Call and Response: Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development

A Deeper Discovery

By Gail Forsyth-Vail

(63) Manifest Destiny

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872, oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, Autry National Center; 92.126.1. Courtesy of the Autry National Center

Edward Wemytewa is a storyteller, and so am I. We worked together with several others this spring to plan the religion/spirituality track for the International Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Conference, hosted in Phoenix, AZ by Tonatierra, one of the UUA’s 2012 Justice General Assembly partners. The Doctrine of Discovery gave legal sanction to European Christians who colonized and killed indigenous people, took their land, and tried to destroy their culture and continues to allow for exploitation of Indian lands and resources. The conference gathered leaders, elders, and youth to strategize ways to undo 500 years of damage.

Edward is A’shiwi (Zuni), while I am a white New England UU with Christian roots. There is much to separate us in life experience, cultural heritage, and the sources of wisdom that sustain us. Yet I discovered a shared understanding with Edward: that the way toward partnership and repair, even across centuries of damage, is built on stories. As he and I shared personal stories that have shaped us and wisdom tales deeply connected to our perspective on the world, we met on sacred ground.

Edward talked about his experience as a carrier of Native wisdom and language. He talked about the ways colonization affected tribal government structure. He described the devastation of indigenous lands within the state of New Mexico because water is taken upstream for agriculture and urban development. I came to understand that as a European American, I inherit the Western Christian tradition and its history of colonization and exploitation, whether or not I hold to Christian tenets and practices. I felt the power and trouble of the biblical story of Joshua entering Canaan and destroying all its inhabitants to make way for those who would build a Promised Land, as I realized again how those who colonized my home state of Massachusetts reenacted that drama.

We must meet on this sacred ground of stories. To share our deeply held, formative, personal and cultural experiences is key to the work we are called to do to dismantle the damage of colonialism and oppression. To “dis-mantle” is to uncover or uncloak, to bring into the open. Those of us of the dominant culture need to approach relationships with indigenous people with humility. We must be open to stories from those affected by the violence and trauma wrought by the Doctrine of Discovery. We need to help uncover the stories of how that doctrine has upheld systemic domination of indigenous people for 500 years.

UU Congregations Receive Grants to Partner with Indigenous Groups

Thanks to a generous donor, the Unitarian Universalist Association this spring offered seed grants to some UU congregations that are working to uncover and dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Read about their projects on the UUA website. These congregations know that the work is different for indigenous people with whom they partner than it is for those of us who have inherited a culture that tokenizes, marginalizes, and disempowers indigenous people. The UUA hopes to lift these congregations' projects as models for ways to identify indigenous partners and work together with them to learn and teach about, repudiate, and mitigate the present-day effects of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The projects differ in their particulars, yet share an understanding of the sacred ground of stories. Each project includes sharing stories for education and reflection. Each seeks to deepen engagement and partnership with indigenous people who are working on dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. We can look forward over the next several months to the stories of these developing partnerships and hopes for ongoing work in this area. Congratulations to all the grant recipients on their vision, their work, and their willingness to engage in partnerships grounded in shared stories, shared vision, and shared action!

Next Steps!

Tonatierra is a leading indigenous organization that promotes local and global efforts at indigenous community development and self-determination. The Doctrine of Discovery Forum blog site describes specific actions of repudiation that Tonatierra and other organizations have taken.

Learn why the Unitarian Universalist Association has joined the movement to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and find video and other resources to explore the issues further, on the UUA website.

About the Author

Gail Forsyth-Vail

Gail Forsyth-Vail, a credentialed religious educator, master level, is the author or developmental editor of several UU history curricula and resources. Before retiring, she served as interim director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Lifespan Faith Engagement Office.


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