SEVERAL HUNDRED PEOPLE stand on the grass waiting to enter the auditorium for the opening service of a Christian conference. People are holding bold, pre-printed signs (Teach for America, Evangelicals for Social Action, New York Theological Seminary) for the processional.
Meanwhile Richard Twiss has found a piece of scrap paper, because he doesn’t have a sign. He writes something with a ballpoint pen, then shows it to the four friends he’s standing with who are, like him, Native American evangelical theologians involved in ministry.
The others smile. The sign says: “Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”
It’s a cry for justice. It’s a serious reaction to the pain their communities continue to feel. It’s a reaction to all the other streams of “justice work” around them. It’s subversively funny. And it’s ballpoint pen on scrap paper, so it seems characteristic in another way: As they process in behind the sign over Twiss’ head, nobody in the auditorium can read what it says.
“It’s a problem of being heard,” says Randy Woodley, one of the theologians. “I feel like 500 years ago, maybe God did bring the white [people] over. But it was supposed to be something mutual, where we learned from each other. Instead the white [people] conquered, helped out by their understanding of Christianity. Five hundred years later, we ask ourselves, now are people ready to listen?”
Richard Twiss, 54, is tall, with olive skin, long black hair, and a curved bone necklace. His friends jokingly call him “Hollywood” because “he looks how the movies think we should look.”
He’s a member of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux tribe and lives in Vancouver, Washington. He wrote One Church, Many Tribes and founded the ministry Wiconi International. Recently he was finishing his doctor of missiology dissertation, hosting guests from Pakistan at his home, and leaving the next day to lead the Wiconi Family Camp and Powwow for 250 people, which includes Native Christian worship and traditional dance and song. His sense of humor is evident from our first meeting when he introduces himself: “My [Native] name is Humping Dog.”
It’s actually Taoyate Obnajin, “He Stands With His People.” But since his mystical encounter with Jesus and conversion in his early 20s, Twiss has not always found it easy to stand with his people. When he first started following Jesus, he felt forced to choose between being a Christian (“cut my hair and reject my Native American culture and spirituality to join the white evangelical church”) or a Native American.
But now he is part of a group of Native American evangelical theologians who reject this either/or as a false choice. In 2000, he and seven colleagues formed the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) to nurture theology and ministry that is “clearly evangelical yet fully contextual in its approach.”
An opportunity opened with Asbury Theological Seminary’s invitation for four NAIITS members to enroll in its Ph.D. program with full scholarships. That led to 10 more doctoral students and eight master’s students in different theology programs. In eight years NAIITS’ informal membership has grown to dozens of individuals and about a dozen institutions, including seminaries across the continent from different denominations and theological perspectives. They now publish an academic journal, organize symposiums, mentor graduate students, and train Native Christian leaders.
Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee Indian legal descendent), another NAIITS founder, is finishing his Ph.D. at Asbury Seminary and teaching at George Fox Seminary in Oregon. He traces the roots of this movement to the 1980s, when a few evangelicals started integrating more of their culture into their practical and church ministries—burning cedar during worship services, starting a sweat lodge, using eagle feathers in prayer, and supporting sobriety powwows. (Native American Catholic and mainline Protestants have a longer history of theological and liturgical work to maintain the integrity of their indigenous beliefs and practices alongside their Christian ones. Such efforts have multiplied since the 1960s.)
Twiss and his colleagues are nourishing this movement with academic work that is also personal: How does one follow Jesus in the context of one’s culture—religious, ceremonial, and ritualistic? And how do people do this in a way that represents a biblically informed faith?
“My doctoral research is around the U.S. and Canada,” says Twiss, “looking for men and women who are [answering these questions]. And to tell that story as an encouragement to future generations of Native Christ followers: You don’t have to give up your ways to follow Jesus.”
At the same time, NAIITS doesn’t want its work to be solely about Native Americans.
“We don’t want to create a new college or seminary, which can lead to intellectual ghettoization,” says Terry LeBlanc (Mi’Kmaq/Acadian), national ministries director of My People International and chair of NAIITS. “Our students need to participate with the broader body of Christ. We have contributions to make to that body.”
Historically, Christianity was often forced on Native Americans. Those who converted were not invited either to develop their own Christian theology or to join the wider church’s theological conversation. In the face of so much negative history, these theologians are dedicated to their cultural heritage, devoted to their faith, and committed to contributing to the wider North American church. It’s a movement of grace—humbling to those in the dominant culture open to its implications.
Confession of a New American Dream
Native American “theologies” is more accurate than “theology,” because of course there is not a singular viewpoint. (Some Native Christians criticize Twiss and his colleagues as syncretistic.) These theologies tend to center around common themes of community-based spirituality instead of individualism; holistic approaches to life and nature instead of a dualistic separation of spirit from body; and the practice of faith in response to the gospel rather than emphasizing only right belief.
At Twiss’ Living Waters Family Camp and Powwow, Native dances are understood as cultural expressions of biblical prayers. The traditional burning of sweet grass, cedar, or sage is integrated into worship. In a traditional water ceremony, people pass a copper bucket of water and each takes out a cupful—symbolizing gratefulness to the Creator for all life’s provisions. They’re living out of their faith in Jesus, trying to integrate uncompromised faith with who God created their people to be.
That part is for their community. But they’re also concerned about the broader church and society.
At one session during the conference, I was in the balcony with Twiss. The presentations included occasional comments about historical abuse of land rights. Each time Twiss offered a loud “Amen!” Frankly, each “Amen” was a little uncomfortable for me as a middle-class white guy. There’s a sense of complicity in this history of brutal exploitation and broken covenants that many of us in the dominant culture inherit and benefit from, but didn’t choose.
The version of our country’s history many of us learned growing up wasn’t honest; it glossed over chapters that include much to be ashamed of in terms of how Europeans treated indigenous people. Effects of those sins ripple through to the present, as attested by social, economic, and health statistics in the Native population. Solutions aren’t simple and the truth doesn’t always set us free, but the truth is always a good step.
“We should always be asking not just how are we oppressed, but also how are we set to be complicit in other people’s oppression?” says Andrea Smith (Cherokee), assistant professor of American culture and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and a Southern Baptist involved in women’s rights and anti-violence movements. “Therefore it no longer becomes a shaming act to say, ‘Hey, we’re not perfect, and we don’t have our act together all the time.’ Instead we can be leaders in saying, ‘We’re not perfect and neither are you, but here’s what we’re trying to do to work on things.’”
NAIITS seeks to ensure that 50 percent of presenters at its symposiums are non-Native Americans and that they include a mix of theoreticians and ministry practitioners. The symposiums are held around the continent. (In Canada, it should be noted, the term “First Nations” is used when referring to indigenous peoples; many in the U.S. also now prefer this to “Native American.”) NAIITS is also involved with aboriginal movements around the world.
The organization offers opportunities for people in the dominant culture to move beyond defensiveness or ignoring the problems to a readiness to learn together, even if 500 years late.
“It wasn’t until a few years ago that I met Native brothers and sisters and began listening to their theology,” says author and activist Brian McLaren. “But I’ve come to see American history in a very different light, along with my duties as an American citizen and as a Christian. Obviously, I’ve come to care about justice for Native peoples more than ever, but I’ve also seen the Bible more for what it is—writings from a tribal people who suffered oppression by their aggressive neighbors and who found in God one who loves each small tribe as much as each powerful nation.”
Hope and Dancing
Ray Aldred (Cree Nation), another founder of NAIITS, co-chairs the Aboriginal Task Force of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and is working on a Ph.D. at the London School of Theology. He confesses that, when he’s most discouraged, he thinks, “For hundreds of years now there’s been all kinds of abuse, yet somehow this [Native Christian] theology did develop. Our hope really rests on the Creator. The Creator put us here. Now I don’t know if we [as Native peoples] will always be here. Sometimes when I have really low expectations, I think maybe we’re a dying people, but we could die well.” Aldred concludes, “And you can still be hopeful because of Christ, because we’re on our way to the resurrection.”
Woodley finds hope in the progress that can be made person by person: “What if just this one person gets it [the history, the pain, the desire for new ways forward together]? Who knows what influence that person will have? But even if they get it just between themselves and one other Native person, life is a lot better now for two people.”
“I think it will probably be my children’s children who will get to realize some of our dreams,” says Twiss.
“I’m not depressed at all,” says Smith, “because I think we’re just getting started. There’s so much we haven’t done yet.”
THE CONFERENCE that began with a processional and Twiss scrap-paper sign closed with an evening worship service. Many people and cultures were integrated. Early in the service, Twiss, Woodley, Aldred, LeBlanc, and Roger Boyer II (Mississauga First Nation) sat around a drum in the front of the chapel—a towering, European-style cathedral of stone and stained glass—and sang a “grass dance” song.
Woodley introduced the song as one that traditionally would be accompanied by young men dancing to trample down the high prairie grass to make a place for the community to camp. Its drumbeats, call-and-response singing, and punctuating shrieks were passionate and insistent. I wasn’t the only one close to tears as they were clearing a space for the dance to be joined—inviting people of all descents to continue seeking Jesus together on the land of their fathers and mothers.
To Learn More
One Church, Many Tribes
by Richard Twiss
Living in Color
by Randy Woodley
Native Americans and the Christian Right
by Andrea Smith
Black Elk Speaks
by Nicholas Black Elk
(as told through John G. Neihardt)
North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies
www.wiconi.com (click on NAIITS)