Photo credit: Mladen Borisov: unsplash.com
“Language is part of who we are, and so who we are is trying to relearn our language and regrow as a community” ~ Timmy Masso, Language Activist
“Sovereignty is the right for us to decide what we want to become.” ~ Sara Hill; Cherokee Nation Attorney General
“As a sovereign nation, we never gave up our right to use fire. We gave up a lot of things, but fire wasn’t one of them.” ~ Margo Robbins; Basket Weaver
“It’s brought me on a path that’s leading me towards being grounded, being more connected with the earth.” ~ Angel Marea Jimerson; Production Manager
“Indian Relay is ours, all Native. Nobody in the world can take it, like they did everything else.” ~ Duane Kemmer; Indian Relay Racer 1
These quotes on the meaning of sovereignty to indigenous peoples appeared in a National Geographic expose last summer about native nations reclaiming their lands and ways of life. I wanted to explore this idea of sovereignty a little further and to bring us to a deeper understanding of the meaning of one’s land in one’s life as it relates to indigenous people today as we look to honoring Indigenous People’s Day tomorrow. In my mind the holiday has been wrested from the hands of the colonialist heart of Columbus and his people and returned to the people from whom these lands we know as the Americas were taken all those many centuries ago. Holidays are one thing, but the reality remains that there is much to consider and to return yet unbroached. Land is at the root of it.
Sovereignty has to do with self-governance, but at its core is about agency, about power over one’s own affairs. For the Blackfoot people it means both “the freedom to decide one’s actions and the responsibility to keep the world in balance.” In places where first peoples never actually signed any treaties with government entities, there is a belief that the land is still legally theirs, along with the resources it provides. In other places, treaties were signed and then broken almost immediately by non-Native participants in the agreements, which to my mind nullifies them and thus the result is the same.
The Tla-o-qui-aht of British Columbia are tending to this responsibility of caring for the land, of living in balance with the land through efforts to recreate and protect ecosystems in the manner they always had as a people. They are making determinations as autonomous cultures, “part of the modern world, but rooted in their own longstanding values, working as equal partners.” Part of the problem is that Native peoples are not seen as equals when it comes to managing one’s own affairs. While a 2020 Supreme Court ruling created a lower court affirmation recognizing nearly half of Oklahoma as native land, what now constitutes reservations is only a fraction of that and in those places, there is extreme poverty, poor healthcare, and high rates of violence against women. Having the right to one’s own land and ways of life is a step toward dismantling the oppression.
Randy Woodley talks about the concept of place in his book Becoming Rooted. Unlike our Western sense of place as something abstract, he says, Native teachings suggest that the world was created as a place of relationship among people, Creator, and all of creation; all interrelated; all equal in importance; all with their unique role. Places carry with them both geographic and cultural histories made up of those relationships and creating a local environment. As human beings we have a purpose related to the place we inhabit and if we look back far enough, we discover the historical purpose associated with those places – where we live now or as we dig into our own stories, the purpose aligned with the peoples of our generations past. But to consider the history of a place superficially or to treat one species or environment as more important than another is arrogant at best. It is what we see, though, in our colonialist past. The relationship of persons to place is woven into the stories and lifeblood of a people. To remove those people from their land is to strip them of their deep connection and rootedness to a way of life deeply tied to the land on which they thrived for centuries before the arrival of colonizers, a relationship embodied in sustainable food practices, a balanced environment, ceremonies, weather, and landscape. 2
A recent episode of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America explored this idea of land as tied to people and culture, as place being one with wholesome existence. His conversations were with Indigenous people in the Black Hills rising from the Great Plains of western South Dakota into Wyoming, the land upon which Mount Rushmore sits, a constant reminder of this place as belonging to white folks now. They talked about the Land Back Movement, which is exactly what it sounds like – a movement supporting the return of native lands to native peoples. Similar to the other stories I read, it is about the return of management and control to native
people. It recognizes that the systems at the heart of their culture are inextricably tied to the land from which they were removed, and that returning control is a way of returning their sovereignty over a way of being which would have been wiped out completely were it not for those who held the stories and carried them forward.
There is a fear associated with this idea, a fear that the native people are coming for our land, house by house, community by community. There is an irony in this way of thinking, the idea that the native people would treat us as they were treated by the colonizers. It is a fear that fails to recognize the way of being in the world that honors equity and balance, reciprocity, and respect for the role that each person or people bring, the value of each in all. How healing might it be to return what was unrightfully taken and experience a partnership model among all involved going forward – first peoples and white folks, a partnership that honors each person, their gifts and those of the land and all of creation?
Bell listened as the Indigenous people talked about the removal of the Lakota from their land and the mass killing of the buffalo in the 1800’s. In so doing the people were cut off from their original sources of food and sustenance, given instead an unhealthy diet foreign to them, their access to what was familiar, what they were in relationship with culturally, cut off. Part of the land back movement has to do with food sovereignty as one aspect of reclaiming a nearly lost way of life. In places where land has been returned, buffalo are now returning also and a subsistence way of life in relationship with creation is gaining strength – gratitude for what is offered, not taking more than is needed, using all of what is taken. Indigenous Lakota author, Black Elk, prophesized about the 7th generation coming to reclaim culture and language and lifestyle. And a younger generation of Indigenous people today count themselves as the seventh in line and it is powerful to see them embracing the land back movement as it is connected to these parts of their story, reclaiming what was lost and carrying it forward. They are relearning the language of their forebears, participating in customs and ceremonies, keeping the story alive.
The bottom line is that you can’t be the nation you once were without the land you once were steeped in as a culture. And this idea of restoring that connection of people and place is rich with lessons for those of us whose own histories are part of that which our early colonialist forebears were involved in. What we often see in our own culture is a disconnect between ownership and care, a belief that what is ours is ours alone and we can do whatever we want with it. And we see what damage that has wrought on our environment, locally and more broadly on our earth home. What can we learn from the people whose land we now occupy about their relationship between land and culture, balancing ecosystems, restoring life in what remains of the creation they understood and lived in connection with?
We can begin anywhere, they say. Begin by listening to and telling their stories – not our stories about their stories, but their stories. Begin by honoring the promises that were broken as treaties were signed and then disregarded. It is not about monetary reparations I hear them say, the land never having been for sale to start with. Making a way for Indigenous people to regain the ability to care for their own people is one step. We have a lot to learn from the native people in our midst. To support the return of their lands and to open our minds and hearts to the example they set as they begin to regain their sovereignty is one way to grow in understanding and to shift our practices to those rooted in relationship between people and place. To begin to live as a people in touch with the land we call home. To explore our own stories back through the generations to the lands in which we originated and to the cultural connections to those places that we discover. We are all indigenous to somewhere and there is much to be gained in developing an awareness of that. To honor creation as an equal partner in our existence, not the dominion over model that came along with the Doctrine of Discovery, holding power in the name of God over people and place.
This land here on Cape Cod was where the Wampanoag lived in connection with the changing seasons and tides. How much time have we given to a greater understanding of their way of life and being in this place? What resources can we bring to bear on the telling of their story? How might we partner and make a way forward that honors each and all? Restoring sovereignty is about restoring dignity, something we say we affirm and promote. What is our role here as Unitarian Universalists?
As usual, I come today with more questions than answers! May we open ourselves to that deeper dive into greater knowing, and thus being, and acting, in our world.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson, UUMH Chatham, October 9, 2022
1 “We Are Here: Native Nations Reclaiming their Lands and Ways of Life” Charles C. Mann; National Geographic,
July 2022, pp.36-75.
2 “Place” in Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth, Randy Woodley, Broadleaf
Books, Minneapolis; 2022; pp. 61-62.