Anton Treuer, Professor of Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota-Bemidji, succinctly explained why community conversations around race lose momentum.
On one hand, those conversation can feel self-congratulatory, more a pat-on-the-back event, he said. That can be frustrating for people who came hoping to dig in on difficult topics around race and the racism that exist today. On the other hand, if the conversation gets too intense, some people get uncomfortable and just walk away.
Treuer has been trying a third way through a model called Courageous Conversations. And on a recent night, about 50 people, mostly white, mostly older, turned out for a conversation called “What does reconciliation look like?” at Bemidji’s First Lutheran Church.
The Courageous Conversations model is about engaging in difficult conversations but in a way that respects people’s stories, Treuer said.
“This isn’t about beating people up for the sins of their ancestors,” Treuer said. “We all landed here in an imperfect world and we don’t get a blank canvas to start painting. But at the same time, paint we must if we want to have a different picture.” …
We can’t get to “Healed” and skip “Healing.” We can’t get to “Reconciled” and skip all the Reconciling.” Ultimately we are going to have to do some heavy lifting: Everybody.
Treuer has been holding these conversations since at least 2014, (see this Bemidji Pioneer story). Last fall, Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation partnered with Peacemaker Resources to announce a year-long series of community dialogues titled: “Building the Bridge: Taking Courageous Action on Racial Reconciliation,” (see this Bemidji Pioneer story.)
This work is a powerful witness in the north woods, where tensions can run high around treaty rights and race relations. Treuer recalled a tribal boycott of Bemidji businesses back in the 1960s following a racial incident.
Other conflicts range from fishing rights to the recent and controversial proposal to expand a tar sands crude oil pipeline through areas where the Ojibwe have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather.
This is long-term and difficult work that starts with relationship building. The Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation events are no different than the work we at Healing Minnesota Stories are trying to do — create dialogue, understanding and healing between Native and non-Native people, particularly in the context of our religious communities. This work deserves both recognition and support.
A Deep Seeded Lack of Trust
Talking about inclusion and diversity with Native Americans in a Christian context quickly turns to the history of colonization, forced conversions of Native peoples, and the intentional destruction of indigenous cultures, languages, and religions.
Treuer is traditional Ojibwe and officiates at ceremonies such as the Medicine Dance. He summarized it this way:
The historical experience of Native people, every piece of land that someone else acquired was a piece of land that was taken, and there is a hard story about how it was taken. It was not honorably negotiated and properly compensated for. There was a taking. And our introduction to western religious stuff was also a taking. Even the taking of our children, out of their homes, and sending them to religious schools where they received harsh physical discipline and no nurturing, an attack on our language, culture, and way of being. And all because people from those faith traditions thought it was in the best interests of those young kids to have that experience. And so today, how do we get more of them to come to our church without reconciling all of this damage?
Treuer moderated a panel discussion that included Rita Chamblin, a lay leader in Unitarian Universalism; Kristin Majkrzak from the Baha’i tradition, and Pastor Linnea Papke-Larson of First Lutheran Church, the host congregation.
They discussed some basic questions, such as “What is inclusion?” “How do we do inclusion?” And “What concerns you about the demographics in your faith community?” Those eventually sparked rich and honest conversations among participants.
A Native man said the church can find other ways build diversity and inclusion other than having native people join the church. It is about mutual respect. “I will never be Christian and that should be OK,” he said. “We may not be Lutherans, but we could do things together, and that’s the way to build a sense of community with congregations. It is not getting converts and then you do something together, but rather it is reaching out together, and linking arms together.”
A woman stood up to echo the importance of mutual respect, but offered a different perspective. She identified as both Native American and Christian. “There is also an idea that you have to be one or the other. … That is an important piece to be recognized and be part of this conversation tonight.”
“Sometimes I have found in my personal and my professional life I feel shy about talking about my faith, worrying about what other people think and worrying that might make me seem less Indian or … less authentic to some people. I just feel strongly that I needed to say something about that.”
A white woman spoke, acknowledging both the horrible history of the Christian church’s forced conversation and oppression of Native peoples as well as her belief in the Christian message: “I don’t feel I have to convince or change people,” she said. “But also it is my tradition to tell people about Jesus and what he teaches.”
She also expressed feeling conflicted about wanting to incorporate an “Ojibwe moment” in some of her church’s services. She wondered if that would be seen as cultural appropriation or patronizing. “These conversations are helpful,” she said.
The dialogue touched on declining church enrollments. Pastor Papke-Larson said that ELCA churches are not filled the same way they were when she was young. “It is something we think about a lot,” she said. “We hear a lot about the ‘nones,’ people who have no community of faith, and the ‘dones,’ the people who have been there, done that, and don’t want to have part in a faith community.”
Treuer said the Native community had the opposite problem, with a growing interest in Native spiritual traditions. “We also have been through 500 pretty rough years,” he said. “We have other barriers that are making it hard for people to access their faith community.”
One big challenge is keeping the Ojibwe language alive, he said — language is the medium of religious work. “That is the language we use for ceremony. Those are big concerns.”
Acknowledging Christian Diversity
One man who identified himself as Lutherans made the self evident yet profound point that not all Lutherans think alike. “Yet when we want to represent ourselves to those outside of our tradition, we always want to look more in agreement and uniform than we really are,” he said.
It would be helpful if Lutherans were more honest about the fact that they don’t all believe all of that stuff and still hand out with each other. That insight could help people be more embracing of people from other faiths, or no faith at all.
Treuer ended the evening challenging people in the room to be courageous and speak up in their faith communities when they hear something offensive. If someone says something mean about race, or gender, or sexual orientation, someone speaking out from within the community would have more power than an outsider. It could be as simple as saying: “Hey, that is not our way,” he said.
It is important to acknowledge that some of the most divisive public communication around race is happening in and around faith communities right now. …. Religion can liberate and religion can oppress. If we are silent, we allow the negative voices to wield something that we hold very dear as a weapon of oppression, and we enable that. So we have to get a little braver to make sure we are empowering the positive voices and shaping the discussion around the values we would like to see held close.