Did you know that before Europeans colonized North America, Native Americans had sophisticated, self-governing societies, each with their own institutions, language, culture, traditions, and systems of governance? Did your Sunday school teacher tell you that in 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued one of the papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery, which declared that Christians had the right to take whatever land they discovered and “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” the “pagans” and “enemies of Christ”? That the US government forced Native Americans to sign treaties through the decimation of food sources, such as the buffalo, and violent acts of warfare? Did you know that the “Trail of Tears” was just one of the many forced relocations in which Indigenous people had to walk up to 400 miles, displacements which killed thousands of people along the way? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln, just a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, ordered the hanging of 38 “Indians and Half-breeds”, which is still the largest mass execution in the history of the United States? Did you learn in school that in 1864, Colonel Chivington violently killed 200 Native Americans and then in celebration of the massacre himself and his 675 troops paraded their mutilated body parts in downtown Denver? Did your teachers tell you about how children were ripped from their families to attend residential schools where they were forced to assimilate and convert to Christianity? Did you know that the United States has never publically issued an apology for the genocide and continued marginalization of the Native American people (except an unpublicized apology buried deep in a Defense Appropriations Act)?
I didn’t either until I participated in the Blanket Exercise offered by the Christian Reformed Church. (I participated in the American version of the exercise, but a Canadian version is also available.)
The Blanket Exercise leads me to question how history is told. It makes me realize that how we tell the story matters. The story shapes our worldview, policies, and how we treat others. We’ve been told an incomplete story that has has marginalized Indigenous peoples, in both the US and Canada, and left many of us ignorant to their past and current suffering. We must acknowledge that history itself isn’t subjective, but how it is told is. Author Dan Brown expressed this best when he said, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books--books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.” We are not learning the true history of the Indigenous peoples of North America in our schools, churches, or from our families. There is a systemic problem with our retelling of history: we tell history from the side of the winners.
If we are going to take our call to be reconcilers seriously, we need to actively seek the history told by our Indigenous sisters and brothers. We cannot trust that we will learn it without seeking it out; however, that too can be changed. One of the most tangible ways you can begin the process of reconciliation and justice is to bring the Blanket Exercise to your community. The Blanket Exercise invites us to experience a new story, one that has long fallen on deaf ears. It is a story that will re-educate and convict us...and plant the seeds for a restored relationship based on a shared story.
As Christians, we need to learn to listen. We need to rethink the phrase “speak for the voiceless.” Indigenous people have spoken. Now we must listen and repent. Our churches, schools, and communities must create space for marginalized voices to be at the forefront, not a guest or alternative opinions. Why is it important to actively listen to the history told by our Indigenous sisters and brothers? Because right now, in our schools, churches, and government, an incomplete story is being told. And without re-telling a more complete account of our common story, how can we live well together?
The Christian Reformed Church’s original sin in North America was the degradation of Indigenous humanity and cultures. As Christians, we believe that all people are made in the image of God. We often failed to recognize this. While you nor I were there hundreds of years ago, we are here today and there is work to be done. The effects of the Doctrine of Discovery, residential schools, and genocide are evident in the division between our communities and the social ills that face Native Americans--let’s partner, together as family, to live into a better story.
Acknowledging our role in this injustice is the first step toward reconciliation. I have participated in the Blanket Exercise several times and each time I have heard people, of all backgrounds, say “I never knew. Nobody ever told me this.” How we tell the story matters and the Blanket Exercise gives us the opportunity to learn a more complete story. My prayer is that the Blanket Exercise will open our hearts to Indigenous voices. May this exercise be a catalyst that systematically reshapes how we tell our common story in these places that we now call the United States and Canada, so future generations will learn the full truth of what happened here. Only then can true reconciliation occur between Native people and non-native people in North America.
To learn how to bring the Blanket Exercise to your church or community or to find worship resources for Native American Heritage Month visit crcna.org/BlanketExercise. (Both American and Canadian versions of the exercise are available.)