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I Don’t Know

Last summer season a friend suggested I read Reclaiming Two Spirits.  I’ve enjoyed their books and the way they think.  So, I figured the book was likely worth the read.  I ordered the book, but it being the season of haying and irrigating, I put it on my unread bookshelf when it arrived    Equinox came and went.  Then, a hard cold arrived in the latter part of fall.  When the ground and water troughs freeze my morning life easily moves toward reading.  As a result, by mid-winter I was midway through Reclaiming.  It was then I came upon a quote by Marlon “Marty” Fixico of the Southern Cheyenne.

Cheyenne people, we call God Maheo.  Maheo means “I don’t know,” because we don’t know what it is but it’s everything.

Landscape has a lot to do with the way folk think, develop language, and grasp mystery.  Believing this, had me thinking that one day I should spend time in the landscape that allows people to think this way.  That was my first thought.  My second was, there are Christians who would find this way of God thinking troublesome.  For many, a God who is within and part of everything—rather than separate from and existing at the top of a hierarchical vertical up-down schema of Creation—is nothing less than profane.  After all they might figure, if God is part of everything then God is wedded to the profane.  Yet, that, it seems to me, is the point.

A couple quoted sentences cannot speak to the complexities of Maheo.  It takes a lifetime to live into a people’s way of understanding the everything of all.  Which is why I cannot use the word Maheo to talk of the I don’t know.  Furthermore, if I were to use Maheo I am afraid I would ultimately appropriate a way-of-being into just one more word of many for that which Christians call God. So, no Maheo for  me.  Not today.  Rather, I don’t know will do.

My early life in Christianity was that of God-on-top.  Any thought of a God-within would have been heretical.  As a young adult I switched to a Christianity that allowed for greater breadth.  However, even that was more anthropocentric than creational.  Though I find these ways of thinking of God problematic, I continue to find the Christian and Hebrew texts helpful to explore and comprehend the I don’t know of my kin.  Of course, this is problematic in and of itself, but we cannot throw away the framework of our lives.

Though Fixico’s Maheo and my exploration of I don’t know surely differ due to our cultural differences and our individual encounters of colonization and white supremacy.  I believe common ground is found in the landscape.  Landscape, that place of interplay between human, plant, winged, water, wind, four-legged is one of kinship.  When kinship becomes central to the I don’t know conversation, human-centered systems and structures begin to falter.  Then is when we must listen.  For in that faltering moment, the land (with our help) has the ability circumvent the melting pot of manifest destiny and put an end to north American Christianity’s bipolarization.

Should we allow I don’t know to inform Christian theology, the Christian binary of either sacred or mundane becomes apparent.  For many Christians, the narrative is the sacred is beyond human knowing.  What is sacred is ideal, perfect, love, watchful and that which might be mimicked by creation but never fully experienced.  The sacred is beyond human understanding and better than the human experience; that which exists without tangibility.  Mundane is thought of as sacred’s opposite: imperfect, ordinary, and everyday; that which is recognizable and attainable.  However, if Christians listen to the landscape’s I don’t know we may find sanctification in the fluidity of the liminal space between the sacred and mundane.

When freed from the binary of either-or the American landscape becomes alive, whole, and sacred.  Recognizing the sacred in the profane becomes pleasing rather than distasteful.  Structural sureness no longer hinders creational place and space.  The land of our birth becomes sacred (once again).  Our place of dwelling becomes animated.  We are provoked to experience abundance of the here and now.  Our ears become tuned to the natural.  And we are no longer surprised when the sacred of the bush speaks our name.  Perhaps, if we settle into we don’t know what it is but it’s everything we will learn that sacredness in normal.  Find fertileness in the native. Recognize inquisitiveness in the marrow of community.  Become people of sacrament seasoned by the ordinary.

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[On February 8 Center for Indigenous Ministries’ Indigenous Book Study begins a conversation on Reclaiming Two-Spirits: Sexuality, Spiritual Renewal & Sovereignty in Native America by Gregory D. Smithers.  If you would like to join and/or buy the book you can do so at Indigenous Book Study.]

Nativity?

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.

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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.

A Statement of Tears

In his Forward of the book Claiming Two-Spirits, Raven Heavy Runner speaks of his grandmother’s wisdom.  “Be mindful of how you talk as you have the power to hurt or heal one another.”  In speaking her words Heavy Runner’s grandmother becomes an elder to whom we should listen.

I, along with many others, grieve on this day.  Grieving for those who died in the wonderful landscape of Colorado Springs, at Club Q.  For all who suffered and died in this American landscape for being no more than their authentic selves.  For those who today exist in fear of living out their natural identity.  I have no words of comfort.  I struggle to find center.  I am lost along with so many others.

Yet, the landscape and their people call us to action.  To be mindful.  To listen.  To talk.  To act.  Our elders remind us we have the power to change ourselves, our neighbors, and our community.  We have within us the ability to heal.  The ancients invite us into liminal space where we can be ourselves, where we can become strong, where we can accept ourselves as people of silent and loud action.

As Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, they of Center for Indigenous Ministries ask those of quiet spirit to take a moment, become one with sunrise and sunset and pray to our ancestral people (of whom 5 of Club Q have joined) for guidance.  Pray for those of Club Q who have experienced additional unforgettable trauma.  Pray for LGBTQ2S+.  Pray for those who hate.  Pray for those who love.  Pray for creational non-human siblings who feel harmony’s loss and who in this moment are working for restoration.  Those of loud spirit, talk.  Talk to those who are untalkable for our LGBTQ2S+ siblings.  Speak for change.  For love.  For harmony.  For justice.  Bring forth creations voice to heal the heartbroken, expose the hidden, lift those made low by hate.

Elders ask us to be our created self.  Creation asks us to claim our natural and native identity.  As quiet and loud spirits, we have the ability to heal.  Let us become healers, erasers of hate, lovers of Creation.  Let us look to our interior, recognize our gift, and do what is natural: Invite bliss into lives experiencing hurt and fear.  Heal.  Heal.  Heal.

David Bell
Minister for Indigenous Justice