In 2009 a group of Native Americans did an amazing thing – a “Sacred Hoop Journey of Forgiveness” that zig-zagged through the nation to the sites of many former Indian boarding schools. It was organized by “White Bison,” an organization that “offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention, and wellness/Wellbriety learning resources to the Native American community nationwide.” From their vantage point they could see clearly the ongoing effects of “generational trauma” on Native communities.
Why visit old Indian boarding schools? The first one created, which gave the pattern to the rest, was the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania (opened in 1879). Elementary aged children were sometimes forcibly removed from their homes, and other times sent by parents who were made to believe they would be doing something wonderful for their children. The philosophy of the movement’s founder, Captain Richard Pratt, was, in his own words, “Kill the Indian, save the man”. By that he meant that all that was Indian identity for those children was to be systematically destroyed and replaced by a military style discipline and rigidly enforced norms of white culture. They were severely punished if they were ever caught even speaking their native language. Discipline was often brutal, and sexual abuse was not uncommon. Think about being a 5 or 6 year old child taken away from your family and forced to live in a place like that. Runaways were common, and there was a high rate of sickness and death.
Those who led the “Sacred Hoop” pilgrimage believe that to heal generational wounds requires the difficult task of “forgiving the unforgivable.” A ceremony of forgiveness attended each visit, held in the cemetery where children who died there were buried, along with a symbolic “welcome back into the tribe” for those children who had died apart from their tribe and families. The pilgrimage ended in Washington D.C. to present a petition asking the President to apologize for this history of abuse.
Nestled in the 10 Commandments is a phrase that has often troubled people: “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me” (Exodus 20:5). Those words in the second commandment were not about “fairness”, but an expression of how reality works. The generational multiplication of life and goodness intended by God from the creation itself becomes also the generational multiplication of evil when sin is injected into the equation. Do the children of broken and dysfunctional families feel the wounding effects of that environment, and do they pass those wounds along to the next generation even when they do not want to? All the research screams “yes!” So, does the immoral and violent taking of Native lands and destruction of culture leave shame, blindness, and scars behind for generations to come? How can it be otherwise? Does this reality still influence how the wider culture thinks about modern Indian nations and the way they have been treated until now? Yes.
Then there are St. Paul’s words about being part of the “body of Christ” in my prior blog post. We are so connected to one another and through the generations that current generations can be called upon to repent on behalf of things done by their forbears, and acts of forgiveness can be given on behalf of others. When I protest that “I did not do that – others did,” I am perhaps failing to recognize the corporate nature of who we are as human beings. It’s not that I am personally responsible and should live in perpetual shame over things people do thousands of miles away. But the mystery is that I am far more connected than I may want to believe.
As the “Sacred Hoop” journey illustrates, this connection does not just have to be negative. It in fact places within our hands the ability to do very positive things that will flow simply out of humility and changed attitudes. The difference may not always be measurable, but it is real. God is a God of connection, not separation. Else why would God have gone to such lengths in Christ to redeem us into the grace and unity of eternal life?