A Conversation on Genocide and Whiteness

August 3, 2014

Jean-BaptisteJean-Baptiste, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, wants his story told and remembered. I had the privilege to sit in his home and listen. Listen.

It started with house burnings. Then cattle thefts. Then machete hacks and seven days in a pit, praying, surrounded by the dying and the dead. Ten siblings among the 800,000 lives lost. Jean-Baptiste says he is grateful now for life, but never free of pain.

He builds the future by teaching his children a different way, acceptance and even love towards all. He tells his story as a form of healing. But, he says troubled, he once met some visiting “white people,” Westerners, who do not believe his story.

I’m completely stunned. Yes, some deny the Holocaust – Lord, have mercy – but those horrific crimes were not televised like the Rwandan genocide. Did these white people somehow miss the unfolding genocide on global TV news? Are they hard-core media skeptics? Or too young to remember?

Jean-Baptiste himself does not get much international news, and he implies that he sees mass slaughter as unique to Rwanda. In this view, perhaps genocide is completely new to the visitors, something never seen or heard. Perhaps that is why these white people failed to believe.

However I need a different theory, because I believe that most white Westerners are plugged into a steady stream of media. Being uninformed about genocide seems unlikely, especially among those who travel. It seems more likely that these white people believed with their minds, but not with their humanity. I ask myself, where did the humanity fail?

Were these white people among those who truly feel the pain of faraway tragedies, but get so overwhelmed by the world’s repetitive bloodletting and grief that their hearts eventually go numb?

Or … did these white people keep Jean-Baptiste’s story at a distance because it was uncomfortably similar to their own? Did they recognize their own society’s past – or future – in his story of mass murder? Are their own people perpetrators? Or victims?

Or … did these white people simply remain unresponsive, leaving Jean-Baptiste to wonder: If a fellow human being has not tried to help me in an emergency, have they really ‘believe’ that the emergency happened? Can true ‘belief’ exist without solidarity and action?

I will never know the answer. It was not the right moment to ask Jean-Baptiste for more explanation. All I know is that in his experience, the whiteness of these visitors was directly related to their failure to believe.

There was only enough time for me to tell Jean-Baptiste that I was very sorry he met some white people who did not respect his story…that I know other white people who do believe and respect it…and that I am one of them.


I remain deeply grateful to Jean-Baptiste for inviting me, with a small group of friends, into his home earlier this year. It has taken me several months to ‘process’ the experience. And I will not forget.

2013: Signs of Hope in Seattle

December 31, 2013

I see broken inter-group relationships everywhere I go. This is part of my DNA as a peacebuilder, but it can become heavy. I must remind myself to celebrate the positive. There were signs of hope around Seattle in 2013.


Representative Jim McDermott introduced the Duwamish Tribal Recognition Act. There’s a history here of broken promises. The Duwamish are lacking federal recognition, and the rights and resources that come along with it. This particular bill may or may not solve the problem, but it’s heartening to see that the issue will not die.

The University of Washington, whose student body is less than 50% Euro-American, approved a new diversity education requirement for undergraduates. This effort will not add to students’ course load, but it will refocus it in a meaningful way. Great work, alma mater! I’m proud of you.

The Seattle Police Department is undergoing serious reform after being diagnosed with excessive use of force and suspected of racial bias. The process is not pretty; rumor has it there are significant pockets of resistance. However with the US Justice Department closely monitoring progress, there are bound to be some improvements.

Also in 2013, Seattle’s own Breakthrough Partners and Beloved Community launched the first annual Martin Luther King Jr Prayer Breakfast, adding a faith-based element to Seattle’s already impressive slate of MLK Day celebrations. The 2014 prayer breakfast will start early at 7 AM, but I trust we’ll have strong coffee. I wouldn’t miss it.

The County Council reached a compromise solution on hold requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). King County will end deportation holds on immigrants arrested for low-level offenses. This means that if you commit a traffic infraction, you pay the price for a traffic infraction – but you don’t get summarily deported. King County will continue to comply with ICE on larger offenses, so this policy may be reviewed again. For now, this middle-of-road compromise looks like a small victory for common sense.

Just yesterday, I read this uplifting quip from Indian Country Media Network:

“RESPECTFUL LOGO: The Spokane Indians baseball team, a Class A Northwest League team that’s affiliated with the Texas Rangers, have long collaborated with the Spokane Tribe of Indians in a partnership, and will make a logo in the Salish language the main logo on the front of its home uniforms for the 2014 season.”

This out-of-the-box solution that came through mutual respect and listening. I enter 2014 with a smile.

What does God think of Thanksgiving?

December 8, 2013

The turkey leftovers are gone, but I’m still thinking. Most of us know that the ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ story taught in school has been – ahem – sanitized. But the day is about being thankful, so it’s all good, right?

ImageWell, sort of. I do like Thanksgiving. It’s not about the food; it’s about being prompted to give thanks, to truly appreciate life. It’s counter-cultural act in an age of greed. The implication, often unspoken, is that many of us express our thanks directly to God.

So, what does God think about all this? I do believe God appreciates a grateful attitude. Not because God needs the ‘kudos’ but because God know it is the healthiest way for us to live. Giving thanks is a beautiful thing.

But what if it’s not just a simple harvest festival? What if we are commemorating a harvest that took place in a new land, where some other people were already living? And what if those other people were ultimately conquered and dispossessed?

Even today there is a disconnect between the views of ‘Indian’ and ‘Pilgrim’ descendants. For a range of feelings, check out the Thanksgiving coverage on Indian Country Today Media Network.  Some people are giving thanks, but others consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning and protest.

This disconnect is obvious, but I don’t hear many European Americans talking about it. In fact, the only white person I hear talking about it is comedian pundit Jon Stewart:

“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”

The truth hurts. So, looking at this in spiritual terms, how might God see American Thanksgivings? In the path of Jesus, which I aim to follow, the scriptures teach that we can’t fully worship God when our human relationships are messed up. Right relationships are a prerequisite for true thanksgiving.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” (The Gospel According to Matthew 5:23-24, Today’s New International Version)

I know that other faiths have related teachings, and I hope readers will share them with me. Let’s explore the possibilities together. How might a more holistic understanding of thanksgiving prompt us to do things differently? How could we rewrite the future Thanksgiving story in a way that God can really celebrate?

I Can’t Not Look

November 1, 2013

pat1008sI can’t not look at ‘unpeace’ in the USA. I’ve never been able to look away. Wherever in the world I’ve wandered, some stubborn part of my heart has never stopped monitoring the pain unfolding in my home country.

I learned the term unpeace from colleagues in Mindanao, Philippines many years ago. Unpeace simply means that peace is lacking. This wonderfully quirky word reminds us that peace is not just about the absence of physical violence. Peace is also about the flourishing of just and healthy relationships. Where relationships and social systems are broken there is unpeace – with the USA being a prime example.

That’s why people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have begun showing up in my blog. This blog has always been about First Nations history, so some explanation is due. Last year, when the pace of my global travel increased, I knew it would be tough to maintain enough presence to consistently engage First Nations issues here in Seattle. This was painful, but I thought I could carry on by broadening my reflection to look at indigenous rights around the world.

There’s only one problem: I can’t not look at the USA. All of it. I can’t fail to see the promise of our diversity, and the wide range of ‘isms’ that mar our potential. I can’t not hear that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are created equal” … and I can’t stop wondering when we will make this aspiration into a reality.  I can’t stop noticing how distortions at home get exported overseas.

Most of all, I can’t not write about my own experiences in wrestling with race, gender, economics, etc, in the USA. This means broadening the range of issues in the blog. Even so, I will always see the First Nations experience at the very center of American unpeace. It shocks me how often this centrality gets overlooked.  If we don’t come to grips with whose feet walked here first, then how can we reconcile the brokenness that came afterwards? That is a topic for another day…

I’ll Stand by You. Won’t I?

April 22, 2013

IMG_0097I used to live in Washington DC, but that was a decade ago, so I didn’t see the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial until last Saturday. I was in DC briefly for a conference, and I didn’t want to leave without visiting that site. I am not a big fan of statues in general, but of course this is MLK we’re talking about.

I awoke that day with a snapshot of myself standing next to MLK already composed in my mind. That photo did not become a reality, because the memorial is tall, and I am short! However, envisioning that scene prompted me to ask a tough question. It’s easy to stand by a sculpture of a martyred hero from 50 years ago. But would I have ‘stood by’ MLK during the troubled 1960s, while he was still alive?

My gut says ‘yes,’ that I would have supported MLK actively and courageously, and I want to believe that it’s true. After all, I am passionate about justice and I have been known to do some ‘out of the box’ things. However the 60s were a different era, when the dangers of taking a stand were a lot less subtle than they are today.

It’s disturbingly unlikely that I as a white person would have paid with my life…but there certainly would have been a cost.  If I were alive in the 60s my own thinking would be influenced by all the biases and limitations of the day. Among other obstacles, how many of the white civil rights activists were female?

So, would I have stood by MLK during the 1960s? My gut says yes, but I’ll never know for sure. What I can do is look for the people who are making a difference in 2013, and stand by them now.


Note: To any readers who wonder why this blog post is not about First Nations history…I’ll explain that in an upcoming post. I promise!

Whose Feet: An Unlikely Celebration

December 29, 2012

I discovered this week, while visiting the Hibulb Cultural Center, that the Tulalip Tribes celebrate annual ‘Treaty Days.’ This event commemorates the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, in which local tribes were pushed to cede 10,000 square miles of ancestral land between Seattle and the Canadian border. Most of us would consider this an epic injustice, not something to celebrate. What is going on here?

To borrow the Center’s quote from Vi Hilbert: “Treaty Day is not the celebration of losing our land, but the regaining of our right to practice our spiritual traditions.”

Apparently in 1912, a tribal leader named William Shelton sought US government approval to launch a Treaty Days celebration, which would include some traditional spiritual ceremonies that had been outlawed for decades. The Point Elliott linkage tickled the government’s interests and got the plan approved. The traditional spiritual ceremonies were restored – and many children who had been taken away to government boarding schools were allowed home to see it happen.

Amazing. I don’t know the whole story, and I understand that it provokes mixed feelings even within the tribes. Yet for me as a learner, there is something in this story that frees and inspires. As a spiritual choice, it looks like an extreme example of the saying ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ As a political maneuver, it looks very clever indeed. Both are qualities that I aspire to.

Best of all, when I heard this story, I suddenly felt a whole lot less powerful as a ‘white person.’ This story whispers a truth to whoever holds sway: ‘If you do evil to me, I cannot condone or excuse it…but I can use it to make myself stronger. You will see that I cannot be crushed.’ This strength of spirit is something worth celebrating.


The Tulalip Tribes describe themselves as the “successors in interest to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie and Skykomish tribes and other tribes and bands signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliott.” To learn more, check out www.hibulbculturalcenter.org.

Whose Feet: Sins of Omission

September 4, 2012

Several months ago – Yes, I am a very slow blogger, but this is a story worth telling….

So, several months ago, I had the privilege of meeting two new colleagues at an inter-faith conference. Paul is a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and Salim is a Palestinian Muslim living in Nablus, 60 kilometers or so to the northeast.  Despite their different life experiences, they share a similar frustration at how people in the outside world, especially the United States, tend to have a one-sided understanding of the issues facing Palestine and Israel.

Paul meets a lot of international visitors, many of whom experience a paradigm shift when they see firsthand the realities of the West Bank. Some Americans have absorbed pro-Israel theology through certain Protestant denominations, and almost all of us have been fed incomplete history through the media and education systems. Middle-aged American adults often tell Paul that when they learned in school about the 1948 founding of Israel, the event was presented mainly as the return of Jews to a homeland. The textbooks rarely mentioned the Palestinian communities, both Muslim and Christian, that were deeply rooted in the same land. In other words, “they didn’t tell us that there were people already living there.”

How can a truth as important as the existence of a people be omitted? It boggles the mind, but this is not an isolated case.  I have generally thought of Palestinian rights as a distinct issue from indigenous rights, but now the parallels become obvious. The sin of omission of truthful history has happened in Palestine. It has happened in the southern Philippines, where Christian migrants from the north were not taught the devastating effects of their arrival on local Muslim and indigenous groups.  It has happened in North America, where some say the ‘mainstream’ thinking greatly underestimates the numbers of the first peoples who thrived here prior to European arrival.

Each dispossession story is unique, and there are plenty of useful social science explanations for how history gets reinterpreted through the eyes of power. However at a more basic level, talking with Salim and Paul highlights for me the moral issues of right and wrong. Simply put, whatever side of a historical conflict one may embrace, it’s not OK to deny the existence and history of others. Omission of an important truth has the same impact as lying. How can I examine my own conscience today to ensure that I am telling the truth? The whole truth?


Paul and Salim are of course real people, but their names have been changed to protect their identities. Thank you, my friends, for sharing your stories. 


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