By Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart
[Editor’s Note: This message was delivered on November 18, 2020 for the Service of the Word as part of the Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Ruling Elder Street-Stewart is Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the synod executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.
In 2009, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) initiated the American Indian and Alaska Native Symposium and in 2013, renamed it the Vine Deloria Jr. Symposium. Vine Deloria Jr. studied at Augustana Theological Seminary and graduated in 1963 from LSTC. He became a widely respected Native American author, theologian, historian, and activist.
With permission from Ruling Elder Street-Stewart to use her words, the following is a slightly modified version of her written sermon, based on a transcription of this recording of her delivery.]
Good morning everyone I’m glad to join you and to share good medicine with you today from scripture and from our experiences as the First People on this continent. The particular passage that I’d like us to consider this morning and to live into is from the Book of Acts 2:17-19:
In the last days, it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your children shall prophesy and your young ones shall see visions and your old ones shall dream dreams. Even upon manservants and maidservants in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and smokiness.
Word of God. Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
I want us to meet the truth in this story by particularly looking at verse 17. ”In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people, your children and their descendants will prophesy, your young ones will see visions, your old ones will dream dreams.”
I bring greetings to you, my relatives Mitákuye. I am honored to be here and to share with you how much the Creator has called for repentance of the social and spiritual disease inflicted upon land and peoples and to express so much gratitude for the wisdom of Vine Deloria Jr. and the way he united forces to support sacred places and moral responsibility on behalf of our people.
I am Delaware Nanticoke. I grew up along the Delaware River and waters of Chesapeake Bay and now I live in St. Paul in the land of lakes and the Wakpa Tonka, grand Mississippi. I am here because of who I am, where I come from, and who are my relations. So I want to give honor and recognition to the Dakota and Lakota and Nakota; the Ho-Chunk, the Nishinabe, the Ojibwe, and all of their ancestors. I tell you now I want to honor you and let you know what we are doing on your land and that we will be respectful in the way we walk and talk here.
Now the rocky shoreline of the Mississippi has seen more than any of us could possibly remember, but it has not forgotten who has been here. Often we simply walk by those rocks, never thinking much about their presence. But they are never to be overlooked as innate objects in holy texts. Scripture tells us, in fact sometimes warns us, that rocks are more than what we see. In the Bible, rocks stand watch; they listen; they hold truths. They are visible memorials and living witnesses to covenants made. We read that when Joshua was an old one, he gathered the people at Shechem and received their vows to uphold their promises to remember to be faithful to God and love the land. And he wrote them down and recorded those things in the Book of Law. However, in this place where their ancestor Abraham had sojourned and Jacob had settled, Joshua also wanted them to realize that this grand occasion was bringing all their history together into one covenant of truth. And so, he took a large stone and set it under a tree. “See!” he said to the people, ”this stone has has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to God, if you deceive the truth.” This rock from the earth bore a witness that this was good land, and when Joshua took that rock, he carried a millennia of God’s law to show that God’s law was good, not just that day, but was good for for all the yesteryears as good as it is now and will remain as sure and as good as ever for tomorrow. All the sacredness of God’s spirit of creation was in that rock, that tree, those people, and that land. It was a public witness stronger than the words that had been written on paper, and like the stone that later got rolled away, it was a mark of a future resurrection, of God’s spirit pouring out visions and dreams of life over death and offering them to us.
Church history is also native history and the witnesses to truth-telling need to be recognized in the church wherever community has been replaced by individuality. Do we remember who walked here, who offered the first songs, who claimed it in Jesus’ name and for what purpose? Have we borne witness to the Good News?
Vine Deloria Jr. had a lot to say about the contrasting visions that differed between Indigenous and Christian theological tradition. In the book Power and Place, he wrote that the boundaries of indigenous knowledge were those of respect, not of orthodoxy, that Native people took revelations directly from the world around them, understanding a sacredness of space and time in places of overwhelming, inherent holiness where the Creator’s spirit revealed itself.
Even as our world filled with trauma, we Native people have learned how to heal through the spirituality we carry inside of us: our teachings, prayers, songs, and ceremonies. We are taught to make peace within ourselves, protect our people, cherish the land, fulfill the Algonquin names going back thousands of years—be Ogichidaa and Ogichidaakwe, doing something in an important way, a holy way. Church, what does this mean for us living together now? It means strengthen our spirituality, be filled with the truth, and always remember—our ancestors have already prayed for us.
Ohiyesa, otherwise known as Charles Eastman, once said:
Long, long before I ever heard of Christ or saw a white man, I had learned from an untutored woman the essence of morality. . . . Civilization never made me anything better. . . . I have wondered much that Christianity is not practiced by the very people who are anxious to pass on their religion but keep very little of it themselves. I have not seen the meek inherit the earth.
Vine Deloria pointed out that the historical record showed this hope of the Church’s transformation was rarely realized, that the relationships of things to each other are infused with a moral dimension of respect that, unfortunately, has been so reviled by the fierceness of White supremacy.
So what dreams can our children dream? Could they be vows to serve and minister to past, present, and future generations—all those who have gone on, those with us now, and those with visions to come? Since the time when all beings spoke their truths freely, with the earth as our witness, the spirit calls us to tell all of them, “God, the Creator, loves you!” Tell the people. Show it to the land. Honor your vows. The earth will still be listening and God’s spirit will still pour out over us all.
So, all of this you heard is true, and yet, the bigger truth is that if the Church doesn’t say it, the stones and the trees and the mountains and the ocean will bear witness to those who passed by, who passed on, who were paved over, and who were pressed into oblivion. And our children, our elders, our relatives shall prophesy this truth, and God will show signs on the earth and heaven above. The truth is a call to repent and ask God the Creator to preside over our church, our community, and our relationship with the earth. It is a call to commit to reconciliation and healing of the oppression, repression, and exploitation we Native Americans have been subjected to.
The dominant culture and the majority church may think of the earth as silent, inert, and unresponsive, but our people know that the real world around us is alive with God’s Spirit. Who doesn’t recall secrets repeated in thunders, places where promises were spoken and prophetic prayers poured out of our mouths? The world is full of sacred sites: fields of life spirit, places of promise, mountains of aspirations, plains of vows and oaths, fields of endeavor, and rivers of resiliency. Every place where we walk is a witness to our actions. The earth itself repudiates these doctrines of domination, the manifest destiny that oppressed and enslaved people. As Indigenous people, we have always resisted the coercion of the dominant assimilation that violates our values of respect, reciprocity, and relation. So hear the prophecies of the elders as God’s spirit is poured out.
Vine Deloria himself defended our traditional relationships and spiritual wisdoms, arguing that "the ceremonies and beliefs of tribes were distinct from history; they did not depend on history for their verification. If they worked for the community in the present, that was sufficient evidence of their validity.
Speaking in 1970 at the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars, Vine Deloria expressed how this country’s powers evolved to completely ignore the tribes as a political entity, concentrating all efforts to power over tribal members as individuals. The traditional relationship of place to power was converting to the relationship of policy to power. So these laws, in the nation and the church, created plenary authority that continued to reinforce doctrines of domination, holding the fate of our tribes in illusions of legal parity. Community gets replaced by individuality. Consequently, our tribal sovereignty became useless, but our cultural erasure became priceless.
As foreseen in our passage from Act 2, Vine Deloria consistently challenged Christianity to surrender its interpretation of creation and many of these works that he produced became part of the legislative efforts that led to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
It is costly sometimes for hope to become a reality, to protect our identities and imagine a different future.In the Exile experience, we can feel how the conquest of Jerusalem was so similar to the acts of annihilation against Indigenous peoples here. It not only brought about massive death and destruction, but it also traumatized the survivors who were exiled to Babylon with intergenerational distress and loss. The Psalms reflect this experience: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion,” or Buffalo Gap, or Bear Butte, or Bdote, or Mount Taylor, or Pipestone, or the Black Hills. “There we hung up harps and our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth saying, ’Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’” Painful—Painful—Painful. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”?
There are places we cannot even walk by without great memories leaping up from them and begging us live our agony and sorrow all over again.
The stones we pass by without noticing hear every broken promise and curse uttered. Every river measures your stretches of deceit. What did the rocks hear you say: to the people who greeted your people when they arrived on this continent, when you gave political mandates from the Great White Father, when we got sick and whole villages were wiped out, when herds of buffalo were slaughtered and people starved, when you raised your crops and grazed your cattle over our graves, when your stained-glass windows depicted ignorant and demeaning stereotypes of us, when we challenged the mockery, punishment, and erasure of our spirituality? What does the earth hear you say now, now that we have survived the coercive assimilation and dispossession of our nations and now stand united to advocate for our relatives and the land.? With the trees as our witness, what do you have to say about the care and support of our American Indian and Alaska Native churches? How desolate do our people who are homeless, unemployed, and refugees have to become till the signs of blood, fire, and mist have to step up, cry out in visions and prophecies about breaking your vows, forgetting the promises you made, about not fulfilling your call as peacemakers to heal the earth and restore justice? Stop your lying. God did not tell you to kill these people and steal all this land in God’s name.
In 1912 (that’s not the long ago), a Crow chief, Curly, refused to sell any more land to the federal government. He rejected their offers with these words:
The soil you see is not ordinary soil—it is the dust of the blood, the flesh, and the bones of our ancestors. We fought and bled and died to keep others from taking it. You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s earth, as the upper portion is Crow. The land as it is, is my blood and my dead relatives. It is consecrated; and I do not want to give up any of it.
This week, with all the preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday, how many of us recall being asked to portray “the Indian” in that colonial settler mythical meal, or were asked to have our children dress up in their “costumes,” or were invited to be the drum group to open a conference before being ushered offstage without participating in the agenda, or asked to prepare a land acknowledgement for the board of an organization that has never hired a Native employee?
Prophets dream of a time when God will put things right again as in the Shalom, the creation of justice in real place and in real time. We often think of it as just peace, but it is more a universal generation of wholeness and sacredness, a time where belonging is protected and the natural gifts are honored for use to benefit the people, the community. A long time ago, someone up in Alaska told me, “When you say the phrase ‘He told me something,’the translation really is ‘He turned my mind around.’”
So beloved today, when our children prophesy and our elders dream dreams, may they turn our heads around, turn our minds around. Let us hear the promises and prayers from long ago, calling us to sacred space and moral responsibility. Honor those who came before you and those yet to come.
Thank you. Migwetch.
Bridget Lois Jensen