ELAINE ENNS and CHAD MYERS. Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. Pp. 392. $38.00US.
Healing Haunted Histories has emerged from decades of work in restorative justice and is a call to engage in the ministry of healing relationships with the land and its indigenous peoples. With their long knowledge in the area, Elaine Enns and Ched Myers invite readers into a pilgrimage that will take them outside of the comfortable walls of academia and the churches. They provide a model and astute questions as guidance to healing personal pasts. With courage and compassion the authors urge readers to use these tools to explore their own histories as the basis for practicing a discipleship of decolonization.
The book’s title, with its creative use of alliteration, Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization, drew this reader in, capturing the imagination. As a historian whose work has included the probing of family memories in the Brethren in Christ tradition with the explicit hope of realizing healing, I find the metaphor that they have developed to be compelling and challenging. The introduction provides helpful definitions that are essential in reader understanding: settler colonialism, decolonization, and hauntings. The latter term is less familiar and may be uncomfortable for some readers. The authors borrow the term from French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose “hauntology” identifies the “ghosts” from the past that shape identity and history. This notion is key to their restorative justice methodology.
Through a sometimes bewildering array of lenses including geography, history, theology, sociology, and studies on decolonization, the authors provide a thread based on their own experiences, as they grapple with complex colonial pasts. Owning their respective and joint histories rooted in the colonialism that has shaped Russia, Saskatchewan, Mexico, and California, they bring together the political and the personal, although Elaine’s Mennonite ancestry provides the major example.
Candidly disclosing her attempts to unveil the haunted histories that plague her ancestors’ part in the colonial project, the authors have given readers a window into Elaine’s family’s migration history. Tales of people displaced with Mennonite immigration onto the Russian plains, then in the early twentieth century in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution from the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine and Russia, to re-settlement on the Treaty 6 area in the Saskatchewan River watershed are woven throughout. Readers learn also about the conflicted past of the Ventura River watershed in California where the couple currently resides. Through careful analyses of peoples and places, Myers and Enns model their own steps towards embracing a “discipleship of decolonization” as a path towards healing.
The book is divided into two parts: before and after, if you will. In Part I, “Archaeology: Excavating Storylines of Displacement, Trauma, and Resilience,” the authors invite readers to share in their own stories, and to explore their own pasts, with a series of thoughtful questions for readers to ponder. For Enns, the exploration includes the often unspoken traumas suffered by her Mennonite ancestors who immigrated from Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The metaphors of “storylines” from the triple perspective of “Landlines,” “Bloodlines,” and “Songlines” provide guidance in the exhumation of the past.
“Landlines” raises insightful questions around origins that include the following areas of enquiry: Where did we come from? What geographic terrain shaped us? What languages did our forebears speak? Who did they leave behind? Where did our forebears settle? “Bloodlines” investigates who these ancestors were and which of their stories have shaped us. Whose stories are told in the public domain? Which stories have been hidden in the silences of the past? What traumas leave unhealed pain? These and many other questions provide concrete ways that readers might investigate their own histories. For Enns, her family’s Mennonite history of immigration from Russia is rife with stories of the trauma that Mennonites suffered under the Bolshevik Revolution, often well hidden in the silences.
“Songlines” is an apt metaphor that emerges from the Mennonite tradition of music, particularly four-part harmony, that has shaped communities under persecution. Mennonite “Songlines” have provided a vehicle for the resilience found in forgiveness of oppressors and the hope in their faith communities. For readers, the authors offer a variety of ways of investigating our own “Songlines.” For instance, “What family stories narrate courage, compassion, and conscience: Do they evoke heroism or humility? Is there adequate social and historical context associated with the telling, or have they morphed into individualistic or moralistic tales?” (128).
The second part of the book is a place for re-thinking, for revising readers’ previous understandings of where we are and who we are. Creative investigation with the tools of the historian, the geographer, the archaeologist and the philosopher, Enns and Myers uncover particular hauntings that shape the Saskatchewan River and Ventura River watersheds. They also provide a guide with thought provoking questions for intrepid readers who are drawn to doing similar work in their own settings. “What needs to be remembered? What needs to be recovered or restored? What needs to be conserved or maintained? What needs to be changed or transformed? What needs to be created?” (193). “Who were the Indigenous people(s) of the area where your forebears settled,” they ask. What was happening to them as your people moved in? Do you know any stories of settler-Indigenous encounters there?” (194) These and other questions take readers to a second look at “Bloodlines” and “Songlines” which provide genealogical work along with healing metaphors and guides for creating new stories. Again, a range of questions dare readers to dig deeper into their respective pasts.
The final chapter emphasizes the necessity of healing our own genealogical hauntings if we wish to arrest the progress of the trauma in our families, communities, and nations, and to re-build relationships with the land and the indigenous people in our communities. It provides guidance that will lead those who care to go on the pilgrimage towards what was promised in the book’s title, A Discipleship of Decolonization.
I found stories of individuals who have made steps in retribution to be worthy of attention. Take, for example, Florence Schloneger, a “Mennonite pastor and descendent of immigrants who settled Kanza (or Kaw) land in the late 1870s,” who gave $10,000 to the Kanza Indigenous Heritage Society as a gesture towards repayment” (297). Schloneger’s gesture touches on questions that I have had about my own ancestors who were among the large Brethren in Christ community who immigrated to Kansas in the late nineteenth century. Were they aware of the forcible removal in 1873 of the Kanza people to Oklahoma to make room for white settlers to colonize the land, I wonder? (297) How will my research and self-understandings change with this knowledge?
This lengthy and impressive project is a gift to Anabaptist communities concerned with restorative justice. Maps, genealogies, photos, and many stories both from Enns’s Mennonite history and the couple’s restorative justice work, draw in the reader. Biblical and theological teaching gives the book depth. The provocative questions at the end of each chapter provide guidance for study groups. They encourage what the authors call a discipleship of pilgrimage, with personal exploration of the stories that “haunt” the lands we live on, as well as our family trees. They invite readers to “forge respectful and restorative relations with Native neighbours,” by abandoning the privilege that those of us with European ancestry assume (162).
Finally, I identify two notes of caution for the reader. This book is a challenging read. Enns and Myers’s disclosure about their own history of complicity in the colonial enterprise upsets previous ideas that I have had about my family’s past, and the Brethren in Christ community that has shaped my spiritual heritage. On a practical note, for the reader, the “hopping around” (23), as they put it, can be off-putting, as the authors move backwards and forwards between Landlines I and II and cross ways from Landlines to Bloodlines to Songlines.
Challenges aside, Healing Haunted Histories is well worth reading. It provides clear ways to create new stories that will move communities towards healing. I strongly recommend this book to leaders in our academic and church communities, as well as to students and lay people. As we seek reconciliation with each other, and with the peoples indigenous to the particular lands on which we are privileged to dwell, Enns’ and Myers’ experiment in exploring their own storylines provides a way for readers to investigate their own.