A Reflection on Indigenous Peoples, Colonization, and the Church

*This piece was originally written by Shannan Vance-Ocampo for Indigenous People’s Day as part of her newsletter to the Presbytery of Southern New England. As we enter into National Native American Heritage Month, we encourage you to sit with her reflection and her invitation at the end.*

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. The day has been renamed in the United States to honor the original peoples of the Americas, rather than the colonizer.

In August of this year, I was honored to have been invited to visit the Dakota Presbytery, a non-geographic language Presbytery in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). It encompasses the states of North and South Dakota and Montana and is made up of the Indigenous congregations in those three states. I was invited, along with my colleague and friend, the Rev. Michelle Hwang, who is the co-chair with me of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Elder Madison McKinney, a Native woman from that Presbytery, invited us to attend the Ptáya Owohdake, or Mission Meeting, that has been happening on an annual basis for the last 150 years. This summer was the anniversary year. This is a gathering of all Presbyterian and United Church of Christ Indigenous congregations in these three states. It has happened each year since 1872, alternating denominations every other year, with only two exceptions: in 1901 because of the smallpox epidemic, and in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gathering this year was at the Wakpaipaksan Okodakiciye or “Bend in the River Church” also known as First Presbyterian, the oldest continuously occupied Indigenous congregation in South Dakota. This congregation dates back to 1972 and was founded by the Mdewakanton Dakota people.

Madison invited us because she also wanted us to see the Flandreau Boarding School, across the street, which has been in operation since the same time, started by Presbyterians, and then turned over to the Department of Indian Affairs. Like all boarding schools, the Flandreau School has a checkered history, which includes the abuse, intentional stripping of language and culture, and even death of Indigenous children. The Flandreau tribe and congregation to this day do not know how many children are buried in the ground both at the school and across the street in the church cemetery. We have direct responsibility for this tragedy, as the school, and the history of exploitation of the Dakota people in the lands bordering South Dakota and Minnesota date back to the work of Presbyterian “missionaries” in that region.

The Mission Meeting we attended unfolds annually over four days. There is singing (all in Dakota), worship, and talking circles. Children are retaught the Dakota language and customs. Adults have the opportunity to share about the trauma they experienced in the boarding schools, and the loss of language and culture they are now re-learning at an advanced age, and the complicated relationship they have with Christian faith and Native traditions. Families bond and gather, and we were honored to be invited into a naming ceremony for four children who received their Native names. Meals are shared, and young adults sleep outside in the teepees (weather permitting).

Michelle and I were only two of a handful of non-Native persons who were invited into the space. We spent our time listening, learning how to sing in Dakota, sharing meals, and visiting the prairies around the reservation, including the herd of bison who are being managed by the Tribe. We also visited the Pipestone National Monument, to learn about the only place stones are mined to make the sacred pipes for Native ceremonies in this part of the Americas.

The trip to this gathering was the highlight of my summer. I felt the inbreaking of God’s Spirit and an opening up to me with new eyes to what happens in Indigenous communities in the United States. I am not an uninformed person about these realities and the cruel history of our country, but spending a long weekend like this was something I have never experienced. A few days after this visit, I had a long-planned continuing education opportunity with the bestselling Indigenous botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, which I know many of you have read. This fall I have been participating in an evening book group online with Presbyterians around the United States and internationally looking at the fantastic book by the Mennonite writer, Sarah Augustine, called The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. These three things, the trip, the class, and the book study have been working on my spirit these last few months, helping me to see with new eyes and feel with a different perspective.

Sarah Augustine offers these haunting words about the project of colonization of Indigenous Peoples:

“For Indigenous Peoples, on one side lies the authority of the colonizing authority, including the military. On the other is the church, bearing the authority of the Almighty. Indigenous Peoples are faced with the threat of enternal damnation on one side and invasion on the other. Force and violence are at play in both instances, and submission seems the only choice.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer offers these words about the project of colonization:

“Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient homelands to new places. Whether it was their homeland or the new land forced upon them, land held in common gave people strength; it gave them something to fight for. And so – in the eyes of the federal government – that belief was a threat.” 

I hope and pray you will take some time today, Indigenous People’s Day, to pause and pray. We have much in our history to repent of. Much to learn about. Much to confess. Much to lament. And we also have things in our history that point us back in the right direction of seeing the holy and sacred in all things, peoples, lands, ecosystems, and animals. Our sacred text began that way. Somewhere we lost that part of our tradition, trading in love of Creation for love of empire. We forgot that we must worship God alone, not mammon, not power, not capital.I pray today is a sacred day for you. An opportunity to reconnect with God, your history, our history, and to ask God to show us new ways forward where we follow the Holy Spirit, the Prince of Peace, and the God of all Creation.

Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo is the General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Southern New England and also serves as co-chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.