As a parent of a 4th grader, I was asked to decorate a feather to tell my son that I was thankful for him. Each of the other children in the class and their parents were also asked to decorate a feather. The stated purpose of the eventual display was to build community at the school.
The project felt wrong to me, but I didn’t know why. First, I called it inane. Later, I brainstormed ways to decorate a feather that would reveal my disgust. When I missed the feather decoration deadline, I searched more deeply to find the source of my discomfort.
It was just daybreak. There was a blizzard and it was very cold. The people were sleeping. Suddenly there were many shots and horses galloping through the village. It was the calvary of the Wasichus [people of non-indigenous descent], and they were yelling and shooting and riding their horses against the tepees. All the people rushed out and ran, because they were not awake yet and they were frightened. The soldiers killed as many women and children and men as they could while the people were running toward the bluff. Then they set fire to some of the tepees and knocked the others down (Black Elk Speaks, p. 91).
In the early morning of March 16, 1876, Colonel Reynolds with six companies of cavalry attacked Crazy Horse’s village. The attack was a violation of a 1868 treaty that stated that the Black Hills would be Indian land “as long as grass should grow and water flow (p. 79).” After news got out that there was gold there, the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Ogalala and other tribes were repeatedly threatened and killed by the military until they left or accepted the terms of the United States government. Later, after more battles with the U.S. military, Black Elk reports,
Our people were sad because Crazy Horse was dead, and now they were going to pen us up in little islands and make us be like Wasichus. So before we had gone very far, some of us broke away and started for the country where we used to be happy (p. 146).
Since learning about Native American spirituality, feathers have become sacred to me. Feathers of a red-tailed hawk, for example, signify an ability to “soar high in the sky and communicate with the Creator spirit (The Medicine Wheel, p. 49).” As the red-tailed hawk is the totem animal associated with my birthday and I am a person who has heard and responded to God’s voice, I could not decorate a feather, not even for my child, when it was asked of me without reverence.
Wrestling with having to say no to a request like that opened up for me the question of how I was going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. My understanding of the First Thanksgiving is that it was a ritual of thanksgiving for what God had provided to the pilgrims… and that the Indians, the people who had helped them to survive and learn to live in this country, were there with them.
How can I celebrate Thanksgiving without American Indians to thank for mediating God’s generosity to me? How can I be thankful for what I have been given when I know what has been taken from them in the name of my god? How can I eat while American Indians drink to forget what they think is their shame, to dull the pain of poverty and separation from Creation, to distance themselves from the misery of living in a nation whose worldview negates their own (see The Way of the Human Being by Calvin Luther Martin)?
To me, the request to decorate a feather is the devil’s work. This seemingly innocuous exercise disguises the systemic evil that distorts the truth of our past and aborts the realization of God’s most precious possibilities for our future. Beneath this project lies the belief that European American wealth and privilege is due to the ingenuity and hard work of past and present European American Christians rather than rooted in the abundance of Creation and the people who lived within it to care for it. When children are socialized to act in ways that disregard American Indian spirituality and their parents support it, the cycle of violence continues.
I could not pretend that everything was okay and blithely decorate a feather. I wanted my children to know that feathers are sacred to some people and that community, in a Christian sense, is the on-going sharing among persons whom the world rejects. I can’t participate in a ritual of community that decorates the halls with the sacred symbols of a people who have been stuffed in the closet.
The House is poised to approve H.R. 687, which would authorize the sale of 2400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in southeastern Arizona to a copper mining partnership. Contrary to the requirements of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and Executive Order 13007 on Indian sacred sites, tribes in the area have not been consulted. Indeed every tribe in Arizona, and many tribes across the country, have registered their opposition to this land swap (H.R. 687, November 5, 2013).
When the wealth of already-wealthy people is at stake, American Indians are not taken seriously. How can I participate in ending this cycle of violence, in revealing the on-going deceit? Should I go to the school and describe my offence? Should I write to my representative to voice my opinion? Should I do something ludicrous?
First, I must engage in the spiritual struggle of sanctification to cleanse my soul of the world. I learned from bible scholar Walter Wink that before I can engage the Powers that I must rigorously examine myself and be available for divine transformation. I must stop the “spiral of violence” within so that I can stop the “spiral of violence” without. If I don’t, I will take actions that are not mine to take and thus unconsciously spread evil.
On the day that the feathers were to be turned in, I got up feeling sad. Before I knew it, I was crying in the shower. But I wasn’t worried. I have been wrestling with the demons that keep me captive long enough to know that I am stronger than they.
Upon reflection, I found that the source of my tears was a feeling that I’d carried with me since childhood. I had just wanted a place where I could be happy. I had been looking for a place where I could express my Self and be loved… and hadn’t found it.
Now that I have found that what Black Elk and his people desired, to live in a place where they could be happy, is also my desire, I believe I am free to do what I am called to do to end this cycle of violence. Perhaps I will celebrate Thanksgiving with Indians this year.