The Union Forum
Loretta Afraid-of-Bear Cook, Lakota, and Tom Kanatakeniate Cook, Mohawk, visited Union Theological Seminary in April and

Mohawk and Lakota Activists Light Fire for Climate Action

Karenna Gore, The Union Forum

At a seminary, it bears dwelling on the fact that this exploitative way of relating to both the land and indigenous culture was rooted in a theological pronouncement: the papal bulls argued that Christian conquerors had a divine right based on the Bible to absolute title and ultimate authority over the inhabitants and the land. Now, Loretta and Tom want Pope Francis to take it back. Talk about interfaith dialogue!

Tom is Mohawk, descended from a hero of the American Revolution whose story—despite his unique, fascinating life and extraordinary feats of courage—you may not have heard: Joseph Louis Cook, or Akiatonharonkwen.“Louis” Cook was born to an enslaved African father and an Abenaki (American Indian) mother. As a child, he barely escaped slavery himself when the Mohawk tribe came upon and claimed him. Although most Mohawks fought with the British, Cook sided with the revolutionary colonists. He met several times with General George Washington, survived the legendary encampment at Valley Forge, led significant victories in battle, settled in upstate New York and went on to die for the United States in the War of 1812. Tom knows this all as oral history, just as he knows the story of the broken promises, breached treaties and forced conversions to Christianity. His own work helping people living on reservations to grow organic food in their own gardens is his healing response. As Tom spoke, he referenced the service earlier that day in James Chapel. “Everything in that resonated with me,” he said. “I speak upon the ashes.”

During their stay at Union, Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Nineteenth Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe) issued a call for the lighting of sacred fire along with prayer at sacred sites. “We the Original Caretakers of Mother Earth have no choice but to follow and uphold the Original Instructions, which uphold the continuity of Life,” he communicated in an emailed letter to his own community. “We recognize our umbilical connection to Mother Earth and understand that she is the source of life, not a resource to be exploited. We speak on behalf of all Creation today, to communicate an urgent message that man has gone too far, placing us in the state of survival.” On the appointed day, Tom and Loretta lit their fire at Union, doing our institution a great honor that calls us to live up to it.

The occasion of the UN Climate Summit has given Union a chance to focus on the spiritual, religious and theological aspects of our current planetary predicament. Ecosystems everywhere have been uprooted, stripped, wrung to death for profit. In rising to this challenge, we won’t forget that some human beings have always been treated as the earth has been treated. Listening to them is an honest first step to correcting course.

Those interested in supporting their initiative on the Black Hills can visit “The Black Hills Are Not For Sale.” To learn about Tom’s work with organic gardens and Indian Youth, visit Running Strong’s Organic Gardens and Food website.

Karenna Gore is director of the Union Forum and the Global Social Justice Partnerships. The Union Forum is a project of the Union Theological Seminary that connects theology and spirituality with civic action. 


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