Mark Charles describes himself as a dual citizen of the United States and the Navajo Nation. He is making history this year by becoming the second-ever Native American to run for president of the United States of America. I recently heard Mark speaking at the Aspen Institute about how white supremacy infiltrated Christian theology to justify colonialism, oppression, and genocidal violence. I also read his recent book on this topic co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah titled Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.
I’ve learned so much from his work already, and I was so grateful to sit down and learn more about how all of Mark’s work relates to his personal experiences. The following is an excerpt from our conversation that has been slightly edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview on my new podcast, Spirited. Listen on any of the major podcast apps: Sticher, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.
Simran Jeet Singh: I’d like to hear about you as a person. What would you say is at the core of your being? What drives you every single day?
Mark Charles: There are many things. I'm a follower of Jesus. I'm a Christian. I'm the son of a mother of American and Dutch heritage, and a Navajo man. I’ve lived both on and off our Navajo Nation. I have a wife who is mostly of German American descent. So I have kids who have both Dutch and German and Navajo in them. And these are the things that are really at my core. These are the things that shape what I believe. They shape the things that I value. And they give me a very unique lens.
Not only am I a Christian, but I am the descendant of boarding school survivors. Both my grandparents on my father's side were Christians. They helped translate for the early missionaries, for our Navajo people. But because of the injustice of the boarding schools, they were presented and accepted a very colonial version of the Christian faith.
I've spent most of my adult life trying to decolonize that faith … I am a Christian, but I've also been deeply oppressed by the church … So much of what it's my core is trying to embrace the fullness of how I've been created and who my family and who my relationships are yet in.
Singh: It sounds like decolonizing is an important act and practice for you. You said that process began for you intellectually for you in college. When did you feel like you understood the magnitude of the plight of Native Americans?
Charles: In the early 2000s we moved from Denver back to the Navajo Nation for three years. We lived in a very remote section of our reservation. We were six miles off the nearest paved road on a dirt road. We were in a one room Hogan about maybe twice the size of this studio. We're sitting in about 25 feet in diameter, dirt floor log walls. The community we lived in had no running water, no electricity. Our neighbors we lived with were rug weavers and shepherds. We cooked over a camp stove or over an open fire. We hauled our water. We had an outhouse, 50 yards away from the Hogan and we lived in. When we moved there, we thought that the biggest adjustment would be living off the grid. But the biggest adjustment was living in the reality of how marginalized and forgotten native peoples are.
Probably within the first three to four months, I learned that by and large, the only group of non-natives who comes to Indian reservations are those who come to give us charity or those who come to take our picture. Almost no one comes for the purpose of getting to know us. And I began to see the historical trauma of my people. I began to learn about the unjust history of what happened. I began to feel this intense marginalization and either forgottenness by our country and I was trying to process through this. I'd never been an insecure person. I had never felt out of place, especially even racially. I always felt like I could go within any environment that I was in. And yet I began to get very insecure and very, very angry.
Singh: So what is it for you about remembering the past that’s so powerful? How do you think history can be a key for you?
Charles: You know, people will say, well, back in the 40s and 30s, and 40s we were so great. No we weren't! This is when segregation was at the worst. This was when black and whites and people of color couldn't even be in the same room together. We didn't have a healthy community then. It was great for white people. But this was not a healthy environment. This nation has never had a healthy environment for all the people, for everyone who lives here. So one of the things that I advocate for a lot is we need to create this common memory. We have to remember what it is that we’re standing on. This is our history.
Singh: How does this tie to the years of work you have devoted to studying the Doctrine of Discovery? And how might that relate to your vision for the future?
Charles: I have been studying a set of documents written between 1452 and 1493 that are collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Essentially the church in Europe is saying to the European nations that wherever you go, whatever lands you find not ruled by white European Christian rulers, those people are less than human and their land is yours for the taking. So this Doctrine is not just what allowed European nations to colonize and slave Africans – it also allowed Columbus, who was lost at sea to land in this new world already inhabited by millions and claimed to have discovered it because you cannot discover lands already inhabited. That's called stealing. The fact that we have monument and speeches and memorials to Columbus as the discoverer of America reveals the implicit racial bias, which is that native people of color are not fully human.
I deeply believe our nation needs to find a way to move forward, but I also am deeply convinced that we can't do that without looking behind us. You know, it's fascinating that people of color are told by this country, get over the past, forget about it, you know, just move on. And yet then the mantra at 9-11 is never forget, you know? And so that's the discrepancy: This nation wants to remember some things, but there's many things it also doesn't want to remember. That’s what we have to deal with.