The Common Good
December 2013

A Protocol of Respect

by Lisa Sharon Harper | December 2013

The people of a land are given spiritual authority and responsibility to steward the land.

AT THE URBANA student missions conference in December 2000, three Indigenous leaders who are also evangelicals were introduced to key members of the leadership of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Richard Twiss (Rosebud Lakota/Sioux), Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq), and Ray Aldred (Swan River Cree) sat down with InterVarsity leaders and began to share their stories. InterVarsity leaders started to ask questions about culture and faith and evangelism and contextualization.

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Soon they found that these leaders had a fresh word for the entire movement in its struggle to become a racially reconciling movement. Other elders joined the three: Randy Woodley, Bryan Brightcloud, Cheryl Bear-Barnetson, and Melanie McCoy. In the course of a series of conversations, the question of land use and protocol came up.

The elders explained: All cultures, including Indigenous cultures, have protocols—particular ways of doing things. Some of the most significant protocols in Indigenous cultures are connected to the use of land. The InterVarsity staff adopted the posture of students and, in humility, submitted to the teachings of these elders of several nations that were on this land thousands of years before Europeans ever “discovered” it.

The elders called their attention to Acts 17:26-27: “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole Earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

They explained that the Creator sets the boundaries of the peoples, and that there are ties between the peoples and the land in which the Creator sets them to live. The people of that land are given spiritual authority and responsibility to steward the land. It is their responsibility to serve and protect the land. And it is their responsibility if sin, imbalance, and disharmony bring destruction to the land. This is true for Indigenous peoples around the world, including the land we each live on right now.

The first peoples have been removed from most of the land, and now the land is without the steward that God appointed to protect and serve it. Instead, people came in, claimed the land, and set up houses, without regard for the spiritual authority of the first peoples of that land or for the well-being of the land itself. As a result, the land is sick and the first nations are sick. They have not been able to exercise their God-given command to steward the land. And the land has lacked the spiritual caretaker that God appointed for it.

Because of this spiritual tie to the land, it has been the protocol that when one desires to travel through or to a particular land, one finds out which nation is the original people of that land. You go to the tribal elders or council leaders and ask their permission to travel there, to do your business there, even to live there. This is out of respect for the spiritual authority the Creator has given them in this place, and out of respect for the land itself.

“Therefore,” the elders told the InterVarsity leaders, “repentance for you would look like submission to the spiritual authority of the original peoples of the land even as you are deciding where you will live, where you will work, where you will plan a conference. If one of the original sins was the sin of conquest and taking the land, then repentance will look like submission and humility.”

Several InterVarsity leaders have taken this to heart and have sought to practice the protocol as they plan large conferences, seeking blessing whenever possible from tribal leaders before committing to a gathering in any particular location. And some regions have begun to exercise the protocol within their regions.

What they have found each time is that by recognizing the spiritual authority given to the first nations of the land, the relationship with those nations begins to be rebuilt on a healthier foundation. Dignity is restored to the nations. And credibility is restored to the gospel. 

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners.

Image: Autumn in the forest, isak55 / Shutterstock.com

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