This Land — Virtual UUS:E Worship, October 11, 2020

Dear Ones:

Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, there is no recording of our October 11th service. Rev. Josh’s reflections on the land surrounding our meeting house at 153 West Vernon St. in Manchester are below, along with the slideshow he had hoped to share during the service.

This Land
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
October 11, 2020

Our congregation purchased our current four acres on West Vernon St. from the Cox family in 1978. We’ve been worshipping, meeting, dancing, singing, eating, burying our dead,  gardening, landscaping, stretching, meditating, praying and playing on this land ever since. It is truly our spiritual home. We take care of this land. We prune, rake leaves, remove debris. We plant native or naturalized species: mountain laurel, rhododendrons, dogwoods, blueberry shrubs for birds, milkweed for bees and butterflies. We remove invasive species like bittersweet. We shape this land and, surely, it shapes us.

I want to begin my reflections this morning with a brief slideshow of images from this land. Thanks to Joe Madar and Jane Osborn for supplying some of these photos. I grabbed a few of them off of our Facebook page, and I am not sure who the original photographers are.


An old stone wall extends southward from the southeast corner of our memorial garden. It’s low to the ground, covered in leaves:

We affectionately refer to this structure as “the spring:”

It sits in the woods about thirty yards north of the memorial garden. I sent this photo to Robert Thorson, chair of the Geosciences Department at UCONN, and a long-time friend of our congregation. He suspects it’s “the stone casing for an old dug well, likely early 19th century [which would make it approximately 200 years old]. The original structure might have extended a bit above the ground and had a cover of some sort, through which a bucket could be dipped or a hand pump inserted…. I’m guessing that it looks shallow because it might have been filled, which was often the case when wells were abandoned…. I don’t think it’s a livestock watering tank because it’s too small and too carefully built.  All speculation, of course.”  Thanks, Professor Thorson.

By the early 1800s the vast majority of forests and woodlands in New England had been cut down for home-building, firewood, charcoal production, fence-making, furniture-manufacturing, ship-building, and perhaps most significantly, farming and animal grazing. It’s hard to know what this 153 West Vernon St. land was used for 200 years ago. Someone built a stone wall. Someone dug a well. And, eventually, it appears, someone closed off the well and, if they didn’t abandon this land, they clearly left it alone, and the woods grew back.

There’s a larger, tragic historical context for this story. Throughout the early 1800s, New Englanders—that is, the descendants of the first European colonists—began leaving. They headed west for the promise of more fertile, less rocky farmland in the Ohio valley—present day Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and southwestern Pennsylvania. During the 1790s that land had been taken, after brutal warfare, from the indigenous people living there—the Shawnees, Miamis and many others. The New England immigrants may or may not have been aware of how the Ohio Valley came into the possession of the United States. They also may or may not have been aware of how the land they left behind came into the possession of their settler ancestors. It’s a complicated, violent history of war, broken treaties, manipulative trading practices, deceptive land deals, cultural and religious imperialism, Indian removal and, later, a whitewashing of the history such that the truth of the violence could be forgotten our ignored by later settler generations.

What’s even more tragic is that the dynamics of this complicated, violent history continue across the United States to this day. Earlier, Gina shared Carole Lindstrom’s (Anishinabe/Metis and Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) story We Are Water Protectors about the movement to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline runs beneath the Missouri River, as well as a portion of Lake Oahe, very close to the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Indian reservations. An oil spill would be catastrophic to the local water resources, the land, and local cultural heritage sites. The indigenous people regard the water and the land as sacred. As Carole Lindstrom wrote, “We come from water. It nourished us inside our mother’s body. And it nourishes us here on Mother Earth. Water is sacred.” But a conglomerate of corporate and governmental entities don’t care. They’ve built the black snake. They’ve prioritized profits over the health and integrity of indigenous people, water and land. This is just one, glaring example in our time of how this complicated, violent history continues, how this settler colonialist world-view remains pervasive.

But what about us? What about the land of our spiritual home? It’s important to me that we as a spiritual community take time to discern how this complicated, violent history and this settler colonialist worldview live on in us and on this land. And then it’s important to me that we learn to conduct our spiritual life together in ways that repair the brokenness at the heart of this history. This is what it means to “decolonize our faith.”

How do we do that? One way we can begin decolonizing our faith is through the writing and speaking of a land acknowledgement—a formal statement that recognizes the indigenous people whose land we now own, and highlights the enduring relationship between indigenous peoples and their lands. If we were to create a land acknowledgment, I envision us saying it together at the beginning of worship and other gatherings as part of the way we center and ground ourselves.

The University of Connecticut started using a land acknowledgment in April of 2019. It says: 

We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the territory of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke (ska-teh-COKE), Golden Hill Paugussett (paw-GUS-it) and Nipmuc Peoples, who have stewarded this land throughout the generations. We thank them for their strength and resilience in protecting this land, and aspire to uphold our responsibilities according to their example.

This is a good example for us to contemplate. Two weeks ago, a few of us spoke with endawnis spears from Akomawt, an indigenous-led organization that consults with schools and museums on how to accurately teach Indigenous history and culture. Akomawt consulted with UCONN on its land acknowledgment. Ms. spears is very supportive of us moving forward with this process. She urges us to go slowly. She suggests we reach out to all established tribes in Connecticut, just as UCONN did. Tell them what we’re hoping to do and listen to their response. Further, learn their concerns. Support them in addressing the issues that matter to them. Building relationships in this way is as important as finding the right words for the land acknowledgment.

But there’s also another challenge for us. And to illustrate this challenge, I want to show you an interactive map from the Indigenous-led, Canadian non-profit Native Land Digital. The map shows, to the best of their knowledge, the traditional lands of thousands of indigenous nations at the time of European colonization. Explore Native Land Digital’s interactive map. When we zoom into the land on which our meeting house sits, we learn that the indigenous people who lived here at the time of colonization were the Podunks and the Wangunks. The challenge is that neither of these nations has an organized political entity today. What we know, however, is that there are people of Podunk and Wangunk heritage living in Connecticut and elsewhere. If we’re going to prepare a truly meaningful land acknowledgement, we’ll want to talk to them as well. Perhaps they won’t be interested. Or, perhaps they’ll appreciate that we’re contemplating our role in repairing damage that occurred centuries ago.

I recently started researching the Podunks. A 1924 history of Manchester (suggested by UUS:E member Susan Barlow) discusses Podunk interactions with Manchester’s earliest residents. While this book’s accuracy is questionable, the story it tells is sad, and it fits with what many of us have been learning about the ways European colonists treated indigenous people. The authors are clear that the colonists treated the Podunks poorly. “To say that [their] lands were bought,” they write, “and that, therefore, [the Podunks were] justly treated, is a mockery.” Regarding the late 1700s they write, “It is a sad chapter in the history of the Podunks, homeless and landless wanderers in the country that once belonged exclusively to them, dispossessed by those whom they had invited to come and live with them as neighbors and who had promised them protection and assistance.”[2]

From what I can tell, neither Podunks nor Wangunks ever lived directly on this land that today is 153 West Vernon St. Wangunk villages were generally further south in what today is Portland. Podunks tended to live along the Podunk River in what today is South Windsor and East Hartford, as well as in the vicinity of Manchester Community College and portions of West Center Street. Our land would most likely have been hunting grounds. Of course, it’s important to remember that indigenous people lived in what became New England for at least 12,500 years prior to colonization. How many indigenous peoples came and went during that time? It seems quite possible that at some point during those more than twelve millennia, someone lived on this land, used this land, loved this land, called it home.

This is my proposal: We begin decolonizing our faith by crafting a land acknowledgement. We’ll put a team together. If you’re excited about this work, please contact me.

More than putting words on paper, this is ultimately a process of building new relationships: with indigenous people in our region, with the people who used this land in ages past, and with the land itself. This is a process of deep listening to people, to the land, to the past, so that we may chart a new future. Carole Lindstrom reminds us of a core principle of indigenous wisdom: “We are all related.” As we work to decolonize our faith, may we come to know more deeply, in new ways, in life-giving ways, this truth. We are all related.

Amen and blessed be.


[2] From HISTORY OF MANCHESTER CONNECTICUT by MATHIAS SPIESS and PERCY W. BIDWELL, PH.D. (Manchester: CENTENNIAL COMMITTEE OF THE TOWN OF MANCHESTER, 1924).  See:  Another telling quote: “It seems that there was some truth in what the Podunk chief said when the Reverend John Eliot preached the gospel to the tribe. After his sermon Eliot asked the chief if he and his people were now ready to accept Christianity as their religion. “No,” said the sachem, “the Christians have taken away all our land and now they want to make us a race of slaves.”