Good Intentions to Good Outcomes

By Elizabeth Janssen Koopman, York Monthly Meeting, PA

Reflections on Quaker Relations with the Standing Rock Sioux

Most Friends are aware of some of the early Quaker contacts with Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island; for example, with William Penn and John Woolman. Many of us have erroneously linked Quaker “good intentions” with good outcomes for Indigenous Peoples when, in actuality, those linkages are far from the truth. As many Friends today seek to achieve good outcomes for Indigenous Peoples, including those witnessing with the Standing Rock Sioux, I believe it is good that we reexamine some of our history with American Indians, learn from the dark shadows of our ethnocentric beliefs and practices, and become transformed in mind, spirit, and practice into effective and respectful allies—in this case with the Standing Rock Sioux as they take yet another stand to protect Mother Earth, sacred places, water, and treaty rights.

I have been greatly helped on my journey as a “Quaker among the Indians” by the work of Clyde Milner in his book, With Good Intentions: Quaker Work Among the Pawnees, Otos, and Omahas in the 1870’s (University of Nebraska Press, 1982). Although this book is largely a description of the practices and struggles of Quaker Indian agents after the Civil War, it also presents deeply important cultural Christian beliefs and societal contexts which undermined the so-called “good intentions” and which, I believe, may still subtly live in our minds and hearts today.

I present below some quotes from the final chapter, “Quaker Exit,” which illustrate the power of the Western views that continue for many of us today:


  • “What Dawes*, the Quakers, and other humanitarian reformers expected was an Indian ‘either/or’. Either the Indians would become successful farmers on individual homesteads, or they would pass away as outmoded relics of a ‘savage’ culture.” p. 197.
  • “The Hicksite Friends who worked with the Nebraska Indians wished the best for those natives, but only in terms of white cultural values. The Quakers wanted to end the influence of traditional native culture.” p. 198.
  • “Indeed, the Quakers’ good intentions merely demonstrated that they were part of the broader humanitarian reform movement of the day.
  • Although Friends proudly referred to their special heritage in Indian affairs, Quaker ideas of Indian progress in the 1870’s were part of a general consensus shared by other well intentioned whites. This white consensus insisted on Indian assimilation to white ways and signaled an intolerance for Indian culture which, at least for Friends, seemed in stark contrast to the romantic, popular image of William Penn and the tradition of Quaker friendship towards America’s Indians.” p. 199.

In my mind today, two truisms resonate: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” **, and those of us who remember our roots can find our wings. We as Friends can reflect on the historic errors of our ways and not repeat them as we seek healing and justice today. We can also find inspiration in the words and aspirations of Friend John Woolman: “Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth amongst them.”

The ramifications for my current faith and practice seem to be: (1) that I follow the leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux; for example, in giving financial help to them for maintenance of their witness; (2) that I continue to realize the continuing residues of my own ethnocentricity/Eurocentricity in my personal and spiritual thoughts and practices and seek to transform them; (3) that I continue to be in loving and respectful dialog with Indigenous and Quaker friends; and (4) that I give thanks each day for Mother Earth and All Our Relations.

* The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians.
** George Santayana