Friday, August 23, 2013

Faith Works 8-24

Faith Works 8-24-13

Jeff Gill


Racism from a different perspective



Four days ahead of the 50th anniversary of the "March on Washington", we've got much on which to remember & reflect. It was jarring to hear Rep. John Lewis introduced on an NPR piece yesterday as "the only living speaker from the platform that day," but then I realized that, of course, that's inevitably true. King himself was cut down just a few years later, but time has been catching up with all but the youngest from Aug. 28, 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial.


These last three years in my personal and professional life have given me a new appreciation, somewhat de-coupled from the usual politics and infighting, about racism and anti-racism efforts. Being involved with the Ancient Ohio Trail project, and the Tribal Outreach Project of the Newark Earthworks Center led by Marti Chaatsmith, has given me repeated opportunities to look closely, and uncomfortably often, at racism as it exists towards American Indians. The events and interactions and public reactions have brought out the myriad, complex, and deeply interwoven ways that racism contorts our understanding of each other, of cultures, and of the past . . . let alone the search for justice in the present.


It can be as seemingly simple as what to call Native people: should you use American Indian, or Native American? The correct answer is "it depends," but more importantly, the best answer is to ask "how would you like me to refer to you?" And almost without exception, the answer is "Thank you for asking, and I'd really appreciate it if you referred to me as Eastern Shawnee" or "Please refer to my background as Muscogee Creek" or "I appreciate the question, and you can simply say I am Comanche."


The point being there are over 500 nations, sometimes called tribes, in the United States, and they have from largest to smallest a great deal of pride in their heritage, and an understanding about how that heritage has been damaged over the years. If you think "Indian" is enough, then you also think it makes sense to call Padraig O'Malley "of white descent" or to confuse Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans (which many of us do, thinking somehow refried beans defines them all, which is a whole 'nother conversation). Using a tribal affiliation, and using it correctly, is important: when the Wyandotte Nation's chief is visiting, you make sure that you've spelled it correctly, because there are four other related groups with similar but different names.


And on the most basic level, when you don't get it right, and when we act – dominant culture folk as most readers here are – as if it really doesn't matter, then we're saying in a way that's heard clearly exactly this way, that THEY don't matter. Or even more brutally, "Shut up and take what we give you." If that seems a harsh reaction to misspelling or misusing a name, keep in mind that their ancestors heard, on this land, less than 200 years ago: "Shut up and take what we give you."


To say of any one comment, statement, or act "That's racism" is often difficult, even when all involved are willing to admit that racism is active and involved in what's going on -- yet if you can never say that "this" is racist, then you are left with platitudes, and generalities, and ultimately inaction. There are assumptions and expectations and casual slurs and off-handed denigrations that have to be called out and identified, even as we debate what exactly is "over the line." But as a majority culture representative, I see so clearly how it simply can't be my call, and I've seen again and again how, from the perspective of minority cultures, what's invisible or subtle to me is a clear slap in the face to them . . . and my not seeing it (at first, or at all) is a slap from the other side.


It has been an unexpected challenge to navigate these issues, and an unanticipated value to me as a pastor of being involved in this work, even if my actual involvement has more to do with history and archaeology and resource interpretation. This effort to understand and explain our ancient assets in Licking County has unearthed some unresolved conflicts, and some still-recent injuries. We still don't know where it all is going, but I hope (and pray!) it ends, as Dr. King said, with its long arc bending towards justice.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he's been proud to help tell the stories of our local history to diverse audiences since moving here in 1989. Tell him your story of conflict and resolution at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Notes from my Knapsack – Granville Sentinel 8-29-13

Notes from my Knapsack – Granville Sentinel 8-29-13

Jeff Gill


A story on the way home (pt. 3)


If Nelson had learned anything as a consulting engineer, it was to not make assumptions until all the information was assembled.


This town, this village, this Granville that he was driving into might be the place his now-deceased sister had put on her paperwork as hometown, but since as far as he knew she'd never lived here, there was a connection he wanted to find.


The connection could just be an aesthetic one: it's obviously a pretty place. The high tower on the ridge above, seen from the highway, then the encounter with the four corners of churches and strip of old-fashioned downtown, with no empty storefronts that he could see, and even commercial activity on the second floor, all made for a Norman Rockwell sort of scene that could call out to someone who had long searched for a place they could call home.


That would fit his sister, since he and she had been making their way in the world on their own for decades, after their mother's death and what with their father's long absence. Sheryl and he hadn't even met face to face in over a decade before her sudden death last week in Las Vegas, the last place her cross-country questing had taken her.


But even allowing for the question of why and how she might have passed through here, given that mother was buried in Georgia, Nelson had raised a family in Florida, and Sheryl's last three hospitals where she'd worked as a nurse had been Dallas, Phoenix, and Las Vegas . . . even allowing for that, would charming appearance alone account for that mysterious "Hometown" blank on her personnel file? Do you call a place home just because it looks like the home you never had?


Some might have, Nelson thought, but Sheryl was just hard-headed enough to make that unlikely. There was something else, something personal . . .


Turning into a parking place in the shadow of a ridiculously charming white Greek Revival church with a golden weathervane on top, Nelson got out of his rental car muttering "Rockwell." He walked directly into a bank, a little more modern inside than a Saturday Evening Post cover but very efficient in appearance and activity.


Stepping to a teller, he said "Excuse me, I'm just passing through, and wondered where a visitor should go if looking for a burger and a beer." The woman across the counter smiled, pointed back out the front window, and said "Brews is the place right across the street for what you want."


Nodding, Nelson went back out and across the street, half-waving at a driver who stopped as he entered the crosswalk who had waved at him. It must be that kind of place, he thought, and then stepped back as the car in the outside lane sped up and zipped barely in front of him.


Okay, not everyone. Making a mental note of the coffee shop before him, he turned to his left and headed for a place with a balcony already showing signs of being where a burger and a beer guy could sit and collect his thoughts.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think happens next at, or @Knapsack on Twitter.