My grandfather descended from a family of farmers – homesteaders, given cheap land after the government committed genocide to clear it for white families like mine. When my grandfather married my grandmother, he was welcomed into her family’s business: the lumber mill, turning forests into 2x4s.
My education was paid for, in part, by that lumber mill. Do I owe student debt to the trees cut, to the birds and bears made homeless, to the hill that became a landslide without living roots to hold it up? More pointedly, what does it mean that a human genocide paved the way for my entire family’s wealth and wellbeing? How do you even begin to assess or grapple with a debt like that?
Recently, I joined the anti-racism working group of North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) to help develop and write a minute of support for Indigenous people. This minute is one way I am shifting my struggles with these queries towards concrete action.
One of the incredible joys of working on this minute is getting to virtually ‘travel’ around NPYM to talk about it. I have been deeply moved by the depth and breadth of Friends’ interest in solidarity with Indigenous people. In conversations about the minute, two Friends – one from the Washington coast and one from Montana – independently expressed a truth that resonates deep in my bones: There is no price we could pay that would make up for the lives lost. There is no undoing what was done.
These Friends offered different conclusions in light of this truth. One Friend turned to the past, and shared their lament for the sacred things their ancestors had destroyed. In that moment, I felt space open: the reality of the harm our relatives caused could be acknowledged, felt, and grieved. The other Friend looked to the future. They said, “We can’t undo what happened, but we can ask those who’ve been harmed: ‘What would make you more whole?’ ”
The spiritual power of each response brought me to tears in the moment. Both of these directions can move us all towards wholeness, integrity, and right relationships – that is, meaningful relationships which support both healing and justice.
First, I want to explore lamentation as an opening for healing.
When we were drafting the minute, I asked a Lakota friend of mine to look it over. Along with specific edits, my friend revealed some of the brutal abuses their parents had each survived in boarding schools as children. Native communities are already carrying these stories. Native people continue to live with the repercussions of intergenerational traumas, including and beyond the boarding schools. And Indigenous people and nations already are doing the work to heal those wounds. But for the most part, white communities cling to our ignorance.
White ignorance is both a weapon and a shield. Denial of harm is harmful, and ignoring the trauma we’ve caused shields us from emotionally and spiritually engaging with pain—our own, as well as what we’ve inflicted. I feel a spiritual mandate to stop causing further harm, and I am led towards healing in myself and in my white community. Profiting from others’ pain has inflicted wounds within white people, and we cannot tend to those wounds without first feeling the truth of what happened – including the violent truth of how we became “white.”
Healing is much easier for everyone when the truths are collectively understood. This understanding must go beyond cognitive knowledge, into our bodies and spirits. And in opening ourselves to the Light of truth, settler communities may grieve our way towards healing.
Second, let us return to justice: asking the survivors of genocide what would make them more whole.
Another friend of mine, who is Apache, also shared his reactions to the draft minute. (He uses both male and female pronouns.) She emphasized that while these words looked good on paper, the true question would be how we lived into them. She warned me: Approaching Native communities out of guilt, obligation, or penance would not make things right. We cannot primarily center this work in white folks’ desire to feel less bad.
He offered me the analogy of a garden: this minute is a seed that we are planting together. But if we plant it and walk away, who knows if or where it might grow. If left unattended, it might bear fruits of bitterness and distrust. We must nurture it over time, tending to the needs that arise and coaxing growth in the direction of collective liberation.
Her cautions sounded, to me, like admonitions to follow Quaker process: to make sure that we are collectively choosing this because Truth and Integrity require it of us, not because we feel forced to go along by anything less than Divine leading. This must be more than a passing impulse. And when we ask the question: “what would make you more whole,” we must also pay careful attention – caring attention – to our motivations and our capacity to respond to the answers.
Over and over again, Friends and friends have expressed how important relationships are for the work of this minute. Caring attention is fertile ground for growing relationships.
My grandfather offers me an example of the fruit borne from years of cultivating caring attention. The woods are more than just his old workplace; he is also a hunter and outdoorsman. He knows which streams you can drink from, where the mountain goats graze, how to survive being caught out in a storm. When he talks about respecting people, animals, and the mountains, his eyes flash with dangerously sharp seriousness. “Pay attention,” he tells me, before pointing to an eagle, some ripe berries, or a hidden danger. He knows something of how to listen to and learn from the land.
The intimacy of his knowledge and the care imbedded in his respect both reveal a significant relationship, a connection at the level of spirit. This kind of relationship takes time to grow. Intimacy and care simultaneously require trust, and build trust. We begin where we are, now, and take one step after another towards justice and healing.
In April of this year, Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke told the American Friends Service Committee that “the only compensation for land is land.” Major acts of justice, like returning stolen land, often bloom from ‘right’ relationships. When offered both spiritual and material nourishment, justice takes root in powerful ways. Like flowers, acts of justice depend on these healthy roots.
I hope this minute of support for Indigenous people may be a seed for growing these right relationships: with Native folks, with ourselves as a settler-majority faith community, and with the Earth. You can read the minute on the NPYM website: npym.org ~~~
Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge (zie/hir or she/her) is queer and disabled, a police and prison abolitionist, and a white settler on Duwamish land. Zie is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).