At a dinner last night (April 26) hosted by the Native American Comprehensive plan, more than 50 people gathered from about 20 different tribal groups. Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a member of the Maskoke Nation, son of the Wind Clan and grandson of the Bird Clan, was acknowledged for his role in the opening worship ceremony at General Conference 2012. Briggs-Cloud then led them in the singing of several hymns. They sang “Amazing Grace” in seven different languages. The Lumbee group from North Carolina started the singing in English because most of their mother tongue has been lost. Kiowa, Choctaw, Klinket, Commanche, Creek, Padawatomi, and Cherokee, followed in turn.
Dr. Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne), co-author with Anita Phillips (Cherokee) of On This Spirit Walk, a study guide given to every delegate attending this conference, spoke of the difficulty in getting through some of the sections of the book. She named the tragic events at Sand Creek and Washita River, and the denominationally run “Christian” boarding schools that removed children from their homes and sent them where only English was spoken and only non-indigenous culture, tradition, and subjects were taught. “Eventually,” said Dr. Mann, “the Federal Government decided it was cheaper to ‘educate’ the Indian than to continue fighting the Indian wars.”
The loss began to penetrate my being as I listened to their stories of grief—at the hands of the government, at the hands of U.S. settlers, many of whom were recent immigrants to this land, at the hands of a Methodist preacher. I could feel the anguish in the room, and somehow in the presence of so many first peoples grieving together for their shared history, I knew that the history of my people was also part of this shared story. It is God’s will that we should share the grief of this history together.
At that moment, the Act of Repentance became real for me. It is not about being defensive because I, personally, feel guilt about the sins of my ancestors. There is no defense for the sins of my ancestors. This is about members of the body of Christ taking corporate responsibility. The acts perpetrated by the colonizing settlers were unforgivable, yet in God’s grace, they might yet be forgiven — but not without cost to their descendants. The wounds, still felt in the form of deep loss in many ways by the first peoples, by the grace of God, may yet heal, but not without this and many more acts of repentance.
Skyler Corbett, a member of the Klameth nation from Oregon, helped me to see what those acts might be. First, Native Americans are storytellers. We must listen to the stories of our sisters and brothers. We may have read about the stories, or heard about them, or we may have generally blocked out those stories as past occurrences. One act of repentance is to listen to the stories of indigenous people, and to receive the stories from their point of view, even when those stories express pain and loss.
Secondly, we must have a ceremony. We, all the descendants, must feel the grief and loss expressed in those stories together. And then we need to cry together. “Tears,” said Corbett, “cleanse the soul.” And then we can begin.
Other acts of repentance may follow: seeking to understand and acknowledge that the way Christ touches the spirit of Native Americans may not be the same way that we of other cultures experience Christ. Being Christian in any culture means that Christ, as revealed in the Bible, has struck a chord that resonates within, and not in spite of, the cultures and communities that God has formed and birthed people into.
Another act of repentance requires acknowledgment that, because of past wrongs, the scales have not been weighted in favor of Native American peoples today. The church needs to support Native Americans in their ministry. This does not mean, in any way, that non-indigenous folks should send missionaries, define programs, or provide funding that has strings tied to it defining how and where it can be used. We must trust in our fellow United Methodists. They know best how to answer the call of Christ and to spread his love in their communities. Once the church’s trust in its Native American members is sincere and open, God may move their spirits, in turn, to trust in the church.
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