Learning to tell the stories of where we are and have been

Paula Palmer does it so well!  She provides a model for us to follow…

Paint Branch UU Church Sermon Adelphi, MD, November 4, 2018

Excerpts of Sermon by Paula Palmer, Boulder Friends Meeting

One thing I’ve learned from living and working with Native peoples is to be attentive to place – to the earth beneath our feet, to all the living beings that surround us, and to the humans whose stories are embedded in the land. That’s why we began today’s service by acknowledging the Piscataway people – their history on this land and their continuing presence here today. Native peoples are asking churches and civic organizations around the country to open our services and meetings with acknowledgments like this. It’s a way for us to recognize the Native peoples who live here today and remember those whose ancestors lived and died here – right here. We can connect with them through the land.

I travel around the country as a Quaker minister, offering workshops like the one I facilitated here a few years ago. I ask people to think about our country’s history of genocide and colonization – which we don’t think about very much, and our schools don’t teach very much, and our government never acknowledges. I ask people to think about what happened here, and then think about the Native people in our own communities today, and consider what we might do to develop relationships now, based on truth and respect and justice and our shared humanity. So many people say, but I don’t know any Native Americans. This might be true, or it might not be – Native people are not always recognizable in stereotypic ways. But what is true is that many of us don’t feel any connection with Indigenous peoples. So it’s kind of hard for us to imagine what it would mean to work toward “right relationship” with them.

I think the land is our connective tissue. Most of us are connected to land somewhere – the land where we live today, the land of our ancestors, the land where we were born, the land where we vacation, the land we love for whatever reason. All the land we know and love was known and loved first by Indigenous Peoples. And Indigenous Peoples say the land remembers.

If the land we love could tell us what it remembers, what would it say? When I asked myself this question, I started by thinking about the land where my German
ancestors settled in the 1840s. They bought land in Michigan Territory and founded a German Lutheran town they called Frankenmuth – the courage of the Franconians. The fertile land of Central Michigan had supported a very large Native population until it was wrested from them by the Treaty of Saginaw, a couple decades before my ancestors arrived. The territorial governor, Lewis Cass, promised the Chippewas that they could remain on smaller tracts of land in Michigan “forever.” But then Cass became Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson, and he was put in charge of enforcing the 1830 Indian Removal Act. He broke his promise to the Chippewas and forced most of them to move west. Some of their land became my family’s farm.

This is the land where I played with my cousins during summer vacations, and where my cousins still live today.

My parents and my cousins didn’t learn this history in the Frankenmuth schools. My 98-year old father and I learned it together a few months ago by searching the internet for a couple of hours. What does this history mean for my family? What does it mean to the Chippewas, expelled from Michigan and spread out now across the Dakotas? I don’t have clear answers to these questions, but I know that the land remembers, and I know that somehow the Chippewa people and my family are bound together in the story of this land.

I live in Colorado now, just outside the city of Boulder on the eastern slope of the Rocky
Mountains. The Boulder Valley is the homeland of the Arapaho people. This is recognized in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. But in 1859, when miners discovered gold in the Boulder foothills, the Arapaho were forced out of their camps in the Boulder Valley. Their peace chief, Nawath, was told to camp on the eastern plains at Sand Creek, and that’s where the US Cavalry attacked them at dawn one November morning. 180 people, most of them women, children, and elders, were slaughtered in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Reflecting on this history, the Pawnee attorney Walter Echo-Hawk wrote, “The land can speak to those who listen….There is a bluff … overlooking Sand Creek where you can hear women and children crying in the wind.”

I wasn’t alone in learning this history of the place I call home. About a year and a half ago, a group of Native and non-Native people in Boulder started meeting to learn about the area’s Indigenous history. We sought out the only Arapaho person we knew of who lives in Boulder today. We told her we thought we’d like to invite some Arapaho people to come to Boulder to meet with us. She said, well, that wouldn’t be the way to start. You need to go and meet with them where they live now – in Oklahoma and Wyoming.

So we raised some money to make the trips, and she helped us set up meetings with elders and government leaders in both communities, and she came with us. When we asked the Arapaho people how they remembered Boulder, we heard, Boulder? Boulder is home. Boulder is our home. Most of these people had never been to Boulder, but they remembered. Our ancestors lived in Boulder, they said, and they died in Boulder. Boulder is sacred ground to us – our homeland. When we asked how they would like to relate to the land and the people who live in Boulder now, they said they would like to have a reverent place, where they can pray, where they can honor their ancestors, where they can give their children a sense of what their lives were like before — when the Arapaho people were free. They also told us they would like to educate the people of Boulder about their lives today, the challenges their young people face, the knowledge and stories of their elders. They want us to know they’re still here.

So we carried this message back to Boulder and got to work. We raised money to bring Arapaho delegations from Wyoming and Oklahoma to meet with us last June. During their two days with us in Boulder, City and County government officials took us out to see several large pieces of city and county Open Space land that they thought might be appropriate for private use by the Arapaho and other Native peoples. One piece of land is the site of the fort where Boulder’s volunteer soldiers mustered to carry out the Sand Creek Massacre. Another has stone circles that date back to 500 years BC. Native people have lived in the Boulder Valley a very long time.

Chief Elvin Kenrick sang memorial songs, gave offerings, and said prayers at these sites. Stephen FastHorse, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council told us: “The Boulder area was the chosen place for the Arapaho people in a spiritual sense. Our ancestors had a spiritual quest to search for a certain place, and when they came here they knew they had found it. It was foretold to us by the higher being of life. The Creator has always led our  people. “Our hearts always yearn for our original homeland. We’ve never before been invited back to this area that we hold so dearly. It’s a heartfelt emotion for us. We hope we will continue to be welcomed in this place that we belong to.”

The land of the Boulder Valley is bringing together all the people who love that place. It is helping us uncover hidden connections, calling us to know that we are bound together, related through the land. Now, when I walk along the creeks in my neighborhood or on trails in the foothills, I remember the people who walked those paths before me, and I know some of their descendants face to face. There is pain in our shared history. And there is hope.