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Quaker Displacement of Native Peoples

Published: Feb. 18, 2022



With the permission of Friends Meeting of Washington DC's Committee on Peace and Social Concerns, I'm sharing a letter the committee recently sent to Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Indian Affairs Committee. The letter cites important research by Helena Cobban on Quaker participation in the colonization of Indigenous lands, and calls for reflection and discernment about what these truths mean for BYM Friends today. I am sharing this letter in hopes that other monthly and yearly meetings may follow this example of uncovering and facing difficult truths in our Quaker history.

from Paula Palmer, Boulder Friends Meeting (2/15/2022)

Dear Friends of the BYM Indian Affairs Committee,

We greet you from the traditional lands of the Nacotchtanks and Piscataways!

We want to applaud the efforts you've made to bring the concerns of Native Americans to the attention of the broader BYM community. FMW’s Peace & Social Concerns much welcomes the initiative you launched to win BYM support for the Minute on Quaker boarding schools and the need to support the truth and Healing Commission. Our Committee took the Minute to FMW's January Meeting for Business and won meeting-wide support for it.

However, some of our Committee members have been seized by a concern that the responsibilities of the BYM community for the sufferings-- historically, and today-- of our Native and Indigenous siblings may actually be more direct and graver than the involvement that BYM Friends had in the past for the damaging cultural genocide programs pursued in the schools that Quakers ran to de-culture and allegedly "civilize" Native American children.

As we know in the case of the Native American boarding schools, the damaging effects of any such project are very long-lived. The issue of the Quaker-run "Indian" schools is not just a matter of the past.

We believe that the direct involvement of many members of earlier generations of BYM Friends in the whole, broader "White" settler-colonial project here in Turtle Island is similarly a record whose harms have lived on through the generations, and a record that weighs heavily on us. It is possible, indeed, to see the whole matter of the Indian boarding-school project as just one small example of the broader harms that the "White" settler-colonial project has inflicted on the continent's Indigenous peoples.

We would like to initiate a dialogue with the BYM Indian Affairs Committee on these matters and explore whether we might integrate into your programing a consideration of this broader history of BYM Quakers' direct involvement in colonial-era seizures of land and resources vital to the survival, wellbeing, and religious integrity of the nations whom the colonial settlers forcibly displaced.

One member of our committee, Helena Cobban, has started exploring the historical record of the involvement of BYM Quakers in the settler-colonial project and its westward expansion. In her recent writings (1, 2, 3, 4) she has pulled together the following facts, which we find very disturbing:

The White-supremacist settler-colonial project here on Turtle Island was established, maintained, and expanded through the force of arms, and inflicted almost unimaginable suffering on the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Along the way, over the course of around 300 years, many (or at times, most) BYM Quakers have been beneficiaries of this highly discriminatory, sometimes genocidal system, and some BYM Quakers have been active participants or leaders in its expansion. We find these facts very troubling and we have no clarity yet on what we should do about them. Hence, we would welcome some form of an exploratory meeting with you in which we might jointly discern a way forward.

We would approach such a meeting inspired in no small part by your work on the Quaker boarding schools issue. We are inspired, too, by developments like the following:

Friends, back in 1671, George Fox expressed his conditional endorsement of the institution of slavery, and over the decades that followed many Quaker families here in the BYM area and elsewhere became strong participants in, and beneficiaries of, that institution. It took many years of tireless laboring together before visionary Friends like Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, or John Woolman were able to convince the vast majority of Friends of the moral imperative of ending their participation in that institution. Today, we feel that too few BYM Quakers fully understand the depth of our community's historical involvement in, and taking of hyper-profits from, the institution of settler colonialism: a set of arrangements that was similarly built on concepts of White supremacy and the systematic oppression and exploitation of non-White peoples. We hope that a dialogue with you might lead to further clarity and enlightenment for all of us on these issues.

In the Light,

Barbara Briggs, Clerk
Committee on Peace & Social Concerns
Friends Meeting of Washington