I try to get in a little reading and writing every morning. The winter solstice season is exceptional for this luxury. With sunlight nearly three hours later than during summer solstice, certain chores—like feeding cattle—can wait until light. Not only can I get in a few more chapters, but I can revisit articles, webinars and such that peaked my interest earlier in the year. Last Friday morning I was doing just that. Returning to an interview I watched a few months ago where I’d made a note saying, Nativity?
The interview was about covenant in the Christian Church. Crow Eddy, a Mi’kmaq elder of the Nova Scotia landscape, opened the session saying, “What I see is broke.” Dr. Lisa Barnett, of the Northern Cherokee of Missouri and Arkansas people, followed up saying, “It is time to return agency to those [Indigenous] bodies and those voices by including them in the larger church [alongside, in communion, in covenant with] other groups within the church, National Convocation, NAPAD, Obra [Hispana].” Barnett’s comment illustrates the brokenness Eddy spoke of. These groups—the very need of these groups within the church—reflect a Church damaged by having institutionalized US and Canadian nationalism. Within the Church is a deep loss of family, of kinship, of place, and of identity. Okay, problematic Church structure, but what has that to do with nativity?
I’m a looker-upper. I find it unnecessary to hold a lot of facts and figures in my head. When the time comes, I figure, I simply need to know where to look up the question or answer. Yet, I’m amazed with those people who seem to retain a library of information in their head. Which is why I turned to the TV channel of Jeopardy that evening. A category named “Native” came up on the game board. “Finally,” I thought, maybe I’ll know the question to one or two of the answers. Sure enough I knew a few. Then came an answer I thought so easy for the Canadian and US contestants, I figured it a good time to head to the kitchen. Name given to schools like the one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where Indian children were taught to forget their language and culture. Nearly out of the room I stopped. Silence. I turned around and the three contestants were just standing there in silence. I’m waiting…no one pushes a button…the buzzer goes off. It might be just me, but I thought the Host appeared surprised, leading to a longer than normal silence after the buzzer before the Host gave the question, “What is Boarding school?”
A telling moment. When three people, who keep a lot more in their head than most North American folk, do not know their governments history of financing and supporting Christian Boarding schools (US) and Christian Residential schools (Canada), whose only goal was to “Christianize and Civilize” Indigenous children, we learn a great deal of who we have become institutionally and, more so, what we have lost. Namely, our nativity.
I once heard an Indigenous person say, they live as if one day they are going to leave. They were talking about US non-Indigenous folk but the comment applies in Canada as well. Though the comment is not true of all non-Indigenous people, it probably applies to most of us. After all, as the Jeopardy episode revealed, we, US and Canadian people, are the result of a generational-education molded by the State. In other words, the State has done well at generationally colonizing and assimilating all of our minds: White, Brown, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black, and Indian. To reside in the North American landscape and not know the history of Boarding and Residential Schools is indicative of how well we did not learn what the State did not teach. I find this is core to Eddy’s statement of brokenness. To not know the history of our landscape of birth is to not know our nativity; there is no greater brokenness than this.
Our place of birth, the landscape of our parents, holds the story of our natural identity. How dirt is lifted and blown by the wind, where water flows in the wet season, how the wild find water in the dry and frozen seasons, why the sunrise of birthplace speaks to our heart, is our story of authentic identity. When we live as if our place of birth is the land of our ancestors, when we live as if we are not going to leave, we become people of landscape. Whether we are Indigenous or not, we should strive to know and live in the landscape as if we are Indigenous.
When we and our siblings are no longer defined by the State, or skin color, or heritage, but rather by landscape, our natural creation becomes evident and our soul becomes recognizable by our passion, our language, our love, our sensitivity, our warmth, and our care. Natural identity allows us to regain knowledge and relationship with our more-than-human relations. Natural identity allows us to recognize the ancients of place, hear the voice of wind and water, and become folded into the kinship of the rooted and the winged. Returning agency, as Barnett speaks of, is to return—while looking toward the future—to the community of our creational siblings. Such is the root of nativity. Life is no longer about existing, but of thriving in the unbearable and breathtaking.
To become a natural being of the American birthplace is to hear and remember the boarding school cry, the shriek of removal, the songs of delight, the stories of marvelous adventure, the naming of healing.
A Note: As a US white-skin person I would be remiss if I did not say this as well. We must recognize State labeled identities assigned to us and our siblings. To not do so is to invite undue privilege on some and death to others. This is why, in this day and age, we must recognize and support organizations whose only focus is to bring widespread recognition to oppression: like those found in the Church.