Megan McKenna holds the Ph.D. in Liberation Theology and Scripture from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. A notable storyteller, Megan is also on the Board of Directors of Pax Christi, USA.
THERE is an old Indian legend from the Okanagan native peoples called “How Turtle Set the Animals Free.” It is simply told. It begins with Eagle.
Eagle was fast and strong and powerful, and Eagle was proud. He would challenge each of the animals to a race, and one by one he would beat them. He took on the Deer, the Fox, the Bear and lastly Wolf. They all lost to Eagle. And when they lost to Eagle, they became Eagle’s slaves. Soon all the animals were slaves to Eagle, except for Turtle and his friend, Muskrat. The only reason they were still free was that they refused to race Eagle. They knew ahead of time that they couldn’t win. But one night Turtle had a dream, and he was told: “You must race Eagle and you must free all the Animal People. You must all be free when the People-to-be come.” The next morning Turtle woke Muskrat, and they went swimming together and he told him, “We must get ready and race Eagle.” Muskrat was upset. “You will lose. No one can beat Eagle. He’s too fast. We will end up as slaves too.” “I know,” said Turtle, “but my dream said I must and my dream said that I will win.” So off they went to see Eagle. And Turtle approached Eagle and said solemnly: “I want to race you tomorrow.” Eagle laughed but agreed. He wanted to beat all the animals. “When the Sun comes up, we will run, and as you request, if you win, then all the Animal People are yours. But if I win, Turtle, I will keep you. You are betting your life on this race.” “Yes,” said Turtle, “I know.” As Turtle crawled off, all the Animal People started to laugh. They knew Eagle would win, but they were sad too because they didn’t think they’d ever be free again. The next morning it began. “Choose your place, Turtle. I will race any distance you decide upon.” “Any place?” Turtle asked. Eagle replied loudly: “Any place, Turtle. Let the Animal People hear me.” Immediately, Turtle said: “Then carry me up high in the air, as high as you can go. Then I will tell you when to drop me. From the moment you drop me, the race begins. Whoever reaches the ground first is the winner.”
Eagle began to worry, but he had spoken so he took Turtle into his claws and started to climb. Higher and higher he went. Then Turtle yelled out: “Okay, let me go!” Eagle dropped him, and Turtle fell. He fell fast like a rock or a stone. Eagle went after him and tried to catch him but Turtle yelled out: “EEEEEEEEEE! Hurry Eagle! I will beat you.” Then Turtle pulled his head and neck and feet inside his home as he fell faster and faster.
The Animal People watched in horror and fascination. They began to shout for Turtle. Muskrat his friend, jumped all around with his tail high in the air. His friend was winning, but Eagle was close! Then he thought: “Poor Turtle, he will fall so hard. He will hit the ground and crack apart my friend!” Turtle did hit the ground hard, like a rock. It was very quiet.
Then Turtle crawled out, shaken but happy. “Now,” he said, “You are all free again, free forever! Go wherever you wish, Animal People, anywhere. You are free.” The Animal People scattered away, delighted. Everywhere they went they would tell the People-to-be about these races and how Turtle set them all free.
Then Turtle turned to Eagle. “You know I could never beat you, Eagle, but I had a dream and learned how to do it. Soon the People-to-be will come and you will be the fastest bird. You will be their standard bearer and none of the Animal People will be able to beat you. But, Eagle, I dreamed and learned from my dream. The people will learn from their dreams too, just as I did.”
Some of the Native American people say that this story is the reason why the northern part of this continent is called, among all the Indians, Turtle Island. Their shared dream, like the Animal People, is that their brothers and sisters will be free. Often, as Americans, North Americans, people of the United States, we assume that history began with our presence, our awareness and our domination of this place called Turtle Island. And so, the year 1492, year of the Lord in western civilization’s reckoning, is the beginning, the discovery of the new world’s creation, because that is when it began to be ours. More to the fact, the date records the verifiable presence of Europeans on this continent. It is the 500th anniversary of “discovery;” “encounter,” or “invasion,” depending upon your perspective. It is a date worth remembering, commemorating and discussing, even celebrating, if we begin with the ancient meaning of the word: “remember” — re-member, to put back together, to join and unite, to bring together again, as it was in the beginning, the way it was originally meant to be.
The past 500 years has brought growth, expansion, industry, technology and the clash of cultures, and it has brought devastation, destruction of land, peoples, religions and civilizations that encountered each other. The descendants of both sides, those newly come and those here before the stumbling arrival, now live in a world primarily shaped by the conqueror and resisted by the conquered and the indigenous. It is a good time to ask questions, to examine the past and the present so that there is a common future for all of us.
In North America, native peoples have many questions, many accusations, many places and bones of contention and confrontation: from Wounded Knee, to reservation rights, to sacred burial sites, to reparations and restitution for broken treaties and destruction of property, language, religious ritual and rights. For peoples of African descent the questions are about inequality, of slavery and lost ancestors and continuing racism.
Both groups remind us painfully of systematic and planned domination, discrimination, desecration and destruction of peoples and their heritages. Incidents of genocide: small pox deliberately spread through the Indian nations in the mid 1850-60’s; reservations so inhuman that Hitler used them as models for his concentration camps, of needless senseless massacres and sieges that continue as late as 1973 in the Dakotas and in the 1980’s along the Canadian borders. For African Americans, their story is one of institutionalized slavery of entire nations, kidnapping and the buying and selling of human beings as if they were animals (I ask forgiveness of my four-legged relations) and property. The New World for them was a horror, the loss of family, of culture, religion, freedom and human dignity. And though our country fought a civil war over the issue of slavery, by the 1960’s these people still suffered at the hands of their new-world masters and knew the realities of racism and economic deprivation as a continual shackle. Even today our prison system and the violence and poverty in our cities is the first-hand experience of the Black community.
For some, the history of these 500 years is a time of favor and grace. They found space and religious freedom; they found a possibility for a future, for security, for family, for land. And for some, that translated into greed, avarice, brutality, and individuality that was exclusive and demeaning of others. The various nations and cultures of the old world: Spain, Portugal, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and others all made their mark and wrote and rewrote the history of this land. The one thing they shared in common, was the exclusion and the lack of acknowledgment that they were not indigenous, not the original dwellers, not given license to take and steal anything and everything they saw and wanted.
And in all of this criss-crossing history, there is the Church. First there was the Catholic Church and then the many denominations of Protestants who came to claim for God, to colonize, to civilize, and to conquer, often with the countries and armies that accompanied them. The inculturation of Christianity with Western civilization so blurred the Good News that the Native Americans and the slaves were baptized into a religion that revealed more of the conqueror than the God of Father, beloved Child and Graceful Spirit. There were individuals (but far too few of them) who championed the cause and the plight of the Indians, the mestizo, the Black and the slave. They are remembered primarily by those with whom they sided and became like. And most powerfully, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Nuestra Senora la Virgen de Guadalupe, has become the symbol, the hope and “La Morenita;” the dear woman of the poor. She is the Indian and the one found on the outskirts of the city, the roads not paved, the place of the old ways, the holy ground of the poor. She is one of the conquered, but pregnant with the new creation: the Son of justice, the child of God, poor and among his own still. She asks another simple peasant, Juan Diego, to go to the Bishop of the religion and country that raped, burned and decimated her people and left them without hope or dignity or a future to ask him to build her a church on the place she wants — the place where cultures, nations, languages, and people who believe in her child, the crucified one, can be reconciled, unified and saved again. She, more than any other person, is a symbol of both the awful destruction done in the name of her son, and a promise of what God can do with a people, with history, with suffering and death and violence and the Good News that God is with us in Incarnation and justice.
If 1992 is to be more truthful, more hopeful, more integral with the Gospel, then it must be a time of remembering the whole story, as remembered by those who didn’t discover new life, but lost so much that was/is precious to them: their identity, dignity, lives and ancestry — and are only lately reclaiming it. We need to relearn history, religion and culture and learn perhaps for the first time to be critical of our own cultures and politics and economics and sense of the land and become more appreciative of other cultures, older, wiser and more experienced than ours. It must be a time, a beginning of blessings not just for one group, but for all, but especially for those who deserve them most. It must be a time of celebrating those who labored for justice, equality, peace, prosperity and a time of restitution for those who were brutalized and deculturalized (even if it is claimed it was done with good intentions). It must be a time of listening — obeying the others’ heart and coning to a new understanding of this place Turtle Island, home of the free and land of the brave who toil for justice, know the peace of shared dignity and hope and who come back together with both grace and repentance.
It is a time for all to inherit the earth and a time to turn our faces and strengths towards the land itself undoing the scars and tears that it has carried all these 500 years of clashes, battles, raping, taking and profit-making. It is a time to know more of the story and to put the already known pieces into a larger context; blending and subjecting the voices of Europe and North America and the Churches to the Native Peoples, the Blacks, the mestizos and the Mulattos and the poor that cross all those borders and boundaries. The indigenas deserve to tell their stories, to remind us of what we tried in our ignorance, or good intentions and our arrogance to destroy. And more seriously and practically, we need to use the money set aside for these celebrations and commemorations not just for self-congratulations, but for necessities of life: for education, for ecology, for communities in desperate need, for medical facilities and for works of justice and mercy. The Church needs to look to itself, its modes of evangelization and lack of any inculturation besides the European. It needs to compromise — com-promise (meaning promise together as equals) — in order to bring the Gospel into reality where it is most needed and often most accepted and desired. We need the gospel pared down to its spirit and bones: the radical announcement that God is with us, especially among the least of our brothers and sisters. All the earth is groaning in anticipation of the coming of the fullness of resurrection in the peace and justice of all nations now/here.
The year 1992 must be a turning of a corner, a jumping-off spot that signals a new creation, a new world order, a new peace-making, a new people — the People-to-be the Animal People knew about who learn from their dreams how to be free — all of us free. Perhaps a good place to begin is with people listening to others. And in lieu of flesh and blood peoples, there are words and stories of the peoples.