Listen More and Talk Less

Dismantling White Supremacy Culture Resource of the Month

Reverend Sharon K. Dittmar, Congregational Life Consultant

storefront selling indian tacos osiyo

When a friend of mine first asked me to go to the annual Cherokee National Celebration held annually over Labor Day Weekend in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, my first response was “Yes!” Then I had questions. Would I be intruding? And exactly how long is that drive? My friend, who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, assured me that this event is open to everyone and that I would be welcome. That was three years ago before COVID. After two virtual events, an in-person event was finally held this past Labor Day and I along with thousands of others made my way to Tahlequah.

I thought a lot about this visit before I went. First, I conceived of myself as a visitor and guest on the sovereign land of another nation. In the United States we all live on the stolen land of indigenous people, and Tahlequah is at the heart of the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. I think mindfully when I am a guest in/on someone else’s religion, culture, home, or land. I try to learn a few words of the language and I read up on the culture. I try not to assume my norms (greeting, communication, food, eye contact, etc.) are normative. It means I need to listen more and talk less. It means I need to observe longer.

So, I learned how to say hello in Cherokee (“osiyo”). I learned that at the pow wow, the clothing items are called regalia, not costumes, and it is impolite to take photos of participants in regalia when they are not dancing. I went to a lecture on culture and language and learned how very hard it is to translate Cherokee to English – so many nuanced meanings are lost. At the event, while looking at a clay maker’s work, a family came to replace their grandmother’s broken clay turtle, so I moved aside. I know that turtles are important in Cherokee culture, as are grandmothers, and I moved back.

And as with all cross-cultural encounters, there were the things I wondered about and still cannot answer. I bought a turquoise ring and wondered if this was white encroachment. Would the artisan have preferred to sell this to an indigenous person? I did not buy a T-shirt from the celebration because I am not Cherokee. My friend eye-rolled me over this decision, but I didn’t do it, though I did accept a free T-shirt from the previous year. What does that mean? I am still not sure. I like to hold these questions. Often, they end up telling me more about my identity.

I certainly thought a lot about the social construct, “white.” Ethnically I am German, Scottish, Welsh, and English. I am white and I do not fully accept the American implicit social meaning of “white.” Whiteness was and is used by people in power to bind white people against black and brown people, historically, black humans bonded as slaves to work the land, and brown people from whom the land was stolen. Today it is used differently, for example, to over-incarcerate black and brown (as well as poor) people.

One day I found myself driving on the Trail of Tears, the path by which thousands of Cherokees were forcibly removed from their land from what is modern day Georgia, towards the strange land of what is now Oklahoma. It was an act of systemic genocide, along with the slaughter of the buffalo, American Indian forced assimilation boarding schools, and many other actions used to devastate indigenous tribes and culture.

One day after driving through the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Osage reservations I came across a 400,000-acre ranch, owned by a white family (the Drummond Family of “Pioneer Woman” fame—they were millionaires before Ree Drummond wrote her first blog post) since the late 1880’s, adjacent to Osage reservation lands. I ask, “Why and how does one wealthy white family own over 400,000 acres of land, adjacent to an impoverished, indigenous Osage population?” It is just wrong, and I have not yet discerned what I am called to do about this. How do we, the descendants of this devastation, hold this legacy in truthful, healing, and transformative ways?

Many of us have read Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States . Some of us use land acknowledgments during worship or when we introduce ourselves. Some of our congregations and clergy attended protests at Standing Rock. Have any Regional congregations issued apologies, worked on reparations, engaged in on-going relationship, or supported and/or created something with a local tribe? If so, please let me know at sdittmar@uua.org. I am looking for models to take this work deeper. If I get enough responses, I will write another article sharing what we have learned and done.