Native American

How to Love Beyond Group Loyalty

St. Katharine Drexel. Image in the public domain in the United States.

We cannot control or shape the place of our birth. It gives us our bounds for understanding ourselves on this earth. It is difficult to grow beyond our background to include others who are different within the scope of our compassion. Most often we are inclined to feel loyalty only to people who are similar to us in critical regards.

What's In a Name?

Gail Johnson / Shutterstock
Gail Johnson / Shutterstock 

DURING A TRIP to Alaska in September, President Obama announced that the name of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, would be officially restored to Denali, the Koyukon Athabascan name that means “the tall one.” This is the name the Athabascan people have used for the mountain for centuries. “This designation recognizes the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives,” announced the White House.

Apparently, William Dickey, a gold prospector in Alaska, coined the name Mount McKinley “after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of [that] wonderful wilderness,” Dickey wrote in 1896. McKinley was elected the 25th president, but he was assassinated in his second term, never having set foot in Alaska.

Restoring the mountain’s rightful name has been a passionate issue for Alaska Natives for more than 100 years.

A few years ago a Native elder was asked for his thoughts on the millions of European immigrants who had flooded Turtle Island, as North America is known to many Native people, to establish a new nation. “They’ll leave,” he said. “Eventually, after they have used up all the resources and the land is no longer profitable for them, they’ll leave. They’ll move on to someplace different. And then we, the Indigenous people, will nurse our land back to health.” That is an incredible perspective from a wise man who has seen the lands of his ancestors senselessly exploited by generations of foreigners.

From a Native American perspective, the U.S. is a country of more than 300 million undocumented immigrants. People from all over the world have left their lands, their homes, their families, and everything they knew and loved to come here. They flocked to this “new world” largely in pursuit of a dream of financial prosperity. But they never asked for permission to be here, nor has permission ever been given.

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Obama Restores Mount McKinley to Its Original Alaskan Native Name, ‘Denali’

FloridaStock / Shutterstock.com
Photo via FloridaStock / Shutterstock.com

After over one hundred years of being known as “Mount McKinley,” North America’s tallest mountain will henceforth be officially recognized as “Denali.” President Obama announced the change on Aug. 30 in anticipation of his trip to Alaska, on which he will call for aggressive action against climate change.

Alaskan Native tribes have long objected to the cultural imperialism embedded in the name “Mount McKinley,” which commemorates a man who never even stepped foot in Alaska.

A Sacred Beat

AT THE WORLD Christian Gathering of Indigenous People in 1996, our North American Native delegation was unable to find any “Christian” Native powwow music that we could use to dance to as part of our entrance into the auditorium. This was important at the time, as we didn’t feel the liberty to use “non-Christian” powwow music for a distinctly Christian event. A contemporary Christian song by a Caucasian worship leader using some Native words and a good beat was selected.

Except in a handful of cases (believers among the Kiowa, Seminole, Comanche, Dakota, Creek, and Crow tribes, to name some)—and those always in a local tribal context—Native believers were not allowed or encouraged to write new praise or worship music in their own languages utilizing their own tribal instruments, style, and arrangements.

What they were encouraged to do was translate Western-style music, hymns, and songs (for example, “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) into their own languages, fully retaining Western cultural musical constructs.

Participation in traditional powwows, with their key features of drumming/singing and dancing, for many Native Christians has been discouraged or forbidden. Long considered a seditious threat to government control and an obstacle to the evangelization of tribal people, there was a long-concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government and missionary organizations and workers to put an end to these practices. Were it solely in the hands of some Native evangelicals to determine what Native ceremonies, rituals, or other cultural practices would be allowed, all would disappear forever, considered by the historic evangelical mission position to be “of the devil,” thus requiring total elimination.

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Washington-area UCC Votes to Boycott Washington NFL Team

Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational UCC has been speaking out against the name for 20 years. Image: Holly Hayes/Creative Commons

The United Church of Christ for the mid-Atlantic region passed a resolution Saturday asking its 40,000 members not to buy game tickets or wear any souvenir gear of the Washington NFL club until it changes its embattled team name.

The resolution, which also calls on the team to change its name and refrain from using American Indian imagery, passed unanimously at the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference in Dover, Del.

“I hope this debate will continue to draw attention to an unhealed wound in our cultural fabric,” the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister, said in a statement. “Changing the name of the Washington NFL team will not solve the problems of our country’s many trails of broken promises and discriminatory isolation of our Native American communities. However, a change in the nation’s capital can send a strong message.”

What the NFL Doesn’t Want You to Think About

Image by Ben Sutter / Sojourners. Logo used under critical commentary fair use protection.

“Redskins.” The name of Washington, D.C.’s football team is a racial slur, a racist epithet. The U.S. trademark office agrees; so does the dictionary. But more importantly, Native American people feel it. How important is that to the rest of us? That is the moral question for all of us: are we going to show respect for our nation’s original citizens? 

In an insightful column for the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page compared NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling “for life” for his private racist comments, with the decision yet to be made by the NFL and Washington’s owner to change a name deeply perceived as a public racist comment. “That’s the question at the heart in the name dispute. Who gets respect,” says Page.

Think about the name. Say it in your head or out loud in a private space. What comes to mind? Try to imagine why Native Americans feel the way they do. 

Reclaiming the Word

FOR GENERATIONS, Native North Americans and other Indigenous peoples have lived the false belief that a fulfilled relationship with their Creator through Jesus required rejecting their own culture and adopting another, European in origin. In consequence, conventional approaches to mission with Indigenous peoples in North America and around the world have produced relatively dismal outcomes.

The result has subjected Indigenous people to deep-rooted self-doubt at best, self-hatred at worst.

One of the more egregious examples of the “conventional” approach in Canada involved the church-run residential schools. Indigenous children were taken from their families, prevented from speaking their native languages, and subjected to various other forms of abuse.

Isabelle Knockwood, a survivor of church-run residential schools, observed, “I thought about how many of my former schoolmates, like Leona, Hilda, and Maimie, had died premature deaths. I wondered how many were still alive and how they were doing, how well they were coping, and if they were still carrying the burden of the past on their shoulders like I was.”

Given the countless mission efforts over the past four centuries (which in practice were targeted not so much to spiritual transformation as to social and cultural annihilation), we might conclude that Indigenous people must possess a unique spiritual intransigence to the gospel.

But that would not tell the whole story.

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Indigenous Peoples Prayer Calendar

Terry LeBlanc’s cover story, “Reclaiming the Word” (Sojourners, March 2014) addresses the reclamation of Christianity by Indigenous peoples who have often been hurt by the church, but who have, in some way or another, salvaged a deep faith for themselves. He writes, “For Indigenous people, the biblical text, our history, and our life experience suggest that all of creation, not just human beings, is of a spiritual nature and is the focus of God’s redemptive activity in Jesus.”

Indigenous faith is strongly connected to nature. This is echoed in the following calendar that serves as a companion to LeBlanc’s article. Each day is paired with an image and prayer from various tribes around North and Central America that reflect an Indigenous understanding of God. These prayers show a deep connection to nature and fellow human beings and often call for balance, peace, and harmony in everyday life.

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Kara Lofton is editorial/online assistant at Sojourners.

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Time for Acknowledgement: Christian-Run Native American Boarding Schools Left Legacy of Destruction

Digital Media Pro/Shuttertock
Powwow in California — church boarding schools taught Native Americans to be ashamed. Digital Media Pro/Shuttertock

The Native American narrative remains largely unknown in U.S. majority culture. It is glaringly absent in most school curriculums, and remains unheard in modern dominant politics. One crucial stream of Native culture I’ve recently come to learn about is the destructive legacy of Christian-run Indian boarding schools.

What began with genuinely good intentions (in those days, “European” norms were viewed as superior, “sameness” seemed like a good idea, and the threat of legitimate genocide lingered over tribes) rapidly deteriorated, with Christian boarding schools becoming institutions of forced assimilation and abuse.

Beginning in the 1800s and lasting into the 20th century, Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live in boarding schools. Finding the task of “civilizing” Native adults beyond its ability, the federal government delegated the task of “normalization” to churches, which could educate, or, inculcate, children from a young age.

In Baby Veronica Case, Some Evangelicals Side With Adoptive Parents

Veronica with her father Dusten Brown. Photo courtesy RNS/Keep Veronica Home web
Veronica with her father Dusten Brown. Photo courtesy RNS/Keep Veronica Home website

The Baby Veronica case, named for the girl at the center of a contentious child custody dispute, has stirred powerful emotional responses from many groups, including some Christian evangelicals.

Motivated by their faith in God and a distrust of federal Indian policies, a few evangelical organizations are campaigning to abolish the federal Indian Child Welfare Act at the heart of the dispute.

Congress enacted the law in 1978 to address the abuses that separated Indian children from their families through adoption or foster care. The law gives related tribes a preference in custody proceedings involving Indian children.

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