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Indigenous Peoples Day

October 9, 2017


Native American and Presbyterian leaders meeting this summer to work
on a report for our General Assembly concerning the Doctrine of Discovery.

Here are a few of the main points I made in the sermon I preached on October 8, 2017 at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, marking Indigenous People’s Day. Early in the worship service we confessed that while much of the country would be celebrating Columbus Day, it is no secret that Columbus’ landing in Hispaniola in 1492 initiated a period of violence and oppression, theft of land and resources, slavery and genocide, all justified using the Christian faith. In confession, we sought to own this legacy of colonialism and reclaim our faith that Christ came to love and to serve, not to conquer and enslave. 

Genesis 32:22-31

  • On Wednesday evening, the Historical Preservation Commission of the City of White Plains voted to designate our cemetery, the “Presbyterian Burying Ground,” as a Local Landmark. In the final deliberations it was noted that the oldest grave in the cemetery (1709) represented one of the earliest items of archeological evidence for the settlement of White Plains. This was more than a dozen years before the Royal Patent. The family names of all the earliest settlers are represented in the cemetery, including those who signed a treaty with the native inhabitants of this area known by them as Quarropus (white marsh), along the the Aquehung River (later Bronc’s River or the Bronx River).
  • We reflected on the life of Jacob, who began wrestling with his brother Esau while still in the womb. He was born grasping, and lived through extortion and deceit. I said that none of the good Jacob achieved justifies the means through which he pursued it or acquired it. Only by using a super-long lens that is willing to ignore his victims could one believe, as his mother did, that Jacob was chosen by God to be the bearer of the covenant.
  • In our scripture reading, we find Jacob hoping to return home but still bargaining with the lives of those around him. Does he send his wives and concubines and children and all his flocks and possessions ahead of him as a bribe for acceptance, or as a sacrifice to discover his brothers intent: will he find welcome or warfare? In the dark of night, Jacob wrestles with a human-like figure: is it God, an angel, his brother, a sentry keeping watch, himself, his past? Whether one or all together, as a result of his wrestling, Jacob can only move forward with a limp.
  • On Wednesday, after a discussion of our cemetery, the Historical Preservation Commission had to wrestle with the status of the Columbus Statue in the park across from our sanctuary. It was also being recommended to Local Landmark Status. I noted that this it was now 25 years since the Quincentenary of Columbus’ 1492 landing, a 500 year celebration that never really happened. Instead, 1992 marked a resurgence of indigenous activism that has empowered indigenous communities and raised the consciousness of those descended from European settlers and all who inherit this legacy. The past 25 years have brought about many symbolic but important gestures, like the numerous cities that have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Just this week Salt Lake City voted to mark both together.
  • 2017 is also the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, another result of the last 25 years of consciousness raising, advocacy and struggle. The United States, with our history of unresolved Native claims, has still not signed on. (Elaine Enns has published in Sojourners a helpful recap of these last few decades, part of which I shared in my sermon You can be read it here.) Violations of indigenous rights, of course, continue. In this last gasp and grasp of the fossil fuel economy, they are increasing. We remembered our year of advocacy and prayer for the Standing Rock Sioux, and more locally, the Ramampo Nation. We may also have remembered stories I have shared over the last five week of indigenous women I met with over the summer in Guatemala and Costa Rica.
  • I mentioned that almost every member of the Historical Preservation Commission went on record that the legacy of Columbus was nothing to celebrate, or was at best a story that must be told in all its complexity. In our deliberations (I sit on the commission) I spoke specifically about the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal bulls that created the legal basis and justification for conquest, the theft of labor and resources, slavery and the systemic denial of human rights. I recalled that the Presbyterian Church has officially repudiated this doctrine and is learning what forms reparation might take. I mentioned that walking past this statue every morning reminds me that the legacy of colonialism remains (and for that matter is still practiced), and that it requires concrete work on our part to undue and to build a different future. (Here is helpful document on the Doctrine of Discovery by the PC(USA))
  • The Commission DID vote to mark the statue as a Local Landmark, because there is no indication that the statue was put up (like the statues of confederate generals in the south) to demean another group. Instead, it was erected by the local Italian-America community in White Plains to mark their arrival, acceptance and assimilation. Annual ceremonies are still held in front of the statue by the Italian community to remember the Italian immigrants who built Kensico Dam, our aqueduct system which brings drinking water to New York City, and many of our historical stone buildings. I recalled that in 1905 the White Plains Presbyterian Church hired a missionary, Mary Kellogg, to work with the immigrant population, building up a congregation of Italian speaking protestants. In 1915, the same the year the Columbus statue was erected, the Church of the Savior built their own sanctuary and moved from our building down to Ferris Avenue. Arrival indeed.
  • Our past and our histories are messy, all of them, whether we are talking about our own personal history or our shared history. We have all helped and been helped. We have all hurt and been hurt. But there is never any blessing to be found until we wrestle honestly with God, with those we have hurt, with our own defensiveness and hurt, with our past as it lives on in the present. Only then, when we have wrestled without denial of what has been done or despair that that it can be worked through, only then do we encounter the God who has made us, who loves us, and has a future for us that included reconciliation – with one another and with the earth.
  • It is a future, though, that we must limp into. Like Jacob, we limp because we have (God has?) shattered the illusion that we have ever walked straight. We have discovered that we have never walked rightly. Limping is a mark that we are learning, finally, to walk together.
  • Our sermon hymn was Many and Great, about which I shared the following story: Wakantanka / “Many and Great”. Words & Music: Joseph R. Renville (1779-1846); This song was written by Joseph R. Renville and first appeared in the “Dakota Odawan”, also known as “Dakota Dowanpi Kin” published in Boston in 1842). Of the hymns published in that book, this is the only one for which the original melody is known to have been a traditional Dakota tune. The tune is LACQUIPARLE, French for ‘lake that speaks.’ This was sung by thirty-eight Dakota as they were escorted to the gallows, at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in American history” according to Rev. Sidney Bird, Dakota Presbyterian minister whose ancestor was acquitted of charges by Lincoln. “The Sioux Uprising” began August 17, 1862 after the Dakota had demanded annuities promised by treaty directly from their agent. Traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit and negotiations reached an impasse. (From a resource prepared by the Native American Ministries of the PC(USA) I also found this liturgy helpful in crafting our own order of worship for the day).



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