November 3: “De-Colonizing” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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So let’s start by acknowledging that it’s complicated. And retreating into any sort of naive simplicity isn’t going to help. For instance, this week the Congressional Hispanic Caucus created an ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos in the offices of Rep. James Clyburn, a democrat from South Carolina. This temporary altar holds the photographs of 14 people, most of them children, who have died in U.S. government custody while attempting to enter, or remain in, this country, along with flowers, candles, and other traditional decorations. James Clyburn is not a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – I am guessing that his office was chosen for this because in his role as House Majority Whip its location is more spacious and accessible than some others. Several congress people who are themselves Hispanic, and members of the Caucus, have a tradition of creating ofrendas in their own offices – this year, Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona honors the memories of Cesar Chavez, and his former colleague John Conyers, who died last week. Apparently, this is the first time that the Hispanic Caucus as a body has set up a joint, public ofrenda.
What are we to make of this? Is it politically partisan? Does it violate the separation of church and state? Is it exploitive cultural appropriation, or an authentic expression of diversity? I am inclined to think that we have more immediate and weighty concerns to address with our congressional representatives just now than their choice of holiday decorations, but then, symbols carry meaning, and meaning shapes our collective lives. Which is why potentially secular cultural holidays like Thanksgiving, and Columbus Day, are of concern to religious community; first, because they deal in both values and mythologies, and second, because what we celebrate is a function of what we want, and what we seek to protect. Holidays encode culture in powerful, visceral ways; through taste and food, through family and memory, through visual spectacle and costume; through music and motion and ritual and public customs. All of these are learning modes, that mostly bypass judgments of the rational mind. So if we are to be thoughtful about what it is that we are teaching ourselves and others in our celebrations, we need to consider these matters before we find ourselves in the midst of the parade, or sitting down to the table laden with turkey and pumpkin pie.
Now let me be clear that I do NOT propose that we should never let down our skeptical guard, or should go around debunking Santa and the Easter Bunny at every opportunity. Such an attitude makes us spiritually shriveled, as well as unwelcome company to most other folks. Our full humanity is experienced only through enthusiastic participation in all those visceral modes I just described. Nevertheless, we can, and should, take responsibility for the underlying messages conveyed by our cultural celebrations, so that they do not become unintentional reinforcements of the very privileges and oppressions that we are working hard in other conscious realms to dismantle. Moreover, I think that Aya de Leon is correct when she suggests that if we do not have a richly evocative repertoire of celebrations in our own culture, the spiritual starvation will drive us to misappropriate and exploit the traditions of others. I also tend to believe that nothing powerful is pure; the symbols that have the deepest meaning always contain some ambiguity for contrast and heightened flavor. This is good, because history is like that mostly, too; everything admirable has its downside as well, and every tragedy contains something to cherish.
The place to start, it seems to me, is at the intersection of history and mythology. Every American holiday that I know of has some historical origin story, usually embroidered with a narrative mythology which interprets those events in the service of a particular meaning. A number of these, including Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, are national origin stories, and their associated mythologies have served to encode European settler claims about ‘discovering’ the American continent, undergoing hardships in order to build societies here, and creating a ‘new nation’ of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ It is certainly true that the explorer Christopher Columbus sailed to this hemisphere several times. It is also true that a somewhat disoriented boatload of religious zealots and others landed on the northeastern coast and nearly perished there before establishing an outpost and welcoming reinforcements from England. It is true that groups of settlers later staged a successful rebellion against their long distance king. These are events that our school books and pageants and songs have taught our culture to celebrate, but their very sanitized mythologies have left out crucial ambiguities from all of these accounts. Specifically, they have taught us that what mattered was what the white colonial settlers did and said and wanted and felt, while the impact of their presence on the people already here, or anyone not like themselves, was irrelevant and should be ignored.
The popular American origin mythologies have also emphasized the nobility of motives attributed to the settler heroes. Columbus was thought to represent reason, intelligence, competence, determination, and dauntless courage in the face of ignorant and fearful people who believed that the world was flat. The Plymouth colonists were held as seekers of freedom, who strove to build a pious community of justice, charity, and self-sufficiency in the threatening wilderness. The founding revolutionaries were idealistic patriots who created a nation of liberty, equality, democracy, and human rights by risking their lives to defy a corrupt tyrant. Are these not the familiar legends of holiday clip art?
Yet when looked at from the perspective of the marginalized characters, these stories unfold very differently. Columbus was a not particularly competent sailor who vastly undercalculated the circumference of an earth that his contemporaries were well aware was spherical. His sailors were inclined to mutiny because of the way he treated them, not because they thought they were at risk of falling off the edge of the planet. He was insatiably greedy and cruelly abusive to the native people he first encountered, and allowed the rest of his crew to be as well. Many people who never came within miles of a European died because of the smallpox, measles, and influenza that spread quickly through the population with no naturally developed immunity. There were an estimated 250,000 indigenous Taino on the island of Hispainola when the Europeans landed there in 1492; 25 years later, there were fewer than 14,000. It is likely that an extermination at this massive scale was unforeseen and unintentional, but it’s certainly no occasion for a party 500 years later. More deliberate were the policies Columbus employed as Viceroy and Governor throughout the islands of his domain, which included widespread maiming, rape, forced labor and execution in order to create terror throughout the population.
Ironically, these very tactics demonstrate his membership among the European conquerors who would come to dominate North America over the following centuries, a membership that immigrants of Italian descent were eager to claim for themselves by establishing Columbus Day as a national holiday at a time when their cultural status as “white Americans” was in doubt. Today it seems to me that, shall we say? That ship has sailed. Any conception of justice would be better served by shifting, as a growing number of cities and states are doing, to a holiday consciously celebrating the history and contributions of Native Americans. The myth of Columbus as a hero of any kind is in itself a form of colonization; a way of erasing the lives and dignity and suffering of people whose cultures and communities were destroyed his personal arrogance and greed.
One of the important qualities to celebrate is the resilience of Native American nations, despite long and brutal efforts to literally and figuratively exterminate them. They were on the side of “nevertheless, she persisted” long before Elizabeth Warren came on the scene. And long before the current administration shocked the conscience of the nation by separating refugee children from their parents at the border and locking them up, generations of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools, where every effort was made to eradicate their native languages, appearance, dress, religion, and customs, and where too many of them died. It is an act of colonization to steal a person’s land and livelihood, certainly; it is also an act of colonialism to destroy their lineage of ancestral knowledge, to appropriate and exploit their spiritual practices, or to violate their holy places. It is surely an act of colonialism to renege on solemn treaties and violently attack those who ask for promises to be fulfilled; it is just as certainly colonialism to act as though peoples and cultures are lost in the mists of time, and no longer exist, when they are, in fact, a very present lived reality. Perhaps the most important de-colonizing we can do, within ourselves and among others, is to recognize and celebrate the ongoing vitality of many Indian nations and tribes. The first step in releasing ourselves from the grip of our own mythology is to listen with genuine humility and curiosity to someone else’s story.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving – also a cultural holiday which has erected on a slender scaffold of historical fact, a mythology of national origin that again erases the reality of what those events entailed for the people who were already here when the colonists landed. From a settler’s perspective, they themselves are naturally the heroes of the tale; it was their own endurance and mutual support in hardship that saw them through the disastrous early years. The natives were at first an exotic object; potentially helpful, potentially to be converted to Christianity, but also quite possibly in the way. Very quickly they are seen as “the merciless Indian savages” they will be called 150 years later in the colonists’ Declaration of Independence from Britain, and as they will remain identified more than a century into this nation’s existence. Not until near the end of the Civil war would President Lincoln actually declare an annual Thanksgiving holiday observance; before that, each announced day of prayer and Thanksgiving was in response to a particular recent event. During the colonial period, those events were almost exclusively military victories over – and sometimes wholesale slaughter of – native peoples, with seizure of their lands and stores of food. And it was not until the turn of the 20th century, when America was wrestling with industrialization and new generations of immigrants, that the romantic myth of the Pilgrims and Indians Thanksgiving feast arose.
The trouble is, it’s pretty easy to agree that Columbus isn’t someone we really need to celebrate; but it’s hard to argue that giving thanks is in itself a bad idea. Indeed, it’s a central concept shared by most indigenous spiritual teachings, and it’s something that both hardened humanists and committed Christians can agree on: gratitude is good for us. So, how do we de-colonize the celebration of gratitude? I’m not sure that I know the whole answer to this question, but I do know they say that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is put down the shovel. We can certainly learn to celebrate home and family and many blessings without rehearsing the genocidal myths of a colonizing history. We can begin to learn something about the native communities that were violently displaced to make room for the towns and buildings and neighborhoods that are right here where we and our families live now. That would mean for us understanding the ways of the Osage and the Missouria and the Otoes, as well as the Shawnee and the Wyandotte as they passed through. I am sad to acknowledge that I am no expert, but I mean to learn more.
The plants teach us, Robin Kimmerer says. How can I, like the common plantain, with my colonist roots, naturalize to this place, become not an invader, but an adopted member of the community? Be humble, says White Men’s Footstep; don’t make it all about you; recognize those who were here first. Don’t just take over; make space for other people, other stories. Be useful. Offer yourself as a good pot of greens in the spring, as medicine that protects the injured — be a force for healing.
Thanksgiving itself can teach us, if we want it to, writes chef Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, who suggests that de-colonizing can be located on the table right in front of us, in the food:
People may not realize it, but most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, cranberries, wild rice and the like. We should embrace this… No matter where you are in North America, you are on indigenous land. And so on this holiday, and any day really, I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and to begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native-American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present.
He’s right, I think – about more than food. De-colonizing ourselves begins in repentance and the work of repairing injury because that is the right thing to do, but it ends in the recognition that commitment to a false past will always separate us from the gifts that grow naturally around us, and from the true beauty of the present. Holidays and holy days are a universal facet of human culture; we hunger for the richness, dimension, and meaning that they add to our lives. And they are powerful teachers, those celebrations; the foods and the altars and the greeting card images all convey stories about who we are, and what matters to us. Let us take seriously our responsibility to be thoughtful about those lessons, so that they lead us toward inclusion rather than arrogance, to humility rather than exploitation, to honor rather than erase our neighbors, to remember the past for the sake of healing rather than perpetuating its terrors. For that opportunity, forever present in our shared humanity, ostaliheliga.