The Presbytery of Genesee Valley, through the generous support of the PCUSA’s national Office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium, hosted the Kairos Blanket Exercise at the Presbyterian Church in Geneva. This activity is part of the Witness to Injustice project of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a Syracuse-based non-profit organization comprised of those who care about the indigenous nation. The activity itself was facilitated by a group of European-American allies and indigenous elders. Among them was Sachem Sam, the spiritual and political leader of the Onondaga Nation, and his wife Debbie.
At the start of the exercise, the space enclosed by the circle of chairs was entirely covered by blankets of all colors and textures. Each blanket represented a portion of land traditionally inhabited by a group of indigenous people. When we began, participants were given colored ribbons to place around their necks; each color represented a group of nations or tribes in a particular region. For example, the orange ribbon represented the Cherokee and Chippewa and others of the Southeast U.S., and the pink ribbon represented the Dine, Navajo, and Pueblo peoples of the Southwest U.S.
Over the course of about an hour, the facilitators narrated the major events of indigenous history over the past 531 years, since Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of (what we call) North America. All of us, taking on the identities of various native peoples, saw how truly detrimental European contact was to the indigenous way of life. The Sullivan-Clinton campaign, the Trail of Tears, the Indian Removal Act. Smallpox, tuberculosis, famine — all of these events eroded the physical, economic, and spiritual well-being of the native peoples. As the tribes dwindled and their social infrastructure crumbled, indigenous peoples lost their power, the identity, and their land. With each treaty that was broken, more and more of the land was taken away. With each contact with Europeans, a blanket was kicked away, folded up, or snatched.
At the end of the exercise, only one young person remained. She was literally and figuratively “the remnant,” to use an ancient metaphor from the Old Testament to describe the few remaining Jewish people living in exile in Babylon. She was the only representative of her people to survive the many horrors of war, famine, disease.
Although the Kairos Blanket Exercise was emotionally difficult, the facilitators worked hard to inspire participants to channel their feelings into action for justice. They encouraged everyone to acknowledge and name their feelings, but not to sit too long with guilt or shame for the events of the past. The purpose is to confront history, build empathy, and inspire action around the issues of injustice that we currently face. They provided an important reminder that redemption is always possible, that God is always at work in us and in our communities, and that no story is ever final.