Psalm 137 – Columbus Day?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

I started drafting this post for Thanksgiving last year, and I don’t remember what got in the way of my posting it.  But tomorrow is Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day – yes, both are listed on my Apple Calendar. It is the official kick-off of the country suddenly remembering its First Peoples for a few weeks, so some words seem in order.

It’s a bleak passage to chose, as I originally did, for a holiday where we are supposed to focus on the good things in our life.  But Thanksgiving, and indeed this time of year in general, is a complicated time in our house.  We all love eating, and being with family, and sometimes even getting a day off of farm work. But Chris (and my girls) are Native American.  Chris is a registered member of the Piscataway tribe of Maryland.  Thanksgiving is one of the best examples of white-washed cultural appropriation and re-writing history.  The story I learned as a young child was: the Pilgrims came to America, were hungry and didn’t know how to farm this strange new land, so the Indians came and taught them how to plant corn and then at the end of the season they all sat down and had a big feast together and everyone lived happily ever after.

So. Not. True.  Just as their tormentors demanded songs of joy from the Israelites, America at large demands a minstrel-like performance from Native culture while ignoring its pain.  Sports teams like the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins – not to mention the thousands of colleges and highschools – used or continue to use racist and reductive imagery and terms as mascots, flattening and cheapening Native culture.  We’ve turned culturally significant regalia into cheap Halloween costumes.  A quick search on Amazon for “Indian Costume for Women” comes back with pages of options, almost all of them over-sexualized Pocahontas references that have nothing to do with the varied dress worn by native women through the centuries. We enjoy the fruits of this land – turkey and corn, for sure but also tomatoes, sugar cane, and so much else – while minimalizing it’s first stewards.

And the true history of America’s relationship with its original inhabitants just gets worse from there.  My own father-in-law went to an Indian Boarding School.  Indian Boarding Schools were created to forcibly assimilate Native youth into White culture.  These children were taken from their families against their (and their families’) will, forced to convert to Christianity, and suffered malnourishment and abuse so bad that these schools had graveyards on-site to receive the number of dead children they generated.  As a reminder, this isn’t stale history hundreds of years old, people who are still living suffered through this!

These are just some of the reasons why, when my youngest came home from pre-school last year singing “Ten Little Indians,” we got upset.  Some people may roll their eyes and think we’re being overly sensitive, that it’s “just a song.”  But that song reduces my daughters and indeed, all Native peoples, into a nursery rhyme character no more real than Bo Peep or Mother Goose.  Not to mention that this “harmless nursery rhyme” has racist ties to minstrel shows where the actors played at massacring Indians, or where the words were changed to “One little, two little, three little n***er babies…).  So yes, I do find it as overtly racist as the Washington Football Team’s recently retired name (and the handful of high school and college teams still using names like Redmen and Orangemen), and it’s definitely contributing to the erasing, flattening, and denying Native cultures.

My girls (and all native youth) are being bombarded with lessons – both overt and subliminal – that their heritage is nothing more than a fairy tale for white people.  That “Indians” – a term which in and of itself reduces the myriad of peoples and nations it refers to – were a mystical race of people waiting here to guide the true, European inheritors of this land, a people that faded away to almost nothing-ness in a passive manner, again allowing the New America to grow westward.  At best, mainstream culture overshadows – and at worst flat out ignores – the genocidal history of this country we have yet to come to terms with and make amends for.  I didn’t learn about the Trail of Tears until I was in high school.  I didn’t learn about forcible adoptions of Native children until I was in my late twenties. I didn’t learn about the systematic, state-sanctioned genocide of California Indians that happened in the late 19th century, where it is estimated over 9,000 Natives died, many of whom were women and children, until I was in my thirties. I don’t want our children to continue the inexcusable ignorance in which I (as I’m sure many of you) were raised. 

As an aside, there are almost 6,000 missing Native women and girls right now.  Sadly, many of them are presumed dead.  And that’s just the number that’s been reported, the actual figure is estimated to be much higher.  I share this fact to point out that racism and aggression towards America’s Indigenous people is not just a sad historical relic, but a very real fact of today’s society.

Native Americans are neither ancient history nor romantic fairy-tale.  They are real people, they are my family.  Their land has been turned into a foreign land, one where they have been forced to forget their own proverbial Jerusalem, peoples and nations torn down to their very foundations and below.

I’m not saying don’t enjoy Thanksgiving.  Anything that encourages us to be grateful and spend time with family has to have some good in it.  But let’s not ignore the very troubling roots of this holiday.  And let’s not exacerbate the problem.  There are plenty of decorations we can use without relying upon paper cut-outs of “Indians” in our school windows.  We don’t need to scare our kindergarteners with tales of genocide, but let’s not pretend that Wompanoags and Separatists (for those are much more accurate terms than “Indian” and “Pilgrim”) were BFF’s.  

If you feel so moved – and I hope you do – perhaps work with your school to design an age-appropriate, culturally appropriate Thanksgiving curriculum. There’s still time to talk to your childrens’ teachers to make sure such a curriculum is in place. Resources like NMAI and Oyate are great places to start if you’re looking to build a curriculum, too. Also, this article from NEA gives a great overview for how to design a curriculum, especially for younger students. Finally, if you want to start with some books to read with your young children, the ones that our family has read and enjoyed are When We Were Alone by David Robertson, Wild Berries by Julie Flett, and We Are Grateful by Traci Sorell. All of these touch upon the idea of gratitude, and reflect Native cultures in a respectful and relevant way. All three had an Indigenous individual write or illustrate. There are probably many more, but these are the ones I’ve read and can recommend.

As Christians, it is our duty to fight for the justice and equality of everyone. This fight is part of my family, but we need everyone we can get. The first step of joining in is knowledge. I’ve outlined how you can help better inform your children, above. If you want to familiarize yourself with some of the battles I’ve been watching, you can read My response to events at the 2019 Indigenous People’s March, my first mention of the Wet’suwet’en Land Protectors when discussing Job 16, and my two-part entry entitled “Reconciliation is Dead.” Of course, my husband is much more first-hand source and you can read his thoughts on some of his Medium articles. Robin Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass) seems to be everybody’s go-to Native author, but I’d also like to suggest Kaitlin Curtice, both her books are near the top of my to-read list. If you have Native authors that you have learned from, I would love to hear about them! Drop a comment below so we can all share. Let’s vow to do better by this land’s first inhabitants. In doing so, we will all be better for it. I promise.

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