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Mohawk and Lakota Activists Light Fire for Climate Action

The dispossession of Native peoples, the exploitation of land for resources and profit, and the suppression of indigenous spiritual practices have always operated in concert.

In a visit to Union last month, Tom Kanatakeniate Cook and Loretta Afraid-of-Bear Cook explored this connection as they shared some of their history and spiritual traditions. The practices they shared in Lampman Chapel, mindful of both nature and ancestry, evoked an implicit understanding of how intergenerational moral obligations are inextricably bound to respectful treatment of the Earth.

Photo via The Union Forum

The Cooks also visited with several Union professors, attended the chapel service Speak Upon the Ashes (led by participants in the 2014 Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference which nurtures, mobilizes and sustains African-American faith communities), talked with students more informally in the Social Hall, and provided wise counsel to those working on the conference Union will host in September: “Religions for the Earth: Spirituality and Faith-Based Action on Climate Change.” From their point of view, a good start to any initiative on climate would be to return the care of the sacred sites of the earth to the indigenous peoples who revere them.

Their heritage runs deep. Loretta’s mother and aunt (Beatrice and Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance) are members of a recently formed group called the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers who call for a “global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth.” Loretta, a Lakota elder who is also the great-granddaughter of Chief American Horse, explained that she is currently focused on two goals: the return of the sacred Black Hills (in South Dakota) to the Lakota and convincing the Vatican to rescind the fifteenth century papal bulls that expressly called for the devastation of Native Americans.

In 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued the bullRomanus Pontifex in order to allow Portugal to claim land and “capture, vanquish and subdue” the non-Christians in Africa. On May 3, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull extending this right to Spain which was already busy colonizing the Americas, treating its people and its natural resources with the same proprietary hunger. On May 4, 1493, the very next day (who says the Vatican can’t do things quickly?), he responded to Portugal’s competitive complaint by issuing a follow-up bullInter Caetera—stipulating that Spain would of course not be allowed to take any lands claimed already by Portugal — or in other words, land that had come into the “possession of Christian Lords.” The United States legal system drew on this as precedent in establishing what has become known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

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There could hardly be a more poignant statement of the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery than the presence of Mount Rushmore in the sacred Black Hills. Even the name derives from the extractionist industries that drive the release of carbon emissions. The WPA state guidebook for South Dakota tells the story of the name this way: “Following the gold rush period of the late 1870?s, Charles E. Rushmore, an attorney from New York, visited the Black Hills in the interests of his mining clients. While touring the Hills, by horse and buggy, the attorney inquired the name of the granite crusted mountain. One of the party jokingly answered: ‘Why that is Mount Rushmore.’ And it still bears that name.”

At a seminary, it bears dwelling on the fact that this exploitative way of relating to both the land and indigenous culture was rooted in a theological pronouncement: the papal bulls argued that Christian conquerors had a divine right based on the Bible to absolute title and ultimate authority over the inhabitants and the land. Now, Loretta and Tom want Pope Francis to take it back. Talk about interfaith dialogue!

Tom is Mohawk, descended from a hero of the American Revolution whose story—despite his unique, fascinating life and extraordinary feats of courage—you may not have heard: Joseph Louis Cook, or Akiatonharonkwen.“Louis” Cook was born to an enslaved African father and an Abenaki (American Indian) mother. As a child, he barely escaped slavery himself when the Mohawk tribe came upon and claimed him. Although most Mohawks fought with the British, Cook sided with the revolutionary colonists. He met several times with General George Washington, survived the legendary encampment at Valley Forge, led significant victories in battle, settled in upstate New York and went on to die for the United States in the War of 1812. Tom knows this all as oral history, just as he knows the story of the broken promises, breached treaties and forced conversions to Christianity. His own work helping people living on reservations to grow organic food in their own gardens is his healing response. As Tom spoke, he referenced the service earlier that day in James Chapel. “Everything in that resonated with me,” he said. “I speak upon the ashes.”

During their stay at Union, Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Nineteenth Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe) issued a call for the lighting of sacred fire along with prayer at sacred sites. “We the Original Caretakers of Mother Earth have no choice but to follow and uphold the Original Instructions, which uphold the continuity of Life,” he communicated in an emailed letter to his own community. “We recognize our umbilical connection to Mother Earth and understand that she is the source of life, not a resource to be exploited. We speak on behalf of all Creation today, to communicate an urgent message that man has gone too far, placing us in the state of survival.” On the appointed day, Tom and Loretta lit their fire at Union, doing our institution a great honor that calls us to live up to it.

The occasion of the UN Climate Summit has given Union a chance to focus on the spiritual, religious and theological aspects of our current planetary predicament. Ecosystems everywhere have been uprooted, stripped, wrung to death for profit. In rising to this challenge, we won’t forget that some human beings have always been treated as the earth has been treated. Listening to them is an honest first step to correcting course.

Those interested in supporting their initiative on the Black Hills can visit “The Black Hills Are Not For Sale.” To learn about Tom’s work with organic gardens and Indian Youth, visit Running Strong’s Organic Gardens and Food website.

Karenna Gore is director of the Union Forum and the Global Social Justice Partnerships. The Union Forum is a project of the Union Theological Seminary that connects theology and spirituality with civic action.