Unsettling Truths: Confronting our history, lamenting our sins, working for justice

Last weekend, Mark Charles, co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery visited the Diocese of Milwaukee. I had read his book early last year as part of my effort to educate myself about Native American history and about the culture, lives, and resilience of contemporary Native Americans. Although I knew much of the story told in the book, I hadn’t connected all of the dots in the way that Charles and his co-author, did. The story they told, and the story Mark told us this weekend, re-shaped how I think about myself, my ancestors, and my nation.

My ancestors settled in Northwestern Ohio beginning in 1836, just four years after the Indian Removal Act and the forced relocation of the Potawatomie from that area to Indian Territory in the West. When I was growing up, there was almost no vestige of Potawatomie or other Native American remaining in the area. A single town in my county, Wauseon, was named after a Potawatomie chief but all other place names were European in origin. We weren’t taught the story of the forced removal of the Potawatomie to make way for European settlers. Instead, it was empty territory, waiting for European settlers to populate it. It’s a story that could be told of many other places in the US, different from others, including Southern Wisconsin, only in the total erasure of Native peoples from the landscape and from memory.

The most devastating part of Charles’ talk and Unsettling Truths is his discussion of Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator, the President who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, is an American hero, beloved for his wisdom and for his accomplishments, mourned after his assassination by the nation. While the Civil War was raging, Lincoln also oversaw the transformation of the West. The Homestead Act offered 160 acres to anyone who homesteaded for five years on Western lands; he promoted the Transcontinental Railway that transferred vast tracts of land to railroad companies in exchange for their commitments to build railroads linking the west coast with the east.

To accomplish those goals, Native Americans had to be forced from their homelands. During Lincoln’s presidency, while the Civil War was raging the US Army also oversaw massacres, forced relocation, and internment camps: the Arapahoe and Comanche in Eastern Colorado, the Navajo in the Four Corners area, and the Dakota from Minnesota. When the Dakota resistance was finally quelled in 1862, more than 300 Dakota warriors were condemned to death by military tribunals. In the end, 38 Dakota were executed, the largest mass execution in US History. That the number wasn’t larger is partly attributable to the pleas of Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Whipple, who convinced Lincoln to offer leniency.

The Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that lands occupied by native peoples could be claimed and seized by Europeans was first promulgated by papal bulls in the 15th century. It shaped notions of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It is reinforced by White Supremacy and notions of racial superiority. Charles pointed out how these underlying ideas continue to resonate in the policies and statements of contemporary politicians, Republican and Democratic. Surprisingly, the Doctrine of Discovery continues to play a role in contemporary legal disputes. As recently as 2005, it was cited in a majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, that denied New York Oneida efforts to gain sovereignty over land that had been seized from them centuries ago and that they had repurchased.

As Americans, as Christians, as Episcopalians, it is crucial that we come to terms this history. The evil done to Native Americans, like that perpetrated on African-Americans, resulted in countless lives lost and continues to affect those communities in the legacies of poverty, health inequities, and generational trauma. Studying that history is only a first step. We must lament the sins that have been committed and the evil that was perpetrated and from which have benefited.  We must build relationships and learn from the Native Americans who live among us. Finally, we must take concrete actions, however small, that begin to right the wrongs that were committed, to make justice where there was and remains injustice. 

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