Native Americans, Quakers and Mutual Aid

The Department of the Interior has released the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland first announced the creation of the Initiative last June, with a primary goal of investigating the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools.

This report, and ongoing news of locating the remains of Native children on the grounds of numerous Indian residential schools has brought attention to Quakers’ role in these institutions in North America.

There are calls for Friends to respond in many ways. To educate ourselves about this history. To seek ways for healing and reparations. To research and publish our own meeting’s history.

But I’m concerned that Friends will follow a common pattern of only working within their meetings. When this is a time we need to reach out to Native peoples.

And I am concerned that many Quakers are not aware of attitudes we could be bringing to this work. In the same the way so many white Quakers have trouble understanding white supremacy and privilege related to racial justice, many are also unaware of how deeply we are immersed in this colonized society. Colonization and white supremacy are the foundation of forced assimilation of native children. And the ideas behind the land theft and genocide of native peoples.

We need to decolonize ourselves. If not, we risk doing more harm than good.

My spiritual vision is of Quakers building personal relationships with native peoples when we are invited to do so. I have been blessed to experience this for the past couple of years while working with my local Mutual Aid community. This diverse community includes a number of native people. It was a Spirit led opportunity that connected me with an Indigenous organizer who is involved in Mutual Aid. We got to know each other over several months of email exchanges (this during the COVID crisis). When I thought we knew each other well enough, I asked if it would be appropriate for me to join this Mutual Aid work, and he said yes. But it wasn’t until I’d been involved for several months that he said, “welcome to the community”. Although I had invited myself to join this work, I wasn’t really part of the community until that moment.

I was blessed to find this community was not only another way to build friendships with native people, but also taught me what a Mutual Aid community is. Based on these experiences, I believe Mutual Aid is a model for how Friends can be involved in work outside the meetinghouse. Mutual Aid is a way we can decolonize ourselves.

What I think is needed in this moment is to show up at events and causes being led by Indigenous peoples near us

Mutual Aid is all about replacing vertical hierarchies with a flat, or horizontal hierarchy. This removes the power structures among members of the community and nearly eliminates friction, in my experience.

An essential part of the truth and healing process should be doing this work together as a Mutual Aid community, with its emphasis on inclusivity and rejecting dominant relationships. It is important that attitudes and practices of superiority not be brought to the work of healing from policies that are based on dominance and colonization.

“We sought to show the power our communities possess when we come together unified under the belief and knowledge that what we do today is both work to heal past generations and lift the spirits of our future generations.”

Matt Remle on the efforts to pass the Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution

Mutual Aid focuses on meeting community needs now, in the moment. The food project I’m involved with distributes food to those in need every week. Those working with the houseless camps take food and propane tanks there. It is the experience of meeting needs in the present that brings us joy and attracts new members. That also affects our interactions with those who come for the food. We realize it is the failure of capitalism that leaves them hungry. We all know we ourselves might need such help in the future.

There are many suggestions of things Quakers might do related to the Indian Boarding Schools.

What I think is needed in this moment is to show up at events and causes being led by Indigenous peoples near us. Most Quaker meetings and many individuals have such relationships to build upon.

It would be good to have a place to share such information. The following are a few examples that I’m aware of:

There are two general guidelines for interacting with communities.

  1. Don’t expect oppressed peoples to educate you. We shouldn’t add to their burden. I kept this in mind when I was getting to know the native person who was teaching me about Mutual Aid. But he encouraged me to learn from him. He was training me.
  2. The idea behind the two row wampum is two groups, such as Native people and white people, agree to travel together but separately. Neither interfering in the affairs of the other.

One interesting campaign of the Great Plains Action Society that specifically asks for our support is open letters. These letters express Indigenous people’s views on various topics and are meant to help supporters contact people who have the power to make decisions related to the topic. For example:

Recently, four Iowa Democrats have introduced a bill to phase out the use of Native American mascots in Iowa schools by 2024. Great Plains Action Society’s Director of Operations, Trisha Etringer, was quoted in an article in which she expressed her support for this proposed legislation, which reflects our organization as a whole. This letter is to celebrate this step in the right direction, and to provide more information about the issue at hand. With this Open Letter Campaign, we will be calling upon you to join us in communicating to the people in power that we need to be working toward a New Iowa. Unfortunately, that will often mean calling people out for failing to act, or for acting in harmful ways. Fortunately, in this case, it means asking you to send your support and encouragement to those that are fighting the difficult battles on behalf of our children.

There are many things Quakers should be doing in our own meetings related to the Indian Boarding Schools. But I think it is most important to support things native people are asking of us now.

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