Native hospitality at a theology conference

October 27, 2015

activism / theology

I went to a conference a couple weeks ago called Identity, Theology, & Place: Reinhabiting the Mississippi Watershed. For a bit of context, I’ve lived in this Mississippi Watershed for just over a year, after moving to Minneapolis from Atlanta last October.

Here’s a quick description:

The earth faces an unprecedented ecological crisis that threatens the survival of countless species, including our own. Alienation from the land rooted in settler colonialism causes nature to be treated as mere commodity. The effect is poor health, impoverished spirits, fractured communities, and lost identities.

We invite all committed to the journey of decolonization — indigenous peoples, colonial settlers, and others — to explore a theology of restorative solidarity, ecological sustainability, and connection to place. The Mississippi Watershed (3rd largest watershed in the world) will serve as a case study on how we can reinhabit, fight for, and begin to heal ourselves and the land that we depend on for life.

I was previously aware of presenters like Jin Kim (who I’ve considered a friend since arriving here) and Jim Bear Jacobs of Church of all Nations, Ched Myers, and Tevyn East and Jay Beck of Carnival de Resistance, and I knew I needed what they were offering, so I went.

This event began with a tour of two sacred Dakota sites from Healing Minnesota Stories. We went to a valley that sits where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet. For the Dakota, this is where Creator put them, in their words. It’s the site of their creation story. There’s a burial ground on a hill just above the valley that was used for centuries.

The valley is also the site of Fort Snelling. You can see where the Dakota were forced to sign a treaty that was never honored selling the land of Minnesota to the US government so it could become a state. Later a couple thousand Dakota women and children were put in a concentration camp, and many died, there. The hill with the burial ground was almost occupied by condos as recently as 2009, even though it’s next to a pristine white cemetery.

I didn’t know about any of these things, being new to Minnesota, so it was eye-opening just to hear the stories. The South has buried most of its Native stories, perhaps unsurprisingly.1

But being led to these sites by Native folk – one of them Dakota – put it on another level for me. These men invited us in to listen to them with sage. They showed us how to enter the ritual. They invited us to walk around the site of the concentration camp, and see the markers and say the names of the people honored there, and listen to their voices. They showed us the wheel of black, red, yellow, and white and explained that (at least now) they see it as including all of our voices together for the liberation of all of us.

I say listen to the voices of the people who died in the valley because for Native people, they explained, stories don’t exist in time. They exist in place. All of the stories at that site – creation and genocide and us, learning about both – exist together, not separated by centuries, as we say when we want Native and Black people to get over the various traumas we’re uncomfortable with having caused. That is why the stories are transformative.

Maybe it doesn’t sound true, which we like to use to put down the truths of myth, but from what I understand about physics it is true. Space and time don’t work the way we think they do. Native folk are closer to the truth in this, I think, than Enlightenment white people have been.

Anyway, there’s more.

The more formal conference pieces began with a plenary on identity: specifically, identity of people who exist within white supremacy. All of us, to be clear. Many people don’t need an introduction to this concept, but if you do there’s no better one than this hour long podcast, which is by the same person who did the plenary. Anyway, as he uniquely does Jin explained the pathology that is whiteness. It is one of the driving forces of modern US imperialism, and there’s no one it doesn’t impact. Including white people. We aren’t the most victimized by this, but we are the first victimized, and much of Jin’s work at Church of all Nations involves counseling white people through the issues and anxieties caused by whiteness.

That’s important to mention here, even though I have more to say about what we were able to learn from the Native leaders. It’s important to include because most white people who are aware of racial harm say we want racial reconciliation. But in wanting that, very few of us are willing to do any work on our own issues.

One of the ways we tend to seek a cross-less resurrection with regard to Native people is by safely storing them in our nostalgia, because we never have to see them. Nostalgia doesn’t demand anything of us because we see ourselves separated from them by the years.

This is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable theologically, scientifically, and also relationally. We can’t have a theology of reconciliation that doesn’t involve a cross. We won’t, and shouldn’t, be invited into Native spaces (nor should they feel inclined to come into ours) just because we’re white folk, even if we’re “progressive” white folk. There’s work to be done. There’s decolonizing work that needs to be done, and that’s why this conference was transformative and hospitable at the same time.2

After this plenary, the same Native leaders invited all of us to the front of the sanctuary for a smudging ceremony. They feathered sage smoke over our hair, our faces, and our bodies, welcoming us in a ritual that, apparently, was illegal until 1978. They said it was meaningful for them to perform this in a church, as the church was so often the impetus for banning their practices in the name of God.

But for me the combination of this, the sacred sites, and a sunrise pipe ceremony the next day were maybe the most significant, transforming, and drenched in grace experience of hospitality I’ve ever seen. Minnesota is not a particularly hospitable place for newcomers, I’m observing, and I feel like that became even more stark when the state’s original inhabitants welcomed us. This was hospitality in the radical sense of welcoming strangers who have no reason to be welcomed. This kind of hospitality is hard to give, impossible to ask for, and transformative to receive.

  1. I went to Cherokee a few times growing up in North Carolina. The descendants of the folks who resisted the Trail of Tears still live there, so you can hear some things if you listen. But the state as a whole (and I’d say Georgia and Florida, where I also lived, have done it even more so) has almost completely forgotten its original inhabitants. []
  2. I hope it goes without saying that these things apply to our attempts at any kind of racial reconciliation, not just with Native folk []