Delana Taylor McNac, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference
As a woman of Native American heritage, I have been taught from childhood to respect my elders and listen to their teachings. In my experience, lessons are sometimes shared via story or metaphor, while at other times they are conveyed through correcting or modeling behaviors. One of the most profound lessons I learned from my elders relates to the power of words and the need to choose carefully when and where to use my voice.
I am reminded of the story of creation in Genesis 1:3–2:1 where God spoke and the earth and all its creatures came into being. From an empty, chaotic void lacking form and purpose came forth beauty and wholeness, order and power. Another compelling story of creation is found in the book of Job. As Job is confronted with the Creator’s presence and authority, God uses the language of a birth metaphor to describe the creation account:
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?” (Job 38:8–13)
These words (and those following) invoke images of power and majesty, inspiring awe and wonder in the reader. No wonder Job’s response to God’s discourse is, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).
The elders have taught me that when we speak, we also create. Thus, we should consider carefully what we say before we say it and weigh the potential impact of our words on others and the good or harm that can come from them, remembering that what we speak enters into life and cannot be taken back. Words can be misused to manipulate people, to impress people, and to fill the silence as we try to ease our anxiety with our own or another’s presence. When words are spoken carelessly, they lose meaning and power and, in effect, silence the creative voice. People lose the desire to listen to us when our words are empty and lifeless or have become a background of white noise. Let us not forget that silence and presence are also powerful tools of communication. One of the most powerful admonitions in Scripture regarding the use of words comes from the Letter of James with its caution to use our words to praise God and, at the same time, to curse others made in God’s likeness (Jas. 3:9). A similar lesson came from my mother (and many others), who said, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all!” The judicious use of silence while we process our emotions internally goes a long way to prevent the harm that can come from using words unwisely.
I have also learned from our elders that respect is earned, not demanded. How we use words can play a part in the process. When I was in private practice as a veterinarian many years ago, I worked with farm animals as well as companion animals. Dairy farmers, most from a generation before my own, were initially skeptical about my ability to assist them. They were often vocal about their skepticism when I first stepped out of my vehicle on a farm call. At first, I chafed under those comments, showing my anger in my mannerisms and my countenance, often muttering under my breath. Over time, I learned to use silence and patience with them, choosing instead to turn the situation into an opportunity to demonstrate my skills. This approach proved much more effective than addressing their comments, which they usually spoke out of genuine fear or concern for the well-being of their animals. My abilities spoke louder than words of confrontation or frustration, and my choice not to speak meant that I had done no harm. As a by-product of this behavior on my part, I earned the respect of the farmers and ranchers I served, and I gained their trust in my care of their animals as well.
I had an opportunity recently to use my voice to confront—a power I am reluctant to use, for fear of using it unwisely. As the only woman in an all-male clergy gathering, I had experienced, on several occasions, comments from individuals that made it clear they disapproved of my role as a woman minister. I shared this experience at a gathering of Native American women, both laity and clergy. Telling my story to other women, seeing the pain and disbelief in their faces while feeling both in my heart, gave me the courage to move forward with what I knew I should do. As I reflected on how to proceed, I considered the words I would use and the possible impact on those who would read them. I considered, too, the possible benefit to those who would take them in or reflect on them, as well as the rejection and judgment I could face from those who were offended. I also remembered a lesson I had learned from a Kiowa elder. As we sat together in the circle at a powwow, he told me that those who participated in ceremonial dancing had a great responsibility. They danced not only for themselves, he said, but also for those who could not dance—for physically challenged, older, and sick persons and for those too young to dance. I remembered the faces of the young women behind me on the road to ministry and of those ahead of me who had endured rejection and hardship and had paved the way for me and my journey. I began to write.
The response from many of the recipients was what I had expected—anger, avoidance, dismissal—but to my surprise several thoughtful and supportive responses came. The president of the group contacted me and asked me to call him right away. He was truly sorry these events had happened and assured me that this behavior was unacceptable for group members. He planned to address the group on this subject at the next meeting to emphasize this point. A Catholic priest responded very thoughtfully and was fully supportive of my ministry, despite his denomination’s lack of endorsement of women in ministerial roles. Some responses were not as positive. A minister in my denomination dismissed my letter outright, assuming that I had misinterpreted the motives of those who had spoken offensively. Other responses indicated that they had not read my letter carefully. While I cannot say that my action brought a sincere change of heart in those who had harmed me, it did raise awareness and forced the group to address the issue of sexism. I learned from the experience that I cannot take responsibility for how others respond to my words, nor do I have any control over those who do not hear my words. I only need to take responsibility for the words I choose to use. When it was over, I knew I had danced, in truth and grace, not just for me, but for all women in ministry. My heart and mind were free.
It takes courage and discernment to know when to use words to confront others. We will not always get it right, no matter how hard we try. We will always wrestle with our humanity in the process. Skeptics, detractors, and those who cannot see past their own blindness will always be among us. But if we choose carefully how and when to use the power of our voices, and speak truthfully, compassionately, and respectfully, I am convinced we will win more battles than we lose. In the end, perhaps what we create will stand long after we are gone. In the meantime, we can dance.