Jonathan Neufeld is on the pastoral team of Seattle Mennonite Church, working with the community to companion people experiencing homelessness.
“On July 1, 1873, a seemingly insignificant but alarming incident occurred at White Horse Plains in Manitoba. A Dominion immigration agent had brought out a four-member delegation to look over various tracts of land in Manitoba. If suitable land could be located, an immigration of up to 10,000 new agricultural settlers was in prospect…. Word of the land-seekers aroused the Metis to action. They intercepted and harassed the new arrivals with verbal threats, much whooping and yelling, and an ostentatious display of firearms. Much alarmed, the land seekers sought refuge in House’s Hotel (a crude local hostelry) while their agent stood guard at the door with a loaded shotgun. An urgent message was dispatched to the Lieutenant-Governor who promptly ordered the local military forces to the trouble spot.” (source: Smillie, Benjamin, Visions of a New Jerusalem, 1983, NeWest Publishers, Ltd., 109)
Only in recent years, have I had the opportunity to read about this history of the Russian Mennonite delegation’s experience upon arriving in Manitoba. It was most certainly a story that was never told me as a Russian Mennonite growing up in Manitoba and not talked about in church. It was not until I became a student of Manitoba history and began to read that history alongside the Mennonite history, that I fully realized the ways that Mennonite immigration (along with other groups) was used by the Dominion of Canada to establish authority over the land and its host peoples. Land acquisition and population growth, which rendered the original residents to minority status, was a primary goal of the Canadian government, and Mennonites were part of the first waves of immigration into that region.
The stories I was told about Mennonite immigration, was the desire of my community to live in religious freedom, with permission to educate their children in German, and military service exemption. Mennonites complained about the quality of the farmland, the isolation, and the terrible weather and bugs, but celebrated how they persevered! The Mennonite Village Museum in Steinbach, MB, was the centerpiece of how the story was told to the public and generations of Mennonites who grew up in the area.
Holding these narratives together reminds me that the story of my tribe, is not the only story in a region. The perspective of my tribe on their immigration experience, is not necessarily how they were experienced by the people who were there before them. Now, as a pastor in a Mennonite Church in Seattle, an area in which Mennonites were not amongst the first waves of immigration – we are nonetheless both immigrant and settler. It is the settler part of my identity, which I feel compelled to name and embrace. For in embracing my identity as settler, I position myself to listen to the voices and perspectives of the original inhabitants. I position myself to listen and honor the experience of people who have been pushed aside, dislocated, and alienated in order for my congregation to ‘own’ land upon which we worship and follow the Way of Jesus. In every Sundays printed bulletin, and often in the opening words of worship, we acknowledge that we meet on the traditional lands of the Duwamish People. This is a simple act that can keep our congregation awake and attentive to the story of this land and its peoples. Furthermore, in 2013, we formally adopted a statement to repudiate of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Christian justification for mistreatment of indigenous peoples and land acquisition. We are on a journey of naming distorted uses of scripture that serve Empire, and more fully embracing the way of Jesus in this land, which honors everyone’s experience on this land and seeks to be a people of healing and hope.