Rainbow Mennonite Church recognizes that to make amends, the church should educate itself on Indigenous life and culture.
On January 8, 2023, Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC) in Kansas City, Kan., dedicated a large painting of Turtle Island with Indigenous dancers present within the animal in Fellowship Hall titled "An Acknowledgement of Life."
Tokeya Waci U (Comes Dancing First) is the artist and will use this painting to not only talk about the art but the significance of the details to Indigenous culture.
The artist is a member of the Oglala Lakota and Haliwa-Saponi tribes. He says that all Native tribes believe that they came from the earth, with many groups telling the story of Turtle Island when it came from the earth and grew so large that living creatures took shelter on it. Since then, it has created a connection between all living things and the earth.
"Recognizing the land is recognizing you are on a living being. Mother Earth is a living being," Tokeya Waci U says to Anabaptist World. "Acknowledging the land is acknowledging her, acknowledging the grass around you, the dirt, the things people take for granted. To acknowledge the land is to acknowledge the being that has allowed you to live this long."
This project has been in the works for three years, with the conversations held in 2021, when the congregation was looking for ways to be more inclusive and reflective of current events.
Phil Dunn, chair of Rainbow’s Peace and Social Justice Committee says that the church was impacted by the interactions with The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, which is a Mennonite group that calls on the Christian Church to address the extinction, enslavement, and extraction done in the name of Christ on Indigenous lands.
After reaching out to the Kansas City Indian Centre for suggestions on which route they should take. The centre was acquainted with Tokeya Waci U and suggested that is where they start, with the assistance of a third-party mediator to ensure the project was a positive experience for all.
"We really wanted to give him as much free rein as possible. There was recognition that we’re just a bunch of white people, and we’ll have blind spots. We wanted to educate ourselves as much as possible so that we would not be asking them to engage in education, to educate us," says Dunn.
Tokeya Waci U says that he had to lay ground rules for RMC and make it clear that this is not a one-time thing. That if they were to continue with this initiative, they need to continuously keep learning about Indigenous tribes, their ways of life and how to be an ally.
"You claim to be progressive and want to help. Well, you have to live that out as much as the Native American community will allow you. Be a true ally," says the Indigenous artist.
At the time when the conversation began, thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who suffered from residential schools in Canada were found and flooded the news outlet headlines.
Growing up and attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he remembered the suffering of Christ artwork and he decided to make this painting his own, rather than having remorse and guilt at the centre of it.
Once orange became a colour associated with the support of Indigenous children, Tokeya Waci U incorporated the colour in a variety of ways in the artwork, such as beadwork and cloth work worn by the dancers. Some are depicted as being strong, there are elders and also children dancing alongside the adults.
Tokeya Waci U shared that the people are dancing because they are alive, they also dance in celebration and lament. This painting honours those whose families have been torn apart because of residential schools and those who lost their children.
"I wanted to showcase that innocence within the painting. But also give the backstory, that it wasn’t always happy like this, because they lived through a hard time. There are those who did survive this, the more adult-looking dancers. These people are still among us and still suffering...This is the history, but also something nice to look at, that you could also get a good feeling."
RMC members are ready to take on the challenge of educating themselves and learning to be an ally with the Native American community.
"It’s a starting point to do other things. It’s not one and done: 'We did a land acknowledgment, let’s move on to something else.' The land acknowledgment is aspirational. It’s what we’re trying to do long-term," says Dunn.
Tokeya Waci U dedicated "An Acknowledgement of Life" to his father and to all the voices that were silenced. He says that his voice is now theirs in an Instagram post.