The Other Side of the Pond

How clearly I remember it. My husband, Dan, and our daughter, Sarah, had spent the night in Taos, New Mexico. The next morning we set out for the pueblo, an ancient village inhabited by indigenous people known as the Pueblo. Clearly tourists, easily identified as European Americans, we were welcomed. Dan, Sarah, and I were acquainted with but by no means steeped in the history of our own ancestors' oppression of the Pueblo and millions of other indigenous peoples. We treaded lightly and slowly as we navigated the twists and turns of the village that was home to families whose lineage was tied to this mountainous site in what is now northern New Mexico centuries before the prospect of gold was a gleam in the eye of any far-off explorer to the east.

Toward what we thought was the conclusion of our visit, we entered the gift shop. Behind the counter were a young man and a young woman, both seemingly in their 20s. We exchanged pleasantries, we discussed the beauty of the wares for sale, and we then moved our conversation around a corner into the grist of the American Indian Movement known as AIM, the unjust imprisonment of poet and AIM activist Leonard Peltier, and the continuing oppression of Pueblo and other indigenous nations at the hands of power structures with a history. Then I can't remember who—the young man or the young woman—spoke of a nearby lake, a sacred site not recorded on any map. Nestled into a lap of topography not far from the Pueblo village lies Blue Lake. Oral tradition holds that the people of the Taos Pueblo were created from its sacred waters. It is holy ground. "Why is it not on maps?" we asked naively. "It's the only way to protect it," came the reply.

In the early 20th century, the U.S. government appropriated this sacred lake and the surrounding area; it was a site promising lucrative natural resources and tourism. Blue Lake became the focus of 64 years of legal contest—protests, appeals, and advocacy by the Pueblo and their allies—before it was returned to the Pueblo in 1970. Was it a matter of property rights? No, it was an issue of religious freedom. Just a year before restoration, Pueblo elder Paul Bernal proclaimed at a Congressional hearing:

"We are probably the only citizens of the United States who are required to practice our religion under a permit from the Government. This is not religious freedom as it is guaranteed by the Constitution."

Of course it's not on a map. Of course.

The story haunts me. It is part of a history commonly invisible to most of us whose ancestors shaped this nation as we know it but were rarely beholden to this land and its indigenous stewards.

Like many of you, I learned early on a pledge of allegiance that carried far more than loyalty to "one nation, under God." I learned allegiance to the assumption that this nation was founded by my European forebears just a few centuries ago. I learned that Columbus "sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred nine-two." I learned that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were worthy of the most vivid hues in my box of crayons. I learned and memorized the "really important dates"—1492, 1620, 1776, 1789. I didn't bother asking what my daughter, Sarah, often refers to as that vital "second question." I didn't bother asking or wondering or doubting, because I really didn't have to.

Once a body of belief begins to crack, once what is held to be historic gospel begins to erode, once any of us becomes privy to another story, another history, another reality, we cling to the familiar only out of a need to be reassured, only out of a penchant to take our cues from loved and respected teachers and preachers and parents and grandparents and touted authorities on this and that because climbing into a boat guaranteed to rock is just way too scary.

But conversations matter. Stories new to us but ancient to others matter. Histories written or recalled across generations from a different lineage matter. A religion that holds faith and doubt in reverent balance matters as we consider in the chalice of religious community what happened and what didn't. A religion that holds faith and doubt in reverent balance and the search for truth in the highest esteem matters mightily as we ponder the formation of heroes and history.

When Christopher Columbus approached the islands of North America just over half a millennium ago, he and his shipmates were received with warmth and wonder. Arawak men and women swam out from the beaches of the Bahamas, curious about this strange large craft nearing their shores. As Columbus and his sailors reached land, the Arawaks welcomed them with food and gifts. Their hospitality was immediately evident to Columbus and his crew.

Bartolomé de las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus and a Spanish priest, transcribed the explorer's journal.

"The Indians," observed Columbus, "have large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time....They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions....With fifty men," calculated Columbus, "we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

Las Casas proceeded to document the large-scale ravage of the Arawaks and hundreds of Native American communities. Las Casas documented genocide.

While Columbus' sojourn to the "new world" has been hailed by Western Europeans and European Americans as a pivotal discovery of uncharted terrain, the Arawaks and their counterparts across central North America discovered the seed of an emerging political state that has long vacillated between lifting and shifting yokes of oppression.

While writings by and about Bartolomé de las Casas are available in abundance, the record of Las Casas reached me through the pages of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Zinn tells the story of Columbus' arrival from the "viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees.....of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills....the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem...." He presents the narrative of our nation through voices that have been muted in the history books to which we have grown accustomed. And there are so many history books to which we have grown accustomed.

My favorite stretch of Boston is Commonwealth Avenue just west of Beacon Hill. Many of you know it well and are familiar with the compelling sculptures that mark the island of this elegant avenue. One that struck me above all the others is that of Samuel Eliot Morison. Depicted in casual seafaring attire, Morison sits astride an outcropping of ledge, one hand on a stack of books, the other holding binoculars, his stone-hewn eyes gazing out to sea. I learned that Morison was a Rear Admiral in the US Navy, a Harvard historian, and a celebrated author, most notably a biographer of Christopher Columbus.

On an early page of Morison's Christopher Columbus, Mariner, he wrote:

"The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."

One would then expect a narrative that elaborated on this clear-cut statement. But in the closing paragraph of his work, Morison had this to say of the explorer:

"He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship."

Zinn observes that Morison states outright the horror story of Columbus' actions and uses the harshest term possible to describe their outcome—genocide, but that he then goes on to diffuse the horror by burying it in layers and layers of other information more interesting to the author. The careful reader concludes that for Morison, a seaman himself, the quality of seamanship outweighed the nasty reality of genocide. It is, in Zinn's words, "to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important—it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world." The stone-hewn Morison of Commonwealth Avenue gazes off into the distance, a scholar seaman long detached from a momentary nod to a wrenching truth.

"Every year as October 12 approaches, there is a certain sense of dread that can be felt in indigenous communities in the Americas," writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a historian, writer, and co-founder of the Indigenous World Association, which lobbies the United Nations on behalf of indigenous peoples' rights. She continues:

"That it is a federal holiday in the United States is regarded as hideous, a celebration of genocide and colonization. However, beginning thirty years ago, indigenous peoples formed an international movement, demanding…that October 12 be commemorated as an international day of mourning for the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. Informally, the day has been appropriated as Indigenous Peoples Day. This year feels different in indigenous communities as they celebrate the great victory of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the General Assembly…"

Just days earlier, on September 13, 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations had adopted this landmark declaration, the harvest of three decades of advocacy by indigenous peoples worldwide. While 143 nations voted in favor, four voted against: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

Why? Why would this nation rooted in the principles of justice for each and liberty for all not affirm in our own time a declaration of human rights on behalf of the earliest residents of this land?

"America has a European history of violence that has been unaccounted for and even at times rigorously denied." writes George Tinker, Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Dr. Tinker is also an ordained Lutheran minister and director of the Four Winds American Indian Survival Project in Denver. He further identifies himself as ‘mixed blood,' that is "part Indian and part white," and tongue in cheek notes, "I'm also called a ‘man,' even though only one of my parents was a man."

The context of Tinker's statement is an essay grounding a "soul work" forum. In early 2001 our Unitarian Universalist Association invited a number of ministers and scholars from liberal religious traditions for an intensive consultation on theology and anti-racism. The meeting site was our UUA offices in Boston. The hard cover outcome is the volume, soul work: anti-racist theologies in dialogue. Some of you participated in a series of workshops co-sponsored by this congregation and First Parish Old Ship in Hingham on the matters covered by soul work, chapter by chapter. It was not easy work.

Neither is Tinker's message easy to hear:

"When the first Europeans came to the Americas—the Spanish to the Caribbean, the English to North America—they came with clearly preconceived notions of conquering indigenous peoples, and theological and intellectual grounds for justifying and legitimating their exercise of violence. In New England the Puritans were the ‘new Israel,' self-righteously displacing the aboriginal Canaanites."

"….the celebration of Columbus Day," declares Tinker, "is an example of what addictions therapy would call denial. …[It is] an act of denial on the part of white Americans with respect to the history of violence that has been at the core of the American colonial project."

Self-righteousness and denial go hand in hand. Neither leaves room for humility. Neither leaves room for accountability. Guilt is an unproductive option, commonly fueling denial through attention to "what we feel" at the expense of "what happened and what we can do about it."

As people of faith, as citizens and residents of a nation that promises liberty and justice for all, what can we do about it? What can we do about truths untold, about truths quickly told and all but discarded, about horrors committed by celebrated heroes, about a negative vote cast by this nation at the United Nations, a missed opportunity to begin to redeem our national history through affirming the rights of indigenous peoples in this nation and throughout nations? What can we do?

We can learn the truth in love. We can read historical accounts that tell the whole story. We can enter a dialogue with one another and extend the dialogue with neighboring congregations on anti-racism and human rights. We can advocate for this nation to join with 143 nations of the world in affirming the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. We can heed the counsel that Dr. George Tinker gives to his white students at Iliff:

"…take a step away from the center out toward the periphery and look back at the center again as something that's hurting you as a white American as much as it's hurting Indian people, blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, and Asian Americans."

We can join a growing movement that includes George Tinker and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and the city of Berkeley, California and our own Unitarian Universalist staff at 24 Farnsworth Street in observing Indigenous Peoples Day as a holiday in place of Columbus Day.

Imagine, you're the man or woman in the gift shop in the Taos Pueblo. A white family comes in, begins a conversation, asks some questions. With reticence you tell the story of Blue Lake. They leave; you wonder. What is it that they hold sacred? What is it that they celebrate?

Those of us whose ancestry is from other shores are newcomers. No matter that our ancestors go back to the 1600s; we're newcomers. We've barely arrived on the other side of the pond and already we've forgotten why we set sail? Was it an escape from religious oppression? Was it a flight from famine? Was it a quest for gold to feed a hungry queen? Was it a crusade to appease a fragile god? And our arrival?

What is it that we hold sacred? What is it that we celebrate?

In the spirit of the late Alfred Arteaga:

Five hundred and [seventeen] years of events
took place, we cannot change that.
We cannot stand up like Las Casas
and say this must stop; we cannot
tell Tainos, on first seeing the Spanish arrive,
to run, to run, and not stop running.
What was, was.
We cannot change the number of days, nor
can we change the events that happened.
We can, though, choose to remember or forget,
to celebrate, solemnize, recognize.

May it be so. Amen.


Alfred Arteaga, "Tomorrow Today," in Literary Sampler.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, "Indigenous Peoples Day," Beacon Broadside, A Project of Beacon Press, October 8, 2007.

"Indigenous People's Day".

Soul Work: anti-racist theologies in dialogue, edited by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones, Skinner House Books, Boston, 2003.

"Taos Blue Lake," Sacred Land Film Project.

"United Nations adopts Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples," UN News Centre.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF, 18 pages).

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Harper Perennial, 1990 (First Harper Colophon edition published 1980).