The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington, and a First Nations (Shackan, British Columbia) member, spent two decades as a chaplain before seeking ordination. The ordination process required her to explain, repeatedly, how her Native American spiritual practices did not preclude her Christian beliefs or suitability for ordained ministry. "Every indigenous Episcopalian has to navigate being Christian and being indigenous," she says. "For many Native Americans, Christianity is seen as the conqueror's identity, and a rejection of indigenous spirituality. I would love to see a curriculum developed in the Church that is centered in native spirituality, so that the choice for indigenous people isn't either / or."
It is important to remember, Taber-Hamilton says, that when it comes to any dealings between non-indigenous and indigenous people, there is a deep history of distrust on the part of the indigenous people. "An indigenous person comes into the conversation wondering what the non-indigenous person wants to get out of the relationship, what the agenda is," she says. Thus, any partnership between indigenous people and non-indigenous people needs to be mutually beneficial, and not simply another white self-improvement program focused on white concerns, white primacy, and white pedagogy. "The number one goal has to be a desire to learn, and the best way to do that is to shut up and listen," Taber-Hamilton says. "Communication with indigenous people can't just be listening long enough to formulate a response, because that's not the way indigenous people listen. For us, listening is learning, because wisdom comes from the community, from our elders and women and children."
Although many indigenous people are displaced from their native land, their origins and connection to their homeland are never left behind. "You'll notice," Taber-Hamilton says, "that indigenous people will identify themselves in terms of the sacred geography where they originated. It's part of their identity, with a specific cultural and traditional context." Understanding this is the first step to understanding indigenous opposition to proposals such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In many ways, indigenous cultures mirror the culture of the first Christians far more than modern American society does. "The economy of an indigenous system isn't capitalism," Taber-Hamilton explains. "It's reciprocity, which recognizes the sacredness of the other, and anticipates caring for the other. It's a model of sustainable community living that, in many ways, is much more like the ancient Israelites than the empire model American operates on." It is critical to recognize these different values and modes of thinking when working to establish relationships with indigenous people, Taber-Hamilton says, and furthermore, "It would be helpful to understand relationships with indigenous communities as international relationships. These are sovereign nations, after all, with their own traditions, cultures, systems, and institutions. The U.S. government wouldn't approach France and say 'We want a short-term agreement with no benefit to you.' International relationships require long-term commitments and transparency about what's being asked, and what each side is willing to give."
When asked what would benefit The Episcopal Church and its relationships with indigenous communities, Taber-Hamilton says that it is important for the Church to recognize and acknowledge the racism that has been built into the Church throughout its imperial history. She cites the language around postulancy and ordination, which calls clergy to be trained for the whole Church. "I think the Church should be training people for different settings, like chaplains are trained, rather than for the dominant white setting," she says. "I'd like to see a Church that has a mission-focused sense of obligation and a commitment to raising up clergy of color and investing in them so that communities of color aren't competing for limited resources. We need to cultivate leadership and models that are sustainable, in which the churches that have much support those that don't, rather than asking the people who have the least to give to support the missions that serve them." And when it comes to dealings with indigenous peoples, Taber-Hamilton says, we would do well to remember one simple thing: "We are everywhere. The only question is, do you see us?"
Dr. Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of theological ethics at the School of Theology and guest editor of the Anglican Theological Review's Spring 2021 issue on creation care, believes questions such as Taber-Hamilton's should be at the core of environmental work. Prior to obtaining his doctorate, Thompson served as an Episcopal missionary in El Salvador, and has worked with several projects related to environmental justice and Latinx theology since then, as well as serving on the 2018 Advisory Council on the Stewardship of Creation. One of the resolutions that resulted from that Advisory Council opposes "Environmental racism expressed in such ways as the locating of extraction, production, and disposal industries where they disproportionately harm neighborhoods inhabited by people of color and low income communities" as well as "coal, gas, oil, and uranium extraction and its subsequent transportation which threaten the health and sanctity of communities and the livelihood of future generations; especially as such industries are located disproportionately nearby low income communities and neighborhoods inhabited by people of color." [https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/20874]
This, Thompson explains, is why the work of the Church involves not only environmental stewardship, but also environmental justice and antiracism, because the long-standing practice in the United States has been to locate harmful facilities, dumps, landfills and factories in areas where people have fewer resources to oppose them. In his courses on Christian and environmental ethics at the School of Theology, Thompson takes his students to visit places around Sewanee where this has occurred, as well as to the original site of the Highlander Folk School in neighboring Monteagle (now the Highlander Resource and Education Center, located in New Market, Tennnessee), where so many social justice programs were born.
"Sewanee," Thompson says, "has a unique opportunity, particularly given the work the University has done with regard to its past, to continue to push into the intersection of creation care, settler colonialism, sexism, racism, and poverty. That's where environmental thought needs to be, because there's a tremendous amount of overlap between these pathologies and environmental issues. The University is doing a great deal of good work in this regard, with environmental justice and carbon offsets and the Haiti Forestry project, and we need to continue that work, and push forward to do more."