Acknowledging our History, Acknowledging the Land

Grace, Madison explores Native American issues including land acknowledgement

Over the last eight years, the Creating More Just Community Task Force of Grace Episcopal Church has been engaged in education and advocacy around racism in the United States and In Madison. We hosted speakers for community-wide events, became involved in faith-based community organizing groups like MOSES and WISDOM working on criminal justice reform. We have marched, hosted candidate forums, and held series of dialogues on racism for parishioners and community members. That work continues.

In 2021, we have broadened our interests. Thanks in part to several of us attending the Wisconsin Council of Churches Annual Meeting, where the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, Program Director for Racial Justice for the Minnesota Council of Churches and a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans was keynote speaker. His passionate address led us to wonder how we might begin to engage with Native Americans as citizens of Wisconsin and as members of Grace Episcopal Church. 

We are fortunate to have members who have worked on Native American issues professionally and who have deep personal relationships with members of several tribes across the state. Early in 2021, several of the most knowledgeable Grace members and I met with Ada Deer, Professor Emerita of Social Work at UW Madison and former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs in the Clinton Administration. She is a member of the Menominee Tribe. We discussed with her how the conversations at Grace might take place, what some of the important issues are, and what potential challenges we might face as we began our work.

Eventually, an invitation was issued for interested people to gather via zoom for an initial conversation and planning session. Around twenty people joined us for our first conversation that offered opportunities for us to get to know each other, learn a little about our interest and background related to Native American history, religion, and culture, and to begin to think about how we might help Grace Church as a whole become more informed and engaged with the complicated and tragic history of Christianity and especially the Episcopal Church’s relationships with Native Americans.

Over the last few months we have learned about the history of Native Americans in Wisconsin, especially the HoChunk and the Oneida. We have talked about the Doctrine of Discovery and the Episcopal Church’s official repudiation of it. We have reached out to the HoChunk and to Holy Apostles’ Episcopal Church in Oneida, WI. Our most recent meeting took place only a few days after the discovery of mass graves on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia, and we began asking questions about the Episcopal Church’s history of Native residential schools. 

On Tuesday, June 29, we met with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the HoChunk, to begin a conversation concerning land acknowledgment, one of the concrete ways churches, political entities, and organizations can begin to address their relationship with the people who lived on the land we now call home. We began at the Goodman Campus of Madison College (South Madison) which has a land acknowledgement plaque prominently placed. Then we came to Grace Church where we explored what land acknowledgement might look like at Grace and how our efforts to be a place of spiritual respite on Capitol Square might explicitly include an invitation to Wisconsin tribes. Finally, we ended at the Goodman Community Center, where we talked with Bill for two hours about HoChunk history, effigy mounds and burial sites, and the challenging but rewarding work of building relationships with Native Americans.

It is likely that as our work continues we will focus on several areas. 

  1. Land Acknowledgement—working on language, siting, and discussing scope of project
  2. Exploring the history of Episcopal residential schools. While records exist, there has not been any significant work done in telling the story of the schools and repenting for the damage done to lives and to indigenous cultures.
  3. Connecting with the Wisconsin Oneidas to learn about the history, traditions, and contemporary life of the Oneidas, who when the first group came to Wisconsin from New York in 1822, were the first Episcopalians in what is now the state of Wisconsin.
  4. Working with the Wisconsin Council of Churches to develop resources for congregations across the state to explore land acknowledgement and other Native American issues.

We expect that in the coming months, we will develop a road map other interested congregations might use with their own work. In the meantime, we encourage you to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, the history of the Episcopal Church’s relationship with Native Americans, and about the Native Americans who are our neighbors and live throughout the state. For more information on these items, here are some resources:

Patty Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin. 2nd Edition. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013

L. Gordon McLester III, Laurence M. Hauptman, Judy Cornelius-Hawk, and Kenneth Hoyan House, eds., The Wisconsin Oneidas and the Episcopal Church: A Chain Linking Two Traditions. Indiana University Press, 2019

“The Episcopal Church exposes the Doctrine of Discovery”

Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery—The Beloved Community Initiative

Just last week, The Rev’d Tom Ferguson (former Interim Chaplain of St. Francis House Campus Ministry here at UW) wrote an essay calling for the Episcopal Church to address its history with Native Schools. At least 18 schools were operated by the Episcopal Church in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hometowns and Sending out: A homily for Proper 9B, 2021

Proper 9, Year B

July 4, 2021

So today is the 4th of July. Especially this year, I am approaching this day with mixed emotions. It’s not just that it’s on a Sunday so marking it in some way seems inevitable, necessary. By the way, did you know that in the Episcopal liturgical calendar, there’s an official observance of the 4th of July with its own lessons and a collect? Like other such observances however, Sunday takes precedence, so if we were to observe the 4th of July here at Grace, we would do it tomorrow. 

With all that’s happened in the last era—the war on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan; police violence and black lives matter; gun violence; the January 6 insurrection; the assault on democracy and voting rights; the attack on the teaching of American history and the teaching of systemic racism—it’s hard to figure out just how to observe this day, especially when Independence Day didn’t mean “independence” for many residents of our nation for many, many years.

For me, there’s an added complexity this year because my memory is still fresh, and I am still processing, emotionally and theologically the afternoon we spent with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the HoChunk this week. Hearing his stories, learning more about the treatment of the HoChunk and other Wisconsin tribes by settlers and by the state and federal government, and in spite of that receiving gracious words and an expressed desire to develop relationships with Grace Church, other Madison organizations, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, was both awe-inspiring and humbling. 

With all of these issues in our wider culture, our efforts to find a way of celebrating this day openly and honestly seem especially fraught, and to do it in a Christian Church, an Episcopal Church, adds another layer of complexity as we think about the ways that American Christianity has been tied up with nationalism and the good and bad of American history. We might want simply to ignore it all; to let the observances of the 4th of July pass unnoticed in our Sunday morning worship, left to barbeques and fireworks, and the like.

When we turn to the lectionary, as distraction, or escape, or perhaps, today, even for inspiration, we are confronted again with some of the ways that Jesus in Mark unsettles and disturbs our conventional thinking and perspective.

Jesus is coming home again after his preaching and healing tours that took him beyond Galilee, across the Jordan and back. Mark tells us that he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. That’s where he began his public ministry, in Capernaum, but we saw him visiting the synagogue in his hometown earlier in the gospel. Then, you may recall, he found himself in conflict with Jewish religious authorities and with his own family members.

This episode plays out in similar fashion. But now, it’s the local populace that takes offense at Jesus’ words. They know him; they remember him as a boy; they know his family. Who gave him the right to say these things? 

There is more going on here; it’s not just the hometown trying to put the uppity local boy back into his place. We might think about this whole episode tactically. If you’re about to go out and challenge the status quo, preach the good news of the coming of God’s reign, wouldn’t you want to go back where it all started, in hopes of getting support from the people who know and love you best? 

But they reject him, and in turn he rejects them. He turns his back on them and sends his disciples out into the countryside to teach and heal. One more thing, before moving on to the next section. While we’ve seen Jesus teaching publicly in the synagogue repeatedly up to this point, in Mark’s gospel, this the last such appearance. From now, Jesus’ teaching will take place elsewhere, in the streets and in the fields, in people’s homes around meals.

Which brings us to another way of linking these two sections; Jesus’ rejection in his hometown and the sending out of the disciples. The instructions Jesus gives are suggestive. The disciples are well-equipped for the journey with staff and sandals, but not with the means of sustenance, food, money, or extra clothes. They will be utterly dependent on the hospitality of others. As Ched Myers points out in his brilliant Mark commentary, “Binding the Strong Man” the disciples, “like Jesus who has just been renounced in his own ‘home’, are to take on the status of a sojourner in the land.” For Mark, putting on sandals is a metaphor for discipleship.

We will have a great deal more to say about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. What it means to follow Jesus will only become clear as we work through the next sections of the gospel, and especially as we recall Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, his arrest and execution. For now, it’s worth thinking about the contrast between the hometown and family that rejected Jesus, and the community of followers (whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and brothers and sisters) that Jesus gathers around himself and then here sounds out as an extension of his own ministry.

Like the 4th of July, hometowns can evoke a great deal of nostalgia. We often remember with great fondness the places where we grew up; or the way those places were when we were growing up. We may even recall hometown 4th of July celebrations that were community events, with parades and fireworks. But the stories our hometowns tell about themselves, the stories we have internalized, are often quite one-sided. That was one of the lessons I learned from Bill Quackenbush this week. He told HoChunk stories about the area that I had never heard before and helped me to see this land with new eyes.

For some of us, of course, remembering our hometowns can bring back bad memories, even trauma. We may have left the moment we were able, and never looked back. But nonetheless, they tug at our emotions and heartstrings. Even if our experience of them was painful, the dream of perfect childhood, a perfect place can continue to hold us captive.

As hard as it may seem, and in our current climate, it may seem even more difficult, following Jesus means leaving behind those old certainties and old stories. Following Jesus means entering into a new story—the story of a community gathered together by Jesus, a community of people tied together by shared faith, not by common ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic class. The story in which we are invited to become characters is a story of personal transformation and social change. It is a story that challenges complacency, nostalgia, and the status quo. It is the story of God’s reign coming. May we have the ears to hear this story as Mark tells it, and the courage to share it with others.