On Monday, October 10, about 70 students crowded into the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel. Though only a few states and cities in the U.S. celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of Columbus Day on the second Monday in October, Williams Interfaith and VISTA co-sponsored a Religion and Colonialism dinner discussion to remember, acknowledge, and grieve the ongoing violence against indigenous peoples that religion has often perpetuated.
In acknowledgment that the long history of imperialism in the Americas is far from over, the groups collected meal swipe donations to benefit the Camp of Sacred Stones, a gathering of indigenous peoples in North Dakota that stands in opposition to the construction of the Bakken oil Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). According to the protectors, as they call themselves, the pipeline would violate the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s treaty lands and sacred spaces, threatening their health, culture, and sovereignty. It also threatens farmland, drinking water, and even entire ecosystems along the Missouri River. By donating their swipes, students raised nearly $500.00 to support pipeline resistance.
All recipes used to prepare the dinner came from Decolonize Your Diet, a cookbook of plant-based Mexican-American recipes rich in plants indigenous to the Americas; the authors write that they are “passionate about the idea that Latinos in America, specifically Mexicans, need to ditch the fast food and return to their own culture’s food roots for both physical health and spiritual fulfillment.” The dinner’s menu included cauliflower ceviche, lentil soup, local bread, candied pumpkin, and agua de jamaica. In keeping with the cookbook’s mission, all recipes were vegetarian and relied on seasonally appropriate ingredients. Most of the food, from a pair of three-pound pumpkins to a jar of local honey, came from local farmers at the Bennington Farmer’s Market, supplemented with vegetables and herbs from the gardens at the Class of 1966 Environmental Center and only a few ingredients that required a trip to the grocery store.
The dinner began with a moment of silence initiated by VISTA’s Jaquí Serrano ’17, who asked those gathered to reflect on their relationship to the ground on which they stood and think about those who have known this land since long before the college existed. The crowd then spread out from the Interfaith Common Room to the other social rooms in the chapel basement to eat and mull over papers available on each table to facilitate discussion. These papers included quotations from liberation theologians who seek to reclaim Christianity from the perspective of the oppressed: “The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation more than he is the God of nature,” read one quotation from Gustavo Gutiérrez. Another quotation came from an article about the relationship between pipeline opposition and spirituality:
“You can’t separate spirituality from our everyday life,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Councilman Dana Yellow Fat. “We do everything with prayer.” The demonstration [against the pipeline’s construction] began in April with a 26-mile prayer ride on horseback from Sitting Bull’s burial site in Fort Yates. Prayer continues at the camps throughout the day, in the morning and evening and at mealtimes, in vigils, in songs, in prayer ties knotted to fences along construction sites, in the sage and cedar and tobacco that is burned.
In addition to the quotations, printed questions asked participants to examine their own relationships to the dinner’s themes: How does the relationship between religion and colonialism manifest in your life? How does it affect your spirituality or worldview? How can we decolonize our religious communities?
Ultimately, the event helped students draw connections between intersectional social and environmental justice issues, highlighting the connections among racism, religious violence, and environmental degradation. According to Bushra Ali ’17, a member of Interfaith, “the dinner attracted a wide base of students with different stakes in the conversation. We all came together and thoughtfully reflected on related systems and struggles that we’re all invested in.”
Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. As chair of Williams Interfaith, she was heavily involved in organizing this event.