History, accountability and healing

Issue 2021, vol. 75

A response to Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers (Cascade Books: Eugene, Ore., 2021)

The brutal genocide of Native peoples is hard to acknowledge for many, especially for those who have inherited some value from the loss and destruction that occurred here. How do you acknowledge the injustice of genocide, disruption of culture, and the destruction of a way of life when you’re living on the lands of those who have been victimized? —Sherri Mitchell, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, quoted in “The Soul Wound,” Richard Rohr online meditation for May 5, 2021

I have been waiting for Healing Haunted Histories for a decade, though I didn’t realize it until I began to read it. I had been paying attention to the work of these two writing partners out of the Bartimaeus Institute in California for some time. Ched Myers published on creation care and watershed discipleship, often using fresh and exciting explications of Scripture; more recently, Elaine Enns used a restorative justice model to examine the lives and locales of her own people, Canadian Mennonite settlers in the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, area, intersecting with First Peoples of the region.

Meanwhile, for the past ten years I have been working on my own settler ancestors’ story, attempting to take a deep view of history in the southwest Kansas Dust Bowl area where I grew up. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the land in deep time, a point of view I had learned from Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart of Clinton, Okla., while interviewing him to tell his story in Searching for Sacred Ground (2007). Chief Hart helped me to see that any story we tell is set in generations of time and place. He sent me on pilgrimages to places of sacred ground in his own journey, or that of his grandfather John Peak Heart, or that of his Cheyenne people generations earlier.

I researched the Plains village farmers who had lived along the Beaver River not far from our farm a thousand years ago. I learned of Coronado’s trek 500 years ago that covered the plot of land where we would eventually live in southwest Kansas. I discovered that our farmstead was once at the northernmost end of the Comanche Empire. And I began to realize that at about the same time that Coronado was exploring what would become Kansas, my Mennonite farmer ancestors began journeying from the Netherlands to Moravia and Prussia, eventually Russia, before coming to the United States to settle. So, does that make me immigrant or settler?

I had not learned about the Doctrine of Discovery when I interviewed Chief Hart. I remember the moment of epiphany I had during the commencement address Chief Hart delivered at his alma mater, Bethel College, in 1995. He mentioned a sacred site nearby where the Cheyenne people had conducted a Renewal of the Earth ceremony, saying he hoped to find the site if the land had not been plowed. My heart sank. Of course it would have been plowed, probably by Mennonite farmers. Later, at the Cheyenne Cultural Center near Clinton, I came through the front doors to interview him and walked past the little school desk in the entry: a Cheyenne child’s desk with a sweetgrass braid sitting on it, a symbol of the boarding school tradition designed to “kill the Indian; save the man.” The Mennonites ran the Darlington boarding school near Clinton for Cheyenne and Arapaho children. The first president of Bethel College, C.H. Wedel, came directly from teaching at Darlington to take the helm at the newly opened college. Chief Hart had decided to attend Bethel College, saying, “I guess I will need to learn to live with white people.” It has taken me a long time to realize that I am a white Mennonite, with all the privilege, complicity and “response-ability” that comes with who I am.

When I trained with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) leaders Erica Littlewolf and Karin Kaufman Wall on ways to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, I began to see the complicity of the white Mennonite settler. And, like many others in this country, in 2015 I rushed to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-discussed letter to his son about his black body, Between the World and Me. I got only to page 7 before I read about “people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” These “new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. . .” Mennonites, too? How might my story of Mennonite migration be different if I acknowledged that it was also a story of a people who believed themselves to be white? Would I write it at all?

I began to research my people’s migrations, about which I knew very little. I recognized on a heritage tour to Poland, for which I was given my own list of 500 years of farming ancestors dating back to Menno Simons, that settling on lands previously occupied by others was a habit of my farmer ancestors. More and more I became convicted by the words of Nikki Sanchez, quoted in Healing Haunted Histories, speaking to settlers: “This history is not your fault, but it is absolutely your responsibility” (12). I had always intuitively known this. I am where I am by design of my forbears. I can neither blame them nor stick my head in the sand. I am required by my commitment to my Anabaptist faith to respond. What does this mean? Enns and Myers say, “This entails working to dismantle and heal from settler colonialism, as well as to accompany and collaborate with Indigenous communities, especially those on (or of) lands on which we’ve settled” (12).

Most recently, I have taken up the work of land acknowledgment in my own congregation, Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan. Many in our congregation are committed to learning about how our presence has changed the native landscape,  about the people whose homelands we now occupy — looking for ways to acknowledge their presence on the land before we settled, seeing their presence in our communities today. Churches in the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA are taking up the work of land acknowledgment (Houston Mennonite Church and Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., are two notable examples).

Thus, I was primed for the arrival of Healing Haunted Histories (HHH) just in time for Lent 2021. It came accompanied by a schedule that would take the reader, by Palm Sunday, through this workbook for settler accountability. One of the distortions promoted by the myth of the American Dream, the embrace of which makes us “white,” is that American individualism can lead us to feel we deserve what we have: We worked for it; we have overcome great odds to achieve it. This myth blinds us to the privilege we used to attain what we have. Indeed, HHH teaches us that such a place of settler denial is isolating, even traumatizing, while the discipleship of decolonization (learning + repentance + solidarity) is liberating.

A powerful learning for the student who encounters HHH is Enns and Myers’ depiction of the moral injury we settlers do to ourselves through our complicity, what they call our “entanglement with settler colonialism” (234). They remind us that this is not always found in our acts of commission, but maybe more often in acts of omission. HHH encourages us to ask ourselves, “What concrete strategies of de-assimilation are you pursuing?”

Let me begin with their definition of terms. As a workbook, HHH reads best when applied, as I tried to do in my own writing. I had long struggled with the tension between seeing myself as immigrant — the one dispossessed — versus the empowered white settler. The distinction is clarified by Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang in HHH: “Settlers are not immigrants. Immigrants are beholden to the Indigenous laws and epistemologies of the lands they migrate to. Settlers become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies” (11). Settlers stay on land they have taken, HHH argues, and settler descendants continue “resettling” wherever they go. This has special application to the story I am writing, which I now see falls into that pattern of resettlement characteristic of my Mennonite forbears for centuries, a pattern that eventually found my family in southwest Kansas long after the original peoples were moved away. I read in my family’s migration journals how, newly arrived in this country in 1874, my great great-grandparents were brought by railroad to Topeka. They were then taken to survey land they might choose to farm in nearby Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail, in the year following the Kansa people’s forced removal from that land, to Oklahoma, in 1873.

Myers and Enns describe how advantages accrued to European newcomers because of land policies and religious and cultural privilege (175). They explain how Mennonite settlers were often used as buffers by the railroad, to help secure the “progress” of civilization. The previous inhabitants were driven off the land and Mennonite farmers settled there to keep them off. By contrast, Enns and Myers argue, we do not find Indigenous migration stories of conquest. “When Indigenous stories do speak of migration, it is in response to what the land allows, such as a need to move because of drought, or climate cooling, or following the bison. One does not find stories of migration for purposes of conquest or entitlement” (164). Contrast the “settler meta-narrative of ‘sacred migration from Old World to New’ [which] would generate and legitimate practices of displacement” (164).

Healing Haunted Histories is divided into two parts. “Archaeology: Excavating Storylines of Displacement, Trauma and Resilience,” the first part, uses the rubrics of Landlines, Bloodlines and Songlines to dig out the stories of immigrant ancestors and their traumas and strengths. The second part uses the same three types of “lines” to revise/rethink the places where ancestors came to, including the final chapter, “Healing Hauntings: A Discipleship of Decolonization.”

We have all long known about the treaties made and broken with Indigenous people in the settlement of the United States. However, Enns’ and Myers’ discussions of what treaties meant to Indigenous peoples is instructive. Treaties were attempts at recognition of peoples, friendship alliances and sacred promises, from the Indigenous point of view. More than that, HHH emphasizes their theological significance. Quoting the treaty elders in Saskatchewan: “First Nations’ first and foremost objective in the treaty-making process was to have the new peoples arriving in their territories recognize and affirm their continuing right to maintain, as peoples, the First Nations relationships with the Creator through the laws given to them” (190). Enns and Myers argue that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, along with these elders’ understandings, call us to “reconsider covenant relationship” with land, people and the Creator — to become Treaty People today (191).

As already noted, HHH is a workbook, complete with questions like those offered as “Queries for Reinhabitation” (193). Enns and Myers propose that reinhabitation means belonging to a bioregion and relating to Indigenous cultures on that land. They ask, “What needs to be remembered . . . recovered or restored . . . conserved or maintained . . . changed or transformed . . . created?” (193). To promote such relationship, learners must look deeply into their own settlement history and land acquisition to learn of the Indigenous peoples in the area before and during settlement. We must investigate settler or official government policies; what interest one’s settler ancestors had in local inhabitants; family stories; the culture and history of the place a learner lives today; practices that might help someone become a Treaty person. Enns and Myers model with their own stories such investigation to “reinhabit your place more deeply as a decolonizing settler” (195).

A model of such reinhabitation came to me recently in the soon-to-be-published, powerful land acknowledgment of a Mennonite settler haunted now for decades by the knowledge that his ancestors, among the first Mennonites to come to U.S. shores to settle in Pennsylvania, had wronged the Lenape people on whose homeland he still resides. John L. Ruth, longtime Mennonite historian, writing now at age 90, admits in the preface to his book that the “stones still cry out from the last of the fields cleared by my ancestors along the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek, 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia.”

In his deeply researched story, titled This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair, Ruth imagines the intersecting lives of William Penn, the Lenape leader Sassoonan and Ruth’s Mennonite ancestor Hans Stauffer during the years 1643 to 1768. We readers watch the drama unfold as the Native land is carved up, fought over and commodified. Ruth attempts to recreate from what historical records he can find the Lenape story — reckoning with the kind of omissions Enns and Myers decry.

Why were our Mennonite forbears not curious enough about their Native neighbors on the land to get to know them or leave some record of their interactions with them? Why are we still not interested in whose homelands we inhabit? Why do we not know the Native peoples who are still our neighbors today?