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Osage Nation scholar wraps up ‘Just Creation’ conference by retelling his nation’s creation story

Dr. Tink Tinker speaks as somebody ‘working very hard to decolonize my own mind’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Tink Tinker

LOUSVILLE — By way of introducing the “Just Creation” gathering’s final keynoter, Dr. Tink Tinker, Dr. Mark Douglas of Columbia Theological Seminary said Saturday that the best conferences “deepen what I know and disrupt what I know.”

Tinker, an American Indian and citizen of Osage Nation and a professor emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, told conference-goers he is “somebody who is working very hard to decolonize my own mind and to speak out of a worldview distinctly different from the Euro-Christian worldview.”

“I’m going to challenge what you know,” Tinker said, “and put it in a context that points toward a way we can dig ourselves out of this environmental crisis.”

“We Osages kind of smile when Carl Sagan says, ‘We are all star people,’” Tinker said. “We Osages know we are. We came down from the Milky Way a long time ago,” he said, recounting for those in attendance Osage Nation’s creation story.

Many years later, “your Christian ancestors invaded somebody else’s home and took it, finding a theological rationale to kill its inhabitants and steal the land itself,” Tinker said. “I’m not trying to make you feel guilty — that’s just the reality.” All churches on Turtle Island — to Native people, the name for Earth or North America — are on Indian land, Tinker reminded the crowd gathered both in person and online.

“The first thing they did was not to convert Natives to Christianity,” Tinker said. “It was to convert Grandmother, the land, to property. That’s an important moment that really begins the environmental crisis we have today.”

“How can I talk in terms of owning a piece of my Grandmother?” he asked. “By converting land to property, the personhood of my Grandmother is erased. That’s one step. Your Christian ancestors went a step further and created a whole category of new persons who were called corporations. It’s not a matter of one human being owning a quarter of an acre, 40 acres or 160 acres to have a farm to feed themselves and other people. Suddenly there’s another player in the game who might own hundreds of thousands of acres and say [like some farmers], ‘It’s my land and I can do whatever I want.’ The board of directors of the corporation says the same thing.”

Tinker traced current theories and case law on property rights to John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government,” published nearly a century before the American Revolution. Tinker said that to Locke, the best way to put away wealth is to convert resources, such as produce and animals, into money so it can be stored as personal wealth. “You have individual greed at that incipient moment, a century before Adam Smith [wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations’].”

Tinker spent the day before his talk visiting the unceded lands of the Muscogee Nation, who were “kicked out of Georgia by the most hated U.S. president ever, Andrew Jackson,” a Presbyterian “who singlehandedly engineered the removal of Indian people into what is today Oklahoma.” About one-fourth died during the removal.

To this day, Tinker views the Earth as his Grandmother. “I just can’t relate to Grandmother the way my ancestors did,” he said. “That’s Grandmother. It’s not property. When we say, ‘#LandBack,’ we don’t mean, ‘Give us some of the property back.’ What we want is our relationship with Grandmother back, along with other things erased by colonization — our languages, cultures and ceremonies.”

“We can’t cut trees to build a log house without doing a ceremony for every tree we take,” Tinker said. “Those are our relatives.”

The goal isn’t “to get somewhere, like heaven at the end of life,” Tinker said. Instead, “it’s about harmony and balance at every moment of our existence … We don’t prepare to die, but to maintain balance, and we live in a world that is massively out of balance.”

The first Earth Day was a half-century ago, “and we haven’t gotten very far,” Tinker said. “The climate crisis continues to snowball out of control. But my elders told me, ‘Don’t worry about Grandmother, the Earth. She’ll survive just fine once the humans are gone.”

“Environmental justice is about keeping humans alive and sustainable. I am a human, and so I have something invested in that,” Tinker said. “But I am also clear this is mostly about us, and so we’ve got to begin to imagine differently.” He urged conference-goers to “be more in conversation with traditional Native people.”

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