Blog: Voices of Decolonization

Wellness in Community: Speaking our Truths

By Maria Girouard, REACH Coordinator, Health, Wellness & Self-Determination


I had the privilege of being part of a young Passamaquoddy woman’s final graduation project.  She focused her attention on the topic of racism and presented a variety of stories about racism inflicted against native peoples of her community. Some of these stories were written and read aloud.  Some were audio recorded and accompanied by a picture portfolio. One storyteller was a guest speaker - an Elder, dressed up and eager to share.

Stories are powerful in helping us to listen with our hearts. “Storytelling employs a different kind of listening.  The body releases, settles back, is more open and less anxious.  We take in the story before screening the content”  whereas with information that is “asserted or presented cognitively, we immediately engage a screening device to determine whether we agree or disagree.” [Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Process: A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking, Good Books, NY, NY, 2005]  As children ran around us and played, we heard stories about people's first memories of the sting of racism.  Most stories shared were memories from when they were just young children.  

The storytelling took place in a home.  I sat on a couch.  A little girl about four or five years old snuggled her way in between me and another adult, cuddling and petting a tiny puppy, and keeping quiet as the Elder recounted her story of being a little girl herself…. She and her sister had been excited, the Elder said.   A delivery truck had pulled up in their community of Sipayik - a small, remote community where not much ever happened.  They raced up to the parked truck to greet the man who sat in the driver's seat. She remembered that they had wanted to ask him questions.  As the eager girls smiled up at him, the driver rolled down his window and spit a mouthful of soggy, chewed up crackers into their face and hair.  He hollered with expletives at them to to get away from his truck and called them names that the Elder still remembers to this day.  She described how she and her sister sat the rest of the afternoon picking chewed up crackers from each others hair.

The little girl next to me on the couch held up the puppy for me to see.  She had a beautiful smile.  I couldn’t help but smile back.  I wondered what kind of person could spit crackers into the face of a little girl like that.

“It’s a feeling.  A tension you can just feel,” a woman described while holding her clenched fist in front of her stomach.  I knew what she meant.  There were stories shared about being watched, followed, confronted, and humiliated in local stores. Of being “in town” with a parent who was denied a haircut because they were a “dirty Indian.”  Even as small children unaware of the dynamics of race or racism, they still could feel the feelings.  Feelings of scorn, hatred, and disgust aimed at them or their loved ones, the confusion of not understanding why, and the reciprocating feelings of anger and quiet indignation.  

“It made me feel like everybody hated me.  It made me feel like I didn’t even want to go anywhere.”  On one of the audio recordings a young man described fights that were common place; how they all had to have each other’s backs because they knew how it felt to be attacked and they also knew they might be the ones needing help the next time. A photograph of the speaker was passed around as we listened to his recorded voice recount matter-of-factly tales of unfortunate violence.  I stared into his picture.  He looked tough but tired.

Amber Gabriel said that the reason she chose the topic of racism for her final project was because she sees racism happening everyday all around her, and she wanted people’s stories to be heard.   Like Maine-Wabanaki REACH, Gabriel understands the importance of speaking truth and holding space for difficult conversations.  Only by truths falling on compassionate ears will we be able to move toward healing and change. I commend her for her bravery in selecting her topic choice.  I hope we can continue to elevate the conversation about racial hurts and their impact on the psyches of our family, friends, neighbors, and communities.       

Amber Gabriel is a Passamaquoddy from Sipayik and a 2017 graduate of Wayfinder School Passages.

I Have Good Work to Do

By Jeffrey Hotchkiss, REACH Volunteer


April 2017

Awakening is hard


someone yanks off the covers

flings me

through the open window

into the cold deep snow

face first

bleeding from the holes in my body

Over and over again

Until I find good work to do

And do it.


As elderhood rolls toward me like an oncoming train, I have good work to do.

Grandchildren have blessed me, my paycheck job is fun and easy, I am building a holistic healing cooperative, and I am studying decolonization – of myself and the world around me.

I am very thankful to the people of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Maine Wabanaki REACH, for giving me the chance to do that studying.

It's been a long and often strange, often agonizing, ultimately wonderful trip.

Part 1 – Wounded Knee

The first decade of this century, wherein

I learned how to fly through the air, land softly and roll to my feet, then learned hands-on healing for myself and others, endured the loss of five loved ones in as many months including an old friend from prep school who fell from the sky when the North Tower collapsed on 9-11, opened up to a profound Earth connection, began exploring the history of indigenous peoples who always had that connection, experienced a sweat lodge, then experienced horror at the criminal travesty in Sedona when James Arthur Ray crammed sixty people into a so-called sweat lodge and killed three of them, read what Arvol Looking Horse had to say about it and realized that white people were stealing and profiting from Native spiritual traditions the same as we'd done with the land, continued to deepen and teach my healing practice, recovered memories of early trauma and left the corporate world for a deeper more financially humble healing odyssey complete with flashbacks and panic attacks, earned an EMT license and adventured on an ambulance partly as a way of rescuing myself, and became more and more convinced that European society had taken a horribly wrong turn somewhere back in time that caused us to commit global genocide in order to advance an inhuman and inhumane way of living,

ended with

one evening when

my son said, “Hey Dad, come look at this!”.

On Youtube I saw Keith Carradine explaining the revolutionary-for-its-time workings of the Hotchkiss Mountain Gun, a breech-loading rifled light cannon operated by three soldiers with a firing rate of four or five 1.65-inch shells a minute, deadly accurate up to a mile away. Then, the words “Wounded Knee” came up, and Carradine explained how four Hotchkiss guns so efficiently killed hundreds of Lakota men, women and children more than a century ago.

Everything stopped.

Piercing guilt consumed me. A member of my family had done bloody wrong to a whole nation. My siblings and I had grown up being told of “great-great-uncle Benjamin” whose company made machine guns and limousines for the French government. His widow had used his arms fortune to found the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. When I was applying to prep schools, I had seen his portrait there; it strongly resembled my grandfather. I felt I had inherited a blood debt. It demanded to be honored.

When faced with a crisis, I first learn as much as I can about its history and dynamics. So I started to read, everything I could get my hands on about the Wounded Knee Massacre and the use of my great-great uncle's weapon – online, in books, and in correspondence with libraries, genealogists and military archives.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

- There are many accounts of this massacre and the events leading up to it. They are all gut-wrenching. If you decide to read any of them, provide for your emotional self-care.

- Although the Army and the press for years called it a battle, Wounded Knee was clearly a massacre. Most of the soldiers who died were killed by friendly fire. The soldiers rolled the Hotchkiss guns to the mouths of ravines where Lakota were seeking shelter and fired indiscriminately. The soldiers' shooting went on for hours. There is ample other evidence of the murderous intent of the soldiers and their officers.

- The chief leading this band, named Spotted Elk, nicknamed Bigfoot, had a reputation for peacemaking among his people. He was very ill with pneumonia and lying on the ground when he was shot. His daughter was killed in front of him. He had tried so hard to bring his people to safety.

- Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers for the massacre. These medals have yet to be rescinded.

- There were political influences in play, having to do with presidential reelection, converting territories to states to compete for the Electoral College and Congressional representation, and extreme pressure to solve “the Indian problem” once and for all. The settlers were very nervous about a religious revival among the Plains Indians (look up the Ghost Dance).

- Benjamin Hotchkiss was not, in fact, my great-great-uncle, instead was a very distant cousin on a different branch of the family tree going back to the 1630's. This was a surprise but not much of a relief. My family name was still known as “Hotchkill” among survivors who told their stories after the massacre.

- The Army first used the Hotchkiss Mountain Gun against the Nez Perce, to break a stalemate at the battle of Bears Paw Mountains in 1877, thirteen years before Wounded Knee. Its first shell buried a mother and her daughter under a collapsing bank of soil.

- Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, Hunkpapa Lakota, descendant of a Wounded Knee survivor, developed the theory of historical trauma, later called intergenerational trauma, and documented its effects. I viewed many of her lectures on Youtube, and found them very enlightening and helpful. It was very clear from her work that today's descendants carry strong echoes of the trauma inflicted on their ancestors.

No matter how distressed or agonized I felt about the moral effect of this great crime rolling down to my generation, that was as nothing next to the effect on the victims and survivors. Here was the demonstration of white privilege, in stark relief. Whole family lines among the Minneconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota were cut short. Hotchkisses survived and thrived, expanding our family tree in all directions, with a gun, a school, and a limousine named after us. There is no “fixing” that, no “white messiah” possible, although that did not prevent me from daydreaming about healing it all – everyone's pain - with the wave of a fantasized wealthy hand.

Although I made a couple or three attempts to connect with Lakota people who were leading the way to healing, in the spirit of being helpful if I could – no, let me be honest, it was in a desperate attempt to expiate my painful white guilt – after a couple of years of learning and praying and dreaming, I understood that I had a lot of my own contemplation and work to do, and so it would be enough if I were to simply hold this awareness within me for the remainder of my life. If the survivors and their descendants had to live with it, then so did I.

Contemplation kept circling back to this: it's all about the children. I read and learned about many ways the children died that day, and about some who miraculously survived. Courageous warriors rode unarmed, to and from the killing ground, taking as many children to safety as they could, until they themselves fell to the soldier's guns. Four infants were found alive the day after, protected from the bitter cold by the bodies of their mothers. At least one was adopted into a white officer's family.

I saw that children and innocents had been killed, not as an accident, but as a matter of policy fueled by white settlers' fear, white politicians' calculations and my European ancestors' insatiable hunger for conquering peoples with darker skins and different religions.

I entered this current decade in a moral and spiritual emergency. My family connection to Wounded Knee wasn't the only revelation that threw me off balance, but it led the way. If I were to honor the greatest values and principles of common human decency that I used to think all of us “Americans” grew up with, I needed to find ground to stand on.

…Please return for Part 2 of this blog, “I Have Good Work to Do”

Learning Together

By, Barbara Kates Maine-Wabanaki REACH Community Organizer

I am learning about decolonization- wondering what does decolonization mean for Wabanaki people; for me, as someone who is not Native; and for my community.  I realize pretty quickly that in order to decolonize myself and my community, I need to first understand colonization. What is the history and how does it thread through our economic, political, social, educational, religious, health, legal – well, pretty much all the systems we have.  This is going to take some time and I will need help.

Maine-Wabanaki REACH creates learning events and tools, and gathers people and resources to focus our attention on right here in Wabanakiland Maine.  In this process, hundreds of people participate, offer insight, share their experience, and suggest paths forward and further education. This is how we learn together.

You are invited to participate in developing REACH’s newest learning tool – currently known as the Interactive Learning Exercise.  This tool will be a structure for group learning, where everyone actively participates as we sit, walk, and/or talk through historical events of colonization of Wabanaki territory. We experience and witness the impacts of these events. Then we have circle time to reflect and share our experience. 

REACH needs the help of people to participate in this Interactive Learning Exercise to let us know what is working and what needs more attention.

How can you help?


  • You can organize an event in your community. To organize one, you need to help us recruit 25-35 people who are willing to commit 90 minutes together.  We need four of those people to volunteer to read to the group.  We need a large accessible room and chairs where everyone can sit in a circle. 

If you want more information, contact

We have facilitated the Interactive Learning Exercise twice and already learned it has an impact on participants.  Non-Native people have told us “It’s eye opening” and “re-enacting the history of Native people in Maine made tangible events few of us knew a lot about and otherwise would not need to engage with beyond a surface level.” Wabanaki people have said that it was important to be part of people learning the history of what happened here. 

We know we have more work to do and are trying out variations each time we offer it.  We are creating a great tool to share. REACH will make it available on our website so any community can download the directions and script to experience and learn together about colonization.

Decolonizing Faith: Community Presentations and Workshops

By Maggie Edmondson, Winthrop Friends Meeting

Children_-_Kickapoo_Village_-_Blog_Pic.pngPicture shows children in Kickapoo Village, Oklahoma, circa 1980. Friends ran Indian day schools and boarding schools here in about 30 locations. Photo used with consent from "Towards Right Relationship with America's Native Peoples"                              

I am a Quaker, working with a small Interfaith Council on Decolonizing Faith.  We have recently offered a workshop on “Colonization and the Role of the Churches” with plans for future offerings.  As part of our work we have invited a Quaker, Paula Palmer to visit Maine and share her research into Quaker involvement in the Indian Boarding Schools, as a model for other religious groups to do similar work.  The Indian Boarding Schools had the express aim of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” and were run by various religious groups.  Not only did they try to eradicate all traces of indigenous identity and culture, the children often suffered physical and sexual abuse – many died in the boarding schools.  Our churches were a part of the colonizing attitude of European Christian superiority which assumed a natural right to impose its values upon whatever land and peoples it encountered and to take what it wanted in the process.  The questions are “Who are we today?” “Who do we want to be?”  “Will we join in honest exploration of our churches’ roles in colonization of this land and its people?” “Will we seek ways to contribute to healing and building new relationship?”Every religion places an emphasis on truth and integrity.  As people of faith, something we have to face, is the truth of our churches’ involvement in the devastation of indigenous peoples.  It’s a wound and an injustice which calls first for honest acknowledgment that it happened and then for repentance, work toward healing, and building of new relationship.  We are in the Christian season of Lent when often the focus is on “giving up” something, but the Hebrew word “teshuvah” literally means “to turn”.  Once we were going this way, now we have decided to turn and go another way.   We are called “to turn” and “go another way” in our relationship with the native people of this land.  Our churches have work to do to look at the part we played for instance as Indian Agents, as directors of Indian Boarding Schools, and also to look at how our theology perpetuates a religion of empire and domination rather than a religion of equality and mutual respect.  

Penobscot woman, Maria Girouard speaks of the Seven Fires Prophecies within her native heritage.  The prophecies speak of eras through which native peoples were going to have to live, with each era being one of the “fires”.  The seventh fire speaks of a time when the world is physically and spiritually polluted, but beyond that there is a great hope prophesied, a time of great healing.  “Many” she says “believe we are entering the time of the great healing now, but the great healing is not a spectator sport.  It’s a critical call to action.  All peoples, of all races and religions must come together and work for the good of all.  And in order for any change or healing to take place the truth must be told, and received by compassionate ears.”

Paula Palmer’s presentation “Quaker Involvement in Indian Boarding Schools” is open to the public and is on Tuesday April 18, 7:00 p.m. at Jewett Hall, UMA.

Paula will lead an interactive workshop, “Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change,” on April 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Orono.  To register for this workshop, go to: This Link

Wabanaki Health and Wellness Celebrates their 20th Annual Spring Social


Since 1997, Wabanaki people from all over the State and the Maritimes have gathered each Spring to connect and celebrate being Wabanaki. The Annual Spring Social is sponsored by Wabanaki Health and Wellness, which was established to fill the unmet need for substance abuse, mental health and other supportive services to Native people who live in the greater urban area of Bangor. 

Wabanaki Health and Wellness has a long history of providing compassionate, culturally relevant services that support the health and well-being of Native people. The agency provides advocacy and case management services to children, families and adults as well as HIV AIDS testing, counseling and prevention education. Wabanaki Health and Wellness is staffed by experienced, dedicated and resourceful team of Native and non-Native people. Their offices in Bangor house the drop in center which provides computers and space for well-briety meetings, language instruction, cultural arts and crafts, and just for connecting with each other.

The desire and need for connection led the agency to host the first Spring Social in 1997. “We started the social primarily for our little intertribal community to join in prayer, share a meal, dance, sing and celebrate the New Year with each other” says Sharon Tomah, who is a founder and the Executive Director of Wabanaki Health and Wellness. That first year, the social was attended by about 40 people, including one drum group. This year, the Social Committee anticipates 700 people, with 8-10 drum groups expected, including some youth drum groups.

The Spring Social has become the largest intertribal gathering in Maine. Wabanaki and tribal community members enjoy a potluck meal complete with cultural favorites and lots of fry bread. The dancing and drumming begin after prayers for the community offered by Wabanaki elders in our first language. Masters of Ceremonies entertain and direct all the action, telling stories and reinforcing traditional values in messages for the community on topics such as caring for each other, healing, wellness, recovery and prevention.  Special dances and songs are performed to honor and acknowledge our veterans, elders, youth and leaders in community service.

Community groups and organizations set up health promotion tables to share information on topics such as prevention of diabetes, opiate addiction, domestic violence, HIV and Hepatitis C infections.  In addition, tribal members sell art, clothing and jewelry. The day is filled with song, dance and laughter as old friendships are rekindled and new friendships are formed.  The Spring Social is an important event in the larger Wabanaki community and is organized by a small group of agency staff and volunteers who raise enough money each year to pay for the venue, provide lodging and transportation for elders, honoraria for drum groups and paper goods and supplies for the meal.

To celebrate the theme for the Social this year, Welcoming Our People Home, Non-native foster families of Native children are invited to attend to provide this wonderful opportunity for Native children in foster care to experience and engage in their culture. There will be Wabanaki people paired with families who will serve as host to help families feel more welcome and at ease; families just need to check in at the Welcome table and they will meet their host.

There are very few spaces off reservation where Wabanaki people can gather and express culture freely. The importance of the Annual Spring Social is immeasurable but evident in the faces of the children, elders and adults as they sing, drum, dance and connect, reclaiming ancient rites of Spring.

This year, the Social is being held in a bigger location so the total cost has increased. The committee is working hard to raise the remaining funds. Making a donation is a wonderful way to support the health and wellness of Wabanaki people. Donations can be made directly to the agency at 157 Park St. Suite 5, Bangor, ME 04401 or here:

In Honor and Celebration of Sandy White Hawk

From REACH - With Love.


We are proud to announce that Sandy White Hawk has been named the 2017 Champion for Native Children by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). 

NICWA describes Sandy as “an incredible leader in Indian Country who has made outstanding contributions to the well-being of children and families. Among her many accomplishments, she is the founder and director of First Nations Repatriation Institute and has become a spokesperson on the issues of adoption and the foster care system and how it has impacted First Nations people.”

In Maine, we know Sandy as a Commissioner for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have stood with her in prayer and sat with her in circles. We know her capacity to listen deeply, to share from her heart, to see the goodness in all people, accepting them where they are. We know her joyful laughter and her courage to stand in the midst of pain and hurt. We know her warmth and her advocacy.

This recognition is NICWA's highest honor and we join them in celebrating Sandy in this well-deserved award. 

Sandy was born on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. At the age of 18 months, she was adopted out to a white missionary family who believed that they would be helping a child to have a better life. Sandy tells us that, “this idea did not come from grace (a basic Christian concept), but rather a cruel assumption that Indian families did not have a religion and a spiritual belief system or a family system. All they saw was the poverty and alcoholism, compared it to their privileged life and came to the conclusion that they and their way of life was superior.”

Sandy followed a long life journey that eventually brought her back to her Lakota community at age 35. There she found her family, who not only remembered her, but had been waiting for her return. She found her people and her culture, participating in pow wows, ceremonies and social gatherings. She found herself, her spiritual center and healing from what she called the “cruelest form of abuse: the complete rejection of my natural spirit.”

Reconnecting made her realize she was not alone and in this, Sandy also discovered her purpose. She founded and is the Director of First Nations Repatriation Institute (FNRI), the first organization of its kind whose goal it is to create a resource for First Nations people impacted by foster care or adoption to enable them to return home, reconnect, and reclaim their identity.  The Institute also serves as a resource to enhance the knowledge and skills of practitioners who serve First Nations people.

Sandy organizes Truth Healing Reconciliation Community Forums that bring together adoptees/fostered individuals and their families and professionals with the goal to identify post adoption issues and to identify strategies that will prevent removal of First Nations children.  She has also initiated an ongoing support group for adoptees and birth relatives in the Twin Cities Area.

Sandy has become a spokesperson on the issues of the adoption and the foster care system and how it has impacted First Nations People. She has traveled worldwide sharing her inspirational story of healing. She has served as an Honorary Witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools in Canada.

She is a contributing author to several publications - Outsiders Within: Writing on transracial adoption, Parenting as Adoptees, and The Kinship Parenting Toolbox.

Sandy was awarded the Women in Wellbriety Dana Tiger Award for Creating Change in Nations, named one of the Innovators in Color Lines Magazine, named one of the 50 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World, Utne Reader, 2008, named Outstanding Native Women Award from the University of Minnesota 2003 and was named one of the “50 Most Influential and Cool People” of Madison, WI, in Madison Magazine, November 2002.

While we are very proud of all Sandy has done, we are most proud to call her our friend, our relative, it is truly a blessing.

Wherever you are on April 4th, pause and know that Sandy is receiving this honor – on the very same day when we will pause in prayer all Native children. It is fitting that both of these sacred events will happen on the same day.

The National Day of Prayer for Native Children

 By Esther Anne, Co-Director Maine-Wabanaki REACH


On April 4, 2017 at 10:30 in the morning, wherever you are, please pause for a few moments to focus on, reflect and pray for the health, safety, and well-being of Native children.

Your thoughts and prayers will join hundreds of others from the Indian child welfare professionals who will be gathered in prayer at the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s (NICWA) 35th Annual Protecting Our Children Conference in California. They have called upon tribal communities and their partners nationwide to join together to demonstrate their support for all Native children.

NICWA is a voice for American Indian children and families and the most comprehensive source of information on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. The ICWA is a federal law that recognizes how crucial tribal connection is, provides extra protection for native children involved in State child welfare cases and views the tribe as that child’s third parent.

ICWA was passed in response to the high rates of native children that were being removed from their tribes and raised in non-native homes.  When this important law was passed in 1978, 25-35% of all American Indian/Alaskan Native children were removed from their homes by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. At that time, 85% of American Indian/Alaskan Native children removed were placed outside of their families and communities – even when fit and willing relatives were available.

The practice of forcibly assimilating native children into white culture has a long history in the United States. One such strategic effort was carried out through the Civilization Fund Act, which was passed in 1819 and provided resources to educate and civilize native children, leading to the creation of many boarding schools.

One of the most infamous was Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which operated from 1879-1918 and was created by Richard Henry Pratt, who saw it as his divine mission to forcibly remove over 10,000 native children from their homes and communities and take them hundreds and thousands of miles away. 

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” ~ Richard Henry Pratt   

The children were forbidden to speak their language, their hair was cut, their clothes were changed, and they were abused, emotionally, sexually and physically. Some of these children died while at Carlisle, others returned home once they became adults, unable to speak their language, participate in their culture and carrying trauma from what was done to them. Records show that 57 Wabanaki children were taken to Carlisle

Later, more government sanctioned strategies to forcibly assimilate native children into white culture were carried out by child welfare agencies. Most notably was the Indian Adoption Project, which was created and funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US Children’s Bureau, administered by the Child Welfare League of America and operated between 1958 and 1967.

During this project, 395 Native American children were adopted by white families in Illinois, Indiana, New York, Massachusetts, Missouri, and other states in the East and Midwest. Approximately fifty public and private adoption agencies cooperated with the project and when it ended, the practice of removing native children continued into the 1970s with the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, which placed an additional 255 native children.

ICWA was passed in response to these high rates of removal of native children. Compliance with ICWA has always been a challenge all across the Country. In Maine in 1999, the State Office of Child and Family Services participated in a pilot review of their child welfare program and were found to be out of compliance with ICWA. They reached out to each tribal child welfare department for help in designing and delivering a mandatory training to their 500 case workers. 

From the start, this tribal-state ICWA Workgroup was committed to best child welfare practice with Wabanaki children and families and recognized the need for case workers to understand not only the letter of the law, but the spirit and intent of the law as well.  It was important for case workers to learn the history of forced assimilation of native children to understand why ICWA is so crucial and necessary.

After the initial round of training sessions in 2000, the ICWA Workgroup stayed together to continue expanding and improving training, creating sound policy and building better relationships and, in 2008 decided to establish and implement a truth commission process focused on native child welfare.

In 2012, the mandate to create the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was signed by Maine’s Governor and Chiefs from each of the 5 Wabanaki tribes. The Commission spent 27 months researching documents and gathering statements from 160 Wabanaki and non-native Mainers impacted by child welfare and released a report of findings and recommendations in June 2015.

Soon after, in August of 2015, the ICWA Workgroup was re-established and is committed to implementation of the Commission’s child welfare recommendations. Tribal and State child welfare partners meet to strengthen policy, relationship, and resources to support compliance with ICWA. The ICWA Workgroup believes in the spirit and intent of ICWA; believes that native children have a birthright to their tribe and community; and believes that connection to tribe and community is crucial to the well-being of native children and to the continued existence of tribes.

Please keep in mind the history of forced removal of native children that led to the passage of ICWA and the present day efforts to promote compliance with ICWA during this National Day of Prayer for Native Children.

LD 914: An Act to Establish Indigenous People’s Day

LD 914: An Act to Establish Indigenous People’s Day

By Penthea Burns & Diane Oltarzewski 

venezuelan-demonstrators-topple-columbus-statue_-_Cropped.jpg LD 914: An Act to Establish Indigenous People’s Day, sponsored by Representative Scott Hamann of South Portland with eight co-sponsors, is being heard by the Maine Legislature’s Committee on State and Local Government on Wednesday, March 22. Hearings begin at 9:00 AM, in room 214 of the Cross Office Building. We suspect that a vote will occur at the Committee’s work session, usually held a week after a hearing. If passed out of Committee, the bill will proceed to the House and the Senate for a vote. If passed by the legislature, it then moves onto the Governor who will either sign or veto the law.   

Many people will attend the legislative hearing to listen to testimony of the many who will speak to the merits of this bill. Folks who cannot attend will write or call their legislators to let them know what they think about the proposed legislation.

 Around the country, states and municipalities are questioning why we celebrate Christopher Columbus when his arrival marked the beginning of genocide of indigenous people.  Since 1990, South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day instead.  Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Vermont have recently changed the holiday to Indigenous People’s Day.  Many municipalities, such as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Albuquerque, Alpina, Traverse City, Berkley, Santa Cruz, Seattle, Olympia, and Denver, are changing the celebration to honor and acknowledge Native people.  Several counties in Texas and Wisconsin have done the same. 

Belfast was the first jurisdiction in Maine to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day on the second Monday of October.  Diane Oltarzewski led the effort to change the holiday in October.  In her presentation to the Belfast Town Council, Diane began by saying,

“I appreciate the opportunity to present this petition and to share with you what I’ve been learning this year. In two months since October 12, we’ve collected 252 signatures from Belfast residents. Let me begin with the facts:

  • Columbus never set foot on the North American continent, and very luckily so for the people who lived here in the 15th century.
  • Where he did land – principally Hispaniola – the native Taíno people were enslaved, converted or tortured, and ultimately completely wiped out. [One of our signers is originally from that island, and she spoke with bitter recognition of those events.]
  • The papal “Doctrine of Discovery” of 1452 sanctioned a power of eminent domain to all exploration carried out under the banner of Christ. Local no-how was courted only as long as it took to establish a durable beachhead; then so-called Christian values evaporated, and systematic and rapacious greed took over.
  • As scholars and teachers bring to light the true history, Columbus Day has come to symbolize only this pitiless inhumanity. [One mother of a fifth-grader told me that he’s come home wondering why it’s a holiday at all.]”

Diane grounded her presentation in this present day reality –

“The good news is that Wabanaki people in Maine have survived despite 500 years of encroachment and betrayal – their land and resources stolen, their culture cruelly mocked and suppressed, their children taken from them. The tribes are strengthening and renewing their culture today, and that’s something to celebrate! Though the Columbus holiday is only a symbol, it is a painful one that misrepresents history. In fact, no American child – native or non-native – should be expected to accept such a falsehood.” 

This action promotes decolonization by acknowledging that colonization of this land was done through acts of genocide, beginning with Christopher Columbus. Diane described the overwhelming agreement from fellow citizens when she sought signatures on a petition to bring to the Town Council, saying “most of the people whose signatures I present tonight were overwhelmingly enthusiastic – eager for this change to happen, and to happen here – especially our young people.” 

Diane pointed to the deterioration in tribal-state relations as an important reason to remove the reminder and minimization of trauma that is embodied in Columbus Day. She challenged us to commit ourselves to actively honoring “indigenous rights and freedoms – from sovereignty to sustenance fishing rights to cultural self-determination.” 

Diane closed her remarks to the town council in this way. “Our shared history demands that we relate to the tribes respectfully, as nation to nation. A celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day beginning in 2016 would be a very good signal to send at this time. You are all now the stewards of this sweet little riverbank, but let’s never forget who was here first. We the signatories would be pleased and proud if our town spoke up and let the world know what we value, and where we stand.” 

The petition to the Belfast Town Council was successful, resulting in October 10, 2016 being celebrated as the first Indigenous People’s Day in Belfast, Maine. 

While honoring Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day is more just and honorable, it is not the ultimate remedy. We can truly begin decolonization when we make different choices, such as, understanding the present day realities, listening to learn, repairing harms without inflicting more harm or burden on native people, surrendering our privilege and resisting the urge to be savior.

WABANAKI WOMEN - Blog for Women’s History Month

By Maria Girouard, Coordinator of Health, Wellness, & Self-Determination 

old_lady_with_pipe_(002).jpgWishing to recognize Wabanaki women during March - Women’s History month, I was stuck as to where to begin.  What could I possibly say that would suffice the honor of acknowledging the strong, brave women of Wabanaki?  I wondered what they would want me to say.  Certainly they would want to be known as the lifebearers, a sacred role of carrying and bringing forth life into physical form.   

Certainly they would want their grace, humor and wit acknowledged.  One can almost imagine the sound of their laughter being carried down rivers, or wafting on a breeze carried across fields being tended together in the spirit of Corn Mother.  

 Surely they would want their role as culture bearers to be recognized… how they collectively cared for and taught the children the norms and ways of Wabanaki society - a society based on a foundation of peace.  Women were instrumental in maintaining a peaceful and just society.  They were well respected and appreciated by the men.  Their roles were considered egalitarian.  Equal to that of men’s roles - neither below nor above.

 “Woman represents reason, the being who educates man, orients his future, and anticipates society’s needs.”  [Georges Sioui]  

Historically, Wabanaki women were capable of astounding workloads.  They tended gardens, carried wood and water, crafted household utensils, gathered medicines and food, prepared and cooked meals, prepared hides, made clothes and snowshoes, set up and tore down shelters, and after engaging in all these physical tasks, women were also the primary decision makers.  Women were involved in all major decisions involving their community.  They shared the load as well as the food that was gathered or gardened.  Collectively they not only cared for, raised, and educated the children, but tended their births, too.  The same women who tended births also tended deaths.  

 “It is well to be good to women in the strength of our manhood because we must sit under their hands at both ends of our lives.” [Sioux Elder]

 Grandmothers wisdom was highly respected and Grandmothers were responsible for selecting future leaders for their people.   In ancient stories, women played important roles for their people, such as the story of Corn Mother who sacrificed her life so that her children would not starve and at the same time, gave us the gifts of corn and tobacco.  Gluscabe, who is a cultural hero of the Wabanaki and a character in many ancient stories, is known for providing his people with guidance on how to live harmoniously together and with the land.  However it was Nokomis, his Grandmother who raised Gluscabe.  Through Grandmother’s guidance and teachings Gluscabe learned to live in balance and carried those teachings forth.  Grandmother’s teachings contained cultural values that were woven throughout Wabanaki oral history and are witnessed in the upbringing of Gluscabe.  In return, Gluscape afforded her the utmost respect.

 Collectively native women were a powerful force, so powerful that earliest colonizers and missionaries acknowledged the need to break their spirits in order to seize lands ripe for the stealing and exert control of native nations. “There is nothing more real than this superiority of women.  It is of them that the nation really consists, and it is through them that the families are perpetuated… all real authority is vested in them.” [Jesuit missionary, Joseph-Francois Lafitau]

 Wabanaki women, who endured centuries of unimaginable hardships and assaults on their way of being, were the backbone to their tribal nations and remain so today.  In June 2012, at a ceremony at the State House where a mandate was signed to commence Wabanaki land’s historic and precedent-setting Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis referenced a popular quote to comment on the state of Wabanaki tribal nations today. Francis said,  “They say that ‘a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground’ and then it is done, but looking around the room today at the women’s strong leadership, I’d have to say that we are in pretty good shape.” [Signing of the mandate, June 2012]


 Anderson, Karen, “Chain Her by One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France,” 1993.

  • Mann, Barbara Alice, “Where are your Women?: Missing in Action”
  • Penobscot Cultural and Historic Preservation Department,
  • Sioui, Georges, “Amerindian Autohistory,” 1992.
  • Time-Life Books, The Woman’s Way, 1995.


Wanting To Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns Into Cultural Theft

By Rev. Myke Johnson

Myke Johnson is minister at the Allen Avenue UU Church in Portland, blogs at and recently published Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community. Her book explores ways to reconnect with the earth, while honoring the wisdom of Indigenous people and wrestling with the history of colonization.

fence-Myke_Pic_1.jpgMany people are searching for a deeper spiritual engagement with the world,  and feel a hunger unmet by the teachings and services of traditional religious  institutions. Some have begun to take an interest in Native American spiritual  practices, and one can easily find workshops and lectures offering Indian rituals  and ceremonies to non-Indian people. However, many Native people, including  highly respected religious elders, have condemned such “borrowing.” They  identify it as a form of cultural exploitation, gravely detrimental to the survival  and well-being of Indigenous people.

 In this paper, I will be discussing the ethical questions raised by White peoples’  exploration of the religious ceremonies and beliefs of American Indians. What is  at work here which makes sincere spiritual searching an act of cultural theft?  Why are Native peoples endangered by this interest in their beliefs and rituals?  How can we respect the cultural integrity of Indian people, and yet also honor  deep-felt spiritual desires?

 –My Own Background—

 First, I want to introduce myself in relation to this issue. I am a White woman  related by matrilineal ancestry to the Innu people, called by the French  “Montagnais,” who are indigenous to the land which is now called Quebec and Labrador. I grew up in White U.S. Christian culture, with fair skin and red hair, and only a reminder that we were “part-Indian” to link me to any other culture. To be White is to fit into the norm in ways that give one certain advantages denied to those who are not White. And yet the awareness that I had an Innu great-great-great-grandmother also created a crack in my identity that caused me to go searching for what it meant to be Indian or to have Indian ancestry.

This ancestral connection at first made it more complex and confusing to speak about this issue, even as it lay at the heart of my commitment and responsibility to it. Even grammatically, I questioned how to use “we” and “they” when I wondered if I might be included in both, but not quite contained in either category. I had heard many Indian people speak out about these issues. I decided that it was most useful for me to speak as a White woman, to raise the issues in the context of the feminist spirituality movement in which I had been involved, that we might be true to our commitment to the survival and liberation of all people.

Furthermore, while for me there was this element of seeking to understand my own Native heritage, the current phenomenon of outside interest in Native spirituality is a phenomenon of White culture. This White phenomenon affects all of us who find ourselves interested in Native Americans. It was important for my search to get inside this White thing about Indians, to explore and understand how it works in White people, of which I am a part, so that I could understand how it affected the search to understand my connection to my Innu ancestors.

Through this ongoing journey, many years later, I also came to have a clearer understanding of myself as a White person. Having a distant Indian ancestor does not make one an Indian. But hopefully I can honor my distant ancestors by being a good ally in the struggles of contemporary Native peoples.

Since childhood, I have been a spiritual person. As I was becoming an adult, the values of the Christian Gospel led me into political activism on behalf of justice and liberation. This path of justice activism led me to understanding the oppression of women, and of myself as a woman. One of the places where women experience oppression is in the area of spirituality and religion. So feminism instigated for me a spiritual search and a profound transformation. With many other women I began to seek and create what we called women’s spirituality. This is the context in which I, along with other women, began to be interested in Native American spirituality.

–The Stereotype “Indian” and “Native American Spirituality”–

There is a phenomenon in White culture which affects any interaction between White people and Native Americans. White culture has created an image and called it “Indian.” But this image is a stereotype, and not really informative or accurate about real Native Americans, who are of many diverse cultures. All of us could give details about this stereotype “Indian.” An important aspect of this stereotype “Indian” is that it has two sides, like the two sides of a coin.

One side of the stereotype Indian is the Hostile Savage–the dangerous, primitive warrior who attacked the settlers of the West, or the irresponsible reservation drunk who couldn’t be trusted, the Indian of which it was said, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The other side of the stereotype Indian is the Noble Savage–the innocent primitive who was naturally spiritual and lived in idyllic harmony close to the earth, the Indian of the Thanksgiving stories who helped the Pilgrims survive. These images are embedded deeply in our culture, and are a subliminal backdrop to any of our interactions with Native people or concepts.

When we hear about Indians sharing spiritual wisdom with White people, they call to mind this second stereotype, the friendly noble Indian. When we hear the anger of Indians, it is easy for the first stereotype Indian to re-emerge, the hostile savage. We might feel angry or defensive or fearful.

It is important to realize that these images are really fantasies–projections of fears and dreams of White people onto those perceived as “other.” While the second image, the noble spiritual wise Indian, might seem to be an improvement on the first, it is actually also harmful to Native people. So for any of us with some desire to learn more about Native people, the first layer we encounter is this layer of distortion, like a mask which obscures the voices and experiences of actual Native peoples.

What is called “Native American spirituality” in various New Age movement settings is actually a part of this distorted image. So-called “Native American spirituality” draws on the “Noble Savage” stereotype, mixed with elements of symbol and ritual from various actual Native religious practices. What interests us about these Indians might be the way they are portrayed as having a spiritual world view, while mainstream culture seems increasingly secular. We might be looking for an emphasis on female deities and positive roles for women, or a focus on the earth, grounded in the interconnectedness of all beings. Men have seen the Indian as an image of manhood to be reclaimed.

These can all be important visions, and contain elements of truth. But the mask is still a mask. Andrea Smith, Cherokee activist and member of Women of All Red Nations, points out, “The ‘Indian ways’ that these white, new-age ‘feminists’ are practicing have very little basis in reality. …these new agers do not understand Indian people or our struggles for survival and thus can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices.1

–The bigger picture: Resistance, Colonialism and Structural Racism–

Of course, I didn’t know any of this right away. I mentioned that spirituality had led me into political activism. As part of my journey, I was also drawn into political activity with Native people. It was in this context that I began to learn about the lives and issues faced by actual Native Americans. I learned about the continued theft of the land and displacement of its inhabitants. I learned about forced acculturation through forbidding people to practice their religions, sending their children to boarding schools, and forbidding them to speak their languages. I learned about the mining of coal and uranium on reservations with disregard for the consequences on the lives of the communities there. And on and on.

I also learned about the reclamation of Indian pride and identity and the history of resistance to genocide. I learned about the resistance movements of the late 20th century: A.I.M. and Alcatraz and the Wounded Knee occupation. I learned about people like Anna Mae Pictou Aquash and Leonard Peltier. Eventually, I met the Innu people of my own heritage, who were engaged in a battle against the destruction of their land and way of life as they tried to stop the building of a huge hydroelectric project, the Saint Marguerite 3 dam. These real people and real struggles began to cut through the stereotypes fostered by our culture, and help me to understand about Native American realities today.


ferns-Myke_Pic_2.jpgIn this way I began to see the vast differences between what was being promoted as “Native American spirituality” and what was actually true for Native peoples’ lives. These differences are not something that can be corrected with more accurate recordings of ceremonies or better teachers. Rather, they are about context and underlying values. They are about power and a history of colonialism.

It is important to look at the bigger context for these questions. We get used to thinking of ethics as an individual matter, where good intentions are uppermost, and right or wrong is something we each of us choose. These are important, but there is another way of thinking about ethics which I find helpful here. That is social ethics–looking at the structures of society and their impact on people. The context here is structural racism.

Structural racism is a system of oppression in which the structures of society are operated and controlled by White people. Racism combines prejudice against people of color with political, economic, and social power over their lives. Racism is in the air we breathe. It is not so much about individual guilt or innocence, as it is an atmosphere of injustice with which we all have to reckon in some way.

We live in a colonialist society. It was built upon the European theft of land. It was built by conquering and destroying the nations of people already here, and it continues its assault on Native lands and culture. This isn’t something we chose, but something we inherited, and thus have to reckon with.

–Cultural Appropriation–

It is in this context that Native Americans identify the use of Native symbols and ceremonies as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Cultural appropriation is a weapon in the process of colonization. Cultural appropriation is when a dominating or colonizing people take over the cultural and religious ceremonies and articles of a people experiencing domination or colonization. When Euro-Americans take Native American symbols and ceremonies and use them for our own purposes, we are participating in the process of colonization and the destruction of Native culture.

Janet McCloud, Tulalip elder and fishing rights activist, tells us,

“First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. …Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It’s not only wrong, its obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.”2

Cultural appropriation is a theft from a people, and also a distortion, a lie spread about a people. It is an assault on the cultural integrity of Native people, and ultimately threatens even the survival of Native people.

–Three Traps that Non-Indians Fall Into–

When we live in the history of this theft and domination, how do we get to a place of positive connection or cultural sharing? Unfortunately, sincerity is not enough. There are three different traps we can fall into as we attempt to reckon with Native American people.


The first trap is denial. European settlers on this continent had a view of a divinely ordained progress: it was their destiny to take over Native lands. This view is currently maintained through the premise that Native Americans benefit by being assimilated into White culture. For people who are enjoying the privileges of White society, there can be a strong tendency toward this belief. But for Native people, the view is different. They can see the wounds and scars of oppression every day.

Denial also creates the myth that Native people don’t exist anymore. They are often referred to as the dying race. If Indians are seen as only part of the past, White people can justify moving on, living only in the now. We can justify taking or using artifacts from Native culture as a way of preserving them. When Native people break the silence about injustices, or even assert their existence, they cut through the cultural denial. And the response of the officials has often been increasingly destructive silencing.

Cultural denial has similarities to the process of denial in individuals. When someone is an abuser, and hurts a victim, there is a psychological propensity to scapegoat the victim, and to deny one’s own culpability. There is a belief that if the victim can be destroyed, the guilt can be destroyed.

Even if justice minded people don’t get caught in this trap of blatant denial, there are two other traps which are more subtle. These traps can obscure situations of cultural exploitation and make them appear honorable.

–Wanting To Be Indian–

One of these traps I refer to as “wanting to be Indian.” In fact, American Indians have a name for people in this trap, the Wannabe Indians. This trap is an identification with the Indians, most likely out of our own distress or oppression, our disenfranchised desire. Indians become the “utopic other” holding the dreams we wish were true, whatever they may be. And here the romantic stereotypes take over. So for example, we might say, “In tribal cultures…women were held in respect.” “In tribal cultures…everything was shared communally.” “In tribal cultures…people lived in harmony with the earth.” And so on, filling in the blanks. We desire that utopia, want to be those romanticized Indians.

–Guilt Seeking Redemption–

The other similar trap I call “guilt seeking redemption.” In this trap, we are aware of and acknowledge what White culture has done and reject that, but get stuck in the feeling of guilt. We desire release from the guilt of association with White culture. And so we seek out Indians to say we’re okay, to offer forgiveness, and welcome us, adopt into their own better ways.

We can see an example of this trap in various movies about Indians. Movies went from those portraying Indians as the bad guys who threatened the survival of the White heroes, to movies like “Dances with Wolves,” where the White hero was the exception to the destructiveness of White culture, and was adopted by the Indians. This trap explains the appeal of an Indian like Sun Bear who taught spirituality to White people, and started a non-Indian entity called the Bear Tribe. He was considered a sell-out by many traditional Native people. However, many White people felt welcomed and assumed a new identity as “tribal” members of a so-called Rainbow Tribe.

–The Problem? Cheap Grace–

What are the problems with these two traps? First of all, this redemption we find is really a cheap grace. It makes us feel better but doesn’t transform the situation of Native peoples. The injustices keep happening. Secondly, by denying the spiritual and political autonomy of Indian people, the New Age “rainbow” people subvert whatever good intentions they may have about multi-cultural community. What gets created is multi-cultural white middle class dominance in yet another form. Thirdly, these options perpetuate the fantasy image of the Indian, and distort the real picture. They prevent us from seeing the real lives of Native people. They obscure and drown out their voices and expression of self.

Pam Colorado, Oneida activist, says,

“The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own customs and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about an absolute ideological/conceptual subordination of Indian people in addition to the total physical subordination they already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then “own” our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources.”3

— Examples of Cultural Appropriation: the mother goddess of Europe–

Let me present another example to help distinguish cultural appropriation from appropriate cultural sharing. This example is from European history and may speak to White women interested in feminist criticism of male-dominated spiritualities. Cultural appropriation is one of the ancient tools of domination and colonization. It has been going on throughout history, whenever one culture has attempted to conquer another. Battles are not fought only by the force of arms, but also by images and ideas. Any context of domination will include such cultural imperialism.

Many feminist scholars have pointed to evidence suggesting that there were early female images of divinity throughout “pre-historic” Europe. According to some scholars, the Catholic Church took the image of the great mother goddess, and incorporated it as the virgin Mary, Mother of God. It used her early sacred sites for building its shrines to Mary. The church absorbed many such pagan symbols, yet distorted and transformed their meaning and their impact on the lives of the people.

The shift of context, control, and usage created important shifts of meaning and power. The conquerors took what had been an image of empowerment and valuing of women and turned it into an image promoting female acquiescence to male pre-eminence. They were able then to redefine female goodness as obedience, humility, and renunciation of sexual energy. To capture and transform the image of goddess in this way served to further solidify the subjugation of women and undermine ideas fostering resistance.

— Examples of Cultural Appropriation: the Vision Quest of the Lakota–

How is this similar to the cultural appropriation of Native images and practices by the New Age movement? I will use the example of one practice, the “vision quest,” a ritual found in Lakota culture (with variations in many other Native nations), which is now offered for a price in many New Age contexts. In traditional Lakota culture, the vision quest was a time of fasting and prayer in the mountains, and fit into the unfolding of a person’s role within their community. The elders of the community sent the individual forth with prayers, and received them back offering interpretation of their visions and guidance for living out their implications. The context was a belief that the person’s individual life and calling was a gift for the whole group, and their connection to the spirit world would bring them into deeper connection with the community, bringing life to the community. Each existed in balance with the other.4

When this ritual is brought into a New Age context, its meaning and power are altered. The focus shifts to White people’s needs and visions, which in most New Age venues are about individual growth and prosperity. There is no accountability to a community, particularly any Native community. Rather, White people get to experience their own distorted idea of being spiritual and “Indian,” without any sense of the responsibility which is fundamental to Native religion.

The form and structure of the ritual itself have been changed. For example, the giving and receiving of the Native way are transformed into buying and selling, a sacrilege in Native contexts. The use of images of wild animals and plants by urban White vision-questers trivializes the wholeness of the intimate relationship of a community to a specific region of land, and the inhabitants therein who provide food, clothing, inspiration and survival.

There is no harm in White people’s retreating into solitary places for spiritual insight and growth. This has been a part of most religious traditions. So the popularity of calling such a retreat a “vision quest” comes from the commodification of Native Americans as the latest consumer fad. By turning Indians into commodities, they are incorporated into capitalism’s way of perceiving and valuing reality. Their own perceptions and values are thus undermined. What is called “Indian spirituality” has actually become a distortion. These words then cannot be relied on, they have been warped to fit another agenda. By this, the attempt to hold onto authentic Indian spiritualities has been rendered more difficult.

What are some of the effects of this warped agenda on Native people? The actual realities of Native communities are erased. Native communities have been under assault for 500 years, and are facing issues of dislocation, continued theft of land, poverty, unemployment, addiction, suicide, and despair. In Native communities, the recovery of traditional practices such as the vision quest helps build identity and community pride, helps empower Native communities for life struggles against a racist mainstream. If these ceremonies are diluted by misuse in White America, the communities are weakened in their struggles for survival.

–What Can White People Do?–

So to summarize, White people finding themselves interested in Native Americans first have to deal with the stereotype image Indian, a projection of White fears and hopes which is an undercurrent to any understanding we seek. We have to reckon with an inheritance of White colonialism and a context of structural racism. In such a context sincere spiritual searchers face three traps which can short circuit ethical right relations between White people and Native people: denial, wanting to be Indian, and guilt seeking redemption. But what can we do? I believe there is a response which offers an ethic we can stand on. It has two parts: become an ally and do our own spiritual work.

–Become an Ally–

The first part is to become an ally. If you are familiar with the twelve step programs you may have heard of “making amends.” This means that it is important to take stock of one’s past and take responsibility for righting the wrongs that one can. I believe this can also function on a cultural level. To take responsibility on a cultural level would be to identify one’s cultural location and the realities of colonialism and structural racism. To take responsibility includes acknowledging the problem as bigger than individual guilt or innocence. In other words, we didn’t individually cause this injustice, so we don’t need to get stuck in individual guilt or shame. Rather, our responsibility is to work against racism, to be an ally to those who are oppressed.

It is important to point out that Indian people are not saying, “Don’t learn about Indian culture or religion.” Rather the appeal is that White people learn more deeply and accurately about Indian cultures and in a context which does not foster their destruction. Oren Lyons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Nation says,

“We’ve got real problems today, tremendous problems which threaten the survival of the planet. Indians and non-Indians must confront these problems together, and this means we must have honest dialogue, but this dialogue is impossible so long as non-Indians remain deluded about things as basic as Indian spirituality.”5

Since there are so many distortions, information is important. We can educate ourselves and our children and friends about the issues and struggles facing Native peoples today. Help can be given beginning in forms as simple and concrete as money, or appealing to our congressional leaders to support Native religious freedom issues and land claims.

There are many community rooted Indian writers, artists, scholars, and cultural workers we can support, for example, by buying their books instead of the New Age impostor books.6 Joy Asham Fedorick says,

“…for those of you who want to know what Aboriginal people are like, let us tell you. Participate in our writings, feel our visual art, move with our music, hear in your heart our stories.”7

Native people need allies. White people have a choice. We can pretend there is no problem. We can get stuck in grief or guilt about what has happened. Or we can use our privilege as White people as a resource for Native peoples’ needs and concerns. Audre Lorde, an African American poet and justice worker said, “Use what power you have to work for what you believe in.”8 The process of learning and responding will in itself be a life-long spiritual journey.

Cultural sharing involves interaction with the whole of a person and community, reciprocal giving and receiving, sharing of struggle as well as joy, receiving what the community wants to give, not what we want to take. Cultural sharing begins in respect, with patience not to make assumptions but to risk stepping outside of our own frame of reference. On a fundamental level, cultural sharing will not be possible until we end racism. In the meantime, only when we wholeheartedly join the struggle to end racism, and all oppression, can we begin to experience cultural sharing.

–Do Our Own Spiritual Work–

The second part of what we can do is to do our own spiritual work. When we put Indians into the stereotype of spiritual gurus, or “utopic other”, we use them like spiritual surrogates. When we use someone as a surrogate, we occupy them in a way which prevents them from bearing their own children. Native spiritualities have a purpose in the communities in which they originate. They are fundamental for the Native cultural struggle against genocide. They are not empty symbols into which we can put our struggles, use them, for example, for the empowerment of women, or an affirmation of male bonding.9

Since we have projected an image onto the Indian, one part of doing our own spiritual work is to bring back that image into ourselves. We can use the “Indian” stereotype which we have created to learn about our selves. What do we see there? Can it teach us what we are hungry for? What do we long for? If we recognize it as a projection, we can use the stereotype “Indian” to help us do our own spiritual work.

The image “Indian” holds for us the idea of mysticism and spirituality. We live a society which seems to give us a choice between secularism or a rigidly defined male God. Part of what feeds cultural appropriation is a deep spiritual hunger in White people. This sense of starvation is very real, but we must realize: Native people are not keeping us from spirit. White culture has broken and disrupted its own spiritual heritage. If we believe there is such a thing as spirit, we can recreate a path to it, we can hope that it will help us in that process. I believe our desire itself, our desire for spirit, is a powerful magic which can open the doorway for us.

trout-Myke_Pic_3.jpgIn popular consciousness, the “Indian” is seen as linked to the earth and otherspecies. We are hungry for this connection. But, in reality, we all live here on this earth, our lives equally enmeshed with the fate of countless other beings around us. These beings can teach us if we are quiet with them. Connect directly with the source. We can pay attention as we walk in the woods, or on a city block. We need to trust that we can begin where we are, who we are, in our own lives. What are the animals and plants we rely on? What feeds us? How can we honor that gift? How can we give back?

When we fantasize Indian religion, we might imagine a community of greater belonging and interconnection. We need to explore the links of spirit to community, ask ourselves, Who is my community? How do we negotiate the world together? Where do we find our power? What breaks us apart? What gives us meaning? What is our relationship to the world around us?

We also see in so-called Indian spirituality a link to ancestors, to tradition. We are hungry for this link to ancestors. Native people have encouraged us to explore the earth-centered traditions of our own ancestors. Some might object that those traditions are too hard to find, too far away. Yet often there are remnants so close we don’t notice them. For example, the celebration of Christmas contains countless elements from the ancient ceremonies of the Yule, the Winter Solstice: lights in the night, evergreen trees, gift-giving, reindeers pulling sleighs through the sky, a grandfather of generosity who comes from the north, who comes into the house through the hearth chimney, carols, elves, the four candled circle of the advent wreath, the special ham dinner…all of these were once imbued with sacred meanings and powers–perhaps to be reclaimed.

I think it is also important for White women to acknowledge the fears and risks involved in exploring a woman-valuing Euro-descent spirituality. European Christian history includes the destruction of the earth-centered religions and the women who held roles of wisdom and spiritual power. Perhaps millions of women accused of being witches were burned and tortured. We carry in our collective European psyche the memory of this gynocide. While the fantasy image of the “Indian” has been romanticized and spiritualized, the fantasy image of the “witch” is as sinister and belittling as ever, despite the occasional “good witch of the North.”

When I face my spiritual ancestry as a European descent woman, I face this loss, this tremendous assault on female power and value, perpetrated upon us by my own people. To embrace woman-valuing spirituality that is Euro-based implies a rebellion against the dominant “spirit-world” of Euro-Christianity. For White women, we must ask ourselves how the word “witch” is used against us, and whether we might reclaim the word, to bring this rebellious aspect of our search into the open. There is a risk in this and tremendous power.

If we jump into a quick fix “Indian spirituality” we end up neglecting the real and serious spiritual questions in our own lives, in our own communities. By turning away from using others as surrogates, we are able to do our own spiritual and communal work, bear our own spiritual “children.” For some that may mean going back to the distress which sent us searching in the first place, to see what’s going on in a deeper way. We need to acknowledge our own oppression, so that we are able to fight our own political and spiritual battles. We need to find or create our own ceremonies for our struggles. This too can be a life-long journey. And why not? To take our own spiritual path seriously is to honor our place in the universe and the importance of our lives.

–Are there any time when non-Indians may take part in Native rituals?–

At this point, some might still ask the question, are there any times when it might be appropriate for non-Indians to take part in Native rituals and ceremonies? The answer is complex, since it involves cutting through the stereotypes and understanding certain dimensions of Native religions, differences which are often overlooked.

“Indian religions are community based, not proselytizing religions.”10 They tie together the heart and life of a specific group of people. In contrast, many of us are more familiar with religions like Christianity or Islam, which have an evangelizing impulse which encourages the conversion of others to their way of belief.11 Indian religions are not something one can convert to, as one might to Christianity, by adopting a set of beliefs or principles. Indian religions are built upon systems of relationships.

So, if one is entering into relationship with Indian people, participating in an Indian community’s life and struggles, often one will be included in various elements of ritual or spiritual life. For example, when White people have joined in activities protesting the building of the hydrodam on Innu land, they participated with Innu people in ceremonies and prayers which were part of the struggle. White people have also become a part of Indian community through marriage or friendship.

This is not the same as White people adopting Indian spiritual practices; rather it reflects the power of the community to adopt, to make relationship with a person. Paula Gunn Allen, Laguna Pueblo author and teacher, sums it up by saying, “You cannot do Indian spirituality without an Indian community. …it’s physical and social and spiritual and they’re fused together.”12 It is our link with Native people as allies and friends which creates a spiritual relationship, rather than a spiritual rip-off.


If there are two things I could impress upon your hearts, I hope you will take these with you: the choice to become allies and the choice to do our own spiritual work. I hope that you might honor the desire in your hearts, the interest in things Indian, and use it to really learn about Native lives and struggles. Use it to cut through the stereotypes, find out the deeper realities, and then to use the power you have to act in solidarity with Native people. I also hope that you might trust in our ability to do our own spiritual work, trust that we can find a way to do it with each other. I ask you to believe with me that spirit is already here in our midst.

–Further Questions Raised by This Issue–

For those who have begun this journey, I would also like to offer some further questions and reflections which have emerged on this path of creating anti-racist woman-valuing earth centered spiritualities. For this paper, I can merely give voice to some of the issues which are raised, in the hope of sparking further discussion.

–The Earth–

What does it mean for those interested in an earth-centered spirituality, that the particular land on which we live is stolen land? What about the grief of the land for her original people? Are there ways to be welcomed here? This is the land of our birth, perhaps for many generations. I believe we do belong on the earth, she is the mother of us all. But how do we live here with honor? Is it the responsibility of all of us who love this land to restore her original people?

It seems to me that the land in all her specificity–this stream, that mountain, that group of trees–not only has been stolen. She has also been kidnapped from a people who regarded land as unownable and possessed of consciousness which demanded respect, and enslaved into the hands of a people who has reduced her from “person” to “property.” How can the earth be our goddess when we have made her our property? The very idea of ownership of land goes against the ethic of an earth-based spirituality. It seems to me that there are parallels here with White society’s capacity to sustain the ownership of people as slaves. When we live in a culture which takes for granted the ownership of land, what is our power as individuals to alter that? In this country even having access to land can be a privilege of comparative wealth. Do we have any power to free land from ownership?

What does it mean that we live in a culture which is polluting and destroying the land? Concrete, buildings, chemicals, pesticides, monocrop agriculture and many other aspects of our culture upset the balance of nature. Our food comes from far away, and through an industrialized process makes use of other animals and plants. What is our responsibility to the earth’s environment?

–Spirits and Implications–

There may be non-Indian persons who feel they have been visited by Native spirits. What if the power is really there? One of the reasons the traditional elders withhold access is because of the dangers of certain powers if they are not in a proper balance. So if we really believe the powers exist, it seems that one step is to acknowledge the depth of it, not play games with it. What are the consequences and responsibilities we have if we have become implicated in these powers? What do you do if the spirits have claimed you?

What about those who have participated in some way in Native rituals? What are the implications of that? One of the principles of many Native traditions is the belief that knowledge equals responsibility. So some of the dangers of these rituals are the ways in which we are implicated by them. How have we taken on commitments and responsibilities which we might not even be aware of? I think of the old movies where the explorer takes a bowl of soup from the pretty Native maiden and discovers in the ensuing hours that he has married her without knowing it. What have we committed ourselves to unawares, and what should we do about it now? Also, what about those who have participated in distorted or muddled ceremonies? Are there purifications that should be done?

–Multicultural Community–

What do we do in the context of multicultural settings, when we seek to create ritual among us? There has been a mingling of peoples and cultures, with beneficent as well as oppressive links. What ceremonies can hold us all, honor us all, respect the pain between us? I believe that finding and sharing our own ancestral resources might be one step, but then what? If White people turn to our own ancestral traditions only, how are we being different from racist segregationists? How do we recognize our interrelatedness with all peoples, as well as the brokenness between us? Is it possible to create a way to pray together to bring us power for the struggles we face together? As we create real instances of multicultural linking do the “rules” change?

In the context of women’s spirituality, can a Puerto Rican-American, a Jewish-American, a Scandinavian-American, an African-American, and a Native American do ritual together? What about a group which is 80% White women, with 20% women of color from various cultures? If Native women want to keep ceremony only in a Native context, given the appropriation which is rampant, is there a way for White, Black, Asian, & Latina women to honor the situation? If some Native women want to share ritual or teach, and others don’t, how do we approach that? Are we attaching a higher standard of authority for Native women, while we let White or Black women be “spiritual teachers” with no authority but their own?


yvonne-Myke_Pic_4.jpgWhat about those of us who are of partial Native ancestry, but were raised in White culture with White privilege? What is our heritage and our responsibility? How is this different or the same for Black people of partial Native ancestry? Is there a legitimate calling from the ancestors which draws us into connection with Native spirituality? How do we sort through the culture’s racist and distorted images to find access to something we can rely on? Does biological heritage make a difference here, or is our adoption into White or Black culture the primary kinship in which we must make community?

And for those of any descent, how does ancestry influence spirituality? How does it shape our spiritual and ethical responsibilities? What about those who were adopted or in some way cut off from their biological roots? What is the interplay between biology and community and spirituality? What about for those who have been abused by their kin? How do gay and lesbian people reconstitute family and kin in the face of rejection for sexual orientation? Are there certain responsibilities for those who go between various cultures and classes of people?


–Closing Blessing–

Despite the complexity of these issues which are raised, I believe the journey we embark on is not so difficult or unwieldy. It is rooted in a commitment to the life of the people, and a trust that we are not alone. In closing, I would like to remember the advice offered by the Menominee two-spirit poet, Chrystos:13

Take nothing you cannot return

Give to others give more

Walk quietly Do what needs to be done

Give thanks for your life

Respect all beings


& it doesn’t cost a penny


Copyright 1995 & 2008 by Myke Johnson.  I come from a white working class background, and my ancestors were German, Frisian, Austrian, Canadian French, Scottish, and Innu. I dedicate this paper to my German-American paternal grandmother, born Mary Lucille Heisler, who died March 9, 1995, at the age of 98.

1 Andrea Smith, “The New Age Movement and Native Spirituality,” in Indigenous Woman, Vol. I #1, Spring 1991, p. 18.

2 From “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men,” in Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians, (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1992) p. 217. Originally published in Z Magazine, Dec. 1990.

3 Pam Colorado, quoted in Wendy Rose, “The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamanism,” in M. Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), p. 405.  Her tribal affiliation was mentioned in Indigenous Woman magazine.

4 One account of the vision quest is given in Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 44-66.

5 Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race, pp. 216-7.

6 For those who would like to learn more about the experience of Indian people and support Native writers visit for great resources for children and adults.

7 Joy Asham Fedorick, “Fencepost Sitting and How I Fell Off to One Side,” in Give Back: First Nations Perspectives on Cultural Practice, (North Vancouver, BC, Canada), Gallerie: Women Artists’ Monographs, Issue 11, 1992, p. 42.

8 Paraphrase from a lecture.

9 Joanna Kadi describes how cultural appropriation treats objects as “ahistorical and culturally empty.” See “Whose Culture Is It Anyway?,” Sojourner Vol. 18 #2, October 1992, pp. 5-6.

10 Andrea Smith, “For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,” Sojourner, Vol. 16 #3, Nov. 1990, p. 8.

11 Jewish White women are an exception here since Judaism, like Indian religions, is a community based religion.

12 Jane Caputi, “Interview with Paula Gunn Allen,” Trivia 16/17, Fall 1990, p. 50.

13 From the poem, “Shame On!” in Dream On, (Vancouver: Press Gang, 1991), p. 100-101.