A Report to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee on Land Acknowledgement and Native American Relationships

Diocesan Task Force on Land Acknowledgement

Let us pray.

O Great Spirit, God of all people and every tribe,
through whom all people are related;
Call us to the kinship of all your people.
Grant us vision to see,
the brokenness of the past;
Help us to listen to one another,
in order to heal the wounds of the present;
And give us courage, patience, and wisdom to work together
for healing and hope with all of your people,
now and in the future.
Mend the hoop of our hearts and let us live in
justice and peace
through Jesus Christ,
the One who comes to all people
that we might live in dignity. Amen.  (From the Episcopal Church, Resources on the Doctrine of Discovery)

In the US calendar, Monday, October 10 is traditionally known as Columbus Day, the day when Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World was celebrated. In more recent years, and in the State of Wisconsin, it is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, set aside to celebrate and honor the histories, cultures, and resilience of Native Americans and to commemorate the suffering they have endured over the last five hundred years. As we gather for Diocesan Convention this year, we have been challenged to examine our history and our relationships with the people who lived on this land before us and whose descendants live among us now. Last year’s convention passed this resolution: 

That the 109th Convention of the Diocese of Milwaukee direct the Bishop to appoint a task force of no fewer than eight (8) persons to examine the historical and contemporary relationships among the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and the Indigenous Peoples of the State, with specific attention to restorative actions the diocese and member congregations can enact; and be it further that the task force bring to the 110th Convention a full report, written and oral, including specific attention to policies that the Diocese can enact, and be it further, that the first meeting of the task force take place no later than February 1, 2022. 

As the author (in consultation from several other interested clergy) of the resolution, I invited interested parties to meet via zoom. We met approximately six times in 2022, working on developing a page of resources for the diocesan website, and crafting language around land acknowledgement. In this brief report, I would like to summarize some highlights of that work and introduce the statement we have created. I would also like to offer some recommendations for congregations that want to undertake this work for themselves.

The history of the relations of white settler colonialism and the native populations of the Americas is complex and tragic. It’s estimated that the population of Native Peoples decreased by as much as 80% after European arrival due to disease and conflict. The Doctrine of Discovery, first promulgated by Papal Edicts and reaffirmed in the early 21st century by US Supreme Court decisions, meant that the land on which Native populations had lived for millennia was free for the taking by colonial powers and European settlers. Currently, there are 3.7 million people of Native background living in the US, 1.1% of the total US population; they have lost 99% of the land they once occupied. 

For Wisconsin Episcopalians, our history begins with the Oneida. This year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Wisconsin Oneida, forced to leave their homes in New York State. Many of the first group of Oneida to come to Wisconsin were Episcopalian, and on October 29, there will be a 200th anniversary celebration at Holy Apostles’ Episcopal Church, in Oneida, Wisconsin.

The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee covers land that was originally home to Potawatomie, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk peoples. The Potawatomie and Ho-Chunk still have a presence within the area covered by the Diocese of Milwaukee and there are in all twelve federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin.

Land Acknowledgement is a movement to recognize those who lived on the land we now possess, who were forced to cede it, and removed to reservations. In many cases, their descendants continue to live among us and around us, not just on reservations but in our cities and towns. But land acknowledgement is only a first step as we begin to do the hard work of building relationships and recognize all the ways we have benefited from the seizure of land. St. Dunstan’s, Madison shows us one way forward as they committed $5000 as a land tax, offering it to the Wisconsin tribes as an act of reparations. The Wisconsin Council of Churches, working with the Wisconsin Intertribal Repatriation Council is establishing a fund to support all of Wisconsin’s tribes. Congregations and individuals can donate.

Our group came up with the following statement that we share here and encourage you to reflect on:

The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2022.  We are also remembering the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Episcopalians in what is now Wisconsin, members of the Oneida tribe who were forced to relocate from their home in upstate New York. As a diocese we celebrate their witness and faithful presence over the years and lament the ways that those in the church descended from European settlers have not lived up to Jesus’ call to love and learn from our Indigenous siblings in faith.

As Episcopalians and as residents of Wisconsin, we live, work, and worship on land that was not ours but belonged to peoples who had lived here for thousands of years: the Potawatomie, the Sauk and Fox, the HoChunk, the Menominee. We confess the Episcopal Church’s complicity in the seizure of land, the abrogation of treaties, and the forced removal of the land’s inhabitants to make room for white settlers. We also confess the Episcopal Church’s participation in the native boarding school system that separated children from their parents, abused and killed students, and sought to purge them of their language, culture, and heritage. We confess as well the generational trauma that indigenous people continue to suffer and a system that continues to oppress them.

The actions of the US government, settlers, and Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, led to the deaths of many from genocide, poverty, and disease. We honor those elders. We recognize the endurance of their descendants here today and honor the elders of today. We, the descendants and beneficiaries of settler colonialism, owe attention, time, and resources to those from whom we have stolen so much.

We commit to listening and reconciliation and friendship. We commit to being good neighbors to them and to their sovereign nations. We pray that God forgives us and give us courage and strength to take the necessary steps toward reconciliation, healing, and justice.

Exploring Native American History and building relationships in your congregation.

Questions to begin a conversation in your congregation:

  1. When does your official parish history start?
  2. What do you know about how the land where your church stands was used, before the church was started? Who owned it or lived there?
  3. When and how did that land pass into the hands of white settlers? Are there one or more significant treaties that are part of that history? 
  4. What Native peoples lived on the land before that time? 
  5. Do those Native groups still exist? (Some use different names now – for example: Winnebago and Ho-Chunk.) 
  6. Where do their members live now? What can you find out about how they are working to preserve and pass on their culture, language, and heritage? 

Learning more about the Doctrine of Discovery, the tribes of Wisconsin, and the history of the relations among Christians and native peoples.

  1. The Episcopal Church repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery (a brief youtube video)
  2. Patty Lowe, The Tribes of Wisconsin
  3. The Diocesan Resource page includes many other resources. We encourage you to visit it: https://www.diomil.org/resources/land-acknowledgment/
  4. Native-land.ca (Also an app for phones) Who lived on the land before you?

Members of the Task Force include:

The Rev’d Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser, Rector, Grace Madison
The Rev’d Dr. Miranda Hassett, Rector St. Dunstan’s Madison
The Rev’d Monica Burkert Brist, Priest in Charge, St. Paul’s Watertown
The Rev’d Kathy Monson Lutes, Rector, Trinity, Janesville
The Rev’d Deacon Karen Buker
The Rev’d Peter Irvine
Bevra Cole
Diana Lucas
Susan Burch
Marilyn Hamilton
Lynn MacDonald

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.