By Joe Beck
It wasn't easy being the only American Indian in his high school, Marcus Briggs-Cloud of the Maskoke Nation told an audience gathered Monday at Shenandoah University's Goodson Chapel Recital hall.
The school in Alabama was fraught with racial division between black and white students, and an Indian had no obvious link with either group, Briggs-Cloud said.
"We had a black hallway, we had a white hallway. I didn't know where the Indian hallway was," he recalled wryly.
Briggs-Cloud's sermon was part of the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Service of Remembrance program. His reflections covered a wide range of social justice issues encompassing race relations, human rights, religion and environmentalism. The Harambee Gospel Choir also performed during the program.
Briggs-Cloud said joining a black student organization and rising to a leadership position in it proved to be a turning point for him.
"It was a comfortable space for me," he said. "It's what got me through the high school experience."
From there, he went on to graduate from Harvard Divinity School and a career as a scholar, activist and international lecturer. His Facebook page lists him as a teacher of history and language at the College of the Maskoke Nation in Oklahoma. He has also served as a United Nations spokesman for indigenous people and was nominated in 2011 for two Native American Music Awards for a Maskoke hymn album.
He urged the audience members to reject complacency in their consideration of race relations in the United States.
"Racism has gone nowhere," he said, "but you'd be surprised at how many people think the civil rights movement eradicated racism."
Racism can be seen in many environmental issues, he said, citing uranium mining, a fiercely debated subject in southwestern Virginia, as an example. He asserted that 100 percent of all uranium mining currently done in the United States is on indigenous lands.
He also zeroed in on a case of natives of the Marshall Islands having babies born without bones, a tragic effect of open air testing of hydrogen bombs near their homes in the South Pacific.
"This isn't something from the past, people," Briggs-Cloud said. "It's environmental racism from today."
Briggs-Cloud said a proper respect for the rights of humans and animals could not be maintained without equal respect for the natural environment.
"We only focus on justice for humans and even focus on animals, but justice for the earth lags far behind," Briggs-Cloud said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org