Reflecting on Reconciliation

Reflections by Rev. Diane Rollert, February 7 and 14, 2016

"Reconciliation will not be one grand, finite act. It will be a multitude of small acts and gestures played out between individuals, and it will be ongoing until all the wounds are healed.”
                        —Edward Gamblin, musician and residential school survivor

This month has been wonderfully nontraditional. Instead of sermons from me, there have been testimonials from Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal guests, beautiful Indigenous music, and several interactive experiences. The only way to truly experience what’s happening in church is to be there! What follows are a few excerpts from my introductions to our first two Sundays as we’ve focused on the theme of reconciliation.

Introduction to February 7

I grew up in Chicago, which made it easy for my family to drive West during the summers; across the prairies, over the Rockies, into the Southwest and West. What I loved more than anything during those travels were the stops that involved anything having to do with Native Americans (that was the term we were taught in the US), from gifts shops on the reservations, to adobe houses, to hieroglyphs on cliffs and in caves, to beautiful artifacts of leather work, pottery and beadwork in museum display cases. As Thomas King will tell you in his book, The Inconvenient Indian, I was enthralled with Indian culture that was safely at a distance.

I learned that the Cowboy and Indian films of my childhood had gotten it wrong. I learned that lands had been stolen, people relocated to dry and desolate reserves, the buffalo massacred, but I knew nothing of the Trail of Tears, where thousands of Indigenous people died as they were marched West. I had a lot to learn about the reality of Native history and what it means to be an Indigenous person in North America today.

When I arrived in Quebec, I knew very little about of the residential school system in Canada that had as its goal to deal with the “Indian problem” by removing children from their families and erasing their culture.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Montreal, I spent two days listening to testimony. I watched as boxes of kleenex were passed around, as helpers stood ready to embrace the witnesses. I cried along with everyone else, shocked by what I heard. I only slowly began to understand the depth of the involvement of the churches, how religious belief could come to be so perverted to allow for so much abuse.

Being a Unitarian Universalist, I wondered where I belonged in this story. I’m an outsider, an immigrant from another country. The Unitarian church in Canada was not among the churches that ran the residential school system. But I remembered vaguely having heard that there had been one Unitarian residential school in the US. There is not a lot of recorded history about that school, but here’s what I can tell you:

It was called the Montana Industrial School for Indians and it was established in October, 1886, by the American Unitarian Association. “Founded by the Rev. Henry Bond and his wife, Pamela, the school was located on the Crow Indian Reservation near Custer Station on the Big Horn River. Fifty Indian children at a time lived at the school, which taught farming, mechanics, and the domestic sciences. The school closed after a decade when the federal government withdrew the $109 per pupil annual subsidy. The buildings were sold to the government for one dollar.”

There is an out-of-print publication about the school entitled, “A Worthy Work in a Needy Time”. The author, Margaret Pease, was a Unitarian married to a member of the Crow tribe.

While I don’t know anything else about that school, I do know a lot about the Unitarians of that time. I know that they believed that they had an intelligent, reasoned faith that would change the world. My guess is that they thought that they were aiding progress — and that’s the danger. When we come to believe that we have a superior culture, when we think that we can fix others, when we think that we are somehow divinely called to change another people’s way of being — we need to stop and reflect. We can say these things happened long ago, but we need to remember how religion became an excuse for the systematic removal of people from their lands and their culture. We can say we reject that kind of religion, but without care, our ideals can be as easily misused. I believe that we too are part of this story.

Our learning starts here, as we each try to understand where we are located in the reconciliation story.

Introduction to February 14

Last week we shared with each other where we each found ourselves in the reconciliation story. We were deeply moved by the words of Mike Spence who shared with us the story of growing up as the son of a residential school survivor and the very real effect of that trauma as it is passed through the generations. We heard from Margot Hovey-Ritter who told her story of growing up with the privilege of a European family who were granted vast quantities of land hundreds of years ago in the Eastern townships, without questioning who had lived on that land before it was taken. We listened to the music of MJ Tremblay as she sang of being caught between her Métis and European heritage, and as she drummed a tribute to the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada.

The Unitarian churches and congregations of Canada did not directly participate in the residential school system, though, as I explained last week, we know that there was one Unitarian residential school in the US. To us the borders between the US and Canada may matter, but to the Indigenous peoples of this land, the border between us is abstract, a line drawn through tribes and First Nations, between what was once open and fluid.

I recognize that to express sorrow is not enough. On behalf of this community, I say I am sorry for the actions taken and the silence held by our forefathers and foremothers during this tragic period of history. Recently, I saw this photo of man with a sign that said: “It’s a privilege to learn about racism, instead of experiencing it your whole life!” Think about it. It’s a privilege to learn about the systematic steps that were taken to destroy Indigenous people and their culture in this country, without having to spend our lives actually experiencing the generational effects of those policies.

This isn’t about heaping on guilt for something our ancestors did or did not do. This is about calling us to recognize our unspoken, invisible privilege and to take action to work with our Indigenous brothers and sisters to reset the balance. If we are to truly live out our Unitarian Universalist core values that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person and the respect for the interdependent web of existence, this is work we must do.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon all of Canada’s faith groups to formally adopt and comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation. The CUC made such a declaration in March of 2014. That means that we recognize the rights of Indigenous people everywhere in the world, that we see Indigenous people as equal to all people, free from discrimination, with the right to practice their own spiritual and religious traditions, the right to autonomy and self-government, the right to freedom, peace, land and security. By supporting this call to action, we agree to engage in ongoing dialogue, to educate our children and our communities about Indigenous rights and culture, and to take action to right what has been wronged.

The first small step on the long journey toward healing is to build relationships. So, today, I am very pleased to welcome our guests who have agreed to share some of their story with us. Our first speaker is Nina Segalowitz who is here today thanks to Sandra Hunt, who watched Nina grow up as she studied cello with Sandra’s friend and tenant. Nina was forcibly taken from her Inuit parents as an infant and was raised in a Jewish-Catholic family, before she reconnected with her Inuit heritage and vocal tradition.

Our second speaker is Elder Delbert Sampson. He is a proud husband, father and grandfather to 5 children and 16 grandchildren, as well as a certified Drug and Alcohol Counsellor and a Residential School Survivor. Elder Delbert and his wife, Elder Jean Stevenson have been offering traditional Native Ceremonies for urban Indigenous people, since 1992. They also provide spiritual guidance for Aboriginal inmates in the correctional system.

Note: Out of respect for our Indigenous guests who gave such powerful testimonials over the past two weeks, we are not able to post audio clips. You had to be there…

Download Reflecting on Reconciliations - February 7 and 14, 2016