Facing the Past to Move Forward

Myself, I’ve got to get to a place where I can accept what Stalin did to people in the Siberian gulags, the scale of it. This, too, is us. This is what we do. That’s why I told my grandson in the book’s prologue, as we stood over the wreckage of that battleship at Pearl Harbor, “This is what we do.” He had no idea that we killed each other on that scale. But I could say to him, “I love you, and I want you to know that this is what we do. And as you grow, you will see a way to help. And I hope that when you do, you choose that path, no matter how hard it is.” Barry Lopez

The World We Still Have, Barry Lopez On Restoring Our Lost Intimacy With Nature By Fred Bahnson The Sun Magazine December 2019

Just today I was reading the Sun article referenced above at a friends suggestion and it seemed an apt introduction to my story today. The following quote does, too. Although I’m old, I’m not sure I’m an elder. But I do often find myself telling people things they don’t want to hear. For my whole adult life I’ve been telling people they need to get rid of their cars, and reduce their carbon footprint.

I think what has happened in our society, and in other Western societies, is that the elders were telling us things we didn’t want to hear, so we’ve gotten rid of them. A lot of their message for us was “You’ve got to grow up. You’re too distracted by venal desires, and you are ignoring your responsibilities to others.” What we’ve said to elders in the West is “Oh, shut up.” We’ve pushed them off into the darkness, denied them a place of respect.

The World We Still Have, Barry Lopez On Restoring Our Lost Intimacy With Nature By Fred Bahnson The Sun Magazine December 2019

Lately I’ve also been telling people we need to learn about the history of White men forcibly removing Native children from their families to attempt to assimilate them into White culture. My experience has been that not many Friends have an accurate awareness of the history of Quakers’ involvement with Quaker Indian Boarding Schools. This is yet another example of how history is rewritten to show the colonists in a better light.

I hadn’t known about the numbers of Native children forced to attend those schools. I didn’t know so many died. I didn’t know about the widespread physical and sexual abuse. I didn’t know the children were forcibly taken from their families, and often not returned for years, if they survived. I didn’t know these children no longer fit into their communities when the did return from the schools. I didn’t know Quakers were so involved with these schools. I didn’t know that trauma is passed from generation to generation.

White people usually don’t want to hear about this and resist bringing up these things now. There are a number of reasons why I believe it is important that we do so.

  • The trauma to Native communities is not a matter of the past. That trauma is passed from generation to generation. That trauma is described as “an open wound” in Native communities today.
  • Native children continue to be removed from their families and are then usually placed with non-native families.
  • The recent U.S. policy of taking children from their parents at the southern border is not the first time this cruelty has been employed.
  • People need to participate in opportunities, like Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, to learn about what actually happened. These meetings should provide the sacred space for Native people who are willing to do so, tell of their experiences. And like the screening of the movie “DAWNLAND”, details found at the end of this post.
  • These shared experiences are important, to help both White and Native people move forward together toward healing.
  • I do not believe we can make progress on justice issues today until we first begin to heal ourselves and those who were harmed by what was done.

As Barry Lopez said in the quote above, speaking to his grandson at Pearl Harbor, I could say to him, “I love you, and I want you to know that this is what we do. And as you grow, you will see a way to help. And I hope that when you do, you choose that path, no matter how hard it is.”

One of the workshops that (Quaker) Paula Palmer led last summer was “The Quaker Indian Boarding Schools, Facing our History and Ourselves” that was part of her ministry “toward right relationships with Native peoples”. It was a bit ironic that the workshop was held at Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding high school that I attended.

The reason for bringing this up again now is because there is an opportunity for you to attend the screening of “DAWNLAND”. This powerful video is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in Maine related to the forced removal of Native children of the Wabanaki people. The video will be shown this Friday, January 10th from 6:30 – 9:00 pm, at the Friends Meetinghouse, 4211 Grand Ave in Des Moines.

The Report of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission can be found here: http://www.mainewabanakitrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/MaineWabanaki-StateTRC-Report_061415a-opt.pdf

A man with long gray braids tells how his mother hid him away when the Indian agents came to take the children. He escaped boarding school by hiding under an overhung bank where the sound of the stream covered his crying. The others were all taken and had their mouths washed out with soap, or worse, for “talking that dirty Indian language.” Because he alone stayed home and was raised up calling the plants and animals by the name Creator gave them, he is here today, a carrier of the language. The engines of assimilation worked well. The speaker’s eyes blaze as he tells us, “We’re the end of the road. We are all that is left. If you young people do not learn, the language will die. The missionaries and the U.S. government will have their victory at last.” A great-grandmother from the circle pushes her walker up close to the microphone. “It’s not just the words that will be lost,” she says. “The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It’s too beautiful for English to explain.” PuhpoweeI

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (p. 50). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.


When we made it back home, back over those curved roads that wind through the city of peace, we stopped at the doorway of dusk as it opened to our homelands.

We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story because it was by the light of those challenges we knew ourselves— We asked for forgiveness.

We laid down our burdens next to each other.

Harjo, Joy. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition

Other blog posts I’ve written about this can be found here: https://atomic-temporary-82209146.wpcomstaging.com/?s=boarding

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has a great many resources.

This entry was posted in decolonize, Indigenous, Quaker, Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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