When the General Conference apologized to Native peoples during the Act of Repentance service April 27, it evoked more than a sense of déjà vu for folk from the Western North Carolina Conference.
In 2003, under the then-episcopal leadership of Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, the Western North Carolina Conference held a service seeking reconciliation and healing. The conference meets on the grounds of Lake Junaluska, N.C., and leading the service were indigenous people from the area, which was once owned by Cherokee Indians.
Lake Junaluska is named after Cherokee Chief Junaluska, who led a group of 500 of his Cherokee scouts to help General Andrew Jackson win the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend during the War of 1812. The United Methodist assembly in Lake Junaluska honors Chief Junaluska with a statue in front of the main auditorium.
Setting the tone for the historic service, Kammerer issued a statement of reconciliation. “We have not always honored your land, your people, your creator God… We seek reconciliation and healing in our relationships. We yearn to become brothers and sisters of the same creator God,” she said.
After the General Conference’s Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples, Kammerer recalled the feeling she had nine years ago and the significance of that historic moment.
“The granddaughter of Chief Junaluska was then the current chief. Her presence and speech were empowering. I presented her with a large pottery pitcher, which was made from the silt of the lake and was (from) her native tribal land. It was a very moving moment for the WNC Conference,” Kammerer said.
Daphine Strickland, a visitor to this General Conference, and her sister, Connie Locklear, a first-time General Conference delegate – both members of Triad Native United Methodist Church in Greensboro, N.C. – reflected on the April 27 service and the one in 2003. They said both services were good but the process to healing takes weeks, months and even years.
“Just the thought of coming to General Conference was painful because I knew what was going to happen,” Strickland said. “I had a sense of dread about coming here. I remembered our service (in 2003) and I thought about the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek massacre, and I thought about my people who were taken.”
Strickland and Locklear said the General Conference service lacked full participation and recognition of the indigenous people who were assembled. “There were more than 60 of us seated in a section dressed in our Native regalia, representing many tribes across the country. No one recognized us. I doubt people knew we were there,” Strickland said. Added Locklear: “It felt isolated. People came a long way and nobody said anything.”
Strickland served on the Western North Carolina Committee on Native American Ministries and helped plan the repentance service in 2003. She believes the service helped open the door to better relationships among conference leadership and Native people in Western North Carolina. “We did a daylong retreat with the bishop and cabinet, and they listened to our stories both personal and historical. We also had several other programs after that,” she said.
Strickland hopes the same holds true for the church’s response following this General Conference. “We don’t want a paternal relationship with the church. We want leadership visibility and independence to make decisions as part of this church,” she said.
Strickland said the words of the Rev. George Tinker at the April 27 service resonated with her. Tinker, a citizen of the Osage Nation and professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said an apology is a form of turning around. “We are watching to see what will happen the rest of this conference and the impact it will have on indigenous people in the days ahead,” Strickland said.
Strickland and Locklear are proud United Methodists. Their daughter and niece respectively, the Rev. Donna Strickland Smith, is the first and only Native female ordained as an elder in the Western North Carolina Conference.
*Author Dawn Hand is the former Western North Carolina Conference director of communication and currently serves as associate pastor and chief programs officer for Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.