Release to the Captives

Anita Phillips, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference 

wellsprings_spinningthesacred

Introduction

It is my honor to share from my perspective as a Native American clergywoman on the matter of bodies, oppression, and the gospel [1]. As I begin, it is important to lift a significant point from the perspective of Native Americans. We are not one indistinguishable group of human beings. A crucial aspect of our identity is the nations to which we belong. At present, there are 562 federally recognized tribes and nations in the United States, and many additionally recognized by individual states. Each Native American nation has its own history, language, culture, and identity. However, there are elements one may identify that represent common core values and beliefs among Native Americans. In the context of this conversation, I will most often be speaking to these.

The Corn Mother

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is the ultimate revelation from the Gospel of John, that human beings can know God through the life, teachings, and identity of Jesus the Christ.

The notion of the Creator (or aspects of the Creator) embodied in physical form is not unique to Western theology. The sacred figure of the Corn Mother plays a significant role in creation stories for many Native American nations. My own nations, the Cherokee and the Keetoowah, include the story of Corn Mother, also called Selu, which is the Cherokee word for corn. The details vary from tribe to tribe, but the critical elements are much the same. The focus of the story is the willing self-sacrifice of Corn Mother, who recognizes that she must die in order to bring about the birth of corn, beans, squash, and other produce of the earth to feed her children. Before she dies, she gives instruction on how to plant and raise corn. She provides the seed corn from her body, which in due course saves the people. In some stories, she instructs her children to use her blood to fertilize the fields. As I reflect on the story of Corn Mother, I discover the divine elements of self-sacrifice and unconditional love of others. These elements are revealed to the world through human form and are fully released and realized only through the death of the bearer.

Many moons ago, before serving as a United Methodist clergywoman, I served as a social worker in the administration of Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. She was the first woman to hold this highest office in my nation. She was simultaneously a Christian and a Native American who claimed her identity as a traditional and ceremonial woman. In her life’s journey, she manifested the characteristics of both Jesus Christ and Corn Mother. Chief Mankiller loved our people despite times of turmoil and conflict in serving them. There were times of great resistance and oppression toward her personally from powerful governmental and economic entities. She served despite great physical affliction, and made tremendous sacrifices on behalf of others. She died in 2010, and in the reflections I have made on her life and my own, I realize she has perhaps been the single most important mentor who has influenced me as a Native American United Methodist clergywoman.

Gender and Oppression

Native American women share with all women the bond of oppression related to our female gender. This form of oppression was not historically a part of our societies prior to the arrival of Europeans on this continent many centuries ago. Prior to this invasion, women lived as did men, as part of the interrelatedness of all creation. Every element of creation was seen as essential to the ultimate balance, harmony, and survival of the entirety. Women fulfilled roles that were equally important to the community as those that men occupied. The introduction of patriarchy, along with many other alien beliefs and values, was part of the traumatic assault experienced by Native Americans during Western expansion.

Native American clergywomen share an inheritance of both the best the world has offered women and the worst. Within our many nations, the being of women—the totality of mind, body, and spirit—was viewed as holy and vital for its contribution to the ongoing existence of the community and all of creation. Gender was more a matter of complementary roles that contributed to harmony and balance within a society. Manifestations of this may be seen today through ongoing matriarchal systems of clan membership, property, and residence. My own clan membership was determined through my grandmother. I belong to the Long Hair Clan.

Patriarchy was introduced and enforced by both missionaries and governmental entities. The concept of the superiority of men often accompanied “conversion at gun point” or was adopted as a desperate attempt at survival through identification with the oppressor.

Indigenous women experienced a “perfect storm” during this period of our history. While the notion of the female body as sacred and important began to submerge beneath a dominating Western worldview, other crucial aspects of our Native identity—community, relationship, the value of the group over the individual, complementary characteristics leading to a balanced society, the Creator with us and interrelated in all things—began to fade as supportive realities of our daily lives. Simultaneously, boarding schools worked to stamp out Indigenous languages. Into this numbness and trauma came the realization that the value of a woman’s body was determined by the men in power.

Trails of Tears

As people of oral history, most of our greatest stories are not recorded in writing, but are passed along through storytelling. One of the stories that both inspires and haunts me comes from the era of the Trails of Tears. The term “Trail of Tears” is used to describe the forced removal of Native American people from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River in the early 1800s. Peoples of the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations were forced onto these death marches by the U.S. federal and state governments in order to open their lands  to White settlers. The destination for these nations was what is now the state of Oklahoma. Soldiers of the U.S. Calvary accompanied the Native American people on these Trails of Tears to ensure they followed the prescribed routes to Oklahoma Territory and to guard against persons escaping to return to their homelands.

One of the traumatic realities of historical conquest is that the conquerors lay claim to everything belonging to the conquered captives. Not only are their physical possessions taken, including the land upon which the people live, but also their bodies, minds, and spirits. For Native women, alien powers laying claim to their children, their homes, their fields, and their sexuality was the foundation for destroying the elements of their personhood. The notion that violent sexual access to the women and girls of conquered nations was the right of conquering forces has been documented throughout history. Such violent assault also occurred on the Trails of Tears.

Stories have been passed down in my family of soldiers carrying off young women and girls into the darkness for the purpose of rape and degradation. Recognizing the trauma visited upon these young members of the Cherokee community, a group of mature women, many of whom were mothers, stepped forward to offer themselves as victims to the sexual assaults in place of the younger women and girls. They sacrificed their bodies every night as the spoils of war. The stories that have been passed down recount the response of the Native community: when these sacrificial actions by the women were taking place,  the people would sing. Knowing that these women would feel so alone out there in the darkness, the people would sing very loudly so that their voices would carry beyond the campfires. Most of these tribes had been heavily missionized by various denominations for many years and a great number of Native peoples coming from the southeast on the Trails of Tears were Christian. The Gospel was brought along on these terrible journeys. I have no doubt the scripture focus of this issue of WellSprings from the Gospel of John was lifted and preached by some of the missionaries who chose to stay with the people and made the forced march with them. What a contradiction! As preachers proclaimed God, revealed through the flesh of Jesus the Christ, the flesh of indigenous women was desecrated with impunity! The oppression of my grandmothers in this way brings great grief to my heart; their courage brings great pride and strength to my spirit.

Into the Future

One of the experiences I have valued as an elder within my conference, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, has been serving as mentor to several Native American women local pastors as they progressed through their candidacy toward ordination. I presently mentor a Chickasaw clergywoman, whose particular interests include Native American women in the postcolonial period of U.S. history and the present impact of Christian missionizing on the personhood of these women. In an unpublished paper, “Re/Membering Indigenous Women: Ghost Stories and Imago Dei,” she writes of the duality of good versus evil imposed by Western theologies and how the culture and identity of Indigenous peoples were framed as the embodiment of sin, thus legitimizing any oppressive or violent actions that would drive out the evil. We have talked together of the oppression imposed on the bodies of Native women and how that bitter inheritance is still visited on our communities today—how Native women in this present time experience the highest rates of rape and sexual violence of any racial-ethnic group. We speak with other Native American clergywomen of our responsibility to counteract this bitter inheritance within our ministries with Native women and men. We join with other Native American women, united in our commitment to live our lives as the blessings we were created to be. The holiness of the incarnation of Native women is again becoming a part of our culture.

As a Native American clergywoman, I celebrate the gospel found within our Christian scripture. The Gospel of John’s presentation of God revealed through the physical personhood of Jesus is a sermon that I have preached. However, the revelations experienced by my people about Creator God and the value of both genders within the interrelatedness of all creation, is also important to preach. It is vital to respond to the oppression visited upon my people, and particularly our women, by proclaiming release to the captives. In this present day, it is a joyful thing to contemplate new generations of Indigenous children living into the reality of their sacred worth.

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[1] The Rev. Anita Phillips serves as executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of The United Methodist Church

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