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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Acknowledgment of Indigenous Peoples Land

At our November meeting of the New Castle Presbytery last Saturday, I was invited to open the meeting with an "Acknowledgement of Indigenous Peoples Land." These kinds of statements are becoming more frequent in religious and corporate gatherings and meetings who wish to recognize and remember we stand on land that was likely taken by force from other human beings.

I had heard some Acknowledgments done at other meetings or gatherings, and I occasionally squirmed with discomfort at bits of the language. Sometimes, the blunt honest history punched me in the gut so hard, I could hardly breathe. Other times, the words felt smoothed over, softened, no longer reflecting honestly the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples by those who sailed to these shores.

When I was asked to find words, I worried, "Is my voice the right one for this? I'm an older white male straight Christian pastor. I would have been the colonizer. I would have likely been the invader, the land grabber, the land "owner", the slaveholder." That spark of realization and confession led me to tread carefully. While I cannot speak for the indigenous peoples, perhaps I can honestly confess the role my ancestors played.

As we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving, let's be careful and honest with the history of this land and this nation. We've been given images of darker-skinned indigenous peoples and lighter-skinned immigrant colonizers happily sharing table with one another. For that memory and hope, yes, let's be thankful. But, let's also remember and acknowledge what happened after we stood from that table, and in so doing, vow to make amends to the best of our ability and to never let it happen again.

Acknowledgment of Indigenous Peoples Land

Scientists and Archaeologists disagree.

The first human beings lived on this Penninsula

maybe 8000, maybe 13000, maybe 22000 years ago.

They set up villages and houses, gardens and farms.

They raised crops and families when the sun was high and the land was green.

They hunted deer and mastodons when the sun was lower and the land was white.

They traveled and traded, fished and wished, survived and thrived.

They walked this land, worked this land, but did not try to own it.

They depended on this land, and celebrated this land, but did not try to subdue it.

Historians agree, colonizers arrived just a few hundred years ago.

They… we… did not discover land that was not already discovered.

They… we… did not have any claim to this land that was already inhabited.

Over 20,000 native fishers and farmers lived on this peninsula before we arrived.

But when ships hit shorelines, and buckled shoes hit sand,

Those who had lived here with this land for thousands of years,

Were forced from these lands, forced into bad treaties, forced into fight or flight.

Kings across the sea parceled out these lands into colonies, as America's first suburbs.

A descendant of chiefs, writer, artist Charles C. Clark IV ("Little Owl") wrote:

"To Europeans, the earth and its land were mere possessions,

to be bought and sold according to the whims of men…

When they asked us for lands on which to build homes, raise crops and prosper,

we made the land available to them.

But we did not know they would consider it to be theirs forever… We had no concept of land ownership.

To us, the bounty of the earth was to be shared by all." (Washington Post Article)

Less than 150 years after first contact with European settlers,

Almost all native brothers and sisters of this land were driven to Oklahoma, or Ontario,

To concentration camps, or enslaved, or buried.

Today there are too few traces of the peninsula's native peoples,

Save a few mispronounced names of rivers, counties, and towns.

May we remember and honor this land

AND the people who loved and lived this land before us.

May we remember and confess our sin in stealing, hoarding, and fighting to own this land

Instead of trusting God made this land abundant enough for all.

By Rev. Joel L. Tolbert


Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

For the Nov 14, 2020 Stated Meeting of

New Castle Presbytery

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