On this day, Indigenous activists in New England and beyond are observing a National Day of Mourning to mark the theft of land, cultural assault and genocide that followed after the anchoring of the Mayflower on Wampanoag land in 1620 — a genocide that is erased within conventional “Thanksgiving Day” narratives.
The acts of mourning and resistance taking place today build on the energy of Indigenous People’s Day 2020, which was also a day of uprising. On October 11, 2020, also called “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage,” participants around the country took part in actions such as de-monumenting — the toppling of statues of individuals dedicated to racial nation-building.
In response to Indigenous-led efforts that demanded land back and the toppling of statues, Catholic Church leaders in Oregon and California deemed it necessary to perform exorcisms, thereby casting Indigenous protest as demonic.
The toppled statues included President Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt and Father Junípero Serra, who founded California’s mission system (1769-1834) and was canonized into sainthood by the Catholic Church and Pope Francis in 2015.
What do these leaders whose statues were toppled have in common? They perpetrated and promoted devastating violence against Native peoples.
Abraham Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution in United States history when 38 Dakota were hanged in 1862 after being found guilty for their involvement in what is known as the “Minnesota Uprising.”
Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in 1886 in New York that would have made today’s white supremacists blush when he declared: “I don’t go as far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are…” This was not his only foray in promoting racial genocide.
Junípero Serra is known for having committed cruel punishments against the Indians of California and enslaved them as part of Spain’s genocidal conquest.
Last month, “Land Back” and “Dakota 38” were scrawled on the base of the now-toppled Lincoln statue in Portland, Oregon. The political statements and demands for land return reveal a Native decolonial spirit based in resistance continuing through multiple generations.
The “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage” came after months of protests in Portland in support of Black Lives Matter. The resistance enacted in Portland coincides with demands for both abolition (the end of racialized policing and imprisonment) and decolonization (the return of land and regeneration of life outside of colonialism). Both of these notions encompass a multifaceted imagining of life beyond white supremacy.
In San Rafael, California, Native activists gathered at the Spanish mission that had been the site of California Indian enslavement. Activists, who included members of the Coast Miwok of Marin, first poured red paint on the statue of Serra and then pulled it down with ropes, while other protesters held signs that read: “Land Back Now” and “We Stand on Unceded Land – Decolonization means #LandBack.” The statue broke at the ankles, leaving only the feet on the base.
What was even more provocative than the toppling of the statues by Native activists and their accomplices, was the response by the Catholic Church, which not only condemned the actions of the Native activists, but also spiritually chastised them. In both Portland and San Rafael, the reaction by the Church was to perform exorcisms.
The purpose of an exorcism, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is to expel demons or “the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church.”
In other words, Native activism and demands for land back were deemed blasphemous and evil by two archbishops and were determined to require exorcism.
In Portland, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample led 225 members of his congregation to a city park where he prayed a rosary for peace and conducted an exorcism on October 17, six days after the “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage.” Archbishop Sample stated that there was no better time to come together to pray for peace than in the wake of social unrest and on the eve of the elections. His exorcism was a direct response to Indigenous-led efforts that demanded land back.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone held an exorcism on the same day as the one performed in Portland and after the toppling of Saint Junipero Serra’s statue in San Rafael. In his performance of the exorcism, he prayed that God would purify the mission of evil spirits as well as the hearts of those who perpetrated blasphemy. Was he responding to a “demonic possession” or was he exorcising the political motivations of those he did not agree with? Perhaps both, as he also stated that the toppling of the statue was an attack on the Catholic faith that took place on their own property. However, the mission is only Church property because of Native dispossession through conquest and missionization.
The conquest of the Americas by European nations was, as Saint Serra had deemed his own work, a “spiritual conquest.” From the doctrine of discovery to manifest destiny, the possession of Native land was rationalized as divine – from God. Those who threaten colonial possession are attacking the theological rationalization of possession, not their faith.
Demands for land back interfere with the doctrine that enabled Native land to be exorcised from them. Archbishop Cordileone’s exorcism was in the maintenance of property that had been stolen from Indigenous people long ago, and Archbishop Sample’s was in the maintenance of peace and the status quo of Native dispossession.
With a majority-Christian population in the United States and other nations in the Americas, demands for the return of land and decolonization have more to reckon with than racial injustice and white supremacy. Christians must also consider how dominant strains of Christian theology rationalized conquest and its ongoing structures of dispossession. Can a religion, made up of many sects, shift its framework to help end continued Native dispossession and its rationalization? Can we come together to overturn a racialized theological doctrine that functioned through violence and was adopted into a nation’s legal system? Can we imagine life beyond rage and the racialized spiritual possession of stolen land?
The Doctrine of Discovery was the primary international law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries through a series of papal bulls (Catholic decrees) that divided the Americas for white European conquest and authorized the enslavement of non-Christians. In 1823 the Doctrine of Discovery was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. Chief Justice John Marshall declared in his ruling that Indians only held occupancy rights to land — ownership belonged to the European nation that discovered it. This case further legalized the theft of Native lands. It continues to be a foundational principal of U.S. property law and has been cited as recently as 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians) to diminish Native American land rights.
In 2009 the Episcopal Church passed a resolution that repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. It was the first Christian denomination to do so and has since been followed by several other denominations, including the Anglican Church of Canada (2010), the Religious Society of Friends/Quakers (2009 and 2012), the World Council of Churches (2012), the United Methodist Church (2012), the United Church of Christ (2013) and the Mennonite Church (2014).
Decolonization and land return are as possible as repudiating the legal justification of land theft. Social, cultural, governmental and economic systems are constantly changing, but the land remains — in the hands of the dispossessors. When our faith is held above what we know is true — we will prolong doing what is right.
Native peoples are not ancient peoples of the past only remembered on days such as Thanksgiving, just as our mourning is not all that we are. Native peoples are a myriad of things, including activists who demand land back — which is not a demonic request. Our land can be returned, and we can work together to heal and imagine a future beyond white supremacy and dispossession.