I’ll Stand by You. Won’t I?

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.

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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!

An Unlikely Celebration

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.

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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.

Sins of Omission

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?

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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. 

Opportunity & Uncertainty

Three months after its dedication, I stand at the foot of the John T. Williams Honor Totem. The totem has bold lines and bright colors, and its significance fills my eyes with tears. There is no mention here of how Mr. Williams died. Rather than proclaiming that he was felled by a police bullet, the totem simply honors the man’s life and Ditidaht heritage, and calls to mind his talent as a woodcarver. This simplicity seems both appropriate and lovely.

The totem does not acknowledge the police, but the police have acknowledged the totem. On the day the totem was raised, the Seattle Times quoted Deputy Chief Metz as saying: “I’m hoping that the raising of the pole will start the healing process between Seattle police and Native Americans…We’re out here to again help promote that healing process.”

Three months later, Seattle still needs healing, but our progress is uncertain. Our Police Department is now negotiating with the US Justice Department over what policy reforms will follow a federal investigation that uncovered a policing pattern of excessive force. The negotiation is happening behind closed doors, but the leaked news is not encouraging. There is indeed an opportunity here for healing – the kind of healing that comes from righting what is wrong – but it’s too soon to say whether Seattle will truly embrace reform.

The city’s future is not the only uncertainty on my mind today.  I am saddened by the fact that it took me three months to see the Honor Totem. I missed its dedication because my work is shifting towards a heavy overseas focus with much travel. This is nothing new – it’s actually an opportunity to return to a lifestyle that is my ‘norm.’ But my reflection on First Nations’ history was born here in Seattle, during a season of time when I was unusually stationery. So I can’t help but wonder, what will happen to this journey now?

As I travel, I will certainly see global indigenous rights issues with new eyes, and I will link my experiences to the questions of justice right here at home. Perhaps this path will morph in other ways that I haven’t yet foreseen. I am sure of only one thing: the Creator did not spark me on this journey just to see it crushed under the weight of an intense travel schedule. So I will continue my exploration, and I will persist in my soul-searching. This is what brings me here today honor Mr. Williams.

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For my earlier blog entry on this subject, see ‘When Peace Hurts.’

Everybody Dances

I wish I could show you a photo of this event, but I can’t. The storyteller said that if there is dancing during his sessions, then ‘everybody dances.’ So I smiled and clumsily complied. I didn’t take any photos of the kids, because I was too busy dancing.

When I explore my interconnections to the first peoples of the Puget Sound, I usually do my exploring alone. Last week’s storytelling event was different, because I was accompanied by my husband Brent and step-children Paige (13) and Grant (9). We joined up with a crowd of cocoa-sipping under-10s, and we enjoyed the Tsimshian stories of Ravenspeaker at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center.

I discovered that experiencing this event in the company of my family meant explaining some ugly truths in unusually gentle ways…

“Why does this longhouse look so new? I expected it to be a couple hundred years old.”

“Well … it’s because the old longhouses burned down about a hundred years ago. Some mean people set them on fire on purpose. So just imagine if our house burned down…We would have to rebuild it, and we would make a new house.”

“Oh yeah, and we could make it bigger and warmer and everything would look new!”

“Exactly.”

Experiencing this event in the company of my family also meant moving those ugly truths to the side. Just a little bit. Never forgetting the injustice, but creating more space for the celebration of cultural beauty. Relaxing enough to learn from the story of a girl called Knifehand, and watching kids’ eyes grow wide as they listen. Remembering that life offers not only a time to mourn, but also a time to dance. I do not want to miss out on the dancing.

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I first visiting the  Duwamish Longhouse in Feb. 2010. To read about that encounter, check out ‘The Condo and the Longhouse.’