Mennonite-Indigenous relations

“All my relations.”

It is a key phrase for indigenous people. It could be a key that opens Mennonite hearts to warm to Indigenous stories, for Mennonites love their genealogies. (“The Mennonite Game” is what we call it when we spend the first few minutes with a new acquaintance figuring out how we’re related to each other.)

“Treaty is so much more than $5 a year,” said Niigaan Sinclair at CMU’s Face 2 Face event on the Mennonite Privilegium and Indigenous land in Manitoba. “It’s about how we share space together.”

It’s about bonding ourselves together as family – meaning unhookable – not merely friends.

We ought to know that too, as Mennonites. We ought to understand the sense of covenant from our reading of the Bible, and the importance of relationships with each other from our theology of community.

But perhaps it has been too eroded by capitalism and the market economy.

Mennonite historical land settlement patterns were done in a communal way, said Hans Werner. One reason the “reserves” suited us for 1870s settlement in Manitoba is that we didn’t survey out separate plots assigned to individual owners as the British did, but took a communal sense of ownership to the region and divided up farmland and village houses as need dictated – much like Indigenous people.

But where our Mennonite land instincts diverge sharply from Indigenous people – probably a very important insight to understand the antipathy members of the two groups have felt for each other – is the visceral sense Mennonites have of land ownership being equated with land “improvement”.

Sure, both Indigenous and Mennonites take a stewardship approach to the land. But where Indigenous people see that as living with the land, living lightly upon it, Mennonites see it as working with the land, altering it to our will.

Flanders, Friesland, the Vistula Delta – places Mennonites lived or passed through – “all that land is created,” Hans Werner said. Without human intervention, those landscapes wouldn’t even exist. The Mennonites dragged that land from the seabed.

“If you’re living on land and you’re not really improving it, is it really yours?” That’s a question a Mennonite might ask, to the horror of an Indigenous person.

“Neo-liberal land ownership fundamentally changed Mennonites relationship with each other,” Sinclair gently posited. Yup. Capitalism ruined us. We still espouse community but we don’t live it out much anymore. We have bought into the individualistic project.

Sinclair then told about his daughter’s insistence on going to interminable marches. But her name is “light dancing upon waters” – no wonder the pipeline protests in defense of water are so important to her. This isn’t about protesting, it’s about bearing witness to the harm happening to her being.
It’s not that we’re angry, that we’re *against* things; “we march because we’re about life,” said Sinclair.

It reminded me of a poem passionately recited by a young Palestinian woman: “We preach life, sir!”
Perhaps a protest is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps it is our defensiveness about our action that causes us to characterize a mourning party, a testament stand, a group bearing witness, as angry and oppositional.

Hans Werner spoke of the need for patience. It’s not for white people to tell Indigenous people to “get over it” (for one thing, because it is still ongoing).

An audience member rose to share a piece of wisdom he’d heard from another presentation: patience and persistence nee to be held in balance – to avoid paralysis, another person interjected. Patience, perhaps is the posture we need to have toward each other – toward the one we see as *other* – while persistence, dogged, courageous, creative, undaunted persistence is what we need to throw at the problems that face us.

Problems more dire and more immediate than we had dreamed, we learn, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning we literally have 12 years to fix our carbon problems before the climate is irrevocably changed for the worst. (For as long as the grass grows, the treaties invoke. Yes, if that is the case, and catastrophic change in climate patterns come to pass as expected, maybe the grass won’t even grow that much longer.)

Returning to the concept of relations that Sinclair insists undergirds the treaties, one audience member commented on the problem of polity: how do you conflate family with its defined roles with the egalitarianness of citizenry?

The answer was easy for Sinclair. Family is political but leadership is diffuse across many roles. There are multiple “chiefs” – one for nearly every specialty. The round dance exemplifies indigenous communities – no beginning, no end, no leader, no follower, just everyone moving together at their own pace.

“You want everything for free.” Another audience member raised this common accusation during the Q&A. Local elder Peter Atkinson didn’t take his response to that statement in the expected direction. It is just as much the settlers who are receiving for free as they happily owner land that was offered to be shared (not ceded) under terms of contract not covenant. It is an indictment of Mennonite communities that we followed the settler pattern when we claim to be people who value community, who value relationships. The queen took the land and failed to deliver on her promise. So it is the settlers who are “getting everything for free.

These events are just talk, but perhaps they move us toward new perspective, toward new willingness to openness to new things. Mennonites and Indigenous: can we learn to be “relations” together?


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