[Individual articles from the Winter 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
Churches struggling for justice alongside Indigenous peoples sometimes ask: “What would justice look like?” The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), I would argue, provides answers to that question. UNDRIP articulates minimum standards for survival, dignity and well-being from an Indigenous point of view. Created by an international commission of Indigenous leaders to serve as a comprehensive body of policy that could be adopted by the nations of earth, UNDRIP can be incorporated into any national system of law or policy. Although the United Nations General Assembly adopted UNDRIP in 2007, the resolution is not legally binding on member states. Individual nations must incorporate it into their own legal and policy structures for it to become binding. While some nations have taken steps to do so, the United States has resisted adopting UNDRIP provisions. Churches in the United States seeking justice for Indigenous peoples, I contend, should press for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP provisions as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Indigenous leaders bothered to write minimum standards because many countries, including my own, have not provided survival, dignity or well-being to Indigenous peoples.
The U.S.’s historical and current policies toward Indigenous peoples serve as the backdrop of my life. Indigenous leaders created UNDRIP because many countries, including my own, have not provided survival, dignity or well-being to Indigenous peoples. My father, a Pueblo (Tewa), never knew his mother. In 1943, he was removed from his people at birth. He grew up in a home for Indian boys, subjected to habitual abuse, forced labor and malnutrition. He was not one of the exceptions that was able to rise above his conditions. As his daughter, I grew up facing abuse, homelessness and hunger. Like many Indigenous people of my generation, I came to understand my own story in middle age, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process that took place in Canada.
I learned much about the TRC from Chief Wilton Littlechild, whom I met in New York City at a World Council of Churches expert consultation in conjunction with the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Chief Littlechild, a former member of Canadian parliament, was there as one of the three TRC commissioners. About a dozen of us sat in a small space, in the Church Center for the United Nations, in a room just big enough for the conference table at its center. A lifelong athlete, Wilton (known to his friends as Willie) is a tall, muscular man with a proud bearing. He filled the room, dwarfing the setting. Although he spoke quietly, the rest of us were overwhelmed by his presence and the power of his words.
Willie began by telling us about the furs and boots made for the children of his native village by their parents for protection of little bodies against the winter in the extreme north. School administrators seized and burned these furs and boots when taking children away from their families to live in compulsory residential schools. The residential school leaders deemed these lovingly crafted clothes to be the garments of savages, replacing them with cloth coats and shoes, inadequate against harsh winters. Teachers cut the braids from Indigenous boys’ heads. School administrators separated neighbors and even siblings. They forbade Indigenous children from speaking their tribal languages, inflicting corporal punishment on children who violated this norm. Teachers mocked and prohibited Indigenous spiritual practices.
All of this I knew already. But the visual image presented by Chief Littlechild of the piled-up boots and coats chilled me. Willie explained that these children knew viscerally that their comfort and protection were being stripped away. As he spoke, I pictured the piles of warm clothes heaped next to lines of exposed, humiliated children, shivering in their western clothes. Many would not see their families again until they were 18, and when they did, they would be unable to communicate with their parents, having been conditioned to speak only English. They would now lack the skills to survive in their Native communities. Willie endured this himself. He had watched his own leather and fur boots burn, the ones his mother had made for him. It hurt to witness the grief of a large and imposing man, a leader of his people, as he described a childhood of abuse and deprivation at the hands of the state.
Willie then began to describe the thousands of testimonies he had witnessed as a commissioner of the TRC. He recited the numbers of children who had died in residential schools. Of malnutrition. Of exhaustion and overwork. Of bodily injury from abuse. Of influenza and other viruses inadequately treated. Of criminal neglect. Many times, school administrators failed to inform parents that their children had died. Even when parents were informed, they were not given their children’s remains by the school. The TRC went about the macabre work of searching for thousands of tiny bodies buried in unmarked graves on residential school grounds.
Willie’s voice cracked as he described testimony after testimony where men stood and explained that they had never talked about what had happened to them at residential schools. Their stories of horror had rotted inside them. Many believed their parents would come for them and grew bitter waiting. Those who tried to run away were tied to their beds and beaten more severely for each attempt. Again and again, Willie heard fathers and mothers explain that they had never told their children, “I love you,” because they had become incapable of feeling or expressing love. Others explained how they had hurt their own children with either the constant rage they walked with or through emotional distance. TRC witnesses shared struggles with substance abuse and depression. Many wept openly, unable to control what had never been told before, sobbing so hard they could not speak.
As Willie spoke softly into that small room, the volume of his stories was deafening. I wept uncontrollably. I wanted to run from the room, and probably would have if I had had the space to maneuver around the awkward conference table. I wanted to cover my ears. For the first time, I understood my own story clearly. So much of what Willie shared of the testimony of survivors—the abuse, neglect and cruelty passed on to children—was the experience of my childhood. And I understood for the first time that my suffering and the suffering my father had endured growing up an orphan in a religious “boys home” were outcomes of U.S. domestic policy.
Most Americans are unaware of the history of compulsory boarding schools for Indigenous children in the United States. Children of Indigenous parents were forcibly removed as a matter of national policy, with the federal government paying Christian denominations to carry out the task of civilizing and assimilating Indigenous children. The work of Christianizing Indigenous children was believed to be the best way to relieve them of their Indigenous identities. Boarding schools in the United States existed until the 1990s: as a result, many Indigenous people my age and older grew up in boarding schools. Most people my age and older on the Yakama reservation, where I live, grew up in boarding schools, enduring childhoods without hope.
As an institution with moral authority, the Church has a mandate to express what justice could look like.
I often hear settler Christians who seek justice for Indigenous peoples ask: “But what can we do?” My answer: churches in the United States and Canada must press their governments to adopt the minimum standards for respecting Indigenous rights set out by Indigenous peoples in UNDRIP. Canada and the U.S. were two of the four countries that initially voted against the resolution when UNDRIP was passed. While Canada removed its objector status to the resolution in 2016 and the U.S. under the Obama administration in 2011 signaled its support for UNDRIP, the two countries have not adopted UNDRIP’s minimum standards into their laws. We are societies of laws. If we want to change our context, we are able, in our democracies, to change our laws. What would our countries look like we if we chose to incorporate UNDRIP’s minimum standards for recognizing Indigenous rights into our legal systems? As an institution with moral authority, the church is called to advocate for justice. Pressing the governments of Canada and the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP’s provisions is an essential way to follow the lead of and be accountable to Indigenous communities.
Sarah Augustine is the Executive Director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties in Washington state and adjunct professor of sociology at Heritage University. A descendant of the Pueblo people, she chairs of the structures committee for the Anabaptist Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Available at https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html
For more about the Indian Residential School system in Canada and the TRC, see the reports at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s web site: www.nctr.ca
The Washington Office encourages policy makers to enact legislation that acknowledges and addresses the injustices (both historical and ongoing) to the Indigenous peoples of this land. Currently, this involves protecting reservations against environmental disturbances such as border walls and pipelines and preserving Indigenous monuments. To take action, sign up for MCC action alerts at http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5764/signup_page/signup.