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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Immigration and the Indigenous Theology of Tupac Enrique Acosta

by Colin Bossen, guest contributor

Speaker Tupac Enrique Acosta, Tonatierra
Tupac Enrique Acosta speaks at march to the Arizona State Capitol Building on Cinco de Mayo 2010. (photo: ©Charles Dee Rice Photography/Flickr )

I did not go to jail expecting to meet a theologian. But jail was where I met Tupac Enrique Acosta. Tupac, like me, was arrested in front of one of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s offices for protesting against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB1070 on July 29, 2010. Unlike me, Tupac had an analysis of the bill’s place in history that put it firmly within the context of the ongoing repression of the indigenous peoples of North America.

Tupac, who would probably reject the label theologian, is the leading figure behind the Phoenix-based Nahuacalli, an organization that describes itself as “A Cultural Embassy of the Indigenous Peoples.” He is also closely linked with Puente, the grassroots organization behind many protests against SB1070 in Phoenix, and Puente’s leader Salvador Reza. Understanding his views on SB1070 illuminates that, for some, the struggle over immigration is about something larger.

In Tupac’s view the history of SB1070 does not begin in 2010. It begins in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas prompted European political and religious leaders to develop what indigenous activists refer to as the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery.” This is the belief that because the lands of the Western Hemisphere were without Christians prior to 1492 they were free for the taking upon “discovery.” For activists like Tupac, the issues as stake in SB1070 are not so much political as theological.

Tupac shared his analysis with me as we waited to be processed through the legal system in holding cells and, later, when we were bunkmates in the cell block. More than once our conversations were interrupted when we were moved, it appeared arbitrarily, between cells. They were also interrupted when the Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio came into our cell to “talk” with us. Sheriff Arpaio, who is currently under investigation by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, runs what he likes to call “America’s toughest jail.” He is known for his tactics of intimidating and dehumanizing prisoners, including trying to humiliate male prisoners by placing them in pink underwear and pink handcuffs.

Rather than intimidate us, Arpaio served as an unwitting example for our impromptu seminar on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. Tupac suggested to me that the logical outcome of a legal system grounded in such a doctrine is laws like SB1070 and men like Sheriff Arpaio. SB1070 would not exist without the doctrine. Arpaio exists to enforce it.

Jailhouse Rock FlyerAs we sat together in jail, Tupac traced the history of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery from its origin to its often unacknowledged presence in contemporary debates about immigration. He suggested that the doctrine was first articulated in Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. Together these documents created a theological and legal framework that justified the expropriation and division of indigenous lands by Spain and Portugal.

In the view of Tupac and many indigenous legal scholars the framework created to facilitate the seizure of indigenous lands continues to form the core of much of federal property law today. This is particularly true as it relates to indigenous property claims. The indigenous legal scholar Steven Newcomb, for example, has found traces of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery within U.S. Supreme Court cases as recently as 2001.

Tupac believes that the principles of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery are operative in SB1070 as well. As he told me, “the purpose of SB1070 was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” In his view, SB1070 is just another attempt to assert non-indigenous dominance over the continent. After all, SB1070 is designed to enforce a border that divides not only the United States and Mexico but the indigenous peoples who belong to the Uto-Aztecan language group. They have been moving back and forth between what is now the U.S. and Mexico long before either country existed. SB1070 criminalizes their traditional freedom of movement.

As Tupac understands it, the struggle against SB1070 is the continuing indigenous struggle against colonialism. As he said in a talk, “When we did that marching… we didn’t come to legalize ourselves before the state of Arizona. We came to legalize Arizona… Now, let’s get this clear, colonization is illegal… If we’re going to legalize Arizona we have to decolonize Arizona.” Elsewhere he has written that “SB1070 is not a law.” He makes this claim because he believes that the entire framework of laws governing immigration rest upon the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. For him, the Mexican and Central American migrants are indigenous and those who would keep them from coming to the United States are the descendants of colonizers.

Tupac and I were briefly reunited when I traveled back to Arizona to stand trial. After a day-long trial, which touched on none of these issues, the judge ruled us not guilty. Then Tupac set to work again to educate people about the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and passed around a flyer titled “SB1070 is Not a Law.”


Colin BossenColin Bossen is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. You can read more of his thoughts on his blog, The Latest Form of Infidelity.

This essay is reprinted with permission of  Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Sitting Bull and the Lakota People: A Painful History I Better Understand Now

by Krista Tippett, host

Tatanka Iyotake - Reimagining Sitting Bull
"One Bison, Horizon Cloud" (photo: Jim Brandenburg)

I can’t say that I knew much about Sitting Bull when we began researching his legacy for our show titled "Reimagining Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake." His is the final name in a series we envisioned several years ago, of programs on the spiritual legacy of historical figures. We’ve delved into Albert Einstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Darwin, Rumi, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this series. Producing these shows has been extraordinarily rich at times and at others extraordinarily hard. None of them has felt more complex or more daunting in the end than Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake.

The word “elusive” also describes the process of approaching the facts of this man’s life and the meaning of his legacy. That is in part because of the complexity of this legacy, and of the terrible history of the United States government’s treatment of native peoples, of which the story of the Lakota on the northern Great Plains is just a part. It is also a function of the relative privacy and largely oral nature of the historical record of Lakota culture.

Sitting Bull was a thorn in the side of the U.S. government that first gave the Black Hills to the Lakota, then wanted them back after gold (Sitting Bull called it “shining dust”) was discovered there. He refused to negotiate or sign treaties with federal authorities; he didn’t, decreeing from observation and experience that their word was not good — and certainly not to be trusted over lands that he understood as a sacred inheritance. General Custer’s army attacked, and Sitting Bull’s troops improbably prevailed. Thereafter and until the end of his life, he was pursued as public enemy number 1 by American journalists and politicians. I’ve read some of those reports; Sitting Bull was portrayed like the Osama bin Laden of his day.

Pictographs by Sitting Bull's Hand: A Smithsonian PerspectiveAfter weeks and months of being steeped in what feels like this hidden realm of American history, I feel confident about the truth of that paragraph I’ve just written. I know, at the same time, that it is nearly as simplified as those newspaper reports of Sitting Bull’s day — one side of narrative made up of competing and utterly irreconcilable points of view. In the end there was, to be sure, violence all around. And Sitting Bull’s own relatives and people were divided over his leadership and his resistance to any partnership with the federal government. Members of his own extended family were implicated in his death. This is a wound they carry even today, layered among the many wounds they have carried forward out of the settlement of the American frontier and into the present.

In the end, Sitting Bull’s mistrust of treaties was vindicated by the history that followed. But he is not remembered in Lakota oral history principally for that, or for the victory at Little Big Horn. He is remembered for qualities of character that were invisible to press and politicians of his time yet that inspire and strengthen his people even now: humility towards the land, compassion towards living beings, and the ultimate sacrifice of his life on behalf of his people.

SoundSeen: In the Room with Ernie LaPointeOf all I have learned that makes me ashamed of this history and my implication in it as an American citizen, I am appalled that it was not until 1978 — 1978! — that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guaranteed the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies. And these were at the essence of Sitting Bull’s life and legacy. Ceremony is the very element of Lakota spirituality and lifeways. Sitting Bull helped shape the vision quest and the Sun Dance. Yet even while his closest lineal descendant, Ernie LaPointe, was growing up, which is not that far away in our lifetime, his family lived in fear of speaking openly or performing these ceremonies.

It is very moving to hear from Cedric Good House, who lives on the Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull died, how the vision quest and Sun Dance are now experienced as sources of healing, very much in the best spirit of Sitting Bull’s memory. Cedric Good House brought his son to our interview and is carrying forward songs that kept different memories and meanings of history alive in the hardest of times. I interviewed them in late November. As we finished and said our goodbyes, Cedric wished me, “Happy Thanksgiving” — a blessing that warmed me and stayed with me for days, containing, as it does, such a long view of history in which true generosity can be obtained.

He also offered the image of the pilgrimage some of the Lakota will be making on horseback, in memory of Sitting Bull’s death and life — from Standing Rock Reservation straddling the Dakotas to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. This is painful history to know as my own. But I am grateful for it, and more complete. I’m delighted to know Sitting Bull by his real name, Tatanka Iyotake, and to witness his enduring teachings of humility, compassion, passion, and healing alive in our midst.

Sitting Bull by Bill YenneAnd, if you’re looking for a starting place for reading material about Sitting Bull, I recommend reading two books: Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe and Sitting Bull by Bill Yenne. I consider these two books as complementary reading.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointeBill Yenne’s biography is meticulously researched and gives you a detailed understanding of Sitting Bull’s life within a larger historical and geographical context. 

On the other hand, Ernie LaPointe brings the gift of simple storytelling to the page through the oral tradition of his family and culture. Reading one account gives a richer sense of the other, and through this we gain a better understanding of “parallel histories” in contemporary American culture.

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They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking. If we lose that language, we lose who we are.
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Ryan Wilson, referring to tribal elders who were listening to young girls singing in Arapaho.

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a board member of the National Indian Education Association, is working with the Northern Arapaho tribe to establish Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an Arapaho language immersion school on the Wind River Reservation in northwest Wyoming. Wilson’s words remind me of something David Treuer said to Krista about his tribe’s effort to preserve the Ojibwe language:

"What I really love about language revitalization, what is so key to it, is that it’s always been ours and it’s a chance to define ourselves on and in our own terms and in ways that have nothing to do with what’s been taken. We can define ourselves by virtue of what we’ve saved."

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