Today I am sitting at my desk and have attempted to write this article three separate times. No matter how many times I attempt to type these words, it just doesn’t feel good enough. As of June 29, 2021 the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada uncovered 751 unmarked graves at the former site of a residential school. More than 200 unmarked graves were also discovered at another residential school in British Columbia, Canada. It is expected that within the next weeks more bodies of Indigenous children will be discovered.
What does a person say in this situation? Our governments funded and worked with Christian institutions to tear Indigenous children away from their parents in order to erase tribal culture and procure a firm Anglicized society. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the United States had 357 schools that inflicted this abuse upon First Nations children. These schools are located in 30 states and by 1926 more than 60,000 documented children were taken to these schools. We cannot say what happened to the thousands of undocumented children or their families.
Regarding this delicate topic, I want to keep the focus on current events and current information. I will have a reference section at the end so that you can explore further. This article is going to attempt to help inform you about the current situation surrounding some of the injustices inflicted upon the First Nations people. I want to also tie in experiences and impacts from a Pagan perspective. This article has been profoundly difficult to write and I ask that each person who reads this does so with an open heart and mind.
Looking At Facts
The fact is, I will never be able to speak for the experiences of millions. I am not Native American or Indigenous to North America in any way. In fact, my ancestors likely inflicted various levels of intolerance towards Indigenous people. Another fact is, if you are white and a citizen in the U.S.A or Canada you also cannot speak for the Indigenous experience. I have strong opinions around topics related to the treatment of Native Americans as we see it today. I have stronger opinions about the education system explicitly dodging reality.
While I am married to someone who is Anishinaabe and have listened to the upsetting stories regarding his family’s narrative, this is something I am choosing to keep private. His family’s story it is not my experience and I deeply value their privacy in this matter. Instead, I want to start a dialogue regarding our harrowing history and encourage that history to expand beyond this blog. I also want to discuss why this is deeply important for the Pagan community. After all, this is a Pagan blog and there is an impact that we have made in these injustices.
Let us start with events in the United States. On June 22, 2021 Deb Haaland ordered an official investigation into the history of violence from U.S. boarding schools. This will be carried out in a similar model as the investigation in Canada. Researchers will begin by examining first-hand accounts from Indigenous people who attended one of the 357 boarding schools. The investigation collects and analyzes details around alleged rape, abuse, sexual assault, or religious / state commissioned kidnapping.
Take a pause: I need to pause, mainly because I don’t think anyone who is not Native American can truly grasp what I am saying. We are examining accounts of humans, just like you, that were (in some cases) kidnapped from their parents and faced prospects of never coming home. The horror of this real-life scenario is very much beyond the privileged minds of many American people. Empathy can be difficult when examining this level of trauma. Our minds and bodies protect us from exploring this level of pain, which is a good thing. Though, I am asking for a moment that you do allow your heart to explore it.
Resuming the process of the investigation. Once the government has sufficient details they can begin the next phase, which may include searches for human remains. The order of investigation, as it stands today, will last up to six years and is said to attempt a thorough examination of these schools. However, this isn’t the first time the American government was made aware of the potential murders. More than two decades ago, Kevin Gover – Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs – issued a public apology for the psychological and physical violence committed against children at the boarding schools. Again, President Barack Obama silently issued an apology that was publicly buried from the media.
Don’t Look Away
These detailed accounts are painful, beyond painful; they are the stuff of generational inherited trauma. You’re not a terrible person for wanting to avoid or shy away from these topics. They are deep and contentious among the general public. I think that it is important to ask why it is contentious though. Why are we afraid to face our country’s errors and attempt to make amends? Is it because making amends seems insurmountable? Is it because you are afraid your socioeconomic standing will fall? Or is it because you feel an overwhelming amount of apathy towards historical wrongdoing?
My article isn’t here to judge you for your personal feelings regarding America’s disturbing history. My article is here to invite you to seek information, learn, and view another person’s opinion. I implore you, do not look away from our historical and modern terrors. Our job is to ensure we progress as a civilization and in order to do this we need to acknowledge the things we did wrong along the way. We are bound to mess up again but that shouldn’t deter us from amending our actions.
I have pointed out how we have a pattern of making half-assed apologies to people we have deeply harmed. This needs to stop, now! Our government needs to listen to the concerns from our neglected, mistreated, and abused Indigenous people. We still commit these offenses today in several ways. It is your job to listen, learn, and critically think about our mistreatment. Do not assume that you’re above error just because you purchase a blanket or art piece from Native Americans. If you’re not actively trying to give a platform for Native American people to succeed, you are still part of the problem.
Take a pause: Does the above statements offend you? If so, I need you to explore why that might be. I guarantee that the true root of this offense was a learned behavior, part of our manifest destiny. Remember singing “This land is your land, this land is my land”? Manifest destiny gives us a sense of entitlement to say we are beyond the problem because we were not the ones who committed the crime. However, I must ask again, are you actively supporting and making room for Native American people to have a shared platform?
Beyond making room for Native Americans to have a shared voice we need to demand the unexpected. We need to push our government to actually do something with their apologies. These initiatives are long overdue and people need to take accountability. In this particular situation we need the victims of these boarding schools to be redeemed. The United States government with the help of Christian institutions stole children from their parents, stripped them of their hair, their language, their innocence, and their identities. We need to offer more than thoughts and prayers for this situation. We need to be upset, we need to wail in anger with our Indigenous neighbors, and we need to demand the unexpected to happen today.
Pagans – I am Talking To You
My friends, we are guilty of harming a group of people. Whether that is intentional or unintentional, we have supported it. I don’t mean to be indelicate when I say that our assumed opinion of the Indigenous experience is null and that we have harmed others. We know the hot topics that ignite passion in our forums and we are well aware of which areas need to be confronted.
I’ve explored some areas that are heinous, to say the least. I have asked that you pause and meditate on our shared past. Now I am asking that you act with respect in our present and work harder for our future as a nation. Let’s explore a few areas that pertain to the modern Pagan movement and our shared impact with Native American people. I’d like to start with something that is widely disputed in the Pagan community and the New Age community: the misappropriation of Native American culture.
I can already picture the arguing, bickering, and senseless ramblings that are coming after I post this. In countless forums and groups I see arguments regarding the misappropriation of Native American products. More often than not the comments supporting the use of items like white sage or ritual tools comes from a white person who hasn’t taken a micro-minute to actually do valuable research. This is problematic and frankly supports the suppression we should be fighting against.
So you found out that you shouldn’t use white sage and now you’re up in arms. You just did a fun photo shoot for Instagram and misappropriated a headdress. Now the world is vilifying you and you just don’t understand what the problem is. Both of these scenarios come up more often than they should and they are adding to an even larger problem than your misguided entitlement. By spending time arguing about the use of white sage or misappropriation of Native American ceremonial dress, you are choosing to shine a light on the wrong platform.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about this issue. I am saying that this issue has been hashed out time and time again in our forums. If someone says, “don’t do this because it is cultural misappropriation”, be the wise person and face the fact that they might be right. Take a moment to learn about why it is cultural misappropriation or even what the big word means. Then move on and tackle the larger issue. The larger issue being, giving attention to those who deserve it most, the Indigenous people themselves. Stop wasting time arguing about a topic that we already know to problematic. Give your energy towards the fight against injustice.
The second topic I would like to go over is our experience on this soil. Being Pagan in North America can be tricky. We have to both acknowledge that this land was not our own and find a way to respect the spirits of this land. I’ve experienced the spirits of the land and know all too well what it feels like to second guess my actions. After all, the very ground I live on was forcefully taken from people in a violent manner. However, I can assure you that if you approach any topic or any spirit from a place of respect, you’re going to be okay. Learning about the local tribes/bands has been tremendously helpful in my experiences and I know it can enhance your own.
Take a pause: I want to ask you a couple of questions. Do you feel receptive to learning about the lay of the land around you? Have you also felt conflict with your religious teachings and how they serve the spirits of the land? Write about this and explore your region. Example: I live in Utah and we face droughts annually. My offerings to the land spirits are water, sliced fruit, and seeds. This helps the land a great deal more than whiskey or tobacco might. However, in your region whiskey and tobacco might make perfect sense.
The final item I want to explore with you is how to help build a platform and how to help the current events. Before I go further I want to reiterate that these words are opinions from someone who is not Indigenous to North America. I cannot speak for their experiences, preferences, or needs. My article is here to help share an opinion that is based on cultural education, personal accounts, and shared experiences. I acknowledge that I will have a lifelong process of learning about other cultural experiences and that is something I deeply treasure.
How do we help build a platform and try to better this situation? First, learn all that you can about the current situations that Indigenous people face. Learn about voter suppression for Native Americans. Learn about the countless rapes and murders that go uninvestigated because the victim is Native American. Learn about the massacres that took place in your own state. Study all that you can about how our nation has avoided acknowledging the genocide of Indigenous people. Then share your knowledge so that we can begin to correct our nation’s history.
Second, give directly to Native American people. Native American trading posts exist in every state and funds directly benefit the people we want to support. If you are not near a Native American-owned retailer, support stores that buy directly from reservations. You will find that in most cases a genuine Native American-made item will come with an identifying tag. Another way to help is to give money to proceeds that benefit reservations directly. This can often include shopping for necessities and directly donating them to a reservation. Additionally, the investigations of American boarding schools are accepting donations. This is an outstanding way to help heal past trauma.
Finally, the absolute best way to make room on our stage is politically. Vote for bills that allow for equality and that support minority groups. Reach out to your congressperson and demand that they do better for Indigenous people in your area. Ensure that you are not apathetic towards making room on our political stage for voices that deserve to be heard. Support the voices of those who lived on this land first.
References & Resources
- Boarding School Education and Donation – This is a must-read website
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center – Another outstanding resource
- Native American Rights Fund – US Chapter
- Native American Cultural Misappropriation
- Boarding School News Article
- Boarding School News Article
- History of Native American Boarding School Article