Do you have any skeletons in your closet? Granted in October most skeletons are on people’s lawns or propped up against trees, doors, or windows for Halloween, but there are other skeletons in the closets of our history that October’s celebrations remind us we have hidden over the years.
When I was a boy my mother was proud to tell us her great-great-great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. I remember us singing Cher’s hit, “Cherokee People” with pride. I remember wondering if she traveled The Trail of Tears. Years later my aunt revealed a portrait of her when Kate and I were visiting family in West Virginia, confirming the legend of this ancestor was not just a folk tale. Her chocolate colored skin and features clearly revealed she was not from Europe. We really were of Native American descent.
When Kate joined Ancestry.Com we learned even more about her. Her name was Euthlike, also known as Liney, and she wasn’t Cherokee, but a member of the Chickasaw Nation. She was married to Edmund Okchantubby Pickens, whose father was white and mother was Chickasaw. In 1837 Edmund and Liney, along with their children, began their forced removal (the Trail of Tears) from the old Chickasaw nation and settled in the Choctaw/Chickasaw lands of Indian Territory on the Red River. Later Edmund would become the first elected and consequently last Chickasaw chief of the Chickasaw Nation after being instrumental in creating a Chickasaw constitution. He served in the new Chickasaw government and supported and served as a captain in the Confederacy during the Civil War.
He did a lot more before his death, but that’s my history to remember. The thing is, with all that Edmund Pickens did and achieved in his life, why is it the only thing my mother knew about her Native American ancestry was that Edmund’s wife was, incorrectly, a Cherokee Indian? As Okchantubby and Euthlike’s descendants married into white families and settled further East into the Scotch-Irish areas of West Virginia was it more advantageous to hide the skeleton of their dark-skinned heritage, with both its suffering and success, in the closet of their family history?
Kate and I were married on October 12, the day our nation officially remembers Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. It has also become known as Indigenous People’s Day; a holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. It began as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day, with many believing the celebration of Christopher Columbus’ discovery also covers up his actions of enslaving Native Americans.
Our nation’s history has skeletons in its closet and Indigenous People’s Day reminds us of this fact. I often tell people, “You can’t change what happened in the past. But you can effect what the future will be by what you choose to do today.” I wonder how my attitudes and actions toward the current challenges and suffering of Native Americans living on reservations today would be impacted if I learned more about my Chickasaw heritage as much as I know about my German one? Many descendants of those indigenous people Columbus encountered and enslaved are still suffering today from legislation that created perpetual suffering from one generation to the next.
As baptized Christians of predominantly European descent who promised to “strive to work for justice and peace in all the earth” at our Affirmation of Baptism what does it mean for us to examine the “skeleton in the closet” of our nation’s historical actions toward this country’s indigenous peoples, or any ethnic group that has been disenfranchised or alienated by those in power? Is learning our history and listening to their stories the beginning of the journey toward healing and wholeness in this land?
I believe so. We must first be willing to listen, even if what we hear is painful and hard to accept. The good news is as people of the Resurrection we trust from the font that we cannot experience new life without first experiencing a death. One day that history of the Trail of Tears might also include a Journey of Jubilee if we are willing to be led by the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, knowledge and the fear of the Lord we first received in Baptism. As we journey together, may the saints who’ve gone before us inspire our steps together. Happy Halloween.