The Warming Fire


November 19, 2014 (Updated)

Each year American Indian Heritage Month arrives and each year I find the writing I make public, hard. When temperatures just outside the farmhouse window linger in the single digits, I prefer to write of warm ideas, considerations, actions, and seasons. I believe it is my good fortune is to live on the reservation. From land to people to wind, community stories give warmth in the days of cold.

Yet, as a white guy on the reservation, I also find I have a responsibility to speak to the injustices non-white skin folk experience in my adopted landscape. Thus, when American Indian Heritage comes along and many of my American Indian sisters and brothers are paying attention to and writing about American Indian accomplishments, I question the white structure whose very makeup requires society to create American Indian Heritage in the first place. In questioning that structure, I step on toes, mostly white toes, but some toes of color and Indian toes too. Little question stepped on toes hurt and being one whose theology is a call for hurt to end, makes writing this time of year hard. Realistically there are only a handful of folk who read what I say and I know I could let the writing go and few would know the difference. However, I believe it irresponsible and disrespectful to live in my landscape, enjoy its created gifts and not question or comment about the denigration American Indians experience from non-Indians, past and current—that it seems is more hurtful than stepped on toes.

I find myself thinking of my denomination of ordination and the reflection Considering Weakness and Apathy of a few weeks ago. In that writing, I considered the idea, does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Disciples) have a history of apathy toward American Indian injustice? During the consideration, D. Duane Cummins 2009 book Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation rose to the top. I return to Cummins book to reflect on one entry that might begin a conversation on the idea, do non-Indian Disciples in general and white Disciple leaders specifically, currently support a white Christian structure that sidelines Indian issues of justice by maintaining a system where American Indians are held voiceless?

From time to time I receive a call from a seminarian taking a class on Native theology or Disciple history and who is writing a paper. Since there is so little written history on the Disciple-American Indian relationship, they call, hoping to get more information and a better insight to the history of the Yakama Christian Mission. I received one of those phone calls a few years ago. After introductions s/he said, “don’t you find it patriarchal and insensitive to direct a school for Native children in this age knowing the history of Christian boarding schools?” Well. For a minute, I sat looking at the phone and wondered what in the hell was s/he talking about? As I tried to compose myself, I asked where s/he getting her/his information. The answer, D. Cummins book Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation. As the red slowly subsided from my face, I said I had not read the book (it was relatively new at the time) and therefore could not comment on the reading. However, I could talk about what is actually happening at the Mission. When the conversation ended, I hunted down the book. Sure enough, on page 177 was the quote that framed the seminarian’s mindset. “The mission continues to operate in 2007, and is known as the Yakama Mission School for Native American children. It is the lone surviving work of Disciples among Native Americans.”

In 2007, there was a Yakama Christian Mission, but not a Yakama Mission School for Native American children. Two problems arise from this mistake. One, is for those receiving a western education, read knowledge often becomes an absolute and frames ones mindset. Thus, the seminarians comment about patriarchy and insensitivity is one of fact rather than question. Second, the mistake leads to a disrespect of the children who grew up at the Yakama Christian Mission. Name matters. For a people whose ancestors were intentionally given (often forced upon) Christian names with the intention of removing them from their culture of birth and their experiential life with Creator/God, getting names right, matter. It may be a hard for non-Indian and white Disciples to grasp, but for Yakama’s who grew up at the Mission, it is seldom easy to speak about their child and youth years with others. When history considers the Mission as a School rather than a Home or Center, it compounds the historical trauma of a people.

One might argue I am making too much about one line in one history book. However, that argument loses strength when one realizes that non-Indian worldviews develop without American Indian voices at the table—In other words, had local folk of the Mission landscape been consulted, the Cummins mistake would have not occurred. This realization is compounded when one grasps the mindset developed from such history, is continued in the life and work of the mentee. Point being, many non-Indians sorely want to engage in American Indian justice, yet their current mindset allows work to begin without the American Indian voice at the justice table.

For instance, in the Fall 2014 issue of The Disciples’ Advocate Ken Brooke Langston writes that the Disciples Center for Public Witness has partnered with Disciples Home Missions to create Disciples Human Rights Ministries. “This relatively new church-wide ministry” he writes, “deals with such diverse issues and concerns as…the rights of Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada.” A wonderful comment if there were at least one person sitting at the Disciples Human Rights Ministries table from one of the formally recognized Disciples ministries currently engaged in American Indian rights and justice: Yakama Christian Mission or Landscape Mending (Landscape Mending formed out of 2013 General Assembly Resolution 1324).

When posting Considering Weakness and Apathy a question/comment raised was, “To what end would this article lead one?” My expectation is the reflections during American Indian Heritage Month might lead one to recognize Disciples historically and currently struggle to welcome and include the American Indian voice to the decision making table. Furthermore, that folk might acknowledge the need to begin an intentional process of having Disciples structure become accountable to the American Indian voice.

The coldness in the landscape is more than temperature alone. There is a brittle coldness of mindsets, worldviews, and normalcy. This coldness that effects every American person will someday shatter all hope of restoration and reconciliation if a warming fire is not kindled. The warming fire is imminently possible though. We only need kindling that will raise tongues of fire desiring wholeness; Tongues aspiring for inclusivity; Tongues craving hospitality; and tongues yearning harmony. If we kindle a heat full of passion for the wellbeing of other, then out of those ashes might rise a welcoming justice table where all voices are heard, where all voices are accountable to another, and where all voices are accountable.

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