Under Our Charge

Under Our Charge

The 1999 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, opened with a Ceremony of Native American Acknowledgement. Forrest Cuch, the Executive Director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Indian nation, welcomed us. In his remarks, he spoke about the conquest of native peoples, what our history books call the Indian Wars.  He said we still believe that there needs to be a discussion, and a thorough grieving of what took place. And once we forgive each other, we should move on. He closed by saying,

  • Our spirits are the same, because they all come from the same source. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all connected, and I say, welcome brothers and sisters.

When those words were spoken in 1999, we had no idea that in 2009 when our General Assembly returned to Salt Lake City, we would open with an acknowledgement of the complicity of the American Unitarian Association in the removal of the Northern Ute from their home land  the shining mountains as they call it  in what is today Colorado.  Here’s the story told to the 2009 Assembly by the Rev. William Sinkford who was completing his service as UUA President.

Following the Civil War, soldiers of the Union Army were deployed to take the lands of the native peoples on the Great Plains so that whites could pursue their Manifest Destiny. The armed conflict was often intense and deadly. Remember Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn River.

The Indians were finally overwhelmed and forcibly relocated onto reservations, mostly lands that were of no use for whites. Government Agencies were set up on the reservations and at first the military ran them. But in 1870, President Grant launched his "Peace Policy", asking the various Protestant religious denominations to take responsibility for different agencies. With religious groups involved, Grant believed there would be a greater chance for denominational resources to be directed to the Agencies, a greater likelihood for conversion of the Indians to Christianity, and more significant progress towards assimilation.  

Under the Peace Policy, the Northern Ute, who still lived on a smaller portion of their lands in Colorado,  were offered to the Unitarians.
The American Unitarian Association accepted the responsibility.  From the AUA Yearbook 1870:

  • "A new feature of work has been suggested during the year by an invitation from the Government to take part, along with the other religious bodies of the country, in the elevation and improvement of the native Indians."

Unitarian ministers were dispatched to two agencies with responsibility for the Ute  White River and Los Pinos. The goal, according to Unitarian Rev. E. H. Danforth, agent at White River, Colorado, was

  • "to induce them to settle in permanent abodes and assume the habits and dress of civilized life, – to do some kind of work other than hunting."

Today we would call this cultural imperialism; forcing a new culture, a new way of life on a people. Then it was called offering civilization to the Indians. The results were tragic. Francis Walker, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, writing in 1872:

  • "To the white man freedom of expansion is of incalculable value. To the Indian it is of incalculable cost … We are richer by hundreds of millions; the Indian is poorer by a large part of the little that he has. This growth is bringing imperial greatness to the nation; to the Indian it brings wretchedness, destitution and beggary."

The white appetite for land- and natural resources such as gold – remained voracious.  By 1881, the Ute were forced to leave what was left to them of their precious "shining mountains".   They were relocated once again to what became the state of Utah.  It is the Ute who gave the state its name.

An attempt was made to start schools for the Indian children. Rev. Edward Danforth, Indian agent at White River, in a letter to the AUA:

  • "A little has been done by us to be reported in the direction of a School. A year ago last fall Mrs. Danforth had all she could do to attend to those who came to her. Later in the season they fell off, and through the Winter and Spring months the average attendance at the school, I believe, was eight."

Our ministers did defend the Ute and urged the government not to allow whites to make war on them. Rev. J. Nelson Trask, agent at Los Pinos, Colorado, writing to Washington:

  • "The truth is, that many of the people of this territory are indefatigable in their efforts to make the Indians appear vicious and dangerous, and so as to help each other in filling the papers with rumors of danger, making everything seem to tend toward war. I regard war with the Utahs as utterly inexcusable, for the Utahs do not want war, and prompt, strong measures should at once be taken to prevent such an occurrence."

Based on the historical record, it seems that the Unitarian agents were not very effective, failing, for example, to secure sufficient funds to develop and maintain boarding schools for Ute children.  Perhaps, as a result, they did less damage than some of the more "successful" denominations.  

That’s a short version of the story.

So why does this history from the days of the AUA and the more recent story from GA 2009 matter?  There are two reasons.

First – because as a religious people reconciliation matters.  It matters that we tell the truth and that we continue to learn and tell more of it more often, that we know and tell the stories.  It matters that we confront the truth of harm done  that we confess, acknowledging our role.  It matters that there is an honest apology  – I understand that I/we were wrong and harmed you and I am sorry.  It matters that the one harmed find space in their hearts to forgive, but not forget.  And it matters that those who caused harm engage in repair  finding a way to stand with and support those who have been harmed.  Don’t misunderstand – this is not how reconciliation is completed and checked off the to do list.   This is how it begins, how we as a religious people, as a religious community begin to "turn ’round right."   

Second, it matters because this Unitarian Universalist faith is not a possession.  We don’t own it.  We live it.  And as we live it we renew and reshape the faith we inherited into the faith that will be our legacy.  But here’s the deal:  we inherit the whole thing, not just the good parts or the parts that speak most directly to our personal spiritual paths.  We inherit the whole thing.  And part of our inheritance is the harm caused to the Ute by our forbears participation in the Grant Administration Peace Policy.  That harm is not in the past only.  It continues to this day, impacting the lives of the Ute as individuals and as a community.  We are the inheritors.  The harm continues to this day.  And so it is our task to do what we can to turn this faith ’round right.  Working with Jim Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) we developed information on possible congregational initiatives (handout) and working with Forrest Cuch we developed a relationship with Rising American Indian Nations (letter from Forrest about their new initiatives.)

So here we are   in between Yom Kippur and Columbus Day/ Indigenous Peoples Day.   That
puts us exactly where we should be as this story is told  the possibility
of forgiveness on one side and the truth of our history on the other.

President Sinkford concluded his 2009 statement with these words:

  • "And so, to the Ute people, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations offers our heart-felt apology. We participated, however ineptly, in a process that stole your land and forced a foreign way of life on you. We ask for your forgiveness and we promise to stand with you as you chart your way forward."

A decade earlier Forrest Cuch concluded his statement with these words:

  • "Our spirits are the same, because they all come from the same source. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all connected."

If the Book of Life were still open, these words separated by a decade and joined by history, should be written on our page:  We offer our heartfelt apology.  We ask your forgiveness.   We promise to stand with you.  Our spirits are the same.  They all come from the same source.  We are all connected.