NEWTON, Kansas – Walking in the footsteps of Native Americans as more than 500 years of history swept by was an unsettling experience for Mennonites who gathered recently in Newton, Kan.
More than 50 people who own or live on land formerly inhabited by Native Americans came to Shalom Mennonite Church in late September to explore this conflicted history through an interactive exercise, “The Loss of Turtle Island.” The event and exercise was hosted by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States.
The participants stood shoeless on many overlapping blankets that represented Turtle Island – the Native American name for the land that became the U.S. As their feet connected to the earth, they took on the role of Native Americans.
They listened as Sue Eagle, a coordinator of Indigenous Work for MCC Canada with her spouse Harley Eagle, narrated the history of Native Americans. Each time the group learned the effect of an injustice – coerced treaties, forced marches, European diseases or loss of culture in Mennonite boarding schools – some of the participants were forced from the blankets.
As land loss happened in the historical narrative, Eagle folded the edges of the blankets to make them smaller or took them away entirely, forcing the role-playing Native Americans to squeeze closer together on less land. At the end of the exercise, only about 10 people remained on a few blankets.
“I waffle between wanting to deny it and not even deal with it,” said Cleo Koop, former pastor of First Mennonite Church of Halstead, Kan., which sent out the first General Conference Mennonite Church missionary to convert the Arapaho and Cheyenne people to Christianity. The General Conference was a predecessor denomination to Mennonite Church USA.
It was embarrassing, Koop said, to see pictures of the Native American children lined up outside a Halstead boarding school – another attempt of the General Conference to make the children become Christian and leave their culture behind.
“Why come to this event here and bring up all these injustices? How then do we live? I struggle with how much I want to be aware,” he admitted, even though he has continued to wrestle with how to address the injustices for a number of years.
Koop was not alone. Participants in discussion groups afterward talked openly, sometimes with tears, about how they were impacted by what they had learned. Whether farmers, immigrants, parents, pastors, MCC board members or leaders of Mennonite organizations, they spoke of being conflicted and sad.
“The Loss of Turtle Island” exercise is designed to educate people about their connection with the history of Native Americans, said Erica Littlewolf, a Cheyenne and coordinator of MCC Central States’ Indigenous Vision Center.
Since its formation two years ago, the Indigenous Vision Center has been focusing on building relationships with and among Indigenous people for the purpose of addressing systemic injustices. Through that work, the center’s leadership circle recognized the need for education about the Native American experience.
Eagle customized The Loss of Turtle Island, an exercise created by KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice organization in Canada, to states in the central U.S. She included the General Conference’s involvement in running Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma and Kansas. The Eagles work for the Indigenous Vision Center several hours each week.
Hearing about the boarding schools moved Violeta Ajquejay, who works for Mennonite Church USA’s Mennonite Education Agency. She came to U.S. from Guatemala to study at Bethel College in North Newton, making the difficult choice to leave her family behind and then feeling homesick, but what the Cheyenne children suffered was worse, she said.
“I cannot imagine what these children suffered being taken away from their families and extracted from everything they knew,” said Ajquejay. “It saddens me to learn that it was done by Christian people and done in the name of civilization to make them better. What is better?”
The issue of land was a troublesome one for many people, including Dan Stucky, who is transitioning into his parents’ farming operation. He is also recycling and warehouse coordinator for MCC Central States.
“It’s difficult as you build connection with the land over the years, and it becomes eventually this strong spiritual bond, which is a positive thing,” Stucky said. “To try to weigh that against the history that brought us to that land is extremely difficult. I look for answers, but I haven’t really found that yet. I suppose I should expect that to be a lifelong journey.”
To learn more about “The Loss of Turtle Island” or the Indigenous Vision Center, contact Erica Littlewolf, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.