Learn about Native American concerns

Learn about Native American concerns

July 2, 2009

In several recent diocesan visits, I've had interactions with Native American members of this church or questions about ministry in Native communities.

When I visited Minnesota in May, Bishop James Jelinek arranged for me to meet with the Department of Indian Work in Prairie Island. The Native community at Prairie Island operates a lucrative casino and serves its members by providing housing, education, health care and ministry with and care for elders.

The members of the Department of Indian Work had important questions about Native ministry across this church and how it's supported and directed. We visited the 100-year-old church at Prairie Island and learned something of its particular ministry.

The same evening, we visited All Saints in Minneapolis and shared a meal at First Nations Kitchen, a longstanding feeding ministry of that church community. The aim is to serve "indigenous food that is wholesome, healthy and organic in an atmosphere that is joyful, friendly, and welcoming" (see www.firstnationskitchen.org).

Soon thereafter, I met with our new Native missioner, Sarah Eagle Heart, who will work out of the Los Angeles regional office. She is a member of the Oglala/Sioux tribe and when I visited the Central Gulf Coast in late May, she was present for a meeting with the Poarch Creek Band.

The story of this band is remarkable, as most of its ancestors were "removed" by the U.S. government in the 1830s and sent to Oklahoma, along with most of the native peoples of the southeast – Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole and the Muscogee Creek – on a journey known as the Trail of Tears. The Poarch band members secluded themselves in the woods, and in 1928 the Bishop of Alabama heard of their presence. He sent a missionary, who began to develop ministry with these people, also suffering under the beginnings of the Great Depression. Their federal recognition in 1983 largely depended on the records kept by the Episcopal Church.

In early June, I met with clergy in the Diocese of Rupert's Land (Manitoba, Canada) and heard from the Cree and Ojibwe clergy of their ongoing concern for just treatment of their people. They asked me whether this church had yet begun to deal with the issue of residential schools, which has been a major focus of reconciliation and healing efforts in Canada over the last 20 years. The question hardly has been raised in our church, although a resolution about residential schools will come before this General Convention.

I was asked the same question at a meeting in the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, along with a question about whether or not this church will elect or appoint a national indigenous bishop like Mark MacDonald in Canada. Bishop MacDonald has been serving all the Native (or "First Nations," as they are known in Canada) peoples across Canada for the last two years, providing pastoral and episcopal ministry as well as advocacy for those communities in the House of Bishops and their General Synod (like our General Convention).

When I was in Seattle to visit our regional office, Michael Schut (environmental and economic justice officer), Andrew Kronenwetter (multicultural ministry officer), and Jason Sierra (young adult and campus ministry) organized a remarkable gathering of people in and around the Diocese of Olympia doing innovative ministry. One member of that conversation is the director of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, James Rasmussen. He spoke about the work that tribe is doing to achieve federal recognition and about the politics involved. One of the advantages of gaining federal recognition and the designation of reservation lands is the ability to sponsor gambling and build casinos. Recognition often is subject to political competition from other gaming interests, whether Native or Anglo.

In mid-June, I joined the Diné (Navajo) for the Convocation of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. Bishop MacDonald was present to lead the gathered delegates and members through their annual business meeting and planning for the future. This body, too, seeks self-determination, particularly the empowerment and training of Native leaders, both lay and ordained.

Members hope that within a few years they once will again be able to elect a Diné bishop, following the untimely death of Bishop Steven Plummer in 2005.

I note several common themes in all of these conversations: self-determination for peoples whose cultural traditions and identities often have been suppressed or obliterated; the overwhelming poverty in many Native reservations and off the reservation; the resulting negative impacts on health, lifespan and what we insist God wills for us all – abundance of life; and the gifts of awareness of connection with creation that Native traditions and communities can offer to the wider church.

General Convention will present us with several opportunities to address these issues. I urge you to learn more – about residential schools, about reservation poverty and about the inculturation of the gospel.

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