“This Land is Whose Land?”

October 10, 2021

Rev. Maddie Sifantus with Ruth Ricards


Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer from “Braiding Sweetgrass”


CALL TO WORSHIP                                        Robin Wall Kimmerer

“We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep.

Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath.

Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift

and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.” (104)


LIGHTING THE CHALICE                                        Robin Wall Kimmerer

We light our chalice this morning with those words of reciprocity from Robin Wall Kimmerer and in gratitude and acknowledgment for those who came before us and still reside on these lands–for us here in Ventura County, the Chumash peoples:


“In a culture of gratitude, everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again…The grass in the ring is trodden down in a path from gratitude to reciprocity. We dance in a circle, not in a line. (381)


TIME FOR ALL AGES         Three Sisters                  Rev. Maddie

Tomorrow is something called Indigenous Peoples Day. Where I grew up on the East Coast, it was called Columbus Day but as we look back at the way we were taught history, those of us of a certain age, it has become clear that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America at all. Other Europeans, including Vikings, were on this continent before him. But there were also the peoples who had been here for literally thousands of years.

Indigenous Peoples, are also called first people, aboriginal people, or native people. They are culturally distinct ethnic groups, nations, if you will, who are native to a place which has been colonized and settled by another ethnic group.[1] You may have heard them called Indians. These peoples were here long before settlers came, raising their families, finding food and living in many different settlements all across the continent and speaking different languages.

We know that we here are living on the land of the Chumash. In fact we can just go over to our library and see a mural with scenes of the Chumash with the foothills we know well in the background. We should know more about their history and the history we have all inherited, much of it not so pretty. And the Chumash are still here in Ventura County and on the Central Coast. So before I tell you a little bit about the Three Sisters,  I would like to acknowledge the Chumash whose land we are on today.  (PAUSE)

Have you heard of the Three Sisters or a Three Sisters garden? The objects on our altar table today should give you some clues. No, a Three Sisters Garden isn’t a garden tended to by 3 women who are related to each other! The Three Sisters Garden is a kind of companion planting; the corn, beans and squash are grown at the same time in the same growing area.

According to Native American legend, these 3 crops are inseparable sisters who can only grow and thrive together. When European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s and had that first mythical Thanksgiving, the Iroquois had been growing the Three Sisters for over 3 centuries!

There is an author whose name is Robin Wall Kimmerer who is a member of the Potawatomi nation. She wrote a book called Braiding Sweetgrass which some of our readings are drawn from today. Kimmerer is a scientist and professor who studies plants. She tells this story in her book:

“Years ago, Awiaka, a Cherokee writer, pressed a small packet into my hand. It was a corn leaf, dry and folded into a pouch, tied with a bit of string. She smiled and warned, “Don’t open ‘til spring.” In May I untie the packet and there is the gift: three seeds. One is a golden triangle, a kernel of corn with a broadly dimpled top that narrows to a hard white tip. The glossy bean is a speckled brown, curved and sleek, its inner belly marked with a white eye….It slides like a polished stone between my thumb and forefinger, but this is no stone. And there is a pumpkin seed like an oval china dish, it edge crimped shut like a piecrust bulging with filling. I hold in my hand the genius of indigenous agriculture—the Three Sisters. Together these plants—corn, beans and squash—feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live.”

“For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw indigenous gardens, they [assumed] that who they took for savages didn’t know how to farm. [In] their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species….”[2] But instead, what they found was an incredible gift. What we can now discover is how that gift and so many others can help us learn to live on our planet today.


MEDITATION IN WORD                                                   Black Elk

Hear me, four quarters of the world—a relative I am!

Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!

Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand so that I can be like you…

Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather,

All over the earth the faces of living things are all alike.

With tenderness have these come up out of the ground.

Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms

That they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.[3]


And from Jamie Sams:[4]

Earth Mother teach me of my kin,

Of hawk and dove and flower,

Of blinding sunlight, shady knoll,

Desert wind and morning showers.

Teach me every language of

The creatures that sing to me,

That I may count the cadence of

Infinite lessons in harmony.


READING  The Honorable Harvest                              Robin Wall Zimmerer

Today as part of our service considering our thoughts on what is now called Indigenous People’s Day, we lift up Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thoughts from her outstanding book Braiding Sweetgrass on how we consume in a way that does justice to the lives we take–that how the world works is the exchange of a life for a life, what she says is “the endless cycling between my body and the body of the world.”   (p. 177)


Hear her words of the Honorable Harvest:

“The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole—they are reinforced in small acts of daily life. But if you were to list them, they may look something like this:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.

Never take the first. Never take the last.

Take only what you need.

Take only which is given.

Never take more than half. Leave some for others.

Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.


Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you.”  (p. 183)


SERMON    This Land Is Whose Land?                         Rev. Maddie Sifantus

We have inherited great wisdom from those who lived on this land before the arrival of the white people. I pause to give thanks for that wisdom and the people like Robin Wall Kimmerer from the Potawatomi Nation who share their wisdom with us who live on what was their land. Would that we would listen to the Honorable Harvest.

Another writer who brings us great wisdom and the reconsideration of the myths that make up the history that many of us grew up with is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. She wrote a book that was the UUA’s Common Read the year of the shutdown for the pandemic so we never got to it: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. There are copies of it in our Parish Hall if you would care to read it. I would still love to discuss it. In a second version of her book made for young people she writes: “Under the crust of that part of the earth called the United States of America are buried the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of the first people of that land—the people who are often called American Indians or Native Americans. Their descendants, also called Indigenous peoples, carry memories and stories of how the United States came to be the nation we know today. It is important to learn and know this history, but many people today lack that knowledge and understanding because of the way America’s story has been taught.”[5] And hear we are called to listen to the Chumash still among us.

Yes, tomorrow is Indigenous Peoples Day…and, as in many things, it is complicated for many people. Growing up in Boston with its significant Italian population, I was well aware of the discrimination against this earlier wave of immigrants, even in my own family. My aunt Jessie married an Italian, Paul Longo, against the wishes of her English parents who were also immigrants. Eventually the family grew to love him but Italians in Boston, along with the Irish, were persecuted against. Columbus Day arose out of a late 19th century movement to honor Italian American heritage at a time when Italian immigrants faced widespread persecution. But the holiday has since come under fire as a celebration of a man whose arrival in the Americas heralded the oppression of another group of people: the Native Americans. In recent decades, Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Days in many states and cities.

This year, the U.S. celebrates its first national Indigenous Peoples’ Day tomorrow in a commemoration President Joe Biden proclaimed as a day to honor “our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this Nation.” On Friday Biden made this Proclamation which I now read in part in case you haven’t had a chance to read or hear it:

Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.  On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.

Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to.  That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began.  For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.  Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.  We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.[6]

But as I said, it is complicated! Biden also issued a Columbus Day proclamation acknowledging the contributions of Italian Americans as well as “the painful history of wrongs and atrocities” that resulted from European exploration. Here are some of his words from that Proclamation: “Today, let this day be one of reflection — on America’s spirit of exploration, on the courage and contributions of Italian Americans throughout the generations, on the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, and on the work that remains ahead of us to fulfill the promise of our Nation for all.” This land is whose land? A day of reflection—many days of reflection are needed, not just this short hour we have together this morning.

Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recently released a new book that has caused me to deepen my reflections. In fact, it brought me up short and pointed out to me that it is always time to learn while we walk this earth. The book is named Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Inclusion. Her premise, building on her previous work, is, “Whether in political debates or discussions around the kitchen table, many of us, regardless of party affiliation, proudly say that the United States is ‘a nation of immigrants.’” I have in the past been one of those people. After all, my mother’s family emigrated from England just before she was born and my father’s family from Nova Scotia just after his older sister, my aunt Evelyn, was born. Dunbar-Ortiz purports that “This pervasive myth emerged in the 1950s when John F. Kennedy, then a U. S. Senator, published an influential book, A Nation of Immigrants. [She] explains that we live in the land of opportunity—founded and built by immigrants—became a convenient response by the ruling class and its brain trust to the 1960s demands for decolonization, justice, reparations, and social equality.”[7]

Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to say that “this widely accepted and feel-good myth, which promotes a benign narrative of progress, is grossly inaccurate.” In this book she shows “how this dishonest and pernicious ideology serves to mask and diminish the US’ history of settler colonialism, genocide, white supremacy and slavery, all of which we still grapple with today.”[8]

We don’t have to pry hard into the history of our land—this land— to see these things and it is one of the reasons that we are considering the 8th Principle to add to the Seven Principles here in our congregation, just as many other UU congregations are considering it or have already adopted it. You may remember it reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” I have preached on it before as have several others over the past couple of years. Some of us have been discussing this for a while. If you are interested in being part of the discussion, please join Kate English who will be facilitating the next discussion this Thursday. We need to have places and spaces to grapple with these concepts and our part in it all.

But it is complicated. And we won’t all agree. And it is uncomfortable. But that is what we are about here with our other 7 principles, especially the first two: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Each of us has a different experience as we move through life but it is also clear that many of us were born with privilege that we are unaware of until we do some hard work.

So we talk about the 8th Principle and we mark Indigenous Peoples Day as part of the call of our faith. Given research showing that the majority of state and local curriculum standards end their study of Native American history before 1900, the importance of celebrating the survival and contemporary experience of Native peoples has never been clearer. Or as Comanche Paul Chaat Smith said, “The most American thing about America is American Indians.” Whose land is it anyway?

Let us “give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.”[9]

May we honor the Chumash who lived in this valley for eons before us and may we meet and learn from those Chumash who live here now. May it be so. A’ho. Amen.

CLOSING HYMN   This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.


As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.


I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.


When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie


BENEDICTION                    Robin Wall Kimmerer

“The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out of her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defense of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.”[10]


[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 129.

[3] Black Elk in “Kinship With All Life”, Life Prayers From Around the World, 43.

[4] Ibid., 40-41.

[5] Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese (2019). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. Beacon Press: 1.

[6] Presidential Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples Day, 10-8-21

[7] Dunbar-Oriz, Roxanne (2021). Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion. Beacon Press, Frontispiece.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kimmerer, 183.

[10] Kimmerer, 183.