Forgiveness in Native-American Experience

Experiences of loss, slight and compromise are common occurrences to many native people in nations that were conquered as a result of the Western European colonial expansion that began in the 16th century.  For example, in what is now known as the United States of America, many native people(s) experienced situations of genocide, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation as a consequence of this social change.  The anger that has resulted from these injuries has made it difficult for Native-Americans to experience a process of forgiveness as a response to the harm they continue to suffer.

One group of Native-Americans that experienced great loss was the Dakota people.  During the 17th century, Manifest Destiny, the Euro-American principle that the United States were destined by God to expand the virtues of empire across North America, was used to promote an acceleration of territorial expansion.  As a result of this expansion, the native peoples were forced to move to and live on ‘reservations’.  The land of the Dakota tribes became the Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861, until November 2, 1889, when the final portion of the then reduced territory was admitted to the union as the states of North and South Dakota.

During this time period, there were many conflicts and struggles between the native people and the pioneers.  Most notable were the U.S. – Dakota Conflict that took place on December 26, 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre that took place on December 29, 1890.  The U.S. – Dakota Conflict was the “largest mass execution in U.S. history” when “thirty-eight Dakota warriors were executed (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  At the Wounded Knee Massacre, hundreds of Lakota Native-Americans were killed and at least twenty U.S. soldiers were awarded The Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor for their military action (Green, J., n.d.).  The Dakota people experienced immeasurable loss from these events: They were removed from their homeland, their way of life was forever changed, and there was a loss of trust between the Dakota people and the non-Dakota people.


The loss to Native-American people is not only an historical occurrence, because loss from these events continues to this present day.  For example, as portrayed in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One sky above us: The West, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years of age, was sent to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  Before that time, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.  The purpose of the boarding school system was to force assimilation of Native-Americans to the dominant mainstream U.S. culture.  The students were not allowed to practice their traditions or speak their native language.  The boarding school system “killed those stories”, and with them, the Lakota culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  In this way, the loss experienced by the Lakota people, as a result of Western European imperialistic economic expansion, is unending.

For Native-American people, individually and as communities, forgiveness is difficult because they experience daily the injustices they currently endure.  Albert White Hat spoke of policy and laws that were imposed on Native-Americans by the white-man’s government and their schools.  These policies and laws, such as the 1851 Treaty in which the ‘Sioux’ tribes lost most of their land, were created with intention to destroy the native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain to the benefit of non-native U.S. citizens.  In this way, Native-Americans and their culture and history were systematically excluded from mainstream U.S. culture and society.   Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, and therefore, forgiveness is an ongoing process that, as Albert White Hat said, will not end for hundreds of years (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  Forgiveness is difficult because of the ongoing hardship that must be endured as the result of loss of home, loss of way of life, and a loss of trust, but also because of the shame that results from the oppression imposed on them by a dominating culture.

Shame is a feeling of dishonor, and it is the opposite of self-respect.  Dakota and Lakota people feel shame as a result of living with a morally incompatible lifestyle and belief system that was and is imposed on them by another dominating culture.  The shame experienced through the oppression of a dominating morally incompatible worldview (a moral conflict) presents itself in a different sort of societal relations understanding and expression.

One illustration of incompatible expression is in the worldviews of the Dakota people in contrast to that of the U.S. government, and this is what eventually led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  The Dakota worldview includes a certain understanding and expression of the notion of ‘relatedness’ as it pertains to ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘father’ and ‘land’ (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  This is especially important to know in order to understand the Dakota notions of the ‘fatherly’ role of the U.S. government.  From the Dakota perspective, according to Anderson, as cited by Dowlin & Dowlin (2002), “fathers always willingly shared whatever they possessed with their children” and in contrast, the Euro-American use of the word father “means an authoritative, controlling relationship.”  This difference in worldviews concerning family relatedness explains how the territory treaty signing symbolized different meanings for these two groups.

The Dakota and the non-Dakota people held conflicting worldviews as expressed through their definitions and assumptions concerning the concept of ‘relatedness’.  The U.S. government understood the expression of treaty signing “as a way to dominate the Dakota and gain possession of the continent” and by this, the “Dakota were left with confined living areas (reservations), restricted activities, and eventually unfulfilled promises of needed provisions (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  The Dakota people likely felt resentment and anger due to the fact that they were misunderstood and therefore deceived in such a way that they now lacked self-respect because they lived in a degrading and shameful situation of relative helplessness and poverty.

In a similar way, theses two incompatible worldviews presented themselves in the expression of spoken language.  This was evident when Albert White Hat discussed how the oppressive boarding school system did not allow the students to speak their own language, and insisted on the use of the English language instead (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  The impact to Albert White Hat was that, because of the moral conflict in this situation, he felt shame and an overwhelming anger and he held onto that anger for many years.  At one point in his life, he felt that he had no choice but to kill members of the dominating oppressive culture in order to honor his ancestors.  For Albert White Hat, shame led to resentment, resentment led to anger, and anger led to thoughts of violence (as a way of regaining self-respect) and that blocked the path of forgiveness and healing.

Albert White Hat was feeling a great deal of shame, resentment and anger, and he was thinking violent thoughts, but deep down inside, what he really wanted was to live and to be happy.  He came to this awareness after spending some time fasting and meditating.  One day, when he rose in the morning and faced the East (which, in Native-American culture symbolizes renewal), he came to the realization that he did not want to follow a path of violence, but instead he felt that he deserved to live and to be happy (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

As demonstrated in the experience of Albert White Hat, a state of un-forgiveness can be the source of many social ills including substance abuse, and by extension – spousal abuse, and even suicide.  An example of how forgiveness may help in the recovery of substance abuse, specifically that of alcoholism, is told by Sr. Molly Monahan, in her essay, Forgiveness in A.A (2008).  Sr. Monahan wrote that the stories of forgiveness, as told by fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), acted as “a faith that works” to heal.  She said that she heard of others’ experiences concerning the restorative powers of forgiveness. Then, when she reached step five of AA’s twelve-step recovery program, she experienced that she was, as were others, able to forgive not only the transgressions of others, but also her own transgressions.   She wrote that by this experience, she “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity (Monahan, 2008).”  By this account, it appears that a state of un-forgiveness can perpetuate destructive addictive behavior, whereas a process of forgiving can be healing.

Furthermore, a 2011 study, Forgiveness, Depression, and Suicidal Behavior Among a Diverse Sample of College Students, suggested that forgiveness, as a voluntary “coping process . . .may buffer . . . poor mental health outcomes (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  The researchers concluded from their study that “forgiveness of self and others could be an important way to reduce the interpersonal distress and depressogenic ‘psychache’ that often precipitate a suicidal crisis (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  Therefore, it seems that if a state of un-forgiveness may be a source of social problems, it would be reasonable then, that forgiveness could be a way to resolve them.

An extraordinary example of forgiveness acting as a balm to heal social ills and moral conflict between Native-Americans and non-native people is documented in Healing History’s Wounds:  Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non-Dakota Peoples (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The authors of this paper begin their account with an explanation of a moral conflict, explaining how it existed and still exists between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people, and conclude the account with details concerning a model that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently in process between these two groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) detailed the moral conflict that existed between the Dakota and non-Dakota people.  They cited Pearce and Littlejohn concerning what takes place “when two incompatible social worlds collide” when they wrote,

1) Each side considers its own position vital and sees the adversary’s position as dangerous; 2) persons set aside feelings and beliefs that don’t fit easily with official positions and statements associated with their ‘‘side’’; 3) valid concerns on both sides are belittled, and important values are denigrated; 4) passion, energy, and material resources are depleted in fruitless and redundant battles; and 5) persons are left frustrated, turned-off, and despairing (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).

The moral conflict between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people cause people in both cultures to misunderstand and distrust one another, to avoid one another, to discount each other’s point of view, and to engage in costly conflict.

As illustrated above in the examples of what led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict and the experience of Albert White Hat, the moral conflict between the Native-Americans and non-native people was evidenced by the incompatible understanding and expression of ‘relatedness’ in their differing worldviews.  Additionally, the colliding worldviews included different notions concerning power relations.  The Dakota maintained a relational, decentralized power structure, while in disharmony with Dakota values, the Euro-American model of power was a hierarchical and centralized system (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).  Because of these differences, the resulting initial response to one another was one of disgust (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The resultant conflicts that ensued led to Native-Americans being forced by the dominant culture, to live in isolation on ‘reservations’.  It is clear to see in this situation how the ignorance concerning each other’s way of understanding, and how the negative feelings of resentment and distrust that each group held concerning one another could result.

In spite of the seemingly insurmountable dilemmas caused by clashing worldviews, the Dakota people and non-Dakota people are now beginning a process of sharing and learning, which is resulting in a movement toward understanding, healing and reconciliation between these groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) explained that this movement toward transformation began with the efforts of two men who met on a fishing trip in 1958, Amos Owen, a Dakota and Bud Lawrence, a non-native businessman.  They engaged in “on-going visits, lengthy conversations, shared experiences in the way of family get-togethers, and the eventual collaborative creation of communally shared Dakota and non-native activities, which contributed to increased mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture and uniqueness (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  This set the stage and a model of action that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation at the community, state and national level.

What began in 1963 as a mini-pow wow as an educational opportunity for children expanded to intentional acts demonstrating respect, honor and friendship and the promotion cultural learning opportunities.  It included a ninety mile walk by Lawrence and two other friends from his university in Mankato to Red Wing, Minnesota and another pow wow in reciprocation (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  These reciprocating communal events that demonstrated respect, honor and friendship, and offered educational opportunity continued and expanded and began a healing process between the Dakota and non-Dakota communities (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

Of special interest are the events that took place that served to commemorate the thirty-eight warriors who perished during the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  First, Lawrence began a yearly observance to the thirty-eight lost warriors by going to Mankato to offer prayers for the fallen men each December 26th, the day of the massacre (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Then a pow wow was planned and dedicated to the memory of the lost warriors and took place at the Mankato city ball park (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The event was successful in that many showed up, but it was financially difficult to continue (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Amazingly, a stunning occurrence happened just before the dancing began, thirty-eight bald eagles circled above the baseball field as if to “solidif[y] the understanding that Mankato events would commemorate the 38 executed Dakota (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”

As a result of these happenings, efforts to continue community actions of “dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences” expanded even to the state level and beyond (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.). Especially notable is that Governor Rudy Perpich even proclaimed 1987 to be ‘The Year of Reconciliation’ in Minnesota in observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1862 U.S. – Dakota Conflict (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The result of this effort is that the actions continued and expanded such that a ‘Year of Reconciliation’, a ‘Decade of Reconciliation’ and even a ‘Century of Reconciliation’ was declared outside of Minnesota borders, including actions taken by churches, schools, and governments, and these actions were further supported by the media (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

What began as a friendship between two men from very different cultural backgrounds expanded to a national level cross-cultural exchange.  What is being created by these types of events is a “place where dialogue, ‘new ceremonies,’ shared meanings, and shared histories [can] take place (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  In other words, Native-American history, culture and experience are becoming more and more accepted elements of U.S. culture.

In fact, these same types of methods of reconciliation are now being used in the growing field of Peace and Justice and the practice of Restorative Justice.  One especially pioneering group of individuals that work in the Restorative Justice field is the Mennonite Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists are another group who have historically experienced situations of oppression and extermination by a dominating culture because of their different cultural beliefs.  Many individuals of their group were murdered for their religious beliefs during the Radical Reformation period of the Catholic Church that began during the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland, as documented in the Martyr’s Mirror (1994).  This is the group from which the Amish have descended.  Members of the Amish religious sect shocked ‘the world’ by their very quick forgiveness response to a tragic occurrence when an angry shooter killed five students and harmed five others at their Nickel Mines School, in Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006.  In the wake of this tragedy, the Amish community responded with forgiveness and kindness to the deceased shooter’s family.  In doing so, they practiced their deep faith in the ways of Jesus Christ by offering “forgiveness and actively making peace” as an “alternative to perpetual fear” and strife (Kasdorf, 2007.).   The Peace and Justice field and Restorative Justice programs are not forgiveness per se, yet they have similar elements of practice that result in relationship restoration and the healing from transgressions.

In Anabaptist circles, which include the peace churches of the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Brethren in Christ, Howard Zehr is considered the ‘grandfather’ of the Restorative Justice practice in the field of Justice and Peacebuilding (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, n.d.) (Howard Zehr, n.d.).  The model of Restorative Justice that he advocates incorporates cultural values of both the Native-Americans and the Maori of New Zealand in his philosophy that includes the “core values” known “as three ‘R’s’ – respect, responsibility and relationships (Restorative Justice and Peacebuiding, n.d.).”  Zehr states that the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University “is organized around three central fields: trauma awareness and healing, conflict transformation and restorative justice. Several other auxiliary fields include healthy organizations and community development.  (Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding, n.d.)”  The methods used in the EMU Center for Peace and Justice programs mirror the methods currently being used by the Dakota people.

That the methods used by less dominant cultures are being studied and in turn now used by the dominant culture in order to create spaces for dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences in order to foster forgiveness and healing is encouraging.  As cited by Kazdorf (2007), David L. Weaver-Zercher affirmed the notion that “the Amish symbolically function as ‘a saving remnant’ within the dominant culture.  Perhaps this is true also for the Maori and the Native-American peoples and other non-dominant cultures, too.  Non-dominant cultures have been systematically oppressed and excluded even as they have so much to share with the people of the dominating culture; it is comforting that this is now changing.

To summarize, Native peoples experience a great deal of loss including negative social and health effects that are a result of a morally conflicting worldview imposed on them as a consequence of Western European colonial expansion.  The oppression they experience has, for many years, blocked the way of forgiveness and healing.  Yet, what began in the 1950s as a friendship between a Dakota man and a non-Dakota man has become a healing model that has expanded to a national level.  This model of reconciliation aids a process of forgiveness by using indigenous values in order to bring disparate groups together through communal events that demonstrate respect, honor and friendship, and offer educational opportunities as a way of fostering understanding and reconciliation among these people.  This is restoring self-respect for Native-Americans and allowing a space for healing.  These same methods are now being used in other peace and justice programs.  It is clear that the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, effort that is required in order to understand and forgive transgressions may be key to achieving a world of greater justice and peace.


Dowlin, S. L., & Dowlin, B. (2002). Healing History’s Wounds: Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non‐Dakota Peoples. Peace & Change, 27(3), 412-436.

Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. (n.d.). Global Anabaptist Mennonite encyclopedia online. [Web page] Retrieved from

Green, J. (n.d.). The medals of wounded knee. Nebraska history [Web page]. Retrieved from

Hirsch, J. K., Webb, J. R., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Forgiveness, depression, and suicidal behavior among a diverse sample of college students. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 67(9), 896-906. doi:10.1002/jclp.20812

Howard Zehr. (n.d.). Howard Zehr. [Web page] Retrieved from

Kasdorf, J. (2007). To Pasture: “Amish Forgiveness,” Silence, and the West Nickel Mines School Shooting. Cross Currents, 57(3), 328-347.

Monahan, M. (2008). Forgiveness in AA. (Cover story). Human Development, 29(2), 16-19.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from

Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding. (n.d.). Restorative justice and peacebuilding. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Van Braght, Thieleman J., and Thieleman J. Braght. Martyrs mirror. Herald Press, 1994.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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