Western Friend logo

Native Voices and Quaker Choices

James Summers
On Insight (March 2017)
Healing the World

So, where’s all the Indians?” asked Yaynicut Franco, one of the Wukchumni adults. The whiteness of the conference was a bit shocking to us, given the title: “Quakers, First Nations, and American Indians.”

“Imagine what would happen,” said one of the Quaker teens, “if a Quaker group held a conference called ‘Quakers and LGBTQ People’ with no LGBTQ people!”

This conference of the Friends Historical Association took place November 10-14, 2016, on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford Colleges. We were a deputation of four Quakers from Pacific Yearly Meeting, and four Wukchumni-Yokuts from Am’aash Pa’an, the Basket World, the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Two of the Wukchumni people and two Quakers were teens who had participated in an annual spring service-learning camp, held on traditional Wukchumni land near Visalia, California, in a place now called Quaker Oaks Farm. The camp started six years ago with a shared piece of land and a vision of healing relationships by Quakers and Wukchumni, youth and adults. It is jointly administered by Wukchumni elders, Quaker Oaks Farm, and Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Youth Programs Coordinating Committee.

For four days, panelists presented talks connected with previously submitted papers, all concerning the history of Friends and their relationships with Native Americans. The presentations made it obvious that most popular notions of Quaker “first contact” have been distorted by time, wishful thinking, and political expediency. Benjamin West’s fanciful painting of William Penn signing a treaty with the Lenape depicts an event that never occurred. The reality was quite different.  The Lenape already had successful experience making livable agreements with Dutch and Swedish settlers who preceded the Quakers, and the famed treaty between Penn and the Lenape – “never sworn to and never broken” – was far more complicated than is usually remembered.

As various scholars discussed these events, a complex picture emerged of a sophisticated and powerful Native nation confronting a comprehensive European invasion that threatened to destroy everything in its path. The Lenape of the Delaware Valley were aware of complex European imperial politics and fractures within the world of the colonists. They followed the catastrophic events afflicting their counterparts in Puritan New England and in the Virginias. With overtly genocidal and land-hungry Europeans to the north and south, and with opportunistic tribal neighbors elsewhere empowered by the chaos wrought by the European invasion, the Lenape found themselves in a precarious position.

The Quaker occupation of the Delaware Valley was negotiated piecemeal in a number of transactions, at different times, and under differing terms. Archival evidence indicates that the Lenape entered these negotiations from a position of relative power, at least at first, and proceeded with skill and foresight. However, evidence also indicates that they appear to have thought originally that they were agreeing to let the Quakers co-inhabit the land with them and that they would receive annual payments as a sort of lease. Apparently, that was not the will of the settlers, who often seemed to believe that they had fulfilled their part of the bargain by a single payment, which, along with a royal patent, gave them exclusive rights to inhabit the land.  Accepting the Quakers as allies and co-inhabitants of their land protected the Lenape to some extent from other, more violent colonists.  Quakers, in turn, were protected by the spector of armed intervention, whether they bore arms them themselves or not. In spite of their proclaimed peace testimonies, the Quakers relied on an implicit threat of European weaponry to protect the royal patent that granted Penn title to land that was the traditional home of the Lenape, who still lived there. It worked for a while, but ultimately the Lenape failed in their attempts to safeguard themselves and their lands.  The settlers won.  Benign intentions or no, it is clear that Quaker colonists ended up in undisputed and exclusive possession, just as surely as their more violent neighbors to the north and south.

This conference was in Philadelphia, and it was at its best with events that occurred east of the Appalachians, where the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples was nearly absolute by the 1830s. It focused on archival information, and when it recognized Native communities that exist today, it was mainly as relicts of the past, mostly removed from traditional lands. The main exceptions to this view were a few presentations about tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and a few groups in the Deep South. Occasionally, presentations considered events in the Ohio River Valley, where Quaker interactions with Native peoples often took the hierarchical and assimilative forms of mission work or boarding schools. Only a few of the papers presented touched on events occurring as far west as the Rockies and none mentioned the West Coast. In addition, most of the narratives ended with the 19th century. Neither the California genocide of that time, the longest and most intensive on the continent, nor the subsequent subjugation of the peoples of the plains were mentioned at all.

It’s tricky to make a call based on appearances, but nearly all the presenters and researchers at this conference seemed White. Native people were spoken of in the third person.  Halfway through the second day, almost no one outside of our group had spoken to any of the four obviously Native people in the room. It seemed to us that the panelists were asking the right questions, but in the wrong tense: “What did Quakers and Native peoples see and respond to in each other?” “Did Quakers live up to their own best ideals in their dealings with First Nations people?”

It seemed to us that they could be asking those questions in the present tense as well: “What do we see and respond to in each other?” Part of the reason for this is probably geographic. Quakers are still concentrated in the East, and Native peoples – due to relocations and land expropriation – are mostly in the West. At the time when 95-98% of the indigenous population was being destroyed, there were no Quaker Meetings in California. East and West, however, are not as separate as they once were. Across the country, Native populations are rebounding, and the continued absence of Native voices in a conference like this one is puzzling. In fact, it seemed embarrassing. We decided to be a little more assertive.

When “alternative scholarship” was praised as an approach that has made important contributions to the field, we took the opportunity to reaffirm the validity of traditional academic methodology as well.  We also, however, reminded the conference that exclusive use of these tools will miss important voices that need to be heard. We pointed out that there were Native people in the room, but that if anyone wanted to hear their voices, they would have to talk to them.

When recognized, Yaynicut spoke appreciatively of what she had heard from the panelists, then issued a generous invitation: “This has opened up my eyes to how much more work we need to do in educating educators. Educating you guys, who are out writing these papers that are being published, who are out educating these university students, who are shaping the curriculum being taught in our public schools. 

“I encourage you to reach out to the Native communities and tell them what you are doing. I am very intrigued with some of these projects and papers, and if you presented that to some Native communities, I’m sure they would feel the same and would help you. Not only would it help you humanize your subjects, but it would help you become better educators, better historians, more compassionate human beings.”

This was a beginning. A few individuals came and talked to us, particularly to the Wukchumni members of our deputation. It was especially poignant watching a young Native woman, a faculty member of one of the host colleges, rush up. “Thank God you are here,” she said, grasping Yaynicut’s hands. “I feel so lonely. I thought I was the only one.” Moderators began recognizing us during sessions when we wanted to ask questions or speak. The dialog began. Debra Fierro, a Wukchumni elder travelling with us, was asked to participate in one of the panels.

The West showed itself late in the conference.  On the last day, one of the moderators asked “the group from California” to stand and explain our involvement with each other and tell about our Spring Service Learning Camp. Other Friends expressed interest in our mutual search for healing and moving forward together. Holding up wampum as a token of her authorization to carry a message from the elders at Standing Rock, the Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Indian Committee asked from Quakers for help in educating White people who don’t know how to behave in a Native-led community. This resonated with our experience and our goals for Spring Service Camp. Other individuals, a few Native, began to reach out to us.

A west wind was blowing from Native America. It woke people up. Some are still asleep. We all have work to do. It’s a start. We’re guessing that the next conference on this subject will be organized somewhat differently! ~~~

The adults in our group from California who attended this conference together were Debra Fierro and Yaynicut Franco from the Wukchumni-Yokuts tribe of California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Barbara Babin and Jim Summers from Pacific Yearly Meeting. Teens attending were Matthew Hernandez and Nathan Fierro from the Wukchumni-Yokuts tribe, and Charlie Shaw and Dia Farrukh from Pacific Yearly Meeting. For more information about the Wukchumni / Quaker Oaks Farm Spring Service-Learning Camp, see: quakeroaksfarm.org.

Native American History Culture colonialism

Return to "On Insight" issue