Global Partnerships

Transformation Through Grace and Presence: Indigenous Episcopalians Bear Witness at the United Nations

January 6, 2016
Global Partnerships

Sarah Eagle Heart, Missioner for Indigenous Ministries, and Lynnaia Main, Global Relations Officer, reflect on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Today, August 9th, is the 19th annual International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994. Each year, this Day falls during the same week in which the Church reflects in its lectionary on the transfiguration of Jesus and the “beloved witnesses” who are directly or indirectly transformed by the glory of God, our Creator. Many indigenous peoples have similar stories of transformation, such as the Lakota story that speaks of when the people meet the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman, a sacred woman sent by Tunkasila (The Great Spirit), who brings the sacred pipe teachings transforming the way of life for the people. We honor the transformation stories of our ancestors and continue to call upon all people to embrace a future in which indigenous peoples around the world, who are negatively affected by the Doctrine of Discovery, are legally affirmed in their quest for self-determination.

For centuries, indigenous peoples in the Americas and many other parts of the world were uprooted, dispossessed of their lands, mistreated, enslaved and often killed by the settlers who arrived during the colonial era. The settlers’ claim to their innate sovereign rights to the lands of the indigenous peoples they met stemmed from various beliefs, including the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of international law which dates back to a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century. This Doctrine held that Christians had a divine right to possess the lands of the “heathens” who had been there for centuries. The Doctrine became the cornerstone principle behind multiple policies, practices and laws that oppressed indigenous peoples for centuries. Many continue to be legally binding today.

In 2009, through its General Convention, The Episcopal Church took the prophetic and pioneering step of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, an act that has since been replicated by other churches and church bodies such as the World Council of Churches. Subsequent General Convention resolutions have urged the dismantling of the Doctrine and actively encouraged healing for indigenous communities through innovative Native American traditional healing programs. Today, transformation and healing has begun as members of the Church denounce racism and embrace the rights, cultures, languages, traditions and spirituality of indigenous peoples.

One means by which the Church bears witness to the healing that already has taken place, and still needs to happen, is through its indigenous presence at the United Nations. The United Nations has been an important forum for encouraging this about-face in beliefs and practices, through the gradual recognition of the often systematically harsh and unjust realities faced by indigenous peoples worldwide. This recognition led to a better definition and protection of their rights through the signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and efforts to overturn harmful policies such as the Doctrine of Discovery.

Over the past several years, indigenous Episcopalians have been actively speaking up about the injustices and suffering of indigenous peoples at two annual meetings, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. They are trained in advocacy and supported by the Indigenous Ministries Program Officer, the Global Relations Officer, Anglican Women’s Empowerment, the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations and co-sponsored by the Native American Council of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. Through these meetings, they bring the voices, realities and concerns of grassroots communities, church leaders and bishops to the attention of UN member states and non-governmental organizations. Once back home, they continue their advocacy locally and train their peers.

On the floor of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues, May 2013

In 2012, Episcopalians at the UN advocated strongly for other organizations to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the subject of that year’s Permanent Forum. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori accompanied an ecumenical delegation on the floor of the Permanent Forum and spoke at a panel on The Episcopal Church’s role in and repudiation of the Doctrine. A joint written statement was read on behalf of the World Council of Churches and with the input and co-leadership of the Office of Indigenous Ministries and Global Partnerships. In 2013, our Office of Indigenous Ministries brought Bishop David Bailey of Navajoland to witness environmental testimony at the Permanent Forum, while our Presiding Bishop met with a visiting indigenous ecumenical group from the Philippines and followed up with a letter to the Philippine government addressing their human rights plight.

L to R: Bishop David Bailey (Navajoland), Sarah Eagle Heart, Indigenous Ministries Officer, and Kenneth Deer

The theme of this year’s International Day is “Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.” Even though past treaties may have been unfair or unfairly applied, most indigenous peoples agree today that they should be honored. Nevertheless, ongoing discussions are vital, especially regarding self-determination, sovereignty and rooting out the destructive practices of extraction companies ravaging the lands and communities of indigenous peoples around the world. Currently, resolutions are being drafted by native leadership for The Episcopal Church’s next General Convention that speak to these concerns.

The stories of the plight of indigenous peoples around the world are numerous, due to the framework of the Doctrine of Discovery. To bring knowledge of these plights forward speaks to the role of the church today striving for justice and peace. God’s divine power that was so evident in the transfiguration of Jesus is the same power that Jesus brings to our lives through his teachings on justice, forgiveness, healing and reconciling. The stories of our ancestors continue today with teaching, such as the story of the The White Buffalo Calf Woman. It is the same powerful work of transformation we see active today in mending the relations between indigenous peoples and the Church. By recognizing its past wrongs and denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery, The Episcopal Church boldly acted towards healing this rift between indigenous peoples and the Church. In opening ourselves to God’s light and presence in our lives, we live ever more fully into the redemption and reconciliation made possible for all God’s children.

The Episcopal Church participates at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as one of 38 member provinces of the Anglican Communion.

The Office of Indigenous Ministries will offer educational teachings through a six-week online webinar beginning in mid-October on the Doctrine of Discovery to honor Native American Month – November 2013.

The Rev. David Copley

Director, Global Partnerships and Mission Personnel

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