The Common Good

Raising Up Voices for Indigenous Justice

During my travels connecting with communities as part of an extended listening tour for Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, I hung about a bit with Mark Van Steenwyk, co-founder of Missio Dei, an anabaptist intentional community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was intrigued to learn about their work with the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), so I decided to shoot him an email to see what's in store for them during spring 2011.

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Briefly describe the Missio Dei community and why your community connected with the Christian Peacemakers Team in Kenora, Ontario?

Founded in 2003, Missio Dei is an intentional community in Minneapolis that is made up of three community houses. We are committed to following Jesus' way of simplicity (seeking a sustainable life with a healthy relationship to possessions); hospitality (inviting friends and strangers to share our life together); prayer (being rooted in life-giving spiritual rhythms); peacemaking (breaking our addiction to power as we get in the way of violence and injustice); and resistance (naming and challenging oppression wherever we find it as we seek to embody an alternative)

What once was safely kept in textbooks began to break into our consciences as we learned about the genocidal treatment of the aboriginal peoples of North America. A catalytic moment for us was reading Waziyatawin's What Does Justice Look Like?, Later, I was able to interview her on the Iconocast. That interview changed my life. I realized that I needed to recognize and own the dark legacy of Christianity, and, at the same time, commit myself to being a part of seeking justice. This was something that others at Missio Dei felt as well. As a result, we decided the best way forward was to participate in an Abroriginal Justice delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams. The idea is for a number of us to do delegations, receive training, and eventually form a Regional Group with Christian Peacemaker Teams that would have a strong, but not exclusive, emphasis on Aboriginal Justice.

Briefly elaborate on the key learnings you gleaned as being part of the delegation to Ontario with the Christian Peacemakers Team.

Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabe), is an interesting case study. Their traditional way of life, which has depended upon a balanced ecosystem, has been threatened by mercury poisoning and clear cutting. And their history is that of forced residential schools and genocide. If the aboriginal people couldn't be wiped out, they could at least be "civilized" by force. Given the horrific history, I am amazed by the perseverance of some of the people to resist. The people there have very little control over what happens. They have been "given" a very small area to live on as a reserve and have been "granted" access to traditional lands. Governance is complex. Democracy doesn't really exist for Native Americans. Federal and provincial (or, in our case, state) governments can basically control the outcomes based upon their own economic interests. That was why, in 2002, women like Chrissy Swain began blockading logging roads. CPT has been a presence in that work since the beginning, accompanying and bearing witness with those who have decided to take a stand against an unjust system.

What are the challenges creating awareness of indigenous justice?

Indigenous people have been "invisibilized." Few people care. Our social consciousness has placed Native Americans in the past -- people who used to live here. Many mistakenly assume that there is justice for those that remain. We're talking about 3.5 percent of the population of Canada and 1.5 percent of the population of the United States. Since the earliest settlers landed in these shores, the aboriginal peoples have experienced a genocide that we won't acknowledge. We gained vast land and resources and, in exchange, we were granted relatively small patches of land and a mere facsimile of self-determination and sovereignty. It simply isn't in our national interest to have an open conversation about this. And so many of our societal myths have effectively rendered indigenous people as nostalgic images of our past.

Why is there a need for a regional CPT group that covers the upper midwest and south Central Canada?

Many within the U.S. and Canada experience violence and oppression. The U.S. government doesn't limit its oppressive violence to those outside our borders. Injustice is still a common experience for aboriginal peoples, for immigrants (both documented and undocumented), and people of color. Missio Dei wants to be the seed of a regional group of trained Christian peacemakers who can help those who follow Christ stand for peace in tangible ways. For starters, there is a need for people to support and bear witness to the work of indigenous activists around land rights. There is also a need to tell the truth about the past. We need to bring the struggle against U.S. (and Canadian) imperialism home.

How can people get involved with this cause?

Study the history of where you live. Even if your ancestors have only lived in the U.S. or Canada for less than a few generations, most of us benefit from injustices of the past. It is dishonest to enjoy the benefits from generations of oppression without acknowledging that roots of those benefits. Do a little digging; perhaps there are activist groups working with issues surrounding indigenous justice.

Consider joining CPT on an upcoming delegation. CPT does important work. Also, recognize that aboriginal people continue to be exploited because of the value of the lands upon which they live. Be aware of where you paper products come from. Live simply, reuse/recycle, and try to buy products that don't come from exploited land.

Why are you attending the White Privilege Conference?

For most of us, being "white" assumes that "we" are the center of everything. Our myths and stories and practices insulate us. All to often, we are clueless to the extent to which our "normal" lives come at a cost to others. If we are going to undo oppression in our society, we need to acknowledge the privileges that come to us by virtue of being White Americans. And that comes from learning new stories and developing new practices. That is why I was at the White Privilege Conference recently in Minneapolis. It is a way to understand systemic oppression and how I, as a white man, can work with those who struggle for justice, and in the process, find liberation for myself.

Follow Becky Garrison's ongoing pilgrimages via twitter @Becky_Garrison

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