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Healing with Native Peoples through Truth (abridged)

Paula Palmer
On Freedom (January 2022)
Healing the World

[The following text was excerpted from the keynote presentation to Lake Erie Yearly Meeting on July 30, 2021. The unabridged text is published online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/healing-native-peoples-thru-truth.]

I am grateful to Early Friends, who lived, like we do, in a time of great divisions, arguments, and upheavals. I am grateful to them for teaching us a way to sink down below the noise of the world and of our own minds, so we can know Truth with a capital T. I’m indebted to Rex Ambler for describing this process, and probably like many of you, I’ve developed my own way of doing it.

I experience the process in four steps. The first I think of as grounding, sinking down in my consciousness, letting go of thoughts and opinions and ego, sinking down into stillness where my naked soul meets the Divine. Second, I allow thoughts about my life to arise, thoughts about issues or problems, and I begin to see the ways my life is out of alignment with Truth. Third, my Quaker faith comes to the rescue. I believe, along with George Fox, that if I stand still, “naked before the Lord,” I will then receive power to change what needs changing in order to align my actions with Truth. Then acting on Truth becomes the fourth step. Acting on truth brings us joy, liberation, and healing.

In his book, In the Light of Justice, the Pawnee attorney Walter Echo-Hawk describes and proposes a healing process for the wounds of genocide, colonization, and forced assimilation of Native peoples. He lays out a path for healing which starts with speaking the truth and acknowledging the harm that was done. It moves through apology and making amends, and it ends with healing. This is how Echo-Hawk describes the end point, healing:

We are healed in three ways. First, the victim community regains its dignity, and  . . . the chain placed by intergenerational trauma is broken. Second, burdens of remorse, guilt, and shame have been lifted from the perpetrator society . . . Third, the cleansing process of compassion has restored the torn relationship: friendship is reborn . . . communities are reunited.

How can we as Quakers start down this path toward healing between our religious society and the Native peoples of North America? As Echo-Hawk says, the path starts with speaking the truth. To do this, we Quakers are going to have to get over some myths about ourselves.

Myths about the land where we live

Before I started doing research on the relationship between Quakers and Native peoples, I had only read that William Penn and the Lenni Lenape people held each other in mutual high regard; John Woolman visited a Native community and felt spiritual kinship with them; and Quakers provided resources and teachers to bring the gift of education to the tribes on the Great Plains. These are true statements as far as they go, but there are deeper, more disturbing and challenging truths.

For me, the first crack in Quaker mythology came when I participated in a meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2011. Indigenous people from all around the world gave testimony there about the Doctrine of Discovery and its ongoing consequences in their communities. They called on all the Christian denominations to repudiate this doctrine that had justified the theft of Indigenous lands and the murder and enslavement of Indigenous peoples.

Around that time, I came across King Charles the Second’s Charter for the Province of Pennsylvania, and I realized that it is a quintessential expression of the Doctrine of Discovery. In it, King Charles describes the boundaries of the land he granted to William Penn, along with the right to make war because, as Charles wrote: “in soe remote a country and situated near many Barbarous Nations, the incursions as well of the Savages themselves as of other enemies, pirates and robbers, may probably be feared.” The Penn Charter and other similar charters laid the legal foundation for European and Euro-American land ownership and dominion over every living thing on this continent, including the Indigenous nations.

The Seneca chief Cornplanter denounced the Doctrine of Discovery when he told George Washington: “All this land belonged to the Six Nations. No part of it ever belonged to the King of England, and he could not give it to you.” The plain truth of Cornplanter’s words moved me to ask difficult questions about how my German ancestors acquired the land where they settled in Michigan. His words also moved me to look deeper into the history of the Boulder Valley where I live today.

The Doctrine of Discovery casts a long shadow on the question of who belongs on this land. Columbus and Penn and the leaders of our country fashioned our laws to justify genocide and colonization – and the enslavement of African people and their descendants, too. The Christian churches and their members have been complicit beneficiaries of these travesties.

Today, Indigenous peoples are leading movements for land return and treaty rights. Only 2% of U.S. land is reserved for its original inhabitants, and many Indigenous nations still have to fight legal battles to prevent mining, oil, tourism, and other corporate invaders from polluting their land and violating their sacred sites.

For example, in northern Minnesota, Indigenous Water Protectors are defending their treaty rights and courageously protecting the Mississippi River watershed. They are urging people of faith to join them and support their non-violent witness, and some Friends are doing this. Friends are led to act in other ways, too. For example, a New York Friend deeded thirty acres of family property to an organization of Oneida women. Several West Coast meetings are paying annual rent to the original inhabitants of the land where their meetinghouses stand.

If we sit naked before the Lord in that inner space where only Truth resides, and think about belonging on this land, where might the Light lead us?

Myths about Quaker Indigenous schools

There is another Quaker myth causing pain among Native Americans. In 2014, I was having conversations with Indigenous attorneys at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). They were founding an organization to look into the history of the Indigenous boarding schools and the ongoing consequences that often show up today as diseases of despair: alcoholism, substance abuse, teen suicide, violence, hopelessness.

The NARF attorneys told me that they were trying to get Christian denominations to look into the roles they had played in the forced assimilation of Native children – but they weren’t having much success. Naively, I said I could look into the role that Quakers had played. I didn’t know what I was getting into, because very little had been written about the Quaker Indigenous schools, apart from a paragraph here or there tacked on to a chapter about Quakers who went to the South after the Civil War and started schools for formerly enslaved people. Those schools had been much wanted and appreciated, and Friends thought Indigenous people would be equally grateful for schools on the Western reservations.

After the Civil War, the so-called Indian Wars raged for twenty-five years on the Great Plains, until the final massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890. During this time, Quakers thought they could help stop the fighting by improving life on the reservations. They persuaded President Grant to hire Quakers and other Christian men as managers on the reservations.

During Grant’s presidency, Quakers became paid agents of the federal government. Hicksite Friends managed six reservations in Nebraska, and Orthodox Friends managed ten reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, which was then called Indian Territory. They all built boarding schools and enforced the rule – which was written into the treaties – that all children would attend.

In the fall of 2015, I visited the sites of eleven Quaker Indigenous schools in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio. After my trip, I spent four months as a Cadbury Scholar at Pendle Hill, poring over documents in the Quaker collections at the Haverford and Swarthmore libraries. The documents clearly revealed the goal of the Quaker schools in a phrase that was repeated over and over: “to Christianize and civilize the Indians.”

How? First, Quakers separated the children from their families and housed them in boarding schools. Second, they took away the children’s clothing, dressed them in typical Quaker clothes, and cut their hair. Third, they prohibited speaking Native languages.  Fourth, they gave the children English names, taking away their very identities. Fifth, they educated the children primarily for manual labor. And for the Christianizing part: Hicksite and Orthodox teachers alike taught the Bible.

Quaker teachers expressed considerable frustration with parents who refused to send their children to school; one teacher complained that he spent as much time chasing after children who ran away as he did teaching them. As the years went by, many Friends concluded that the schools were not achieving their goals.

They gradually closed their schools on the reservations and turned their support to the federal government’s off-reservation schools, like Carlisle in Pennsylvania. The students in these schools were transported across the entire continent to be completely out of reach of their families. Many children died there, as we’re learning from the headlines in Canadian and U.S. newspapers.

In my research I found only one reference to children buried on the sites of the Quaker schools. The graves of 13 Lakota children are recorded in Wabash, Indiana, at White’s Manual Labor Institute. I informed the Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Native American Rights Fund about these burial sites so that they could contact the children’s tribes and families, according to their protocols.

While I was reading the journals of those long-deceased Friends, I was frequently moved by their commitment and sacrifice and compassion. Sometimes I could see myself in them, wanting so much to make the world a better place. They, too, listened for God’s voice in the stillness of their hearts. How did they miss the mark? What do we need to learn from them in order to build right relationships with Indigenous people today?

Native organizations and native communities are working in many ways to heal the multigenerational trauma set in motion by the boarding schools. Tribes are struggling to revive and teach their languages and ceremonies. Elders are creating programs to instill Native pride in young people at high risk of suicide. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and other Indigenous leaders are carrying out investigations.

Non-Native people can contribute by supporting Native-run programs and organizations. (Friends can also take action through FCNL to support legislation to establish a Truth and Healing Commission for the Indigenous Boarding Schools.) I think Early Friends offer us a path toward healing through the contemplative process that I described earlier. It’s a process for healing through truth.  ~~~

Paula Palmer co-coordinates “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples,” a program of Friends Peace Teams, with her Ojibwe colleague Jerilyn DeCoteau. She is a member of Boulder Friends Meeting (IMYM).

[Join Paula Palmer for an online interview with Western Friend the evening of Tuesday, February 8, 2022.  For more information see: https://westernfriend.org/event/interview-paula-palmer]


Indian Boarding Schools Indigenous rights Quaker Boarding Schools

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