Colonialism continues, Indigenous leaders say
Indigenous voices share their experiences with faith freedom during 2022 BJC Luncheon
From the continuing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Indigenous voices are sharing the ongoing impact of colonization on communities across this country.
Hundreds of faith freedom supporters gathered in Dallas on June 30 for the 2022 BJC Luncheon to listen and learn. Held in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, the annual gathering was a virtual event the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the event was held in-person and featured Indigenous voices discussing faith freedom and persecution, as the Rev. Dr. Mitch Randall moderated a wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Kyle T. Mays and Mariah Humphries.
Dr. Randall, the CEO of Good Faith Media and a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, began by reminding the audience that before 1492 — the famous year Christopher Columbus came to North America from Europe — the continent already was full of thriving communities and nations.
“Many, unfortunately, have the misnomer that the Indigenous people of North America were one step above the Neanderthals. I mean, we were called ‘savages’ after all,” Dr. Randall said.
Dr. Mays, an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of U.S. history, urban studies, race relations and contemporary popular culture, explained why Europeans felt they had the religious right to “conquer” lands that were in no need of assistance. He traced the idea back to the Crusades in 1095, when Pope Urban II issued a decree declaring that European rulers had the ability to seize the lands of non-Christians.
“That really set the stage for taking over the land of non-Europeans and non-Christians as well,” Dr. Mays said, pointing out that this “right” was just made up arbitrarily.
The ideology continued with new decrees from Pope Nicholas V in 1452 and Pope Alexander VI in 1493, which established the Doctrine of Discovery.
“At its basis, the Doctrine of Discovery argues that Christians have the right to conquer, seize and occupy any lands of non-Christians at their discretion. This is what we call today ‘settler colonialism,’” Dr. Mays said, explaining that the term includes non-Indigenous peoples seizing and appropriating the land of Indigenous peoples.
A professor at UCLA, Dr. Mays said the ideology persists today — he sees it in the displacement of people in urban areas of downtown Los Angeles and in changing the names of urban neighborhoods.
Dr. Mays also said it’s important to focus on the narratives we hear about Indigenous people, including the incorrect framing of them as “savages.”
Colonialism for us has not ended at all. We are separate nations, sovereign people, et cetera, but we’re still living under an occupied territory. It’s difficult for some people to accept that.
Panelist Mariah Humphries expanded on the importance of the stories we hear and the “mind shift” that happens to justify genocide. A Mvskoke Nation citizen, writer and educator, she said that we have to think about how our country — and our classrooms — teach a narrative that was used to justify violence against Native Americans and stealing their land.
“I think for the most part, Native Americans — we’re going on our way,” she said, referring to the time before Europeans came to the Americas. “We have this way of life, and then all of a sudden we’re the ones who are suppressed, we’re the ones who are oppressed, and we’re the ones who are removed; we’re the ones who were killed, and we’re the ones who disappeared: language, culture, et cetera,” she said.
“And it’s all because we had to become the issue in order for someone to quite literally put a stake in the ground and say ‘No, this is now mine, because you’re the enemy.’”
Today, Humphries pointed out that people often go into communities to see how God is already at work, but that was not the case earlier in history. Instead, colonizers often needed to shift their minds to view Native Americans in a specific way to justify taking what they had.
“We became ‘heathens’ in order to justify Christianity,” she said.
After the United States declared its independence from England, the marginalization and genocide of Indigenous people continued, including in the form of “Manifest Destiny” and western expansion, where the government appropriated billions of acres of land.
“The whole notion of Manifest Destiny is simply this: It was their God-given right — they’re invoking God here — to take over land from Indigenous peoples,” Dr. Mays said, pointing out that it became codified in law, and the violence that occurred because of Manifest Destiny is a central part of how we should understand our government’s democracy.
“Colonialism for us has not ended at all. We are separate nations, sovereign people, et cetera, but we’re still living under an occupied territory. It’s difficult for some people to accept that,” Dr. Mays said.
He asked what it might look like if the United States government honored its treaties and also returned land to the Indigenous people.
Humphries discussed how so many of the issues facing Native Americans today are historical, including the current reckoning with government-run boarding schools. Between 1869 and the 1960s, the U.S. government removed thousands of Native American children from their homes and placed them into government-run schools, stripping them of their heritage and culture. The children found themselves in new surroundings with other Native American children, but that did not mean they had any common language or customs.
“We aren’t a monolith,” Humphries said, pointing out that there are hundreds of tribes, all with different languages and traditions.
Humphries also noted that many people involved with setting up and running the schools were Christians. “That is hard to accept as a Native American Christian,” she said.
Dr. Randall shared that he had ancestors who were forced into boarding schools. “Religion is always used as a tool for oppression when it is supported by government dollars. And, like our families experienced, religion was used to assimilate them not to a place of faith, but to a place of colonialization,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for us today to know those stories about boarding schools — so we don’t repeat them.”
The panel also discussed contemporary issues facing Indigenous people, from headline-making protests to underreported and ignored crises.
We have this way of life, and then all of a sudden we’re the ones who are suppressed, we’re the ones who are oppressed, and we’re the ones who are removed; we’re the ones who were killed, and we’re the ones who disappeared.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe and others are working to save their sacred land of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel — loosely translated in English as “Oak Flat.” Currently protected within Tonto National Forest, the federal government is poised to transfer the land to the mining company Resolution Copper, which could permanently destroy it with destructive mining practices. BJC will send a letter to Congress this fall asking lawmakers to save that sacred land, and those at the luncheon had a chance to sign the letter. Go to bit.ly/oakflatletter to add your name.
The discussion shed light on the widespread crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women, which often go unreported by media or unnoticed by other cultures.
Humphries mentioned the book Mohawk Interruptus, where Dr. Audra Simpson wrote that Native women have been deemed “killable” and able to be raped without repercussion.
“Historically, our Native female body and — I will say — historically the Black female body in our country have been deemed dispensable, and the violence against our bodies has been justified,” Humphries said. The crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is often referred to by the acronym “MMIW.”
“We [Native American women] are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group in the United States,” Humphries said, adding that most Native American victims experience violence at the hands of a non-tribal individual. She pointed out that the community has to fight each year to make sure Indigenous women are included in the Violence Against Women Act because there are other legal protections for the non-tribal perpetrator over the victim.
Humphries noted that having statistics to understand violence against Native Americans is important, and the community — as opposed to the government — is digging into these issues and providing resources for important discussions.
“We’re becoming doctors and sociologists and lawyers so we can take on these conversations to be able to represent our people,” she said.
Learn more and watch the entire conversation by visiting BJC’s YouTube channel.