Justice for Native Americans
November 2015. Sandy Sorensen, Director of the UCC Washington Office, reflects on the need for faithful advocates committed to healing, and reconciliation to keep the needs and interests of our Native brothers and sisters in focus as we journey and work together for justice.
Last year, the 29th UCC General Synod passed a resolution calling on the United Church of Christ to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the long history of injustices perpetrated against native peoples that were justified by this doctrine. The resolution launched a series of efforts to facilitate conversation, reflection and dialogue among UCC members and congregations about the doctrine and its impact on native peoples, and our denomination’s own complicity in that history.
The public witness of the UCC General Synod around the Doctrine of Discovery and other areas of concern for Native American communities provides the grounding for the policy advocacy work we do in Washington, DC, and at the state and local level, to right historic injustices still experienced by Native Americans across the spectrum of public policy decisions, including issues of economic justice, religious liberty, education, civil rights, criminal justice, environmental justice and cultural expression.
The truth is that all of the justice issues we work on impact Native communities, often times more acutely than they may impact any other community. It is essential for us as people committed to justice, healing, and reconciliation to keep the special needs and interests of our Native brothers and sisters in focus and listen to tribal communities to truly understand what they need and to stand with them in solidarity to achieve those goals. We are uniquely poised to do this work as a denomination thanks in no small part to the dedicated work of our UCC Council for American Indian Ministry. Hearing the voices and perspectives of CAIM members helps us to focus our advocacy work to influence policy decisions that better reflect the needs and interests of Native communities.
Over the past year, UCC advocates have tackled a number of policy issues that significantly impact Native American communities, some with more obvious connections than others. For example, we have worked intensively on a cluster of issues that are related to the widening income gap in the United States and the slow pace of economic recovery for the most vulnerable communities, a burden disproportionately impacting Native American communities. Our advocacy work has included calls to extend unemployment insurance benefits (which expired at the end of 2013), raise the minimum wage, address the pay disparity between men and women (which is far greater for women of color) and invest in job creation, particularly in communities hardest hit by the economic recession.
Perhaps a less obvious effort can be seen though the work of partners in media justice movement to call for greater Internet access for traditionally underserved populations by advocating for Net neutrality. Native American communities are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide (a term used to describe the economic and social inequality which can impact a groups’ access to information and technology) and attempts by some Internet service providers to charge higher rates for premium Internet service, thus creating a two-tiered Internet in which those with the capacity to pay higher fees receive a greater degree of access and service, while others are left behind. Internet access is critical for educational and vocational advancement, as well as a means for communities to connect across distances and to express a diversity of views and ideas.
In September, the United Church of Christ launched its third denomination-wide advocacy and mission campaign with a focus on literacy, called Reading Changing Lives. Studies show that communities of color suffer disproportionately from higher rates of illiteracy (often due to a lack of investment in quality public education as well as disparities in school approaches to discipline and student behavior). This is echoed in the American Indian community. According to the 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey, 32 percent of American Indian adults failed to attain basic reading levels, compared to only 13% of White adults. This has tremendous consequences in terms of achieving a viable livelihood, health outcomes and rates of incarceration.
Finally, UCC advocates have spoken out for decades in opposition to racially insensitive depictions of American Indians in sports and commercial businesses. It seems that the public is taking notice. In particular, we have joined with a wide array of community groups in the Washington, DC and Cleveland metropolitan areas to put pressure on the owners of the Washington NFL football team and the Cleveland MLB baseball team to change their names and team mascots.
CAIM’s mission is to witness within and outside of the United Church of Christ by giving voice to and for Indian people. The UCC’s mission is to change lives — individually, systemically and globally. The more we sit in dialog together, the clearer it becomes that these two goals are inextricably, and permanently linked. If we are going to truly work to co-create God’s kin-dom on earth, the issues that impact the Native American community must be at the heart of our advocacy efforts.