Jim Bear Jacobs February 10, 2019
Scripture 1 Samuel 7:10, 12
“ . . . It was there that Samuel set up a stone, Ebenezer, naming it ‘Stone of Help,’ explaining God has helped us to this point.”
A few years ago, I led a group from my church out to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This trip was not a short-term mission trip; this trip was designed specifically so that we as a congregation might sit in places of deep historic trauma, carry wounds, and listen to the people who carried that trauma in their bodies—and hear how we, as the Body of Christ, were complicit in that trauma.
On one particular day during that trip, we were invited out to the home of a Lakota elder named Mike Her Many Horses. When we arrived at his house, we realized that Mike had a very humble home and would not be able to accommodate all of us inside his house. And so he graciously invited us to the back of the house, to sit upon his back deck, where we could visit.
Words that I may speak cannot do justice to the immense beauty that made up Mike’s backyard. From one horizon to the other horizon, it was nothing but untouched prairie. It was a scene right out of Dances with Wolves, which is a reference that only lands on a certain age group [the movie was released in 1990]. Forgive my dated reference but in terms of Hollywood representations of Native people, you don’t get a lot to choose from. From horizon to horizon, pristine, untouched prairie: there was not a house to be seen. There was no road that we could see. There were not power lines. There were not water towers. There was nothing out there to indicate the presence of humanity anywhere.
As we sat in the circle on his deck, having our conversation, Mike was speaking—and in the middle of his sentence, he paused. He looked out over the prairie in this direction. And I also looked out over the prairie in this direction. And no one else in our circle of about a dozen, no one else looked out in the prairie in this direction. And Mike circled the group, asking the question: “Did you hear that?” And to a person, no one heard anything. Until Mike came to me: “Did you hear that?” “Yes.” “What did you hear?” “There was a song out there. I heard a song.” “Yes, there was a song, wasn’t there?”
After a few moments of silence, Mike shrugged his shoulders and says, “I don’t have a neighbor for about six miles. There’s nothing over there. I don’t know what that was.” Moving on in our conversation, 10 minutes later, I am in the middle of saying something, and I pause mid-sentence and look out over the prairie in this direction. And Mike, sitting to my right, looks out over the prairie in this direction. And no one else looked in this direction. Again, Mike asked the assembled folks: “Did you hear that?” “No.” “No.” “No, I didn’t hear anything.” He gets to me: “Yes. I heard that.”
“What did you hear?”
“There’s a song out there. There’s a song, isn’t there?”
And Mike again assured us: His nearest neighbor was six miles away. There were no houses over there. There were no people out there. There’s nothing.
I tell that story to demonstrate a seminal understanding of our indigenous approach to story. We as Native people, in approaching story, we understand that, from a Western construction, stories are artificially held in time along historic timelines. But from an organic, indigenous Native understanding our stories are held in place—and that the land holds story. And that the place sings a song.
Samuel understood this. For on that day, on that well-traveled path between Mizpah and Jeshanah, the Lord thundered on behalf of the people of Israel. And wanting to preserve the story, Samuel erects a stone, a monument, Ebenezer, the Stone of Help. And he declared that this place would be a place where story is held. I can just picture it: On the well-traveled path between those cities, folks conducting business or trade from one to the other would pause along the side of the road to rest their weary feet. Perhaps a little child would look to the distance and see the monument and ask: “What is that?”
The father, the mother, would look down and say, “Child, on that day, the Lord thundered on behalf of our people.” Then the storyteller would unfold the story in the place, in real time.
The notion that places hold story is not unique to Native and indigenous people. It is perhaps best expressed and best understood in Native and indigenous people—but I believe it is innate; it is primal in all of humanity. You can get a sense of what I am speaking about if you have ever traversed across the battlefield at Gettysburg or the sacred burial place of Arlington National Cemetery. Or even if you’ve ever visited Plymouth, Massachusetts, and beheld the rock along the beach there carved with the date 1620.
When we want to remember a story, we erect stones, we carve monuments and, yes, sometimes, we craft embroideries. And there it is, the question hanging in the room: “Is he going to speak about the embroidery?” Of course, I’m going to speak about the embroidery. I can’t really think of any other reason for me to be here.
The problem with erecting monuments and carving stone and crafting embroideries to hold story is that it prioritizes one perspective over and above any other perspective. And the story that we are told—the song that it sings—is myopic and narrow and in a very real sense, often nothing more than mythological.
You see the story of Ebenezer changes when we listen to the voice of the Philistines. The story of modern day Israel changes when we listen to the voices of the Palestinians. And the story of the first Thanksgiving changes when we listen to the indigenous people.
As Seth read in my introduction, I am of the Mohican Nation. Our reservation is currently a 22,000-acre dot in the middle of central Wisconsin. However, that is eleven-hundred miles from our ancestral homeland of the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. We had a kinship relationship with the Wampanoag people of eastern Massachusetts. We intermarried. We shared food, resources and culture together. Quite literally, those people depicted on your embroidery are my relatives.
I am not a stranger to Plymouth Congregational Church. This is not my first time here. I have encountered that embroidery in the past. One of the most jarring times when I encountered that story is when I was invited by a group of interfaith leaders to take part in an interfaith service on Thanksgiving Day, hosted here a few years ago. Now I was told by a group of Minneapolis interfaith leaders that this event has been held for decades and, every year, moves from one place to another, and that year, Plymouth was hosting it. I was also told that this was the first time, in the history of this event, that an actual Native American was invited to present at this Thanksgiving service. This service that had gone on for decades: Thanksgiving. I’ll say it again: Thanksgiving. I don’t know if you know the story of Thanksgiving but we Indians are kind of main characters. And for decades, we were not heard from.
I spent my allotted 10-minute time at this very pulpit on that Thanksgiving morning deconstructing the mythology of the first Thanksgiving. Going through the narrative that we have been fed since our young childhood about the peace and harmony between Natives and Pilgrims coming together and then continuing this tradition year after year.
Time does not allow me to re-create the full deconstruction of that mythology but suffice it to say that the story we were told about Thanksgiving as little children really in no way reflects the reality of that day. Having said my piece, deconstructed the mythology of Thanksgiving, imagine my feeling when, after the service, we were ushered into Guild Hall for a time of fellowship and—there it was. The entire mythology that I had attempted to deconstruct was proudly displayed.
Your church sang a song that day. You see, when we understand that the land holds stories and the place sings a song, it is only a short step to understand that the buildings and places we construct on that very land will also tell a story and will also sing a song.
And on that day, in that hall, your church sang a song. And I doubt that any of you would be proud of that song that it sang to me.
I have come to understand that recently a series of conversation have been taking place here in this church about what to do with these embroideries, with that fall embroidery in particular. I know that those conversations will be difficult. I know that those conversations will be uncomfortable. I know that the easy solution is for me to come in and tell you what to do with them and you can just submit to my will. But guess what: I am not here to do that.
I am not here to tell you what to do. That is not my job nor do I want that job. You see, sometimes, as people of color, when we get together, we have things that we determine—you know, sometimes white people just need to work their stuff out? This is something that white people just need to work out. And truth be told, sometimes we don’t call it “stuff” but another word.
I recognize the difficulty of this. The intentions of those craftspeople, the loving hands that created that [embroidery] meant no malice. They meant no harm. And they are in fact beautifully created—they are works of art, worthy of museums. I recognize that. But also recognize: Your good intentions do not emanate with the song that that sings.
In these conversations, you will inevitably learn or perhaps already have learned or come to the conclusion that whatever you decide to do with that work of art, it will cost you as a congregation something. If you remove them, of course, it will cost you something. If you keep them up, it will cost you something. But I am here to tell you that unbeknownst to you, it has already cost you something.
You see, that day on Thanksgiving morning was actually the second time that I encountered the embroidery. The first time was when I was called to offer a blessing to an event that was taking place that featured three Native American panelists. We were led into Guild Hall and it was the fall season—and there it was. Of course, it had to be fall, right? And I will let you know that we all noticed it. We all talked about it. And the assembled audience, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say the majority of them were Native American, I will go out on a limb and bet my last dollar that Plymouth Congregational Church hosted more Native Americans than it ever has in its history. And I promise you, we all noticed it.
What will be the cost to your decision? I cannot answer that. But I can tell you: It is already costing you something. You have a reputation in the Indian community. You see, sometimes it gets very confusing, because many of us are pulled in so many directions to speak in so many churches and venues. Within the last two years, I have spoken at Colonial Church, Mayflower Church, Pilgrim Church and now Plymouth Church: This is my colonial history church tour. And in other settings, when people have asked, Where is that happening? And someone says It’s taking place at Plymouth. We get confused about which of the colonial history churches we are talking about, so in Indian country, we say: “That’s the tapestry church.”
My friends, place holds a story, the land sings a song. Your church sings a song.
I am not here to answer your questions about “What shall we do?” That is a question only you can wrestle with. But I am here to let you know that as you, as a family, as a congregation, weigh the cost of whatever decision lies ahead of you, I will tell you how that work of art sang a song the third time I encountered it, as I was here again for another conference. You all host a lot of conferences—I just want to let you know.
I was here for another conference and, this time, as I approached the building, something new greeted me outside: a banner, declaring this congregation’s dedication to racial justice. Awesome. Incredible. Racial justice cannot be done in a vacuum. Racial justice can only be truly moved forward if we step outside of our myopic, single-perspective understanding of the narrative and include the voices of the margins. I was hopeful. I was elated. And then, of course: the conference is in the fall and I am in Guild Hall. And there it is.
I’m not here to tell you what you should do. But I will tell you that on the outside of your building, you have declared your commitment to listen to the perspectives from the shadows and margins of our society. And on that day, on the inside of your building, that’s not the song that was being sung.
What will your decision cost you moving forward? I don’t know. But I can tell you: You may not know this but it has already cost you something.