Indigenous cultures and systems existed throughout North America prior to 1492.

In his book, 1491, Charles C. Mann chronicles the nuances and complexities of Indigenous cultures and systems, which involved complex social and economic structures for governance, industry and trade.

Many of the problems, past and present, regarding America’s history with Native peoples stem from our inability to recognize these cultures before Columbus’ arrival.

Indigenous peoples created a vast and complex system of transportation across the entire continent, for example, but European settlers were unable to see these systems due to their cultural blindness.

Just because settlers could not see the Indigenous systems does not mean they did not exist. One could say the same about systemic racism today – just because white eyes cannot see it does not mean it’s not present.

Such blindness resulted in the Doctrine of Discovery, which offered spiritual, political and legal justification for Christian monarchs to colonize non-Christian lands.

Blessed by the Catholic Church, this ideology declared the supremacy of European Christian cultures over all others. It justified European colonization without setting ethical or moral guidelines, which led to the genocide of Indigenous people around the world.

The Indigenous population of the Americas was around 60 million inhabitants before 1492. The numbers began to decline drastically after Columbus’ arrival, with scholars estimating that 90% died by the early 1600s.

While most of the history connected to the Doctrine of Discovery and colonialism relates to the genocide of Ingenious peoples, there are a few exceptions to celebrate.

Anglican cleric Roger Williams’ interactions with the Indigenous peoples of what is now Massachusetts is one positive example.

Williams landed at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, quickly realizing that the religious persecution he fled in England existed within the colonies.

Responding to the Puritans’ state religion, Williams wrote in a pamphlet, “Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.”

Williams believed so strongly in the freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all that he extended such rights to the Indigenous peoples.

Another example is the framing of the U.S. Constitution, especially the first 16 words in the Bill of Rights – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

These words should be championed by every American and person of faith, but we must realize the limitations initially placed on the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights: it only applied to white land-owning males.

Despite the noble ideals set forth in these founding documents, following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the great land theft that began in 1492 continued with renewed fervor as white settlers moved west.

Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Otis gave these settlers another name in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States: squatters.

Dunbar-Otis argued that history, seen through white eyes, has acted as though the lands across the country were free for the taking. In reality, European settlers forced Indigenous peoples away from their lands in a variety of ways.

By the turn of the 19th century, Native peoples had lost their ancestral lands, economies and resources, and then came the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Muscogee Creeks – my people – lost over 3,500 to whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation, while the Cherokees lost more than 5,000, on the “Trail of Tears.”

How did all of this happen inside a country dedicated to freedom and law?

When it came to Indigenous peoples and African slaves, another punitive philosophy was built upon the Doctrine of the Discovery: Manifest Destiny. This idea declares that the United States is destined by God to expand its dominion “from sea to shining sea.”

In 1890, an incident took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that marked white dominance and revealed the limited application of the Bill of Rights.

The U.S. government grew concerned about the Lakota Sioux who engaged in the Ghost Dance – an emerging religious belief and practice that attempted to conjure Indigenous ancestors who would help stop white expansion.

In early December 1890, authorities killed Lakota Chief Sitting Bull during an attempt to arrest him because they wrongly assumed he was a Ghost Dancer.

Four days after Christmas that same year, soldiers surrounded a group of Ghost Dancers in Pine Ridge. This resulted in a fight and, ultimately, a massacre of 150 Lakota Sioux (mostly women and children).

It is one of the worst examples of religious persecution and slaughter in American history.

I share these stories to remind us of the dangers of conquest and conformity. The reason for reading and understanding events of the past is so that we do not repeat such mistakes today.

We must be brutally honest: The nation that we know and love today was built upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. Yet, there are reasons for hope.

While Christianity was wrongly forced upon Indigenous peoples, many discovered a kindred spirit in Jesus.

I shed tears for my great-grandmother and other ancestral people, but I also recall the days of listening to Christian hymns sung in the traditional languages.

I think of churches like Hackey Creek United Methodist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you can see Indigenous peoples gather for worship and for lunch consisting of hominy and fry-bread.

You can travel to Northern Oklahoma to visit the First Indian Baptist Church of Watonga to visit with Elder Quinton Romannose as he tells you how the church is ministering to the local school system.

You can go to Muskogee where my friend Will Brown preaches about another brown-skinned man living 2,000 years ago.

The history of the United States is filled with dark moments, but we must not forget the beacons of hope.

Religious liberty and human rights for all people must continue to be championed and defended – for when one person’s freedoms and rights are threatened, all our freedoms and rights are threatened.

Let me end with two quotes from the famous Wal-lam-wat-kain Chief Joseph, who fought western expansion for many years.

The chief said, “Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself – and I will obey every law and submit to penalty.”

But even more importantly, he offered this assessment after so many years of war, “All (humans) are created by the Great Spirit Chief, they are all (siblings) — I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more.”

May it be so for all our sakes.

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series. It is adapted and shortened from a lecture delivered at Baylor University on Oct. 12, 2021. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

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