BELLINGHAM - As many around Whatcom County and the nation spent the weekend observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one speaker in a small theater at Whatcom Community College described the moment she first realized some of the horrors that had been committed in the name of supposed racial and religious superiority.
When Beth Brownfield was maybe 12 years old, she learned that some European settlers in America had purposefully passed blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans.
"I could not believe anyone would knowingly do that to another person," Brownfield said.
Brownfield and Lummi Nation Elder Juanita Jefferson helped lead one of several breakout sessions at the 16th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Conference, Saturday, Jan. 18. Other sessions at the event related environmental issues with other human rights issues. Keynote speaker Jay Julius spoke about maintaining access to clean drinking water and food sources as an important human right.
In their workshop, "Acknowledging root Causes of Injustice and Seeking Right Relationship with America's Indigenous Peoples," Brownfield and Jefferson focused on the history of mistreatment of native people in America and the impact that has had on Lummi Nation and in Whatcom County.
Brownfield told the 50 or so workshop participants that after her childhood discovery, she started to investigate some of the roots of inequality and mistreatment of indigenous peoples. She learned about the Discovery Doctrine, a directive issued by the Pope in the late 1400s, instructing conquerors to subdue and even kill all non-Christians they came across, likening them to savages and animals. It was by viewing the world through a lens tinged by that doctrine that settlers had justified not only the infected blankets, but many other atrocities committed against native peoples, Brownfield said.
Many well-meaning parents teach their children "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Jefferson told the workshop audience she disagreed with the rhyme.
"That is a total lie," Jefferson said. "Those words that were listed (in the doctrine): 'savages,' 'heathens' and so on - embedded in each word was hatred, loathing and a sense we could be treated less than human."
Words can break spirits and prevent people from forming trusting bonds with one another, Jefferson told participants.
"You never know what effect you may have on someone, what may not take effect for five or 10 years," she said. "That's what we do with our children."
White children, Jefferson continued, are taught to watch out for people of color, and children of color are taught to be wary of white people.
"We are going to fight this with the words we learn to convey to one another," she said. "Today we honor MLK, who was able to open the door by putting in words our human value."