Since 1957 the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office has hosted an annual Spring Seminar. In 1998 the event became an intentionally inter-generational space that brought together youth, young adults, and adults in shared dialogue around issues that matter to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Each Seminar calls participants to ask difficult questions about the reality of the world that we live in and the hope of the future world that we would like to create. Many participants say that the panels, creative programming, worship, and community building that make up the Seminar are transformative moments in their lives that allow them to reaffirm how their faith can be lived and embodied.
As the Seminar has transformed over the years, the UU-UNO team has similarly transformed each year. We begin to work on the next Seminar the moment the previous Seminar wraps up in order to provide the most amount of time and planning to ensure quality. Through this year long process of preparing the Seminar and implementing it, interns and staff are able to learn, reflect, and grow. However, this forward-looking lens and brisk pace sometimes leaves little time for reflecting on our past accomplishments. As we look back on our recent Spring Seminar - Sacred Roots: Indigenous Rights, Resistance, and Reclamation (April 3rd to April 5th ) we wanted to publish this blog to reflect on some of the most memorable moments of this inter-generational and interfaith dialogue.Wednesday evening kicked off with registration, soup, and icebreakers. The All Souls Friendship Hall was buzzing with youth and advisors eager to grow their souls. Orientation reviewed policies and the Seminar covenant and we heard a few words from UU-UNO Director, Bruce Knotts. After youth and advisor orientations were complete we settled in the space for worship. Worship was a "Snowball Worship", commonly done at youth cons. The Head of the Youth (HOTYs) posed the question, "What makes a community?" The youth wrote down their answers on a piece of paper, crumbled them up, and threw them across the room for another person to read. For the next few minutes, the youth continued to pass and read the "snowballs"; after this died down, they were invited to share anything in particular they read that stood out for them. The worship closed with UU hymn "Come, Come, Whoever You are", after which the youth got into their sleeping bags and went to bed. After a full day of programming, including a panel introducing participants to the issues surrounding Indigenous rights and another on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Keynote Address on Thursday, April 3rd concluded the first day of the UU-UNO’s 2014 Intergenerational Spring Seminar. This Address took place in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber where speakers encouraged our participants to find themselves in the global UU story. The UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts spoke, pointing out the coincidence that we would be meeting in the very room where the UN worked to end colonialism, and where we would be taking our first steps into uplifting the sacred roots of Indigenous peoples. He further stated that “everyone deserves a safe and dignified life” and in upholding this, we must “bend the arc of history towards justice.”
The first keynote speaker, indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, stated that “we are all indigenous people;” this is how we survived and this is how we evolved. He stated that indigenous peoples lived in peace and harmony, in a symbiotic relationship with the land, developing interconnectedness between themselves and every living thing. Moreover, Cardinal Douglas called participants to draw back on the interconnectedness that sustained indigenous communities and continues to do so.The second keynote, Vyda Ng, Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council, opened with a quote from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Vyda Ng highlighted that Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely to experience violence, an alarmingly high rate, as exemplified through the “highway of tears.” Moreover, she called participants to take part in the October 18th National Day to End Violence, a pledge that would honor a life violence-free and to work to achieve safety and security for all indigenous citizens. The third keynote speaker, Rev. Peter Morales, Unitarian Universalist Association President, spoke to how traditionally religious institutions have played a veneer of legitimacy in oppression, yet religion can play another great potential role: to build justice, to build interdependence, and to provide a path forward. Rev. Peter Morales highlighted some of the work that Unitarian Universalists are doing around the world.
One important issue that was brought up throughout the seminar is that indigenous women’s rights should be taken very seriously, not least because these women have much to share in terms of cultural insight and spiritual knowledge. First Nations in Canada place a great importance on women leaders because they are the assigned keepers of water and above all, they are tasked with sharing their wisdom with subsequent generations.
It was inspirational to have two indigenous young adults, Cinnamon Spear and Sara Chase, speak on the Seminar’s first panel, Indigenous Rights 101, along with Doctrine of Discovery expert Gail Forsyth-Vail, Grandmother Mary Lyons (who spoke on Indigenous Spirituality), and Guatemalan activist Juanita Cabrera Lopez (who discussed Environmental Justice). The impact that these women made on the seminar participants cannot be understated. Their presentations impacted fellow speakers, Chief Curtis Zunigha and Hadrien Coumans, whose testimony highlighted the maternal figure of Mother Nature and interconnectedness in their panels (Indigenous Spirituality and Environmental Justice, respectively). Moreover, it was engaging to hear panelists from such varied backgrounds bring different elements to their panel presentations. Evan Pritchard used elements of humor to get on the same level with participants and help explain complex concepts in an entertaining and intriguing manner. Lastly, Laura Lubin engaged participants by inviting them to participate in experiential learning through the work of the UUCSJ.
Testimonies from participants
For participants, the Spring Seminar on Indigenous Rights was “inspirational and eye-opening”. Providing “a great deal about the American history that has been purposely hidden from us” and providing an opportunity to meet “really amazing people”. Maria noted that, “both panelists and participants were really inspiring. Elsa Stamatopoulou and John Kane engaged the participants with intriguing thoughts and ideas regarding traditional lands and governmental borders. Additionally, I was able to gauge these social injustices from a social and legal perspective in the panel on the UNDRIP with Dr. Prof. iur Siegfried Wiessner, Renzo Pomi, and Bruce Knotts. It was great to see so many young people so engaged and passionate about social justice and willing to have really uncomfortable conversations about issues of privilege, social justice, American history, and indigenous rights. I also really enjoyed the creative aspects that Bryan Bowers and the Eagle Project were able to contribute to the overall seminar programming. It was refreshing to be able to take in some of the seminar material in a multimedia/visual manner.”– Maria Militano, Spring Seminar Planning Committee & Participant
Other Spring Seminar participants noted that even though the topic was unfamiliar at the beginning, “I learned a great deal from the staff and my fellow interns about the rights of Indigenous Peoples, their history and the problems they continue to face. Hearing from people such as Juan de Dios Garcia, on the Traditional Lands & Governmental Borders panel, who are so connected to working for these rights was enlightening. As a human rights ally, I am ready to join forces with any marginalized community, and yet, as a white American I hadn’t realized what my being “American” had meant for other people. As part of the seminar experience, we were all asked to take a photo holding a sign making a statement that we most closely identify with. I chose the sign that reads, “I stand in solidarity with Native Americans! My Government should, too!” While I made a very personal connection to the Native American community as an American, certainly Native American people are not the only Indigenous Group that has experienced rights violations.” –Lauren Potenza, Spring Seminar Planning Committee & Participant
On the final day of programming during the Creating Change What Will you Do? Panel and the Poetry Slam event many people spoke about how moved they were by the varied experiences of the panelists and their devotion to working on the rights of indigenous peoples. Sara Chase spoke strongly against entrenched colonial ideology and stated “rethink everything you’ve been taught, not just now, but remain alert once you leave.” It is certain that the sentiments expressed by panelists and seminar attendees regarding how to show solidarity with indigenous peoples will not soon be forgotten.
UU-UNO Director, Bruce Knotts ended the seminar by saying, "We promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even those who are invisible to us. For too long indigenous peoples have been invisible to many of us. They are invisible no more. It is now your task to make them visible in your congregations and communities. You can start your worship services by thanking the native peoples on whose land you are, which might require your learning something about them.
Next year, we may tackle the global criminal justice system: is it fair, does it accomplish its goals, are some people incarcerated because they are mentally ill or because they are people of color? Is the death penalty moral or effective? See you next year!