By Kristina Gonzalez

Years ago, before I was exposed to much in the way of social justice, I, like many in my generation celebrated Columbus Day. I don’t recall parades or celebrations in my early years. I remember it as a welcomed day off of school. It was probably the time in the school calendar when we learned the rhyme that helped us remember the year that Columbus sailed to find the ‘new world.’

In many communities today, the first Monday in October is known as Indigenous People’s Day. For some, this will result in a roll of the eyes. For others, this is a public manifestation of social justice at work. As you might imagine, I am in the latter camp, though I admit that in my young adulthood, I did not understand the push back on Columbus Day. It was at the quincentennial (1992) of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the new world that I became aware of the how American Indian and Alaska Native communities view this depiction of history. I began to hear an analysis of the word ‘discovery’ that I had not heard in my history classes. An article this week in The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted Yvonne Zipp writing for The Christian Science Monitor in 2014 as saying, “The neighborhood wasn’t exactly empty when he arrived in 1492.”

Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493.

The term ‘discovery’ is Euro-centric, focusing history on the events stemming from Europe. We know that the peoples of the Americas were organized societies with brilliant scientific discoveries and complex cultures. ‘Discovery’ intones something quite different, and it was meant to do so. The Doctrine of Discovery, the set of papal edicts issued in the 1400s, authorized Christian explorers – Columbus included – to claim land occupied by non-Christian people as their own, and sanctioned enslavement and genocide of those who would not convert to the Christian faith. The Doctrine of Discovery promoted the extraction of resources from the ‘discovered’ lands- convenient for European countries that needed to be ‘fed’ in order to continue empire-building.

Fast forward many years to the movement of European immigrants across the North American continent. The same thinking was active as Indian people were forcibly removed from their traditional homes, and promises (treaties) for peaceful co-existence were broken again and again as resources were discovered on reservation lands.

Then the church, at the invitation of government, participated in the systematic removal of indigenous children from their homes to be educated in boarding schools, leaving generations of American Indian and Alaska Native people disconnected from their families and their cultures, generational wisdom and traditional ways lost. People lost. Those of us outside of Indian Country may think of the boarding school era as centuries old, but victims of this era are still living today. And the generational trauma of this era resonates in Indian Country in the US, Canada and many nations of the world.

Yesterday, a friend sent me an article from The Texas Tribune whose title says it all: Federal Judge in Texas Strikes Down Indian Child Welfare LawThe timing of the decision discussed should not be lost on anyone. It is too coincidental to be called coincidence.

I’ve known of the Indian Child Welfare Act, but had never looked into the particulars. I encourage you do your internet research on this law. The two sources that I consulted were Wikipedia (always being aware of its sources), and the National Indian Welfare Association. I encourage you to go these links and others to do your own research.

How do we read the news? Do we read it with an eye to timing? Do we read with an eye to history? Do we read it with an eye to cultural differences? Do we read it with an eye to justice?

What I find is this: The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to prevent the modern-day equivalent of the boarding school movement. It was in response to both religious and secular assumptions that removal of Indian children from their homes was in the best interest of the child. The assumptions on which the removals were justified were from the perspective of dominant culture notions of child-rearing (nuclear family as opposed to community, as an example), among others. The alarming statistics of forced removal of children prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act would have resulted in inefficacy of tribal communities overtime. Sound familiar?

How do we read the news? Do we read it with an eye to timing? Do we read with an eye to history? Do we read it with an eye to cultural differences? Do we read it with an eye to justice?

I will venture to say that the couple that brought the suit in Texas had the best interests of that child at heart. But a ruling that is void of an understanding of history and precedent, released on the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day appears to be colonization in its current form.

I remember feeling the personal impact of seeing the Diego Rivera murals of the conquest at Palacio Nacional de Mexico. Boots firmly planted on the bodies of indigenous men; indigenous women with blue-eyed babies. Ghastly. This boot – the challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act – may not be physical, but a boot nonetheless. God help us if we do not respond with anger and act with justice.

Kristina Gonzalez is the Director of Innovation for an Inclusive Church, Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church.

Leave a Reply