Winter Talk XIX centers on Jamestown experience from Native point of view

February 1, 2007

In many Native traditions, winter is the time for gathering to share stories. Out of those ancient ways came Winter Talk, an annual retreat for American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawai'ian Episcopalians, lay and ordained.

For most of its 19-year existence, Winter Talk was held in Oklahoma. But the 2007 retreat, held January 12-16, gathered more than 70 participants at Chanco on the James, a retreat center owned by the Diocese of Southern Virginia. The center is across the James River from the site of one of the first encounters between the native peoples of North America and immigrants from Europe: Jamestown, founded in 1607 as the first permanent English settlement in what became the colony and later the state of Virginia. It is from Jamestown that the Episcopal Church traces its origins in the Americas.

According to Native American national missioner Janine Tinsley-Roe, holding Winter Talk there was a way of kicking off a year of reflection on the impact of the Jamestown settlement, reaffirming the Episcopal Church's 1997 Jamestown Covenant, and inaugurating a second Decade of Remembrance, Recognition and Reconciliation with indigenous peoples in the Episcopal Church.

Winter Talk is a place and time for native Episcopalians and Anglicans to laugh and cry and pray -- and laugh some more. For despite 400 years of struggle against displacement, poverty, and attempted cultural genocide, no gathering of native peoples is without abundant laughter.

"One of the ways first peoples overcome oppression is through humor," explained the Ven. Dr. Hone T. Kaa, from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, representing the Mâori people of the "Land of the Long White Cloud."

"We tell jokes about each other as a way of easing the pain, a way of masking exactly how we feel about things," he said. "We are struggling to find our identity in the midst of a majority culture, but it doesn't have to be gruesome. It is what you make of it."

Not that there is no anger -- it is there, and very real. What may be dry narratives in a history book for non-Natives are deeply personal and living family memories that still affect the daily lives of Native people.

At Winter Talk XIX, participants were asked to respond to the story of the Jamestown settlement. What emerged after several days were stories and artwork reflecting the pain that reverberates from the impact of the European invasion as it swept from the East and Gulf Coasts to Alaska and Hawai'i.

Each story was grounded in the Biblical narrative brought by the Europeans, a story native Christians embraced as their own. Yet there was also a certain ambivalence, a recognition that the Gospel message of salvation came with an unnecessary and cruel price attached: the destruction of human cultures and lives.

"I was born 35 miles from here," said the Rev. Lewis Powell, an enrolled Cherokee, now a deacon at St. Thomas of Canterbury in Albuquerque, New Mexico and a member of the Executive Council's Committee on Indigenous Ministry (ECCIM). Recounting the history of Virginia's Indians, he pointed out that the state still has no Federally recognized tribes, though eight are recognized by the state and six more are petitioning for recognition. A bill that will grant the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi, along with the Monacan Indian Nation, federal recognition is being introduced in the 110th Congress.

It was the same in Hawai'i, said Linda Sproat, a member of ECCIM's board, veteran General Convention deputy and senior warden of Christ Memorial Church, Kilauea, on the island of Kaua'i. Her grandmother was a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Oahu when Hawai'i's last queen, Lili'uokalani, also a parishioner, was held prisoner in ‘Iolani Palace in 1895. "Until today we are not recognized by the USA as native people," she said, and many are being "priced out" of land and fishing rights held in their families for a thousand years because of high taxes.

"I think we all suffered from the same colonizer," agreed Hone Kaa. "We were discovered and we didn't realize we were lost!" "Found" first by the Dutch and then by British explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook, the Mâori "were taught that we could not navigate" -- and yet just in the past 15 years, he said, elders have been found who can "read the stars in the old way" that sent his people in oceangoing canoes across the Pacific.

The central focus of Winter Talk was the building of the altar, in which each participant was invited to present an item and offer a story about its significance. This is a patient and respectful community, one that listens for as long as each one needs to talk. Yet no one seemed to hold the floor for too long. Schedules and agendas bowed to the needs of the gathering, and soon the altar was piled with gifts ranging from paua or abalone shells, a greenstone carving, a green stole and two New Zealand Prayer Books from Aotearoa, to sacred eagle feathers and leather gloves trimmed in wolf fur from the Yukon.

Also placed on the altar was an icon of the young Powhatan woman Matoaka -- better known by her childhood nickname, Pocahontas -- the daughter of the leader of a confederation of indigenous tribes in the Chesapeake Bay area, which they knew as Tsenacomoco. It is the centerpiece of a triptych in progress, commissioned by Malcolm Naea Chun of Hawai'i, ECCIM's chair, and written by the Rev. Robert Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota priest, artist and educator who is director of the Department of Indian Work for the Diocese of Minnesota and vicar of All Saints Indian Mission, Minneapolis. The icon is a startling image, about as far from the Disney Pocahontas as can be imagined, with evidence of Plains and even Hawai'ian cultural influences.

Wrapped in a brilliantly colored Mexican serape, the icon was later taken in procession from the assembly hall to the foot of the cross on the banks of the James for a blessing ceremony during the Sunday Eucharist. After prayers, many came forward to drape it with a ti leaf lei, honor it with the piercing sound of an eagle-bone whistle and the brush of a sacred eagle feather, or cense it with white sage smoke.

On the afternoon of January 14, faculty from the Minneapolis-based Indigenous Theological Training Institute (ITTI) presented three workshops. With the Rev. Robert Two Bulls, participants could explore how making art is a form of prayer and viewing art an aspect of the spiritual journey. The Rev. Debbie Royals, regional missioner for native ministry development in the Diocese of Los Angeles, led a conversation about models of indigenous ministry, while ITTI executive director Donald Whipple Fox explored the use of the Biblical accounts of the Israelite invasion of Canaan as justification for missionary efforts in North America.

On January 15, the final day, the group boarded a bus and a ferry across the James to the Historic Jamestowne site that will be the focus of much of this year's commemorations. They toured the James Fort excavation site, still in progress, and the National Parks Service's visitor center.

But the real story of Matoaka-Pocahontas was on their minds. "For her to have died alone in a foreign country is not our way," remarked Tinsley-Roe. She recalled another story, related to the group the night before by Upper Mattaponi chief Ken Adams, that told of the massacre of the Powhatan village of Paspahegh in 1610 by order of the English governor, Lord De la Warr.

English forces under George Percy, youngest brother of the ninth earl of Northumberland, killed 70 of the village's inhabitants and burned their houses and corn, taking the wife of the chief, or "werowance," and her children hostage. Percy himself wrote that "my soldiers did begin to murmur because the queen and her Children were spared. So upon the same a Council being called it was Agreed upon to put the Children to death the which was effected by Throwing them overboard and shooting out their Brains in the water yet for all this Cruelty the Soldiers were not well pleased And I had much to do To save the queen's life for that Time."

The "queen" was later stabbed to death in Jamestown. The atrocity shocked the Powhatans, for whom the killing of women and children in war was unacceptable. "We perceive and well know you intend to destroy us," the Paspahegh chief had told Captain John Smith earlier that spring, and it proved prophetic: remnants of the Paspahegh were absorbed into other tribes and disappeared from history.

So on the return ferry trip, Tinsley-Roe and two of the women participants prayerfully threw a Hawai'ian lei woven from ti leaves into the James River. "Ti leaves are medicine, food, protection, cleansing," explained Sandra Leina'ala Padeken of St. John's By the Sea, Kaneohe, who said she felt called to recognize the pain of the Paspahegh victims. "It's used for burials at sea. This is an offering to those past, and for all of us."

Winter Talk XIX is just the first of a series of meetings, sponsored and facilitated by the Office of Native American Ministries, and centered this year on the Jamestown Covenant. They include Paths Crossing, a cross-cultural exchange program between Native and non-Native congregations; Mountains and Deserts, which helps build leadership among Natives living in rural areas; a Women's Conference, Clergy and Lay Conference, and Youth and Young Adult gatherings in the fall; and the Jamestown Covenant Call to Action, set for November 1-3 in Jamestown.