Thoughts during Native American Heritage Month | November 6, 2022 Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
Only the Indian people are the original people of
America. Our roots are buried deep in the soils of
America. We are the only people who have continued
with the oldest beliefs of this country. We are the people
who still yet speak the languages given to us by the
This is our homeland. We came from no other country.
We have always looked at ourselves as human beings . . .
Every tribe has a trail of tears. We wonder when it is going to end.
Phillip Deere (1929-1984)
Phillip Deere’s wondering helps me in my engagement with the journey of the American Indian, Native American, Indigenous people. We may be tempted to say that his reflection was prior to the creation of Native American Heritage Month which is now celebrated annually during the month of November. President George H. W. Bush on August 30, 1990, made the designation “to observe such month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities".
President Joe Biden has proclaimed that "we celebrate Indigenous peoples past and present and rededicate ourselves to honoring Tribal sovereignty, promoting Tribal self-determination, and upholding the United States' solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations."
That’s a big step forward, isn’t it? Plus, they have casinos now.
Biden listed various programs to indicate his administration’s support of “Indian Country.” Yet none of it is enough and avoids the essential question of the violation of the spiritual journey of Native American peoples. We are still doling out responses to symptoms but not what ails Native Americans and therefore our nation, the nation of us, all of us. The interdependence that was broken long ago has not been remedied. No repentance from the nation’s original sin has occurred.
Dr. Howard Thurman addresses my agony.
“The American Indian is the only indigenous people within the confines of American sovereignty. The merciless and ruthless attack on the ground of community in the life of the American Indian is completely amoral: To uproot him from territory that gave him a rare sense of belonging, in which he could actualize his potential within a frame of reference that was totally confirming, and at the same time to keep him in full or relative view of his devastated and desecrated extension of self that the land signified is a unique form of torture, a long, slow, anguished dying. The original insider is forced to become an outsider in his own territory. There are some things in life that are worse than death – surely this must be judged as such….”
What happens when one is uprooted from land that gives a sense of belonging, identity, family, community, support, and quest? What happens when this extension of self is obliterated and one is forced to see it, live with it, and legitimize it? What does that do to the soul? And what does it say to the people carrying out such dastardly deeds? What happens to moral moorings? Is this our nation’s original sin that we refuse even today to address with the seriousness and depth required?
Our Native relatives were just that, relatives. Not only we but the land and all that was upon it, in it, through it, above, and under the land were relatives. If we could have lived this understanding of interdependence, ecological interdependence, we would not have the environmental destruction and horrors we face today.
I am talking about the need for understanding all of life as a spiritual journey. And without that, we have little hope of becoming the people and nation we must become to save this land, its soul, our home.
Without this understanding, you can refuse to designate remnants of the Shellmound in Emeryville where Native ancestors are buried as sacred and vote instead to build over those dead bodies the Bay Street Shopping Mall.
In her extraordinary book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate deepens this concern about the misappropriation of Native ancestry.
Imagine if we natives went to the cemeteries in your
cities and dug up your beloved relatives, pulled off
rings, watches, and clothes, and called them “artifacts,”
then carried the bones over to the university for study so
we could understand you. Consider that there are more
bones of native people in universities and museums for
study, than there are those of us living.
Always when dealing with history or the official narrative of a nation, we need to understand there are other narratives, other stories, other understandings of what happened. To see the underside of history requires humility, sensitivity, and a willingness to understand, learn, and be open. Narratives from subjugated people and communities have the power to point us to the wholeness that the future offers. There is within these knowledge systems wisdom, sustainability, alternative forms of living, resilience, and spiritual well-being. Harjo writes:
We all have helpers in seen and unseen realms.
Give them something to do.
Otherwise, they will grow inattentive with boredom.
They can clean junk from your mind,
Find the opening note for the chorus of a song,
Or give a grandchild a safe path through the dark.
They will not give you winning numbers at the casino,
Wash your dishes or take out an enemy.
Feed them once in a while.
- Joy Harjo
Bless the poets, the workers for justice,
the dancers of ceremony, the singers of heartache,
the visionaries, all makers and carriers of fresh
meaning – We will all make it through,
despite politics and wars, despite failures
and misunderstandings. There is only love.
- Joy Harjo
In the first few years of my being here at Fellowship Church, something happened that I want to share with you.
I was in the back of the sanctuary waiting for the processional to begin. Coming up the stairs and now appearing before me was a Native American associate – one with whom I had worked attempting to educate others on Native American experiences of injustice and therefore non-Native American perpetuation of injustice. Quite honestly, I was surprised to see him at church. We had never discussed his religious propensities. He stated that the reason he was at Fellowship Church was that he had been unable to attend a protest gathering at Livermore Nuclear Lab regarding the explosions of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki committed by the United States government, not the Russian government. And he knew that I would address in my sermon this painful, numbing atrocity that killed hundreds of thousands.
He and a friend took a seat. The processional began. I ascended the pulpit for the Call to Worship or Assembly using that anchoring passage from Isaiah 40:31. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
The passage begins with verse 27 in which a complaint is raised against Yahweh, God. Its source is the crisis of people in exile. Why do you say, O Jacob and speak O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?” It is a complaint. It is saying we are suffering under the weight of exile, being cut off from our resources of strength. What’s wrong with you God? Do you not see or understand what is happening to us, the problems we are facing? Or are you just too weak to do anything? The question raised set us up beautifully for the powerful response from God. God understands, is powerful, and instructs them: They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
After reciting the passage, I did something that I had never done before and haven’t done since. I walked to where he was sitting and asked: “Would you like to give the prayer?” He responded: “Yes. I would and I brought my eagle feather with me.” The eagle feather is a symbol of the height eagles climb and their bravery. It is also a symbol of the Great Spirit from whom wisdom, power, resources, and strength are conferred upon the individual/community.
When he prayed, I could feel ancestors coming into the sanctuary. Not his ancestors only, they were ancestors of all of those assembled. It’s as if the floor was shaking, moving to give them the room needed to be fully present to speak to us, to encourage and renew us, to ground us, to let us know that we were being accompanied on our journeys by spiritual companions who knew the way before us and would not let us stray. There was palpable energy. And he prayed and prayed, and they mounted.
When he finished, I was transfixed, in a realm beyond the vicissitudes of life, in a place of deep knowing and experiencing life on another plane.
All I could do was say that there was nothing else to be said in terms of a sermon and gave the benediction. From congregants I encountered, they were in a similar space as I was.
Native American Ancestry is our ancestry and legacy also. I believe that they, our ancestors are still with us in this place. Those who believed in this community that seeks to harmonize itself with those across barriers socially and personally erected but not eternal barriers are still with us. And they long to be with us beyond this time and place. They seek to share in our daily lives.
Those who could see into the future predicted the
Storm long before the first settler stepped on the shores
of the Mvskoke story. What was known in both worlds
broke. In Jazz, a break takes you to the skinned-down
bones. You stop for a moment and bop through the
opening, then keep playing to the other side of a dark
and heavy history.
- Joy Harjo
I invite you to attend our worship service today which will include special music from the Brass Quintet from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Remember to join us this Friday, November (the 11th month), 11 (11th day) at 11:00 AM (11th hour) for a ritual ringing of the church bell commemorating the declaration of Armistice Day, November 11, 11:00 AM, 1918. On that day, nations pledged to “lay down their swords and shields and study war no more.” Let us remind ourselves to continue to work for this ideal.