MCC advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada: reflections from history and the present


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

MCC Canada has a long history of speaking to the Canadian government about militarization and participation in armed activities. Over the years, this advocacy has evolved as relationships with Indigenous nations in Canada have opened the door to new understandings of peace and nonviolence. Yet these new understandings have come with challenges that continue today. MCC advocacy in support of various Indigenous communities of Labrador in protesting against NATO military activities at the end of the Cold War and later against a hydro-electric dam initiative illustrates both challenges and opportunities for MCC’s advocacy in Canada more broadly.

University students from across Canada attending MCC Ottawa Office student seminar February 12-14, 2015, on advocacy and faith gather around Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill as part of a witness walk in Ottawa. (MCC photo/Monica Figueroa)

Since the early 1950s, MCC Canada sought meetings with prime ministers to advocate for the rights of conscientious objection and alternative service. Over time, those petitions began to shift focus, moving from requests for the respect of Mennonite religious beliefs to including asks for government actions to reduce international conflict. Speaking to government about matters of conflict and war gradually became a part of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. This change, along with a recognition that a listening post in Ottawa would further the work of MCC, led to MCC opening its Ottawa Office in 1975.

Over the ensuing years, MCC advocacy became increasingly linked to MCC’s model of accompaniment and community service. As Esther Epp-Tiessen writes in her history of MCC in Canada, MCC service workers living in communities around the world and witnessing firsthand the harm of military action began to increasingly share about the impacts of Canadian policies and military action. These concerns began to form the basis of MCC’s advocacy communications and shape the way MCC understood its dual responsibilities—to its Anabaptist constituent in Canada and to the communities and partners MCC accompanied.

During the final years of the Cold War, MCC Canada undertook advocacy related to the impact of global militarization in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. MCC have had an ongoing, long-term presence in Labrador, with work in the province stemming back to the 1970s (and with partnership with Innu communities beginning in 1983). In the 1980s, NATO began testing low-level military flights over Innu traditional territory in Labrador, taking off from and landing at the Canadian military base in Goose Bay. More than 8,000 flights took place each year, harming wildlife and disrupting the Innu community’s traditional way of life. As the Cold War progressed, NATO proposed building a larger, more permanent training base in the area. Despite some hesitation from its governing board, MCC Canada began to highlight the concerns of these Innu communities through advocacy, as part of a larger advocacy campaign against Canada’s participation in NATO in general.

If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?

— Menno Wiebe

For several years, the Ottawa Office had consistently voiced concerns around NATO and Canada’s participation in the Cold War arms race in their correspondence to government. Now, the office began to include Innu voices and experiences in their communications to government officials, connecting advocacy against Canadian militarization with Innu concerns about how NATO flight were upending their traditional way of life. Advocacy against NATO began to include requests to also resolve land claims and to look for shared points of connections between Mennonites and Innu communities, including shared understandings of relationships to the state.

In a 1989 letter to MCC Canada program leaders, Menno Wiebe, director of MCC’s Native Concerns program, asked: “If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?” Wiebe highlighted a meeting between Peter Penashue, an Innu community leader, and five liberal members of parliament, in which the Innu stated that they were not asking Canada to defend them. For Wiebe, the Innu assertion of their sovereign right to refuse being defended by NATO and the Canadian military opened potential fruitful connections to Mennonite concerns about militarization.

MCC’s Ottawa Office raised further concerns about the NATO flights over Innu territory through its partnership with Project Ploughshares. These advocacy initiatives encouraged Canadians to send letters and request meetings with government officials to voice concerns about the NATO flights, arguing that “in the name of ‘security,’ such fighter-bomber flight training is imposing insecurity on the Innu peoples.” Other letters seeking to mobilize advocacy efforts referred to the lack of a just relationship between the Government of Canada and the Innu, calling on the Canadian government to re-examine its commitment to the proposed NATO base.

During this time, the Innu invited Rick and Louise Cober Bauman and their children to live in the more rural community of Sheshatshit, in part based on their increased trust of MCC through MCC’s willingness to advocate. Rick recalls sending faxes encouraging advocacy and providing updates from the local Innu resource centre, connecting Mennonites and many other interested supporters not only in Canada but also in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. The family living room was the site of planning sessions to block fighter jets from taking off by occupying the runway at the military base. MCC was intimately involved in witnessing the devastations of colonization, the struggle for self-determination and the impacts of Cold War politics on those far removed from the causes of conflict.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Cold War, flights from and construction on the NATO base stopped. Without the push around direct militarization, Ottawa Office advocacy on the Innu issues declined. The Indigenous communities in Labrador, however, continued to face challenges to their right to live on their land. Structural violence, rather than overt military presence, continued. A hydro-electric dam built at Muskrat Falls and completed in 2019 has posed concerns around land and water contamination.

MCC workers sought to discern how to respond to such ongoing colonization, especially as shifts in approaches among Indigenous communities varied. Overall, the Innu did not oppose the dam, as the project approval was a part of their land claims agreement. The Southern Inuit and Northern Inuit communities downstream from the dam, however, engaged in advocacy over their concerns of methylmercury poisoning, with the support from only a very few members of the Innu community.

MCC workers, up until 2019, engaged actively in responding to these shifting concerns and nuances within the region. They built relationships with land defenders in the Inuit communities opposing the hydro project and actively facilitated community organizing processes. Instead of working with Chief and Council, as they had with the Innu, MCC workers connected with strategic individuals. They worked to bring members of the different communities together, along with working behind the scenes to support public statements and actions. MCC workers intentionally tried to keep a lower profile and focused on raising the voices of individual land defenders, rather than the voice of MCC.

The advocacy component of MCC’s local presence was strong, but public Anabaptist support of advocacy against the hydro project was not the same as with advocacy against the NATO flights, despite heavy RCMP presence at the site to arrest and remove protesters. Other grassroots organizations across Canada and the U.S. advocated against the hydro project, but there was very little Anabaptist outcry. The Ottawa Office was unable to offer much support, due to changing MCC priorities in Canada. Without the direct connections to militarization, there was no longer the same tangible draw for Mennonites or peace activists.

Rick Cober Bauman reflects that “mines and dams didn’t have the same impact as women running in front of jets. We may believe we can live without defense, but can we live without nickel or hydro? Things got more complex.” This complexity was seen not only in lack of Canadian Anabaptist support for advocacy against the hydro project, but also in the important nuances MCC workers navigated each day, as they responded to the different concerns and relationships they had built, relationships that included the different perspectives of multiple Indigenous groups, nuances that were easy to overlook when only focusing on a response to overt militarization or communicating a more simple story about MCC’s presence.

Elizabeth (Tshaukuish) Penashue, photographed in 2011, an Innu elder from Sheshatshit, north of Happy Valley Goose Bay, N.L., is deeply concerned about the future of her community and culture which she believes is closely linked to the wellbeing of the environment. Penashue organizes an annual canoe trip to increase awareness of the importance of protecting land and water from pollution and to pass on knowledge of Innu culture, traditional survival skills and food. MCC has a longstanding relationship with Penashue and has provided assistance for this and other initiatives that are in line with MCC’s values of caring for creation and improving relationships between broader Canadian society and Indigenous peoples. (MCC Photo/Nina Linton)

This history is relevant today as the Ottawa Office has been mandated to look for opportunities to engage in MCC advocacy around Indigenous justice, as MCC seeks to come to terms with its historical identity as an organization founded and supported by Canadian Mennonite settlers on Indigenous land. How do we understand and respond to state violence, such as colonization manifested as control over territory, when it isn’t obviously militarized? Can we use the language of state violence and our complicity to engage with constituents, in a way that engages on a national level, including in regions where extractive and mega-projects are major employers of MCC supporters? Additionally, MCC no longer has workers living with and directly supporting Indigenous communities in Canada, making it more difficult for us to “hear” Indigenous voices, including their diversity and nuances, in the ways that have traditionally shaped our advocacy work. How do we understand and portray nuance, without holding those active relationships? Addressing structural and colonial violence in Canada, reflecting on our own participation in that violence and then engaging in advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada should be vital elements of MCC’s evolving peace advocacy, even as MCC faces multiple challenges in doing so.

Anna Vogt is director of MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Brody, Hugh. The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. From Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

Cambios en la autoconciencia de las personas colonas dentro del trabajo de Vecinos Indígenas del CCM Canadá

[Articulos individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Primavera 2020 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

Comenzando con su papel en el reasentamiento de Menonitas en Canadá, el CCM siempre se ha entrelazado, incluso cuando no se ha reconocido, con la vida de los pueblos indígenas. Además del trabajo con coaliciones ecuménicas, el primer compromiso directo e intencional del CCM con una comunidad indígena en Canadá probablemente se produjo en la ciudad sureña inuit de Cartwright, Labrador en 1960, que luego se expandió, a principios de los setenta, al norte de los inuit y finalmente a las comunidades innu. Después del establecimiento del programa Native Concerns (ahora Vecinos Indígenas) del CCM Canada en 1974, el compromiso del CCM con las comunidades indígenas de todo el norte se expandió, con una asignación de servicio del CCM fusionándose en la comunidad Kwakiutl de Tsulquate en la Columbia Británica. Pronto, el inicio del programa de Huertas de Verano del CCM en 1978 comenzó a exponer a jóvenes Menonitas a comunidades indígenas variadas, con todas las complejidades de cultivar las relaciones en un entorno poco familiar y estropeado por la fragilidad del colonialismo.

En su historia del CCM en Canadá, Esther Epp-Tiessen identifica varios aprendizajes que surgieron durante las décadas del programa del CCM que involucra a las comunidades indígenas en el país. Epp-Tiessen observa que las personas trabajadoras del CCM entablaron relaciones con una actitud de escucha y aprendizaje durante este período inicial de exploración de proyectos de servicio y desarrollo comunitario en contextos indígenas. Esta postura de escucha y aprendizaje llevó al CCM a abogar por la justicia para las naciones indígenas a través de coaliciones ecuménicas canadienses como el Proyecto Norte y al ayudar a la formación del Grupo de Trabajo lntereclesial sobre Desarrollo Hidroeléctrico del Norte.

El servicio de las personas colonas canadienses podría tomar la forma de prescribir lo que los pueblos indígenas necesitaban de acuerdo con la agenda del CCM, en lugar de priorizar las agendas de las naciones indígenas marginadas.

A mediados y finales de los años ochenta, a medida que las personas trabajadoras del CCM en las comunidades indígenas comenzaron a desarrollar amistades duraderas y tomar algunos riesgos en solidaridad, la asociación y el aumento de la responsabilidad local comenzaron a convertirse en puntos de medidas para el involucramiento local.” ¿Cómo podría el CCM estar al lado de las personas a las que servía de tal manera que las personas y no el CCM asumieran el liderazgo; respetando la herencia e identidad de las personas a las que servía?” preguntó Betty Pries (61). Algunos miembros del personal del CCM comenzaron a hablar de dos constituyentes del CCM: sus constituyentes Menonitas tradicionales y sus asociados indígenas con quienes las personas trabajadoras del CCM habían establecidos relaciones y cuyas necesidades, argumentaba el personal del CCM, deberían dar forma al programa del CCM en contextos indígenas e impulsar al CCM hacia la incidencia. La década de 1980 fue testigo de varios ejemplos de personal del CCM escuchando y respondiendo al consejo de asociados indígenas, que incluyen: la negativa de la trabajadora del CCM Dorothy Milis a cumplir con las políticas del Departamento de Servicios Sociales en Davis Inlet en 1984; solidaridad con el pueblo innu en su lucha contra los vuelos militares de bajo nivel cerca de Goose Bay; participación en la campaña Lubicon Cree contra las compañías de petróleo y gas; y, en menor medida, el compromiso con la ocupación del parque Anicinabe en Kenora en 1974 y Kanehsatake (Oka) en 1990.

Durante la siguiente década, el CCM comenzó a confrontar más las complejidades de su modelo de asignar personas trabajadoras de servicio, incluyendo el paternalismo inherente a algunos enfoques de desarrollo y participación del CCM. En el nivel más básico, el servicio de las personas colonas canadienses podría prescribir lo que los pueblos indígenas necesitaban de acuerdo con la agenda del CCM, en lugar de priorizar las agendas de las naciones indígenas marginadas. Una evaluación del programa de Huertos de Verano del CCM, por ejemplo, indicó que el programa fomentó relaciones significativas, pero no habían más huertos que cuando comenzó el programa, lo que sugiere una falta de apropiación indígena. La teología del servicio del CCM, afirma Epp-Tiessen, siempre ha corrido el riesgo de paternalismo, citando el análisis del ético Menonita Ted Koontz sobre el potencial paternalismo del servicio: “Tenemos; la gente tiene necesidad; les damos lo que necesitan. De una manera profunda, los patrones de nuestro pensamiento pueden contribuir a la sensación de desempoderamiento que buscamos superar” (208). Enfrentar el potencial paternalismo del servicio ha presionado a las personas trabajadoras del CCM a preguntar si se podría articular una visión del servicio del CCM que no se centre en lo que nosotros y nosotras (las personas colonas canadienses) hacemos para ayudarles (Primeras Naciones indígenas).

El trabajo del programa Vecinos Indígenas del CCM alentó a las personas Anabautistas canadienses a reconocer su posición dentro de la sociedad de colonos dominante más amplia y a reconocer colectivamente su poder y privilegio, así como reconocer los pecados de un pasado colonial y un presente colonial que continua.

A medida que creció la conciencia de los modos de servicio potencialmente paternalistas, el enfoque del CCM en Canadá durante las últimas dos décadas con respecto a los asuntos indígenas ha cambiado hacia adentro. El trabajo del programa Vecinos Indígenas del CCM alentó a las personas Anabautistas canadienses a reconocer su posición dentro de la sociedad de colonos dominante más amplia y a reconocer colectivamente su poder y privilegio, así como reconocer los pecados de un pasado colonial y un presente colonial que continua. Esta no era una idea nueva para el CCM. Las personas amigas y asociadas indígenas habían estado alentando a Menonitas durante varias décadas a reflexionar sobre su lugar como colonos en Canadá. En 1975, un Informe de Kenora realizado por la erudita Meti Emma LaRoque encargado por el CCM para ayudarse “a obtener una perspectiva teológicamente válida sobre la opresión de las minorías”, indicó que “la Iglesia Menonita debe aceptar el poder y la impotencia”.

Sin embargo, el CCM en general fue lento para internalizar una comprensión
crítica de la opresión racializada y cómo las personas Menonitas de origen europeo en Canadá participaron en dicha opresión racializada. Haciendo hincapié en la importancia del trabajo interno, las personas coordinadoras del programa de Vecinos Indígenas del CCM Harley y Sue Eagle enfatizaron la construcción misma de relaciones como construcción de paz. En la década de 1990 y la primera parte de este siglo, el aprendizaje y aceptación de nuestra propia complicidad en la historia colonial y la sanidad de la ruptura dentro de una sociedad canadiense más amplia, incluyendo la comunidad Ana bautista en Canadá, llegaron a entenderse como esenciales-y una parte inherente de—-construir relaciones auténticas entre personas colonas Menonitas canadienses y pueblos indígenas.

Para estimular a las personas Menonitas a reflexionar sobre los legados coloniales
en Canadá, el CCM promovió el uso del Ejercicio de las Mantas de Kairos, una herramienta interactiva diseñada por la iniciativa ecuménica de Kairos, de la cual el CCM formó parte. Durante los años de la Comisión de Verdad y Reconciliación del gobierno canadiense, el CCM presionó al pueblo Menonita para que reconociera y abordara la participación de Menonitas en el sistema escolar residencial indio, incluso en el Hogar Infantil de Timber Bay en Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan. Los 94 Llamados a la Acción de la Comisión imploraron a la iglesia que repudiara la Doctrina del Descubrimiento, que ya se había convertido en otro énfasis para las conversaciones del CCM con sus constituyentes anabautistas, incluyendo la forma en que los supuestos detrás de la doctrina continúan manifestándose en nuestra teología, estructuras legales e interacciones inconscientes. El CCM también se involucró cada vez más en lugares donde los intereses de las comunidades Ana bautistas se enfrentaron a las indígenas, como el Tracto Haldiman en Seis Naciones del Gran Río en Ontario y la dislocación de tierras de Chippewayan Young en Saskatchewan documentada en la película Reserve 107.

Tricia Monague realizó un baile tradicional con un vestido de cascabeles en los escalones del Parliament Hill luego de un ejercicio masivo de las mantas allí. (Foto del CCM/ Alison Ralph)

El trabajo de Vecinos Indígenas del CCM se encuentra hoy en una encrucijada significativa. El CCM es más consciente de los peligros del paternalismo y tiene un compromiso reforzado de incidencia con los pueblos indígenas. Al mismo tiempo, el CCM tiene acceso a menos estructuras denominacionales u organizativas formales que permitan fomentar las relaciones entre el CCM y las Primeras Naciones indígenas como nunca antes. La historia del CCM de colocar personas trabajadoras en comunidades indígenas es en gran parte una cosa del pasado. El CCM continúa colaborando con las comunidades indígenas cuando es posible, particularmente en el norte de Ontario. Sin embargo, muchas de las conexiones actuales del CCM con individuos e instituciones indígenas, así como con constituyentes no indígenas apasionados por la justicia indígena, se desarrollaron con el tiempo a través de la colocación de personas trabajadoras del CCM en comunidades indígenas. Neil Funk unrau, al reflexionar sobre la interacción Anabautista con la Nación Cree de Lubicon, sugiere que la respuesta distintivamente anabautista a la injusticia contra las naciones indígenas en Canadá ha consistido no solo en aparecer esporádicamente cuando se están levantando barricadas, sino en una disposición a estar presente a largo plazo en la comunidad para la “tarea lenta y frustrante de construir relaciones de persona a persona” (con la disposición a estar presente dando legitimidad a la respuesta del CCM).

El CCM tiene ahora considerablemente menos oportunidades para enviar a las personas fuera de sus zonas de confort a transformarse mutuamente por las complejidades de la construcción de relaciones. Por lo tanto, necesitamos creatividad para determinar de nuevo cómo fomentar oportunidades para una relación auténtica más allá de la interacción ocasional. La incidencia que responde a los Llamados Indígenas para respetar los tratados y derechos indígenas es una respuesta importante, aunque debemos ser conscientes de la necesidad de relaciones auténticas para hacer una buena incidencia. Las colaboraciones ecuménicas han sido una parte importante del pasado del CCM y podrían tener algunas oportunidades de relación en el futuro. El desafío clave sigue siendo cómo catalizar aún más a las personas colonas Ana bautistas en Canadá como pueblo para interactuar con las vecinas y vecinos indígenas con quienes compartimos esta tierra.

Kerry Saner Harvey es coordinadora de Vecinos Indígenas del CCM Manitoba.

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Ganada: A History. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013.

“History of Aboriginal-Mennonite Relations Symposium.” Journal of Mennonite Studies. 19 (2001).

Pries, Betty, ed. Seawindrock: The History of MCC in Newfoundland and Labrador 1954-1993. Winnipeg: Mennonite Central Committee Ganada, 1993.

Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. Film. Disponible en:

CCM y pueblos indígenas en los Estados Unidos: evaluando el pasado, visualizando el futuro

[Articulos individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Primavera 2020 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

En este artículo, la coordinadora del Círculo de Visión Indígena del MCC Central States, Erica Littlewolf, reflexiona sobre el pasado, presente y futuro del trabajo del CCM con los pueblos indígenas.

¿Cómo ha cambiado el trabajo del CCM con los pueblos indígenas en los Estados Unidos? (y en Turtle Island en términos más generales) ¿cambió a lo largo de las décadas? ¿Qué se ha mantenido constante, si es que hay algo?

Sueño que el CCM hará un viaje conjunto con los pueblos indígenas en relaciones mutuas y que fomentar las relaciones correctas será el corazón de este trabajo. Sueño que el CCM reconocería a los pueblos indígenas en los Estados Unidos como soberanos, como si estuvieran trabajando con pueblos de otro país.

Escuché por primera vez del CCM mientras trabajaba en el programa de Summer Service del CCM EE.UU. durante cuatro meses (2000-2004) en mi comunidad de origen. Luego comencé a trabajar con el CCM en 2007 con la Unidad de Servicio de la Nación Oglala Lakota ubicada en Porcupine, Dakota del Sur, en la reserva indígena de Pine Ridge. En ese momento, el CCM otorgó pequeñas subvenciones comunitarias a organizaciones locales que realizaban trabajos de descolonización, al tiempo que abordaban las necesidades humanitarias en la comunidad tales como brindar leña para mantener a las personas calientes durante los meses de invierno. En 2009, después de un largo proceso de discernimiento entre la comunidad de Pine Ridge y CCM, decidimos que retiraríamos la unidad de la reserva y comenzaríamos el Círculo de Visión Indígena. Visualizamos el trabajo moviéndose desde el nivel micro, sirviendo a una comunidad, al nivel macro, analizando los problemas sistémicos. La comunidad nos alentó a utilizar los recursos y redes a las que el CCM tiene acceso, como las oficinas del CCM en Washington, D.C. y en las Naciones Unidas en Nueva York.

Creo que el CCM está comenzando a ver que el cambio tiene que suceder sistemáticamente en lugar de ver las cosas como el “problema indio” que debe solucionarse con servicios sociales. Este cambio ha estado ocurriendo gradualmente durante muchos años-podemos participar en este cambio continuo. Todas las personas son necesarias y cuanto más creativas podamos ser, mejor.

¿Qué lecciones ha aprendido el CCM de su trabajo con las naciones indígenas? ¿Cuáles han sido los principales éxitos y fracasos?

Creo que queda por verse lo que el CCM ha aprendido de su trabajo con las naciones indígenas. Creo que cuando el CCM realmente haya cambiado, las personas trabajadoras del CCM se verán a sí mismas como beneficiarias de sabiduría y relación, no solo como parte de una organización que da. Será más una cuestión de “¿Cómo ha cambiado el CCM debido a este trabajo?” lo que significa que han implementado sus aprendizajes y no solo han hablado de haber aprendido cosas.

También creo que cada interacción y relación que el CCM ha tenido, tiene actualmente o tendrá en el futuro con los pueblos indígenas es una oportunidad para que el CCM aprenda y cambie. Si un intercambio es bueno o malo en el momento es irrelevante-más importante es la reflexión sobre acciones pasadas en aras de mejorar las relaciones en el futuro.

El ejercicio de las mantas para ilustrar la Pérdida de Turtle lsland, dirigido por Erica Littlewolf (cheyene del norte) y Karin Kaufman Wall, personal del MCC Central States, fue uno de los eventos que se llevaron a cabo el primer día del tour de aprendizaje Nativo Americano del CCM para ayudar a las personas participantes a comprender la pérdida de tierras y derechos nativos en los EE.UU. (Foto del CCM/Brenda Burkholder)

¿Cuál es su visión de cómo el CCM trabajará con los pueblos indígenas en el futuro?

Mi visión de cómo el CCM trabajará con los pueblos indígenas en el futuro es relacional. Sueño que el CCM hará un viaje conjunto con los pueblos indígenas en relaciones mutuas y que fomentar las relaciones correctas será el corazón de este trabajo. Sueño que el CCM reconocería a los pueblos indígenas en los Estados Unidos como soberanos, como si estuvieran trabajando con pueblos de otro país. Sueño con que el CCM pueda ver el daño de la Doctrina del Descubrimiento, al tiempo que aprovecha la oportunidad que tenemos actualmente de trabajar para lograr el cambio. Mi esperanza es que el CCM pueda recibir liderazgo de los pueblos indígenas, ceder poder y control y ver qué puede surgir de una nueva forma de hacer las cosas. Sueño que podemos mirar más allá de los planes de uno o dos años y pensar en las siete generaciones en todo lo que hacemos, que nuestras acciones pueden ser audaces, dar vida y dar paso a la vida de los que están por venir.

Erica Littlewolf es la coordinadora del programa del Círculo de Visión Indígena con MCC Central States.

Theme issue on “Overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery.” lntersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly. 6/1 (Winter 2018). Disponible en:

Shifts in settler self-consciousness within MCC Indigenous Neighbours work in Canada


[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Starting with its role in the resettlement of Mennonites to Canada, MCC has always been intertwined, even when unacknowledged, with the lives of Indigenous peoples. Aside from work with ecumenical coalitions, MCC’s first intentional, direct engagement with an Indigenous community in Canada was likely in the Southern Inuit town of Cartwright Labrador in 1960, which expanded in the early seventies to Northern Inuit and eventually Innu communities. Following the establishment of the MCC Canada Native Concerns (now Indigenous Neighbours) program in 1974, MCC engagement with Indigenous communities across the north expanded, with an MCC service assignment emerging in the Kwatkiutl community of Tsulquate in British Columbia. Soon the initiation of MCC’s summer gardening program in 1978 began exposing young Mennonites to varied Indigenous communities, with all the complexities of nurturing relationships in an unfamiliar setting marred by the brokenness of colonialism.

Service by settler Canadians could take the form of prescribing what Indigenous people needed according to MCC’s agenda, rather than prioritizing the agendas of marginalized Indigenous nations.

In her history of MCC in Canada, Esther Epp-Tiessen identifies several learnings that emerged over the decades of MCC program engaging Indigenous communities in the country. Epp-Tiessen observes that MCC workers entered into relationships with a listening and learning stance during this initial period of exploring service and community development projects in Indigenous contexts. This listening and learning stance in turn led MCC to advocate for justice for Indigenous nations through Canadian ecumenical coalitions like Project North and by assisting the formation of the Interchurch Task Force on Northern Hydro Development.

In the mid-to-late eighties, as MCC workers in Indigenous communities began to develop long-lasting friendships and take some risks in solidarity, partnership and increased local accountability started becoming measuring sticks for local involvement. “How could MCC stand next to the people it served in such a way that the people and not MCC took leadership; that the heritage and identity of the people it served was respected?” asked Betty Pries (61). Some MCC staff started to speak of two MCC constituencies: its traditional Mennonite supporters and its Indigenous partners with whom MCC workers built relationships and whose needs, MCC staff argued, should shape MCC’s program in Indigenous contexts and push MCC towards advocacy. The 1980s witnessed several examples of MCC staff listening to and responding to counsel from Indigenous partners, including: MCC worker Dorothy Mills’ refusal to carry out policies of the Department of Social Services in Davis Inlet in 1984; solidarity with the Innu in their struggle against low-level military flights near Goose Bay; participation in the Lubicon Cree campaign against oil and gas companies; and, to a lesser extent, engagement with the Anicinabe Park Occupation in Kenora in 1974 and Kanehsatake (Oka) in 1990.

Over the following decade, MCC began confronting more of the complexities of its service worker model, including the paternalism inherent in some MCC development and engagement approaches. At the most basic level, service by settler Canadians could take the form of prescribing what Indigenous people needed according to MCC’s agenda, rather than prioritizing the agendas of marginalized Indigenous nations. A review of MCC’s summer gardening program, for example, indicated that the program fostered significant relationships, but there were no more gardens being maintained than when the program began, suggesting a lack of Indigenous ownership. MCC’s service theology, Epp-Tiessen contends, has always run the risk of paternalism, quoting Mennonite ethicist Ted Koontz’s analysis of the potential paternalism of service: “We have; they have need; we give them what they need. In a deep way the patterns of our thinking may contribute to the very sense of disempowerment which we seek to overcome” (208). Grappling with the potential paternalism of service has pressed MCC workers to ask if a vision of MCC service might be articulated that does not focus on what we (settler Canadians) do to help them (Indigenous First Nations).

MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program encouraged Canadian Anabaptists to recognize their positioning within the broader dominant settler society and to collectively acknowledge their power and privilege as settlers, as well as acknowledge the sins of a colonial past and ongoing colonial present.

As awareness grew of potentially paternalistic modes of service, MCC’s focus in Canada over the past two decades regarding Indigenous issues has shifted inward. MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours work encouraged Canadian Anabaptists to recognize their positioning within the broader dominant settler society and to collectively acknowledge their power and privilege as settlers, as well as acknowledge the sins of a colonial past and ongoing colonial present. This was not a new idea for MCC. Indigenous friends and partners had been encouraging Mennonites for several decades to reflect inward on their place as settlers in Canada. In 1975, a Kenora Report by Meti scholar Emma LaRoque commissioned by MCC to assist it “in gaining a theologically valid perspective on minority oppression,” observed that “the Mennonite Church must come to terms with power and powerlessness.”

MCC more broadly was slow, however, to internalize a critical understanding of racialized oppression and how Mennonites of European background in Canada participated in such racialized oppression. Stressing the importance of internal work, MCC Canada Indigenous Neighbours program coordinators Harley and Sue Eagle emphasized relationship building itself as peacebuilding. In the 1990s and the first part of this century, learning and owning our own complicity in settler colonial history and healing the brokenness within broader Canadian society, including the Anabaptist community in Canada, came to be understood as essential for—and an inherent part of—building authentic relationships between settler Canadian Mennonites and Indigenous peoples.

To spur Mennonites to reflect on colonial legacies in Canada, MCC promoted use of the Kairos Blanket Exercise, an interactive tool designed by the ecumenical Kairos initiative of which MCC was a part. During the years of the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, MCC pushed for Mennonites to acknowledge and address Mennonite involvement in the Indian Residential School system, including in the Timber Bay Children’s Home at Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan. The Commission’s 94 Calls to Action implored the church to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which had already become another emphasis for MCC conversations with its Anabaptist supporters, including how the assumptions behind the doctrine continue to manifest in our theology, legal structures, and unconscious interactions. MCC also increasingly engaged in places where the interests of Anabaptist communities came up against Indigenous ones, such as the Haldiman Tract in Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario and the Young Chippewayan land dislocation in Saskatchewan documented in the film Reserve 107.

Tricia Monague peformed a
traditional dance in a jingle dress
on the steps of Parliament Hill
following a mass blanket exercise
there. (MCC photo/ Alison Ralph)

MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours work today is at a significant crossroads. MCC is more aware of the dangers of paternalism and has a bolstered commitment to advocacy with Indigenous peoples. At the same time, MCC has access to fewer formal denominational or organizational structures allowing for the fostering of relationships between MCC and Indigenous First Nations than ever before. MCC’s history of placing workers in Indigenous communities is largely a thing of the past. MCC continues to engage with Indigenous communities when possible, particularly in northern Ontario. Yet many of MCC’s current connections with Indigenous individuals and institutions, as well as with non-Indigenous supporters passionate about Indigenous justice, developed over time through the placement of MCC workers in Indigenous communities. Neil Funk Unrau, reflecting on the Anabaptist interaction with the Lubicon Cree Nation, suggests that the distinctively Anabaptist response to injustice against Indigenous nations in Canada has consisted not simply of showing up sporadically when barricades are being erected, but of a willingness to be present long-term in the community for the “slow, frustrating task of building people-to-people relationships” (with the readiness to be present giving MCC’s response legitimacy).

MCC has considerably fewer opportunities now for sending people out of their comfort zones to be mutually transformed by the complexities of relationship building. We therefore need creativity to determine anew how to foster opportunities for authentic relationship beyond occasional interaction. Advocacy that responds to Indigenous calls for respecting treaties and Indigenous rights is one important response, though we need to be mindful of the need for authentic relationships to do advocacy well. Ecumenical collaborations have been an important part of MCC’s past and could hold some relational opportunities going forward. The key challenge remains how to further catalyze settler Anabaptists in Canada as a people to engage with the Indigenous neighbours with whom we share this land.

Kerry Saner Harvey is Indigenous Neighbours coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013.

“History of Aboriginal-Mennonite Relations Symposium.” Journal of Mennonite Studies. 19 (2001).

Pries, Betty, ed. Seawindrock: The History of MCC in Newfoundland and Labrador 1954-1993. Winnipeg: Mennonite Central Committee Canada, 1993.

Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. Film. Available here:

MCC and Indigenous peoples in the United States: assessing the past, visioning the future


[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

A Loss of Turtle Island blanket exercise, led by MCC Central States staff Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne) and Karin Kaufman Wall, was one of the events held on the first day of the MCC Native American learning tour to help participants understand the loss of Native lands and rights in the U.S. (MCC photo/Brenda Burkholder)

In this article, MCC Central States Indigenous Vision Circle coordinator Erica Littlewolf reflects on the past, present and future of MCC’s work with Indigenous peoples.

How has MCC’s work with Indigenous peoples in the United States (and on Turtle Island more broadly) changed over the decades? What, if anything, has remained constant?

I dream that MCC will co-journey with Indigenous peoples in mutual relationships and that fostering right relationships will be at the heart of this work. I dream that MCC would recognize Indigenous peoples in the United States as sovereign, as if they are working with peoples from another country.

I first heard of MCC while working through the MCC U.S. Summer Service program for four months (2000-2004) in my home community. I then began employment with MCC in 2007 with the Oglala Lakota Nation Service Unit located in Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. At that time, MCC gave small community grants to local organizations doing decolonization work, while also addressing humanitarian needs in the community, such as by providing firewood to keep people warm during the winter months. In 2009, following a long discernment process with the Pine Ridge community and MCC, we decided we would remove the unit from the reservation and begin the Indigenous Visioning Circle. We envisioned the work moving from the micro-level, serving one community, to the macro-level, looking at systemic issues. We were encouraged by the community to utilize the resources and networks to which MCC has access, such as MCC’s offices in Washington, D.C., and at United Nations in New York.

I think MCC is beginning to see that change needs to happen systemically instead of viewing things as the “Indian problem” that needs to be fixed with social services. This shift has been happening gradually for many years—we can take part in this ongoing change. Everyone is necessary and the more creative we can be the better.

What lessons has MCC learned from its work with Indigenous nations? What have been key successes and failures?

I think it remains to be seen what MCC has learned from its work with Indigenous nations. I think when MCC has truly changed, MCC workers will see themselves as beneficiaries of wisdom and relationship, not just as part of an organization that gives. It will be more of a question of, “How has MCC changed because of this work?” meaning they have implemented their learnings and not just talked about having learned things. I also think that each interaction and relationship MCC has had, has currently or will have in the future with Indigenous people is a chance for MCC to learn and change. Whether an exchange is good or bad in the moment is irrelevant—more important is reflection on past actions for the sake of improved relationships in the future.

What is your vision for how MCC will work with Indigenous peoples in the future?

My vision for how MCC will work with Indigenous peoples in the future is relational. I dream that MCC will co-journey with Indigenous peoples in mutual relationships and that fostering right relationships will be at the heart of this work. I dream that MCC would recognize Indigenous peoples in the United States as sovereign, as if they are working with peoples from another country. I dream that MCC can see the damage of the Doctrine of Discovery, while also embracing the opportunity we presently have to work toward change. My hope is that MCC can take leadership from Indigenous people, yield power and control and see what can come of a new-old way of doing things. I dream that we can look beyond one-year or two-year plans and think of the seven generations in all that we do, that our actions may be bold, life-giving and give way to life for those yet to come.

Erica Littlewolf is the Indigenous Visioning Circle program coordinator with MCC Central States.

Theme issue on “Overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery.” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly. 6/1 (Winter 2018). Available at

Reflecting on the blanket exercise

[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.]

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise (KBE) is a tool developed in 1997 by KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives in which participants learn about European colonization of Turtle Island (North America), the accompanying dispossession of Indigenous peoples (reflected by the steady removal of blankets upon which participants stand) and Indigenous resistance and efforts to reclaim land and rights. Faith-based and secular groups across Canada and the U.S. have used the exercise, sometimes adapting it to reflect specific geographies and communities. Here, two KAIROS and two MCC staff members reflect on lessons learned from the blanket exercise.

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise was created two decades ago in response to Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), but is only recently being widely used. What changed to spur this interest?

Miriam Sainnawap (MCC): What sparked the change was the need to connect Canadians to the grim side of Canada’s history regarding its relationship with Indigenous peoples, which has recently emerged into public consciousness thanks to growing social movements and as a way of responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action.

Ed Bianchi (KAIROS): The TRC Calls to Action were released during a time of heightened awareness of Indigenous peoples and rights, the result of decades of activism by Indigenous peoples and their allies, including churches. Public response to the RCAP report in 1997 was very similar to the response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. After only a year or two, the momentum generated by RCAP dissipated. Now, two years after the release of the TRC Calls to Action, and after 22 additional years of education and advocacy, momentum remains strong. What has changed is that ongoing efforts to educate have created a receptiveness to the challenges presented by the TRC.

Sara Anderson (KAIROS): The TRC brought the challenges of reconciliation to the forefront of the Canadian public consciousness. This movement towards learning and unlearning the truth of the history of this land has been augmented by the resurgence and amplification of Indigenous voices and views through movements such as Idle No More.

Erica Littlewolf (MCC): I think the interest has increased because of the TRC process. People were curious about boarding schools and began asking questions. The questions led to wanting to learn the underlying issues of how boarding schools came to be. Because of the interest in Canada, the exercise was translated into a U.S. context and now has gained traction in ecumenical circles.

What roles have Indigenous and settler peoples played in developing and implementing the blanket exercise? How does this compare to the historical roles of these peoples?

Sainnawap: For Indigenous peoples, the challenge is finding a space to participate in the spirit of the promises, rights and ways of life gifted to us. Settlers need to stop taking up space for us and need to start listening. The exercise does play a role in retelling the stories of our remembered past, reaffirming the dignity and agency of Indigenous peoples and recognizing the active role of Indigenous peoples in reclaiming and restoring our communities and cultures and resisting ongoing injustices. While it is important for people to know our history, there is an underlying power dynamic around the issue of who owns the story and who gets to tell the story on behalf of Indigenous peoples.

Bianchi: From the beginning, the blanket exercise has involved Indigenous peoples and settlers. It was created with input from Indigenous peoples, including the education department of the Assembly of First Nations. Since then, the script has evolved in response to feedback from Elders and Indigenous and non-Indigenous facilitators and participants. In the last few years, the number of Indigenous facilitators, including Indigenous youth facilitators, has increased. Increased Indigenous leadership has resulted in respecting Indigenous protocols and ensuring that health supports are in place to respond to trauma the exercise might generate.

Littlewolf: Prior to this exercise, it seemed Indigenous peoples were responsible to educate settlers about history. Now settler people have taken the lead in educating other settlers. This approach has greatly reduced the stress on Indigenous peoples to educate settlers and has allowed Indigenous peoples to work within our own communities.

What role does education play in overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery? Is the role of education different for Indigenous and settler peoples?

Sainnawap: Canadians resist confronting Canada’s racist history and policies. That past still lives in the present day. In my opinion, the blanket exercise is not able to challenge the Doctrine of Discovery in practicality. It allows one to remain a passive learner, not an active doer dismantling the oppressive systems and confronting the racist attitudes held deeply in the national psyche.

Bianchi: RCAP said we cannot successfully address the current challenges in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada without knowing how those challenges arose. This includes the Doctrine of Discovery and how it continues to impact the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors reflected in our governments, legal structures, education systems, churches and society in general. Education addresses the ignorance at the root of the discrimination and racism that influences so much of what happens in our society and in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Anderson: I heard an Elder say there is a reason truth comes before reconciliation. If settlers are not aware of how the practices, policies and normative framework of the Doctrine of Discovery are still being implemented or how they themselves directly benefit from this Doctrine, then overturning this structure will be very difficult.

Littlewolf: Through education we begin to see the roots of the Doctrine of Discovery and how embedded in structures it has become. As an Indigenous person, education opened my eyes to a systemic world that I was taking on as my personal shortcomings. Through learning, I was able to separate what was mine to deal with from things that are out of my control and where I can advocate. Within MCC, we have developed a Doctrine of Discovery Toolkit for use by MCC workers in facilitating different types of workshops and learning events for both settler and Indigenous communities about the DoD and its destructive legacies. The educational task is a vital first step towards action to overcome the Doctrine of Discovery.

What impact does the blanket exercise have on participants? What do we know about how their attitudes or behaviors have changed as a result of participating in the exercise?

Sainnawap: Often participants experience strong emotional reactions such as guilt and shame. This is the beginning of the journey for them to question and analyze within, coming to understand the role of the privileged and confronting their prejudices. It is a choice how they want to change.

Bianchi: A Montreal police officer said the KBE helped him do his job better by helping him understand why so many Indigenous people are homeless and on the streets. After the KBE, he encountered an Indigenous person on the street and knew enough to ask, “Where are you from?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” The heightened awareness that came from the KBE helped him take a more positive approach and reduced the risk level of the situation. Indigenous peoples undergo a similar transformation, especially those not aware of the history taught through the KBE. Following a KBE involving mostly young Indigenous men, one participant said, “This exercise helped me understand that it’s all about the land. It’s not about me.”

Anderson: The talking circle which follows every blanket exercise is the most powerful part of the whole experience. Some express anger that they didn’t learn about this before, or sadness at the injustice, while others feel guilt or a sense of shame. We always encourage people to move past those feelings of guilt and shame, because they are not productive, and often will not lead to concrete actions.

Littlewolf: A lot of settlers feel sad and guilty and are quick to want change, whereas Indigenous people have been sitting with it for lifetimes and look toward holistic healing. I have hope that people will change as a result, but I remove myself from controlling this aspect as much as I can. As an Indigenous person, my job is to bring the perspective in a good way and allow for the spirit to move as it will. I feel good knowing that people can no longer claim ignorance and leave it all as a mystery.

Looking back over the 20-year history of this exercise, what key lessons have been learned?  What challenges lie ahead?

Sainnawap: The challenge for Indigenous peoples is continuing to receive education and to educate our own people. You know not many Indigenous peoples know our histories, cultures and knowledges. This is one of the gaps in our communities.  I think this is missing in our conversation: that Kairos needs to consider how they support Indigenous peoples and their communities.

Bianchi: Each time the blanket exercise is delivered, we are reminded of the importance of education and dialogue. RCAP called for a new relationship. The TRC called for reconciliation. Both identified education as key, and both saw education as an active, ongoing, experiential, participatory process that involves building cross-cultural connections. Justice Senator Murray Sinclair said that “it is in our daily conversations and interactions that our success as a nation in forging a better place will ultimately be measured.” The KBE helps initiate and inform these conversations. The challenge will be in maintaining the momentum while protecting the integrity of the exercise and ensuring the safety of the participants. Over the past two decades, we have learned that the KBE has the power to transform, as well as the power to traumatize. We have learned that with this power comes a responsibility to ensure that the KBE continues to contribute to reconciliation through education, and in a way that does no harm.

Anderson: One of the main challenges that I see ahead is responding to the question of “What can I do next?” in a more intentional way. This might mean developing another activity to follow the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or it might be an invitation to direct action and a call for further learning.

Littlewolf: One of the key lessons that I have learned is the way in which Indigenous people are all different but in order to get across the systemic nature of the issues we have to lump them in as one group. I think the interesting part is to take it back apart and to realize that each policy affected people differently. That in fact there are similarities and at the same time there are differences. Holding both of these at the same time is often difficult.

I think the biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going. Where do we go next? Can we go there? And with whom do we go?

Miriam Sainnawap is the National Indigenous Neighbours Program Co-Coordinator for MCC Canada. Ed Bianchi is KAIROS’ Programs Manager. Sara Anderson is KAIROS’ Blanket Exercise Regional Coordinator–Central. Erica Littlewolf works with the Indigenous Visioning Circle of MCC Central States.

Reflections from Standing Rock

[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.]

I recently led college students in an exercise comparing two fascinating maps (see Learn More sidebar for links). The first, a map of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, was created by contributors to the Decolonial Atlas website. The place names are written in the Lakota language, with the four directions represented by the medicine wheel. South is at the top and north at the bottom, the reverse of what I’m used to seeing, yet a common Lakota custom. The second is a map of the DAPL route through North Dakota created by Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the pipeline already carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to Illinois refineries. North is at the top. County and state boundaries are clearly marked. The DAPL path and terminal locations are prominent, with other place names barely legible. A comparison of these two maps is a compelling study in orientation and disorientation, what is being communicated and to whom and what map-makers view as important and unimportant.

This history on Lakota land, like other histories around the world, unveils the colonizing perspective: land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted

In September of 2016, I went to the Standing Rock encampments formed in nonviolent resistance to DAPL as part of a delegation of settler Mennonites from the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Upon arrival, my map of the world was turned upside down (or perhaps right-side up). I was no longer in white-dominant space. There were different social protocols to follow as well as different understandings of the physical-spiritual world. Kitchen volunteers served food first to elders as a sign of respect, then to those of us waiting in line. The fire at the center of camp was not for chit-chatting around like a bonfire—it was a sacred prayer fire for offering tobacco.

Prayer was physical and a source of power, embodied in ceremony, daily prayer walks to the site of DAPL construction and even actions like chaining oneself to construction equipment. “They’re afraid of our prayers,” one woman told me matter-of-factly, explaining why the state police and DAPL private security forces were not disrupting the camp that week. In disarming contrast with the dominant culture where almost nothing is free, the whole camp operated by a gift economy. No money was exchanged and everything was shared, from food to supplies. When we arrived into camp at nightfall, we found that a woman had already set up a tent for us. She welcomed us, saying, “I knew people would come tonight who needed a place to stay.” We were camped on the frontlines of destruction, and yet were in decolonizing territory, a place undergoing deep healing from centuries of capitalism and colonization.

The most striking difference between decolonizing territory and the world to which I was accustomed was how people talked about water. Michael Sharpfish, a 23-year old descendant of Sitting Bull, told how he came to protect the Missouri River because water is sacred. He knows how precious water is because he grew up on a reservation without running water. Michael repeated the simple phrase that had become the rallying cry at Standing Rock, “Water is life: Mni Wiconi!” “We are the river, and the river is us,” Donna Brave Bull Allard wrote about why she founded the Sacred Stone Camp that prayed the other Standing Rock camps into existence and resistance. “Why would we hurt our sister, or our very selves, by channeling toxic oil underneath the river? We cannot be separated from water; she is sacred and very much alive, along with the rest of the earth.”

At Sacred Stone camp, I realized that the destructive disconnect between current colonizing and Indigenous perceptions of the world is nothing new to the Lakota people. They remember the long history of conquest as if it happened yesterday, just as they still remember the names their ancestors gave to the land and sacred sites. The name for Sacred Stone camp comes from the Lakota name for the river, Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá, “Stone-Make-For-Themselves River,” so named because of the round stones that once formed at the confluence with the Missouri River before the Missouri was dammed. The people called these stones Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí, “Sacred Stones,” using them in prayer and ceremony and viewing them as enspirited, part of all our relations, like the river, plants and animals.

When European explorers and colonizers first came to the region, they also saw the rivers’ spherical stones shaped by the churning waters where they met the Missouri River. But instead of sacred stones, what did they see? Stones shaped like cannonballs. They saw stones akin to ammunition for war, so they re-named Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá the Cannonball River. Sacred stones or cannonballs?

Perspective shapes practice, from the re-naming of the Cannonball River to the 1874 expedition that led to a gold rush and the U.S. government’s illegal seizure of the Black Hills (an area long held as sacred by the Lakota people) to the more recent damming of the Missouri River by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The hydropower dam flooded ancestral burial grounds and medicinal plant harvesting areas. The people say many elders died of heartbreak when they saw the flooded lands. This history on Lakota land unveils the colonizing perspective in which land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted. From an Indigenous perspective, land and water are living relatives to be respected and protected, sacred gifts of Creator inseparable from our very lives. Two vastly different perceptions, two very different maps of the world.

This history of difference in perception dates back to the Doctrine of Discovery, if not before, as globalized imperialism was birthed in Europe under the blessing of Constantinian Christianity. The Doctrine of Discovery was and is a profound invalidation of Indigenous cosmologies and ways of relating to the other-than-human world developed over centuries of learning how to live in life-sustaining balance. The United States, having assumed ownership of Indigenous lands through the “right of discovery,” imposed and continues to force its abstract maps and perceptions of the world upon already-named and intimately known homelands. And now profit-driven corporations like those building DAPL are given free reign to do the same, with perilous consequences. As climate change, resource depletion and the loss of biological and cultural diversity around the world testify, the colonized maps cemented upon the world are suffocating all life. Yet even cement can be cracked.

Surely one step toward dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery will be dismantling our internalized and externalized destructive maps by embracing a more life-giving way of seeing the world. For those of us who are not Indigenous, I pose the questions that my time at Standing Rock offered me: Will we wake up and perceive all Earth as sacred and alive? Will we allow ourselves to be disoriented and reoriented by Indigenous ways of seeing and being? Will we join Indigenous people, water and Earth herself in cracking the concrete of industrial civilization to make way for healing, decolonizing territories?

Katerina Friesen lives in traditional Yokut land in Fresno, California. She edited the Study Guide for the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, available for order or download at

Learn more

Brave Bull Allard, LaDonna. “Why the Founder of Standing Rock Sioux Camp Can’t Forget the Whitestone Massacre.” Yes! Magazine. Available at

The Decolonial Atlas—Dakota Access Pipeline Indigenous Protest Map. Available at

Energy Transfer Partners’ Map of Dakota Access Pipeline route from North American Shale Magazine. Available at:

Why the Doctrine of Discovery matters in the journey towards reconciliation

[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.]

Focus on the Doctrine of Discovery? Really? Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, located on the Haldimand Tract in Kitchener, Ontario, has journeyed for several years in building relationships with our Indigenous neighbours on the nearby Six Nations reservation. We were motivated after hearing searing stories of residential school harms and becoming aware of Indigenous land claims. A Stirling delegation traveled to Ottawa for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) closing events in spring 2015. Another delegation participated in an ecumenical retreat at Six Nations that fall to talk about how we as settler Christians and Indigenous peoples (both Christian and traditional) could live out the TRC Calls to Action on the Haldimand Tract. Arising out of that, we formed our own working group to lead our mid-sized congregation in working on some of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action—particularly those addressed to churches.

Call to Action #49 asks all religious denominations to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” While we agreed the concepts of the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) were reprehensible, we questioned whether focusing on “outdated” documents should be a priority in our congregation’s reconciliation journey. We concluded that studying and repudiating the DoD as a congregation was a key piece of the journey towards truth and reconciliation. This article describes our journey with the DoD that has created a platform for addressing colonialism in partnership with our Indigenous neighbours.

Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the Doctrine of Discovery is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours.

Why should we look backwards, learning about the DoD, rather than focus on the future? If the DoD was a priority for the Indigenous voices who wrote the TRC Calls to Action, we realized it needed to be a priority for us. We planned two adult education classes on the DoD in April 2016. At the same time, we considered sponsoring a resolution to the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly repudiating the DoD. For several months, our TRC working group focused primarily on the DoD. As we studied, we learned that the DoD forms the basis of much of Canada’s legal system for Indigenous peoples.

Two adult education classes with biblical scholar Derek Suderman allowed the packed room of participants to study the documentary foundation of the DoD: the papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1454). Issued half a century before Europeans arrived on North America, the papal bulls speak of subjugating the enemies of Christ, namely Saracens (Muslims), giving full and free authority to invade, capture, vanquish and reduce these enemies to perpetual slavery. Used first in Africa, this same logic gave license to settle North America. The land was considered empty (terra nullius) because there were no Christians in it. We also examined how the so-called Royal Psalms (such as Psalm 2:8-9), when taken out of context from the broader biblical narrative of Christ’s love for all people, could be used to justify the theology of conquest enshrined in the DoD.

The active congregational involvement in these classes, as well as strong engagement around Indigenous issues more broadly, empowered our church council to co-sponsor the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly resolution. After that resolution passed in July 2016, our focus on the DoD ended, but the insights we gained undergird our ongoing journey. What does it mean for us to continue to decolonize our church and ourselves? We continue to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours, who help us see this path towards reconciliation.

In November 2016, we engaged the full congregation in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The blanket exercise is a participatory teaching tool to examine the historical and contemporary relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in which participants stand on blankets placed on the floor symbolizing Indigenous land, with blankets progressively removed and participants either forced off blankets or confined to ever smaller spaces to represent European colonization and its impact on Indigenous peoples. We incorporated it into our worship service so the maximum number of people could be involved, and continued with time afterward to debrief the powerful experience. The blanket exercise deepened our journey with the DoD. As we walked through Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, we witnessed the scourge of colonialism as our territory disappeared one blanket at a time, smallpox decimated our people and residential schools took our children.

In January 2017, we continued our journey of decolonizing ourselves and our church with a four-week worship and education series entitled, “Covenants with God, Land, and Our Indigenous Hosts.” We looked at foundational covenants to our faith, such as God’s rainbow covenant with Noah, as well as foundational covenants with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, like the Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain of Friendship. Indigenous elder Myeengen Henry shared an Indigenous understanding of land. Studying Leviticus 25:10-13 and Luke 4 further challenged us to see the land as God’s, not ours, and not held in perpetuity. We live and worship on the traditional territory of the Anishinabe, Neutral and Haudenosaunee peoples, land that is “ours” by the logic of the DoD. But what is the future to which these covenants and God’s Spirit call us?

Within our Covenant series, we examined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a new covenant into which we are invited. The TRC Calls to Action identify the Declaration as the “framework for reconciliation.” When Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada Indigenous Relations staff person, invited Stirling to participate in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, the congregation responded enthusiastically. Seventeen of us participated for part or all of this 600-kilometre pilgrimage from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of the Declaration and Bill C-262, a federal private member’s bill calling on Canada to adopt and implement UNDRIP. Many more church members participated in smaller ways, including hosting the send-off service for pilgrimage walkers, following the walkers on social media and praying for them.

Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the DoD is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours. Looking backwards at the DoD and recognizing our colonial lenses can help us walk forward towards reconciliation.

Sue Klassen and Josie Winterfeld are members of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.


Learn more

Cober Bauman, Rick. “Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery.” Available at

Heinrichs, Steve and Woelk, Cheryl. Eds. Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

Keefer, Tom. “A Short Introduction to the Two Row Wampum.” Available at

Venables, Robert. “Guswenta and the Covenant Chain.” Available at

The Canadian parliament has moved to second reading of Bill C-262, a bill that will ensure Canada’s laws are in harmony with the UNDRIP. Learn more about Bill C-262 and how you can support it at

Do justice and do what you love to do!

[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.]

I have two passions: riding my recumbent tricycle and Indigenous justice. A couple years ago, I decided to combine them to address the painful, destructive legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In 2012, my family decided to sell my grandparents’ farm in Minnesota. My portion as one of the grandchildren was about 13 acres. Prior to white settlement, the land was Dakota homeland. Having learned about the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting unjust benefits for white settlers and their descendants (like me), I asked my colleagues with the Indigenous Visioning Circle at MCC Central States for help. With their assistance, I decided to “pay back” half the proceeds from the land sale to Indigenous groups working for land justice. The largest reparations amount went to a Dakota non-profit group named Makoce Ikikcupi (Land Recovery).

I decided to ‘pay back’ half the proceeds from the land sale to Indigenous groups working for land justice.

In fall 2013, I pedaled my tricycle 2,000 miles in southern Minnesota to raise awareness about what can and should be done to return Minnesota land to Dakota people. I passed through 40 counties, stopping at the newspaper office in the county seat. I tried to get an article with a picture of me on the trike. I didn’t always succeed, but I ended up getting 29 articles. My goal was 30, so I fell one short.

At present I am living in Minnesota. I have a part time job with Clean Water Action, which allows me a lot of time to do education and fundraising among white Minnesotans for Dakota land return. I’m on my trike whenever possible, of course!

I know most people are not into cycling. But you probably have something you love to do. Is there a way for you to combine your passion with working for Indigenous justice? When I speak in churches on the topic of Indigenous justice, I offer several suggestions for what people can do:

  • Start with your location and your own family history. Find out who lived there before white settlement. Where and how are these people today? If possible and appropriate, make contact and start relationships.
  • There are lots of good books. See the books in the Learn More sidebar for examples of books that rocked me.
  • Tell the truth about what happened and is happening. We white people have ignored these issues for too long.
  • Teach your children, your children’s friends and their teachers. Let’s fight back against what James Loewen has called Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Let’s release ourselves from a sense of entitlement to stolen land and develop a sense of fairness.
  • Take down symbols of racism. Let’s rename lots of things, like “Columbus Day,” “Redskins” teams, and “Custer” streets and parks.
  • Make reparations. Pay a portion of real estate sales and “back rent” to Indigenous groups working for land justice.

Those are seven practical suggestions. What do you love to do? How can you combine that with work for Indigenous justice?

John Stoesz previously worked with MCC Central States and currently devotes much of his time to Native land return.

Learn more

Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender Wilson). What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press, 2008.

Stannard, David. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 2007

Overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery at Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll

Responding to the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the ongoing legacies of residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their families, MCC in Canada declared that it “repudiates concepts used to justify European superiority over Indigenous peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery. Such concepts of superiority, coercion, violence and abuse are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the inherent dignity and equality we believe all people have received from God.” This repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is a fairly straightforward task on paper: it fits with our biblical and theological understandings of justice and reconciliation. However, extricating superiority from our settler souls, expunging discovered lands from our accumulated assets and exorcising the doctrine of dominance from our minds are daunting and elusive. The story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, land in Saskatchewan of the Young Chippewayan Band, upon which German Lutherans and Mennonites settled, illustrates how challenging overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery can be.

We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learnings. We need our Indigenous relations to help us to a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory.


Opwashemoe Chakatinaw sits at the centre of 78 square kilometres of land near the present town of Laird, Saskatchewan. This fertile land, on the east banks of the North Saskatchewan River and close to the land of Beardy’s Band (relatives of the Young Chippewayan Band), was chosen by Chief Chippewayan and his people in 1876 when the chief signed Treaty 6 with the Canadian Crown at Fort Carlton, creating the Young Chippewayan Band #107. Shortly after the treaty’s signing, the Young Chippewayan Band moved south to Cypress Hills, following the remaining buffalo and staying away from the turbulent conflict at Batoche, Cutknife Hill, Frog Lake and Battleford.

In 1897, with the Young Chippewayan absent from their land due to conflict and starvation, the Canadian government unilaterally erased Young Chippewayan Band #107 from the reserve map, in turn offering that land to German-speaking Mennonite and Lutheran settlers. The government never consulted the Young Chippewayan Band, nor did it offer compensation. Over the ensuing generations, Mennonite and Lutheran farming families have labored and loved on this land—tending the earth, harvesting its bounty and burying their dead on what they named Stoney Knoll. The Young Chippewayan have lived exiled from their land amid endless bureaucratic plodding, seeking safety with relatives on reserves such Sweet Grass and Ahtahkakoop and in the diaspora. While settler farmers bequeathed their government-issued land titles to the next generations, the Young Chippewayan passed down oral stories of a great wrong done to their ancestors at the hands of the Canadian government.

On August 22, 2006, on the 130th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6 and at the invitation of Chief Ben Weenie of the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran settlers and Young Chippewayan members gathered to share their stories of and love for Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, to name losses and the devastating impact of government actions and inaction, to share food and gifts and to imagine a future of justice and sufficiency for all their children. Representatives of the three communities signed a Memorandum of Understanding that day entitled, “Declaration of Harmony and Justice,” which named shared understandings and desires:

  1. We are deeply grateful for the goodness of the Creator and the blessings which gave us this land and which give and sustain all our lives.
  2. We respect the sacred nature of covenants, which order our relationships and bring harmony to our communities and nations, including Treaty 6 which was entered into on our behalf, for the purpose of mutual benefit and maintaining our livelihood.
  3. We wish for ourselves and for future generations to live in conditions of peace, justice and sufficiency for all our communities. We will work together to help bring about these conditions through a timely and respectful resolution of the issues which history has left to us.

This memorandum of understanding has offered a guiding framework over the last decade as Mennonites and Lutherans have attempted to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan, holding the Canadian government responsible for the injustice it created. The settler communities have raised funds to prepare a genealogy of the Young Chippewayan Band to document the band as an “identifiable community” meeting land claim requirements.

The 2016 documentary, Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies, tells the story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Created with input from the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran communities, the documentary dismantles the settler mythology that the land, prior to European arrival, was empty (terra nullius), uninhabited by people and memories. This story teaches us that reconciliation requires respectful relationships and restitution of resources.

Much remains undone in the journey toward justice envisioned by the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran representatives who gathered in August 2006 at Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is not done with a pen, but rather through community and responsibility, through conversation and struggle. We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learning. We continue to want to control and manage the process. We still think we know what is best for the land. We need our Indigenous relations to help us develop a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory. We take courage from Ezekiel’s image of hearts of stone turning to hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). We can learn to be human together on this good earth.

Eileen Klassen Hamm is the Executive Director of MCC Saskatchewan.


Learn more

Friesen, Jeff and Heinrichs, Steve. Eds. Quest for Respect: The Church and Indigenous Spirituality. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2017.

Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. (film). Rebel Sky Media, 2016. Available at https://www.