“Treaty People”

“We are all treaty people.” This phrase has been rolling around in my mind and heart recently. Over the last few weeks, walkers traveled 256 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the State Capitol, to oppose Line 3, to protect water, and to insist that we uphold our treaties. On Tuesday, I joined the Treaty People Water Walk for one of their final days. We walked 10.5 miles—south from Robbinsdale on Theodore Wirth Parkway, east across north Minneapolis via Broadway Ave., and south again on West River Road to the Lake Street bridge. I walked with Gabe and Kirstin from our congregation. I walked with a number of colleagues and friends. And I walked with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know. And yet these folks weren’t strangers. A shared conviction, of the fiercest kind, bound us to each other. We are all treaty people.

In our own tradition, we, too, have treaties. We call them covenants. We heard about the covenant of the Jewish law in today’s passage from Deuteronomy. Though our text from the book of James doesn’t use the word covenant, I hear a call into covenant throughout this morning’s passage. The author begins by grounding us in a foundational truth: we humans are made to live in relationship with God. We see and know God whenever and wherever people act with generosity. We are God’s children, born from God’s word. We are the “first fruits” of God’s bountiful harvest. Yes, we humans have a shadow side, and yes that part of us often wins out. And still, our deepest identity comes out of our relationship with God. And that truth is the beginning of covenant.

The instructions at the start of Tuesday’s walk were brief and to the point. The marshals are in charge; listen to them when they tell you to stop, go, or walk single file. Be as self-sufficient as possible, but water, food or supplies will be provided if needed. And most of all, know that this walk is not a protest. It is a prayer walk. Spend the day praying for our water. Those who had walked all 256 miles carried with them a small jar of clear water from the Mississippi headwaters which we all had a chance to hold and pray with and for during the walk.

Our passage from the book of James identifies specific practices that enable us to live in covenant, to be treaty people. Listen before you speak. Listen more than you speak. Don’t take the bait of quick anger. There’s a time and place for anger—productive ways to channel our rage. I think James is talking about the sort of anger that short-circuits our thinking brain; that steals our health by masking deeper, more difficult feelings; that isolates us from contrasting perspectives and prevents us from receiving divine wisdom. Bridle your tongue, James says: recognize and respect how powerful words are. Realize that you are responsible for what you say, responsible to choose words that heal rather than hurt. Finally, at the very end of the passage, James calls for us to show particular care to “orphans and widows in distress,” which is a sort of biblical shorthand for anyone struggling, anyone vulnerable, anyone lacking privilege or experiencing exploitation.

The walkers reached the capitol on Wednesday. Thousands gathered to welcome them at the “Treaties not Tar Sands” rally. A number of folks from First Church represented our congregation: Zib, Paul, Annie, Linda, Shannon, Soren, Eliza, and me.  The smell of burning sage rose in the hot air. The heartbeat of the drum reverberated through our bodies. Singers and dancers honored the walkers with prayer and ceremony. Native and non-native speakers alike called on our leaders to stop Line 3 and address climate change. Painted teepees on the capitol grounds sent an engaging, beautiful, and pointed message: indigenous people are still here. Treaties still matter. We are all treaty people.

We are all treaty people. At first, I thought we were talking only about the treaties our government made with native nations, that promise access to land and water, that give rights to hunt, fish and gather. And surely, being treaty people means that non-native people honor our agreements instead of repeating our history of taking what we want through lying, stealing, bribing, gaslighting, and killing. Being treaty people definitely means that it’s not OK to build Line 3—because all pipelines leak. And because we have promised the Anishinabe people that they get to keep their wild rice, and the clean water that sustains it, and their whole way of life rooted in this food that grows on the water.

One speaker at the rally (whose name I unfortunately do not remember) mentioned that indigenous people have treaties with the land, the water, the animals, and the Creator. And I realized then that treaties are much more than legal or financial agreements.

We are all treaty people. Treaties tell us who we are. Treaties are the promise that, even as we take from the earth what we need to live, we will also give back to the earth; that we will approach each other with gratitude, not exploitation; that we will root our community in mutual care; that we will listen to the wisdom of our ancestors and tend to the needs of future generations. That’s what it means to me to say, “we are all treaty people.”

Our congregation has identified three “outcome statements” that describe what we would like to accomplish this year. One of the statements calls for us to “establish relationships of accountability that allow us to listen to, learn from, and act in partnership with those experiencing injustice, and with those working to heal the earth.”
Recently Zib and Sally met with staff at Anishinabe Academy—a Minneapolis public school dedicated to sustaining Anishinabe culture and language—and a recipient of our capital campaign funds. With the school staff, they discussed our desire not only to share resources but also to form an accountable relationship. And we have an opportunity to begin this very week. The school is holding an open house for families on Tuesday and is in need of volunteers. This invitation is, on the surface, a chance to help with the tasks of set up, clean up, food serving, and childcare. It is also an open door into listening, learning, and acting in partnership. As we enter into this relationship, I hope we will deepen our understanding of how the boarding schools and other methods of genocide, continue to affect today’s students. I hope we will gain insight into how the Anishinabe Academy seeks to heal that devastation through a different model of education. I hope we will participate in this healing and repair. And I hope we will be open to growing and changing in ways we can’t yet imagine, through this partnership. The truth is, there are many possibilities for accountable relationships over this coming year with the organizations to whom we contributed campaign funds—Mississippi Park Connection, Black Men Teach, Avivo—and with those we already support through existing ministries.

For James, covenant is made real in action. If we truly hear God’s word, then it becomes part of us, an “implanted word.” We take direction from the divine presence within us. This implanted word is like a mirror. It shows us who we really are and challenges us not to forget our true identity. James calls this implanted word a “law of liberty.” If we hear God’s word and act upon it, we are truly free. Fridays, we are all treaty people. Let us live our covenant. Let us be doers of the word of life and we hear from God. Amen.