The Past Isn’t

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

My experience has been there can be no peace without justice. On the streets the chant “no justice, no peace” is often heard. To address an injustice, we need to study its roots and history. If the roots aren’t dealt with the injustice continues to spread.

How we tackle the roots of injustice is a broad, deep and difficult subject. The past two blog posts, “who are you?” and “what can I do?” are intended to begin to answer that question. The first steps in working for justice require each of us taking a look at our lives now, especially our spirituality.

The following explores two parts of addressing injustice.

  • Were our ancestors involved in injustice? If so, it is important for us to process how that affects us today, both in how we see ourselves, and how others might see us. This needs to be brought out into the light before progress can be made.
    • Many Quakers today seem to fear certain acts or beliefs of their ancestors might reflect poorly upon themselves today. Believing we must tell the truth means we have to come as close to the truth as we can. That means telling the bad along with the good.
  • We need to be aware of multigenerational trauma. The consequences of injustice many years ago impacts each succeeding generation

Historical trauma is cumulative and collective. The impact of this type of trauma manifests itself, emotionally and psychologically, in members of different cultural groups (Brave Heart, 2011). As a collective phenomenon, those who never even experienced the traumatic stressor, such as children and descendants, can still exhibit signs and symptoms of trauma.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The two historic injustices that shaped the development of the United States are the institution of slavery and the theft of land from, and the cultural genocide of Native people.

Lately I’ve been led to reflect on the history of the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools because Paula Palmer will be leading a workshop about this at Scattergood Friends School and Farm, a Quaker boarding school, July 7, 2019, 9-11 am.

While preparing to participate in the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March September 1-8, 2018, I wrote a lot in this blog about Quaker spirituality and shared some of those writings with people who would be marching together. I felt I should offer some stories about Quaker spirituality in return for learning about Native spirituality. We can’t understand each other unless everyone participates.

But one of my first thoughts was, “is it valid for me to speak about my spiritual community, some of whom were proponents of and participated in the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools?” That question lived in my heart, but I hadn’t planned to do anything about it. The Spirit did.

The goal of the March was to provide the time and opportunities for a small group (about 40) of Native and non-Native people to get to know each other. In part so the group can work on things of common interest and concern. I had not appreciated ahead of the March that it was such an incredible opportunity to get to know each other. Walking along empty gravel roads for hours at a time provided endless opportunities to share with one person after another. Little by little we each grew to know each other person on the March to varying degrees.

When I mentioned this to Matthew Lone Bear, who I had gotten to know sooner and better than others because of our shared love of photography, he said “yes, this is so much better than other marches. Here people actually talk with each other.” At first the conversations were tentative, but it didn’t take long for people to begin to swap stories, and that’s what happened continuously as we walked.

It didn’t take too many hours of getting to know Matthew when the Spirit led me to say to him, “I know about Quakers’ involvement in the Indian boarding schools. I’m sorry they did that.” I was apprehensive about whether I should have said that, whether that was appropriate or could pull up bad memories. We continued to walk side by side. All I noticed was a slight nod of his head. He always smiles, and that didn’t change.

One of the next times we walked together, Matthew shared a story with me. He had been living at Standing Rock for about six months, when he learned a new rope was needed to ferry people back and forth across a short channel of water. He offered a rope so ferry’s operation could continue. He went on to say his mother called him after she recognized the rope while watching a TV news story. She was very upset because that brought back terrifying memories of how the Native families would try to help their children escape when white men came to kidnap them and take them to a boarding school.

This is an example of what I was trying to say by “The past isn’t.” I think this is one of the main concepts that gets in the way of understanding between Native and non-Native people, and between white people and people of color in general. White people would like to believe that the history of Manifest Destiny in this country is something that happened in the past. Something too late to change, so why keep bringing it up? As it says below, “the multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today. A way has to be found to bridge the abyss before any real progress can be made.

Native American organizations are asking churches to join in a Truth and Reconciliation process to bring about healing for Native American families that continue to suffer the consequences of the Indian boarding schools. Paula Palmer researched the role that Friends played in implementing the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation of Native children.


More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents, grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered. As adults, when the former boarding school students had children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says that for healing to occur, the full truth about the boarding schools and the policy of forced assimilation must come to light in our country, as it has in Canada. The first step in a truth, reconciliation, and healing process, they say, is truth telling. A significant piece of the truth about the boarding schools is held by the Christian churches that collaborated with the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation. Quakers were among the strongest promoters of this policy and managed over 30 schools for Indian children, most of them boarding schools, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The coalition is urging the churches to research our roles during the boarding school era, contribute this research to the truth and reconciliation process, and ask ourselves what this history means to us today.

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing Our History and Ourselves, by Paula Palmer on October 1, 2016
This entry was posted in enslavement, Indigenous, Quaker, Quaker Meetings, Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Past Isn’t

  1. miriam.kashia@gmail.com says:

    Thank you, Jeff, for your thoughtful dedication to compassionately sharing the truth on DI many ways. I’ll plan to attend in 7/7 if I can & look fwd to seeing you. In service to a just & livable future for all beings, miriam

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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