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My Settler Wake-up Calls

I currently live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the traditional home of the Anishinabe people for thousands of years. I am the daughter of colonizers and settlers, a white, American-born woman on this land. I’m not a first generation settler, but I’m a settler all the same.

I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the traditional home of the Anishinabe people for thousands of years.

This is a bit of the story of how I came to own that fact and how my process of discovering that part of my identity changed my trajectory and worldview. In short: this reality isn’t often taught to us; I had to learn it later, in a roundabout way.

Here’s my “Settler wake-up call” Timeline:
  1. I grew up as a homeschooled missionary kid that learned all about God’s diverse world. While still wrapped in the message of loving all of God’s children, looking back now, I see strong undertones of, “Learn about them so you can teach the truth—they can teach you about what they know, but be very skeptical.”
  2. When I was 16 I had an opportunity to travel to Madagascar with a group of medical residents who were doing a tropical medicine rotation. During this trip we learned very valuable and lifesaving things. Looking back, I realized this was the first time I actively counteracted the learned cultural assumption that the “white (often male) person/American knows best” by going to Madagascar and learning so much more than I anticipated.
  3. My learning was more or less put on pause until junior year of Calvin College when I attended a seminar on Muslim-Christian dialogue and learned about Hope Equals and the injustice and dehumanization of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. Hope Equals sent learning- and story-gathering cohorts of students to Palestine to learn about peace and justice (or the lack thereof) in the Holy Land from the people living it day in and day out, Palestinians.
  4. Needing to know more, I got an internship at the organization that lead the talk, Hope Equals, where my foundation for active peacemaking and justice work was laid.
  5. Over the month that I was in Palestine I listened and opened my mind and heart to a people group living in active oppression and harassment, being treated like second-class citizens not only by other individuals but also by the government. In my time there I saw what a modern day settler was. I learned and saw what actively encroaching on a people and land in order to eventually take over their space looked like—it was happening before my very eyes. We were learning these stories in order to take them back and share with others, because stories change minds. Stories don’t tell people how to think, but put them in the shoes of those you want them to have compassion for.
  6. This trip also helped me to put words to a conviction that had been developing in my mind and heart for a while: I don’t have, and can never have, the whole truth. It is impossible for me to know everything. Going there and learning all these things laid the best foundation for what happened next.
  7. For the spring break of my senior year I was given a scholarship (through this very blog) to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in Edmonton, Canada. There I was again able to listen and learn from residential school survivors about their trauma. One moment, right after a listening session, it hit me: this was just like Palestine and this time I am the settler.  
  8. Throughout my time left at the TRC I learned as much as I could about not only the horrific practices of the residential school systems of both Canada and the United States but also about what it meant to be a settler and how that fit into my identity.
  9. When I got back to Michigan I couldn’t think of much else and ended up writing my geography thesis on the Doctrine of Discovery (the moral backing for colonization). I also did all I could to get involved and learn about the people my ancestors stole land from.

What I learned was beautiful and challenging and will forever change my perspective on the world and the land we live on. By learning about the people and keepers of this land, not just what DID happen to them but what IS happening and who they are now, I reoriented myself in this space as a guest on this land. I sought out and learned about the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians here in Grand Rapids through pow-wows, Bible studies with Indigenous Christians, volunteering, independent research, and many conversations.*

I reoriented myself in this space as a guest on this land.

While my fulltime interests have now been diverted to other things I never forget that this land is not mine. What I’ve learned informs to how I think and talk about this land, and how I care for it. I have the privilege of working on and taking care of this land almost every day through my job and I see this in part of how I can fit into the puzzle using the gifts I have.

Take a shorter route than I did to get here!

I heartily encourage you to learn about not only the past but also the present of the people of that land you live on. It will change your life and make it more beautiful…but maybe take a shorter route than I did to get here!

*If you are in Michigan, visiting the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Mt. Pleasant a great way to start your learning. Spend some quality time in their museum.

[Image: Photo by it's me neosiam from Pexels]


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