Moving Beyond Land Acknowledgment toward Decolonization
A Review of
Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization
Elaine Enns and Ched Myers
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2021
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Reviewed by Katerina Friesen
Over the last decade, I have noticed land acknowledgments become increasingly widespread at public events in the United States, and even in some church communities. These short but significant statements invite listeners to honor the Indigenous lands where they are located and to learn the names of Indigenous nations who have called that place home in the past and present. I’ve also heard Indigenous peoples say that simply acknowledging the lands unjustly taken from them is not enough. Many, such as Indigenous Christian activists and authors like Sarah Augustine, Mark Charles, and Randy Woodley, invite those of us who are settlers to go beyond acknowledgment and seek repair and redress for the harms done under colonization. They call us on a path of decolonization. One outstanding resource for that inward and outward journey of decolonization is a recent book, Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization, by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers. Enns and Myers are two scholar-activists who have committed their life’s work to animating church communities to pursue restorative justice, liberatory Bible study, place-based discipleship, and most recently, decolonization.
The aim of Healing Haunted Histories, as articulated in the first chapter, is to “understand how our histories, landscapes, and communities are haunted by the long and continuing history of Indigenous dispossession wrought by settler colonialism” (10). Enns and Myers make the case that settlers, particularly white folks, need to do our own work of learning our family stories to the extent possible, lest we dissociate or appropriate others’ stories in the pursuit of social justice. As we learn the truth of our stories, including both the painful parts and the gifts passed down that offer possibilities for healing, we are invited into the work of restorative solidarity. Restorative solidarity entails settler “response-ability” (a brilliant term the authors coined that refers to our ability to respond to historic injustice) to “dismantle and heal from settler colonialism, as well as to accompany and collaborate with Indigenous communities” (12).
Enns and Myers weave three strands throughout the book, like a braided river, which offer guidance for understanding our family histories and the places we inhabit: 1) Landlines, which involves learning more about the lands from where our ancestors came and to where they moved, as well as who lived there prior to settler arrival; 2) Bloodlines of family and community, or the stories our ancestors passed down or silenced, along with the traumas they endured; and 3) Songlines, or “liberative traditions that inspire practices of justice and compassion” (14). These may include faith traditions and scripture stories that contribute to intergenerational resilience. At the end of each section on landlines, bloodlines, and songlines, the authors include thought-provoking reflection questions related to the theme, which I could see working well for a Sunday school or adult education time for church communities. I found the queries very helpful both in the classroom, for personal reflection and journaling.
I assigned this book as a core text in a class called “Decolonization and Discipleship” that I taught in 2021 at my alma mater, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. During the course, we wrestled with the Doctrine of Discovery and the “haunted history” of Potawatomi land dispossession and government-sponsored removals from northern Indiana. We also walked a portion of the Trail of Death, where a forced removal had taken place.
I was curious how students from different cultural and racial backgrounds would respond to this book. I resonated deeply with Enns’ family story of Russian Mennonite settlement, suffering and migration, since my mother’s German-speaking grandparents migrated under great duress from Ukraine in the 1920s and settled on land stolen from Yokuts tribal communities in central California. Yet I was apprehensive about how a book so rooted in European family narratives would resonate with others. I felt gratified to witness how two international students, one from Nigeria and one from Indonesia, connected with the themes of intergenerational trauma that Enns explores with acute sensitivity and integration of recent scholarship. The emphasis on healing intergenerational trauma invited them to deepen their exploration of their own family bloodlines and migration stories, even if their ancestors did not displace indigenous communities. They also welcomed the opportunity to learn about the Indigenous peoples who inhabit the lands where they are studying, and to compare and contrast colonization as experienced in their home countries with colonization in the United States and Canada.
The diverse group of students additionally appreciated the distinctions in the book among reasons for migration, such as whether they or their ancestors came as colonists, opportunists, distressed immigrants, or under forced migration (67-68). Though some of the students found it dense, the inclusion of Enns’s personal family stories and Myers’s engaging and incisive interludes of Bible studies offered a refreshing change of pace and perspective.
It’s rare to encounter a moving family memoir, in-depth trauma research, sociopolitical Bible study, analysis of white supremacy, and practical opportunities for practicing decolonization all in the same book! A word for would-be readers: Healing Haunted Histories is not for the faint of heart; emotional self-reflection, sensitive questions for family members about intergenerational trauma, and the slow and careful work of seeking solidarity with Indigenous communities may result from delving into this thick read that is impossible to skim.
I’ve heard it said that for many white folks like myself, books function in the role of elders, a role that has largely been lost in white settler society. Healing Haunted Histories is the kind of book I would consider an elder, a book to return to again and again to uncover new layers of identity, vision and guidance for the inner and outer work of decolonization. With care and nuance, this book challenges us as Christian communities to engage in costly discipleship that requires us to examine how our lives have been built on structures of violence against our Indigenous neighbors and would-be hosts. The authors call us toward a radical conversion in step with an Indigenous Jesus who offers healing and liberation from the wounding ways of settler colonialism through practices of solidarity, reparation and repatriation. Ultimately, the invitation to restorative solidarity is a total transformation of our lives and relationships; a change that does not come easily, in my experience. Yet the authors hold out the gospel hope that with repentance, change is possible.
Katerina Friesen is a Mennonite pastor and educator who lives on Yokuts land in Fresno, California. Her work and ministry are inspired by Jesus's call to Jubilee justice and healing. She organizes for Indigenous solidarity with the Anabaptist Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition and pastors Wild Church, Fresno, and is an adjunct faculty member with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
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