Refuting false doctrine during Thanksgiving season
Thanksgiving’s roots in an encounter between European settlers and indigenous people point to a dark side of that history.
Mennonites who want to raise awareness of unjust treatment of indigenous people are using a little-known historical precedent — the Doctrine of Discovery — to show how indigenous people are still being negatively affected today.
Sarah Augustine is a member of Seattle Mennonite Church and part of a group seeking to “dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery” through education and political action.
According to the group’s website, the Doctrine of Discovery “is a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous peoples.”
Augustine describes herself as an ethnically Pueblo woman from the territory now known as New Mexico.
“I often describe myself as an indigenous displaced person,” she said. Because her father was separated from his family as a baby, she has no legal affiliation with her tribe.
Presidential proclamations have designated November as Native American Heritage Month, but perspectives on the season vary among different cultural traditions in the U.S.
“I think friends and family getting together and giving thanks for harvest, specifically the gift of the Creator, is a very indigenous way of being together,” Augustine said. “I think the challenging part about Thanksgiving itself is the narrative that accompanies that.”
She said the commonly told stories of the first Thanksgiving tend to convey “the notion that it was a pleasant experience — it was not,” she said. “It was devastating to indigenous people.”
Augustine works as co-director of the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, advocating for the indigenous Wayana people of Suriname, a country on the northern coast of South America. She says the Doctrine of Discovery continues to affect indigenous people like the Wayana, who are suffering health and environmental problems as a result of their land being mined for gold.
“Mining in their region has caused their fish to be contaminated with mercury,” Augustine said. “They don’t have clean and sustainable options for food and water. Their lands are also being militarized and given away by the government as concessions for mining. That’s all based in the Doctrine of Discovery. That’s an example of how the Doctrine of Discovery is playing out today.”
In the U.S., indigenous people still do not have direct tribal representation in Congress, Augustine said.
“When the reservation system was created, it was created with the intention of removing indigenous people from their lands permanently, decreasing the number of in people as much as possible, and making sure they had no representation,” she said. “[The Doctrine of Discovery] is an oppressive and violent structure that is inherent throughout our political, economic and legal system.”
Knowing real history
In the Mennonite Central Committee Central States office in North Newton, Kan., peace and justice education coordinator Karin Kaufman Wall said there are numerous versions of the story of the first Thanksgiving.
“The way that we have traditionally understood Thanksgiving isn’t the indigenous view of Thanksgiving. Wampanoag people mark Thanksgiving as a day of mourning,” she said, referring to the indigenous people who met with the English in the famous Thanksgiving story. “The version that we are all told today is a sanitized version to make us all feel good. I think it’s an intentional retelling of history to the point where we don’t even know the real history.”
Kaufman Wall works with Erica Littlewolf, program administrator for MCC Central States Indigenous Visioning Circle. They take an interactive program called “The Loss of Turtle Island” to churches, college campuses and other organizations to “share basic information on Native American history and show where Mennonites have participated in and resisted that history,” Littlewolf said.
“As Mennonites, we tend to want to say that we didn’t participate in the extermination of indigenous people in this country; we didn’t take the land from them,” Kaufman Wall said. “But as you look at the history, Mennonites followed behind. As people were pushed off the land, Mennonites followed very shortly behind.”
The education on North American indigenous history by MCC Central States challenges Mennonites to “look at ourselves, the way we’ve interpreted Scripture, the language of our hymns and mission organizations — to take a close look at that and ask how our lives are intermingled with indigenous people today,” Kaufman Wall said.
“The underpinning for all that history is the Doctrine of Discovery,” Littlewolf said.
Not just an artifact
The Doctrine of Discovery coalition group has produced a short documentary film, The Doctrine of Discovery: In the Name of Christ, meant to be used in small groups, Sunday school classes or congregations. It is available on DVD or can be streamed or downloaded at dofdmenno.org.
A study guide is planned for this spring, Augustine said.
“I hope that we are going to make a commitment to work collectively for peace,” she said. “I think part of that is to petition the Creator of life together in that pursuit and to lament the violent structures that are in place now. We can do that in our congregations, but those words are meaningless without a commitment to change course.”
Augustine believes in taking direct political action to undo the Doctrine of Discovery.
“It’s not a historical artifact — it is the law today,” she said. “It is an oppressive and violent structure that is inherent throughout our political, economic and legal system.”
Political advocacy is a big part of Augustine’s work with the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund.
“I think it’s tempting to believe that the main way to impact the world is as consumers,” she said. “Whenever structural violence is going on, we have to work collectively to change the laws and policies that support that. My perspective is that as people of faith, we can work collectively to dismantle those structures.”
Augustine is also working with the World Council of Churches for ecumenical advocacy for indigenous peoples.
“I believe Anabaptists have a particular gift and call in this work as peacemakers,” she said. “Anabaptists have been historically the first to stand for justice, even when it’s inconvenient.”
Privilege to make peace
Augustine believes there is openness among Mennonites to learn more about their historical relationship to indigenous peoples. She noted the documentary reached its funding goal of $20,000 within two weeks, thanks to many individual and some institutional donations.
The coalition group has also produced an exhibit on the Doctrine of Discovery that was displayed at the Mennonite Church USA convention and the Mennonite World Conference assembly this past summer. Most recently, it was at Goshen (Ind.) College, and it is scheduled to be at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., this winter.
MC USA has included information about the Doctrine of Discovery and the documentary on its website and hopes to present at its 2017 convention a resolution denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery.
“We have the privilege to spend our life making peace,” Augustine said. “It’s easy to get stuck in this feeling of resentment or guilt that feels immobilizing. In fact, all of us are descended from people we can represent today. We can choose to work together in the name of peace and justice — on behalf of the ones who came before and the ones coming behind us.”
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