SAYMA and Smith: “Judging the Fruits” by Their Own Words

In yesterday’s post, we revisited a letter from the late Friend Alan Robinson on making some sense of the controversy over SAYMA paying Sharon Smith for her “ministry” on racism among Quakers. He proposed applying the test in Jesus’ parable (in Luke 6:43-45) about judging trees by their fruits.

One of the “trees” targeted by Smith in her harangues about SAYMA was the plan by some of its meetings to host a workshop on Native American concerns. Smith denounced the idea and the invited group in lurid terms. The sponsors later replied. This correspondence circulated on the net and is brought together and excerpted here as a case study for judging these “trees” and their fruits.

The operative query they can help readers weigh is: should SAYMA be paying for this behavior? That’s on on the agenda for the representative session on July 20.

On Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 10:46 AM Sharon Smith fired the first rhetorical shot:

Friends in Asheville, Swannanoa Valley and Celo NC, are up to no good. They are moving ahead with a plan to pay Paula Palmer to do her workshop on “How to be in Right Relationship with Indigenous People” against my objections as a Saponi Matriarch. . . .

This is by no means OK, my Friends.  Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down. . . .

This is a warning. IF you will not organize among yourselves to stop Paula Palmer from doing her workshop in SAYMA Meetings, it will cause a similar diplomatic disaster as what happened in New England with FGC.

Don’t say I did not give you an opportunity prevent such a thing from happening.  Don’t say you did not know better, either.

There was soon a response circulated from one of the local planners, Friend Maggie O’Neill:

As one of the organizers for the North Carolina events of “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples” (TRR), with invited Friend Paula Palmer, it is my responsibility to respond to and correct the false statements made by Sharon Smith about these programs.

It is also important for the reader to know that Sharon Smith has slandered Paula Palmer publicly on the FB “About Quaker Racism “Page, calling her a slang derogatory name, distorting information about the Toward Right Relationship project, and stating a number of falsehoods as facts.

In Sharon Smith’s first email to Paula Palmer (which arrived shortly after the initial announcement of the proposed TRR program, at which point we were still seeking sponsors, support and participation) Sharon Smith threatened to “shut down” the NC events because, she said, Asheville Friends Meeting was not in right relationship with HER. She claimed Asheville Friends did not assist with her needs for housing.

Upon inquiry, we learned that members of AFM had provided Sharon Smith with a place to live for 4 years, receiving no payment, as well as funds to purchase a car. We also learned that Asheville Friends experienced numerous incidents of verbal and even physical abuse at the hands of Sharon Smith, and the congregation lost a number of members and attenders as a result of her behavior.

Now even though Sharon Smith no longer lives in our area, she slanders our invited Friend and threatens to disrupt these events.


The Western North Carolina [WNC] programs of “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples” (TRR) are being planned by an interdenominational group that includes Asheville and Swannanoa Valley Friends, four additional churches of different denominations, and Native American leaders. The programs are also co-sponsored by the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Department at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Three different programs are planned, and each of them will be co-presented by invited Friend Paula Palmer and local Native speakers. Through this collaborative process we are already deepening our understanding and forming respectful relationships with our Indigenous neighbors.

The “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples” project was developed in response to the call from the World Council of Churches and the United Nations to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and to support the implementation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As Paula Palmer explains, this work starts with truth-telling, and it is the responsibility of white people to learn and face the truth of our history. White facilitators in the TRR program are committed to being guided by Native elders, colleagues, writers, and speakers, and also to embrace their responsibilities as white people to educate themselves and take actions leading toward justice and healing.


1.The correct name for the program is “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples” (TRR), and it is under the care of Friends Peace Teams. It was developed over a decade of working with a group of Native Americans, and is co-directed by Paula Palmer and Jerilyn DeCoteau, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Ten Native facilitators and more than 60 non-Native facilitators (African-American, Latinx, and white) present TRR programs around the country. For more information, please see the TRR website,

There are strict guidelines about which programs white TRR facilitators can present and which must be presented by Native speakers. In almost all locations, Indigenous people or organizations co-sponsor, co-facilitate and/or participate in TRR programs, as is happening in WNC.

  1. Paula Palmer does not receive honoraria for leading TRR workshops. Her travel expenses are reimbursed and donations to Friends Peace Teams are requested at the programs to support TRR program development and management. In WNC all Native speakers will be offered honoraria and travel expenses for their presentations.
  2. CELO Meeting is not a sponsor of this series of programs.
  3. TRR policy is that a Land Acknowledgment Statement will be read at the beginning of each session honoring ALL Indigenous Peoples who have lived on this specific land. TRR facilitators prepare this acknowledgment statement based on information provided by Native people in the area.

For the WNC programs, Paula Palmer asked Sharon Smith via email to contribute her knowledge of Saponi history and presence in the area, but she refused, saying, “I don’t have to prove myself to you.”

As a matter of due diligence, the WNC program planners sought and received information and input from Saponi and Eastern Cherokee tribal historians in NC. None of them could substantiate that Sharon Smith is a Saponi tribe member or that her land claims in the Asheville/Black Mountain area have any factual basis.

Had Sharon Smith come forward with factual information about the Saponi tribe living in our area, as Paula requested, we would have included it in the land acknowledgement statement. Even now, if she provides reliable sources, or should we find evidence of her claims ourselves, we will include them.

  1. Paula Palmer and her Native colleagues have led more than 350 TRR workshops throughout the country over the past eight years. They have never been advised to “ask permission” of local Indigenous people to do so. When Sharon Smith stated that we did not have her permission to offer the NC workshops, Paula Palmer consulted with her Native American colleagues and advisers in the Toward Right Relationship work, and they all replied that they do not recommend asking permission of local Indigenous people to speak/present TRR programs. Indeed, they said this could generate conflict among Native people since in most locations there have been and may still be people of many different Indigenous nations. Who would have the authority to give permission, and how would that be determined?

The Native people Paula Palmer works with said that, in most urban settings, they would be suspicious of any person who claimed to be authorized to grant permission on behalf of “local Native people,” since this is not a traditional practice. Asking and giving permission might be appropriate on a reservation, they said, although even there it could be problematic because of different perspectives on tribal “authority.” Note: When TRR is invited to present programs in Indigenous communities, Native (not white) facilitators present those programs.

These are the facts. Thank you for reading and for your interest in “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples.”

In the Light,
Maggie O’Neill
Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting
Black Mountain, NC

Paula Palmer

Paula Palmer On Fri, Mar 20, 2020 added more information:

Dear Friends,

    It’s difficult for me to enter this conversation, but I appreciate the opportunity Sharon offers by including me on the email list. There is always so much to learn when we engage as openly as we can with each other. I hope you won’t mind me sharing some thoughts that arise for me from this correspondence.

    I watched the Brown University panel discussion that Sharon shared with us and learned a lot from it. Yes, we need to lift up the history of Indian slavery — in the Southwest and California as well as the East Coast — and its ongoing manifestations in our country. As a small step in that direction I am revising the text of our “Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change” workshop to include this. Thanks again to Sharon for this teaching.

    The Brown discussion also highlighted the fraught issues around Indigenous identity and tribal recognition, brought about and perpetuated by colonialist and white supremist policies. I met the panel’s host, Ray Two Hawks Watson, a couple years ago and learned about the Pokanokets’ struggle for recognition in Rhode Island. The Brown panelists and audience members lamented the conflicts among Native peoples that arise from these tribal identity/recognition struggles, and how these conflicts divide Native peoples and serve the interests of the colonizers/oppressors (as Paulo Freire wrote in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

I’m sure some of you know that in the wider Philadelphia area there are conflicts among “recognized” and “unrecognized” Lenape peoples, and this raises questions for Friends about who they “should” and “shouldn’t” collaborate with. In Colorado, where I live, people who identify as Genizaro claim tribal identities that are challenged by members of “recognized” tribes. And Sharon brings forth conflicting versions of history and identity between her people and the Eastern Cherokee in North Carolina.

    Our Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples program  encounters these conflicts in many places where we are invited to present our workshops and programs. We do not take sides, and we also know that we cannot resolve existing conflicts.

    A little background: We have been doing this work for eight years, first under the care of Boulder Meeting and now under the care of Friends Peace Teams . The TRR program is co-directed by Jerilyn DeCoteau (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) and myself. Our workshops are facilitated by 10 Native facilitators and some 60 non-Native facilitators (African Americans, Latinx, and white) in different parts of the country.

Some of us are Quakers, but most are not, and our programs are secular, not religious. . . and by now we’ve presented more than 350 programs in 31 states. In almost every location, local Native people and organizations have co-sponsored, co-facilitated, and/or participated in our programs.

    When Toward Right Relationship facilitators travel, we are very aware that we are invited guests, and we rely on local host organizations to lay the groundwork for our programs. We ask host organizations (Native and non-Native) to gather information about the history and current presence of Native peoples on the land and to draft an acknowledgment statement that we then read at the beginning of each of our presentations.

We ask host organizations to involve local Native people in drafting these statements and in planning our programs. Sometimes non-Native host organizations have relationships with local Native peoples and sometimes they don’t, so this process works differently in each location.

    In North Carolina, the Asheville and Swannanoa Valley Friends meetings invited me to offer some programs there following on the May 1-4 conference of Quakers and Native Peoples at Pendle Hill (note: this Pendle Hill conference was  postponed because of the Coronavirus, and our North Carolina programs are also postponed, date TBD).

NC Friends were especially interested in my research on the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools; because one of these schools was nearby in Cherokee. Quakers managed five day schools and a boarding school for Eastern Cherokee children in the late 1800s, and the federal government kept the boarding school running till 1954.

NC Friends proposed a program where I would share my research on the Quaker role during the boarding school era, and Eastern Cherokee people would share their boarding school experience and its ongoing consequences in their communities.

    Friends from the two NC meetings did outreach to the Eastern Cherokee because of the Quaker/Cherokee connection through the boarding school and because of the Cherokee nation’s physical proximity. The meetings also reached out to other churches in the area, and a planning committee was formed that includes Eastern Cherokee and faith community leaders. The American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at University of North Carolina Asheville is co-sponsoring the program. The current plan is for a series of three programs on different topics, and each will be co-presented by Eastern Cherokee people and myself.

    Sharon lives in South Carolina, and when she learned about these programs she wrote to me saying that Asheville Meeting must ask her permission to host these programs, but that they had not asked her permission because they knew she would not give it. She told me she would disrupt the programs if her permission were not sought and granted. She said she is a Saponi Matriarch and that Asheville is on Saponi land.

I told Sharon that we would be drafting a land acknowledgment statement and that I would like to see the information she has about Saponi history in the Asheville area. She declined to share information or sources, but we are doing our best to track any evidence of Saponi presence there. An Asheville Friend sent letters of inquiry to all three Saponi tribes in North Carolina and to an anthropologist at Warren Wilson College.

So far these inquiries have not produced evidence of Saponi presence in the Asheville/Black Mountain region, but Asheville Friends are expanding their research. If we are able to find information we’ll certainly include it in our acknowledgment statement. In any case, our statement will broadly include all Indigenous peoples who have lived and currently live in the area.

    I should also mention that the Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples program does not have a practice of asking permission of local Indigenous people in order to offer our programs in a specific location.

When Sharon asked for this, I consulted with the Native facilitators and advisers in our program, and they said they do not recommend seeking permission from any individual. They said this could cause or exacerbate conflicts among members of different Indigenous nations living in an area. Who would have the authority to grant permission, they asked, and how would they be so authorized? Even on a reservation there are different views of “authority,” they said, referring to the different kinds of authority exercised by traditional chiefs, elders, clan mothers, and tribal government officers.

    There are many different perspectives and ways of looking at these issues. I’m only trying to let you know how we’ve developed our approach to them in our program. Thanks for sharing your perspectives too.

    In Friendship,

This response was not satisfactory to Smith. On Mar 30, 2020 she wrote:

 Are you still questioning my authenticity as a Saponi Matriarch?

 . . . You are so far out of your depth here, Paula.  Which is why you are completely unqualified to teach anyone how to be in right relationship with Native people. 

We’re not impressed by the federally recognized Natives who supposedly support you to do this work.  Because being federally recognized only means you and your tribe are owned by the US government.  They are not sovereign nations but wards of the state, as per whatever treaty terms their ancestors were forced to sign onto.

Don’t you ever come to the southeast.  I have already told you what will happen if you do and I find out about it.

In sum:

The TRR workshop plans are still on hiatus, due to the continuing impact of the pandemic.  But Quaker work on Native American issues is more than three hundred years old; so when the current epidemic passes, it will likely resume.

Trees and  fruits. Judge for yourselves. Personally, I appreciated the equanimity of Paula Palmer’s response to Smith’s attempted intimidation. As we have seen, Smith was not moved by it, and her threat still stands.

As does the query: is threatening & banishing other Friends (only one episode in a long, disheartening behavioral pattern), a “witness” that SAYMA should be paying for? Is it worth $20,000 (or any amount) from their strained budget? Is SAYMA’s only proper role here, as was suggested by one of her supporters yesterday, to “STFU” and “BUTT OUT” (yet be sure to hand over their money first}?

On July 20, we will begin to find out.

The next post in this series is here.

5 thoughts on “SAYMA and Smith: “Judging the Fruits” by Their Own Words”

  1. Content aside, the tone of Sharon’s comments remind me all too much of the current troubled occupant of the White House.

  2. How widespread is the advice that an individual with a call to service or ministry find an independent means of supporting their calling? Samuel Bownas and Ernest Morgan urged me to live cheap, earn money separately and then go do that good work.

  3. I shall be Holding SAYMA & everyone involved in this conflict. G!d can bring good into painful situations.

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