“Paths of Discovery” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 7, 2012
Call to Worship – “Eagle Poem” By Joy Harjo
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
Story for All Ages – Brother Eagle, Sister Sky inspired by Chief Seattle
Reading – from Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Sermon – “Paths of Discovery” by Mark W. Harris
“In fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue, He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain. He sailed by night; he sailed by day; He used the stars to find his way.” How many of you learned this little poem as children? It was standard fare in my elementary school about this time of year, although curiously I only remembered the first line until I decided to Google it. Then I saw that this is only a small portion of a much longer piece. Later it says: “Indians! Indians! Columbus cried; His heart was filled with joyous pride. . . The Arakawa natives were very nice; they gave the sailors food and spice.”
When I was a boy of eight or nine, The one thing I wanted to be more than anything else was be an Indian. I am not quite sure why. It had something to do with nature and the forest, the 65 acres my parents owned that allowed me to roam for what seemed like forever, past streams and rivulets, through quiet beds of pine needles where I could pretend to stealthily sneak up on some unsuspecting opponent — foraging deer and bear. It had something to do with freedom. Away from the house, I could run and run in my moccasins that were so silent on the forest floor, and I could even tie my own breech cloth, and be nearly naked, feeling a bodily freedom like I found nowhere else. And then a rustling in the underbrush told me there was an opportunity to raise a bow and arrow, a sport I loved, and shoot at fabricated wildlife on the big hunt, or even the white man who was attacking my people. But wasn’t I a white man in training? I think my desire to be Indian also had something to do with ideas I learned — that Indians were noble and brave and even generous to the white man, and paid for it with the death of their culture, the loss of their lands, and the destruction of their people and way of life. I wondered how to make sense of it all, and it helped me begin to define who I was as a person. Why do people try to conquer and control others? Why do we hate those who we perceive as different? That poem we learned in school fails to tell us that many Indians were taken to Spain as slaves, only to die there far from their native land and families. It also fails to tell us what we have always meant by that word “discovery.” Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, filled with sailors brave and strong. But what about those natives who were very nice? Did they need to be discovered?
The heritage of the people native to the land enthralled me. I collected artifacts, like beaded pouches and feather headdresses, subscribed to journals, and attended powwows. But the racist images of mascots of Indian and Redskin and Brave in our sports loving household was lost on me. I laughed at the ridiculous TV show “F Troop,” which featured bumbling solders and the Hekawi tribe, played by white actors speaking broken English and always ready for whiskey. Their chief was purportedly Sitting Bull’s brother-in-law, who has sayings for every occasion, but he never knows what they mean. He says they once lived in Massachusetts, until the Pilgrims arrived and ruined the neighborhood. Somehow, I loved what Native Americans stood for in nature, without thinking about how they were depicted socially. I think now that the way our country has romanticized Native Americans is not only racist, it is part of a way we romanticize nature itself – pretending it is all good and beautiful and full of sunshine and may even redeem us, as you can see by the quote on our Wayside Pulpit from Wordsworth – “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Nancy, our church administrator, say it, and remarked, “That’s not true.” We ignore the hurricanes and floods and natural destruction. Even attributing every bit of bad weather to global warming contributes to this attitude – it is like saying that Nature was perfect before we humans destroyed it.
I think the word we should have used about Columbus and America was “encounter,” not “discover.” There is a mutuality and respect that allows Europeans to see Native Americans as whole people who had an impact on their world and on history and on us when we use the word “encounter.” It gets rid of this erroneous and patronizing belief that the Natives were just a part of nature, not active shapers of their own culture. Recent research shows that Indians around here cleared land for planting, and reshaped and manipulated their ecosystem. They stripped forests for firewood, they also burned the forests to replenish the soil. They also moved their sites depending upon the richness of the place and season. They named places by their use, such as Abessah, or “clam bake place” near Bar Harbor. Land had a social function, and was inherently relational – what the land produced dictated how it was used, and when. The English system was individualistic. Property was a commodity in trade, and when a person bought land, his name became associated with that spot. As far as the British were concerned, these Natives who traveled around hunting – a British sport – never made a claim on the land. It was theirs for the taking. On the one hand, the argument was that the Natives didn’t really love the land or care about it. And on the other hand, the Natives were seen as simply part of the land, not as active players. But the Native understanding was just different. They did love the land and its uses. They relied on it, cared for it, and shaped it. But they loved it differently.
I learned that the Native Americans were simple and innocent people who never changed anything. Their ancestors had walked across a land bridge to Alaska, traveled south, and lived in small groups for thousands of years, and had little impact on the environment. But Charles Mann, in the book 1491, describes a different story. He says that at the time of Columbus, the landscape had been transformed. Two thirds of the continental U.S. supported agriculture. In the Midwest there were thousands of mounds of maize fields. The eastern forests had been peeled back from the coast, and the land was lined with farms. And there were controlled fires everywhere to create this artificial environment. This information helps us see that there is no mythic purity to aspire to, but an acceptance that all people manipulate and use the land. The native culture was not idealistic or theologically naïve, but a pragmatic way to support life, involving dramtic changes in the way land was used. It was not “natural,” but it was environmentally sound.
Cultures have long employed religious texts to dictate their mission in the world. Puritans used the Bible to subjugate a land and a people. Joshua marching around Jericho and shouting until the walls come down became the Biblical proof text for explorers marching through America. At the 2012 General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists in Phoenix, the delegates voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine is a principle of international law that has its roots in a 1452 papal decree that sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and people. Hundred of years of laws and decisions were grounded in this doctrine, which invalidated or ignored the rights and humanity of indigenous peoples around the world. One action we can take is to learn how much of our understanding of Native people and cultures has been inaccurate, romanticized and paternalistic. Much of our history of Manifest Destiny, imperialism, and American exceptionalism have their roots in this doctrine. The language of discovery develops out of a belief in Christians having a right and privilege to claim the land and people of those who are non-Christian. It was backed by a belief that these people lacked a soul.
What does it mean to repudiate a doctrine? We can’t take it back or undo the past. But we do support replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. And we do pledge ourselves to work to see how this doctrine still echoes in our communities – through immigration policies, through discrimination toward people of color, to face the complexities of encounter in our own families and neighborhoods. There have been genocides across the ocean, but which still play out here. People have been and still are being dehumanized because of “other-ness.” Several years ago I was moved when Will Twombly told the story of an ancestor of his, a sea captain, who had led an expedition to the Northwest, and been involved in an attack on an Indian village, killing its inhabitants. The descendants, including both the white people and the Natives met to try to reach some sense of reconciliation from that horrible past.
I never got over wanting to be an Indian. I wanted to be at home in nature. I wanted to understand history, and how much pain humans inflict upon one another, and how we might stem that tide of pain. I was also struck with what religion does to people in affirming their sense of righteousness and special calling by God. The reading from Caleb’s Crossing this morning explains the importance of trying to break spiritual power to control another. The preacher can’t get the Natives to believe in the truth, and the prosperity that follows from it, without destroying their attachment to their sachem. So the pantheistic view of the medicine men is placed in a high-stakes battle against strict and judgmental Calvinism. Suddenly, all that is supposed to be spiritual – about faith and connection and assurances – becomes instead about dominance, superiority, and control over others. Religion is used to destroy, and belief comes to stand for what we oppose.
This separating of people by who has the correct faith, is akin to the separating of people by what blood you carry in your veins. One columnist who wrote about Elizabeth Warren’s admission that she has Native American ancestry said she has every right to do so. We don’t know how true it is in a technical sense, but she said each of us has the right to define ourselves, and we should be able to do so in a complex and multifaceted way. What we can see is that it has nothing to do with whether she got a job or not, or if its proves that she is a person of integrity or not. Rather it proves that this heritage means a lot to her. It means that her mother had to feel shame before her closest family relatives. It means she stood up for herself, and followed her heart’s love. It means her mother had courage and forthrightness of character, and her daughter loves her for it. She claims the heritage for strength of heart.
On the other hand, Scott Brown has promoted a myth of race that goes hand in glove with the doctrine of discovery and the heritage of Columbus. This approach wants to separate people from one another, and makes tremendous assumptions about identity. We do not always know who someone is — quoting of percentage of white, black, or Indian is a not so veiled way to promote racial prejudice. Brown may as well have said as much when he looked at Warren, and said she is not a person of color, and you can tell by looking at her. Race is a social construction, and scientifically there is no separation by blood. We are all one race. And identity is far more complex than splitting people into categories.
Should we be debating about what kind of blood we have coursing through our veins? When someone said you had Indian or black blood it could destroy your standing in a community. The president of the United States and his own personal history reminds us that we live in an age where we cannot define people purely by race or blood anymore, and yet he suffers from the long heritage of racism. Our own hybrid Unitarian Universalist faith may lead us all toward a day where we can see and believe that one race or one color or one religion is not trying to rob another of power or privilege. We all choose many identities that we live by, and each comes with its own myths and realities. We must live out of the complex nature of who we are – we claim different ethnic backgrounds, we come from large families and are lonely orphans, we have heritages of heroism and crime, success and failure. Among those are a people who have suffered much shame and tribulation and terrible tragedy at the hands of others, and we should honor them in accurate, respectful ways, neither with whooping war dances or depicting innocent but ineffective nature lovers.
I was asked to speak at my high school graduation. The year was 1969, and it was a high point for me. I chose to speak on “The Plight of the American Indian.” In retrospect it probably seems a strange topic for the event at hand, but I tried to draw a parallel between the graduates and the Native Americans. I had a quote from a young Indian who described himself as lost in the cultural transition, and unable to understand the complexity of the business world and government. He was looking for a trail he had lost sight of, and hoping he could draw upon his personal strengths, and cultural resources for a better way of living. To me, this paralleled my own feelings, in a society struggling with empowerment issues. The Civil Rights struggles and the Vietnam War plagued America’s soul, I wondered where my life trail was, and what I would discover.
We make the trail by walking it. We are all hybrids, growing and changing in a world that staggers towards new understandings. We want justice and opportunity for all people. Our dream remains those words that are so simple to say, and so hard to practice: A world of equality. A world where that’s what’s natural.
Closing Words – from Nancy Wood #552 (responsive)
My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.