The impetus for this paper came from youth gathered at the 1992 Christian Citizenship Seminar, where the topic was, "Through the eyes of Native Americans." They called on the church to develop a ". . . new, updated action statement that will show our support for Native Americans. . . . " At the 1992 Annual Conference, Ben Wilson and Ethelene Wilson, members of the Tok'ahookaadi' fellowship at Lybrook, N.M., reiterated the call for such a statement.
At its October 1992 meeting, the General Board called for a policy statement to be developed and brought to the 1993 Annual Conference. The following committee was appointed to draft the statement: David Hendricks, Quinter, Kan., convener; Ethelene Wilson, Bloomfield, N.M.; Yahola Simms, Riverside, Calif.; Erin Anspaugh, New Madison, Ohio, and Ben Wilson, Bloomfield, N.M., both participants in the 1992 Christian Citizenship Seminar; and David Radcliff, staff liaison, Elgin, Ill.
Five hundred years after the arrival of Europeans, the rights of indigenous people on the North American continent continue to be under attack. This paper explains some of the cultural differences that cause misunderstanding and confusion; calls the church to confession and repentance; reviews the history of Brethren involvement with Native Americans; lays the groundwork for understanding the different spiritual traditions that shape the beliefs and practices of Brethren and, finally, charts a course for the denomination, providing guidance for a new inclusive Christian community that can become a tribe of many feathers.
This vision, "A Tribe of Many Feathers," notes our diversity and affirms our unity as a people of the ancient land that we call America. The committee hopes that this paper challenges the church to address the continuing injustice and misunderstandings that cause division. If the paper serves to educate people, open lines of communication, and provide motivation for future actions, then it will accomplish its goal and satisfy its purpose.
Before Christopher Columbus landed in this hemisphere in 1492, Native American people had been the sole inhabitants of the continent. Over the millennia, they had become many different tribes and developed their own ways of life. It is estimated that some 12 million people resided within the present borders of the United States at that time. These people, who were then and are now divided into distinct nations, prefer to be known by their tribal names. (As this paper addresses the situation of all the original inhabitants of this hemisphere, it will use "Native Americans" when referring to this array of groups.)
Some cultures, such as the Maya and the Inca, were extensive and highly developed civilizations. Other groups, while appearing primitive to European eyes, had developed agricultural and social systems more sophisticated than their European counterparts. Food products, medicines, architectural styles, and governmental systems were among the contributions to the world made by Native Americans. Indigenous cultures today can provide guidance regarding ecology and social organization to assist the global community in moving responsibly into the future.1
Certainly, life among Native American tribes had its share of violence and other conditions Christians call sin. In this regard, they would not have been different from the people of any other part of the world. Nonetheless, when Columbus arrived he was greeted by a people who for the most part were peaceful and generous.2 Unfortunately, these attitudes were not reciprocated by most Europeans. While European scholars and religious leaders were debating whether or not the people the explorers encountered had souls, the populace of the island where Columbus landed were being decimated by disease, slavery, war, torture, and suicide.3 Native American life would never be the same.
In the course of the next 500 years the atrocities continued. Lands were taken away, animals that were depended upon for sustenance were intentionally killed, diseases were deliberately spread, religious freedom was denied, women and children were raped and tortured, and tribes were driven onto reservations. Taken together, these actions caused a deep and enduring mistrust by Native Americans toward the European invaders.
History of Mistrust
The arrival of Europeans was experienced by Native Americans as nothing less than an invasion. This invasion was not just of the land; it was an assault on the humanity of the native people and their holistic way of living. Europeans tended to regard anyone different from themselves as inferior subjects to be conquered and destroyed.
As the conquest progressed, the native people's trust was repeatedly violated. Treaties made between Native American people and the United States government were regularly broken by the government. Missionaries of varying denominations came to native people offering love and protection and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In return for trusting these promises, the people were again victimized. They were forced to give UP their traditions, their languages, their family structures, and their spirituality. They found themselves separated and divided from one another within families and tribes. They came to feel that Christianity was an integral part of the mass destruction of their people and their way of life. In the midst of a dominant white society, distrust, rather than trust, soon became the means of survival employed by Native Americans.
Reasons for distrust have continued into the present day. For instance, in many areas the reservations onto which native people were "relocated" (usually the least desirable, least livable land available) have been found to be rich in minerals and other resources. Federal and state governments now attempt to regain ownership of this land.
Native Americans continue to be treated as second class citizens in many ways, even though citizenship was granted to them in 1924. The government admits the need for education of Native Americans, yet threatens to eliminate Federal Indian education monies provided by the Indian Education Act of 1972. In addition, there are congressional bills that in effect call for the termination of native tribes and the cessation of Native Americans as sovereign people. It is not widely known that the Kanaka Maoli, the indigenous people of Hawaii, are also currently struggling to achieve full political rights and to regain lands held in trust for them by the government. These lands have been used as military bases (with devastating environmental consequences) and to generate revenue for federal and state governments, with little economic benefit for the native people to whom they belong. The saga of the Hawaiian people's demise can be traced to the military overthrow of this previously sovereign nation by the United States in 1893. The Christian church in Hawaii, via its leaders and congregations, was instrumental in encouraging this action by the US government.4
Distrust can destroy the relationship between Native Americans and the Christian church. For this reason it is important that non-natives try to understand the pat through Native American eyes. To begin the process of reestablishing trust, the nonnative must move beyond the unfulfilled promises of the past and present.
The non-native needs to be aware that certain behaviors exhibited by the Native American in a spiritual relationship may have their foundations in historic mistrust as well as in cultural differences. For example, the native person may be silent and seemingly withdrawn. This behavior may stem from apprehension derived from past injustices: a native person may choose a "wait-and-see" attitude to discover what will "really" happen. This is part of the tradition of quiet that is prevalent in many tribes. There is also a tradition of respect for words. Words must speak the truth and be from the heart. Therefore, one cannot speak the truth and tell spiritual feelings to one's betrayer (the "betrayer" often having been identified with Europeans).
Spiritual Traditions and Worldview
In general, civil and church authorities have regarded the native people as barbarians, devoid of civilization, government, and religion. They saw native ceremonies not as expressions of religious faith, but as paganism or mere "idolatries. " When they endeavored to teach the "savages" civilization and Christianity, it was not a matter of replacing one culture with another—they did not believe Native Americans had a culture to begin with.
For trust to be built again between Native Americans and others who live on this continent, it is essential for there to be greater understanding of the differences between the respective cultures. For example, those of European ancestry often measure success by the accumulation of material wealth. For Native Americans, success is measured by relationships established through sharing gifts with one another.5 While a capitalistic society believes that the universe is to be explained and exploited for human benefit, Native Americans view nature and humankind as one, where humans live in harmony with the rest of the world, rather than exploit it. Progress is defined by Native Americans not as ongoing change, but as a holding fast to tradition and culture. The orientation of indigenous society is more toward cooperation than competition.
As to spiritual and religious traditions of indigenous people, seldom have Europeans understood or respected the Native American experience. This was in part because there would have been and still are significant differences between some Native American spiritual traditions and Christianity, Yet, ironically, many of the spiritual traditions of Native Americans have much in common with Christianity and with the Church of the Brethren understanding of faith. This does not imply that Christianity should simply be merged with native traditions. It may mean that some Native Americans can find it less difficult to make a transition to Christianity from their former religious traditions because of similarities they find between the two.
For instance, among some tribes there is a spiritual tradition that a Christ-like figure once walked among them. This has made it easier for some to accept Christ. In a similar vein is the role of spiritual guides know as "pathfinders. " Native American spirituality is characterized by a combination of teachings from many nations. These traditions are usually taught by elders or spiritual pathfinders who share knowledge and wisdom of the way through the forest, so that the path may be clear for other travellers. Because of this tradition of turning to elders and spiritual pathfinders, some Native Americans have found it easier to accept Jesus as their Lord, as he has been presented as the preeminent spiritual pathfinder (John 14:6).
In relation to creation, many Native American nations believe that the Great Mystery blew the breath of life into the physical world, endowing humankind with gifts and talents and making each lifeform a part of the perfect whole. Thus, creation was founded in love. Indeed, all Native American spiritual teachings are based on the belief that we are here to learn from each other, to live in harmony with "all our relations" (other parts of the creation), to express our unique talents, and to heal ourselves and our Mother Earth.
In Native American tradition, it is important to be able to read the "signposts" marking the way to right living. Not all people have been taught to read these markings. However, the gift of being able to read these and to hear other earth travellers from the Water Nations, Sky Nations, Four-legged Nations, and Two-legged Nations is someday to see the place where future lives and sings Great Mystery's songs.
The spiritual traditions of the Church of the Brethren reveal similarities with those of Native Americans. Brethren have long felt a close association with the land, thus tending the earth with respect. The denomination emphasizes Christian community, and a commitment to family life and the extended family. Among Brethren, faith is experienced as a Christ-centered, heartfelt commitment expressed in daily life. And, of course, the church has a long tradition of peacemaking and service ministries.
The church is also sensitive to the feeling of victimization that has been experienced by indigenous people around the world. Native peoples have commonly been subjected to war, prejudice, and unemployment, and consigned to the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. While the Church of the Brethren has displayed a sensitivity to these concerns, it needs to be noted that native people continue to suffer more harm from these forces than the "white man." Many denominations and ecumenical groups have recently made statements of confession and repentance for their role in or benefit from the oppression of native people.6
The Church of the Brethren and Native Americans
In its early history on this continent, the Church of the Brethren had minimal contact with Native Americans. Since Brethren generally did not participate in the military, they were not involved in the direct destruction of native traditions, lands, and people. There are recorded incidents that Brethren allowed themselves to be killed by Native Americans rather than taking up weapons in self-defense.7 They also did not freely pay the fees required of them to support the soldiers who went to battle in their stead.8 In some instances, Brethren were befriended by Native Americans who actively protected them when there was fighting involving colonists and native tribes.9 Brethren nonetheless benefited from the "Indian wars," as these cleared the way for white settlers like themselves.
The Church of the Brethren has engaged in a variety of ministry programs among Native Americans, with the majority of these programs being located in the southwestern area of the United States. Within this region, the greatest investment of personnel and financial support has been at Lybrook, N.M.
In 1952 the Church of the Brethren Brotherhood Board approved a ministry to the Navajos at a site 120 miles northwest of Albuquerque, N.M. The following September, the Lybrook Navajo Mission was opened under the leadership of Ernest and Olivia Ikenberry. A fellowship was formed and its membership increased, along with an expansion of ministries to the surrounding community. These included the drilling of a well, a medical clinic, and the formation of an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter (under Navajo leadership). There was also a day set aside each week for mothers and children to gather, so that the women could make use of the electricity at the mission for sewing or ironing. Brethren Volunteer Service workers complemented the work of the staff. The Church of the Brethren also made educational opportunities available to the children and youth in the Lybrook community.
A central part of the Lybrook program has been its Christian witness to the community. Church school classes, Bible studies, and children's programs have been ongoing ministries of the church. Even with the generally positive programs of the Church of the Brethren at Lybrook, the Navajo people of the region still suffered greatly at the hands of outside authorities. Like Indians elsewhere, they saw their own culture discounted and their people perceived as lacking meaningful social, governmental, or religious traditions. There were even brief periods during the Brethren mission program that non-native leadership treated the people in this way, although this is not the case at the present time.
In recent years, members of the Tok'ahookaadi' fellowship have participated in denominational youth programming and in Annual Conference, have hosted workcamp groups, and have received cooperation from the denomination in the renovation of facilities at Lybrook.
As the Church of the Brethren addresses issues and concerns related to Native Americans both within and beyond the denomination, several key questions present themselves.
Relating to those who are different from us, or who experience faith in God in a different way than we do, is a central theme of the Bible. This can be seen as early as the animosity between Sarah and Hagar and as late as the conflict in the early church between Christians of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. God's people have grappled with diversity in their midst, while also struggling to respond to people who worship different gods or no god at all. In the midst of these struggles, scripture calls us to grow toward greater love for one another.
The opening chapters of the Old Testament reveal God as the creator of the whole earth, along with its peoples. During the creative process, God repeatedly calls this creation "good." it is much later in the scriptures that the writer of Colossians testifies that all things were created through Christ, and that in Christ, all things hold together (Col. 1:15 ff). In these texts, the Bible portrays God as one who cares for and affirms all life, and particularly that life created in God's image—humankind.
Other sections of the Old Testament reiterate God's concern for all people. In many passages, there is testimony to the importance of extending compassion and blessing to others, even those who are "foreign" to the faith community. In choosing and blessing Abram, God's intention is that through Abram, " all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). In the story of Ruth and Boaz, an outsider is brought into an Israelite family, where she eventually becomes an ancestor of King David. Throughout the Old Testament is a concern for the "stranger and alien" among God's people (Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10: 18-19; Psalms 94:6; Jeremiah 7:6; Malachi 3:5). So important is this care for persons outside the community, that offering hospitality and fair treatment to those of a different cultural, racial, or national history is a key criterion by which God judges the Israelite people.
Unity and reconciliation in Christ are central teachings of the New Testament, whether we read the gospels, Paul Is letters or the other writings. We find people from different racial, cultural or religious groups, as well as former enemies, brought together in Christ.
Jesus exemplified this commitment to inclusiveness in a variety of ways. He gathered a diverse inner circle that included tax collectors for the Roman government, Zealots, and fishermen. He taught his disciples to love others, including those considered enemies. In his ministry he reached out to welcome Samaritans, Romans, and others from beyond Israel.
Along with the invitation of "outsiders" to be disciples and followers, Jesus lived and taught tolerance for people. This did not mean that Jesus tolerated behavior that was contrary to God's purposes. It did mean Jesus would not approve of anyone or any group to be treated inhumanely because of their national citizenship, religious beliefs, race, or gender. In perhaps his most famous story, Jesus places a Samaritan—a hated foreigner—in the role of the one who is capable of doing and being "good."
Jesus' disciples were not immune from the tendency to do injury to others in the name of religious zealotry. In a telling episode from Luke 9, residents of a Samaritan town refused to extend hospitality to Jesus and his disciples as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. Responding to this affront, the disciples asked whether they should call down fire on the village. Jesus sternly rebuked them.
Jesus was also willing to allow people to develop their faith in him without needing to exert control over them. For instance, Jesus made no attempt to closely regulate, the faith of people who had been drawn to him either through his teaching or his miracles. People whose lives had been touched by Jesus were often simply sent on their way with Jesus' benediction, "Go in peace. Your faith has made you well" (i.e. Luke 7:36-50, 8:40-48). In allowing people to find their own ways of giving form to their new-found faith, Jesus demonstrated trust in their choices about worship and community and discipleship, as these are guided by the Holy Spirit—and indeed allowed them to determine whether or not they would make any commitment to him at all. In this vein, Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the pharisees, as these Jewish leaders seemed possessed by the need for religious purity based on scrupulous observance of correct rituals.
On another occasion, the disciples came to Jesus with the complaint that they had discovered someone not of their group doing good works in Jesus' name (Luke 9:49, 50). Wanting Jesus to censure this man, they claimed that he had no right to do this ministry if he were not within Jesus' circle of disciples. Jesus responds, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you." Jesus seems to be quite accepting of those who are not fully within his control or even fully aligned with a proscribed set of beliefs. The important thing is whether ministry done in Jesus' name is done in the right spirit.
In John 4, Jesus addresses the human tendency to find God in particular places and rituals, During his conversation with a woman of Samaria, the woman raises the question of whether the Samaritans or the Jews have chosen the proper place to worship God. Jesus responds by saying that worship of God is not bound by location, but rather depends on the inner convictions of the worshippers. Jesus implies here that the important thing is not the outward form of our worship, but that we worship in spirit and in truth. (Peter's vision in Acts 10 is also an example in which underlying spirituality rather than outward traits or practices determines what is truly of God.)
The apostle Paul repeatedly reminds us that the church is composed of people whose gifts for ministry differ, but who are nonetheless bound together as parts of Christ's body (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). In his dealing with the tendencies of some in the early church to gauge obedience to Christ by outward observances, Paul strongly states that our life in Christ is dependent on God's grace and not on the correctness of our rites and rituals (Galatians 2:11-21). On the other hand, Paul is also clear that greed, idolatry and other forms of immorality are not to be tolerated in the church (I Corinthians 5:9-13). In sum, Paul recognizes that within the fellowship of those committed to Christlike living, there will be considerable diversity in the way Christians share in the ministry and mission of the church.
The implication of these biblical teachings is that Christians are to live as committed disciples of Jesus while demonstrating exceptional grace and love in their relations to one another and to those beyond the circle of the faith community. With regard to the style of worship offered by Native American Christians or by any Christian, the important factor is whether our worship is offered in Spirit and in truth and in the name of Jesus. The forms of worship may vary between people of differing racial and cultural background; this, however, should in no way be seen as suggesting that some forms of worship are more acceptable to God than others. Certainly Christians of any background are called to be accountable to Christ's teachings and to the wider Christian community. Yet this also means that all people within the church must learn from each other and be challenged and inspired by the faith expressed by others, particularly when these expressions differ from our own.
In relating to Native Americans and to other indigenous people who are not members of the church, we are to extend the same respect and love that Christians offer to all people. We must seek ways to be in relationship with these individuals and communities, with a willingness to serve and be served, as well as to speak the truth as we understand it while respecting their understanding of the truth.
The scriptures also call us to work alongside indigenous people to seek justice and peace on their behalf, as they are among those on our planet whose lives and cultures are most in jeopardy. The church has an obligation to join with them to protect their human and political rights, their cultural expressions, their claims to land, and their religious freedom, at any point that such efforts are in keeping with the purposes of God for human life.
The teachings and spirit of the Bible instruct and inspire the church as it responds to the Native Americans and other indigenous people within and beyond it. Previous Annual Conference statements affirm mission as both practiced and received, and as including a striving for the victory of God's righteousness through peace and justice. In light of this guidance:
The following recommendations are divided into two sections. The first group has to do with building relationships through greater sensitivity to one another. The second set are of a programmatic nature.
To overcome a climate of mistrust, long-standing behaviors and attitudes need to be addressed. The following insights are basic in identifying ways better relationships might be developed between Native Americans and those of Anglo or non-native background.
Although not all of the above suggestions address historic mistrust directly the are all very much connected to it. Native Americans are probably distrustful of the dominant society and the Anglo people before they enter into a relationship, and if Anglos are insensitive and treat them as if they are a "minority group" rather than Native American, the spiritual relationship may be doomed from the start. Sensitivity takes a great deal more effort, but it is well worth the investment; both groups will benefit.
Families and Individuals
We now move toward a second 500 years of sharing this continent. In this new voyage, may the people who live here—no matter to which continent they trace their ancestry—learn to live together in respect for one another, and with an awareness of the great blessing that derives from the diverse, yet complementary gifts we bring to one another. We together are God's creation; we together long for the peace that Christ brings; we together seek the unity that the Spirit offers. Seeking, may we find.
At its meeting, Monday, March 8, 1993, the General Board approved this paper with the following MOTION:
that World Ministries Commission endorses the "Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers" paper and asks that General Board approve this as a study paper for the 1993 Annual Conference with a request that study materials be developed and that the paper then be brought to the 1994 Annual Conference for final adoption.
APPROVED (one abstention)
David M. Wine, Board Chair
Donald E. Miller, General Secretary
Action of the 1993 Annual Conference: Leon Neher, a Standing Committee member from the Western Plains District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the General Board paper Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers be adopted as a study paper by the 1993 Annual Conference and be returned to the 1994 Annual Conference for final adoption. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee.
The General Board, at its March 1994 meeting, unanimously recommended that this new paper—the result of a process of denominational study—be the substitute paper to be presented to the 1994 Annual Conference.
Action of the 1994 Annual Conference: David Wine, chair of the General Board presented a substitute paper for Community: A tribe of many feathers, that was adopted as a study paper in 1993. The substitute paper contained revisions from the year of input and study. The delegate body adopted the substitute paper as the paper on the floor for discussion at the 1994 Annual Conference.
The 1994 report of the General Board study committee for Community: A tribe of many feathers, was presented by David Wine, David Hendricks, committee convener, and David Radcliff, staff liaison. The report was adopted with four (4) changes from the General Board study committee and four (4) amendments by the delegate body, all of which have been incorporated in the wording of the preceding text.