01 November 2018

Quakers and Native Americans: It's complicated

Photo by Judy Maurer  
What does an apology from [Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends] to Native Americans look like?

This question arose a couple of weeks ago at our Yearly Meeting's quarterly gathering at Eugene, Oregon. It has been put on our SCYMF Prayer Committee's agenda as an item for prayer, anticipating that we continue to pray and work together toward an answer.

One of the first things we had done on that quarterly meeting day, all of us together, was to participate in a workshop led by Dove John of North Seattle Friends Church. As background, Dove summarized the Discovery Doctrine -- the legal doctrine that supposedly justified European "Christian" powers in claiming that any lands their representatives "discovered" became those powers' possessions, and any claims by existing non-Christian inhabitants on those same lands were null and void. This doctrine was asserted by the young U.S. nation as applying to the territory that came to them upon independence, and then confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823.

The Discovery Doctrine was never universally accepted even in Christian Europe, and in the European settlement of the "New" World, Quakers were not the only people who actually negotiated with the original inhabitants and paid for real estate. However, these precedents were disregarded by U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall in favor of...
... the uniform understanding and practice of European nations, and the settled law, as laid down by the tribunals of civilized states, [which] denied the right of the Indians to be considered as independent communities, having a permanent property in the soil, capable of alienation to private individuals. They remain in a state of nature, and have never been admitted into the general society of nations.
I recommend reading the full text of Marshall's opinion. I think it reveals his divided conscience (even despite his personal vested interest in the matter). However, his decision seems to rest on two poisonous assumptions ... and it's these assumptions that linger into the present, and must be taken into account in our work of prayer.

First, Realpolitik: Whatever misgivings we might have today about the "extravagant" and "pompous" claims of colonial powers and their descendants (most of us!), it's too late to do anything about it. "it becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned."

Second, "savages" must bow down to civilization, if they are to be allowed to live. We of course are far too progressive to believe this (at least stated so bluntly) nearly 200 years after Marshall, but are we able to assess the damage done to actual humans and their communities by this principle, and its ever-more-subtle iterations, over the centuries?

And even if we are able to begin to comprehend the damage, Realpolitik is always right at hand to discourage our attempts at redemption.

Back to Dove's workshop. After background information on the Discovery Doctrine, we counted off by tens. We were all then ejected from the room -- all but one out of every ten, symbolizing the devastating effects of death and exile on the First Nations' population. After spending some time in exile, we were admitted back into the meeting room to reflect on our experience.

Some practical commitments arose among those reflections: first and most urgent, a commitment to find out who had preceded us as inhabitants of the specific places where our homes and meetinghouses are located. We also wanted our Friends community to respond to what we learn, to apologize to those people, and to their descendants, and if possible to find a path toward redemption.

I became a Friend during my university years in Canada, and remained a member of Ottawa Friends Meeting for about ten years. In 1974, Canadian Yearly Meeting was drawn into a concern for right relationships with people of the First Nations by a dramatic incident at Kenora, Ontario, that began during our yearly meeting sessions. (Brief background here.) Shortly afterwards, I was involved in helping host the termination point in Ottawa for a Native Caravan in fall 1974. Their arrival at Parliament Hill was disrupted by a riot, provoked by a small contingent of radicals that I don't think was part of the Caravan, and by an overreaction on the part of the RCMP. I was in a group that got caught in between these two forces. That was my first, and so far only, personal encounter with riot police in full gear.

Canadian Friends worked at Kenora for peaceful resolution of the crisis, and after the direct conflict ended, they also helped arrange for expert analysis of the mercury pollution situation that had been a contributing factor in the crisis. To this day, a concern for justice for Aboriginal people has remained important to Canadian Friends.

At our quarterly meeting sessions in Eugene, Dove's workshop touched on the mixed record Friends have had over the centuries. William Penn gets credit for honest dealing with American Indians in negotiating for land. His son Thomas was another story, notorious for the 1737 "Walking Purchase" that cheated the Lenape nation in a rigged land purchase. John Woolman and other exemplary Friends believed that Quakers and Native Americans could learn from each other, but as the appetite of European Americans for land and resources grew, Friends participated in the many evil ways by which the original inhabitants were forced to adapt. In place of the violent elimination of obstinate Indians -- the old conventional wisdom -- Friends advocated a new conventional wisdom, to civilize and christianize. That was the liberal view of their day. Just around the same time as Marshall's decision, Friends participated in setting up some of the first of the extensive network of church-run boarding schools into which Native American children were placed, with or without family approval, with the more or less explicit goal of making them more like white Protestants.

It is easy now to mock Friends for their participation in this approach, but that would imply unfairly that all Native Americans were only passive victims. It would marginalize those who, for example, made deliberate choices for Christianity, and whose own churches continue to this day, including a few Friends meetings. For a hint of this more complex reality, read this article about the Christian Reformed Church's 2016 Synod at which the Discovery Doctrine was declared a heresy.

"Heresy" is the right word. The Discovery Doctrine was not just defective colonial-era political theology. It was yet another face of our ancient enemy -- the primordial sin of objectification, of false witness, of denying the sacred image of God that lets us all regard each other as we regard Christ. For this reason, the first motion in answering the question with which I started this post ("What does an apology ... to Native Americans look like?") should be prayer. We need humility, curiosity, endless love as well as boldness. We need to overcome the double paralysis of Realpolitik and smug superiority. We need to confront racism that is so deeply embedded in our systems that I am sure the word "diabolical" is not too strong. We can't just choose from a political menu; in shaping and addressing any apology well, we need the leading and power of the Holy Spirit, and the cross-shaped (cross-cultural, cross-political, cross-fertilizing) community that the Spirit makes possible.

Does an apology include some form of restitution or reparations? This question comes up in relation to slavery as well as our nation's evil record of relations with Native Americans. I can list the defensive objections that might arise:
  • It was so long ago.
  • I earned what I have.
  • Not guilty! As an immigrant, I have an alibi. (For example, I was born in Norway. We Norwegians did our own Viking-era mischief much longer ago!)
  • Mostly freeloaders will benefit, not honest victims.
I think these objections miss the point, spiritually.

It's not just that murder and genocide don't have statutes of limitations, although that's true. (John Marshall's interpretation of the Discovery Doctrine, that it's too late to reverse the consequences of conquest, should not still be allowed to decide things.) The main point is that repeated clusters of deliberate, organized cruelty, resulting in massive suffering, become almost like nodes of demonic oppression.

Whether you believe in an intelligent Satan (along the lines of Peter Wagner's ideas) or a more impersonal mechanism of demonic evil (Walter Wink), we shouldn't pretend that such nodes just go away. Their evil persists. The basis for apology and repentance is not white guilt or shame or any form of self-flagellation. Instead, it is to conduct spiritual warfare against the demons of racism and oppression and false witness, to declare them off-limits in the land that we now share, so that we can conduct our future stewardship -- and make our public investments -- in freedom and mutual regard.

Who lived here in the area now named Portland, Oregon, and who are their descendants? This (pdf) booklet begins to give some answers.

Oregon's nations and languages. UPDATE: Hemisphere (and more) map. (Credit.)

Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery in the USA, and in Canada.

Reporter's Indigenous Terminology Guide ( and pdf download).

From scandal to solidarity: Lindsey Paris-Lopez looks at Elizabeth Warren and Native American visibility in perspective.

Bryan Mealer on some evangelicals stumping for Democrats.

Joe Carnes-Ananias on increasing Bible study participation among busy people by ... asking for more commitment.

"Lord, keep me weeping" asks Stacey Hare. ("I know what you're thinking: 'you must be great at parties'.")


Unknown said...

Greetings Johan
I would like to say is that "Words and Apologies mean NOTHING" Unless we "do", what is the point? Over 200 years of Words and Written pieces of paper, "So What?" Action. Do Something other than write about injustice. All my friends, Native American, Filipino and others caught in the web of colonialism or whatever name you want to call it all say the same thing: "Action" Do something meaningful to show and enact change. Words mean nothing. As the James said James 2:14-26

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without [a]your works, and I will show you my faith by [b]my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is [c]dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made [d]perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was [e]accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

What can you do to bring about change?

Empower people with Faith in action. But only Faith in Action in Christ brings Empowerment. I wasn't always a Quaker, rather I was like everyone else, dead in sin and lost. I work to educate train and equip people in a lost and terrible world. Hope is there, Not with my words, but in my actions based upon the teachings of Jesus. And my actions are the result of my Faith in Jesus' teachings.

I don't apologize for the past, unless I committed the sin or participated in its perpetuation.

I have struggled with your post as of late, whether they are political or this one. What is the way Forward in your posts?

I do agree that our war is in the heavenlies and that we fight not against flesh and blood.


Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Roy. These days, I put a lot of my hopes in our emerging yearly meeting. I see the potential for a fertile collaboration among our spiritual gifts that will overcome the usual divide between what Christian Schwartz ("Natural Church Development") calls the "technocratic paradigm" and the "spiritualistic paradigm." We'll always have some who want to get something DONE and others who just want to PRAY about it; we need them to work together. I see hope for this in the community we're building.

Concerning apologies for the past, you'll see that I basically agree with you. Repentance isn't apology for the past, it's the result of what Alcoholics Anonymous (4th step) would call a "searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." In the context of a history of oppression that we ourselves may not have participated in, that inventory would include the unearned advantages we gain as a benefit from that history. It's not a matter of guilt or shame, just a baseline for our growth in faithfulness.