Partnering with Native American Congregations
by Alvin Deer
The United Methodist Church is a racially diverse church!
There, I said it! We find people of all racial backgrounds as members. The problem is that there just aren't enough of them in our congregations. Within the United States the latest UMC statistics (2003 GCFA Racial/Ethnic Lay Membership) show that 96 percent of the 8.1 million members are white. We Native Americans comprise less than half of one percent of the total membership. While there are only 28,710 Native Americans on the membership list, the good news is that there was a 31.9 percent surge in Native American membership over 2002. This increase should bode well for the mission and ministry of Native Americans in The United Methodist Church. It means that the Native American mission field is still ripe, ready for the harvest. As annual conferences begin to look at ministry in a new quadrennium, new approaches need to be considered.
The old missionary approach never worked very well in reaching the Native American community. Culture has always been a barrier. It is a given that conversion to a "new" religion includes understanding the culture of that religion. Today, if someone were to convert to Buddhism, an understanding of the various Asian cultures from which Buddhism comes would be necessary. But, from 1492 until the 1880s, when Native American tribes were being gathered onto reservations, the European-American culture was a huge barrier.
The late Dr. Vine DeLoria, a well-known Native American theologian and author, said in his book, Custer Died For Your Sins (1969): "Christianity, which had laid the ancient world prostrate in less than 300 years and conquered the mighty Roman Empire, has not been able in the same time period to subdue 100 Indians huddled on Long Island." While Christianity can now claim more than 100 Native Americans on Long Island, the numbers are still small after 500 years of missionary work.
The Hebrew dictionary indicates that journey could also be taken figuratively as a "course of action." I continue to believe that God’s intentions for America were not to set up mission outposts where non-native missionaries taught the Bible and acculturated Indians. It was the policy of the government, at the insistence of many denominations, that Indians be formally "civilized" through a broad system of boarding schools.
For example, Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, made famous by the exploits of a young Sac and Fox (Nation) student named Jim Thorpe, was one of almost 150 Indian schools established in the 1880s to educate Indian youth. Carlisle was founded by Colonel Richard C. Pratt, who coined the phrase, "kill the Indian and save the man." Colonel Pratt's attitude about Indians mirrored the society of his 1892 surroundings: "Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit." (Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892, pp. 46-49. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, "The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites," Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian" 1800-1900.)
Thus, you can see that missions were not set up to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), but to "civilize" the "savage" Indian. Today, the mission model has impacted less than 10 percent of the total Native American population. Native American leaders in The United Methodist Church are beginning to discuss how the church can "partner" with the approximately 170 Native American congregations within The United Methodist Church to form a new and different approach to ministry.
Lakota evangelist Rev. Richard Twiss of Wiconi Ministries has begun a missiological initiative called the "Missio Dei Initiative." He clearly states on his website, www.wiconi.com: "Missio Dei provides us with a theology of world missions that provides a place of belonging, equality, and value for all people as divine expressions of the community of God."
Native American United Methodists participated with other Native American Christians in June 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown at the Arise Mighty Warrior conference and revival. God is calling us to a new missiological understanding as the gatekeepers of the land to rise up and reconcile so that the land and people can be healed finally. It is imperative in a new millennium that non-native Christians drop ancient "mission" work for a more multidimensional, multicultural discipline of missiology. New mission goals with Native American congregations as partners can emerge from such an endeavor. The end result will be the fulfillment of the Great Commission in its fullness.
Overcoming Societal Barriers to Missiological Partnering
For example, prior to the last presidential election, an anti-Indian political group formed in Oklahoma called "One Nation." According to the organization's website, it was "created to push back against the massive expansion of tribal authority and the various disruptions and inequities created by sovereignty....One Nation will be an outspoken advocate on issues relating to how Native American tribal authority and power [are] distorting the free-market American economy." (Wilhelm Murg, Indian Country Today, August 19, 2003.) And just last month, the mayor pro tem of Houston, Texas, Michael Berry, said some very insulting things about Native Americans on his daily talk show. Among other things, he said: "We need to stop wasting all this time and energy apologizing to the American Indian, which we continue to do....We give them casinos, we give them special licenses, we give them special scholarships, and why I don’t understand....We conquered them, that’s history. Hello?"
Nothing was given to Native Americans! Over 300 treaties were entered into with Indian tribes. In exchange for vast tracts of land and mineral resources, like oil, we were given reservations, a promise of education, and health care, among other services. To churches, we gave small tracts of land in exchange for Christian education and a new way of worship. We truly believed that we entered into sacred covenants with the white man when we signed those treaties. And we believe that they were ratified in heaven because Scripture tells us that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)
Understanding True Native Religious Thought
Many Native American tribes believed in one "supreme being" even though many missionaries thought that we worshiped animals, birds, stars, and rocks. Native forms of worship were labeled "animism" by the early Christians who encountered Native Americans. Animism is defined as a belief that animals and natural objects such as trees, rivers, and rocks possess a soul or spirit. Anima is the Latin word for "soul" or "spirit," when what was meant was zoolatry, or the worship of animals. But, in fact,Native American spirituality is neither of these.
The goal of those who labeled Native worship as animistic was to devalue and demonize indigenous spirituality. Non-Native Christians who want to understand our ancient religious beliefs should do so without labeling Native American religions as animistic, paganism, or witchcraft.
Partnering With Native
I invite you to contact your annual conference to begin a dialogue about the Native American communities in your area and to look at new missiological opportunities for partnership. (See map.) You may also contact Cynthia Kent, Executive Secretary for Native American Ministries at the General Board of Global Ministries.
The Rev. Alvin Deer, a member of the Kiowa and the Creek of Oklahoma, is the Executive Director of the Native American International Caucus of The United Methodist Church and an ordained elder of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
Date posted: Jul 05, 2007