It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Protestant churches decision to renounce their historic mission to "civilize and Christianize" Indians, and their repudiation of the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination. These are revolutionary actions. I wrote my book. Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, to better understand these actions, and to start wrestling with the question: What next? What happens after churches apologize to Native Peoples for their participation in Indian genocide? In this essay I offer preliminary answers to that question.
For 400 years, since the founding of the Jamestown Colony, Protestant Christianity accepted the mission to "civilize and Christianize" Indians. The English settlers in Virginia and the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England called the Indians "wild beasts" and "savages." The English Virginians established a university to teach the Indians Western ways and Christian culture. New England Pilgrims and Puritans established "praying towns" for "red Christians." The pattern of forced assimilation or annihilation was continued through the nineteenth century in Indian boarding schools and is now embodied in a system of Indian reservations, which some Indigenous people call "extermination centers." This is our history.
The churches apologies represent a cease-fire in the longest war one people has waged upon another in the history of the world. The repudiation of the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination places the church firmly in opposition to more than 150 years of legal precedent. The repudiation of this doctrine means that the church rejects the religious foundation of U.S.-Indian law and disputes its legitimacy.
The easiest way to think about the doctrine of discovery and U.S.-Indian law is that Euro-Americans claimed that their ancestors "discovered" North America, and by virtue of that discovery had claim to it. Indians, they said, could occupy the land, but they could not own it.
A long line of political and religious leaders have argued that giving the Indians the "benefit" of a superior culture and religion in exchange for land was a fair exchange. Repudiating the doctrine of discovery means at the very least that U.S. claims to Indian land are contested claims. Some would argue that Indian lands were stolen under false pretenses, and the moral and right thing to do it to return the stolen property. Where do we go from here? Let me offer a few suggestions.
First, the United States has 370 ratified treaties with Native nations and tribes. The United States Constitution says that treaties are the highest law of the land. The church must support of Native voices calling upon the government to honor these treaties. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argues that the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Lakota Sioux have treaty rights to the Black Hills, which are their sacred land. In Arizona the San Carlos Apache Indians contend that the Resolution Copper Mine, which if completed will be the largest copper mine in North America, is a violation of their sacred land and sacred agreements signed by the United States government. The Seminole Nation in Florida contests the Sabal natural gas pipeline as a violation of treaty rights. In Nebraska Native Peoples and ranchers are protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. These are only a few instances that document why honoring treaties is both controversial and necessary. Christian denominations that have repudiated to the doctrine of discovery must stand with Native Peoples for the sake of their own integrity.
Second, faith communities must take a lead in returning stolen property now often housed in museums to the rightful owners. Leading by example, Christian denominations and their institutions can bring pressure to bear on other institutions and encourage a new and much needed public conversation about the ownership and care of Indian "relics" and "artifacts" and "sacred items."
Third, many Protestant denominations are investing resources in educational endeavors to discuss white privilege. I suggest that these efforts need to be expanded. We need a similar edcuational campaign to require clergy to study the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. I believe that this declaration can serve as the charter for a new beginning in our efforts to create a more just and peaceful society.
Fourth, Protestant Christians need to re-frame our theology. The theological assumptions that justified the mission to "civilize and Christianize" Indians cannot be a theology that now lights the path to a society in which interracial justice is normative. We can begin this work by forming Truth and Healing Commissions to work in partnership with Native American programs that teach about the real history of the United States. This nation was from the beginning a settler nation. Once we accept this fact, we can begin to free ourselves from the mythologies of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and begin to chart a course to a more open and democratic future.
Lastly, I would argue that we must take seriously the need to decolonize the white mind. In order to do this we must recognize that white people pay a high psychological and spiritual price for denying the history of racism and colonialism. Rather than clinging to the story of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, let us turn to the story of Cain and Abel, and realize that it is our brother's blood and our sister's blood crying out to us.