Reflections on the Potawatomi Trail of Death Pilgrimage

Ric Hudgens is a pastor, professor, and poet who lives in the Great Lakes region of Turtle Island, the ancestral home of the Potawatomi. He serves as co-pastor of North Suburban Mennonite in Libertyville, Illinois.

The great Catholic theologian John S. Dunne began one of his books with the question “What kind of story are we in?” We Christians often pretend to know the answer. Our pretense, however, is at the root of much oppression and suffering in this world. When Europeans arrived in present-day North America, we did not ask what stories already lived here. We did not ask. We did not listen. We did not care. If a new story emerged in this “new” world it would be our story – a story we brought with us, or created, and remained at the center of. It would, however, despite our self-importance, remain a very small story. Our circle of the “we” was not big enough for “them.”

The people who already lived in this land already lived in this land! Their stories were native to this place. Their stories were birthed and grew up here. The difference between living in a land and occupying a land is the difference between conversation and conquest, between communion and conquest. Ignoring the stories already living here, we ignored those who lived by those stories. Ignoring them, we removed them. Removing them, we forgot them. By that measure, one could say that “America” has forever remained an undiscovered country.
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Honoring Michael Sharp

By Anita Amstutz

United Nations investigative worker Michael Sharp, also known as MJ to his friends, went missing March 12 — abducted in the Congo, along with four Congolese and a Swedish colleague. Three were recently confirmed dead, found in a shallow grave. Even as the Mennonite and international community mourn Michael’s tragic and untimely death, all of these young peacemakers have brought a spotlight again to the Democratic Republic of Congo and it’s more than 20 year deadly civil war.  This Central African country, rich in mineral resources, has become a region known for “conflict minerals”—coltan, tin, gold, tungsten and other minerals.

Like blood diamonds, “conflict minerals” refer to raw materials that come from a particular part of the world where militarized conflict competes for control of these resources. This is the 21st century legacy of colonization — multinational corporations economically dominate a country’s resources, which in turn feed the industrialized First World’s appetite for technology, while financing corruption and violence. In the Congo, women are regularly raped. Child soldiers proliferate. People disappear. The death rate is comprised of 47% children.

According to in-country Congolese activists, MJ and his colleagues were investigating corruption, abuses and deaths by President Kabila’s “security forces” in the Kasai region—a highly volatile area of clashes between rebel and government armies.

May we honor the lives of these peacemakers by taking a good look at how these minerals affect our daily lives as consumers and what we must do to divest of all that is destroying this country that MJ Sharp gave his life to save.

Troubling questions


Seattle-based David Mesenbring is a public speaker, social entrepreneur and traveler who’s worked as an anti-apartheid activist; Africa-focused grant maker; nonprofit founder; and social justice animator.  A committed ecumenist, he was ordained by Africans after being raised Lutheran and is now an Episcopal priest.  His volunteer passions include Oikocredit (a global cooperative that finances FairTrade agriculture and +600 of the world’s best microcredit organizations) and the Social Justice Fund (supporting community organizers in five northwest states).  He’s proudest of his two kids, learning Spanish, and work on a book of Steve Biko’s writings.

Decades ago, I travelled extensively in Africa as a grant maker.  This past summer, my return to Ghana was a personal pilgrimage.  The search for an old friend led me to Cape Coast’s Anglican Cathedral and a morning of fascinating conversation among its clergy.  Just before lunch, they urged me to cross the street for a tour of their city’s primary tourist mecca.  That stole my appetite and left me wondering…  

Why is the oldest church in West Africa located next door to a colonial-era slave castle?  Did its congregation form to meet the spiritual needs of captives… or their captors?  What role did Christianity play in Cape Coast Castle’s enterprise… and why is that history so little known?

By the start of the 15th Century, Europeans were establishing trading stations along West Africa’s coastline.  As one European nation after another entered the Gulf of Guinea searching for indigenous timber, ivory, gold and pepper, they began competing with ancient land routes by which Africans traded with Arabs and Asians.  Before long, what the Europeans first called the “Gold Coast” soon became known as the “Slave Coast.”  What changed?  

More than 50 forts once dotted Ghana’s capes.  Fortifications of wood or stone were variously built and rebuilt by one European power after another: Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Germans and finally the English.  Some are now gone while others stand empty or repurposed as government offices, prisons, and more.  During the 1990s, Ghana’s government restored three forts as part of an effort to boost international tourism.  The United Nations, which helped finance the project, has since designated these World Heritage Sites.

The oldest – Elmina Castle – is faintly visible from Cape Coast, at the far tip of a long bay eight miles to the west.  My guide claimed that Portuguese construction in 1482 marked the beginning of Europe’s slave trade with Africa.  He was full of details regarding how slavery’s commercial enterprise had transacted its economy of life and death.  Yet he’d never heard of the papal bull that preceded Elmina’s construction by fully 30 years.  In Dum Diversas (1452), Pope Nicholas V mandated that King Alfonso V of Portugal pursue African territorial conquest.  Using shockingly explicit language, he presumed the moral authority to sanction the genocide and slavery that resulted.  So why are Elmina’s museum and guides silent on this aspect of the historical record they steward?  Are they afraid to embarrass those churches located just steps away from Cape Coast Castle’s front doors?  Probably not.  They’re simply unaware that long before their castles were built, some papal bulls laid the foundation for Christian justification of slavery.  In short, they are no more familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery than I was a few short years ago.

Today’s castle guides can recount the systematic depredation, torture, murder and sexual assault of Africans who passed through those forts.  They also tell of a more recent time when government officials and local chiefs publicly apologized for their forbearers’ role in selling captives to the traders.  As guides lead visitors into castle space reserved for chapel services, they note the irony of its proximity to dungeons of misery just below.  Tourists are left alone to ponder how the Europeans who worshipped there could have reconciled their enterprise with the golden rule to love your neighbor as yourself.  Was the ‘rule of gold’ as primary to them as it is to us?    

Three years after Dum Diversas, Nicholas further developed the Doctrine of Discovery emerging with Europe’s Age of Imperialism.  In Romanus Pontifex (1455), Nicholas authorized Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue all …enemies of Christ …and ….reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” for the mutual profit of church and state alike.  The Doctrine manifested a racist zeitgeist taking root in Europe, which imagined human being in categories of biological boundary that don’t, in fact, exist.  Europeans (who display plenty of genetic variation among themselves) decided they were all of a single “white” type and that their type was superior to all others.  Their religion (Christian) became their justification as the Doctrine of Discovery legitimized early racial thinking and white supremacy.  Five hundred years later, the widespread social construction flowing from this self-serving position still wreaks havoc throughout the fabric of contemporary America, especially for Indigenous people.  Such are the dubious roots of white supremacy’s past and present.  My well-intentioned (white) parents taught me that “race is real,” and “it doesn’t matter.”  However, given the historical impact of race as a social construct, they should have told me “race is not real, but (at least in contemporary America) it matters a lot.”  

The ecclesiastical justification for a profitable practice of genocide, slavery and territorial expansion-by-force began with the idea that some humans are superior to others by virtue of their religion.  Is this how 16th century chapel-worshipping captors on the Slave Coast reconciled conflicting dictates of their work and faith?  Was it because European religious authorities had declared African captives to be “enemies of Christ?”

Both the Church as an institution, as well as its individual leaders, owned slaves.  For Christianity’s first 1,800 years, the slavery debate focused largely on how slaves should be treated, and whether Christians should be owned by Muslims.  It took a long time before the question of whether anyone has a natural right to own anyone else gained prominence in that debate.  Bishops owned slaves, as did their largest financial contributors.  Is that why the Church failed to officially repudiate slavery until after the practice had been banned by government?  What does it say about the moral leadership of Church authorities that they lagged behind civil authorities on an issue like this?  Is moral vision always eclipsed by economic self-interest?

Not everyone is conveniently incognizant of the blinding bias that economic interest always conveys.  Among those unjustly divested of their interests, some retain a historical perspective.  Their insight is critical for those who’ve been blinded by the praxis of “might makes right;” it even represents a kind of saving grace from that bias.  While still operative in legal and other ways, the Doctrine of Discovery is long forgotten among the descendants of those whom it has overprivileged.  Yet some Indigenous still remember.  It was Native Christians from The Episcopal Church’s reservation-based missions that brought a 2009 resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and mandate study about its continuing impact.

Slavers convinced themselves that some lives matter more than others.  Then, as now, moral self-esteem always manages to rationalize why the status quo serves some interests better than others.  In North America and other “manifest destiny”-driven societies, the status of Indigenous people remains invisible among settler descendants and other immigrants.  Throughout our nation’s white supremacist history, blacks have faced obstacles too far removed from the imagination of white privilege.  Its naiveté helps sustain our self-esteem as “good people.”  Is that what insulate whites from making the changes justice requires?  



Report from Standing Rock


Helen Hudgens is a missionary kid raised among Aboriginal people in north Brazil. She is on the faculty of the North Park University School of Music in Chicago, where she co-directs the Gospel Choir. She is an Anabaptist living in intentional community and currently serves a Black Baptist church in Evanston. She is the proud mom of two young adults. This reflection was written on Dec. 1, 2016.

We took 20 North Park University students and 6 faculty/staff to Oceti Sakowin, Nov. 19 to 22. I stayed on to Nov. 26. Students braved the cold, jumped into volunteer roles sorting donations, helping in the kitchens and working in the medic areas.

Sunday night, Nov. 20, we were debriefing the day around a fire when a runner came through the camp, calling people to come forward to the bridge where police where “shooting people.” We had been told to not react too swiftly, that not all calls to action were vetted by camp leaders, so we waited. But we could see that half the camp was mobilizing toward the bridge north of camp, a road that has been blocked for 3 weeks by a massive police barrier and military vehicles. We could see clouds of smoke illuminated by floodlights and hear explosions. Soon, it was emergency vehicles coming back from that line to the medic area, with cries of “Injuries! Clear the road.” At that point I told the students: “Use good judgment. You don’t have to join this one. But if you want to, let’s go see how we can contribute.”

Most of us went to the medic area, where one car after another was unloading people completely soaked in freezing water, tear gas and pepper spray. The medics were performing admirably. It was great field medicine at work: a tent to decontaminate clothing and wash people down, warm clothes to change into, warm soup and tea – or, in some cases, an ambulance to take serious injuries to the hospital (the long way mind you, because the closest route was blocked). And there were serious injuries: lots of hypothermia, several cardiac arrests, rubber bullet contusions. One woman’s arm was so badly injured in an explosion that it almost had to be amputated. At some point, I decided I had to go up to the action and see what was happening. It was surreal. Unbelievable. 800 people on the bridge. Billowing sheets of water and tear gas backlit by floodlights. Military deployment behind razor wire that was at this point eerily covered in brilliant ice. A battle scene.

You’ve seen the pictures. I guess I just want to say that any reports that suggest that the water protectors on my side of that police line were being violent towards police is false. The water protectors were chanting, singing, shouting their slogans – Mni Wiconi! mostly – and moving forward into the line of fire in groups of twos and threes. Police were firing everything in their arsenal right at them at close range. Tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets 3 inches long and 2 inches thick, fired from rifles. And then the water cannons, mounted on a military vehicle, not a fire truck. I stood just outside the 60 foot range of that thing but watched it aim and take down person after person. It was a lethal weapon in those temperatures. It was only by sheer luck (or divine protection) that no one died that night. It was clear to me that there was little command and control on the police side – no one to temper an almost adolescent joy in causing injury or death. It went on most of the night.

There is no excuse for this. There are only lies trying to cover egregious aggression by morally compromised, undisciplined law enforcement being paid to “serve and protect” the american fossil fuel industry. This is exactly the tactic being used in other countries (see Chevron and Ecuador). We’re finally seeing it here on home soil.

The camp was quiet and reeling from the trauma the next day. There is a rhythm to camp life that begins with morning prayers around the sacred fire in the center, every day before dawn. That did not happen Monday – probably because the leaders were either injured or attending to people who were injured. There was an open meeting held by the tribal elders at 4 p.m., one of many councils I was privileged to observe. There is room for people to speak, be heard, all held within a sacred space. The elders were not happy with the bridge action. One tribal member had taken an independent action, not approved by the elders, of trying to remove the two burned-out trucks the police had used to barricade the road (this after Morton County had failed on its promise to open the road). He had used his semi cab with a grappling hook and was successful in getting one truck off the road. That was when police massed at the line, and the camp mobilized in front of them, afraid that the police would come forward and raid the camp. For their part, the police were afraid the protectors were trying to push through the barricade. The elders summed it up this way: “This action was not grounded in prayer. That’s why people got hurt.”

The man responsible for the truck action was in tears and apologized. For the next two days there was a deep reassessment of how to reground ourselves, especially among the non-native allies who were beginning to pour into the camp by the thousands for the Thanksgiving weekend. A reassertion that the ground is prayer and commitment to non-violence. A simple trust that the cause is just and that God is on the side of justice. Against overwhelming odds – that the Spirit of God is stronger. And that the officers on the other side of the line are humans also deserving of respect and love. Prayers for their well being. So remarkably like Jesus! Understanding that these officers are in a trance, blinded by an evil system in its last death grip trying to hang on to “the kingdom of this world.” Prayers that they – and the rest of us – would wake up and live into our birthright as the human family, the children of God.

I went to Standing Rock feeling heavy. I was alarmed and depressed by the election, unsettled by a vague threat thickening the air around me. “I’ve lost my joy,” I told my daughter the day before I left. Seven days camped at Oceti Sakowin completely changed my mood.

For one thing, it’s amazingly beautiful country. Wide open skies and plains. Coyotes howling their music at night. Pheasants jumping out of the tall grass as we drove passed. Stars flaming in the cold night air. Crystalline new moon setting just before dawn. Hoar frost, half an inch thick, covering grass and tree branches (and tables and chairs) overnight, and then glowing as though lit up from the inside as the first rays of sun crept out of the hills. Beauty like that has always been a balm to my soul.

After an intense weekend, I was relieved that the NPU students and staff were safe, not completely frostbitten, and set to return to Chicago on Monday and Tuesday. I had been invited to stay on, partnering with a delegation from Christian Peacemaker Teams (the group that had provided our students with non-violence training before we left). And so I was gifted with a few more days of an immersion into another sort of beauty that I want to try to capture.

The Sacred Rock camps are, next to the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps the most important contemporary experiment in community, democracy, and free speech in recent memory:  an incubator for the next phase of activism and movement work for the Trump era. Functioning like the Highlander Center in the Civil Rights movement, it is a place to educate, to conspire, to learn by trial and error how to resist oppression, to tell stories and share wisdom from struggles all over the continent. It happens informally, around fire circles and kitchens and in affinity camps that have sprung up inside the big camps: “Unions for Standing Rock,” “Black Lives Matter NYC,” “Two-Spirit Camp,” “Veterans for Peace,” “Public School Teachers,” etc., plus dozens of First Nations encampments. It also happens in daily training sessions and council circles. All newcomers to camp go through an orientation, and everyone must be trained before they participate in direct action.

The day I went for training, the place was packed beyond capacity. A young Latinx woman from California introduced herself. She works for a non-profit that does activism training for communities of color. “I’m here at the invitation of the tribal elders. There are many perspectives on what constitutes non-violent direct action. You need to know that we are respecting and staying in line with these directives the elders have given us:

• We are protectors not protestors
• We are peaceful and prayerful
• “ —– isms” have no place here
• We are non-violent
• We respect the locals
• We are proud to stand – no masks
• No weapons or what can be considered a weapon
• Property damage does not get us closer to our goal
• No children in potentially dangerous situations
• We keep each other accountable
• This is a ceremony. Act accordingly!”

The “No —isms” piece was evident all over camp. People were using the language of “settler colonialism” (see Patrick Wolfe, 2006 here) and its attempt to erase indigenous culture, language and spirituality, detaching people from their heritage land. We kept being reminded that this is not new – “We’ve been fighting colonialism for 500 years!” True, the DAPL pipeline was being read as the latest exemplar in a closet full of ugly colonial abuses. But more than that, the disrespecting, entitled reach for power-over and the purposeful cultivation of hatred that DAPL was literally carving into the soil on these lands was a poison that all of us were being called to reject. Within ourselves. In this understanding, everyone had come into contact with settler/colonialism in some way and had been hurt and infected. And hurt people act out by hurting others, often those closest to them. Call it racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, hetero-normativism, ableism or classism. How do we decolonize ourselves?

While the cry at camp was “What are we here for?” – “TO STOP THE PIPELINE!” it was clear that we were being asked to work for that goal “in a good way.” I heard that line over and over from indigenous people: in personal testimonies, “I’m standing here, talking to you now, and I’m coming in a good way,” or in prayer: “Creator, please help us show up here in a good way,” or as admonishment, “Get it together people! This is not a good way!” I was fascinated with what this “way” looked like, how it was being practiced. Here are some observations:

1. Everything is bathed in prayer. This is what moved me the most and, along with the no drugs or alcohol pillar, may be behind the distinction frequently made by our trainers: “This is not Burning Man or Occupy or Rainbow!” Prayer was the first and last activity. Before dawn, a deep-throated emcee rouses people through a booming loudspeaker: “Get up, Oceti! Wake up, Red Warriors! Wake up, Rosebud! We have work to do. You’re here for a reason! Wake up Christians! Dust off those Bibles and polish those crosses! This is not a vacation! Time to pray!”

Morning prayer convenes around a continuously tended sacred fire. Sage and cedar are burned. Songs are sung, and prayers are spoken or chanted in Lakota and English. Someone offers an exhortation. The women then lead a water blessing ceremony and take the gathering in a procession to the river’s edge, where personal prayers and songs are offered. Prayer is also THE medium of non-violent direct action. I participated in 3 of these over the course of 3 days. Every one had the goal of moving to and holding a symbolically significant public or contested indigenous space by means of a large circle of people,and then praying and holding ceremony on that space.

2. I saw a very spontaneous, large collective (on Nov. 24 the camp passed 15,000!), being held collaboratively with balance and equilibrium. All allies are welcome, and yet we are guests. There are multiple circles of conversation and decision-making. Sometimes, the circles are restricted to tribal elders, but mostly they are completely open. Many voices and perspectives are given the floor. Every action is debriefed. People are validated, encouraged, honored. People showing up with different gifts are given room. A man from Ojai, CA, who puts on “French toast events for 500” showed up on Thanksgiving Saturday and promptly was given access to “Grandma’s Kitchen.” (Grandma herself, a Piute elder from the Owens River Valley, CA, has been feeding 400 to 500 people per meal for a month now – always smiling, always ready to give a hug.)

3. People are encouraged to be independent and resourceful, not depending on the camp’s resources AND they are living communally. Free clothing in one tent; free food in another; free basic medic care; a winterizing construction team willing to put a wood floor in your tent. “Take care of yourself first. You’re no good to the camp if you hurting your own body in some way.” (A ban on alcohol, drugs and possession of weapons is strictly maintained.) “Take care of your family and friends next.” There are counseling tents; a tent for massage, another for acupuncture. People routinely talk about PTSD and ways to cope.

4. The needs and concerns of women and children receive great attention. A “grandmother’s circle” is held every day. Older ones admonish the younger ones about all kinds of things: “No women and children sleeping in their cars!” or, “You must wear a skirt in ceremony!” and then giving the reason why: “The skirt is your tepee. It channels the power of mother earth from her skin upward to your heart and then up through your head to Grandfather sky. It empowers you.” (That was enough to get me wearing mine!) The younger ones are encouraged to raise concerns: “I think we need to ask the men to gather and talk amongst themselves about domestic abuse and rape culture.”

5. There is space for laughter and song, storytelling and dancing. Oh – and lots of drumming!

I’m not sure which one of these worked its healing potion into my world-weary bones that week. I know that the last morning, as I stood in a prayer circle by that frozen river, I did a full body check-in. I felt lighter. Something had shifted. I went back internally to a couple of wounded places that have resisted healing for a long time. Even those were peaceful that morning. Maybe it was the sweet scent of cedar in the air. Maybe it was a balm rising from the hard mud flat beneath me through my ceremonial skirt. “Thank you, Jesus” was on my lips. Thank you Great Spirit, flowing across this land.

The spiritual roots of resistance at Standing Rock run deep

The following article is a cross-post from Christian Peacemaker Teams. The original post from December 4, 2016, can be found here.

By Tim Nafziger

The U.S. Army corps of engineers has today, December 4, 2016 announced that they will deny key permits for the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and explore alternative routes, one day ahead of a deadline they’d set for the evacuation of Oceti Sakowin. As we celebrate this victory, it is important to name the sacred roots of the resistance at the camp, which is often portrayed with ugly caricatures drawing on centuries old stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples.

When I told my friend Erica Littlewolf that I was going to Standing Rock for a week with Christian Peacemaker Teams, she encouraged me to reflect from “a mind space and also a heart space” as a white man in that setting. I heard this refrain again on my first morning in the camp during our orientation to Oceti Sakowin camp, when the facilitators invited us to focus on our heart space and “walk in touch with the land and with themselves.” That might mean, for example, holding onto our questions instead of asking them immediately so that we can listen to the knowing in ourselves.

Again and again during my week there, I felt Oceti Sakowin pull me into that heart space.

I felt that pull on Wednesday morning when I had joined a long line of people praying along the Cannonball River. Our boots sank into the icy mud as we bent forward to toss tobacco into the river. Tobacco is one of the four key medicines used frequently in Oceti in ceremony. At the close of our prayer, hundreds of geese flew above us in formation, heading south.

I felt that pull on Friday when I looked out over the camp from Media Hill and watched a group that calls itself the Gathering of Deafatives using sign language to express their solidarity with Standing Rock for a live feed on Facebook (view it here). I found myself weeping at the beauty of this community coming together with wide smiles on their faces as they reached out to their community around the world. Over 50,000 people have now watched that video.

I felt that pull on Saturday morning when a Shoshone elder led us in a circle dance as the sun rose around the sacred fire. Late in our movements, as our circles slowly moved opposite each other, she called out to us to stop. We waited expectantly and then watched as she bent down to tie the shoe laces of one of the dancers. And my heart saw Jesus bending down to wash his disciples feet.

I felt that pull on Thursday morning, when most in the country gathered around turkeys. I was crowded with more than 100 other water protectors into a large geodesic dome in the center of Oceti with our body heat and a stove warming us from the freezing temperatures outside. Together we were preparing for mass direct action together. After an opening prayer, one of the indigenous organizers began to speak. His voice rose and fell as he challenged us to ground ourselves and let go of all hate towards the police and recognize them as people who were lost and in need of healing. He talked about how mother earth grieves as she watches us hate each other. The message was at once deeply earnest and deeply strategic, not through analysis, but through the pull of the heartspace.

As I listened, my mind drifted to Dr. King’s sermon before the assembled crowd headed out to confront Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama, US in May 1963. Not only were we connected by fire hoses used against us, in our case in freezing temperatures on Backwater Bridge on November 20 (see photo). It is also the spiritual grounding and call for transformation of hateful law enforcement. I have never experienced a mass movement so grounded in spirituality and song, as during my week as part of the camp.

Photo caption: Prayer and Ceremony on Turtle Island on November 24, 2016 on the a sacred burial ground of the Standing Rock Sioux that is owned by the Energy Transfer Partners where the Dakota Access Pipeline is being contructed. Photo by Tim Nafziger.

Oceti Sakowin leaks the light in, like few other places I have been. In English, Oceti Sakowin translates “seven council fires” which is the name the Sioux prefer for themselves. Their relationship with the land is not an abstract one focused on property deeds, but an intimate knowing, grounded in the seasons and the stories of the land, both tragic and sacred. The hospitality and welcome of the people of the seven council fires has blossomed, bustling with the energy of dozens of camp fires and the central sacred fire. Eight kitchens, two construction camps, a donations management system, media and legal collectives serve people from more than 200 indigenous nations and their settler supporters. The coordination is remarkable, usually handled by one or two people known only by their first name: Peggie, Paul, Bear, Mary Anne, Sam.

County, state and federal authorities consistently ignore the sacred center of the water protector movement. As a Mennonite, I resonated deeply with the woven braids of prayer, ceremony and resistance which come together in that place and in that movement, echos of which I see in my own centuries-old dissenting tradition.

In the midst of this powerful and hopeful space, the threat of raids and violence laid heavy. It is especially important for us as settlers to remember the massacre at Wounded Knee (and the siege a century later), the Sand Creek massacre, the Whitestone massacre and more recently, the police raid of the Minehaha Free Space. The Indigenous Nations gathered at Standing Rock know that their prayers and ceremonies flow out of that 400-year struggle against colonization.

I’ll close with one more story. On the plane out of Bismark, I talked to Hunter Franks and Michael Parks, two young white settler men who had been in Bismark for the same week that I had. Franks said that he, like many settlers in the U.S., only thinks about Indigenous Peoples two or three times a year, so a week of Indigenous-centered leadership was deeply impactful. The emphasis on service was especially striking: “I was waking up and thinking ‘How can I serve today’ instead of what do I want to do today?”

Are we, as settlers on this land, willing to listen with our hearts to the people, place and spirit of the seven council fires?

A Concrete Act of Solidarity with Standing Rock

Fellowship of Hope, a Mennonite congregation from Elkhart, Indiana, recently moved their bank account from Chase Bank after learning that it’s one of the 38 banks that are funding the Dakota Access Pipeline through its parent company, Energy Transfer Partners. You may find the letter they wrote below to be helpful as you contemplate ways to be in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

JPMorgan Chase

Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon



Corporate Contacts:

Andrew Gray


Jennifer Lavoie


Brian Marchiony


Corporate Office:

270 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017-2014

Chase Bank, Elkhart, IN:

This letter is to explain why we [the Church of the Fellowship of Hope, Inc.] have decided to move our modest bank account funds from Chase Bank.

We first began banking at the then local St Joe Valley Bank over 40 years ago. We have continued over the many mergers [much to our dismay] to the present Chase Bank.

Fellowship Of Hope Mennonite Church of Elkhart, Indiana, stands in solidarity with the people of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota.  They are protecting the Missouri River, their only water source, from the contamination that would result from the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), otherwise known as the Bakken Pipeline.  They were never properly consulted about DAPL, nor has the project undergone a sufficient environmental impact review. The tribe and their allies have faced attacks by security dogs, mace, police brutality, and the bulldozing of sacred burial grounds as they put their bodies on the line to defend their land and waters. As Christians, we believe Jesus stands with the oppressed, and so we feel called to support our courageous sisters and brothers in North Dakota who are non-violently opposing this act of injustice.

JP Morgan Chase & Co. is one of the major financers of Energy Transfer Partners, which is the parent company of Dakota Access.  As a congregation, we have studied the situation and we have prayed for justice. Now, we are taking action so that our financial investments are more in line with our prayers.  With this letter, Fellowship Of Hope Mennonite Church is closing its bank account with Chase Bank.  Thus we are officially divesting ourselves from JP Morgan Chase & Co. We encourage you to speak with your executives about joining us in divesting from DAPL, a project that not only threatens the waters of Native Americans, but all of us downstream as well.

We are interested in talking more with representatives of Chase Bank about our decision.




The Ongoing Harm of the Doctrine of Discovery

This article by Coalition member Sarah Augustine was recently published in Response, a magazine of the United Methodist Women. Sarah is an assistant professor of sociology and the director of student spirituality at Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington. She is also co-founder of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a body of law and policy that justifies the seizure of land from indigenous peoples based on an ethical framework created by the church in the 15th century that gave racial preference to Europeans. This framework defined non-Christians as qualitatively different from Europeans. It further gave European rulers the right to “discover” indigenous lands and to claim title to those lands.

In our secular society it is hard to grasp that in lands colonized by Europe (North, Central and South America, Africa, parts of Asia, Australia and New Zealand), the land-tenure system is based on a religious doctrine. Whether the racist assumptions or motivations are currently held by decision makers is irrelevant — racial superiority is enshrined in the law.

Impact of Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery shapes current reality for indigenous peoples. I would argue there are no instances in which land rights have been restored or the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery lost to time.

I work with indigenous peoples in Suriname, South America, who face illness, death, displacement, denied access to their livelihood and militarization due to gold mining and other “economic development” projects in their traditional lands. They enjoy no recognition or legal protections, as the national government holds exclusive title to lands in Suriname.

The government provides concessions to mining companies that pollute indigenous territories with mercury and cyanide — even receiving foreign aid to do this. Small-scale mining has caused major pollution to the rivers indigenous peoples depend on for food and water. As economic interests have pushed them out of their traditional lands, indigenous peoples have lost access to their livelihood, alternatives to which neither their government nor global economic interests are willing to provide. They become refugees in their own country, fleeing violence imposed by private militias that are controlled by mining interests and concession holders.

The Netherlands colonized Suriname in the 17th century, and the Dutch held sovereignty over Suriname and thus retained title to all lands and ownership over all resources. When Suriname was granted independence in 1975, land sovereignty flowed from the Netherlands to the national government of Suriname. The rights of indigenous peoples were not recognized by the Dutch, and they are not recognized by the national government of Suriname. The flow of sovereignty is designed to exclude indigenous peoples.

The Doctrine of Discovery, and the power it has wielded in shaping our society, determines who shapes our institutions. It defines how we define justice. It is not unusual in our culture to define justice in terms of “fairness” rather than equity. Fairness is often described in the terms of the powerful, without context. Fairness for the powerful is defined as equal distribution of a good without acknowledgement of unequal standing. According to conventional wisdom about fairness, the majority has a right to the majority of resources and therefore has a right to the most power.

The flow of sovereignty

In the United States, the Discovery Doctrine was enshrined in U.S. law by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in 1823. In his landmark decision pertaining to indigenous land title, he explained that a European power gains radical title, or sovereignty, to any land it discovers. Indigenous peoples who pre-date European or American sovereignty retain only the right of occupancy, which can still be dissolved by the federal government.

When the United States gained independence from Britain, sovereignty flowed from Britain to the U.S. government. The flow of sovereignty excludes indigenous peoples, here in the United States and in lands around the world where the Doctrine of Discovery provides legal preference to Europeans. The Doctrine of Discovery was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as the basis of our laws as recently as 2005. In the case City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation, justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion on behalf of the court: “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery’ … ‘fee title [ownership] to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States,'” quoting the 1974 case Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. v. County of Oneida.

When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, traditional ceremonial and burial sites sacred to the Apache People were sold to a foreign mining interest despite Apache protests that continued for more than a year. Senator John McCain ushered this defense spending bill through and included a rider handing off the land. The rider gave access to 2,400 acres of national forest land to Rio Tinto mine. As a national forest, this land was owned by the American People, and the Apache have been able to practice ceremony there. This land has enjoyed a special mining ban since 1955. With the passage of the Defense Authorization Act, it has become the private property of a foreign corporation, and a massive copper mine is planned.

Many people do not know that the apartheid system in South Africa was based on the reservation system in the United States and Canada. In 1910, the newly independent South Africa sent a delegation to Canada and the United States to observe how to develop a reservation system. They passed the Native Lands act in 1913, which ultimately left 87 percent of national lands for Whites only, with remaining 13 percent divided into “reserves.”

Although South Africa’s apartheid came to an end in 1994, our reservation system prevails. American Indian reservations do not enjoy representation in Congress. Indigenous tribes are considered “domestic dependent nations,” and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency, acts as guardian over indigenous peoples and their assets.

“The Interior Department had failed to account for billions of dollars that they were supposed to collect on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans,” President Barack Obama stated upon the passing of Elouise Cobell, Niitsítapi elder and activist and lead plaintiff in the groundbreaking litigation Cobell v. Salazar, which challenged the Interior Department’s mismanagement of funds.

Skewed context of fairness

Native Americans are some of the most impoverished Americans. This is because their wealth and assets were taken from them and given to members of another group. This reality has not changed. Those who have reaped the economic benefit of the lands and resources of the United States have become wealthier over generations, while Native Americans remain impoverished.

On the Yakama Indian Reservation, my family and I live as guests on the homeland of the Yakama Nation on an organic beef ranch. Several years ago my husband hired a teenage neighbor to help with our summer farm stand at weekend farmers’ markets. Our neighbor helped package beef, carry packages to customers’ cars and make change. One weekend we noticed that a significant amount of money was missing from our cash box — we kept it in a safe place in our home known to only ourselves and our teen neighbor. Before our weekly deposit, we realized that nearly an entire weekend of sales was missing. When confronted, our young neighbor admitted he had taken and spent the money and could not repay it.

According to the law, we would have been justified in calling the police and changing this young man’s life. Fairness, according to the law, dictates that he took the money — the context of his crime began when he entered our home without our consent and ended when he took our money. The fact that this young man lived in a two-bedroom home with his single mother and seven other children would not be taken into account. The fact that as the eldest, he was responsible for the well-being of the younger children would not be taken into account. That he was working for us, people financially benefiting from his traditional homeland, would not be taken into account.

Conventional notions of fairness do not account for the original theft, where the laws in the United States transferred ownership of land from my neighbor’s family to mine. Conventional notions of “fairness” do not account for the wealth accumulated by settlers because of these laws. The law is completely on the side of settlers because it was created with settlers in mind.

How institutions reflect bias, amnesia

Using the logic of democracy, we equate “representation” with justice. But representation without institutional change only ensures that institutional power and levers are maneuvered by “diverse” people of power — the outcomes will be the same unless principles of equity are envisioned and embraced.

In the United States, the wealth and influence wielded by those in power was taken from the first peoples of this land by force. Those dispossessed are assumed to be represented according to the conventional wisdom of fairness. This fairness assumes we all have equal footing, we all begin from the same context. When those with power assume this, indigenous peoples’ experience, lived context, is denied.

The church is called, as the Body of Christ, to seek to establish the kin-dom of God. We cannot do this by collaborating with or by giving our consent to unjust and violent structures.

Our world is arranged by a system of institutions and laws. Slavery was an institution that was once pervasive in the world economy and enshrined in the laws of colonized countries. It did not fade away on its own — it had to be dismantled. Slavery came to an end when the laws that codified it and the policies of institutions that enforced it was dismantled. The same is true for apartheid and segregation. It was not easy to dismantle apartheid or segregation. But it was necessary. To affirm the human dignity of those oppressed by these structures, we must oppose the structures that are oppressive.

Collective change

I find that many people are timid in imagining what they can do. We often think about change only in terms of our individual actions. What we can do as individuals is limited. But when we act collectively our voice is magnified. Collectively, we have power.

We have the power to change policy. We as a people of faith populate the only institutions on earth that can speak with moral authority. We can go to the development banks and negotiate on behalf of communities impacted by mining and other extractive industries propped up in the name of “economic development.” We can ask them to negotiate with us. The Inter-American Development bank has a liaison to the faith community because they can’t do what they do without our cooperation. They depend on us to pay externalized costs; we are in a powerful position to negotiate.

We can challenge the constitutionality of the Doctrine of Discovery in our own country. Slavery was once codified in our constitution, and a constitutional amendment reversed it.

We can challenge the validity of the Doctrine of Discovery in developing countries. We can urge our Congress not to provide military aid to nations that use these funds to drive indigenous peoples from their homelands in the name of national security or in the name of economic growth. We can talk to our representatives about allocating “foreign aid” and withdraw our support for aid that displaces indigenous and vulnerable peoples.

We can negotiate directly with corporations. Everything extractive industry is doing on indigenous lands now is perfectly legal — but it is immoral. It is time we not only said this publicly but asked for the opportunity to negotiate for change.

We can organize ourselves in ways I don’t have the creativity to imagine, we can live into a call to Justice, we can support solutions that are not yet envisioned. We must act, even though we can’t fully predict the outcomes. This is the definition of living in faith.

Join Us in Prayer

Sarah Augustine is co-director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund and chair of the Coalition’s Structures Committee. You can read more about the situation Sarah describes below here.

Over two years ago Miskito leaders living in exile contacted our small human rights organization, Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, to ask us for help.  The Miskito are an Indigenous people living in Nicaragua. They said they had read about us, specifically how we worked directly with communities in Suriname struggling to remain on their traditional lands.  The Miskito people gained legal recognition and negotiated an autonomous homeland during the civil war in Nicaragua in the 1980s.  However, they are losing their lands now as government-sponsored settlers push them out of their villages, homes and territories in a systematic and violent process of land-grabbing.  On this very day, men women and children forced from their homes at gunpoint just days ago are making camp in the rainforest without food, sanitation, or clean water. How do I know?  Miskito leaders called us directly. The region is on the brink of civil war.

Over the past two years, we have appealed to domestic and international leaders, relief organizations including the International Red Cross, and our networks in the faith community.  We have been told by officials at the Red Cross and by political leaders that our “concerns are unfounded,” and that the situation is stable. We have watched and listened as more people each day are made refuges in their own country.  Every week, sometimes many times in a week, we received video footage of killings, audio recordings from victims and eye-witnesses, and written pleas for help.  The videos and audio recordings are horrible, unbearable.  We want to look away; we do not want to open these digital missives of horror.  How are we to respond?

I long for resurrection.  In this dry and weary place, I long for hope.

In early November, we will again form a small delegation to meet with decision makers in Washington D.C. We will negotiate for a peace plan on behalf of an angry people who feel they have no options;  we will plead for a just response from our people.

Our delegation is a small group of ordinary people. We are none of us influential or of noble birth. Yet we cooperate with a Spirit larger than ourselves.  In my heart, I long for the assurance that God has indeed chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  We ask that you join with us in prayer as we prepare for our envoy of peace and that you reach out across space to your networks of faith to join with us in prayer.  I claim Paul’s words from I Corinthians 1 for this journey:

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,  so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.