The Earth as Mother

Harare and Indigenous Peoples

by Tink Tinker

The traditional cultures of Indigenous Peoples are most often rooted in some deep spiritual connection to the lands that form their traditional territories, making for a theology rooted in spatiality much more than in the colonial concern for temporality. "Why Are We Still Waiting," asked an Indigenous Peoplesí Caucus in an "appeal" to the World Council of Churchesí Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December 1998. In a compelling document, the more than three dozen Indigenous delegates, advisors and "Padare" participants making up the pre-assembly Caucus named the character of their common struggles, concerns, needs and hopes. "We are still waiting," they said, "for true partnership, for full recognition of our rights."

Indigenous Peoples, especially those aboriginal nations of lands currently ruled by colonial settler states or states that have unilaterally expanded their territories to include other peoples and their lands, have much in common, both culturally and politically.(1) Most often, Indigenous Peoples are politically in tension with the states that claim hegemony over them and their lands. Their cultures and languages are continually threatened by the imposition of an artificial sense of unity and uniformity. Their access to economic well-being is usually related to their willingness to comply with the cultural and economic norms of the state in control. While state hegemony can be either overt or much more subtly veiled, it is always decisive and firm.

Dr George Tinker, Osage / Cherokee
© WCC Peter Williams.

"National" (that is state-based) denominational structures all too often participate in the cultural domination of the state by expecting compliance by Indigenous member congregations with culturally based policies and procedures established as normative within the denomination. Funding and participation in decision-making quite often depends precisely, if implicitly, on such matters of compliance by Indigenous congregations, ministries, and leadership. Indigenous concerns are a lingering aspect of colonialism to which little attention has been paid internationally.

Besides the commonness of their colonial histories, Indigenous Peoples share cultural similarities that make for remarkably similar theological concerns. Moreover, these theological similarities again put Indigenous Peoples typically at odds with the theological currents dominant in their denominations and regions. The traditional cultures of Indigenous Peoples are most often rooted in some deep spiritual connection to the lands that form their traditional territories, making for a theology rooted in spatiality much more than in the colonial concern for temporality. Thus, for instance, the "kingdom of God" will more naturally be interpreted as a creation metaphor, signifying the place or space that God "rules," rather than in terms of the typical European and Amer-European understanding of the metaphor as eschatological and temporal. Likewise, the cultural concern for a community value system will characterize Indigenous theologies in contrast to the colonizer cultures that lend themselves to individualistic theological interpretations. The Cartesian notion of the self, so central in European and Amer-European philosophies and theologies must give way in Indigenous communities to a theological concern for the community. In Indigenous theologies, the self only finds meaning within the context of the community.

Global concerns

The principal need of Indigenous Peoples within the WCC has to do with pressing the global concerns of Indigenous Peoples.(2) The Indigenous Caucus at Harare agreed that this global agenda was also our agenda, that our struggle within our denominations is always linked to this broader struggle for cultural and political survival. We are poised to press this agenda within the WCC by struggling to empower Indigenous voices over against denominational, "national" (i.e., state), and regional interests. Moreover, we are so bold as to think that our theologies have something significant to contribute to theological discourse in our denominations, our regions, and to the whole of the WCC community of communions.

The lingering question is whether these communions are willing and able to listen to what Indigenous Peoples have to say. For too long, Indigenous Peoples have been merely the consumers of the missionary theologizing of their denominations. We have been held captive to the particular interests of the dominant voices that have imposed themselves on our cultural development. Regional interests, state cultures and denominational theologies have combined as a particularly pervasive and invasive overlay on our own theological development. It is past time for Indigenous liberation from these structures of oppression and imposition.

Seven years earlier, the WCC Assembly was hosted by Australian churches with a strong Aboriginal presence. At the Seventh Assembly in Canberra, Indigenous issues were very prominent and seemed to have a very high priority among the WCC member churches. Canberra spoke about "Moving Beyond Words"(3) in dealing with Indigenous issues, but Canberra was another time and another place. By Harare, Indigenous Peoples were a little nervous that their concerns had faded in the minds of the churches. The "Appeal" was an attempt to highlight Indigenous struggles once again and to recall the promises made at Canberra.

Major promises have failed

Yet as the Eighth Assembly began, it became apparent that one of the major promises of Canberra was going to fail miserably. Ten to fifteen percent Indigenous membership in the WCCís Central Committee had been the goal. Yet the first report from the Nominations Committee made it clear that there would be precious few Indigenous Folk to press the issues raised so clearly at Canberra. Meeting over early breakfasts, furtive lunches or suppers in the packed dining halls of the University of Zimbabwe, the Indigenous Caucus tried to adopt the political strategies that might turn the matter around. Working extra hours in days that were already too long, they began to lobby their regional and denominational delegations, producing minimal results against overwhelming odds.

Given our communitarian cultural perspective, we were, as always, unprepared for the individualist investment in ego associated with Central Committee membership. Just as significantly, we were naively unprepared for the reality that Central Committee membership is used to protect institutional prerogatives and political power within the Council.

One of the difficult nuts to crack, as it turned out, was the North American regional delegation, a situation compounded by another set of politics within the World Council. The region had already given up one of its Central Committee slots to the Orthodox in a Council-wide move to reduce their dissatisfaction with power balances. The North American discussion may present an interesting case study of WCC political processes. So this essay is offered as illustrative. While it is written from an unashamedly Indigenous perspective, it is hoped that it can promote creative dialogue among all of us.

The North American churches had arrived with seven American Indian delegates, four of whom participated in the Indigenous Peoples Caucus and formed a trust relationship and a political bond with the Caucus. It was only natural, then, for the Caucus to promote one of these four for election to the Central Committee as a part of its overall strategy.

The Caucus focussed on the person they felt was most likely to be eligible as well as being someone they could trust to pursue the larger Indigenous agenda with vigour and wisdom. Their candidate fit two criteria that were in short supply in the first, provisional, list of candidates brought forward by the Nominating Committee. She was both female and a lay person. Moreover, she was an American Indian deeply rooted in her own community, its culture and its traditions, while being, at the same time, world-wise with regard to politics in the WCC community. She seemed a rather ideal choice.

Difficulties arise

Denominational politics, however, was not yet done with the Indigenous Caucus. The first difficulty was a matter of procedure. Nomination required naming the candidate whom the nominee was to replace, and this became an unexpected problem. After mulling over the options, members of the Indigenous Caucus decided to name her as a replacement for an ordained, male candidate of her own denomination. More women and non-clergy members were needed in the Central Committee make-up. Just as importantly, the two worked on the same staff in a national church office. It seemed unlikely that such a large denomination would approve two people from the same staff.

As a rule, marginalized communities, in the heat of their struggle for liberation, recognition, survival and/or equality, are able to pay little attention to the institutional needs of those bodies that have the power either to help them advance or continue to disempower them. The struggle for liberation is rooted in pain that runs deep. There is little energy among the colonized for sympathizing with the needs of the colonizer. For this reason, the Indigenous Caucus was completely unprepared for the virulent reaction to what the denominationís delegation seems to have perceived as a threat to its own institutional prerogatives and exercise of power.

The denomination in question is, without a doubt, one of North Americaís most broad-minded, with an illustrious track record on issues of social justice and human rights. Yet, even cutting edge-institutions have their blind spots. After so many centuries of conquest, the most politically liberal institutions in colonizer communities can lapse into postures of paternalism and hierarchical exercises of power. They sometimes act like middle-aged parents who have forgotten that their children have already grown into adulthood. And I say this without admitting any veracity in the colonial illusion that the colonized ever were or are children.

A choice of loyalties

Quite suddenly, well-intentioned and good-hearted people could focus only on the well-being of the denomination and swung into full defense of its institutional prerogatives which, it seemed, were suddenly more important than any commitment to a broader solidarity within the WCC or to the struggle for justice in a global context. Indigenous members of the denominationís delegation were being forced to choose between denominational loyalty and loyalty to their ethno-cultural communities of reference. Yet, no one would come right out and ask, "Are you Indian or Methodist?" Liberal sensitivities run too deep for racism to become quite so bold these days. Yet the implicit colonial assumption is still one that all people, regardless of ethnicity, will rise to support the institutions established on some sort of presumed a-cultural structure of normativity.

It no longer mattered that the North American Indigenous candidate was nominated against her immediate wishes or that the nomination came with the unanimous consent of the Indigenous Caucus. She had finally consented out of a sense of obligation to the strategies planned. The fact that she worked in the same office and under the leadership of the person her nomination seemed most likely to replace was no more than a procedural matter in the minds of the Caucus in its pursuit of justice for Indigenous Peoples. The other possible choices had been two American Indian men, one from this same denomination and the other from Canada, but the latter was ordained and came from a country entitled to only two places on the Central Committee - a much more difficult possibility.(4) She therefore seemed to the Caucus to be the better choice.

When it became clear that the denomination had no intention of allowing the withdrawal of the candidacy of its chief ecumenical officer the Indigenous Caucus shifted its strategy. Since three of the four potential Indigenous candidates for Central Committee came with this one denomination, another of their named candidates was singled for substitution by an Indigenous candidate. Since it was also clear that the denomination would not allow two of its four Central Committee seats to go to national staff serving in the same office, support shifted to a lay male Indigenous candidate from the same denomination, again, with full, consensual support from the Indigenous Caucus. And it should be noted that the nomination of a new candidate was correct procedurally and represented the Caucusí attempt to participate in politically appropriate ways. Our goal was to hold the WCC accountable to its earlier promises and to serve Indigenous communities well by gaining a substantial voice on the WCC governing body. As much as possible, for obvious political reasons, we tried to take into account the denomination's self-perception of institutional needs, although we refused to concede a greater importance to its needs than our own.

Institutional resistance

Nevertheless, our efforts to achieve some political parity in the WCC continued to encounter institutional resistance from the denomination. When one of the delegation leaders pressed us and asked why we were "picking on" his denomination, our reply was, "Bishop, you came to the Assembly with the best North American Indigenous delegates." For them, it had become a "no-win" situation. Having taken care to balance their delegation in terms of gender and ethnicity, they found themselves vulnerable to other political currents in the Assembly. They had done well; now they were being pressed to do more.

In the end, the denomination capitulated. They did so with considerable panache, as we have come to expect from them. In that regard they, and the North American region, did better than the European delegation, where institutional/denominational needs were deemed more pressing than demographic ones. Not only did Europe fail to elect an Indigenous (Sami) candidate, but they were also far off the mark in terms of gender balance. In spite of the strong vocal presence of Samis in the European delegation, they were unable to dislodge the privileging of European men in denominational hierarchical structures.

Latin America helped the Indigenous cause by electing two Indigenous candidates among their slate of only six as well they should, given Latin American demographics. They also managed to maintain gender balance, with three males and three females. But even here, there was considerable tension and potential political repercussions for the Indigenous women elected. She was added to the slate of candidates instead of her own pastor, creating tensions that they will have to sort out between them. Asia and the Pacific also elected Indigenous candidates, but Asia was, like Europe, far off the mark on gender balance.

Gender balance

While there were eleven female and eleven males on the North American slate, the Europeans listed fourteen men and only eleven women. Asia and Africa likewise named more men than women to the CC. Given the gender imbalance implicit in Orthodox praxis today, the short-comings in these regions contributed to a final result that was virtually no advance over Canberra. Less than forty percent of the new Central Committee is female. And on the final day of the assembly only two women elected among the eight WCC presidents - even worse than Canberra. Needless to say, Indigenous Peoples have yet to crack the presidential barrier.

Political negotiations in the WCC are subject to a variety of institutional, regional, and demographic pressures and needs. The political fortunes of individuals with aspirations can wax and wane in a matter of hours as delegations and nominating committees to juggle conflicting interests. We need a woman here, a lay person there, and an Indigenous person over there, but there is always room for a few ordained men to be in charge. The political needs of those who have been regularly and historically marginalized means that our struggles for parity almost necessarily put us in competition with each other. So, for instance, the political strategies of the Indigenous Caucus at the assembly sometimes put us in direct competition with women.

This is not, of course, to concede a necessary connection in the Indigenous/female tension, but merely to recognize how the structures of male power and denominational prerogatives function to create such tension among potential allies. On the contrary, the competition between the aspirations of Indigenous Peoples and women is a curious phenomenon, given that many Indigenous Peoples are inclined to demonstrate a strong sense of gender parity. Our ancient cultures, and thus our theologies, tend to produce social structures that constantly struggle for balance between male and female, men and women. In many of our cultures, even the traditional images of deity express a reciprocal dualism that pairs male and female. Thus maleness is not privileged even in the mythic structures of peoplesí consciousness. Indeed, where it exists in Indigenous communities it has more to do with the meddling of missionaries imposing their notions of male privilege on our peoples.

When male privilege and denominational imperatives combine in WCC political manoeuvering, women and Indigenous Peoples can be put into oppositional antagonism that logically ought not be. As two groups struggling against traditional marginalization, we should be engaged in mutual support. Yet an all-too-natural divide and conquer strategy puts us in competition with one another. Funding structures in the US, for instance, both governmental and private, seem to take particular delight in placing American Indian groups in competition with one another for small pockets of funding. A few places on a Central Committee has done the same to women and Indigenous Peoples as two marginalized groups within the WCC.

There is yet another problem that we have begun to identify here. Indigenous issues necessarily cut across all regions and all denominations. Thus, any Indigenous member of the Central Committee or delegate to an assembly will experience the pull of differing allegiances -- regional, denominational and Indigenous. On many issues the latter proves most compelling. So the politics of balancing all these interests has only begun with election to the Central Committee. An Indigenous Caucus will have to meet regularly to determine their overall political strategies in relation to denominational and regional interests.

We can only hope that the WCC, the new Central Committee and the Executive Council are now ready to "move beyond words." It will not come without pain and struggle within the WCC and its member churches. It will test both theology and praxis. Yet it needs to be reiterated that Indigenous People pursue strategies for recognition with much more than self-interest in mind. Indigenous People are clamouring for a hearing with the full conviction that our cultures and the resulting theologies have much to contribute to the family of communions in the WCC. We firmly believe that to "move beyond words" is in the self-interest of the entire WCC. Will our theologies be heard? Will our insights be considered? Or is there only room for denominational orthodoxies, liberal and conservative, in the discourse of the WCC?

George (Tink) Tinker was a WCC Indigenous Advisor to the Eighth Assembly. He currently works for the Iliff School of Theology

  1. "Indigenous Peoples" is a category that includes a wide variety of peoples around the world. For instance, not all Pacific Islanders will agree to the political agenda described above. Holding nominal control over their own political structures in the lands (islands) where they are indigenous, they have less need to resist and confront the modern state and its apparatuses. Such is not the case, however, with the Kanukamaoli in their native Hawaii, or the Maori of Aoteoroa (or what is today called New Zealand). The above agenda also fails to treat Africa, where Indigenous Peoples, at least to a point, may control the modern state. In Africa, we must remember that the nature of the state has already been determined by nineteenth-century colonial realities. Likewise, modern African economies, even where the governing apparatuses are African, are largely dictated by international forces of globalization dictated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the USA, and other world economic powers. For a UN-sponsored definition of "Indigenous" see Josť R. Martinez Cobo, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, "Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, Volume V: conclusions, Proposals, and Recommendations" (New York: United Nations, 1987), UN Doc. E/CN 4/Sub.2/1986.
  2. The WCC community should already be aware of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. The WCC has been supportive in many ways of Indigenous delegations to the semi-annual meetings of the Working Group held in Geneva.
  3. See the WCC Canberra Assembly Document by this name: "Moving Beyond Words".
  4. The only Indigenous delegate with one North American delegation served on the Nominations Committee and was thus ineligible for election. Another delegation also came with an Indigenous member, but she declined candidacy, claiming retirement from public life. The Canadian Indigenous delegate was very appealing to the Indigenous Caucus and brought much ecumenical experience to the assembly. Yet Canada has only two slots on the Central Committee, necessarily representing two different denominations, making the politics of selection even more difficult. Later in the assembly, the Canadian became a candidate for WCC president from North America, but finally lost to one of only two women elected to the presidium. Once again, the struggles of two marginalized groups were pitted against one another.

Table of Contents // Editorial // Education in the International decade of Indigenous People // Two major headaches for Indigenous People // Harare and Indigenous Peoples // Land and spirituality in Africa // Land: Breaking bonds and cementing ties // Spirituality, land and land reform in South Africa // The case of the Maasai in Tanzania // Women and Land // Those who do not know the village they come from ... // What does being Indigenous mean? // Is five hundred and seven years too long for justice? // Indigenous Spirituality // Letter to the WCC member churches on the WTO // Concrete Proposals regarding the third Ministerial Round of the WTO

© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor