Midwest Quakers and Native Peoples

The purpose of this brief history is background for a request from Sikowis (Christine) Nobiss for funds to support the documentary “They Found Us” that’s being done about her reservation’s residential school. George Gordon First Nation had the longest running residential school, which didn’t close until 1996.

During the 2017 annual sessions of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) there was panel discussion about building bridges with native peoples. The panel consisted of Peter Clay, an Iowa Friend, Donnielle Wanatee from the Meskwaki Settlement, and Sikowis (Christine) Nobiss, one of the most active Indigenous leaders in the Midwest. All three have played a large role in my connections with Native Americans since.

In February 2018, I was part of a group who went to Minneapolis to protest US Bank’s funding of oil pipelines. Sikowis spoke at that gathering.

I began to get to know Sikowis when she and I were among a small group of native and non-native people who walked and camped for eight days along the route of the Dakota Access pipeline, from Des Moines to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Iowa Friend Peter Clay was also on this First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March.  Jon Krieg (AFSC) joined us for the first day. And my Scattergood School roommate Lee Tesdell participated in one of the evening discussions during the March. Another Iowa Yearly Meeting Friend, Liz Oppenheimer, organized a time of worship sharing and prayer among Friends each morning, supporting our sacred journey.

In this photo during the March Sikowis is holding the bowl Peter Clay is smudging from.

The purpose of the March was to create a community of native and non-native people who began to know and trust each other so we could work on things of common concern. That was highly successful, and we have done a number of things together since.

One of the first was when several of us from the March, including Sikowis (in the center of this photo), Iowa Friends Shazi and Fox Knight, and I lobbied Senator Grassley’s staff to support several bills related to native concerns.

Lobbying Iowa Senator Grassley about native legislation

The summer of 2019 Sikowis suggested I attend the National Network Assembly at the Des Moines YMCA Camp near Boone, Iowa, that she helped organize. I was aware that if I wanted to build on relationships with native peoples, I should wait to be invited. Seeing this as one of those opportunities, I did attend.

In early 2020, I began to hear about the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en peoples in British Columbia, as they worked to prevent the construction of a liquid natural gas pipeline (Costal GasLink) through their pristine lands and waters. There was little being written about this in the mainstream media, so supporters were asked to write about what was happening on our social media platforms.

This photo is from a post about a rally I organized to support the Wet’suwet’en in Des Moines on February 7, 2020. Iowa Friend Peter Clay attended.

I’m convinced the Spirit led Ronnie James to come to this rally. Ronnie is an Indigenous organizer with twenty years of experience. He was surprised anyone in Iowa knew about the Wet’suwet’en, so he came to see who we were. Since that day Ronnie has been patiently mentoring me about Des Moines Mutual Aid. Including helping me become involved in the food giveaway project. We’ve become good friends.

This relates to my relationship with Sikowis because Ronnie is a member of the Great Plains Action Society (GPAS) that she organized for Indigenous activism in the Midwest. Several other friends I made during the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March also work at Great Plains Action Society.

As often happens, once people know I love photography, I get invited to events for that purpose (even though I’d want to go, anyway). This photo of Sikowis was taken at last year’s Indigenous People’s Day. She’s holding a Great Plains Action Society bag.

Sikowis Nobiss

Another event where I took photos was a gathering on the State Capitol grounds related to racist statues. In this photo Sikowis is speaking at the Pioneer statue.

Sikowis Nobiss

Last December, Sikowis asked me to come to Ames for a rally at the office of Summit Carbon, one of the companies that want to build a CO2 pipeline.


Residential institutions of forced assimilation


The legacy of what are sometimes called Indian Boarding Schools has been a concern of mine for years. The involvement of Quakers in establishing and teaching in these institutions has become a source of tension and conflict among Quakers today. I think my past ignorance about these institutions was common for Quakers, thinking Friends involved in those schools were doing the best they could to help native children assimilate into mainstream American society. Not critically thinking why that would be a good thing. But we began to learn more about the great harm this did to native children and their families. And that was before learning about the widespread emotional, physical and sexual abuse of the children.

I was led to make this something I needed to learn more about. And share what I was learning with Quakers and others. Friend Paula Palmer, who has become a friend of mine, was called to a ministry related to these institutions and Quaker’s involvement in them.  Peter Clay and I helped organize events among Iowa Friends, Conservative and FUM, when Paula came to the Midwest.

Prior to the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March I was unsure whether I should bring up the subject of forced assimilation, especially as I had learned more about trauma from those institutions being passed from generation to generation. I had hoped to learn about Indigenous spirituality on the March but didn’t see how that could happen without acknowledging Quakers’ involvement in forced assimilation.

Matthew and I began to get to know each other early in the March because he was shooting video of the same things I was taking photos of. We shared quite a bit about this common interest. I believe it was the second day of the March as we were walking and talking together that the Spirit led me to tell him I knew about the Quaker involvement in the residential schools, and I was sorry for what had happened. Of course, I had no idea how he would react. But all he did was nod his head, and we continued to walk and talk together. I didn’t say anything else about that.

But just a few hours later he said he wanted to tell me a story. It involved a traumatic incident related to his mother and the residential schools. I was so grateful he felt he could share that with me. We didn’t talk about that any further.

Since then, when it seemed appropriate, I brought up Quaker involvement in the boarding schools with each of my native friends. Each one had personal experiences related to the schools. I believe that it was an important part of our developing friendships that we shared these stories.

Sikowis told me briefly of family members who had experienced traumas from those institutions. We had that brief discussion several years ago.

I believe this is in part why she invited me to ask Quakers if we would help support making a documentary about her reservation’s (George Gordon First Nation) residential school.

Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee has an annual budget to support peace and justice work. This year it was decided that rather than give token amounts to various peace and justice organizations, we might discern to invest a larger sum, for a more significant impact, to an organization or project. But we didn’t know what that would be.

This request from Sikowis is an opportunity to build on Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Midwest. An opportunity to begin truth and healing.

I’m pleased the Peace and Social Concerns Committee unanimously supports using our budget to support the documentary that’s being done about the George Gordon First Nation’s residential school.


March 27, 2022

This letter in regards to a request for financial support for a documentary title “They Found Us”, to support community presentations of this film that I produced.

My name is Curt Young and I a member of the George Gordon’s First Nation.  I am a descendant of Mike Longman, along with my mother Longman-Young; both members of this nation.  The development of this documentary was an intent for myself to learn more about my maternal familial lineage, as I had not grown up on GGFN and wanted more connections to my cultural heritage.  I applied for the “Peoples Investment Grant”, while residing in Calgary and was a successful candidate.  These funds were intended to financially support a compilation of Elder’s narratives, however, during the initial interviews, the findings of the 215 bodies outside of the Kamloops residential schools, inspired myself to change the direction of the documentary.  I decided to focus more on the process that GGFN reserve’s undertaking of a ground search outside of the local residential school; to see if there were any unmarked graves or bodies buried there. 

Over the past year, I have made three trips to GGFN to obtain footage of the community’s initial activities related to the ground search of the area.  Aside from the footage of the community, I also have compiled interviews from GGFN members, and other Indigenous people, including leaders and Elders, that have shared their own narratives and experience with residential schools.  The budget that I was provided by the grant I received was allocated to travel costs associated with these trips to GGFN, along with the rental of video technological equipment, necessary to create the documentary.  I have spent time and effort into producing this documentary and have been promoting it through various online platforms, along with connections I have within Indigenous communities, both urban and rural.  I have much interest in public showings of this documentary, particularly since June is coming up, with it being National Indigenous Peoples month.  One showing that I have confirmed is the first week of June; at Fort Calgary.  Although I am quite excited for the interest and opportunities, I would like to honour my home community and acknowledge the stories that are compiled in my documentary, by having the first public showing of “They Found Us” on GGFN.

In order for myself to bring the documentary to GGFN I am requesting funds to support my travel, accommodation and honorarium for traditional drummers and possibly a dancer to create a healing and culturally safe space for a community show.  My first showing that I have booked for this documentary is June 4, 2022, thus, I am asking to have funds to showcase the documentary on GGFN prior to this date. 

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