To its credit these days, especially under President Tom Wolfe’s leadership, Iliff has been deeply involved in understanding American Indian issues and is now embracing a much greater commitment to transparency. This comes after I finished a 33-year career teaching that subject at Iliff. Thankfully, Iliff’s involvement will not stop with my retirement.
At the end of March this year, with the close help of President Wolfe, we hosted a conference at Iliff that brought together an important panel of six American Indian community speakers. The conference was focused on this dismal history of the egregious 1893 gift to Iliff of a book bound in the flayed and tanned skin of an Indian murder victim. What was Iliff thinking back then? A trophy of genocide on public display in the Iliff Library!? A celebration of the Christian conquest of Indian lands?
In 1974 under pressure from the American Indian Movement of Colorado, Iliff finally cut off the cover of the book (the body part) and repatriated the human remains back to AIM representatives for reburial. Yet even then Iliff failed to understand the gravity of its malfeasance in housing and displaying this “trophy,” along with the cultural and spiritual travesty that it involves. The problem is not just Iliff, by the way. Rather it is a common enough failing of American people generally not to understand the depth of the insult to Indian folk and the violation of the sacred for Indian cultures.
The March conference was finally time for Indian folk to publicly instruct Iliff on the deeper meanings of what Iliff had done. At the top of the list for this panel was a deep concern that the spirit energy of that murder victim, which was associated with the book and continues to be attached to the remains of the book – even though the body part itself has been repatriated.
And by extension we can add that the spirit of that victim continues to be attached to Iliff itself. A young Shawnee/Apache woman summed up the conference at the end of the day: Iliff, she said, can never hope to move beyond this atrocity. Rather, Iliff can only survive by learning to live with its shameful history of this event. Iliff will revisit this important topic with a full-day conference later this fall (October 17). The conference is titled: “ERASING AMERICAN INDIAN GENOCIDE: Romanticizing the American Past.”
We chose this title carefully. While we wanted to foreground the long history of American Indian genocide, we certainly did not want to fall into the trap that suggests that the phenomenon ever ended. Indian genocide is not merely a past event. Rather the genocide and the erasing of it is ongoing process today. We are inviting three first rate American Indian scholars to address our school community and a wider public on the topic.
For American Indian Peoples the history of the last half millennium is anything but an unbridled romance. Indeed, our continuing communal sense is a tragedy of genocide that killed our ancestors, attempted to destroy our cultures, took our lands and finally reduced the Earth to a resource for extraction in the interests of generating capital gain.
Now the Iliff School of Theology is taking leadership in addressing the genocide and pointing to a healing future for American Indians
CONVERSATION WITH THE LENAPE NATION
Professor Emeritus Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation) had excellent meeting in Oklahoma with Mr. Curtis Zunigha, the cultural preservation director for the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma (better known by the self-appellation Lenape). “He and I are very much on the same page in our understanding of what is at stake in our Iliff conundrum over the remains of the Iliff Book. Like myself, Zunigha sees the issue around the Book presenting Iliff with a distinct teachable moment, one that we would do well to make use of for the sake of the world around us,” said Tinker. “As you have also said to me, this could be a way in which Iliff might prove to be a role model for other institutions across the American and American Indian landscape.”
Zunigha expressed a willingness to help Iliff in a variety of ways, including summoning the backing of the DNO for any reasonable resolution that have been agreed to be implemented. As noted by Tinker throughout the conversation with Zunigha – It will be quintessentially important for Iliff to be willing to put its financial resources behind any genuine remediation.