Decolonizing Watersheds: Foodsheds, Faith, and Resistance

Eloheh FarmsBy Dave Pritchett, Wilderness Way Community, Portland, OR

NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part series from Dave.  Part Two will be posted tomorrow.

“I am a settler in this land, too,” Randy Woodley says, sitting in a talking circle on the back porch of his farmhouse.

When Randy and Edith Woodley purchased their current Oregonian farm, the first thing they did was visit the elders of the Grand Ronde, a reservation that is now the living place of many tribes of the Pacific Northwest dispossessed of their homelands. They asked how they could honor the Kalapuya people. “Plant huckleberries,” the elder said. And they did. Since then, Edith and Randy have worked hard to restore the farm, growing vegetables and medicinal herbs with the methods of their own people.

Randy is a legal descendent of the Keetoowah Cherokee, while Edith is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. They both take their heritage seriously, and with equal gravity they recognize that the land on which they live and make a living belongs to the Kalapuya. They recognize that since their people do not have historic claims to the land, they come as settlers, just like the Europeans who settled the area in the 1800s.

The question Randy and Edith ask, how to be good settlers, continues to unsettle my heart. In this article, I will share two parts of my journey toward finding some answers to this question. In part 1, I will give some background about the Doctrine of Discovery and the concept of watershed discipleship. The story of Daniel offers a starting point for engaging a decolonizing Christian faith in part 2, and I also offer some suggestions for how to put these ideas into practice in our home places.

Doctrine of Discovery
A recent conference I attended invited similar questions regarding how to be good settlers. Hosted by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, it focused on the Doctrine of Discovery, a doctrine born in the papal bulls of the 15th century, purported to give explorers the right to claim “discovered” lands that did not have a Christian populace. According to the principle of contiguity enumerated in this doctrine, any discoverer of the mouth of a river could lay claim to the entire drainage of that river, which explains both the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory and Oregon Country, as well as the race by Lewis and Clark to the mouth of the Columbia.

Watershed Discipleship
In an article entitled, “Watershed Discipleship as Home Mission: Toward a Constructive Paradigm of Repentance,” Katerina Friesen notes that an ecclesial response to this watershed conquest is “watershed discipleship.” Watershed conquest deemed entire civilizations inferior and set the legal precedent for continued occupation of indigenous lands. What might watershed discipleship look like in Cascadia, or any other region? How might we attempt to repair the damage this doctrine of conquest caused to our relationships with God, land, and other people? Theologian Ched Myers articulates three meanings of the phrase “watershed discipleship”:

  1. First, that we must be disciples in this historic watershed moment, in which climate change, social upheaval, rapid energy depletion, and species loss threaten the harmony of God’s creation.
  2. Second, watershed discipleship enjoins that Christians be disciples of Jesus, first and foremost, within their watershed. It is only by reconciling ourselves to a particular place that we can hope to make peace with all creation.
  3. Finally, watershed discipleship also entails becoming a student of one’s own watershed, understanding, as author Todd Wynward has suggested, our “region as rabbi.” By paying attention to our local ecology and the flora and fauna within it we may learn how to integrate ourselves better into the places we call home (

Cascadian Christians in Recovery from Discovery
For those like me who live in Cascadia as heirs of the Doctrine of Discovery and subsequent conquest of indigenous lands, watershed discipleship offers a way forward, a path for those of us who are settlers in the land to move towards repentance. Friesen argues that the framing of watershed discipleship gives us language by which we may see our task as home mission: similar, perhaps, to what poet and activist Gary Snyder calls “coming into the watershed.” After all, we must live somewhere, and to uproot ourselves would be to replay the settler narrative. Wherever we live, watershed discipleship offers a path toward learning what our respective region can teach us about our faith, our God, and our place in the midst of creation.

Therefore, I look for paradigms and stories that help me embark on the difficult task of “decolonizing” my own assumptions and, in the process, decolonizing the watersheds in which I live. The best way I know to do this is by honoring the indigenous peoples who continue to call these places home after thousands of years.

Portland educator and activist Judy Bluehorse Skelton works to help indigenous peoples to enter into “recovery from discovery” through Indigenous Gardens and Food Justice. According to her, this involves changing our food practices and recovering indigenous knowledge of plants and nutrition. Recognizing my own role as a Christian who is likewise recovering from the Doctrine of Discovery, I have recently been drawn to the book of Daniel as a resource to teach me from the perspective of indigenous people learning to live faithfully under an empire that both colonized and displaced them. For settlers like me, the story helps elucidate the relationship between food and empire. In the second part of this series I will read part of the text of Daniel as a primer on the relationship between food and conquest.

Dave Pritchett lives in Portland, Oregon, and as an associate medical director for a detoxification center and as a permaculture teacher and designer, he works for the health and recovery of both people and landscapes. He enjoys volunteering his skills in organizations like Ecofaith Recovery and Portland Fruit Tree Project.

This article is modified from a larger essay in the forthcoming Watershed Discipleship Anthology, edited by Ched Myers, to be published by Wipf & Stock this year.

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