Sunday, July 5, 2009

August 12, 1978: The American Indian Religious Freedom Act

I sat in church this morning listening to the pastor extol how great a country America is and I am happy to live here. When he spoke of religious freedom, it was as if he saw the concept through rose-colored glasses, in a happy bubble steeped in his Christianity. I do not begrudge him his position of spiritual authority but I know as I sat there, he did not think of the religious freedom of Natives Americans today or hundreds of years ago when the chaos and conquering became fatal for so many Native ancestors.

As a follower of Jesus and a Yankton Sioux, I have more clarity of the importance of religious freedom, but I don't see that the Christian church has caught up with the times. Here is a clear cut contrast for you to consider:

Last week I worshiped Creator wearing my regalia, listening to Native praise and worship with the sound of the drum. My church walls were that of mother earth: bluest sky, clouds in full bloom, vibrant leaves, the ground underneath my feet, the smell of sage. I was honoring Creator.

This week I sat in my home church in jeans and a t-shirt, Bible in hand, tithe in the envelope, I could see bits and pieces of the outside world, I sat alone, the worship music had already been selected earlier that week so a theme could be noticed, we were separated by rigid, wooden pews, and I felt the life being sucked out of me. I wonder if this is the way we are intended to worship? I love Jesus, but I know the Body of Christ is not complete without our Native brothers and sisters.

Last summer I attended a funeral on the lower Brule rez. When I first entered the church there were some star quilts adorning the walls, and tucked into the right had corner was a ceremonial drum my brothers sat around.When the minister of the church was finished preaching (it is safe to say I don't think he reached anyone with the invitation for salvation), my brothers and some others drummed and sang Native honor and prayer songs. I think the walls breathed with each strike of the drum. Many Native American friends and family were free to worship, a relative stood in full regalia to honor his father who had walked on. The minister had a stony face the entire time they drummed. He smiled not.

On August 12, 1978 President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
"...henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indians, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access of sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rights." (

What would Christian churches look like today if they had this knowledge? Surely church would change. I know progress has been made as I meet and engage in dialogue with Native followers of the Jesus way like Richard Twiss, Michael Peters, Terry Wildman and others. What I'm saying is I would love to be in a church where I can worship as a Native American follower of Jesus and not freak everyone out. I have run into some good Christian people who believe all Native Americans do is worship rocks and trees and they feel that is of the devil. What happened to loving your neighbor as yourself?

What would short term mission trips to Indian reservations look like if the non-natives just went to listen and learn about the people before trying to show them how much of a help they can be by works? Jesus built relationships with people. Let's do the same, churches. I know it will cause discomfort, change does that. That's how we grow! I pray for churches without walls. I pray non-native Christians will not fear the challenge of embracing Native American worshipers.

I am accepted in my church as long as I don't voice these crazy ideas of change. I do speak up and in doing so I hear the same statement I've heard when visiting other non-native churches, "This is the way we have always done things." Apparently, I am stirring up the pot, making waves, or simply outnumbered. That kind of church reminds me of the man in the parable of talents who buried his pouch of gold in the ground because he was afraid something would happen to it.

Consider where the Native American fits in your Christianity.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still trying to consider where my Christianity fits into my Native American Heritage. I'm thinking your blog will be a big help .