Wrong Kind of Green

February 4, 2016

By Jay Taber


Mayan Religion

Maya culture: mural, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City


While (at age 63) I am now a deist, I was raised Lutheran, until (in my adolescence) I began my quest for freedom from institutionalized religion–seeking a more personally meaningful spiritual identity. As a child living next door to a Yakama Indian family, I was vaguely aware of other points of view regarding the Holy Spirit, but in the dominant Euro-American culture — prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up — cross-cultural sacred interaction was unusual.

In the 1970s, thanks in part to the hippie movement – which rejected consumerism, racism, sexism, institutionalized religion, and militarism – my perspective on holiness slowly began to change. While I did not attempt to emulate any Native American religions, I became increasingly aware of their authenticity, and began to incorporate some of their philosophical values into my life.


An armada of paddlers from Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations journey between their territories in opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, on September 2, 2012. Photo by Zack Embree.

After departing Yakima Valley Community College and arriving at Western Washington University, I encountered Coast Salish Nation–an extended kinship society of tribes surrounding the Salish Sea. After university, I worked in the coastal fisheries of Alaska and Washington as a cannery vessel captain, where I got to know Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, Swinomish, Tlingit and Tsimshian fishermen.

In the 1990s, through my human rights work, I became acquainted with American Indian scholars at the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS) in Olympia, Washington. One of the elders at CWIS, Russell Jim, is the director of environmental cleanup for Yakama Nation, focused on remediation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where one of the bombs that annihilated Japan in World War II was made. I had grown up across the Columbia River from Hanford – which, until Chernobyl, was the most contaminated site on earth – and knew this was a job that few would be willing to commit their lives to.

Mkayla Tahkeal, a member of the Yakama Tribe, pilots her family's boat while fishing for salmon on the Columbia River on a blustery morning in early September, 2015. Her cousins BJ Whitefoot and Alec Yallup were aboard as well.

Mkayla Tahkeal, a member of the Yakama Tribe, pilots her family’s boat while fishing for salmon on the Columbia River on a blustery morning in early September, 2015. Her cousins BJ Whitefoot and Alec Yallup were aboard as well.

In a 2001 videotaped talk – Nuclear Attack on the Yakama Culture – that Russell delivered at the University of Washington, he recounted his childhood, during which his aunt rescued him from a Lutheran-run Indian boarding school, in order to raise him in the Yakama Longhouse tradition–even if she had to take him to live on Mt. Adams, which borders the vast Yakama Indian Reservation. In the video, he sings a short excerpt from a Lutheran service, that begins with the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

When I joined a human rights speakers bureau in 1996, I encountered a Lummi Nation elder, who said that emotional bonding between people of different faiths and Native Americans is fine, but that people with good hearts need to prioritize intelligence over emotion. Otherwise, the pitfalls of reconciliation and atonement can lead to unintended consequences, some of them harmful.


“The first American Indian Boarding School was established in 1860 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By 1879 using a model curriculum implemented by retired Army Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the schools became “militarized”.  By 1879 these school had enrollments of 12,000 students, by 1973 enrollment of 60,000 students… Children were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to shed familiar clothing for uniforms, cut their hair and subjected to harsh discipline for the least infraction of the rules. The daily activities for the children were strictly regimented to keep the children continuously occupied with vocational level education and training, work activities, Christian teachings, maintaining the school and its farms, and removing any vestiges of their former lives to the point that these children no longer spoke their native language.” [Source]

Reconciliation — currently in vogue with progressive churches and synagogues – is a risky, sometimes dangerous process. Little understood by kind-hearted people of faith, it can be a form of torture for those who experienced (and live with) the intergenerational trauma of institutionalized genocide. As Susie Linfield remarked in her essay Living with the Enemy, “What becomes clear is that forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to perpetrators”.

totem_journey- lummie -keeler

September 2015: Children pose on the 3,000-pound totem pole as it makes its way from Washington State to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation on a journey protesting coal mines and rail terminals. Photo:  Jacqueline Keeler

In response to the Totem Pole Journey – a sacred act of diplomacy by Lummi Nation in 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Association held a national conference of support in Portland, Oregon. This holy Public Witness, however, has not been accompanied by any ‘right action’ from the Earth Ministry interfaith alliance in Seattle, of which they are a participating religious body.

To date, none of the progressive churches in the Pacific Northwest has confronted the “portentous movements intent on promoting interracial discord and a growing politics of fear” targeting the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. None of these institutionalized religions have opposed the ongoing, anti-Indian, hate radio programs, or any other forms of mainstream media racism.

2013_RH_ Lummi _totem

A ceremony held at Cherry Point, a part of the Lummi anti-coal totem pole journey. 09/30/2013 Photo: Ryan Hasert

If people of faith want to help defeat White Power on the Salish Sea, they need to call out the promoters of this interracial discord. Otherwise, they become yet another instance of white people assuaging their guilt over the institutionalized mistreatment of Native Americans by indulging in the consumption of Indian acts of spiritual generosity, without committing themselves to acts of reciprocity.

As Lummi elder Jewell Praying Wolf James remarked at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Portland, “Talk’s good, but action’s better”.


[Jay Thomas Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a correspondent to Forum for Global Exchange, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and journalists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations. Email: tbarj [at]]


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