Lawrence Hart speaks to the crowd during a ground blessing ceremony at the first burial site of the Return to the Earth project. Seated is Sam Hart, a Southern Cheyenne chief and Lawrence's brother.
Return to the Earth
Marla Pierson Lester
The culturally unidentifiable remains of Native Americans, which for years were stacked in museums and institutions, will now be buried with dignity in regional cemeteries throughout the United States, beginning with a cemetery near the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma.
While a 1990 law mandated that Native American remains stored in museums and institutions be returned to tribes, more than 111,000 remains can't be linked with a particular tribe and remain unburied.
Return to the Earth project
Through the Return to the Earth project, Cheyenne peace chief and MCC U.S. board member Lawrence Hart is assisting in burying these remains.
On April 1, the first burial site was dedicated, with Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs blessing the land and the foundation for a building that will be used for final rituals and ceremonies. MCC Central States contributed funding toward the foundation, and Hart is continuing to raise support to finish the building.
A tool for congregations to participate
A Return to the Earth study guide was released in early April, providing a tool for congregations to participate in the effort. Partners in the project include MCC U.S., Council for American Indian Ministry; Council of Native American Ministries; National Congress of American Indians and Religions for Peace.
Churches from throughout the United States are encouraged to take part. This spring, MCC Central States is distributing the guide to 450 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations in its 16-state area.
Hart and other organizers hope congregations will use the guide to study the history behind the remains, learn about Native American tribes that once lived on their land and build relationships with Native American groups and congregations. In conjunction with the guide, groups can also raise funds, make cedar burial boxes and sew burial cloths for the project.
Connecting people to their history
Erica Littlewolf, a board member of MCC Central States, said a critical part of the project is helping people connect their own history and the story of the remains.
For Littlewolf, a Northern Cheyenne who grew up in Montana, the project is a chance to honor her ancestors. "It's who I am. It's where I'm from," she said.
Yet it is part of a history that stretches beyond Native American communities. These remains are also threaded into the history of settlers, including Mennonites and Brethren in Christ, noted John Stoesz, the executive director of MCC Central States.
For Stoesz, the project is an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge that past. "It's not so much a feeling of guilt as recognizing the truth of what happened — how we have and still benefit as white people as far as the land — and moving toward making things right," he said.
Both he and Littlewolf hope the project will open doors to new connections between white congregations and Native Americans.
"To keep growing and building relationships, we need to recognize what has happened in the past not that we need to dwell there but that we recognize it and go and make something new," Littlewolf said.
Beginning to build those bridges is a tremendous task, as is burying the remains.
More than 80 faith-based groups involved
Hart, in addition to working on this first burial site in Oklahoma, is calling for the National Congress of the American Indians to lead the way in forming coalitions in different regions to bury the remains.
Hart, who is pastor of Koinonia Mennonite Church, approached MCC about the project and welcomes the participation of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations. He said based on the sheer number of remains, he knew that tribal groups wouldn't have the resources to carry out the project alone. He noted that more than 80 faith-based groups are now involved.
Still, this is work that will take years.
"In my lifetime, I may never see the remains buried," Littlewolf said. "I get overwhelmed by how many there are. But we do what we can."
Paper copies of the study guide for Return to the Earth are available from the MCC Store for $4 U.S., plus shipping.
Or it can be downloaded as a PDF document from the resources section of the Return to the Earth project website.
Marla Pierson Lester is a writer for MCC.