Yesterday in the Catholic Church marked the feast day of the Holy Innocents.
Growing up on the Rosebud reservation, the child of two dualist Christians, my parents worshipped Christ in the middle of their sectarian differences. We would make our monthly trip to visit Grandma Jessie and all our Quick Bear relatives in Corn Creek and worship at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
St. Thomas was the church of our family’s love. When we first started going, it was a double-wide trailer that was eventually burned down by the catechist’s son when he went on a wild bender. What we built up in its place was a multi-purpose worshipping house that was built of donated sheet rock, family benches made of milled wood and painted red and a stove that ran so hot, I remember burning my hand on it when I got too close one Sunday.
But every once in awhile, particularly one Christmas Eve, we worshipped at Holy Innocents in Parmelee. It was a closer church to us but had fewer close relatives, so it was out of obligation that we’d go there. Holy Innocents was, and still is, a more structural church than St. Thomas. I’m sure public records could tell you when it was built exactly, but it had a steeple, a basement with a functioning kitchen and even had a vestry off to the side of the sanctuary. It was also older and when the wind blew up, you could hear the whole building creak.
Once, during a burial of a distant relative, we parked between the cemetery and the church and I asked my mom, “What does ‘Holy Innocents’ mean?” She explained about the Christ child, how he represented a threat to Herod’s power because of the prophecies in Isaiah and what his counselors told him about the new star that shone on the night of his birth. Then, she said matter-of-factly, “But because the wise men didn’t return, Herod didn’t know which child was Christ, so he had all the children killed. That’s why we remember them by that name, the Holy Innocents.”
Members of my home denomination use this story as a way to tell women what to do with their bodies. But what they miss is something my people have known since the day we met the empire: those who seek to maintain dominance over the oppressed will go to any length to keep that power.
It is a lesson we see playing out daily—and particularly this year—with the slaughter of Black people by the police. We see it with the internment of Latinx refugees and immigrants at the border. We see it with the rise in violence against Asian people during a pandemic that our president uses to stoke to fire of xenophobia. We see it in the terrorism of white people in their own cities who burn and explode those same places rather than cede the reality of the empire in which we live.
Mostly, though, on this day, I call to mind how my people came to understand the American empire and the white people who seek to hold onto power by slaughtering the innocent. On this day in 1890, over 300 of my relatives’ ancestors. Earlier that month in that same year, on Dec. 15, Sitting Bull was murdered at his home in Standing Rock. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 + 2 of my relatives’ ancestors were hanged in Mankato, Minn., several of them, innocent of the charges against them.
What remains in us as people of the Oceti Sakowin is not that we are walking wounded victims and survivors of yet another empire run solely for the purposes of dominance that should be destroyed for the good of all. No. What remains for us as people of the Oceti Sakowin is how empires never learn. Empires are such bloated masses built on greed, lust, and enough fragile egos to fill all of history, but they never learn the ultimate lesson. The ultimate lesson is that they all eventually fall. Empire ends. Empire is destroyed by those who have been slaughtered and absorbed by it.
Empire never learns that in the sorrows of the oppressed, there is always a glimmer of hope. That hope sings itself forward through the successive generations. That hope is the voice of the innocents. That hope is the light of the holy. That hope is the mothers, risen from their graves, their death songs turned into encouragement songs. That hope is the woman who was killed in her sleep waking others to action. That hope is the children, reborn into the descendants of those who survived. That hope is the face of men who could not breathe under the knees of soldiers exhaling a breath of righteousness and justice.
Those are the holy innocents of our work today, tomorrow and all the days to come. May we be able to see them at every opportunity, to bless them and to be blessed by them.