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Native Lands of the Southwest highlights the ‘beauty and resolve’ of Indigenous communities

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s travel study seminar also explores the Doctrine of Discovery, environmental racism and historical sites

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Native Lands of the Southwest travel study seminar attracted participants from 15 states. (Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program)

LOUISVILLE — Participants are looking back on a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) travel study seminar that helped to raise awareness about the history, struggle and triumphs of Native Americans.

The Native Lands of the Southwest was the last of three travel study seminars hosted this year by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and was a collaborative effort with the Presbytery of Santa Fe and the Synod of the Southwest.

For nine days in the spring, the Native Lands seminar took participants on a journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, providing opportunities to see historic sites, hear about Native American experiences and interact with Native American churches that are part of the PC(USA).

“I was delighted that the Native Lands travel study seminar attracted so many participants from all across the country,” said the Rev. Roger Scott Powers, who recently retired from pastoring St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque and was on the seminar’s planning team. “We had 35 participants from 15 states!”

The Rev. Judith Wellington, a planning team member and retired minister of word and sacrament for the PC(USA), said the seminar “was fruitful in broadening the awareness and understanding of the participants who were not that familiar with the First Nations communities of the Southwest who are siblings within the PC(USA).”

Early on, the group visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, which is dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Pueblo Indian culture, history and art. They listened to a panel discussion with Native American leaders and heard a presentation on the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave Christian European governments the religious and legal justification to claim lands occupied by Indigenous peoples “and to convert, enslave, or kill the inhabitants,” according to Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

“We wanted to deepen people’s understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery — its impact on Indigenous peoples through history and right up to the present day, and we did just that through preparatory reading, listening to presentations by Native American leaders, visiting sacred sites and Indian museums, and worshiping and breaking bread with Native American PC(USA) congregations,” Powers said.

The seminar also was designed to give participants a chance to “appreciate the rich history, cultures, and resilience of Indigenous peoples in the Southwest” and to “explore peacemaking issues, such as land and water rights, intergenerational trauma, poverty and addiction, border town conflicts, environmental racism, the health effects of uranium mining, and the impact of boarding schools,” according to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

Kelsey Martin, a Princeton Theological Seminary Master of Divinity student, wanted to participate because “as someone pursuing ordination in the PC(USA), I wanted to learn more about the Indigenous communities there and how they interact with the Presbyterian Church.”

Highlights for Martin included visiting the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mining Site, where a company operated a uranium mine from 1952 through February 1982. Mining operations tainted surface water with hazardous chemicals, necessitating cleanup, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“When visiting the Laguna Pueblo, we first worshipped with Laguna (United) Presbyterian Church, then drove around the Pueblo and saw the vestiges of uranium mining in the community,” Martin said. “These consecutive experiences showed us both the challenges of colonization — nuclear and religious — but simultaneously, the power and resolve the community has there to worship and educate others on the harms of the nuclear industry.”

Powers noted that it was “frightening to see just how close this hazardous waste site is to people’s homes.”

Seminar participants also visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which features a concentration of pueblos in the Four Corners region. Chaco was once the heart of an economic, administrative and ceremonial hub with massive stone buildings, also known as “Great Houses,” that were multiple stories and had hundreds of rooms.

The seminar included opportunities to see “Great House” structures at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (Photo courtesy of the Rev.  Roger Scott Powers)

“Walking through the ruins of one of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon, I was astounded by the Ancestral Pueblo people’s understanding of engineering principles that enabled them to build such beautiful stone masonry buildings a thousand years ago,” Powers said.

Lucretia McCulley of Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, said the travel study seminar had several highlights for here, ranging from a bread-making lesson from planning team member Kathy Mitchell to learning about the Doctrine of Discovery and Pueblo Indian history and culture from Jon Ghahate at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The seminar also raised tough questions for McCulley.

“This seminar taught me so many things that I did not know about Native history and about the Presbyterian Church’s role with Native Americans,” said McCulley, a ruling elder. “I am continuing to struggle with the connotation of ‘mission’ after experiencing this travel seminar. The idea of imposing Christianity on Indigenous peoples in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries has made me squirm quite a bit. With the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, did we (Christians) do more harm than good?  Is ‘mission’ the right term that we should keep using today? I am not sure. I think the PC(USA) has so much reparative work to do here in the U.S. with supporting Native American and African American PC(USA) congregations.”

Martin, a Nueva Mexicana born and raised in the Southwest, found the trip to be inspiring. “I am more determined than ever to return to New Mexico and find my place within these dynamics and histories,” she said recently. “I now understand how little knowledge many of us in PC(USA) churches on the East Coast have of the day-to-day realities of churches in the Southwest. I hope to be an advocate for these churches.”

The seminar also had an impact on McCulley and her husband, Dan Ream, who are now involved with Chinle Planting Hope, a community development organization on the Navajo Nation. “We are supporting the Chinle Planting Hope by purchasing books for their bookmobile,” she said.

In a similar vein, “we’re also exploring ways to make a contribution to the PC(USA)’s Native American Church Property Fund,” she said. “We hope that Presbyterians across the country can support this very important fund to repair nearly 95 church buildings.”

Wellington said there’s a lot more to be learned about the people of the Southwest. “I was glad that the participants were able to experience firsthand the variety of cultures here, although as I mentioned, we did not have enough time to explore the lands and issues of all the Indigenous communities that exist in this part of the Southwest and the denomination. My hope is that this is just a beginning for folks.”

Listen to the “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” episode featuring the Rev. Martha Sadongei, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, to hear more about Native American churches and topics, from joy to colonization. The podcast also touches on the Native Lands of the Southwest travel study seminar

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Its work is made possible through the Peace & Global Witness Offering.

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