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Our Debt to America’s Indigenous

Stephen Adams
On Debt (July 2021)
Inward Light

A movement is spreading across the country to embed in many types of American cultural institutions a routine and repeated statement – verbal, written, or both – acknowledging that European culture displaced the landholdings of Indigenous peoples. Several Quaker monthly meetings now open each session with a verbal statement like this, as do some regional and yearly gatherings.

There can be no doubt that this displacement took place, nor that the U.S. government backed it with military force, nor that many (but not all) Friends – as meetings and as individuals – actively participated in it, some with enthusiasm, others reluctantly. However, I would like to raise a few personal points of concern about whether ritually reciting these acknowledgments squares with Quaker practice.

First, our tradition is one of plain (direct) speech that supports Quaker values. Unlike many groups, Friends do not speak in idle platitudes. When we speak, we do so in support of moral action. Routinely reciting the statement that Quakers now occupy other peoples’ lands, without being prepared to act – by returning the lands in kind, for example, as some churches have actually done – is not only hypocritical, it also undermines Friends’ well-deserved reputation for moral courage in calling for action and being prepared to follow through. Without action, these statements appear as mere virtue signaling.

Second, the ritual reciting of any statement, even one that is historically true, is not a part of our modern unprogrammed Quaker practice, especially in the Western United States. We eschew preachers, dogma, and creeds because they are inconsistent with our emphasis on individual spiritual journeys. Even subtle social mandates to repeatedly utter or hear any text on a ritual basis, however well-meaning the text, fails that test.

Third, throughout the four hundred years of our history, Friends have performed many deeds and have said many things that we now regret – as a religious society, as organized meetings, and as individual Friends. Here are just two examples. One: Many Quakers owned slaves. Two: Many Indigenous Peoples were forced to live on reservations that were administered by Quakers (selected by the Grant administration precisely because they were Quakers). These Quakers pressed Christianity onto the reservations’ residents and suppressed Indigenous culture and language there. We could never adequately atone for that history by routine ritual recitals of our errors.

Finally, the history of land displacements in North America is multifaceted and controversial. A simplistic recitation that the people who reside on a piece of land today “displaced” the people who lived there first belies the complexity of the actual history, which includes numerous displacements – by Anglo-Saxons, Spaniards, French, Mexicans, and even some Indigenous peoples. Evidence exists to suggest that Indigenous peoples in the Southwest were displaced by Indigenous peoples from the Northern Plains.

I rejoice in our value of transparency and our value of plain and direct speech that supports moral actions based on careful, balanced research. Creedal recitals are inconsistent with these values. At our best, Friends strive to see justice done. We do so through respected Quaker bodies like FCNL and through active personal witness, not through routine and vacuous recitals.

If we are collectively guilty as charged, then we need to say so forthrightly and act accordingly. However, if making adequate amends should prove to be impossible, due to the passage of time or to irreversible actions by us or by our wider society, then we must accept that reality and do as much as we can to make whatever amends are possible.  ~~~

Stephen Adams attends Gila Monthly Meeting in New Mexico (IMYM) and resides in Enterprise, OR, and Silver City, NM. He thanks Tom Vaughan of Gila Meeting for helpful thinking on this subject.

Integrity Plain Speech ritual

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