Cowboys, Indians, and Reconciliation?

THE DOMINANT cultures of North America have long struggled to take responsibility for the suffering and injustice inflicted upon the Indigenous Peoples of the continent. The archetypal “us/them” story of cowboys and Indians remains at the core of North American national identities, from derogatory sports mascots and symbols such as the Washington “Redskins” and the “Chief Wahoo” character of the Cleveland Indians to the ignorant “redfacing” by non-Indigenous partygoers and trick-or-treaters in contrived Indian outfits. And this situation is nowhere near ending, despite many years of cultural sensitivity training and education.

Such overt racism should never be acceptable today. Yet it persists in regard to Indigenous Peoples. Why is this? As one friend remarked to me, most modern-day Americans believe injustices done to Indigenous Peoples to be a thing of the past.

But are they? Steve Heinrichs, director of Indigenous relations for the Mennonite Church in Canada, has brought together nearly 40 theologians, activists, writers, and poets—half of whom are Indigenous—to create Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, a challenging anthology on Indigenous-Christian relations, stolen land, racism, and the impending environmental crisis that we all must face together.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry isn’t easy reading. It’s a Jonah-like warning that should unsettle us and change our perspective. And that’s exactly what needs to happen. Its contributors offer a wide range of views, but agree on at least one thing: “the controlling culture is violently sick, devastating peoples and lands. The need is urgent: repent, resist, do something.”

This book shows that, far from being over, how we respond to this struggle for truth, justice, and reconciliation is key to determining who we will become as nations in the future. For the first time in many generations, we have the possibility of dialogue between the Indigenous and “settler” communities in North America that could offer unprecedented potential for healing—but it isn’t going to be easy.

By retelling familiar biblical stories from an Indigenous perspective, Buffalo Shout uncovers insights and meaning that more traditional tellings gloss over. Such liberating readings flip control of the narrative from the powerful to the powerless and open our eyes to the ways our colonial heritage has limited our understanding of faith.

What does it mean for “settlers” to truly understand the legacy of colonialism, which has given everything to them only by taking it away from somebody else? Significant national processes, such as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, provide an important step, giving the nation the opportunity to hear stories from survivors about the damage done by church-run residential schools that continues to affect Indigenous communities to this day.

And how do we move from this awareness to the even more difficult task of reconciliation?

Prophetic messages such as those delivered by Buffalo Shout show that by first hearing the truth of injustice and then making reparations, we could come together to build the harmonious community of creation that is necessary to heal the world, which God so loves:

The trail we must take lies both ahead and behind,
and uncertainty doubtless will hang like a veil,
Yet hope compels us to journey ahead, for onward to generations,
we must travel.
As at last it is certain—it’s all we could know—together the road, together we prevail.
—Terry LeBlanc (Mi’kmaq)

Contributors to Buffalo Shout include several names familiar to Sojourners readers, such as Ched Myers, Rose Marie Berger, Brian McLaren, and Tink Tinker. There is also a helpful online study guide available for groups.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos, a Sojourners contributing writer, manages social media for The United Church of Canada.

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