Today we celebrate the commemoration of Cornelius Hill, a chief of the Oneida Nation, a lifelong Episcopalian, a negotiator, and a priest. At the age of ten, he and two other boys were sent to Nashotah House to learn English and gain an education. While still in his teens, he was named Chief of the Bear Clan by the council of Oneida in Wisconsin, New York, and Canada. He was the last hereditary chief of the Oneida Nation.
Hill was a champion of Native rights, especially concerning the retention of tribal lands and the allowance of the Oneida to continue to reside in their ancient homeland, despite the federal government’s attempts to dismember the tribal areas in Wisconsin in favor of white settlers. The government also planned to move the Oneida further west. Hill successfully negotiated with the government on both accounts, and, with the Rev. Solomon S. Burleson, acquired a hospital and a boarding school for the reservation.
For many years, Hill served as both an organist and an interpreter for Episcopal services on the reservation. He believed that his serving as the sachem (chief) of his tribe and a member of church councils gave him a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between the tribe and the white community. He also considered that by becoming a deacon, that bridge might become even stronger between the two cultures. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1895 (July 27), and in 1903 he was made a priest, the first of his people to be so consecrated. Hill spoke his ordination vows in his native Oneida language.
He was a popular leader of his people and respected by those to whom he ministered. After a short illness, Hill died on January 25, 1907. He was honored with three requiems and a funeral where 800 people attended. His burial in the graveyard of the Church of the Holy Apostles and rests among other tribal members and missionaries.
In reading the commemoration in the Daily Office, it sounded familiar. I looked it up, and I last wrote about Cornelius Hill in 2015 for Speaking to the Soul. It was a good reminder.
In looking at the years following that first reflection on Hill, I have seen that new voices have come forward to speak for the many Indigenous Nations that make up our country. I have also seen treaty after treaty, struck between the whites and the Indigenous peoples over the years, ignored by the Caucasians and to the detriment of the Native tribes. Sacred lands have been desecrated and used for monetary gain.
Tribes have been relocated to unfamiliar lands with soils and climate unsuited to the cultivation of crops that were their traditional fare. Oil pipelines have spanned tribal waterways and often befouled the water that was for drinking and watering of crops and livestock. Healthcare, amenities like running water and electricity, even education for the children have been neglected by the government who promised through the treaties to oversee and provide for those who also signed those treaties. Whole villages and tribes have been decimated through punitive acts on behalf of the government, who slaughtered buffalo by the hundreds of thousands, burned their crops, murdered the elderly, women, and children, and even infected them with blankets contaminated with contagious diseases to which the tribes had no resistance.
Even now, in the time of the pandemic, tribes of various nations are still struggling. I think most, right now, of the Navajo Nation, having among the highest percentage of infected and dead in the country. Fortunately, Episcopalians and others have taken notice of the lack of amenities, masks, test kits, and healthcare, and have rushed to their aid.
I also think of the Rosebud Sioux Reservations, who struggle to care for the needy in their communities, and who also have gratefully accepted contributions of food, water, and assistance with other needs. It seems that some Christians, and even some non-Christians, have remembered the teachings of Jesus that echoed the Old Testament commands to love their neighbor, help those in need, uphold justice, and practice mercy.
I believe we need a lot of Cornelius Hills to bridge the gap and stand up for equality and mutual respect. I know we have the ability if we just had the will to do something about the ills of the world.
It feels like I dance around the term “white privilege” when I actually need to use that phrase to acknowledge that I among all other Caucasians have been beneficiaries while making other races and cultures subordinate or inferior. There are so many categories of “white privilege” that it boggles my mind, but all in all, they all feel wrong to me, even though I have benefitted in some ways from it.
I know that as a white woman, I have had advantages, but as a woman, I have also had obstacles placed in my way. I know I can hardly claim to be made to feel inferior, as I am the only one who can permit myself to feel that way. Yet I have been in places where I have been the “different” one, the one who doesn’t fit in, the one whose race was very much a minority in the local culture where I lived at the time. It was a learning experience, one I am still learning, and one that makes my heart hurt as I wonder if I am ever going to lose the guilt of my past and even my present.
Trying to follow Jesus, who certainly interacted with all cultures and races of people in the Mediterranean area where he lived and taught, I have to work continuously to see God in all people. That is one reason I’m glad I’m reminded of people like Cornelius Hill, who made his life a bridge. Maybe in another five years, I’ll run into him again on his commemoration day and write about new lessons I’ve learned from him. I hope so, anyway.
Image: Chief and Rev. Cornelius Hill, from the Oneidas (1909). Found at Wikimedia Commons.