We thank our friend Rev. Janet Parker for this powerful guest post in which she invites us to deeply connect with, and be present to, the place we live and its history. In so doing, we consider our impacts and responsibilities.
By Rev. Dr. Janet Parker
To universalize a place is to neglect our…purpose. When we depersonalize a place, we…abuse the land. Ignoring the history of a place or treating it superficially shows extreme hubris.
— Randy Woodley, Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth, 61-62
Where are you from? When asked that question, I say that I grew up in Orlando, Florida but now live in Beaverton, Oregon. My parents came from Oklahoma and Texas. They had deep roots there, but they were not Indigenous to those places. I never thought of either my parents or me as being Indigenous to anywhere. Recently, however, I was startled to read in Randy Woodley’s book, Becoming Rooted, that “we are all indigenous, from somewhere…. Your ancestors were, at one time, all indigenous.” This insight turns my world upside down. It uncovers the forgotten truth that, at some point in our ancestral history, we were all rooted and placed people. Randy Woodley is a theologian, farmer, and descendant of the Keetoowah band of the Cherokee nation. He encourages everyone to “become more lowercase-i indigenous on the land.”
In the U.S., we are proud of being a nation of
immigrants, but we often gloss over the trauma our ancestors experienced when they were kidnapped and forcibly brought here or when they uprooted themselves and came here. I wonder if we have become so enamored with our mobility that we have forgotten the value of truly knowing the place where we live. If we don’t know our place, how can we live in harmony with the land and creatures of that place?
The ancient Hebrews, ancestors of the Jews and spiritual ancestors of Christians, were deeply rooted in their land. They knew how to survive in a harsh environment. Their faith was tied to their experience of God in particular places, not only in the Temple in Jerusalem but also in the forces of nature all around them—just read the Psalms! Psalm 104, which is sometimes called the “second creation story,” proclaims: "You make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers." Psalm 137 expresses the deep grief of the people of Israel when they languished in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland: "By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps…. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?"
Somewhere along the way, Christianity lost a sense of rootedness in the land as a core aspect of its faith. Christians became suspicious of those who experience the sacred in their landscapes and in other creatures. They labeled those who live in intimate harmony with the land “uncivilized” and persecuted them as witches, pagans, and heretics. Indigenous peoples, traditional healers (especially women), Africans, Asians, and even the Irish were targeted for colonization or elimination or enslavement by dominant European Christian powers. The infamous Papal Bull Inter Caetera formally declared open season on all lands not under the control of Christian monarchs, so that “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This view became known as the Doctrine of Discovery and was codified into US law with the Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. McIntosh, which held that Native American nations only had a right to “occupy” land, not to hold title to it.
Europeans considered themselves superior to Indigenous Peoples not only on religious grounds but also because of how Indigenous Peoples lived in relation to their land. Europeans “improved” the land by making it “productive,” in other words, by tilling, mining, and reshaping natural landscapes to serve human purposes. They could not understand Indigenous Peoples’ value of living lightly in natural landscapes in order to preserve the integrity of whole ecosystems. For Europeans, cultural and religious superiority was reserved for those who imposed their will upon natural environments without regard to ecological impacts. Worship became confined to buildings while those who met God in sacred groves, springs and mountains were condemned. Now the world reaps the consequences of these choices as dominant cultures experience alienation from the natural world and drive it to the point of collapse.
How do we connect to the place we live as a sacred place, a community of interdependent living beings?
In my tradition (Christianity), many of us speak of the importance of “the integrity of creation.”* This means “the value of all creatures in themselves, for one another, and for God, and their interconnectedness in a diverse whole that has unique value for God.” Now, many of us are asking ourselves, “How do we repent from patterns of living that destroy creation’s integrity and return to ways of life that restore balance and harmony?” From our Jewish siblings, we are learning the concept of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.” Perhaps all people of faith and Spirit need to ask themselves: “How do we connect to the place we live as a sacred place, a community of interdependent living beings?” Or, as Woodley asks, how can I become lowercase-i indigenous to my place?
I will admit that this is a long, slow process for someone like me. Although my parents both had a sense of connection to the farms that they, or their parents, grew up on, what I learned from their example was the value of leaving home and leaving the land. They modeled for me the value of leaving to get an education, to better oneself, and above all, to get off the land and into suburban and urban spaces. I don’t mean to suggest that was all bad. There are reasons to leave home, reasons to leave farming, and reasons to move to urban areas. But the question that never gets asked is, “at what cost?” At what cost to our sense of belonging, both to human communities and to natural communities as well? At what cost to “the integrity of creation?”
I have come to believe that we all bear a responsibility to place. We have a responsibility to be good citizens of our civic communities and good citizens of our natural communities—our watersheds and bioregions. And we have a responsibility to learn about the original human inhabitants of our place—usually, they are still around if you take the time to look! Serving as EcoFaith Recovery’s Eloheh Engagement Coordinator has helped me act on this responsibility in more concrete ways. I am definitely still a work-in-progress, but some ways that my spouse and I have found to be responsible to our place include:
learning about the native trees, plants, insects, birds, and animals, and how to protect them
incorporating the natural world and other living beings into my meditation practice
planting natives on my property and actively working to “grow” soil rather than deplete it
raising vegetables without chemicals
taking the newspaper of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde—the descendants of the Kalapuya people who lived here before European-Americans came
prioritizing Native American and other frontline communities as we make decisions about sharing our financial resources
contributing in various ways to Randy Woodley’s regenerative farm and Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice (an hour away from us)
So how about you? Would you like to become more indigenous to your place and honor the wisdom of the Indigenous people(s) of the place you live? Here’s a place to start:
Create a personal “land acknowledgement.” What Indigenous people(s) are native to the place you live? What other species make their homes there? How could you enhance your sense of connection and belonging to your place? To begin learning about the original inhabitants of your place, visit https://native-land.ca/.
*From the World Council of Churches consultation on “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation” in Annecy, France, 1988.