Oct 11, 2020

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

I met Stephen Pevar in 2001 when I began working as the Director of Development for the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union. It was the time of the Patriot Act. The enormity of 9/11 was still reverberating in the air. People were trying to make sense both of its happening and the pervasive reaction of fear, and were fighting back, ostracizing our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Stephen’s office was directly beneath mine. He had, and has, a kindly face, with a warm smile and twinkle in his eye. He was smart, humble, and a fabulous listener. He made the mayhem of the day a bit more palpable.

Stephen is a lead attorney at the National ACLU, with expertise in Indian and tribal rights. He began his career working as an attorney on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and has litigated hundreds of federal cases, many for the rights of American Indians. We became good friends and colleagues, sharing a love of swimming, Native Americans, and our families.

It makes sense to me now that Stephen is such a good listener and that he has a quality about him that is hard to put words to. “Gentle anger” is the closest I can come, to use Holly Near’s phrase.

In his book The Rights of Indians and Tribes, Pevar reminds us that “Millions of people and hundreds of independent nations were prospering in what is now the United States when Europeans first arrived in North America.”[1]  Yet, at the time of our last US Census in 2010, Indian and Alaska natives made up only 1.7% of the United States’ population. Today there are 565 federally recognized Indian tribes and 315 Indian reservations. Indians are the most disadvantaged group in our society, with 80% unemployment rates on reservations and nearly a quarter of Indians living in poverty.[2]

There is much that needs to be said about what happened to the Indigenous People of the Americas. It is history that needs to be told, and reparations need to be made when possible. This morning I will focus on the topic of land and Indigenous People’s relationship to the land, historically and today. I invite you to listen with our heads, our hearts, and our bodies.

Indigenous people never owned the land, certainly not as individuals. Instead, land was occupied, cared for, and harvested communally. In his book Neither Wolf nor Dog, Kent Nerburn writes:

The land was part of us. We didn’t even know about owning the land. It is like talking about owning your grandmother. You can’t own your grandmother. She is just your grandmother. Why would you talk about owning her?[3]

It was the land where we hunted or where our ancestors were buried. It was land that the Creator had given us.[4]

In contrast, Anglo-American values teach us to covet, prioritize, and flaunt ownership of land, among many things. The Doctrine of Discovery, based on the 1493 Papal Bull, asserted that discovery trumps occupancy, telling Europeans it was their God-given right and responsibility to conquer and take over land. Colonization and conquest of land by Europeans from Indigenous People in the 1600s, based on the Doctrine of Discovery, were upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1832.

Whereas the Indigenous People occupied all the land when Europeans arrived, today tribes occupy 2% of that same land. One hundred thousand American Indians live in Massachusetts.[5] Indigenous people were not legally allowed to practice their religion in our country until 1978 after the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Why? Because practicing their religion included rituals held on sacred land, land they no longer occupied.

Knowing the reverence, relationship, and understanding that Native Americans had and have with the land is too often romanticized today. Many white people want to emulate the customs without truly appreciating them or understanding what has been done.

American Indians are not all strong, warlike, or braves; nor are they all communing with the Great Spirit, singing, and playing their flutes, despite what mascots and ethnic branding want us to believe. Indigenous People, like all people, have their customs, their culture, and their individuality. It is wrong for us to make blanket assumptions, rewrite history, or appropriate their beliefs and customs.

There is good and important work being done related to the rights of Native Americans. Thirteen states have legally changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Just five days ago, the Pentucket Regional School Committee voted to no longer use the Sachem as their mascot. There is a Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda that made it to the House of Representatives this year. This agenda includes state laws that would change the state Flag and Seal, prohibit Native mascots, replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, improve Indigenous educational outcomes, and protect Native American Heritage. I hope that we will learn more and that our congregation can sign on to support this legislation.

All this matters, but what makes it real are people and their stories. I will share two.

When I was doing my ministerial internship at our congregation in New London, I invited Stephen Pevar to come and speak. That is the land of the Narragansett Tribe members, who were fighting difficult court cases about their tribal rights at that time. Stephen reached out to tribal leaders; word got out to Indians near and far.

Nearly one hundred Native Americans came to our church one Thursday night to listen to Stephen speak and answer their questions. The sincerity with which they listened was made all the more poignant by the pain in their faces. One after another they waited to tell him their stories and ask his advice. I was honored to bear witness and offer space for such exchanges.

Two years later while I was serving our Brookline congregation, the church partnered with other allies to petition the town to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The widow of Tribal Chairman Russell “Fast Turtle” Peters of the Wampanoag tribe was a member of our congregation. Like Stephen, she was a soft-spoken, intelligent, committed person, who carried herself with “gentle anger.”

 She told me of her sorrow that she wasn’t comfortable inviting her family to come to our congregation. She knew they wouldn’t feel welcome, and told me that actions need to follow, and be consistent with, the words we said. I was sad with her as I thought of her children and grandchildren.

I sat near one of them the night we gathered in Town Hall for the vote on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I felt the young woman’s skepticism and anger. It was as though her body, slumped in the auditorium seat, was saying, “Listen. I’ll believe it when I see it.” But then she sat a little taller, and a smile slowly came across her face as she watched the vote pass and the town change the holiday officially to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Standing together for press photos and in celebration, I dared not get too close to her. I knew I had to honor the distance between us, distance that was about much more than the present day. I knew that I had a lot of listening to do and that the actions that had just occurred didn’t solve everything. I also knew that night that I saw one young woman change, because of the power and experience of allies and people who walk their talk. I had witnessed anger and skepticism turn into a smile.

It is for her smile and her mom’s and Stephen’s and for all the Native Americans they know and love that I stand here today, speaking what I can and listening even more.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pevar, Stephen, The Right of Indians and Tribes, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2012.

Pg. 1.

[2] Ibid. pg. 2.

[3] Nerburn Kent, Neither Wolf nor Dog, New World Library, Novato, CA, 1994,2002. Pg. 46.

[4] Ibid. pg. 45.

[5] Claudia Fox Tree interview on the Morning Show, October 8, 2020.

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