A Paradigm Shift Has Begun: Addressing Social Justice and Racial Equity

A column by T. Lulani Arquette about social justice and racial equality.

Let me make it clear: I don’t write to denounce present-day Catholicism or the Christian faith. I write to denounce the men and the contradictory Christian philosophy they used to destroy thriving civilizations of Indigenous peoples, take their lands, vilify their arts and cultures, and leave them diseased, broken, and dead.

As I stated at the beginning of this series, Native peoples have asserted their rights and gained some ground with tribal treaties, sovereignty, and reclamation of land, resources, and culture. There is more awareness in the general population than there was 20 years ago. The philanthropic world is championing discussions and study groups on the changing demographic in America and how best to address the challenges we face as Native peoples and other peoples of color. However, we need a paradigm shift in this country, and I believe that shift has begun.

The United Nations adopted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007. There is an effort to include language in the UNDRIP repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD). There were only four countries that refused to adopt the declaration: The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Episcopal Church courageously led the way as the first Christian denomination to pass a resolution in 2009 denouncing the DOD and urging the U.S. to adopt the UNDRIP. Excerpts of language include “(we)…denounce the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God." Other churches followed in 2011 including the Unitarian Universalist and Quaker faiths. Just this year, in May 2012, the World Council of Churches renounced the DOD.

After a series of tribal and NGO consultations, and after the other three hold-out countries adopted the DRIP, at the end of 2010 President Obama did finally sign the UNDRIP. This is very encouraging and a step in the right direction; however, there still needs to be greater support for including language in the UNDRIP that renounces the Doctrine of Discovery.

You may wonder what the Doctrine of Discovery has to do with the work we do in the field of Native arts and cultures. Through the arts, 500 Nations was produced in 1995 as an eight-part documentary exploring the true history of the Indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times, through the period of European contact and colonization, to the end of the 19th century and the subjugation of the Plains Indians of North America.

Before that, Roots, an American television miniseries based on Alex Haley's novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, aired on ABC in 1977. Roots received nine Emmys and won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. There are many talented Native artists and creative people from other ethnic groups, from the past and today, whose work depicts the injustice. They may not know about the DOD, but they certainly have experienced or witnessed its long-term impacts, and that’s what inspires their art in many cases.

It’s important to acknowledge the truth as some of the Episcopalian and other churches have so courageously done. We must collectively ensure that our arts, cultures, and lifeways are upheld and perpetuated forevermore. Its our kuleana (responsibility) to make this so. Our Native well-being depends on it. Meaningful social justice and racial equity will not be reached in this country, or elsewhere for that matter, without greater understanding, awareness, and complete rebuke of the Doctrine of Discovery and its tragic consequences. This will take willful learning and reading. It will take intentional remembering and discussion. Most importantly, it will take support and action to erase its influence from our courts, systems, and thinking forever. As a nation of Indigenous people and diverse ethnicity, including our Caucasian brothers and sisters, we must continue to put one foot in front of the other and do the righteous work.

Only then can our nation truly heal and exonerate itself. Until then, we keep remembering.

T. Lulani Arquette (Native Hawaiian) is president and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington.