Over the centuries in the US, Quakers and Indians have shared a special relationship in the hearts and minds of many people. Artwork and lore have commemorated William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom efforts in establishing the Pennsylvania colony in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Relative to other settlers and landowners of his time, Penn made a concerted effort to demonstrate that settlers and natives could live peaceably together. As we know now, the vision did not hold, but the reputation of Friends as protectors of Indians persists. Is it deserved? How accurate is it? To put it bluntly, Friends have benefited greatly from the relations with Indians, but have Indians benefited?
I recently had the opportunity to join the Joint Service Project/Western Quaker Workcamp to do some service work on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The group that was on this trip was Young Friends from Downingtown (PA) Monthly Meeting. Among the things we saw and visited was Wounded Knee, and we heard history presentations about the various treaties, broken promises and violence that took place in this region (including that Mount Rushmore was carved on land that had been previously given to Indians). At the same time, coincidentally, I was reading a newly written book called “Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment” by Kevin Kenny. This book had been given to me by Byron at WPH prior to my even knowing about going to South Dakota.
So, here I was, touring new (for me) territory in South Dakota, hearing about the massacres of the late middle to late 1800’s, while at the same time reading about the violation of treaties and subsequent massacres that occurred in eastern Pennsylvania roughly 150 years prior. It was striking me that the template for what occurred to the Indians from the late 1600’s to the late 1800’s (and really continues to this day to some extent) was established in Pennsylvania. Throughout that history, some very familiar names (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Penn, Lincoln, among others) can be seen in a variety of lights. But for differences in time, names could be changed (Massacre at Wounded Knee, Massacre of Conestogas, for example) and the same narrative would unfold.
Some of my observations and thoughts, specifically regarding Quakers, are:
• William Penn, while certainly a progressive for his time, was no prophet. He was committed to trying to live peaceably among Indians, but he was also trying to protect his own extensive land-holdings that were granted to him by the King of England.
• Penn established one of the earliest treaties with Indians, but perhaps did not fully appreciate that the relation that Indians had with land ownership was very different than his. This misunderstanding led to future conflicts.
• Penn’s children were greedy.
• Penn’s early treaties were some of the first treaties to be broken, setting the template for making and breaking treaties.
• Pennsylvania and east coast Quakers were not necessarily good community members and leaders. They wanted to take Indian lands, be rulers of the government, but were not willing to really deal with the conflicts that were emerging. This avoidance of conflict in its early stages continues to challenge us.
It seems clear to me that Friends have greatly benefited (and perhaps we pat ourselves on the back as well) for our intentions with regards to Indians over the years, and to be sure we have compassion for all that has happened. But I also think that because we have benefited from this reputation, we have work to do. We cannot turn the clock back, but perhaps we can look forward with a vision of the Peaceable Kingdom once again. One of the things we heard in South Dakota was that the US government has never apologized for the Massacre at Wounded Knee. That has started some of us thinking that if we are going to be a force for creating the Peaceable Kingdom, perhaps we should start with promoting reconciliation and forgiveness, and then following this up not just with our own trips and project on the reservations, but also with our advocacy to keep promises that are currently in-place but not being met. Basically, it seems like a great opportunity for Friends to earn the reputation of being good Friends to the Indians, rather than simply resting on our questionable laurels in this arena.