By Jessica Brodie
ROCK HILL—It was a time of insight, inspiration and understanding. That was the overwhelming takeaway of the Native American Pilgrimage, a South Carolina United Methodist advocacy event held on the Catawba Reservation May 17-18.
More than 50 people attended the pilgrimage, hosted by the United Methodist Native American Committee and the Advocacy Committee of Conference Connectional Ministries, including South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and many members of his Cabinet.
The Rev. Cheryl Toothe, who organized the free event, said the pilgrimage was an effort to bring new awareness to the culture and efforts of Native Americans in South Carolina, as well as Native American United Methodists. Toothe said it was intentionally held on the Catawba Reservation because the Catawba is the only federally recognized tribe in this state; there are a number of other state-recognized tribes.
“We have to understand our history so we don’t repeat it,” Toothe said on why they offered the pilgrimage. “Otherwise the things we have lost and the people we have lost become meaningless if treated like that.
“There are a lot of things on everybody’s side—not just Europeans but Native Americans, African Americans, everyone—we need to forgive and be forgiven for, and in order to do that you have to understand the truth of what happened. When you’ve got history books that say Europeans came over here and needed a place to live, so the Indians very nicely gave up their land and moved somewhere else, that’s not what happened.”
Holston said he and the other attendees were grateful for the opportunity to be at the Native American Pilgrimage, where they were able to share in a time of learning, caring and sharing—especially with the Catawba people.
“We all have a story, and we have to recognize that my story is not the only story, that your story is not the only story—but the good news is that God has a story, and we all have a place in it,” Holston said. “As we begin to experience and respect each other’s culture and history, we will become closer to God and closer to becoming the people that God needs us to be.
“That gives us hope for the future.”
The pilgrimage began that Friday evening at Friendship United Methodist Church, Rock Hill. Two Native American chiefs in attendance—Mary Louise Worthy, chief of the Piedmont American Indian Association’s Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation in South Carolina, and Chief Bill Harris, of the Catawba—were recognized and presented books by the UMC’s Native American Committee.
“Everything flowed beautifully,” Toothe said. “Several asked if we are going to do it again.”
Toothe presented Holston with a stole that night, which had been given to her by the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahama, where she’s gone for a Native American clergywomen gathering. The stole represents the sacred circle and the red road and was presented to Holston in gratitude for all he has done for tribes in South Carolina.
Next, Holston preached on “Scar Stories,” pointing out how we all have scars. Some are external, which everyone can see, and then there are the internal scars that only you know are there.
“It was a very touching and very powerful sermon,” Toothe said.
The evening closed with the viewing of “Dakota 38,” a film that tells about the 38 Native Americans who were hanged in 1862 in what is thought to be the largest mass execution in the United States. It is told from perspective of those who went on a 330-mile memorial horseback journey to Mankato, Minnesota, to remember the anniversary of those killed.
“People left Friday night very quiet and really thinking about what they learned,” Toothe said. “A lot of people don’t understand the same president (Abraham Lincoln) who signed a proclamation for one group of peoples was instrumental in hanging others.”
Trail of hope
The next day, the group took shuttles to the annual Yap Ye Iswa “Day of the Catawba,” held at the Catawba Cultural Center on the Catawba Indian Nation’s reservation. Many South Carolina United Methodist Native Americans, including Toothe, were invited to participate in the grand entry that day even though they weren’t Catawba.
“It got a little hot wearing 28 pounds of buckskin, but it was fun!” Toothe said, laughing.
Pilgrimage attendees and others from across the community were able to learn more about Native culture, enjoying dancing, drumming, music, storytelling, crafts and Native foods.
Toothe said it’s important to remember and understand the realities of the past so that healing can occur and mistakes cannot be repeated, but it’s equally as important to look to a bright future together—one founded on authenticity.
“I always tell people where I speak, ‘I’m not here to speak about the Trail of Tears but about the trail of hope,’” Toothe said. “Children need to come up knowing the truth knowing how this country was formed so we can work that much harder to be the country it should be. I don’t mean politically, but I mean as a welcoming place, with everyone working together.”