Respecting the Land to Which We Belong

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Respect is about being, says Rev. Steve Dick, former Executive Director of the International Council of UUs, “in right relationship.” Being in a relationship where each party is honored and respected. We UUs, who read and re-educate ourselves and re-evaluate what it means to be in right relationship with each other, as history unfolds, as knowledge expands, know that we must pay attention as more and more voices speak their truth. It has become the practice of those folk who wish to be in right relationship not only with each other, but with the land they occupy and with those who have lived on that land before, to acknowledge who was here. It is a matter of respect.

I would like us to start using this Land Acknowledgement.

“The land on which we have met and will again meet in Somerville, NJ is part of the ancient homeland and traditional territory of the Lenape people. We pay respect to Lenape peoples, past, present, and future, and their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Lenape diaspora.”

Who were the Lenape? They were the indigenous people who lived on both sides of what the European colonizers would name the Delaware River. The Europeans called the people that were here the Delaware Indians. Some of those people called themselves Lenape, or Lenni Lenape, which can be translated to mean the “original people.” They were descended from people who lived in this area since the Stone Age. Between the 1400s and the very early 1600s, the original people are thought to have numbered around 20,000. They made their homes in longhouses in the woodlands, but would travel far and wide to hunt and to fish. By the middle to late 1600s, they were nearly decimated by disease and by the violence of the colonists, who were intent on claiming this land as their own.

It is a sad story about the cruelty wrought by assumed superiority.

There are no federally recognized Native American tribes in New Jersey, yet the state recognizes three different Lenape tribes. 

The land this congregation owns was likely part of the space the Lenni Lenape people roamed and thought of as sacred. We now occupy the land from which they made their living, which they occupied for much, much longer than there has been a Somerville, a Somerset County, or the State of New Jersey. Yet their existence is barely acknowledged.

As I have said to you before, I find the Borough of Somerville’s website lacking in perspective. There is no mention that there were human beings who roamed this land, who knew this as their home, long before European colonists settled in Somerville in the late 1600s. Perhaps that is because by that time most—if not all—of the indigenous people who lived in this area had been pushed out. So the settlers thought of this land as “empty.” It wasn’t.

Legends and stories tell us that the Lenni Lenape were a gentle people who may have initially welcomed the new settlers they encountered, who tried to accommodate them, negotiate with them. Yet indigenous folk were, in the end, forced from the land they knew, and perhaps worst of all, they were dehumanized, understood to be less than human. Only a few remained or returned. Most were forced to move on. Some were pushed north into Canada, or west into Ohio and eventually into Oklahoma. Most lost their lives to violence or European disease.   

We don’t know as much about them as we might, because they rightfully didn’t trust the colonizers to record their stories with any accuracy. So what we now have is what remains in the oral histories the remaining descendants carry. It is a sad story captured in the horror of the Trail of Tears.

I am not suggesting that you need to feel personally responsible for what happened. But I do think it is time we act with respect, meaning that we stop pretending we don’t know. We do know who was on this land that we now claim as “ours.”

As Maya Angelou was famous for saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

We can do better. We can respect who was here, and who remains here. We can lift up their voices. We can broaden our sense of perspective. Doing so is not only a form of recognition, but an act of reconciliation; a step towards acknowledging the truth, giving us perspective about how we benefit by “owning” land that was—for many more years than our ownership—the home of the woodland Lenape people.

We can extend the same sort of respect for the land on which we will gather again soon by our land acknowledgement, a new sense of respect for the many lands that we have personally lived on, and those that our ancestors occupied. Knowing where we come from, where our ancestors came from, helps us to gain perspective about who we are. It helps us to know why a particular landscape makes us feel at home, or ill at ease.

We can ask, “How did my ancestors come to be on the land they occupied? Did they benefit from an occupancy that meant others were deprived of their home? Are there stories about our ancestors being forced to move on because the land didn’t supply the resources they needed to live? Did violence and a hope for peace push them on? What is in the story that we have not yet told?”

What might we learn that would give us more perspective?

Do the legends we share feed our sense of solidarity with others, or are they poisoned by a myopic lens that blinds us to the truth?

What are we not hearing that the previous occupants of this land heard?

Is there a woodland where we go to listen to the birds and the insects, the wind in the leaves, the creaking and groaning of the trees, noticing who else is out there, not far away but nearby?

Is there that land that provides you with a place where you just sit quietly, where you can overhear a peace whispering through the centuries, a peace that is missing from the clamor of the moment?

Until they were influenced by Christianity, native Americans didn’t pray to a God. They recognized the spirit of a place, of the land, of whatever land they were on.

Please join me in the spirit of meditation as we welcome spring.

Bring Us Close to the Earth
Spirit of Life,
Ground of our being,
Root of unified mystery
Growing into myriad branches of expression,
Bring us together now.
Bring us close to the earth,
Ear to the whispering grass,
Waiting with slow breaths,
Listening for the very stones to cry out
With their rocky stories of
Tectonic plates meeting and parting meeting
Their mineral memories of
Hadean days, molten rocks flowing and joining
Their ancient legends of
Stars born out of the collapse of other stars
Help us to re-member.
Help us to piece together
Our one-ness with matter,
Our one-ness that matters.
With one more deep breath,
May we rise, star-stuff walking and rolling
Across the surface of an impossible blue-green planet.
May we join together to heal what is divided.
May we find wholeness within, without, among, between.
Eternal Source, Seed of the Universe, help us to grow peace.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.

—Rev. Lyn Cox

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