just and equitable country. The service hung on that tried-and-true binary: Black and White, a strategy that effectively erases other ethnic groups. As you might have guessed, there was no mention of First Peoples, of Native America.

I have, over the past ten years, plus, asked a series of ministers to include Native America in the discussion at the church. I have also asked them to give cultural context to the Native texts and music they sometimes include in services. Neither has occurred, and, from what I can tell given my inconsistent attendance, the mention of Native America, in all its marvelous complexity, has become increasingly absent.

By the end of the service yesterday I was torn between heartbreak and outrage. How can we talk about civil rights and not address Native people? After all, Natives are arguably the most incarcerated, face the greatest threat of violence, and are the poorest of all ethnic groups in the U.S.. It is estimated that Native women are raped and murdered at ten times the national average for women, and, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of that violence comes from non-Natives. Natives living on reservations have the shortest life expectancy of any population. Oh, and seemingly each week, local, state, and federal governments appropriate treaty lands from Native people, or desecrate traditional Native holy places.

This is not a competition. Native lives matter. Black lives matter. So do Asian lives and European lives. The Natural world matters, too. As we think about social justice we must remember that racism and the destruction of the natural environment have long gone hand-in-hand, although they are seldom linked in the media or the pulpit. Governments leave the most marginal lands to tribal people and poor people of all colors, dump pollutants on or near them, then take the land when something valuable is found on it. This has gone on for the entire history of this country.

It seems appropriate that this conversation about racism, truth, and hope is under way now. After all, the equinox is all about balance. The challenge, in this conversation, is to find a balanced way to speak of all these things. At the moment I am at a loss as to how to do this and remain curious as to how we will find our way forward. At stake is the soul of the nation.

15 thoughts on “Finding Balance

  1. understandable feelings!
    with Native People mostly
    out of sight & mind to many
    off the rez
    might be useful to offer kind letters to individuals
    & some marketing to the public at large
    to bring your awareness into others hearts 🙂

    1. Smilecalm, Thank you for your kind thoughts. Perhaps the most unknown aspect of this is that most Native people live off the rez. We walk in the midst of people, everywhere in the Americas. Many of us pass as European, or rather are misread as European. Many of us work hard to make our lives and cultures visible. The task seems large indeed.

  2. Yes, very understandable feelings Michael. Very sad…
    Did you consider to to through other channels than the church?
    I suppose that you know the story about, how people became christians? By violence too and the church has been one of the worst about violence and they continue, unfortunately.
    Where I come from you are automatic member of the church when you are born there. Not that many people are really religious, but anyway.
    I decided to take away my membership years ago, then I don’t need to pay tax to them either.

    It should be possible to live in peace with each other, but not all are interested in that.

  3. I believe you know how to find the words, Michael. The problem is that so many do not have ears to listen. I have a hard time understanding how people can carry around so much hate – or maybe it is just greed and greed will bully the least powerful.

    1. The strange thing, Pat, is these are very good, loving people. Maybe it is simply the New England blindness to history. I just do not get it, although I see the effects. I’m pretty sure they would not understand my concern with racism. Nor would they intentionally be hard hearted. It remains, for me, a conundrum.

  4. I saw a post from an Amazonian healer who spoke of Brazil’s new president, and how the indigenous people were forgotten from the speech of inclusion (and from government as representatives too). Particularly serious in Brazil, as the dam constructions are threatening land and people and the ecology.

    I wonder why this happens? There’s so much work to do to build up a deeper recognition of the voices of all people. I think the established dialogues, and the exclusions they contain sometimes mean people get overlooked. But there needs to be all voices added to the human family.

    1. Nicci, There has been a long and disastrous war on the Native peoples of the Amazon. One of my dear teachers witnessed his tribe decline from over 1200 people, to few than 60, in his lifetime. He was courageous in standing firm for his people. There was even a brief period when the Brazilian navy helped to protect them from settlers and corporate thugs. Now they seem to be “forgotten” again. Yes, there must be space for all people to be heard and honored. The journey to that place is challenging and if we are to arrive there everyone must be willing to join the pilgrimage.

  5. I am a huge “fan” of the African-American people, love the gains they have made in the States. Funny bc I have felt more concern for them in this regard than for Asian-Americans and Korean-Amer. I think we notice the other disenfranchised groups less because they are less vocal themselves.

    1. I wonder whether there are other reasons for the refusal to acknowledge the challenges facing Native America: land claims, the deaths of 60 to 100 million Natives in the U.S., and a long project of forced assimilation. These are unique histories, although they are, at times paralleled by harms against African-Americans. We do speak up.

  6. I am at the same point that you so eloquently described, and thank you for that. I’ve spoken out often and there are the days I feel like I’m just spinning wheels. I think though, that this is part of the change coming. The restlessness that inspires or motivates action, on a larger scale. I know I hope for that sooner than later.

    Our voices seem quiet, but only because we are fewer; it’s merely a numbers game. The more we learn how to use these technologies, the better we’ll be heard. In all of the continent we couldn’t get enough to fill a march to the Washington mall on any basis, let alone as regularly as others. We’re that demographic that has to work smarter to overcome numbers. We need to come up with something unique, something creative, and something cohesive. I don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re not as unheard in Canada more recently, but man, the U.S. is another world.

    1. Blog Woman, Yes, the US is another world. It doesn’t help that we are divided against ourselves. The racial identity thing is so insidious. One has to be enough Indian,yet there is no enough for Afro-American, Asian…. Those of us who have multitribal heritages are often not enough of anything, yet we are still Indians. We become inconvenient for all sides. (There are a good many of us, folks who refuse to assimilate and go away.) I often think that our tribal identities are used to separate us, just another colonial tactic that has been honed over time. Anyway, we Indians need a more inclusive vision, and a whole lot more visibility, and I know you, and many others are working on it. So we keep speaking, in the hopes our voices will be heard amongst all the noise. It is a good, and important, thing to do. I am grateful for you, and all who insist on being heard.

  7. Thank you for that very poignant insight. Something that stood out for me was the phrase in the comments, “we are divided against ourselves.” How might such divisions be healed, I wonder? What is the transcendent rallying point, a thing that could bring all together but also respect the differences? Do the various first people’s nations ever come together as hosts of big inter-faith healing ceremonies. Do they invite the leaders of other non-indigenous faiths to do healing prayer-work together on indigenous lands?

    1. Leeby Geeby, Let’s see…. I have a very limited sense of what is occurring among Native people in other parts of the US, and would not want to suggest I can truly answer your questions. There is a tradition among Native people in North America that respects each tribes unique spirituality and beliefs. While many gatherings are inter-tribal, there is a desire to keep local traditions/knowledge intact. Certainly, our local community routinely encourages a deep ecumenicalism that includes a wide range of non-Native spiritualities. We work together to limit the influence of colonialism in our lives, yet acknowledge that it is omnipresent, as are the divisions it has fostered.

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