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2010-11-01 issue:

Mennonites apologize to Native Americans

Leaders in Lancaster, Pa., ask forgiveness for over 300 years of abuse.

by Lowell Brown for The Mennonite

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Mennonite, Presbyterian and Quaker leaders, along with state and local government officials, apologized and asked forgiveness for 300 years of misunderstanding, neglect and abuse of Native Americans in Lancaster County, Pa., in a public ceremony at First Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, on Oct. 9.

Curtis Zunigha of the Lenape tribe speaks at the Oct. 9 ceremony. Photo by Lowell Brown.

Their statements were received by Native Americans representing the Iroquois, Lenape, Shawnee, Susquehanna and other tribes who once lived in the area, as well as Native people from other regions who now live in Lancaster County.

The service was part of Lancaster Roots 300, a year-long series of events organized by Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and the 1719 Hans Herr House to commemorate the first European settlement here in 1710.

Lloyd Hoover, Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishop; Steve Lapp, Amish minister; J. Richard Thomas, moderator-elect of Mennonite Church USA; and Keith Wilson, Atlantic Coast Conference coordinator, read together a Mennonite Resolution of Apology to Native Peoples signed by a score of local Mennonite leaders.

The statement says, "As Mennonites and the first European settlers of the land known as Lancaster County ... we recognize that we have failed in living out our convictions to live peacefully and express love for all people as modeled and taught by Jesus Christ."

In 1717, Pennsylvania's Quaker founder, William Penn, set aside 16,000 acres for the local Conestoga tribe as agreed by treaty. But beginning in 1730, a rapidly growing population of Mennonites and other immigrants hunted, fished and occupied portions of the Conestoga Manor.

By 1763, the situation was so dire that the tribe formally complained to the state that they were starving and naked—unable to provide for their community with the land and wildlife that remained. That same year, a militia of Presbyterians from Paxton Township, frustrated by violence on the Pennsylvania frontier, rode into Lancaster and brutally murdered the remaining Conestogas while they were under protective custody in the town jail.

No one from the militia was prosecuted, and Mennonites failed to call for justice, despite the fact that they held positions in local government during this time period, the Mennonite resolution says.

"In my opinion, they were hypocrites," said Mary Ann Robins, an Onondaga Indian who lives in Lancaster County. "We had the same problems—religious persecution and being denied the freedom to live in peace. These religious groups had no sympathy or regard for us; they ignored what was happening to our people."

Uhma Ruth Py, a Lenape elder whose ancestors married Pennsylvania Germans, said, "From the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s, we had to hide our identities, and as a result, we have lost a lot of our culture."

On Oct. 9, there were signs of progress.

"I believe this is a sincere apology," said Curtis Zunigha, a representative of the Delaware tribe. "I will go back and share your sentiments and your words and ask if they want to offer forgiveness."

J.R. Boyd, a chief of the Lakota/Dakota Sioux, went a step further. "I forgive you," he said. "I forgive you for murdering my people. I forgive you for raping my people. I forgive you for the pain and suffering I still deal with, for breaking the spirit of our children."

Several people in the room sobbed audibly. Native American and church leaders agreed that these words will seem hollow without tangible signs of contrition and forgiveness.

Among other efforts, Mennonites will support construction of a replica Native American longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House, said Brinton Rutherford, a resource staff person for Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The 1719 Herr House is seeking $100,000 for its construction and an additional $250,000 as an endowment for maintenance and interpretative costs.

On Oct. 16, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society will introduce a new tour book, Pequea Settlement 1710: Self-Guided Tour, with a tour of six sites that are part of Lancaster County's first European settlement.­

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