Another problematic hymn

“The Earth Is My Mother,” no. 1073 in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Journey, turns out to be one of those problematic songs.

The first problem is — who wrote it? In Singing the Journey, it’s attributed to “Native American, from Songs for Earthlings, ed. Julie Forest Middleton, copyright 1998 Emerald Earth Publishing.” Let’s look first at whether it’s truly a Native chant, and second, who might own the copyright.

On the “Rise Up and Sing” website, Annie Patterson and Peter Blood note: “It has been suggested that this chant is based on a Lakota (Plains) chant and elsewhere as coming from the Hupa tribe of Northern California.” But, as they point out, it’s almost impossible to evaluate such claims. Patterson and Blood also write: “We urge people to consider carefully issues of cultural and religious appropriation in utilizing material like this. At the very minimum acknowledge the issues involved when you utilize songs of this kind.” To put it more bluntly: if it’s really a sacred chant from a specific indigenous tradition, then you probably shouldn’t be singing it unless you know the actual social context from which the chant comes, and whether it’s a chant that has a specific cultural meaning that you should respect. And if it’s not actually a sacred chant from a specific indigenous tradition, then if you sing it you look like you’re “playing Indian.”

Next, let’s think about who owns the copyright. If it is in fact a chant from an indigenous tradition, then either the copyright should be held by a person from that indigenous tradition who composed it, or it’s from a folk tradition in which case it’s in the public domain.

There’s a third possibility, one which I believe is the most likely: the chant came out of the New Age community and/or the environmental activist community. These two communities overlapped a good deal, and both generated a lot of creative ferment in the late twentieth century. A quick search of documents on Google Books leads me to believe this third possibility is likely. Prior to 1990, I found a couple of definite references to this chant being used by environmental activists.

In the earliest appearance I can find, the lyrics to this chant were printed in The International Permaculture Seed Yearbook, 1983, along with the notation, “The Earth Chant is based on a Native American chant with the portions starting ‘the moon’ added by Dawn Seed. Reproduction and singing of the chant is encouraged,” i.e., the publishers were not claiming copyright. (The moon portion goes like this: “The moon is our grandmother, we must take care of her….”) Then a few years later, the lyrics of the song appeared as part of the testimony given by environmental activist Robin Gould of Santa Fe, New Mexico, during a public hearing held by the U.S. Department of Energy for an Environmental Impact Statement for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Project, held on 17 June 1989 in Santa Fe (see p. 46 of the transcript, lines 3-22). Gould apparently sang the song during the public hearing.

So I’m guessing that this chant was in wide circulation among (White) environmentalists and (White) New Agers at least as early as 1983, maybe going back to the 1970s. Note that the phrase “the earth is our mother” dates back even further. For example, the phrase “The Sky is our father, the Earth is our mother” appears in anthropologist James George Frazer’s book The Worship of Nature: The Worship of the Earth, the Sky, and the Sun (London: Macmillan & Co., 1926). Interestingly, Frazer attributes the phrase, not to indigenous North Americans, but to the Lo-lo p’o people of China. And many others in the West have used the phrase “the earth is our mother” — not just anthropologists, but also socialists, spiritualists, Christians, etc., going back twenty-five hundred years to Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder ancient Rome.

Thus the lyrics to the verses predate Julie Forest Middleton’s 1998 publication of them. Mind you, I don’t fault Middleton for copyrighting the version she printed in her song collection. It’s fine to copyright typesetting and arrangements. But the lyrics predate her 1998 publication by at least a decade, and the long history of the phrase “the earth is our mother” means the lyrics of the verses are almost certainly in the public domain.

As for the non-lexical vocables of the chorus — usually rendered as “Hey, yunga, ho, yunga…” or as “Hey, yanna, ho yanna…” — their origins are obscure. These vocables are somewhat consistent with some Native American music. David McAllester, in an article titled “New Perspectives in Native American Music,” notes: “In traditional Native American music, many songs may be entirely vocabalic and a majority are largely so with only a line or two of translatable text. The vocables are part of a Native American view that a song does not need many, or even any, lexical words to communicate its meanings” (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 20, no. 1/2, Autumn, 1981 – Summer, 1982, p. 434). It would be very difficult to determine if the lyrics to the chorus are actual Native vocables (which could be cultural misappropriation), or vocables designed to sound like Native vocables (which would be “playing Indian”).

As for the melody, it could be a traditional Native American melody, borrowed from somewhere. Or it could have been based on someone’s hazy recollection of a Native American chant. Or it could have been composed by non-Native singers (and it does sound a lot like many of the chants that were emerging in Neo-Pagan and New Age circles in the late twentieth century). Maybe someday someone will figure out where this melody came from, but for now I have to conclude that we just don’t know.

So should we sing this chant, or not? Even if it’s in the public domain, the criticism leveled by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood remains — singing this chant could be cultural misappropriation, or it could be “playing Indian.” Either way, I don’t think we should be singing it.

Updated and substantially rewritten 1 Oct. 2023, based on additional research.

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report

Other professions

In 1778, James Boswell recorded a conversation between Dr. Samuel Johnson, then aged 68, and a man with whom he had been at college, one Oliver Edwards, then aged 65. One of these exchanges, included by Boswell in his Life of Johnson, interested me:

“Edwards. ‘I wish I had continued at College.’ Johnson. ‘Why do you wish that, Sir?’ Edwards. ‘Because I think I should have had a much easier life than mine has been. I should have been a parson, and had a good living, like Bloxam and several others, and lived comfortably.’ Johnson. ‘Sir, the life of a parson, of a conscientious clergyman, is not easy. I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family than he is able to maintain. I would rather have Chancery suits upon my hands than the cure of souls. No, Sir, I do not envy a clergyman’s life as an easy life, nor do I envy the clergyman who makes it an easy life.'” (James Boswell, Life of Johnson [Oxford Univ. Press, 1924], pp. 229-230).

I’m in my early sixties, and find myself thinking the same kind of thoughts that Oliver Edwards thought. Except that instead of wishing that I were a clergyman (because after all I am a clergyman), I think about other professions I might have followed.

But I find myself disagreeing with Johnson. I often disagree with Johnson. He liked patriarchy and hierarchy, and I don’t. So I don’t take the (literally) patriarchal view that a clergyperson is “the father of a larger family.” In my view, clergy (of all genders) are co-equal with congregants. And I’m sure Johnson would be as appalled at my views as I am at his views.

Documents relating to the Ute Indians and the Unitarians

Recently, people in the United States have been taking the month of September to reflect on the wrongs perpetrated against the indigenous peoples by the U.S. government and citizens.

(And yes, the perpetrators of wrongs against Native Americans were nearly all White, which means that Ron DeSantis doesn’t want this material taught in the Florida public schools because it might make some White kids feel ashamed of their race. More than 20 other U.S. states have laws similar to Ron DeSantis’s law in Florida, which means that this blog post is officially and legally banned in schools in more than one third of the U.S. But I digress….)

After the Civil War, various religious groups were assigned to Native American groups. The Christian religion, especially Protestant Christianity, was considered a “civilizing force,” a means by which White settlers could maintain control over Native peoples by forcibly integrating them into White culture. The Unitarians were still considered Christians in the 1870s (we got kicked out of the Christian club after 1900), and as a small denomination we were assigned “the Utes of Colorado,” a group of Native nations then living in Colorado, later forcibly removed to Utah. The Unitarians considered this “mission work,” a way of spreading the Unitarian religion through good works among non-White (and therefore less “civilized”) persons; and they classed it with the Unitarian mission in Kolkata, India, and the mission work done among African Americans in the Deep South.

Apparently, the Unitarians were fairly ineffective at this mission work. Given the history of Unitarianism, I suspect our ineffectiveness was due to our usual lack of organization and unwillingness to provide adequate funding. We established a school for Ute children, which is not listed in the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, so perhaps it was not a boarding school. Nevertheless, given what we know now about how White-run boarding schools did so much damage to Native children, it seems important that we learn more about how this school operated.

(All this makes me think: The Universalists can be thankful that we were so small and disorganized and heretical during the 1870s and 1880s that the U.S. government never assigned them a group of Native peoples.)

In any case, I’ve collected some documents from the 1870s and 1880s pertaining to the Unitarian mission among the Ute peoples. They make for some pretty uncomfortable reading. Even though the Unitarian Universalist Association formally apologized to the Utes back in 2009, we still have a lot to do to reflect on how the Unitarian religion was used as a tool of colonization.

Scroll down for the documents….

Cover page of the report of the Fifth Meeting of the Unitarians.National Conference
Continue reading “Documents relating to the Ute Indians and the Unitarians”

Readings for memorial services

Families who are planning Unitarian Universalist (UU) memorial services often want suggestions for readings. Yes, there are many websites with tons of readings for memorial services. But many of those websites are going to have material that is too religious for us Unitarian Universalists. And some of the readings you’ll find online don’t exactly fit with UU values.

Of course, there’s the printed book with a collection of memorial service readings published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, Beyond Absence compiled by Edmund Searl. I used to lend that book to families planning memorial services, supplemented that with a small printed collection of readings that I had put together. But these days, almost all the meetings I have to plan memorial servicesare online. You can’t lend out printed material over a Zoom meeting.

So I finally put together my own online collection of readings for a memorial service. Public domain material appears in full in my online collection, using the most accurate texts I could find. I also include fair use material (excerpt under 500 words and less than half of a poem). For other copyrighted material, I provide links to an accurate text, with a very brief excerpt to give an idea what the reading is like. I’ve made an effort to include both older classics, and links to contemporary authors. I’ve provided readings by authors of different races and ethnicities, and different religious backgrounds ranging from “Nones” to UUs to Buddhists to lots more.

Click here to see my online collection “Readings for memorial services.”

Why Amazon sucks, cont.

I promised a friend that I’d buy 30 of his poetry books for a reading he’s doing in our congregation this weekend.

Unfortunately, he self-published through Amazon. So I had to buy his books through Amazon. Yuck. I expect Amazon to underperform, but they outdid themselves this time.

First of all, I paid extra for 2 day shipping. The books took four days to arrive. No surprise there. Amazon consistently ships items late, even when you pay extra for their Prime service.

Secondly, here’s what the books looked like when I unpacked the box:

New books shipped in too large a box.
What the box looked like when we opened it

The books were shipped loose in way too large a box. There was essentially no attempt to keep the books from flinging themselves around during shipping. As a result, corners are damaged, covers are bent. It’s just a mess.

First lesson to be learned: don’t self-publish your books through Amazon. Your customers are liable to receive poorly packaged and damaged books.

Second lesson to be learned: Amazon. Doesn’t. Care. About. Books.


Four Sandhill Cranes have been frequenting Arcadia Audubon Sanctuary in Holyoke. We don’t see Sandhill Cranes in Massachusetts all that often. But I had a long talk with a woman staffing the visitor center at the sanctuary, and she said these four seem to have been around all summer, and there’s some who think they might be getting ready to breed in the area next summer.

Four large birds in a field with steep hills behind.
The four Sandhill Cranes with the ridge of Mt. Tom in the background.
Sandhill crane through a telephoto lens.


I’m on a brief road trip to the Connecticut River Valley. After driving through heavy and slow traffic along the Mass Pike — there must have been a lot of people going away for the weekend today — I arrived at Mount Tom State Reservation with just three hours before the park closed. I got up to Whiting Peak, then walked along the New England Trail with dramatic views over Easthampton west to the the Berkshire Hills.

Rocky ledge in foreground, with view over a valley.
The view from the New England Trail, just below Whiting Peak

I’m spending the night in a motel in Ludlow, and tomorrow I’ll be on a Mass Audubon botany field trip. I would have liked to have more time to explore Mount Tom today. But it’s good to get away for even this brief time, just to recharge my spirit.

Elder God Party in 2024

Back in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles, this blog encouraged people to vote for Cthulhu for president. According to an old MIT webpage :

“Cthulhu is a large green being which resembles a human with the head of a squid, huge bat-wings, and long talons (true, that doesn’t really resemble a human, but bear with me here). [In] H. P. Lovecraft’s story ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ Cthulhu rests in a tomb in the city of R’lyeh, which sank beneath the Pacific Ocean aeons ago. Cthulhu is dead but not truly dead, as he and his fellow inhabitants of R’lyeh sleep the aeons away…. From time to time R’lyeh comes to the surface, and Cthulhu’s dreams influence sensitive individuals across the globe to depict his image, slay, and found cults dedicated to him.”

Back then, I thought it was funny to promote Cthulhu as perhaps the worst presidential candidate anyone could conceive of. Then came the 2016 presidential election, and it didn’t seem funny any more.

As we approach 2024, the Republican Party seems to have turned into awakened Cthulhu — they’re ready to get violent with anyone they don’t agree with (“if I have to kick down doors, that’s just what patriots do”). The Democratic Party, by contrast, seems to drift ever further from their roots as the party of economic opportunity for ordinary working people — they look like Cthulhu sleeping away the aeons.

With both the Republicans and the Democrats trying to become bad imitations of an Elder God, I’ve decided it’s time to bring back the Elder God Party. Let’s get a real Elder God involved in politics. Imagine a debate between Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Cthulhu. Cthulhu speaks first. Donald Trump starts to shout over him, and Cthulhu eats him. Joe Biden tries to inject a comment, and Cthulhu mocks him for not being vicious enough. That’s the end of the debate. After Cthulhu is declared the winner, he eats the audience.

Look at it this way. We can die a slow death from ecological disaster while ruled by an authoritarian regime. Or we can die the same slow death while under the leadership of a party that is unable to organize its followers around the obvious unifying cause. Or — we can die a really fast death by electing Cthulhu, who will simply kill everyone and eat them.

Do the right thing. Vote for a really fast death. Vote the Elder God Party in 2024.