Spring is near, although the weather remains cold and snowy. The maple sap is flowing intermittently and, on warmish, sunny days, birdsong fills the air. The equinox arrives Friday, and Passover and Easter follow.
This morning I had coffee with a dear friend who is Mohawk. He was adopted into a European family and, like me, came to his Native identity late. He’s fiercely proud of his heritage and excited about the return to traditional values that underlies the rebirth of the Mohawk Nation. He and I have been asked to speak, together, about Native America at the upcoming community Sedar, and met this morning to consider what we might say.
My friend suggested we tell the story of his people’s return to upstate New York, that we use that story of rebirth to offer hope for the future. I, being angry, was focused on the fact we are, for the most part, exiles in our own land. I want to share the outrageous facts about Native life in the U.S., and fear that any optimism we offer will be used to erase Native experience. We tabled any decision in favor of a conversation with the Rabbi.
My anger arose yesterday, while at a service at the church we attend. The morning’s focus was on building an inclusive congregation. A former minister spoke about being in Selma in the summer of 1965. Then the current minister spoke about the unfinished task of creating a just and equitable country. The service hung on that tried-and-true binary: Black and White, a strategy that effectively erases other ethnic groups. As you might have guessed, there was no mention of First Peoples, of Native America.
I have, over the past ten years, plus, asked a series of ministers to include Native America in the discussion at the church. I have also asked them to give cultural context to the Native texts and music they sometimes include in services. Neither has occurred, and, from what I can tell given my inconsistent attendance, the mention of Native America, in all its marvelous complexity, has become increasingly absent.
By the end of the service yesterday I was torn between heartbreak and outrage. How can we talk about civil rights and not address Native people? After all, Natives are arguably the most incarcerated, face the greatest threat of violence, and are the poorest of all ethnic groups in the U.S.. It is estimated that Native women are raped and murdered at ten times the national average for women, and, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of that violence comes from non-Natives. Natives living on reservations have the shortest life expectancy of any population. Oh, and seemingly each week, local, state, and federal governments appropriate treaty lands from Native people, or desecrate traditional Native holy places.
This is not a competition. Native lives matter. Black lives matter. So do Asian lives and European lives. The Natural world matters, too. As we think about social justice we must remember that racism and the destruction of the natural environment have long gone hand-in-hand, although they are seldom linked in the media or the pulpit. Governments leave the most marginal lands to tribal people and poor people of all colors, dump pollutants on or near them, then take the land when something valuable is found on it. This has gone on for the entire history of this country.
It seems appropriate that this conversation about racism, truth, and hope is under way now. After all, the equinox is all about balance. The challenge, in this conversation, is to find a balanced way to speak of all these things. At the moment I am at a loss as to how to do this and remain curious as to how we will find our way forward. At stake is the soul of the nation.