Wisconsin church pays ‘voluntary tax’ to state’s Indigenous tribes as form of land acknowledgments

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 22, 2022
St. Dunstan's

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, was founded in 1957 on land historically occupied by members of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Photo: Miranda Hassett

[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, is taking a unique approach to land acknowledgments – by approving in its budget a “voluntary tax” on its property, to be given to Wisconsin’s Native American tribes.

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church on Madison’s west side is located on land that historically was home to members of the Ho-Chunk Nation. As white settlers pushed westward, they displaced the land’s Indigenous inhabitants. A farmhouse dating to the mid-19th century and representative of western expansion — an era of growing tensions and conflict between settlers and American Indians — still stands on church property.

“This land used to be someone else’s homeland,” the Rev. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s rector, told Episcopal News Service. Much of that history, however, wasn’t known to the congregation at St. Dunstan’s. “There was real interest in going deeper on some of the learning.”

Land acknowledgments, in which American institutions identify and honor the Indigenous peoples who originally occupied the land now used by the institutions, have become an increasingly familiar practice across The Episcopal Church. Last year, the Madison congregation formed a land acknowledgment task force to research local Indigenous history. The result of that process wasn’t a traditional land acknowledgment but the addition of a line in the church’s budget for a voluntary tax or “amends” payment of $3,000, which Hassett presented last month to the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Repatriations Committee, which represents Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes.

St. Dunstan’s is one of many Episcopal congregations researching and developing land acknowledgments as part of churchwide efforts to foster racial reconciliation and healing. In July, the church’s 80th General Convention passed a resolution encouraging land acknowledgments, starting with audits by each Episcopal diocese “of all Indigenous peoples whose ancestral and territorial homelands its churches and buildings now occupy.”

The resolution also calls on the dioceses “to begin a process of implementing land acknowledgment liturgies and prayers to begin any public meetings or worship and to provide resources to their churches to do the same.” A second approved resolution orders the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity, to develop its own land acknowledgments.

Like St. Dunstan’s, some dioceses already had committed to such a process. The Diocese of Arizona, which serves a state with 22 federally recognized Native American tribes, began in 2016 encouraging its congregations to recognize the “traditional custodians” of church land, and the diocesan convention voted in 2019 to provide liturgical language for that purpose during the Prayers of the People.

In Washington, the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia formed a committee on land acknowledgments in response to a 2019 diocesan resolution. “Though it begins as an effort to understand the history of an individual church, it can soon develop into an exploration of the history of our entire country and even the world,” the diocese says on its website. “All are connected, for good or ill, in the story of who we are as a people, as a nation, as Episcopalians, and as Christians.”

Similar efforts are underway in the dioceses of Michigan and Western North Carolina. And in Chicago, Illinois, St. John’s Episcopal Church installed a plaque on the pavement outside its doors in 2020 that tells visitors, “you are standing on the land of Native peoples.” The plaque also names the tribes that traditionally called the region home.

For other dioceses and congregations considering steps in this direction, Virginia Theological Seminary has compiled an online resource offering guidance in writing land acknowledgments.

“One of the ways the church begins the road to reconciliation with siblings who identify as Indigenous/Native American, is to acknowledge that all churches sit on Native Land,” the seminary says. “It was ‘purchased’ through treaties that were constantly broken. It was stolen through lies. Tribal nations were violently forced from ancestral lands to distant reservations.”

Land acknowledgments are a great starting point for congregations to begin talking about local Indigenous history, particularly European-American attempts to eradicate American Indian tribes, as well as the tribes’ continued survival in today’s United States, the Rev. Bradley Hauff, Episcopal Church missioner for indigenous ministries, told ENS.

Hauff cautioned, however, that the language of acknowledgement should not be treated as an end in itself. “They’re really intended to go beyond that, so it’s not just talk or a history lesson. It’s an opportunity to respond in some way to what has happened,” he said. “There needs to be some type of follow-up, some type of response.”

The Diocese of Milwaukee, which spans the lower third of the state of Wisconsin, passed a resolution at its diocesan convention in October 2021 to develop land acknowledgement language and provide resources for congregations to do the same. The Rev. Jonathan Grieser, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Madison, led a task force on the topic.

Grieser, who will make a presentation next month to this year’s convention on the task force’s work, told ENS the diocese has not yet committed to its own land acknowledgement, recognizing that reconciliation requires more than reciting history. “We’re thinking about ways of really working on these issues that are open-ended.”

He praised the work of St. Dunstan’s. Their effort to make amends financially, he said, is “a model for all of us to think about the way in which we have all profited from the taking of land and the removal of the tribes.”

Hassett said her congregation was familiar with the story of the Heims, the first white family to settle on the church’s land in 1848, and the story of St. Dunstan’s founding more than a century later in 1957. The Heims’ red-brick farmhouse, now known as St. Dunstan’s rectory, has been rented to non-church tenants since 2015.

Then, during a Lenten discussion series in 2021, some parishioners began taking a closer look at the lesser-known Indigenous history of the region, including the tribes’ loss of land to white settlers. They formed a land acknowledgement task force to research that history and consider how the congregation might initiate relationships with local tribes.

“This land first came under the ownership of the U.S. Government after the Blackhawk War [1832], which resulted in the local native peoples being largely exterminated or pushed westwards, after being forced to cede their land in southern Wisconsin,” the church website says in a historical article that was produced by the task force.

Task force members chose not to contact tribal leaders early in the research process, concluding they shouldn’t educate themselves by burdening Native Americans.

“It was really important to us from the start to really begin by doing our own homework,” Hassett said. Until they learned more of the history of the land and its peoples, “we weren’t ready to be good conversation partners.”

The group also studied land acknowledgement initiatives and language adopted by other institutions, from Episcopal churches to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the neighboring village of Waunakee. “We didn’t want just words,” Hassett said. “I think as we went through the process, the acknowledgement became a little less important to us.”

Instead, she suggested the idea of a voluntary tax on the church’s land as a possible way “to put money where our mouth was.”

“We really want to have clarity of what it means to be a people who live as better allies and better neighbors,” Hassett said. “It would feel wrong getting that statement out there without having the meat of what that means to us.”

The church’s vestry supported the idea, and the congregation approved it in January as part of the 2022 church budget. That $3,000 represents about 1% of the congregation’s total expenses for the year, and church leaders deliberately identified the amends line item as a property expense rather than part of its outreach efforts – an acknowledgement of the unpaid debt owed to the original people of the church’s land.

The congregation then needed to decide who should receive the money. Church leaders initially sought guidance from the Wisconsin Council of Churches, which referred them to Ho-Chunk tribal leadership. William Quackenbush, the Ho-Chunk cultural resource division manager, suggested giving the money to the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Reparations Committee, so it would benefit all tribes in the state.

On Aug. 16, Hassett attended the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Reparations Committee meeting to present her congregation’s $3,000 check, recognizing that “our ability to gather and worship on this land came at great cost to the Ho-Chunk people.”

Because the amends payment is an annual budget line item, not from a separate fund, it must be approved by the congregation each year. That will offer an opportunity to renew the conversation about the history of the church’s land this fall when members prepare to vote on a 2023 budget.

Also in August, the task force released a draft of a possible St. Dunstan’s land acknowledgement, though no decision has been made yet on adopting and implementing it. “While we have come to understand that a land acknowledgment will always be a living document, this one is still in the process of being read, received, and edited within our congregation,” the task force said.

The draft land acknowledgement concludes by saying St. Dunstan’s is “seeking a new relationship of truth-telling, honor and respect.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.