This past summer, I went slightly out of my way to visit Oak Grove Cemetery, near Detroit Lakes, MN. This cemetery is known to my mother’s family as one of the “family” cemeteries. I’m not even sure how many of my relatives are buried there, but it’s a lot. My grandparents are buried there. My parents will be buried there. Great aunts and uncles are buried there. As a local friend, upon realizing to whom I am related, remarked, “You can throw a stone in any direction and hit one of your relatives around here.” I was on my way to visit the father of a close friend, whose roots in that area are also strong. There is a road named after him in the area. Needless to say, my connections run deep in that place.
So, I arrived at the cemetery, drove through the front gate, went to the part of the cemetery where I was sure my relatives are buried, and I walked and walked and walked. I never found the plots. I left frustrated. No, I left feeling lost, not simply directionally-challenged, but lost — without identity.
In a society that treasures rugged individualism, mobility, and innovation, this story perhaps wouldn’t seem to connect with many people. But, I have a feeling that it might for those who live in small towns and rural areas. And more than that, I’ve discovered a strong sense of identity related to place, even in an urban area like Chicago, a city built around historic neighborhoods. My immediate neighbor lived all of his life in the neighborhood in which his own parents grew up. We used to stand out on our front steps together. He would point to physical landmarks in the neighborhood and tell stories about the “mafia” who once lived nearby. As an interim pastor, I heard many stories of families that had never moved further than a couple of miles from where they were born in Chicago. I knew that to be true in rural areas, though I didn’t expect it to be the case in a metropolis like Chicago.
Yet, as the nation becomes more and more urbanized, and more and more people move from urban center to urban center, the sense of identity-to-place seems more transient. When asked, “Where are you from?” most people answer with their current address.
In American Indian and Alaska Native communities, when you ask, “Where are you from?” they respond (at least to each other), “I am a [fill in the name of the person’s tribal identity].” I say, “I am a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation.” However, identity-in-place is not a monolithic reality among tribal nations. Many nations still live in their ancestral lands. And their sense of identity is quite strong. Many others have been sent on their own “trail of tears,” not unlike the Cherokee or the Potawatomie. It’s only a matter of degree.
My own nation, whose ancestral lands are in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Long Island, were forcibly “nudged” out by White encroachment three times before they settled in eastern Wisconsin, then lost their sovereign status with the federal government (terminated) because we refused to move once more, to Indian Territory in Kansas. White settlers pushed us out of southern New England, so we went to live in the Finger Lakes region of New York, at the invitation of the Oneida Nation. Then we were forced to Indiana, by White encroachment. Then our lands were sold out from under us to farmers by the federal government, even before we reached the White River area. So we quickly purchased land from the Menomonie Nation along the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, where our tribal headquarters is located and where we meet as a “non-recognized” tribal nation.
If you aren’t sure about the effects of historical trauma on a people, just ask any American Indian or Alaska Native. They will tell you about a loss of identity, closely tied with the loss (through stealing) of their ancestral lands. These are lands that were given them by the Creator and taken away by people who seem to have little or no knowledge of, or respect for, the land.
The historical and generational trauma experienced by tribal nations does not have its source in nostalgia, or a sense of loss of private property: its source is in the loss of their place of deeply rooted identity in a specific place. This is a place which was given to them by the Creator thousands of years ago, a particular place where the Creator covenanted with their ancestors to live in this specific place; relation to the land cannot be moved to a different place, since the knowledge is meant for the specific relations which abound in that specific place.
In short, the identity of tribal nations and their peoples are directly and unambiguously tied to the cycles of life and death that have transpired in these specific places over thousands of years. As one tribal elder described it, “I understand why the White people do so much damage to our Mother, the earth. They have not lived long enough on the land. They keep moving around. They don’t feel the blood and the bones of their ancestors beneath their feet as they walk daily on the land.”
Covenanted Place and Identity
When comparisons are made between the modern West and indigenous cultures, a dichotomy between spatial and temporal categories is most prevalent. Specifically, it is noted that the modern West thinks in temporal categories, and indigenous communities think in spatial categories, primarily as abstractions. I respectfully disagree. Vine Deloria, Jr., dean of American Indian intellectuals and an alumnus of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, argued that the uniqueness of indigenous thinking is that it refused to split space and time into separate categories at all. Indigenous thinkers did not use either category as the sole analytical tool for understanding the world. If anything, Natives use the awareness of, and the interpretation of, the intensity of one’s emotional experiences on the land, over time.
This more relational view of space-time is what I refer to as “place.” Place is both a detailed sacred geography (stories about specific landmarks of historical or spiritual significance to a people) and extended duration on a specific area of land (old stories related to living on the land). Place is not synonymous with space, territory, or private property. Place is a deeply emotional and spiritual connection to a specific land base, which comes from an extended duration on that specific land by a specific people, covenanted to maintain these “right-relations” for the flourishing of all in that specific place.
It is a fundamental belief that the continuity of a place is founded in the interplay of relations of history, peoples, nations, geography, spirituality, and living in a good way in that place. To isolate any of these relations and give priority to it destroys place and replaces it with an isolated, abstract conception (such as private property). Instead, place is always covenanted place.
Covenanted place does not mean an exclusive right to possession of a specific land by a specific people (as it seems to mean in the West). Rather, covenanted places are given by the Creator to a specific people who have the knowledge of the land (because of their long duration on that land), so that right-relations are maintained for the benefit of all in that place. The covenant is for the physical and spiritual survival and flourishing of all the inhabitants of that place, not for exclusive possession. No one owns land, but everyone lives on the land, which has been given by the Creator. The Creator makes the covenant with a specific people, so that there is an intimate knowledge of the land and the relationships within it, and that there is an extended memory of what is required to maintain right relations in that land.
The covenanted way of life by this specific people is the sacrificial contribution, or gift, to all the inhabitants on the land. In this manner, sacrifice is acting (living) in such a way that the actions performed contribute to the well-being of all the relatives in a particular place. Sacrifice means more than “doing without something” (as we characterize each season of Lent); it is “to contribute to the benefit of the whole.” So, this covenant is maintained through the continuous cycles of the life and death of a people in a specific place, as a sacrifice.
This, perhaps, is the reason why the people of the Seven Council Fires are literally willing to die to protect the water of the Missouri River, a vital relation in the place of their ancestors.
These cycles of life and death are the covenant of sacrifice, or gift, that create a place. The traumas that tribal people experience have multiple origins, but the primary source of trauma is the spiritual exile of a people from the land in which they covenanted with the Creator to live and die on, to maintain all the relations of a place in a good way. Tribal nations have been chased off of these lands. These lands were stolen from them, bulldozers plow through them, and oil pipelines are dug in them.
All the while, they are told that this is not their land, because someone bought it as an isolated, abstract piece of property with an abstract thing called money.
Dying and death have many aspects, as is clear in this issue of Let’s Talk. But, for the indigenous nations of North America, death and dying are a covenanted responsibility to maintain right relations in a specific place. And in fulfilling this covenant, the indigenous peoples maintain their identity. Moving these nations off their lands, shelving their ancestors’ remains in boxes in museums, and bulldozing their sacred burial grounds for a parking lot, a shopping center, or an oil pipeline is a genocide—a destruction of the identity of a people who, like you, are children of the Creator.