Congregations build bridges, relationships with Native Americans

Congregations build bridges, relationships with Native Americans

Spurred by study of Doctrine of Discovery, UUs reach out to indigenous people.
Donald E. Skinner
poster for All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Sioux Falls, S.D., as part of the congregation's engagement with area Native Americans
poster for All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Sioux Falls, S.D., as part of the congregation's engagement with area Native Americans
© Jerry Fogg


All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Sioux Falls, S.D., is planted in the midst of the nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation and near land once promised by treaty rights to them. Some members of the congregation have long been involved with Native American issues and a few members are themselves Native American. Others have had only intermittent connections with indigenous peoples and their issues.

But that's changing because of a growing awareness of the Doctrine of Discovery. Delegates at the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly 2012 in Phoenix were introduced to, and then voted to repudiate, the doctrine, a centuries-old principle of international law that sanctions and promotes the conquest and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.

As part of that process at GA, congregational leaders were challenged to find ways in their own communities to work with indigenous groups toward the eradication of the doctrine.

That call to action covered everything from working to remove references to the doctrine in federal law to educating others about the doctrine and supporting Native peoples who have been oppressed by the doctrine. The doctrine is the basis used by courts even today to circumvent centuries-old treaties with Native peoples.

Following General Assembly, the Rev. Armida Alexander, of All Souls, urged her congregation to find a place to engage with the doctrine. It didn't take long. In the 15 months since GA 2012, here's what it's done:

  • Provided support to the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Native American Spiritual Group at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, by paying for ceremonial botanicals and assisting with one of their quarterly spiritual conferences.
  • Organized a symposium on October 12 on the doctrine, with a panel of Native Americans. On the same day there was a hoop dance celebration.
  • Commissioned a collage painting by Native American artist Jerry Fogg, titled Past, Present and Future.
  • Invited Native American author Joseph Marshall III to speak about his book, The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons on Living, at a community forum. The book is also a "one-book read" for the congregation.
  • Alexander developed a five-session religious education curriculum based on several of Marshall's books.

"We're incredibly excited about what's going on in the congregation and our external outreach to the community," said Susan Randall, All Souls' president. "So many people in Sioux Falls and South Dakota know little about the Great Sioux Nation. We wanted to give them a voice. And we wanted to come and listen and learn ourselves."

It doesn't hurt that South Dakota is the only state to officially rename Columbus Day "Native American Day." In Hawaii it is called Discoverers' Day, commemorating Polynesian discoverers.

All across the continent, the GA 2012 resolution has inspired congregations to work to educate people about the Doctrine of Discovery and to work toward its repudiation. All Souls is one of many congregations that went home from Phoenix and began to work on this issue.

Present tense

In Schenectady, N.Y., Director of Religious Education Melissa MacKinnon led the UU Society of Schenectady into a relationship with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people. That relationship included helping support a flotilla of more than 200 Native and non-Native canoeists last summer. That trip down the Hudson passed through Albany and on to the United Nations in New York City to to raise awareness of environmental crises and to explore ways for Native and non-Native people to respectfully live together. The canoe trip was part of an ongoing "Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign," which grew out of a belief that Native Americans and descendants of Europeans can live parallel, mutually respectful (Two Row) lives.

MacKinnon created a worship service last spring featuring a Mohawk storyteller and followed it with a presentation by a Native American leader of the Two Row campaign. A second worship service, on October 13, featured a Native American musician and storyteller. MacKinnon also collected children's books featuring Native Americans and used them in religious education programming and created a brochure titled Rethinking Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

She also hopes to explore historic connections between Unitarian and Universalist congregations and Native American groups in New York State. Another possible project would be providing support for a native community which has preserved the Mohawk language.

MacKinnon had written about Native American issues in her earlier career as a newspaper writer. She returned to that original research. "What I found were stories that very few people knew. I looked for ways to share them," she said. "What I want people to know is there is so much to be learned in alliances with Native Peoples––about sustainability, economics based on reciprocity, and decolonization. It takes some effort to step into areas we may not be comfortable with, but there are tremendous rewards, even if all we do is to simply learn more about native peoples living around us right now."

McKinnon cautioned, "It's easy to think of Native Americans in the past tense rather than thinking about how they exist in the present. But there are a lot of indigenous people's movements and issues that we can ally ourselves with as Unitarian Universalists."

Restoring heritage

In the Hawaiian Islands, traditional cultural practices and languages were banned following the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893, until 1971. The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu has long supported indigenous Hawaiians in restoring some of that heritage.

Steve Lohse, chair of the congregation's Social Justice Council, said that the church is currently supporting the Kanenuiakea religious community of O'ahu and is also working with a group called Interfaith 'Ohana. One of the goals of these combined groups is to promote legislation that will help guarantee access to traditional sacred sites. They are beginning the process of federal registration of more than 30 sacred sites. Lohse notes, "Hawaiian sacred sites are critical to preserving traditional cultural practices and transmitting them to future generations. The Doctrine of Discovery not only historically separated Hawaiians from their sacred sites, but its legacy continues today to restrict access or to destroy these sites."

In 2012 the congregation held a historic Kanenuiakea worship service in its sanctuary, in cooperation with the Kanenuiakea community. It was the first time that service had been held in public in 120 years. The congregation has also created a Hawaiian Values curriculum for its religious education program, which has been shared with other UU and non-UU congregations. First Unitarian also sponsors increasingly popular hikes to sacred sites.

Lohse said legislators have encouraged the congregation to develop specific resolutions repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. "We discovered that area legislators already knew about the Doctrine of Discovery. This level of awareness and support is encouraging," he said.

The congregation's relationship with Kanenuiakea, and its work to help them reclaim their indigenous heritage, is powerful, Lhose said. "Many in our congregation have said that this is among the finest things that the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu has ever done. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery in partnership with our Kanenuiakea ‘Ohana [family] has become very personal and not at all optional for us."

Building relationships

Gail Forsyth-Vail, adult programs director in the UUA's Faith Development Office, said 10 grants have been given to congregations, totaling $5,000 for Doctrine of Discovery projects. The money came from a UU who, when in the process of selling family land, learned the land had been acquired partly because of the Doctrine of Discovery.

She cautioned that congregations need to build a relationship with indigenous peoples and then follow their lead as to what projects to take on. Those projects may be only indirectly related to the doctrine, she noted.

"Some indigenous groups may not feel that the doctrine is the most important thing to take up," Forsyth-Vail said. "In Sioux Falls, for example, the most important issue was ministering to prisoners. Another congregation might support a student group, or an environmental project, or helping support a museum. Congregations are taking many different approaches."

Painting (above): Artist Jerry Fogg created a painting and poster for All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Sioux Falls, S.D., as part of the congregation's engagement with area Native Americans (Jerry Fogg).

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