I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a “Native American Bearing Witness Retreat” back in November 2016. This had a special meaning for me because about 15 years ago, I discovered that my late father, was enrolled in the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (one of six members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe). So it was with some anxiety, sadness and trepidation that I joined the retreat; where we visited a sacred site of water, a site of burial for Native people, and the concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where innumerable Native grandmothers, mothers, elders, and children died.
Bearing witness can be defined as acknowledging that something exists or is true. To bear witness is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter. Bearing witness is a radical act—it is a way of shining a light on the truth and standing steadfastly in that light. Rather than simply observing the situation, we become the situation. We become intimate with whatever it is—hunger, poverty, discrimination, disease, or death.
When we analyze and judge a situation, we normally come to it with all of our ideas and habitual beliefs. We are only able to see it through the lens of our conditioned thinking. But when we shift to the practice of bearing witness, we suspend our analytical thinking and move to a place of open awareness. This allows the witnessing presence to become one with whatever situation we encounter.
During the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat, we acknowledged the genocide and honored those who had died at the sites we visited. We all were bearing witness to suffering and resilience of our hosts. As guests we responded to the many gifts we received with open hearts. Giver, receiver, and gift all expressed continuously throughout the retreat.
This brings us to the question, “What is the benefit of bearing witness practice?”
Psychologically, it enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear.
Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.
Politically and socially, it enables us to see clearly the entire web of causes and conditions that create suffering, and to take effective action to improve people’s lives.
So, how do we bear witness? Here are three-steps you can use to practice bearing witness:
- First, identify a person or a group who is disenfranchised or who is suffering.
- Second, spend meaningful time with them. This is a time to let go of what we came with, and learn and listen. You might volunteer at a drug rehab clinic, participate in prison outreach work, or provide support to patients and/or families in a hospice center. You could take part in the voluntary services offered to veterans by the VA program, or even do a street retreat with the homeless
- Third, ask yourself, “How can I most acknowledge people’s plight?” If they are hungry, do I serve them a meal or do I come up with a way of helping them to feed and shelter themselves? To bear witness is to embrace and recognize the whole situation. On a personal level, you feed them. On a systemic level, you engage the system.
Each place we visited, during the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat, had its own voice and way of expression. At Mni Owe Sni , rain, thunder and lightning were all present as we listened to the timeless voice of the place and the words of Sheldon Wolfchild, a member and former Tribal Chairman of the Lower Sioux Indian Community. On our way to Oheyawahi the rain became heavy. Arriving at Oheyawahi, participants opened up their umbrellas. The wind forced the rain sideways but did not diminish the spirit of the group. Jim Bear, a parish pastor and a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, shared the history of the place and we walked its grounds. The next day Ramona Kitto Stately an artist and a social activist of the Santee Sioux Nation, led the participants with her own personal connection to the concentration camp. The day began cloudy and cold. Before going down to the concentration camp, Sheldon led us in a ceremony honoring Medicine Bottle and Shakopee who were hung at Fort Snelling. Sheldon too has a direct connection to this place. We listened. Leaving this place though still cold the sun was brilliantly shining.
For more information on bearing witness:
Rain, Thunder and Lightning Were All Present – Report from the Native American Bearing Witness Retreat in Fort Snelling MN USA, November 2016: http://zenpeacemakers.org/2017/02/rain-thunder-lightning-present-report-native-american-bearing-witness-retreat-fort-snelling-mn-november-2016/
How to Practice Bearing Witness by Jules Shuzen Harris (Lion’s Roar): https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-bearing-witness/
Bearing Witness by Bernie Glassman
[image description: female and a male are putting a quilt around the shoulders of a Native American male]