In the summer of 2003 I moved with my family back to Dineteh, the land of my father's ancestors- located in the Southwest United States between Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peaks and Mount Hesperus. Today this land is better known as the Navajo Reservation.
I was born in this area, in a hospital located in a mission compound alongside an Indian Boarding school. When you pass through the tunnel leading to the campus of this mission to the Navajo and Zuni people you are greeted by a large sign which reads "...Now the LORD has given us room. We shall flourish in the land. Gen. 26:22"
In 1896, the first missionaries from their denomination's "Board of Heathen Missions" arrived on the outskirts of a budding railroad town, known as Gallup, which was located in the territory of New Mexico. The United States of America was nearing the end of an unprecedented period of westward expansion. Through military force, the building of railroads, and the signing and breaking of Indian treaties, the United States was near completing its self-proclaimed "manifest destiny" of ruling this continent from "sea to shining sea."
As I sat waiting for the Communion elements to be distributed at the Urbana 2015 Missions Conference I began to do what both Jesus and Paul exhort Christians to do: examine ourselves. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul warns the church in Corinth about their practice of taking communion. There are divisions among them. They are not waiting or showing concern for each other. Some are going hungry while others are getting drunk. They are forgetting the significance of the Lord's supper and, therefore, are eating and drinking judgement upon themselves. Likewise, in the book of Matthew, Jesus warns his followers that if they are offering their gift at the alter and remember that their brother has something against them, they are to leave their gift, go first and be reconciled, and then return to make their offering.
Many articles have been written about the significance restoring the name Denali has had for the Athabascan people. But in this piece I would like to acknowledge that this name change has been a passionate issue for the natives of Alaska for a long time and therefore reflect on the significance their efforts have had for the rest of the country.
Being Native American and living in the United States I am frequently asked about appropriate ways to celebrate Thanksgiving. I have celebrated Thanksgiving all of my life. Growing up, I have memories of my mother waking up at 5 AM to prepare the turkey to the music of Handel's Messiah. In college, I remember traveling home or visiting the homes of my friends to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal and spend time together. I remember cooking my first Thanksgiving turkey and the countless calls home, asking questions throughout the entire process. And I remember many Thanksgiving feasts celebrated on the Navajo Reservation with friends, family and neighbors over the past decade.
What I don’t remember is the myth...
The first time I spoke publicly about a vision for a national Truth (and Conciliation) Commission in response to the Doctrine of Discovery and the buried unjust history of the United States was back in early 2015. I had just written a blog article titled "The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair." This article laid out specifically what the Doctrine of Discovery is, how it influenced the very foundations of our nation, and exposed the unjust and violent history that resulted from it. It also deconstructed American exceptionalism and articulated a vision for a national dialogue on race, a Truth Commission. While this article did not go viral, it did get an incredibly wide reading and was liked, shared, republished, linked to and referenced hundreds, even thousands of times.
Picture a chair, an empty chair. There are dozens, even hundreds, of them sitting on the stage behind the podium. At the microphone is a Native American elder. Hurting, trembling, shaking, but standing. Full of resolve. Sharing a story of the horrors of the abuse, neglect and trauma, experienced as a young child at an Indian boarding school. In front of this elder are hundreds, even thousands, of people. Native Americans, with their heads bowed in grief, sorrow, even panic, as their own memories of similar stories are triggered. African Americans, sitting silently, staring at the ground, as they recall stories of the trauma their ancestors endured as slaves, the free labor force of an emerging nations. Americans of European descent, sitting uncomfortably, even squirming. Their eyes are wide open and their hearts are pounding as they hear stories of a history they had spent a lifetime denying existed.
The other day I was eating dinner with my wife in a restaurant located in Gallup New Mexico, a border town to the Navajo reservation. Gallup was recently named "Most Patriotic Small Town" in a nationwide contest. Soon after sitting down I noticed that we were seated at a table directly facing a framed poster of the Declaration of Independence.
The irony almost made me laugh.
When our server, who was also native, came to the table, I asked if I could show him something. I then stood up and pointed out that 30 lines below the famous quote "All men are created equal" the Declaration of Independence refers to Natives as "merciless Indian savages."
The irony was that the restaurant was filled with Native American customers and employees. And there in plain sight, a poster hanging on the wall was literally calling all of us "savages."
A few months ago I proposed an ideas for holding a series of "Truth Commision" type conferences throughout the nation beginning with the first one in Washington DC. If you would like to sign up for our email list for the latest news and information on this proposal, please sign up here.
July 5, 2015:
The Doctrine of Discovery: Renovation Church, Buffalo NY
November 14, 2014:
Presentation begins at the 21:45 minute mark.
Columbus Day Chapel at Northwestern College - The Doctrine of Discovery
Presentation begins at the 21:45 minute mark
Blog posts about Navajo Culture and Language
A Laughing Party - The first time a Navajo baby laughs, the family throws a party. The person who made the baby laugh provides the food.
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