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.