International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

On the margins

When asked to write this reflection my mind immediately went to my Great Grandmother, Lena.

I only met her on a couple of occasions when I was quite young. It was many years later that I learned that she was part Native American.

Born in 1881, it was the easier thing to simply ignore that part of her lineage. While she obviously saw it as the best way to proceed in a world where prejudice and bigotry could exist in abundance, it must have left a hole in her life.

In a culture where conversation frequently turned to heritage she could not have helped but feel that there was a piece missing in the personal puzzle of her identity. 

Decades later, as an adult, I finally verified this by speaking with an elderly family friend. Unfortunately, she did not know from what tribe Lena was descended – another missing piece of the puzzle.

Each of us has our own personal story, one that stretches beyond the pages of our generation back into the past.

Our identity is somehow inextricably linked with those who have come before. For better or worse, we rest upon their shoulders.

Around the world indigenous peoples have often been marginalised by waves of invaders both military and economic. It would be nice to think that this is something from the past, yet in many places today like India, Africa, and Latin America indigenous peoples continue to be exploited often because of the natural resources which are part of their heritage.

Oil and timber in the Amazon, cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mining in India are all examples of the exploitation of indigenous peoples.

While the shadows past and present can be very long, there is hope too.

Last Autumn my colleague, Stephanie, visited Guyana. There are many challenges both cultural and economic which face that country and its people.

Yet, when one looks at the children who are part of the Bilingual Education Programme who are learning English, but not at the expense of their indigenous languages, and their dynamic teachers or sees groups contributing to preparatory meetings before the Pan-Amazonian Synod there is an overwhelming sense of the resilience of human beings.

When we focus on our common humanity as the family of God it becomes a game changer.

Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux once said: “The Holy Land is everywhere.” Perhaps we could add that the holy people are everywhere.

Once we see a holy land and a holy people everywhere and in everyone, there are no longer the divisions which marginalise. We become one people, one humanity.

At the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit.

And that center is everywhere. It is within each one of us.