Saturday, June 4, 2011

Learning from the Elders

By Brian McNeill

On December 28, 2010, the Star Tribune opinion page carried a moving piece by American Indian journalist Tim Giago, “Wounded Knee: These Memories Won’t be Buried.” December 29, 2010 was the 120th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre. In his article Mr Giago recounts the history of the incident, and how it has reverberated in the American Indian community in the 120 years since. Over 150 American Indian warriors, women, and children are buried in the mass grave at the site. He includes a paragraph from the Aberdeen , South Dakota, Saturday Pioneer, written five days after the incident that argues that “in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” The editor who wrote these words was L. Frank Baum, who ten years later wrote The Wizard of Oz.

The online version of this story logged 34 comments, about half of them antagonistic to Tim Giago, saying that he and American Indians should “get over it.” Many of these clearly resented being reminded of the incident, and countered with notes on the slaughter of whites in the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in Minnesota. The other half came to his defense by acknowledging the horror of what occurred, but many of these too said, a little less aggressively, that it is time to move on.

Tim Giago’s piece has stuck with me for the last few months because it informs, in a way, my recent experience on Sunday mornings as a gay Catholic. I am in no way comparing the treatment of gay Catholics to the genocide of the American Indians during the last 500 years. I do not excuse myself or my European ancestors for what we have done. Like many, I am haunted by this horror, and carry it with me as I go about my day in Minneapolis, where I have many encounters with American Indians each week. We cannot undo the past, but, if nothing else, simple humanity requires that we remember it. The Star Tribune is to be commended on this count for publishing Tim Giago’s piece.

No, the link between Wounded Knee and my Sunday morning experience as a gay Catholic is not a one-to-one comparison on horrors endured by my people, here the lgbt Catholic community, versus those suffered by American Indians. No the link is emotional and political.

As most reading this will know, in 1987 Archbishop John Roach and The Newman Center Community at the University of Minnesota refused to renew the lease of Dignity Twin Cities at The Newman Center because we would not agree to recently reformulated Roman Catholic teaching that stated, among other things, that homosexuality is an “objective disorder.” Since then Dignity Twin Cities has been graciously hosted by Lutheran, Episcopal, and now a Methodist community. We have become a pilgrim people, meeting in exile from our Catholic tradition.

As we move through middle age, many lgbt Catholics have found it difficult to remain in the Church. Each of us has had to struggle to determine how we would remain in, if at all, or if we would simply leave. I have chosen to stay, but on my own terms. The main issue of me is to not be closeted while attending Mass. I have taken the Rainbow Sash experience of being visibly gay at Mass and while receiving the Eucharist and applied it to Sunday Mass. For the last two years I have worn my Dignity Twin Cities t-shirt to Mass at the new Newman Center at the University of Minnesota; new because it was merged with St Lawrence Parish in southeast Minneapolis ten years ago. The t-shirt has our Dignity Twin Cities logo on the front, and on the back, just below my neck, I have stenciled in black magic marker the word “GAY.”

When I started this Sunday practice, I thought that my t-shirt might provoke some interest from the students who attend Mass with me. They all look like they are in their early twenties, meaning they were not even born when Dignity Twin Cities was booted out of the “old” Newman Center.

That is not the reaction I received. No one said anything. Not one innocent inquiry. Not one cutting comment. Nothing. The pastor said he lost the parish registration card I filled out in January 2009, so I didn’t even make it onto the parish mailing list. I attended two after-Mass workshops on sexuality and spoke up about the gay issue, but no response from anyone. I volunteered for meal prep for the homeless, wearing the t-shirt, but nada. I hung around after Mass for coffee and doughnuts. Schmoozed about growing tomatoes and other weather related time wasters, but not one question about Dignity Twin Cities or being a gay Catholic.

Perhaps I was too transparently an old fool angling for attention, but it is hard to say when no one talks to you. No one until a very kind woman went out of her way to introduce herself, her husband, and some of her parish friends.

The emotional link to Wounded Knee and the American Indians is the invisibility; the experience of the dominant culture ignoring you at best and at worst wanting you to shut up and go away. The political link to Wounded Knee and the American Indians is the unwillingness of those in the dominant culture to take on your issue. I was hoping, unrealistically, that maybe some students would be interested in the history of Dignity at The Newman Center and then come and join us. After two years at St Lawrence Newman Center at the University of Minnesota it is abundantly clear that the injustice I feel so keenly means absolutely nothing to just about anyone else there. It was something that happened 23 years ago to a group of people. No one got hurt. So what!

It seems to me that you cannot sit in a pew in any church on any Sunday morning and say to yourself, “So what!” about either Wounded Knee or gay Catholics. The prejudice against the American Indians voiced in the comments to Tim Giago and the injustice endured by lgbt Catholics is ongoing. It took me two years to realize what most American Indians could have told me in a minute. I was naïve to think that in a place where the congregation regularly sings about God’s justice, that someone would care about an ongoing injustice initiated in that very community in 1987.

So one more time I come around to it: being gay is a blessing. If I were not gay I would not have any idea of what it might feel like to be an American Indian living in Minnesota in 2011. If sometimes I am sad, it is part of the same sadness I see in the eyes of Native Americans that must be sourced in the knowledge that, through no fault of their own, part of their reality is scarred by the hypocrisy of the Christians who robbed and slaughtered their ancestors, took them from their parents, sent them to boarding schools where they could not speak their native language, and even 120 years later still want them to shut up about it.

Brian McNeill is the president of Dignity Twin Cities and the convener of the Rainbow Sash Alliance.

See also the previous PCV posts:
Archbishop Nienstedt Responds to Rainbow Sash Alliance
Catholics Call for Repentance of Sin of Heterosexism
The Gay Catholic Insurgency


  1. Thanks, Brian, I think. Your piece makes me want to keen like the old Irish women used to do. I'd keen for Wounded Knee and for Dignity's being ousted from Newman Center in 1987. We could all keen for every indignity visited upon the humanity of our fellows.
    You know Minnesotans. In the absence of a keening ritual, our mute acceptance of you in your t-shirt talking about the weather may be the best we can do. Another thing to keen about.

  2. Mr. McNeill, it is sad that your spiritual journey has led into this narcissistic cul de sac. Lose the shirt. Comparing your self imposed sorrows to the genocide visited on the First People in the Americas is offensive.