Pearl Harbor, Heart Mountain

A pleasant sunny, muggy Hawaiian morning that smelled of seawater and steel.

A miserable blustery, rainy Wyoming afternoon that smelled of snow and mud.

One caused the other. And it could happen again.

Two summers ago, my family visited Pearl Harbor, just west of Honolulu. We’ve all read about the infamous attack time and time again, and I knew a lot about Pearl Harbor. I could name all the battleships on Battlefield Row, knew the timelines, and understood the multipronged attack that lured the United States into World War II. When I stood on the USS Arizona Memorial, gazing at the ghostlike shell of a ship just below the water, when my 5-year-old daughter spotted oil rainbows in the water, I could, for a moment, hear the explosions and the planes and the screams of pain and death and smell the smoke and the blood. When the attack ended, 2,471 American servicemen and civilians had died, another 1,213 were wounded, and Pearl Harbor had become a national shrine for the American fallen of all our wars.

The flag over the USS Arizona Memorial, June 2015. Photo by Brad Lyons
The flag over the USS Arizona Memorial, June 2015. Photo by Brad Lyons

Then, this past October, I visited Heart Mountain Relocation Center, between Cody and Powell in northwestern Wyoming. Built in the months after Pearl Harbor, during the desperate first months of a war we were losing, Heart Mountain detained almost 14,000 Japanese Americans during its more than three years of operation. A shameful part of American history, these Americans weren’t given the option to relocate to Heart Mountain or the other relocation centers scattered across the western half of the country. They were forcibly moved. The centers provided some measure of home; students continued their education, a hospital offered medical care, and semblances of community such as a camp newspaper and dances were allowed. But the 650 barracks were abysmal, the camp prisonlike. The early winter weather the day I visited made it far too easy to imagine the Wyoming wind tearing through the cracks in the poorly built barracks far too easy. Residents had some freedom within the walls, but let there be no doubt: those residents were interred, held against their will.

Barracks and chimney, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming. Photo by Brad Lyons
Barracks and chimney, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming. Photo by Brad Lyons

Just as there’s not much of the devastation left at Pearl Harbor, there’s not much of Heart Mountain left, either. A guard tower stands near the highway turnoff, and there are a few old barracks, the hospital’s chimney, and a short footpath with plaques detailing life at the camp. When the camps closed in the months following the V-J Day, most Americans went on as though internment had never happened. Most of the Heart Mountain camp has been erased from existence, and I assure you I never learned about internment in history classes.

Pearl Harbor caused Heart Mountain.

And if we’re not careful, the ongoing persecution of Islamic Americans may yet cause another roundup of Americans who look different from those in power, who have beliefs different from the majority of Americans (or, more likely, a vocal minority) but who still share a belief in justice and equality and freedom. That another Heart Mountain could possibly occur, unthinkable not too long ago, is a horrifying shift in American politics. In these xenophobic times, it is our obligation as people of faith, as people urged to love the strangers among us, as people who follow Jesus who was a refugee as a child and oppressed and executed by a foreign empire, to keep that from happening again.

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Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Christians and Standing Rock: An Update

News outlets often describe the standoff between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners, developers of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, as contest between the water rights of indigenous peoples and the energy needs of the nation. This is a false and misleading characterization of the conflict.

People of faith have understood from the beginning that for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe the deeper issues are Native sovereignty, treaty rights, and religion. Religion for many Native peoples is land-based, and Native spirituality is bound to the land, making sacred places set aside for human remembrance such as burial grounds. For the Great Sioux Nation, to be a Sioux is to care for Mother Earth.

The centrality of land for Native spirituality was recognized by the United States with the enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This law calls upon the government to “protect and preserve for Native Americans their inherent right to freedom of belief …  and to worship through ceremonies and traditional sites.”

In October Churches Uniting in Christ, eleven denominations in covenantal relations, joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous peoples to support tribal sovereignty, water, cultures, way of life, and sacred sites, citing the centrality of land to Native peoples and Native religious practices

On November 4, 524 clergy representing many denominations responded to a call put forth by Reverend John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who has been serving the Standing Rock Sioux people for 25 years, to come to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, for a time of prayer and to be in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The clergy who gathered used the occasion to ceremonially burn a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, a policy used to justify the confiscation of Indian lands, the destruction of Indian cultures, and the taking of Indian lives.

One month later, with protesters facing an order from the North Dakota governor to leave their encampment before the harsh winter sets in, more than 1,000 communities around the world joined an Interfaith Day of Prayer. People of many faiths came together to pray with and to pray for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Water Protectors. That same day, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit needed to finish construction, a major victory for the water protectors. Whether that victory will end the debate, rerouting the pipeline away from Standing Rock, time will tell.

These prayers and the ongoing vigilance of the faith community is greatly needed. North Dakota Governor Dalrymple called the Army Corps of Engineers decision “a serious mistake.” The Morton County Sheriff’s Department pledged to “continue to enforce the law.” Energy Transfer Partners has pledged to complete the present pipeline.

Christians from many denominations are showing strong support for the religious rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. We must stand in deep solidarity now and in the coming year.

David Phillips Hansen David Phillips Hansen is a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, available for preorder now for delivery in January.