While researching the history of Hesston College, founded in 1909, I encountered the reflections of Paul Erb on Mennonite complicity in dispossessing Native Americans. Erb was editor of the Gospel Herald, the official periodical of the Old Mennonite Church from 1944 to 1962, and author of South Central Frontiers, a 1974 history of South Central Mennonite Conference. I quote from that history:

There is nowhere in the Mennonite records any hint that Mennonite settlers, from Germantown to this settlement of the last stand of the Indian in the West, had any feeling that they were doing wrong in acquiring deeds of ownership for land that the Indians claimed as theirs. There was no questioning of the right of government to grant land titles, and of settlers to accept such title, as it was handed down. Mennonites, as well as other Americans, seemed to believe that the United States had a right and a duty to overspread the continent and make a home for the multiplying millions. Manifest Destiny, . . . became a slogan to assert that God had designed a unique geographical arena for the American experiment. The American urge to expansion had something of a religious fervor. Colonization was considered a divine mission. This is seen in the zeal of the pioneering Mennonites in starting Sunday schools, building churches, and scattering evangelists over the frontier. They evidently never had a thought that they were wickedly stealing land from the Indians.1

Paul was not writing from a detached point of view. For him it was also personal. His grandfather, Jacob Erb was a pioneer settler on the Kansas prairie, having emigrated from Lancaster County, Pa., in 1885. He had sold his 85-acre Pennsylvania farm for $135 an acre, and bought Kansas soil 2 miles northwest of Newton at a bargain price of $35.75 an acre.2It made good business sense. Paul was born on this farm, and helped his grandfather and father work the land.

Jacob and Leah Erb, 1885

Soon after their arrival, Jacob Erb was ordained deacon in the new congregation called the Pennsylvania Church, since the majority of its members, like the Erbs, had come from that eastern state. Paul’s father, T.M. Erb, was ordained a minister and bishop in this congregation, and later bishop. Paul was ordained a minister here.

Writing from his 1974 vantage point, Paul said, As we see it now, Mennonites do share a collective guilt for violating the tribal ownership of land, for killing the buffalo upon which Indian life depended, and for breaking the treaties which were given to protect Indian rights.3

Erb then goes on to probe the question of practical restitution which he called a deep puzzle. The buffalo herds cannot be brought back. Our minds and our wills hardly seem ready for proposals to restore lands to tribal ownership, to say nothing of the practical difficulties that would imply. He then suggests what both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church would acknowledge twenty years later, that we adjust our triumphalist view of history.

[W]e can begin by trying to see the historical process through Indian eyes. We can acknowledge the wrong that was done. And at least we can be careful not to see in the pioneering of our forefathers only the heroic deeds, the wresting forth of new churches and new communities in the quest for religious freedom. We can try to see the other side: our forefathers’ failure to see that they were benefitting fairly directly from the destruction of other people’s lives and communities—as we are still benefitting.4

Imagine the impact if Paul Erb were to make such a statement here at this conference! But not everyone is ready to make such acknowledgments. Jane Janzen, a member of the conference planning committee, made it clear in our first planning meeting that local Mennonites of European descent would not be interested in scholarly discussions or reconciliation rituals. She said, We’re too busy dealing with current life to worry about history. If I were to tell the adults at Herold Mennonite Church that we’re going to the Washita [National Battlefield] site, they would say, Where is it? Why should we go? Where will we eat?

Raylene Hinz-Penner, another member of the planning committee, and also a member of the sponsoring body, responded by saying that it is the job of the Historical Committee [of Mennonite Church USA] to create awareness, to nurture interest and excitement in such events, and to connect significant, formative events to current life and witness.5Further, the planning committee said in their conference purpose statement, The Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church USA, sponsor of the conference, seeks to nurture a relationship that honors the past, acknowledges the need for healing wounds, and contributes to the mission of the church.

What acknowledgment ought to be made? How can such wounds be healed? And are there acts of practical restitution we can make?

Anticipating the sesquicentennial of Christopher Columbus’ so-called discovery of America in 1492, the Mennonite Church passed a resolution in 1991, recognizing the displacement and oppression of the native populations. It called members and congregations to:

  1. Refrain from a triumphalist spirit in celebrating this event in favor of humble gratitude for the benefits experienced in these new lands.
  2. Recognize the greed and devastation that characterized the coming of the Europeans, and repent of our participation in the unjust exploitation of native peoples.
  3. Seek to understand more accurately the rich history of native peoples, hear their stories, feel their pain and learn from their values and patterns of life.
  4. Rejoice that even through suffering many Native Americans received the Gospel message and share in the body of Christ.
  5. Recognize the leadership of the United Native Ministries Council (UNMC), and learn to know and support in love and prayer the member congregations and congregations eligible for membership in the Council.
  6. Advocate for appropriate redressing of injustices done to native people in the past, and for just and constructive programs of human betterment for native peoples now and in the future. We would welcome guidance from UNMC on how to work at this. A first suggestion from the Council is the building of relationships with Native Americans in our home communities.
  7. Renew a commitment to the mission of Christ in North America that is sensitively inclusive of peoples of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues.
  8. Reaffirm the global nature of the church and its mission and resist the provincial attitude characteristic of nationalistic celebrations.

The statement then encouraged congregations to use resources for worship and education that were suitable for congregational observances of 1992.6

In its triennial session at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, July 22-26, 1992, the General Conference conducted a worship service which focused on the experience of Native Americans. Emma LaRocque preached a sermon entitled, After Columbus: Reflections on Human Freedom and Justice. The assembly responded with a statement of confession. After a preamble of Native speakers, the non-Native members of the assembly responded with the following readings and prayer:

Small group (people of non-Native descent): Lord God, as those whose ancestors came from across the waters, we acknowledge the great freedom we have experienced on this beautiful continent. We have the opportunities of self-government and education. Many of us have become powerful and wealthy.

We regret that our striving for comfort, wealth and freedom brought harm to the Native peoples of the Americas. We confess to you that we have not followed your ways in our treatment of the Native people of this continent. We have not followed the loving servanthood way of Jesus. We have been silent and sometimes blind participants in a society that has gravely sinned against the people that were named Indians. In doing so we have sinned against you, O God. We ask you to hear our confession and to heal the brokenness that we have created and now also feel.

Reader one: To you, our Native sisters and brothers, we offer our thanks: for the generous gifts that insured the survival of our forebears and that enriched the life of peoples around the world; for agricultural skills and food products; for items of survival such as clothing and shelter; for hygiene and medicines; for recreational pastimes and skills; for expressions of music, art and poetry; for gifts of administration and forms of government. You understood that the earth belongs to the Creator and that the gifts of mother earth were to be shared. You shared the precious gift of land with us. We thank you for your great generosity.

Reader two: We confess to you that as part of our society, many times our response to your generosity was an insatiable greed for more land and for control of the Creator’s earthly resources. We have brought diseases and poverty to you and have shown disrespect for your traditions. We have, since the time of Columbus until this day, practiced violence against your nations by evicting you from the land you lived on from time immemorial. We have despised and weakened your culture through our laws, by breaking treaties and by imposing our education systems on you. We have shown disrespect for you as a people and have taught our children to do likewise. Through forcing the residential school system on you and through our social agencies we have often torn apart your families and denied you the use of your own language.

Reader three: We are grateful that we have become brothers and sisters through the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, we confess that we have not always communicated the good news as we should have. At times we inflicted pain and confusion and a spirit of condescension. We failed to respect your sacred history. We frequently failed to act as sisters and brothers toward you. We failed to confront the systems that robbed you, denied you justice and caused divisions among you. History shows that the church, at times, collaborated with the political structures that waged war against you. We confess our sin to you before God and we ask for your forgiveness.

Reader four: We must do more than ask for forgiveness. We are faced with an awesome challenge to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly in relation to you, our Native sisters and brothers, before our God.

Small group: We commit ourselves to strive for an accurate understanding of the past 500 years. We will move beyond our biased reading of that history to listen to your story and your experiences.

We pledge ourselves to listen as you share your pain and anger over the injustices you have endured. We will listen to your hopes and your vision for the generations to come. We will seek to respond with justice and love as joint heirs of the kingdom of God.

Entire assembly: The treaties that formed a covenant between us in the past have been broken continuously. It is time for a new covenant.

A covenant sign that is common to our traditions and experiences is that of adoption whereby strangers, even enemies, become members of each other’s households.

We commit ourselves to breaking down the dividing walls between us by extending to each other the peace, friendship, and love that we give to family members.

As God, through his love and mercy, adopted us as children, we promise to adopt one another, Native and non-Native, as brothers and sisters in Christ.7

One can raise the question about the effectiveness of such a confession. However inadequate such statements may be, they did what Paul Erb called for—acknowledge complicity in the dispossession of land, and revise a triumphalist view of history.

But something that goes beyond acknowledgment and revision of history is the Return to the Earth Project. Lawrence Hart initiated the project with MCC. It is now supported by an ecumenical effort of more than 80 faith-based groups. The mission of the Return to the Earth project supports Native Americans in burying unidentifiable ancestral remains now scattered across the United States and enables a process of education and reconciliation between Native and Non-Native peoples.8

Saturday morning we heard this project addressed by Dr. Sherry Hutt, program manager of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA,) Project, Erica Littlewolf, board member of MCC Central States, and Rachel Pannabecker, director of Kauffman Museum. Then we participated in the ground blessing ceremony at the burial site at the Cheyenne Cultural Center.

This is a project which goes beyond confessional statements. We might call it an act of restorative justice. A study guide for congregations invites participation by constructing burial boxes, sewing burial cloths, and making monetary contributions. Restorative justice recognizes the interconnectedness among people, and invites us to support the return of Native American remains so that they can be buried with dignity on their land.9Native Americans have invited us to participate. Even if they did not need our participation, it may be something we need to do.

In 2004 the leaders of the Evangelical-Reformed Church of the Canton of Zurich, Switzerland, invited Mennonites and other Anabaptist descendants to a ceremony of reconciliation. They offered various statements of confession for the persecution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. As a part of the ceremonies, they placed and dedicated a stone tablet at the place by the Limmat River where Felix Mantz, and five other Anabaptists were drowned.

At some point in our discussions leading up to the event, I gently protested, saying that we felt no need to hear such confessions. Forgiveness was granted long ago. Furthermore, Zurich city fathers had issued apologies at the Mennonite World Conference in 1925, and again in 1951. Peter Dettwiler, ecumenical minister for the Reformed church said in response, It may be true that you do not need to hear our confessions, but it is something weneed to do.

Our ancestors failed, as Paul Erb put it, to see that they were benefitting fairly directly from the destruction of other people’s lives and communities. But we now have an opportunity to take a small step toward restorative justice by participating in the Return to the Earth Project. Whether or not our Native American brothers and sisters need our help, may I suggest that weneed it for our own spiritual wellbeing.

In closing, I invite us to prayer the prayer offered by Hubert Brown at the 1992 triennial session of the General Conference:

You have heard us, O God, as we have shared our grief and as we have confessed our sin. Now we ask you to hear us as we pray for unity among us as we strive for a new relationship for the future.

Help us to practice love and hospitality toward each other; to be full of reverence for all you have created and all you are still creating.

Give us the courage to walk down the paths you have called us to travel together. Grant us the grace to accept our differences, even while we strive to be united through Jesus Christ, your Son and your greatest gift to us.

Let us walk forward unashamedly to greet each new day as brothers and sisters bound together in true Christian love, until our time upon this earth is complete.

Help us respect each other and all of your creation. Help us to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly together, before you.

Take away our hostilities and give us peace.

Let our fires burn brightly and illumine the outer darkness.

These things we ask of you as humble, obedient children of God. In Jesus’ name, Amen.10