The delegation from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference does not occupy a great deal of space. There are two chairs reserved for them. But behind them is a great deal of hope, and centuries of waiting.
The petition, Regarding Native American Culture and Traditions as Sacred, requires no financial commitment from General Conference, and it is easy to overlook in the weighty legislation facing delegates. It has, however, a lot of importance to Native people. It asks simply that Native cultures, traditions, and languages no longer be viewed as sinful.
“We realized that the teachings against Native culture and traditions have been so strong that there has been almost a ripple effect into the theology of Native peoples today”, said the Rev. Glenn “Chebon” Kernell, Interpretation and Program Specialist for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. “That is one reason why we sponsored a petition to the GC of 2004. A message that we would like to send from a Christian point of view, to all Native people, not only in Oklahoma, but across the country and wherever they may be. The UM church affirms the sacredness of those practices. ”
The role of Christianity and historical Methodism has played a significant part in the loss of Native cultures. “This is something that could not even have been conceived 50 years ago because of the certain stigma that was put on Native traditions, and culture, and language. They were really condemned by government boarding schools, and church run boarding schools where young people were taken from their homes and their communities, but yet they were told that their Native way was wrong and evil,” Kernell stressed, looking into the distance. “They were put into closets, because they wouldn’t speak English. Their mouths were washed out with soap because they were talking in their language. They were punished time and time again.”
Native people began to believe that their languages, cultural practices and even art forms were incompatible with Christianity. Many would not teach their languages to their children, until some languages are extinct. In some Native United Methodist congregations, hymns are sung, but no one knows the meaning of the words. The theologies of Native Christians were impacted to such a degree, that many still consider their tribal identities as sinful. Kernell said, that within the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and other Native communities, “…one side still really preaches that today, ‘You cannot do that. It is unholy. It is not sacred. It is evil.’”
The petition is not just a statement for Native United Methodists, but for Native traditionalists who have believed that being a disciple of Jesus Christ meant giving up your racial and tribal identity. For Native Christians, who believe that the Holy Spirit guides them in their life and cultural choices, their cultures are gifts to the Church and to the world. That is the hope of Native United Methodists.
The petiton concludes:
“…being justified by faith, we will honor as sacred those practices which: call us back to the sacredness of Native people; affirm as beautiful their identity among the world’s peoples; lead us into right relationship with our Creator, creation, and those around us; and call us into holy living. We call upon the world, the Church, The United Methodist Church, and the people of The United Methodist Church to receive the gifts of Native people as People of God.”
Kernell scans a busy room in Pittsburgh, and reflects, “…it’s something that can benefit us all. It can affirm who we are, and who God created us, with the songs and ways of our people, that have been with us through centuries, since we were in existence.”
*Buckley is the director of the Native People Communications Office/UMCom