Commemoration of Cornelius Hill, Priest and Chief among the Oneida, 1907
Psalm 87 & 90
I seems like most days we commemorate someone or something in the Daily Office. Some people think there are too many commemorations, and they should be restricted to more classical "Saints" rather than people who have never been canonized or beatified but who have nonetheless made significant contributions both to society and to the church. I rather enjoy the variety of biographies that I read in the Office. I have learned about a number of people of whom I would never have heard otherwise, much less what contributions they have made.
Take today for example. I had never heard of Cornelius Hill. Granted, I didn't grow up in either New York or Wisconsin, although I did hear quite a bit about Native American tribes in the area in which I lived. Reading his biography today, I learned that he was an Oneida chief, a translator, a deacon, a priest, a negotiator, and, undeniably, a voice of conscience for both his people and those who believed the Native Americans were some sort of lesser humans who should be westernized as quickly as possible. This included forced relocation, forced assimilation, seizure of tribal lands under eminent domain, and denial of their lifestyle, language, religion, and customs. It was a brutal time, and the Oneida were not the only ones who suffered from it. Cornelius Hill sought to be a peacemaker, attempting to bring the two worlds together, yet allowing each to be the people they really were rather than one a carbon copy of the other.
Cornelius Hill reflected both his Oneida heritage and his Christian education. He understood the sacredness of the land and the bond between the land and the people, but he also saw some benefit in at least accommodation between the two groups. Unfortunately, the Europeans didn't see things the same way; their feelings of superiority decimated millions, and set precedents that are just now being discussed more widely but without much headway. It is just now that their descendants have begun to realize the great injustice and damage that was done. Part of that recognition comes from the church and from people like Cornelius Hill. Probably most Episcopalians have never heard of him although he was a fellow churchman.
The thought of the depredations poured on the Native American people makes me think of the situation we see in our right now in the faces of those we have persecuted, enslaved, murdered, and displaced. I read reports and see local Native American tribes trying their best to live in ways often quite foreign to their own culture and traditions. Many of these tribes have been forced to adapt their diet to incorporate kinds of foods their bodies were never equipped to handle after thousands of years of eating quite differently (fresh vegetables and game vs. fried foods and carb-heavy snacks). Coupled with increased dependence on subsidies and lack of available jobs, the result is that diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide are common but never really acknowledged or healed.
In other places, Native Americans live in housing so substandard that any civilized city or town would destroy it immediately and rebuild safe and comfortable homes with electricity, clean water, sanitation, and access to education, communal entertainment, and cultural traditions and practices. But then, those cities and towns often have slums, shantytowns and substandard apartments that don't seem to be a priority-- except to those who live in them, and often they are so beaten down by poverty and powerlessness that they are unable to do much to help themselves.
We have not done much better with other ethnic groups and cultures. Painful as it is to admit, White Privilege still exists and works against those whose skins are different colors, whose religions are different and not well-understood, and whose origins are not Western. The events of the past several weeks, including the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, are just continued proof that racism and cultural hatred not only exists but in some cases flourishes in complete denial of the opening sentence of one of our most revered documents, the Declaration of Independence, which begins with, "We hold these truths to be self evident:, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
While Jefferson lived in a time where slavery was more or less accepted in the North as much as the South, and while the quotation calls out "man" rather than "human beings" or "people" indicating equality across the board at least gender-wise, it nonetheless should be understood to be a living document that allows for wider interpretation than simply literal words on the page.
Cornelius Hill did his best to uphold these words of freedom and equality. He was a bridge that both sides needed in order to connect the two and to try to make things better for both. There are a lot of those bridge builders today, both in the Daily Office commemorations and in ordinary life. The value of hearing stories of people we may never have come across is that we learn that there are ways of attempting a goal and making progress towards it, whether or not we ever see the full culmination or the final success.
Like the Bible study group at Mother Emanuel Church, and every other life ruined by fear, prejudice, or greed, these need to be reminders just as so many others that are featured on our newscasts and front pages as well as those who are simply invisible in their misery. Life is precious and there should be no room for racism, homophobia, or privilege that doesn't see what that privilege costs others. Cornelius Hill fought that kind of privilege; his people revered him for it.
We need to keep the stories in front of us so that none of us forgets that the way we live, the advantages we have, and even the freedom to practice religion should be available to everyone, no matter who or where. There are so many groups that need our attention as much as the Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans: the homeless, veterans, children of poverty and neglect, the list goes on and on and on.
We have a big job to do but it is no more than Jesus asked of us in the first place. When are we going to get busy and do it?
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 27, 2015.
Dedicated to Kaze Gadway, the Spirit Journey Youth, and Margaret Watson, all bridge-builders.