November 1, 2018

At the intersection of Brethren and Native American

Dotti Seitz with puppets
Photo courtesy of Dotti Seitz

Dotti Seitz is a member of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa. She and her husband, Steve, perform as Puppet and Story Works, using ventriloquy and storytelling for family, youth, and older adult audiences. Seitz is Native American, from the Southern Cheyenne tribe.

Tell us about the work you and your husband do with puppets. How does your identity inform your work?

My identity is woven into it. It's like a tapestry; I can't not be who I am.

I have three Indian puppets. I have an old man, whose name is Luke Warm Water, and his girlfriend, Granny Helen High Water. They're both Cheyenne—he's Southern and she's Northern. And then I have a puppet nephew by the name of Charlie Little Big Mouth.

In our shows, Granny and I talk about our relationship with the non-Indian society and how it's changed over the years, and she talks about, from her humorous point of view, how that relationship is going. It helps the audiences get to know a little bit about Indian humor and our perspective on the dominant society without beating people over the head with it. It's done in fun and in humor and in song.

Our family shows are almost exclusively for churches. One of them focuses on miracles that Jesus did, and I give a testimony during that show. We have a show on the Ten Commandments, and one on "The Gospel According to Us"—little basics in Christianity that everyone ought to know that we sometimes mess up on. They're all humorous. There's a lot of singing and audience interaction. I have also done performances in churches where I've taught how Indian people worship, kind of dispelling some of the myths and misunderstandings.

How would you characterize your spiritual journey?

Oh, it's a long and winding one. I was adopted and raised by a white family and they went to church every Sunday, so I learned Christian tenets very early in my life.

I wasn't really given the opportunity to find my birth family until much later, even though I kept looking for them. I couldn't find them because I was adopted in a closed records state, in Missouri, where adoptees are not allowed to know any information about their birth families. Finally I was able to get information and was able to find my family, simply to confirm that I really was who I'd been told I was all my life. That was a big thing for me, as it was for many adoptees, to close that circle.

I had been working at that time in national American Indian affairs for some years and had done a lot of work in the American Indian community in New York City. I had gotten away from Christian practice because I had wanted to find out more about my own tribe and other Native spiritual practices.

I didn't return to the Christian way until I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1981, and an Indian woman there who was a jazz singer became a good friend of mine. I'm sure God [told her] "go take care of this person, she really needs some help." So she's the one who brought me back to the Lord, and I did indeed become a born-again Christian. It chokes me up to say that, because I had strayed very far.

But our Creator's very gracious and, though I let go of him, he didn't let go of me. Now I do my best to serve him every day and follow Jesus as well as I can.

What about the Church of the Brethren do you particularly feel drawn to?

I really appreciate the fact that members of the Church of the Brethren get out and start serving their neighbors and serving God in a community way. They look for opportunities of service, whether it's out in another community or another part of the world or, for our current church, in the local community on South Allison Hill, which is the ghetto of Harrisburg. The church is strongly involved in that community and I found that really wonderful. We got to meet and know the people in the community who became active members of the church.

What do you wish the rest of the Church of the Brethren knew about Native Americans?

I'm hoping that people would be willing to step outside their comfort zones to really get to know indigenous people. Indian people are still the silent people that no one hears from unless there's a special reason to or we make a lot of noise, like at Standing Rock last year. To really understand why we're protesting and who we really are. And also to understand that even though we may be [stand-offish], it's because of the mistrust that's been built up for so long.

[When] the dominant society likes to go into a tribe, it's like taking a watch apart. You pull the watch apart and then you put it back together the way you want it to be. [This disruption has] torn up the spirit of a lot of tribes and a lot of Indian people, and people are still recuperating from that. It's a very hard journey to come back from, when it's been close to 500 years or more long.

What do you wish the church were doing better?

I wish more of the Church of the Brethren people would reach out to learn worship ways that other people use in Indian Christian circles or in the black church, to incorporate or at least learn from those and not to be afraid of them or think that they're not Christian. Find out where Indian people are on a particular issue, or if they're included at all. And, if not, maybe there's a way they could call for some kind of involvement to help bring Indians to the table too, or find out what they're doing about a particular issue.

Any final thoughts?

This last year or so, some of the remains [of children from Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania] have been returned to the tribes and have been repatriated and reburied in their homelands. It's a really big thing for the tribes to be able to do that.

That happened with my tribe about 1984. Even though I was never raised in my community, it was very large just because there was some healing going on. It's amazing how that touches people even though these bones had been many years away from their people. They did big ceremonies and our peace chiefs came up to get [the remains] and took them back, and there was a week of ceremony and joy. Even for those of us who didn't live there, we felt it.

It makes me think of how my husband was raised Lutheran before he was Brethren, and of course the Lutherans persecuted the people from the Church of the Brethren. Those people came over here to the New World to get away from that persecution and the killing by their own Christian brothers and sisters.

So there's an identity, there's a mutuality that can be built around. Those kinds of oppression are universal and they've been going on since we got to this planet.

American Indian boarding schools

American Indian boarding schools were operated by the US government, and churches working with the government, from 1860 to 1978. (Missions preceded schools far earlier, as a similar system of aggressively forced assimilation now known to be rife with abuse.) Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and placed far away in schools such as the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School.

The schools operated under the idea "kill the Indian, save the man." Children were stripped of their culture—taught not to speak their language, practice their religion, wear traditional clothing, or identify with their tribes in any way. Survivors often look back on their experiences as abusive and traumatic. Many are still dealing with the traumas, and these traumas continue to affect their children and grandchildren.

Children who died at the schools— often from diseases and major lifestyle changes associated with moving to a different environment—are buried in cemeteries at the schools. Mourning tribes continue to work for the repatriation, or returning home, of their community's children who have been lost for decades.

In addition, school records are often unavailable to survivors and their families, making it difficult for them to gain closure. Many survivors are only just now speaking out about their experiences; for some it is still too painful to discuss. Amid the trauma, however, Native American tribes and communities have retained their cultures and are working toward healing and truth.

Monica McFadden works at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C., in a new position focused on racial justice. She is serving through Brethren Volunteer Service.