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Healing Turtle Island

Friday, November 27, 2009 (the day after Thanksgiving), marked the first Native American Heritage Day, as signed into law in June by President Obama. On that day, members of the many bands of the Lenape family of Indians, from as far away as Canada, came to lower Manhattan to participate in an historic healing ceremony with members of the Collegiate Church of New York, the oldest surviving institution of the 17th-century Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The event was planned and organized by Intersections, in partnership with representatives of the Lenape people.

The Rev. Robert Chase, Intersections founding director, read a statement that acknowledged the Collegiate Church’s complicity in imposing a culture and economic system on the Lenape that led to great suffering. The Church’s 57-member Consistory (governing board) unanimously approved a resolution that states, in part:

We, the Collegiate Church, recognize our part in your suffering … We consumed your resources, dehumanized your people, and disregarded your culture, along with your dreams, hopes and great love for this land. We express sorrow for our part in these actions.

The ceremony, called “Healing Turtle Island,” the term Native Americans use for what Europeans call “the new world,” featured several Lenape spokespersons, including Ron Holloway, Chair of the Sand Hill (Lenape) Band of Indians, who offered an expression of appreciation:

Today, the descendants of the original explorers who landed here have come to the descendants of those who have always been here, and openly apologized for their responsibility in policies that so decimated our peoples. They have extended their hands in friendship to chart a new course of race relations, to usher in a new era of healing and reconciliation that can only have beneficial results for the whole of humanity.

Representatives of Collegiate Church and the Lenape signified their reconciliation by exchanging wampum, which Native Americans traditionally used to seal a treaty. “From the beginning,” said Chase, “we did not want this day to be a one-time event. Rather, it marks the beginning of a partnership between our two communities. In fact, collaborations have already begun in education, especially among children; in arts and culture; and in the delivery of services to Native Americans in social and economic distress. This day is symbolic of a new way forward."

More than 350 news outlets across the United States and dozens more overseas covered the event. A highlight video can be found here. After hearing a report on NPR, Bret Anderson, a middle school teacher at the American School in Budapest, showed the video to his 8th-grade students. “Thanks for doing such a courageous thing,” Anderson wrote. “It is a great example to the kids. We talked about being able to admit that we have done wrong; or that our people [have], or nation has, made a mistake; and how important it is to be able to apologize. We also talked at some length about how important it is to be able to forgive. Very powerful lessons for 14 year olds.”

John Bond, a chief architect of Australia’s Sorry Day, for which he won the Australian Medal of Honor, said, “The news of your event will reach far among Native Americans, I believe, because it came from your hearts … In our experience, when the descendents of the colonisers learn what happened, many consciences are stirred, and people are prompted to take action, which helps heal the wounds.”