Doctrine of Discovery Lament Offering 2: Recognition of “Our” Places in the Story

November 27, 2012

My place in the story of this nation is clearly rooted in New England, an unambiguous Exhibit A of a Connecticut Yankee whose eighteenth-century forebear was Hezekiah Smith.

Hezekiah Smith, who was born in Barrington, Rhode Island, in 1726, took up farming in Woodstock, Connecticut, and in 1764 moved to Colrain, Massachusetts, where he continued farming and also fought in the American Revolution. Just to the west of Colrain is the town of Heath, where my grandfather purchased an old farmhouse on the Oxbow. Further down that Oxbow are the few remains of Fort Shirley, one of the line of forts from the Connecticut River to the New York border built in the 1740s to protect the English settlers in the lower Connecticut valley from Indians coming down from Quebec.

I remember as a young person reading a number of times The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield, a fictional account of the experiences of a boy taken captive in the French and Indian raid on Deerfield in February 1704, in which 56 colonists were killed and 109 taken captive. The message was clear: my forebears, those English newcomers, by settling in Deerfield, had placed a claim on the land that denied that of the region’s Native Indians. Even though it was implicit, the Doctrine of Discovery was alive in my upbringing as I learned about the righteous English Puritan colonialists who were brutally attacked and taken captive by the French and Native Americans. The Rev. John Williams, one of the captives who was ransomed, described his return from captivity as the return to Zion. John Winthrop in his well-known sermon had used the image of the Puritan “city on a hill,” a theological construct that would come to undergird American exceptionalism and the justification for the removal of Native Americans from their lands and the forced assimilation of Native Americans into the dominant culture.

After college this Connecticut Yankee headed west to Chicago, and after library school became librarian and a member of the faculty at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Given the history of the Bishop Seabury Mission in Faribault, Minnesota, which became the Seabury Divinity School, and the missionary work of James Lloyd Breck in Minnesota, it was fitting that the Native American Theological Association began conversations with Seabury-Western in the early 1980s to explore ways the seminary could be a place for the preparation of Native Americans for ordination in the Episcopal Church. In November 1985 a consultation on “Theological Education for Native Americans” was convened at Seabury-Western with representation of 19 Native and non-Native persons to address “the need defined as a ‘cohesive, consistent and cooperative’ effort at the national level to respond to a leadership crisis confronting the Episcopal Church in its Native American ministry.” As a result of this consultation, Seabury-Western became the seminary of choice for those Native Americans attending seminary for ordination. Some 20 Native Americans attended Seabury between 1986 and 1992, but for most it was a harrowing experience in spite of the commitments and concerns contained in the document issued by the participants of the November 1985 consultation. One understanding was that “the educational models emerging from this network [of our dioceses, the national committee of Indian work, Native American Theological Association, Seabury-Western, and other supportive agencies] would be “reflective of and responsive to the unique cultural values and traditions of Native American people.” Two of the issues to which attention had to be given immediately were (1) a new, flexible curriculum design that utilizes all training modes, the local schools, the seminaries, and workshops in the field, to meet varied needs of students; and (2) how do we encourage a truly indigenous Native approach in spirituality instruction?

In spite of retaining a Native American chaplain and the occasional service incorporating Native American spirituality, this institution of the Episcopal Church failed to work with the Native American network to develop a curriculum that was appropriate for its Native American students and instead expected its Native American students to navigate its Eurocentric curriculum. The syllabus of one of the courses required of all students, Approaches to the Study of Religion and Theology, included readings by Eliade, Ricoeur, and Tillich. There were no courses, even electives, on Native American history, culture, and spirituality. One of the Native American students who was able to graduate shared with me his perspective:

“What the Evanston Covenant really required for complete and successful implementation was a mutual interaction, an equal exchange between modern Native/Indigenous culture and spirituality and mainline Episcopal theological education. The need on the part of the Native students was a community of faculty and students that would understand their backgrounds and styles of learning. Seabury did virtually nothing to empower this process either in campus life or its curriculum. Many of the native students were not prepared for graduate academic work or life in an urban/metropolitan area. Many felt that they were in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. Over half did not complete degrees and some did not make it to ordination. It was essentially a set-up for failure.”

As the librarian, all I did was to produce an annotated bibliography of resources on Native American Indians. Indeed, the ideology of Manifest Destiny fed by the Doctrine of Discovery was very alive during the Evanston Covenant and resulted in a dispirited group of Native Americans and an institution with virtually no insight into the causes of the pain being inflicted.

Just a few minutes ago we heard a reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel – words from the Lord to the prophet living among a dispirited people in Babylonian exile after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. “Mortal,” the Lord said to Ezekiel, “Can these bones (that is the whole house of Israel) live? They say, our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. … But this says the Lord God, I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

Is there any hope for the dry bones of Seabury and for myself? Is there any hope that Seabury-Western will engage in truth-telling in light of the Evanston Covenant? In 2000, one of the Native American alums was elected as one of the two alumni trustees by the Diocese of Minnesota. During his time on the Seabury-Western board, he invited the seminary community to engage in a process of truth-telling about the Evanston Covenant that would hopefully lead to reconciliation between the Native American communities and Seabury-Western. Through the leadership of the Anti-Racism Committee, the story of the experiences of some of the Native American students was heard by the seminary community and was incorporated into its wall of institutional history of racism as well as incidents of actions to resist this racism.

But more work needs to be done. Can these bones live? There are signs, tentative as they are, that they can.

As a result of being invited 16 months ago to join a small group charged with the implementation of the 2009 General Convention Resolution, Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, I have been privileged to join this circle where truth-telling can occur. Not only have I been able to name my place in this story, but I have been able to do this in the presence of two of the Native American members who graduated from Seabury-Western during the years of the Evanston Covenant.

Can these bones live? Yes, if this difficult, painful work of exposing the Doctrine of Discovery continues. May it be so.

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