Commentary: Return of land deeds to Native American congregations builds trust
Written by The Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries
July 2, 2012

The Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries
"According to scripture, we are to return the land to its rightful owner. Let us return the land." I had imagined these words many times over the past year, but until last month I had begun to doubt that they would ever be spoken. The South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ is engaged in a process of returning the lands of 13 Lakota and Dakota churches that make up the Dakota Association, which has often felt like a knot of legal, cultural, historical, and financial issues which were impossible to untangle.

In the 1800s, Congregationalist missionaries came westward from New England with the blessing of the federal government to minister among the people of this region, planting churches throughout the areas which are today the Rosebud, Standing Rock, Santee, and Cheyenne River Reservations. Although the lands to build these churches were originally given by Lakota and Dakota allottees, the deeds to most of the properties were held by the mission organizations of the denominations that preceded the United Church of Christ, formed by a union in 1957. Soon after that date, they were transferred to the South Dakota Conference, which paid a dollar each to take over 11 of the deeds. 

This detail is significant because in a congregational church system, congregations hold the deeds to their own property. In the case of the Lakota and Dakota congregations of the UCC, the language of the Conference holding deeds for them "in trust" would be unheard of regarding any other congregation. This is the complex legacy of racism and colonialism that we are working so hard to uproot from the church today. And this is why there was not a dry eye in the room on June 2, 2012, when, after countless hours, years of prayers, and thousands of dollars, the South Dakota Conference celebrated the return of the deed to Ponca Creek United Church of Christ at our annual meeting in Aberdeen. The moment represented much more than a simple legal transaction.

When I reflect on our first ceremony of returning the land, it is striking how the word "trust" has changed in our church culture. When the Conference holds lands "in trust" for Native people, this really points to an absence of trust. One Lakota pastor told me that this day was powerful for her because the wider church finally trusted the Native communities to be responsible for their own property. 

As I witnessed the passing of the deed from Rev. Dr. David Felton, our Interim Conference Minister, to Winifred Boub, representing the Lakota congregations, my own grateful tears were also about feeling trusted. Boub explained, "This is the first time in history when this land will legally belong to the Lakota people without the interference of any federal, tribal, or church entity." I felt that my non-Native church community had been offered a moment of grace in which to demonstrate that we too could heal from our history and be trusted to act justly from this day forward. Perhaps everyone in the room felt vulnerable, offering their trust to one another, trust which we continue working to earn.

The Rev. Emily Goldwaithe-Fries is the interim minister at Brookings United Church of Christ in Brookings, S.D.

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