Interfaith Insight - 2020

Permanent link for "Spirituality: Indigenous Peoples Day" by Doug Kindschi, Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute on October 6, 2020

In 2020, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss issued a proclamation declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in the City of Grand Rapids. She added that this proclamation, “brings forward the intentional acknowledgement and recognition of the original people of this place that we call Grand Rapids.” She encouraged all residents and friends to take time honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

The second Monday in October has been a national holiday called Columbus Day since 1937 when it was soproclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a young child I remember learning about Columbus and his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Like other aspects of our taught history, it was often a sanitized and even false version.

Now more than 500 years after that famed date of “1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” we are finding many reasons to revise and even reject that early narrative. First, he didn’t “discover America;” indigenous peoples had already been here for thousands of years, some current archeological evidence suggests for over 20,000 years.  Furthermore, he wasn’t even the first European, since there is evidence of the Vikings having established a settlement in Newfoundland, Canada more than 500 years earlier. The archeological remains are now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site.   

Historians have also exposed some of the terrible consequences of the so-called Columbus discovery. Columbus enslaved the native population he encountered and took some of them back to Europe to be sold as slaves. The diseases introduced to this new land led to the death of hundreds of thousands. As recent as 2005, Spanish historians have discovered documents from that era supporting much of this negative impact. 

It is no wonder that there have been recent and sustained efforts to revise our understanding and move to celebrate not the conqueror, but those conquered and treated so poorly.

It is not just locally that this movement has brought recognition. Many other cities and states have declared the second Tuesday of October Indigenous Peoples Day.

It is an official state holiday in Maine and New Mexico, while South Dakota celebrates the same day but calls it Native American Day. At least 10 other states have officially recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day but do not observe it as a paid holiday. Other states and communities have made the fourth Friday of September Native American Day.

Religious freedom for Native Americans has also been a contentious issue for most of our nation’s history. It wasn’t until 1978, after decades of pressure, that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). This act sought to expand religious protections to the beliefs and practices of Native communities.   The Act reads, in part, “It shall be the policy of the U.S. to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise [their] traditional religions” including “access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”

In signing the act, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the past, Government agencies and departments have on occasion denied Native Americans access to particular sites and interfered with religious practices and customs where such use conflicted with Federal regulations. In many instances, the Federal officials responsible for the enforcement of these regulations were unaware of the nature of traditional native religious practices and, consequently, of the degree to which their agencies interfered with such practices. This legislation seeks to remedy this situation.”

In addition to government action which failed to respect the religious and spiritual practices of the Native Americans, our history also records both helpful and damaging actions on the part of Christian communities. Beginning with Columbus there have been frequent instances of forced conversion. Much missionary activity sought to bring hospitals and schools to the Native American people, but unfortunately many of these efforts were ignorant of the spiritual traditions and became insulting and led to further alienation. Often when mission efforts were accompanied by military or commercial interests, the results were received as acts of aggression and force, not as acts of love.

Just as our country needs to examine its history and make necessary corrections and actions to recognize and reverse acts of injustice, so our religious communities need a time of re-examination and repentance of past practices that were not consistent with our deep values.

In an article from a recent issue ofthe Christian Century, one of the leading religious magazines that I try to read regularly, there was an article about a Christian community in Denver that struggled with such a challenge. Land had been designated for the Arapaho people in a treaty in 1851. During the Rocky Mountains gold rush, the treaty was broken, and the Indian people were forced into a small area in southeast Colorado. In the late 1800s, a Lutheran church was built on that land. The church was closed in 1973 and the property passed on to the denomination.

In 1986 a group of the Four Winds American Indian Council were allowed to use it as a sacred space and community center to serve the nearly 40,000 Indians in the Denver area. By the 2010s the neighborhood was becoming gentrified, and the property was valued at over $1 million. Should the church put it on the market? Over the next three years of discussions with the Four Winds group they learned a lot about each other and their spiritual commitments and practices. In 2015 the property was transferred, not as a sale or donation but as “decolonized land … a liberated zone.”

Referring to the three years of discussion and learning, the Lutheran bishop said, “I think there was a ton that we, as the church, didn’t know. We didn’t know about the reality of Native American history in this country, about the continued marginalization of Ameri­can Indian folk in our own community, and about their spiritual life, which is so important.”

As I have sought to understand better the history and challenges of the Native American people in our own community, I have begun to learn about the Anishinaabek peoples of Michigan which include the Odawa (or Ottawa), Ojibway (or Chippewa), and the Bodewademi (or Potawatomi) of this area.  I have appreciated the help and guidance of persons from those tribes, including staff and former students at Grand Valley State University, as well as members of the Community Relations Council for the City of Grand Rapids. But there is “still a ton I don’t know.”  It will continue to challenge us all as we seek justice and pursue peace in our own communities.

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Aanzhenii Ashquab Dandridge of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatomi Tribe.  Photo taken by Patti Caudill. Used with permission

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