Abundant and loving Creator, present in a sacred, given River
Assiniboine, the Stone Sioux: a river, a rock that holds us here
Born on one side of the river, on one side of history
Born unaware: the River holds tragedy’s tears.
Christian capitalists conserving cherished concepts
Christian self-interest defecates idolatrous violence
Desecrated cubicles leading to virtual crescendos
Talking heads in downtrodden video-chat windows.
Each person passes over the River in fiberglass boxes
Every soul, a dark cloud, passing to cavernous offices.
Forgive us oh Lord, Creator of all
Forsaken we weren’t, but we have forsaken all.
Gauging divots on the south, haunting ghosts to the north.
Gasping, our wayward shot violates the other’s grave
How did Thou leave this place? How could we not have known?
How have our hosts been forced underground?
Ingloriously we built downtown south in fiberglass boxes
In vainglory, we thought we knew better, and Thou is distant
Just at the thought of grasping private wealth,
Justice came in snatching public health.
Killing our bodies for lofty ideas
Kinship is broken, bodies littered with poison
Thou has covered this place with despair
Letting disease and flood and strife fill the air.
My God, my God, why is your wrath present with us?
My God, my God, why is your absence within?
Now we are sick, now our hospitals are full
Now we are raped; we rape again and still.
Out of your presence, we left the temple.
Out of our minds, we buried the ministers.
Parked club-laden fiberglass south of the River,
Poured violence to the north on our long-suffering hosts.
Quit inhabiting and holding this place as a gift, we are
Quiet, and quivering; we have buried our shame
Raped a thousand young women, in Jesus’ name
Reaching deep underground, avoiding our pain.
Savior, Savior! Forgive us our sins?!
Send us back to the River again
To be baptized and reconciled, and to be washed,
Tranquil, Thy Presence, and our sin on the cross.
Unto Thou, we commit our spirit,
Unto Thou, who may not return it?
Voracious, Thy wrath is sent upon us.
Vacated downtown, as the Assiniboine floods it.
Weeping and wailing the children emerge
Writhing and wanting, our economics disturbed
All dreams of progress over-developed
Austerely looking for a virus undetected.
But the wrath pours out now, our families are gone.
Brother and Sister are threats, others, as the stone Sioux.
Zion is a settler memory, an imagination too.
Zion, everlong, is held by the stone Sioux.
When I was young, I was aware of significant wisdom that existed in peripheral proximity to my everyday life. This wisdom existed on the fringes – both vertically and horizontally. I am part of the settler culture that inhabited southwestern Manitoba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time we had committed two historical groups of sins with their related consequences: one to the very flat land and the river that ran through it – the Assiniboine River; and one to the Sioux people; “Assiniboine” means “the Stone Sioux” in the Sioux language. The peripheral wisdom of the Sioux people saw the relationship with the river, which is quite “horizontal” connecting them in a harmonious relationship with neighboring Dakota tribes, as part of their vertical relationship with the Creator.
The first sin, against the Assiniboine River, was a capitalist enterprise of settler culture that formed the city of Brandon, in which the downtown of Brandon, including the city golf course and the railway, was erected against the southern bank of the river. As the city expanded in my childhood, it took over the north side of the river. The consequences of this sin are evident in the now destruction of the once fertile land of Grand Valley, which is now a lost treasure of the region. Human destruction of the banks of the Assiniboine River, combined with warming temperatures of climate change, has been considered to be the leading cause of the most destructive events in the history of Brandon and the Assiniboine River. Since the first recordings in 1876, the two most devastating floods occurred in 2011 and 2014, and the worst drought since the Great Depression in 2021, i.e. in the last 10 years.
The second sin, against the Sioux and Dakota peoples, has been captured and in two great events to the periphery, which if one happens to be in the region, can be seen with human eyes. The first is the closing of the Brandon Indian Residential School in 1972 – one year after my birth – which has adjacent to it a large site with the unmarked graves of its victims, the children of the Dakota and Sioux peoples who were “educated” there. When I was a child, this site was a playground and recreational area called Curran Park. Now, it is a campground called Turtle Crossing. Vertically, buried under the feet of leisure and recreation lay the bodies of people desecrated by settler sins. The second event is the creation of reservations for Indigenous people, namely Griswold, Sioux Valley, and the Rolling River Reserve to the north of Brandon. They are literally on the periphery of the main settlement of Brandon which happens to be the second-largest city in Manitoba. The suicide rates in these communities are at least double of Brandon residents, and the life expectancy of a resident of Griswold is almost ⅓ lower than that of a person of Brandon, on average.
But the Sioux and the Dakota held a kind of wisdom in their relationship to the river the land which reflected their relationship with the Creator. By contrast, Brandon reflected a human artifice erected against the land as represented in the lament by fiberglass boxes, whether that be the cars that isolated individuals from each other, or the office buildings which are now decaying. The old Mackenzie Seeds Tower, once a majestic symbol of settler culture practice of unique agricultural prowess, now exists at the center of town with broken windows and the siding of the building crumbling. The flood of 2011 got to the foundation. And it is falling apart. Downtown Brandon, at one time, was erected against the river; now the river has punished Brandon. If you go downtown, it is a black hole of empty shops and a vacated shopping mall. The poorest people live downtown, and there are many people, including Dakota and Sioux descendants, that have had their spirits destroyed by alcohol and drug addiction.
I lament the broken relationship of the city of Brandon with the land that hosts it. I lament the broken relationship of settler culture with our indigenous hosts. Both of these are horizontally on the periphery. I lament the dead and abused children of the Brandon Indian Residential School who are buried under one of Brandon’s so-called “top spots.” I lament the broken relationship with our Creator that we brought with us when we settled. Both of these are vertically on the periphery.
I don’t know if God will restore our relationship to health and wholeness. We are at God’s mercy because Brandon still expands and destroys the river; still allows a campground to cover the raping and murdering of our Indigenous hosts. And all the while, unrepentant, we suffer from floods and drought, from a decomposing capitalist project, and we become more and more isolated. The devastation has not yet reached its peak. God have mercy upon us.
I lament that this brokenness is “built-in” to the very identity of Brandon – and thus, also into my childhood identity. But when I was a baby, I was babysat by a young Dakota woman named Kathy Whitecloud. She was a student at the university where my Dad was a dean. My father called her a “Godsend”. She is now, at the time of writing this, a knowledge-keeper, a grandmother, in the Dakota community. And she lives about a 10-minute drive from my oldest sister. But we only recently came to know that she lives there. We are still separate from the Godsend. And that bare, personal, fact puts me in the vulnerable reminder that we descendants of our settler, Sioux, and Dakota ancestors, have been born broken and unreconciled and continue down the path where wisdom is further and further on the periphery.
Most significantly, I want to address the vertical and horizontal brokenness we feel at our centers. 2 X 2 graphs with four quadrants are often a way to portray dynamic feelings and experiences and are a common tool in the social sciences. In our horizontal relationships with our flat prairie home and our indigenous neighbors, settler sin is in the middle, pushing these valuable parts of our context to the periphery – leaving a cavernous hole in the soul. In our vertical brokenness, we have literally tried to bury our sins underground in order to “forget” them. What one sees is a recreational site; what one desecrates in that space are lives and culture. If you look at the chart below you will see what I mean:
I implore our Creator to have mercy upon us. Christians of a settler culture aspire to heaven, to Zion. But such Christians can only grasp heaven as a memory or an aspiration, and the key to healing this broken in-between is to confess to the Sioux and the Dakota our sins and ask for forgiveness, and to restore our relationship by aligning our capitalist aspirations with the river, instead of against it. And we know the suffering to both sides will continue until we confess our sins and go through the process of forgiveness. I was born into brokenness and I grieve the loss of unreflective Progress, but more importantly, grieve the sins committed against the Lord against the gift of the River, and against the bodies of our indigenous hosts.