Manifest Destiny Revisited

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Manifest Destiny Revisited

by Laurie Childers

The high plains summer day had ended – long and hot, heavy with spiritual ceremony, with talk of intergenerational trauma, with concern for the earth and for human societies. It was dark, and thirty of us were gathered under the a canopy of branches, introducing ourselves in a talking circle. 

“My name is [woman one]. I was kidnapped at age five by a soldier with a rifle and taken away to an Indian boarding school 1500 miles away.  There I was tortured when I spoke my language.”

“My name is [woman two]. I did not go to an Indian boarding school.  That’s because my mother managed to hide me in a box when the soldiers came, when I was five years old.  My eldest brother escaped, too, by hiding in the rafters in the barn.  The three siblings between us, though, were caught and carried away.”

“My name is Laurie Childers. I come with the blessings of my Quaker meeting and of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I grew up as an unwitting beneficiary of the violence that harmed the peoples already living here.”

An elderly woman nearby reached out and took my hand in both of hers.  “Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” I was moved to tears, for the hundredth time that day.

It was late July 2012, and I was in in Lame Deer, Montana for the Eleventh Gathering of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. This was the first time the gathering was held on native land – the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and the theme of the gathering was “Gratitude Brings Freedom.” It was like a four-day sweat lodge: hot, emotional, cathartic. 

Five hundred of us, mostly Native Americans, came from all over the continent. Local Cheyenne families came, too, more and more each day. The ceremonies were held in circular powwow grounds, overlooked by three-tier bleachers under a much-appreciated plywood shade. The Thirteen Grandmothers were represented by thirteen tipis surrounding the ceremonial structure. 

Nine of the Thirteen Grandmothers were present, and twice each day one of them offered a traditional healing ceremony, praying and singing in her own language, around the sacred fire, blessing water, usually culminating in an ecstatic trance or dance.  The rest of us observed respectfully.

One morning, four horses and riders entered the sacred space.  They had just, completed completing a symbolic three-month journey. In 1878, the Cheyenne were forced from their Montana holy land and were marched to Oklahoma, a trail of tears southward.  Some three hundred of them despised that exile so much that they escaped and fled the arduous 1,300-mile journey home.  The military hunted them down and captured them, imprisoned them in a fort and starved them over the winter.  Some escaped and survived. Many died. Their plight changed public opinion enough to establish the North Cheyenne Reservation. These riders and horses have just retraced the 1878 journey each year. We bore witness to those open wounds.

In addition to the Grandmothers, other speakers addressed us. The subject of intergenerational trauma was considered on several occasions.  Therapist and author Eduardo Duran, PhD, shared his perspective that the emotional traumas of US-Indian history (exiles, massacres, oppressive laws, broken treaties) are still floating around in the blood and psyches of native peoples today.   (exiles, massacres, oppressive laws, broken treaties).  For introverts, much of that trauma turns inward to self-destruction, and for extroverts, into hurting others. Duran’s message is essentially positive, though: “If you can heal yourself, you heal your ancestors, too.”  

“How do we heal ourselves?” a young Hopi woman asked.  Connie Buck, another invited speaker, walked across the circle’s interior grounds to answer her. “This is how it starts.” When Buck reached the young Hopi woman, she said in a clear and strong voice, “I am sorry.  I am sorry.” We hundreds breathed in silence with this, sharing the emotional weight of the words.

I felt that persistent Quaker nudge. “I’m sorry too!” I blurted out, weeping. They asked me to join them in the circle. “So much beauty was lost,” I said to the young woman.  “It should never have happened.” Connie Buck addressed her, “You hear her words; you see that she is sincere?” She nodded affirmatively through her tears. “Now you say, “I forgive you.” The Hopi woman mimicked the words reluctantly. I wasn’t feeling quite right about this “forgiveness,” which I hadn’t asked for, but mostly I felt astounded that not a single other person stepped forward to apologize publicly for our ancestor’s violations. Still, when I got back to my place on the bleacher, a native woman near me was wailing. “I have never, ever heard a white person lament what happened,” she told me. We embraced, sobbing, and some genuine healing began. The next day, a descendant of the General George Custer family appeared and apologized on behalf of her ancestors. “I have always known that I would be part of an apology, but I did not know where or how.  I heard about this gathering, and thought felt I belonged here.” Everyone was crying by the time she sat down.

I was struck deeply by several insistent ideas during this gathering. One was that the “history” of conflict between whites and native peoples is actually current history. The Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand) was less than 140 years ago. I’ve been alive 40% of that time. That event in 1876 became the excuse for Congress to instigate the cruelest period of U.S.-Native history. Many tribes were forced to leave their sacred lands and march for months, even through winter, to live in unfamiliar and barren landscapes. Congress made it illegal for any Indian to be outside of increasingly tiny reservations.  They were hunted and shot if found outside those imposed borders.

This was also the time when the Indian boarding schools were established. And unlike my assumption that the Indian boarding school policy was short-lived, I’ve learned that the peak enrollment in Indian boarding schools was in 1973. The policy continued for nearly 100 years! The kidnapped generations, were raised in essentially hostile orphanages, and would be poorly prepared to become loving parents. 

Another idea that haunted me during the whole four-day gathering (and still does) involves similarities between different acts of genocide throughout history. I kept seeing parallels between US/Native policies, Nazi/Jewish policies, and what is happening now in Israel/Palestine. I saw the intentional segregation of peoples onto smaller and smaller reservations/ghettos/territories, isolated from each other and from the rest of society. I saw the wish that “they” would go away so that a great prophesy could be fulfilled. I saw beliefs in racial and cultural superiority.  I saw the alleged “Will of God” expressed in Zionism and in Manifest Destiny.

I have heard that some Israelis point to US history in defense of their Wall and their settlement policies.  The US did this, why can’t they? I feel both more distress about Israeli actions towards Palestinians and more certainty about the hypocrisy of US citizens being critical, when we so obviously walk upon a whole continent of stolen land.

Although the term “manifest destiny” was not articulated until 1845 by John O. Sullivan, the concept and practice had long been used to justify piecemeal theft of land in the US. White citizens generally believed that “Providence” (God) had given white society all the lands on the continent “for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Whether ancient or modern, empires use beliefs in cultural superiority and divinely directed destiny to justify territorial expansion.  This is a deeply pervasive human pattern. 

And I wonder: During the 400 years we’ve lived here, did my ancestors. Did my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents  know that while they raised happy and free families, native children were being kidnapped at gunpoint, in the name of the government? How different might things be in the future, if we learn not to repeat these patterns?  How do we learn?  How do we unlearn?

What I have always perceived as my birthright – the freedom to move upon this land – was achieved though personal trauma to real people, and it remains traumatic in all our families.  After the Thirteen Grandmothers Montana gathering, the weight of this comprehension became as an emotional burden to me.  When I remembered. Remembering events or told telling stories from the gathering, I always wept. 

A month after the gathering, I was able to attend an event close to home where Rita Blumenstein, one of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, was a speaker.   Rita is a mirthful soul from Alaska, and I wanted her advice on my burden of sadness. I described to her my newly heightened awareness of my identity as being a grandchild descendant of immigrants who had accepted stolen land stolen from her native people through deception and violence. I asked, how can we go forward toward a meaningful reconciliation? Her simple advice boiled down to, "First you have to accept that it happened.  You can't change it." 

I waited for more, but it didn’t come. Then I remembered my earlier words to the young Hopi woman, “It shouldn’t have happened.” I realized that simply accepting the reality of our history was going to be a significant challenge for me.  What I've found since then, working on simply accepting this history, is that I have the voice to talk about these injustices, past and present, any time it's fitting to the moment. 

How appropriate that the name of the gathering in Lame Deer was “Gratitude Brings Freedom.”  I am learning to accept our shared history like a gift that I did not want.  I feel grateful to participate in the healing, however miniscule my part. There is power in this, and we have to be willing – even grateful – to have that power come through us. ~~~

Mission Statement of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

We represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come.

We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future.

We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.

Margaret Behan - Cheyenne-Arapaho  Rita Pitka Blumenstein - Yup’ik  Aama Bombo - Tamang, Nepal Julieta Casimiro - Mazatec  Flordemayo- Mayan  Maria Alice Campos Freire - Brazil Tsering Dolma Gyaltong -Tibetan  Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance - Oglala Lakota  Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance - Oglala Lakota Agnes Pilgrim - Takelma Siletz Mona Polacca - Hopi/ Havasupai/Tewa  Clara Shinobu Iura - Brazil  Bernadette Rebienot - Omyene

See grandmotherscouncil.org. ~~~

Laurie Childers is a member of Corvallis Monthly Meeting and serves on the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  She is an artist and songwriter.