Oppression and Empowerment of Native Americans

Robin Starr Minthorn, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

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At this time in our world, in our communities, there are so many situations that surround us concerning the safety of women, children, and our environment, which are all intricately connected. I am speaking as a layperson, as a Kiowa tribal member, as a Native woman, as a United Methodist who grew up in a predominantly Native American conference, where language and culture were both accepted and rejected at the same time. I will share in this space the story of my own experiences and the lived realities of Indigenous women in the church, in their communities, and in the world. I am not the representative of all, but I have lived in all of these contexts.

As a grandchild of a Native American pastor in The United Methodist Church and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, I can say there were times in which the Native culture was told not to be honored or used along with serving the church. But you could speak your language and create songs and your own hymns. I have also seen and heard of my grandpa’s and grandma’s efforts to create a community of believers with a true sense of community, care, trust, and support. I have seen my grandmother find ways to contribute alongside her husband, while also raising children; but not having her mother to guide her. Her mother died when my grandma was two years old. My grandma went to boarding school, starting at the age of five, was able to attend public school for only a few years of her schooling, and ended up graduating from a boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. This was partially because she did not have her mother, and partially because it was sometimes the only choice available to her.

For many Native Americans, boarding school is not a distant memory; it still haunts the generations of today. Why might you ask? Children of Native peoples who attended boarding schools two generations ago were forcefully removed (mostly) from their parents and communities, so that the federal policy of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” could be fulfilled. This policy of General Richard Henry Pratt began in 1879, with the creation of Carlisle Boarding School, as an assimilation effort to displace children from their families and communities. Removing them encouraged losses—of language, culture, and traditions of having long hair—and forced them to wear Western clothing and learn trades that would help assimilate them. Why does this matter? Due to this policy, parenting traditions were lost, and families were broken up. This created dysfunction in our communities between generations of both males and females, as their traditions were lost and gaps created. This is one policy that was implemented by the federal government. There were many, and this does not even include actions addressed by the Act of Repentance that was passed at the 2012 UM General Conference and other tortuous acts carried out by religious leaders of various denominations in North America.

I share this, not to dwell on the past, but when we speak of where we are right now, it is important to understand the past that lives within the generations of today. When we talk about the atrocious rates of diabetes, alcoholism, poverty, and suicide that pervade Native American communities in reservation, urban, and rural settings, we must link the past to the present. When we talk about the “Native Lives Matter” movement, we must acknowledge that it exists because the highest number of killings by law enforcement is of Native Americans, and there is an epidemic of homelessness where there are larger numbers of Native peoples in urban cities. Then we see environmental injustice that plagues reservations and tribal land bases, including uranium mining, fracking, water contamination, and pipeline building that will jeopardize the water sources of millions. Then we see statistics for the overwhelming amount of rape, domestic violence, and murder that exists for Native American women and children. This is not just true in the United States; these issues impact Indigenous peoples to the north and south of us. Indigenous peoples have been subjected to colonialism, genocide, assimilation tactics, and forced religion; they have been raped by Western thoughts and beliefs every day since contact was made.

So, when I think about the theme of “Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel,” I think of how much of an oxymoron that can be to populations who have been oppressed for centuries. I think about how clergywomen are often called to care for others, empathize with the oppression that is faced by others. Yet I wonder how many have paid attention to the silent cries and beautiful presence of Indigenous peoples of yesterday and today. I think, “What would Jesus do if he saw the plight of Indigenous people? Would he weep, would he show love and compassion?”

I think God created each of us to have a unique language, creation story, and journey; but many have misinterpreted the Bible so that they can use it for their own purposes. There is, however, an opportunity for clergywomen to become allies and advocates for Indigenous populations. Do you know who the Indigenous people are in the land base you serve? Even if there is not one located there presently, whose homelands, historically, are from that area? Understanding that history, acknowledging it, and teaching others about it is the first step. The next step is to find ways to advocate and become allies for issues impacting Indigenous People’s—locally, nationally, and even internationally.

Advocacy can begin by understanding the history, but must also address the current plight. In all of this, reflect on the beauty and resilience of Indigenous peoples: women, children, men, and elders. There were once hundreds of millions of Indigenous peoples; now there are less than five million. Yet the language, culture, ceremonies, and ways of being have continued to live on within tribal communities, families, and the ancestors of those who survived colonial acts of genocide and assimilation. Understanding both the history and today’s lived reality it will provide a foundation for clergywomen across The UMC on beginning to ask the questions: What can I do? What can we do? How will I begin to understand what it means for the “Word to become flesh, and lived among us”? This means to understand those who are the least understood and to truly live among and with others, specifically, the Indigenous peoples of this land.

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