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Read here the AW Book Forum Presentation on The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine

Response to Sarah Augustine by T.J. Smith

As a Lakota, Winnebago, Cherokee man, being one who the shame of culture, being Indian, was prevalent in our family, this book struck home. I was brought to tears a number of times as with a sigh of relief, “I am not alone in my feelings”. The shame and guilt in my journey of healing as Sarah talked about. How she shared through her gifted writing that is still being imposed on our sisters and brothers around the world.

In my healing journey of being who I am who the Creator created me to be. In learning my culture, language, traditions, and my cultural understanding of the world and the Creator, it has drawn me into a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Creator and with all things than ever before. To be who we are created to be is freeing. It frees us from this world’s constructs. As I learn to unpack the western paradigms back to my cultural perspective in my relationship with the Creator and the world.

The Creator used Mark Charles and Soong Cha Rah in their writing of Unsettling Truths to set a to take a historical perspective for us. The Creator has used Sarah in The Land is Not Empty to show us that it is not just past history and also how to fight the Doctrine of Discovery in our everyday lives. She shares how the Doctrine of Discovery has not only shaped life for First Nations here on Turtle Island but has shaped the world and continues to shape the world as she shared in her stories of the people of Suriname.

As I presented in June of 2021, for the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the denomination I serve, the Evangelical Covenant Church, I lived what Sarah shared. How the Great Commission was and is used today to bend some people’s perspective of the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) versus what does Scripture say? This is due to the embedded aspect of DoD in our culture, world, and church. As I stood on stage and heard the rebuttal, the phrase “This is our promised Land” was said a number of times. As Sarah pointed out, we as the Church have taken “go and make disciples” to “go and take disciples.” Sadly this shows as only 4 to 5% of the First Nation people are connected or part the Church. It is because, in my opinion, we remember our history and past, why would we want to enter into a church that has taken away our culture, language traditions and much more from our people. 

In taking those aspects away from us it creates a lack of knowing who we are created to be to reflect out of Revelation 7:9. Our youth are committing suicide at a higher rate than other cultures. As Sarah shared, the Wayana people are currently facing what we have since Columbus came to Turtle Island. Regardless if you are in Alaska, Oglala Reservation, or Suriname, our youth are taking their own lives as they have no hope as they don’t know who they are created to be.

As I work with younger First Nation and First Alaskan, my hope and prayer is for them to know they are wonderfully made as they are. I think of a young First Alaskan who asked me with tears rolling down her face, “You mean it is okay to follow God and speak my language, live my culture?” To help them understand that the community where they come from is more important than the idea of “conformed individuality.”

To think of the next generation of you Indigenous leaders that will be free from; you are invisible, you are nothing more than a merciless savage, to you are my daughter or son who I created…. How freeing and empowering could that be for them, for the generations to come? How do we, can we help free them from the bondage that we have carried?

I appreciate Sarah’s personal story of her healing she shared as she walked on the lands of her grandparents.  I wish I would have read this book before I went to Minnesota, the land that my grandfather as a 10 year old with his family were forced off onto a cattle car and “shipped” the Lummi Nation. It may have helped me heal, but I will go back and walk the lands my ancestors did. 

Sarah’s vision is calling us out as First Nations people to heal. That we, as the church, have reconciliation to do for ourselves, for the future. That we have to understand Scripture in a cultural and historical sense, both of the past and the present. Together we must reimagine the theology that has been imposed, and continues to be imposed, on Unci Maka (Mother Earth) and all our sisters and brothers that call her home.

For me, this is and will be the hardest part, “Solidarity is not symbolic” (169). Too often in our world we say, “We stand with you,” then…the storm comes and we stand alone. As we move ahead in our denomination, the ECC,  in living out the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, this will be a key thought and statement. You stood with us for the vote, will you stand with us and name the land your church is on? Will you take a stand for the MMIW? Will you take a look at where your money is invested and move it if it damages or devastates the lands around the World where our sisters’ and brothers’ lives and lifestyles are being taken from them as it was from us?

I appreciate Sarah writing this book, sharing that the Doctrine of Discovery is sadly still alive and active in our world in subtle ways that we do not see unless we ask the Creator to take our blinders off.

Creator, have mercy on us and help us to see those areas we are blind in. Help us not to stay blind but help us to stand for our sisters and brothers that have no voice. 

Mitakuye Oyasin Wolakhota (All my relatives, walk in peace with everyone)


Reverend TJ Smith is First Nations, Lakota, Winnebago, Cherokee. He is the President of the Indigenous Ministers Associate of the Mosaic Commission of the Evangelical Covenant Church.