By Becka Fergusson-Lutz, Youth and Young Adult Ministry Working Group Co-chair
The Presbytery of Genesee Valley, through the generous support of the PCUSA’s national Office of Youth Triennium, hosted the Kairos Blanket Exercise at the Presbyterian Church in Geneva on April 22, 2023. This activity is part of the Witness to Injustice project of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a Syracuse-based non-profit organization comprised of those who care about the indigenous nation. The activity itself was facilitated by a group of European-American allies and indigenous elders. Among them was Sachem Sam, the spiritual and political leader of the Onondaga Nation, and his wife Debbie.
At the start of the exercise, the space enclosed by the circle of chairs was entirely covered by blankets of all colors and textures. Each blanket represented a portion of land traditionally inhabited by a group of indigenous people. When we began, participants were given colored ribbons to place around their necks; each color represented a group of nations or tribes in a particular region. For example, the orange ribbon represented the Cherokee and Chippewa and others of the Southeast U.S., and the pink ribbon represented the Dine, Navajo, and Pueblo peoples of the Southwest U.S.
Over the course of about an hour, the facilitators narrated the major events of indigenous history over the past 531 years, since Christopher Columbus reached the shores of what we call North America. All of us, taking on the identities of various native peoples, saw how truly detrimental European contact was to the indigenous way of life. The Sullivan-Clinton campaign, the Trail of Tears, the Indian Removal Act. Smallpox, tuberculosis, famine — all of these events eroded the physical, economic, and spiritual well-being of the native peoples. As the tribes dwindled and their social infrastructure crumbled, indigenous peoples lost their power, the identity, and their land. With each treaty that was broken, more and more of the land was taken away. With each contact with Europeans, a blanket was kicked away, folded up, or snatched.
This interactive approach allows participants like us to revisit and make connections to the concepts, events, and themes that we have learned in their United States History classes. The Kairos Blanket Exercise is particularly powerful as an empathy-building exercise, however. In this photograph, we can see Ellie (one of our young friends from Avon) being pulled from her homeland to attend a residential boarding school operated by the U.S. government. (This boarding school is represented by the red, white, and blue striped towel.) This removal was particularly significant when the group realized that Sachem Sam, one of the facilitators, had himself attended the Thomas Indian School, a residential boarding school in Erie County. Even more troubling is to consider that Christian pastors and missionaries were complicit in this injustice, as the boarding school was founded by Presbyterian missionaries in the 1850s.
At the end of the exercise, only one young person remained standing in the circle. She was literally and figuratively “the remnant,” to use an ancient metaphor from the Old Testament to describe the few remaining Jewish people living in exile in Babylon. She was the only representative of her people – the native peoples of Turtle Island — to survive the many horrors of war, famine, disease.
Although the Kairos Blanket Exercise was emotionally difficult, the facilitators worked hard to inspire participants to channel their feelings into action for justice. They encouraged everyone to acknowledge and name their feelings, but not to sit too long with guilt or shame for the events of the past. The purpose is to confront history, build empathy, and inspire action around the issues of injustice that we currently face. They provided an important reminder that redemption is always possible, that God is always at work in us and in our communities, and that no story is ever final.