Insights and Reflections from Syracuse University's Conference on the Religious Origins of White Supremacy

Jan. 16, 2024 By Tati Cosper, Program Assistant
Insights and Reflections from Syracuse University's Conference on the Religious Origins of White Supremacy
“We were planting corn and they were planting crosses. Faithkeeper Oren Lyons.” Image from the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center.

From December 8th – 10th, 2023, I attended Syracuse University's "The Religious Origins of White Supremacy Conference," a Henry Luce Foundation-supported event through the Religion and Theology Program.

The conference aimed to 1) Commemorate the 200-year mark of Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823); 2) Share a timeline of colonial law; 3) Discuss how religion was weaponized to justify and support land dispossession and other forms of violence directed at Indigenous people in pursuit of westward expansion. 

Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823) was the first property law case in the U.S. questioning if American settlers could get land titles from Native nations. In present-day Illinois, two non-Native individuals had competing land titles: one from the federal government and the other from the Piankeshaw Nation. Chief Justice Marshal's ruling stated that Native nations could not sell land as they lacked title; only Western colonizing nations had the right to claim land by divine right, while Native people were simply land occupants.

Chief Justice Marshal's ruling established the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, a Catholic Church doctrine asserting the divine right of Christian nations to claim land from non-Christian peoples. This doctrine changed Native American life and federal Indian policy to date, including in recent cases like McGirt v. Oklahoma in 2020.

The conference, featuring distinguished Indigenous scholars, leaders, and religious scholars, practitioners, and leaders held engaging conversations that highlighted the need to bridge interconnected histories and foster relationships grounded in repair and reciprocity. In addition, the conference provided a platform to initiate conversations that address the need for an integrated approach to allyship alongside Indigenous communities while emphasizing harmful colonial histories and their outcomes.

The Bishops Panel is an experience I will carry throughout my career and as a professional new to philanthropy. 

An igniting panel conversation moderated by Philip Arnold, seated by Rt. Rev. Dr. DeDe Duncan-Probe (Episcopalian Bishop), Bishop Douglas Lucia (Catholic Bishop), Rev. Lee M. Miller II (Lutheran Bishop), Jake Haiwhagai'i Edwards (Onondaga Nation, Indigenous Values Initiative), and Freida J. Jacques, Whatwehni:neh (Turtle Clan Mother, a leader of Onondaga Nation) led to a passionate audience discussion centering action, education, and allyship. 

Each Bishop read letters addressed to the room acknowledging government-mandated violence against Native people, supported by religious institutions, that would historically lead and influence governments into the contemporary. 

Engaging in critical conversations such as these are a good start to address how groups can work together to build a broader listening and action-based framework of support and repair. Far too often allyship is grounded in listening and learning-based conversations without follow-up action to support Indigenous Peoples.

As I reflected on the discussions, I realized that without action, valuable Indigenous knowledge becomes an extracted resource often at the benefit of non-Indigenous People. In addition, solutions to problems in Indigenous communities are often prescribed to Indigenous People by the exact colonial institutions that have historically oppressed and extracted from our community and created such harmful situations in the first place.

While listening to and learning about Indigenous communities is essential, so is acting alongside the leadership of community leaders willing to teach and have these conversations.

Throughout the conference, it became clear to me that there is an urgent need for more dynamic approaches to supporting Indigenous-led work that can include, but is not limited to, land back initiatives, rematriation of cultural objects and human remains, supporting data sovereignty work, ending boarding schools, environmental justice movements such as movements to prevent lithium mining in Nevada, ending the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis, etc.

One of the most memorable closing sessions was led by Māori creatives and activists, who demonstrated how traditional music, arts, poetry, storytelling, and ancestral puppetry can be used to support the healing of traumatic histories.

It was an honor to be in the same room as many people with such magnificent life and professional experiences through this conference.

Authored by:

Tati Cosper
Program Assistant: Tati Cosper

Tati Cosper (she/her/they/them) is the program assistant for the Religion & Theology and Indigenous Knowledge programs at the Henry Luce Foundation. Tati is an enrolled citizen of the Mvskoke Nation and is a second-generation German American. They were born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Kansas.

Tati moved to New York City in 2019 to begin their career volunteering for local non-profit organizations with the AmeriCorps Program. Through AmeriCorps, Tati learned to uplift funding resources through development and grant support for organizations like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. Before working with the Henry Luce Foundation, Tati worked with the Urban Indigenous Collective providing development support to increase wellness and educational resources for local Indigenous communities.

Religion and Theology

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