LOUISVILLE – As part of its cultural humility training, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board participated in a “blanket exercise” on Sept. 22 – an interactive experience teaching them about the impact of white colonialism on indigenous peoples. (Click here for more on the Doctrine of Discovery and the board’s response.) It’s the story of land forceably taken, smallpox deliberately spread, broken promises, manifest destiny, death, executions, malnutrition, wars, reservations and the forced loss of homelands and culture.
Participants representing Native peoples stood on blankets – their territory growing ever smaller as white expansion, buttressed by the Doctrine of Discovery, claimed more and more.
A Native American asked during the exercise: “Why do you ask us to leave the rivers and the sun and the wind and live in houses? Do not ask us to give up the buffalo and sheep.”
He was told: “You must no more stop this than you can stop the sun or the moon. You must submit.”
People on the reservations were told not to speak their languages or practice traditional spirituality. Their children were sent to boarding schools far from home, where they often were not given enough food. Some children died. People were told: “You may not leave your reservation without a permit. You may not vote. You may not discuss your rights.”
The participants also discussed contemporary realities: violence against Native American women, the dumping of toxic waste and pollution on indigenous lands, drug abuse, diabetes, poverty.
After the exercise, participants were asked to share some of their feelings – many painful recognitions. Anger. Shock. Remorse. Discerning the cost of resistance. “Whether there’s hope for this church.”
James Parks, who said he is both African-American and Cherokee, thought “how racism is not only the original sin of this country, but the basis on which it was built.”
Samuel Son, recently hired as the manager for diversity and reconciliation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said: “I thought I was woke, but I didn’t know. … We have to know the truth.”
Having been given only part of the history, “I have been brainwashed. We are given truncated history that still justifies those with power as legitimate. So we need to be burdened. Truth sets us free, but first it burdens us. We have to learn to carry that burden, understand it.”
Recognizing that “the church supported this extermination” makes him wonder what theologies need to be critiqued today, Son said. “What are the theologies that need to be challenged” – what dehumanization, “which still continues in this generation,” needs to be battled today?
The blanket exercise was developed by Kairos in Canada. More information is available here.
– All photos by Leslie Scanlon.