Reflections on Native Christian Identity and the Longing for Coming Home

Lisa A. Dellinger, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference[1]

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Haggai speaks to a generation of people who returned to Jerusalem after a forced removal. Many of these returning citizens lived their whole lives in exile under the Babylonian Empire. These are the descendants of those who had to learn how to “sing YHWH’s song while in a foreign land” (see Ps 137:4). Most returning Judeans were not alive during the height of the Temple’s glory. The exiles were raised with stories from their elders of a time when they had their own lands, culture, and self-determination. This returning group, the descendants of the once-elite of their society, had to learn to live immersed in the socio-religious milieu of their oppressors and not lose their identity as the children of God.

When they arrived home, the Temple was in ruins, and there was political tension with those who were now forced out of Jerusalem, the Judeans that were allowed to stay and the Persian king’s loyalists. The people put their energies into rebuilding a life for themselves.[2] This rebuilding did not begin with the Temple, the center of traditional life and community wholeness. Decades passed with the house of God remaining a tent and the people struggling to find the abundance that the elders had told them they would find back in the homeland.

As a Chickasaw woman and a Christian there is much for me to relate to in this story. My own family began its life in Oklahoma after a forced removal. I am a descendant of Ibbahmehatubby, who was born in 1740, in what is now known as Pontotoc County, Mississippi. This is our homeland, given to us by Ababinili, the one “Dwelling Above.” For the Chickasaw Nation, the genocidal removal, often called the Trail of Tears, began in 1837 and continued through 1850. My great, great grandfather, Colbert Ahshalatubby Burris, left Mississippi as a child with his mother.[3] My grandfather was named after Colbert Ahshalatubby Burris, and he told me stories of the hardships that my family faced as they tried to survive the trek. He also shared with me how his grandfather became an attorney and a Chickasaw representative during the 1887 International Council called by the “Five Civilized Tribes” to oppose the federal government’s attempts to organize a unified government for Indian Territory.[4] Many Chickasaw families retained their cultural stories and Native religious practices despite pressures to assimilate, both before and after the United States Government’s Removal. Prior to removal, a significant number of my family also practiced Christianity for decades, even becoming pastors, and despite prejudice and racism, navigated Western attempts at indoctrination without completely abandoning their unique Chickasaw identity. It is not easy to learn to sing God’s Song in a new land, especially after being moved out from prosperity and thriving community by death march.

Many United Methodists are not aware that the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) was established before the Oklahoma Conference. The OIMC began with Native Christians ministering to one another. Native clergy pastored the peoples, but in true colonial fashion, the supervising bishops of the conference remained White, Ameri-european.[5] Even today, the bishop of the Oklahoma Conference oversees the OIMC, and The United Methodist Church has yet to elect a Native American bishop in any conference. Native pastors continue to minister with passion and devotion despite the obstacles faced by U.S. Settler Colonialism. “Settler Colonialism” is the displacement and destruction of Indigenous populations and histories in order to establish a nation that would make the settler the unquestioned native citizen. This violence is often cloaked in the language of being, “divinely inspired and providentially destined” to combat the “ atheistical and diabolical savages” that are in league with “the biblical forces of evil.” [6] Settler Colonialism is specific in that it requires the indigenous peoples to live in a state of occupation controlled by the invaders. Settler Colonialism seeks to make the original occupants invisible, powerless, and unable to practice individual or corporate cultural and political self-determination.

Like the Judeans, longing to return home, Native Christians have not forgotten all that was taken from them by this subjugating force. Somehow, despite the racist nationalism that cloaked itself in the language of Christianity, Native Christians interpret the Gospel in the Spirit of God’s liberation. There is a living memory of American Indian Native Religious Traditions that endures despite the criminalization of Ceremonies and the abduction of Native American Indian Children sent to abusive Christian Boarding Schools.[7] The land is holy for all Native peoples, whether practicing Christianity or Traditional Native Religions. Each original ancestral site is sacred and the source of all life for Native American Peoples, just as the Temple was the heart of communal life, spiritual and cultural well-being, and the foundation of all meaning making for the Israelites.[8]

In the Scripture selection from Haggai, there is a sense of nostalgia for home laced with the trauma that lingers from exile. We see a people struggling with the impact of colonialism and the memory of a former glory they have only heard of in stories. There is a profound sense of struggling for survival in a disorienting experience of continual alien/nation, or being a stranger in your own home. The Judeans are living with the memories of a former grandeur and wholeness along with the overwhelming task of reclaiming and naming that wholeness in the midst of the ruins. Native American Peoples continue to experience the chaos of trying to maintain their “spiritual practices in a new millennium . . . complicated by the destruction of that which you need for your ceremonial practice.”[9] One Indigenous interpretation of this particular Biblical text is not to see the failure to quickly finish the Temple as misplaced priories, but the result of historical trauma. Nostalgia, a longing for what once was, may complicate the ability to move past simply surviving to living fully without the ongoing burden of literal and cultural genocide. Coming home to rebuild the sacred is a concept fraught with longing and apprehension for Native American Indians. Our Temple is not a structure in one location. Our Temple is Creation itself, with literally thousands of sites consecrated and given by God. These sites are exploited by ecological degradation for profit or overrun after Indian Removal by settler colonists.

An Ameri-european Christian reading of this text might see this lack of progress in the rebuilding of the Temple as motivated by a lack of faith in God to provide all that is needed for individuals in the community. Restoration for the people is a condition tied to providing a home for God. God blesses those who glorify and magnify YHWH’s name. The command to look at the ruins of the Temple can be read as an admonishment for not putting God’s house first. In this understanding, the Judeans have the entire agency in this situation but behave selfishly. God’s Spirit is with them and will continue to be with them as they correct this egocentric transgression. Then there will be nothing to fear, and the flourishing of the people can begin. The conquered Judeans are not fazed by the decades of exile but are using their free will to dishonor YHWH.

Native Christians, as a result of Settler Colonialism, know what it is to have limited choices and fewer resources to practice the kind of agency that many U.S. Euro-Americans take for granted. One has only to look at the treatment of Native Water Protectors, who peacefully protested the Dakota Access Pipeline’s abuse of land and water, to see how free will and agency are assaulted with water cannons in subzero temperatures, tear gas, and sound weapons by an occupying force.[10] While the will to restore both Traditional and Christian Native communities is strong, the repercussions of settler colonial violence are hundreds of years in the making. The return home to rebuild our own Temple is not a homecoming easily accomplished. Native Christians, in their own way, have resisted assimilation but made steps to practice a self-determined acculturation.[11] The restoration that Native Christians seek is not for individual personal gain or even just for the sake of human beings alone but for all of Creation.[12] These interconnections make the restoration of the world to wholeness our mitzvah, or our understanding of the Divine commandment.[13] This is accomplished for Native Christians by claiming our Indigenous cultures and identities in light of Christ Jesus. Alongside Jesus, Indigenous Christians seek the promised Spirit to bring justice, peace, and love into an imbalanced Creation that bears the scars of brokenness.

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[1] Lisa A. Dellinger, a Licensed Local Pastor seeking ordination as an Elder, is currently on leave of absence to complete her Ph.D. in theology, ethics, and history through Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is also the Forum for Theological Exploration’s Waits Fellow and a United Methodist Women of Color Scholar.

[2] David W. Cotter O.S.B, Jerome T. Walsh, and Chris Franke, eds. “Haggai.” in The Twelve Prophets, Vol. 2, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry, ed. Marvin A Sweeney (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 529–33.

[3] I know this from family stories and documents obtained on my family genealogy from the Chickasaw Nation’s Holisso Research Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma in August, 2012.

[4] Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws. (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 204. I put the term “Five Civilized Tribes” in quotation marks because the term is a misnomer. All of the First Nations Peoples are civilized. This exclusion from the title of civilized for other Indigenous persons is rooted in the racist and limited understanding of the complexity of Native culture, philosophy, and governance. It is ironic that the most “civilized” were not civilized enough to keep the businesses, schools, Christian churches, and farms that assimilation efforts had taught them would result in self-determination.

[5] For a full history see Tash Smith, Capture These Indians for the Lord: Indians, Methodist, and Oklahomans, 1844-1939 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2014). Also see, Homer Noley, First White Frost: Native Americans and United Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[6] See Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The emphasis is mine.

[7] See George E. Tinker, Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 88–99. Also see Jace Weaver, ed., Native American Religious Identity: Unforgotten Gods (Marknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998).

[8] For a deeper understanding of Indigenous Traditions regarding the centrality and sacredness of the land see the work of Barbara Alice Mann, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). For a deeper understanding of Native Christian understanding of land see the work of Jace Weaver, “Revelation and Epistemology-We Know the Land, the Land Knows Us: Places of Revelation, Place as Revelation.” in Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology, eds. Steven Charleston and Elaine A. Robinson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 27-53.

[9] Winona LaDuke, Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (Cambridge: South End Press, 2005), 15.

[10] Joshua Barajas, “Police Deploy Water Hoses Tear Gas Against Standing Rock Protestors”, Last Modified November 21, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/police-deploy-water-hoses-tear-gas-against-standing-rock-protesters/.

[11] In this instance I use assimilation to refer to the forced imposition of Settler Colonial Ameri-european culture and religion on Indigenous Peoples to erase their philosophies and way of life. I am using acculturation to indicate the ways in which Indigenous communities have adapted to the prolonged contact with Settler Culture and yet kept many of the core Native values and histories alive in daily life.

[12] George E. Tinker, “An American Indian Cultural Universe: We are All Related” in Moral Ground, Eds. Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2010), 196–200. Also see, Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999).

[13] Mitzvah is a biblical commandment given by God to the faithful. It is often used colloquially as a charitable work or a good deed. Although it can be a good deed. the heart means to actively work to bring God’s goodness into the world. “Commandments (Heb. Mitzvot)”, in Jewish Virtual Library: a Project of AICE, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/glossary, accessed July 15, 2017.

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