November is Native American Heritage Month and, in the era of Standing Rock, there are things that are important to point out for Christians in 2017 when it comes to indigenous peoples. In recent months, we’ve seen the true colors of a lot of America, and it stems directly from our history of against indigenous peoples.
As an indigenous woman who grew up in the Church, it’s important for me to be the bridge, to be someone who walks the tension between my people, who have been oppressed, and the Church, who has been the oppressor. Walking that tension, for me, means fostering conversations, sharing stories and bringing people to the table to ask what has gone wrong and how they can be made right again. So I write books and speak. I tell my stories in hopes that others can see their own stories in them and connect pieces of the sacred human story across cultural and religious divides.
There are a couple of basic facts that people need to understand about indigenous people for any progress to be made in these conversations.
We are still here.
It seems that when I tell people I am an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Citizen Band tribe, there is a subtle look of surprise on their faces, because, as many have been taught, Native Americans are a part of history, and often our misrepresented stories stay in a textbook and students move on to the next lesson. Because we are often left out of conversations regarding race, there is a need for America to be reminded that we did not die off with the history that is spoken about us—we are still here today, still creating, still thriving, still trying to live within and revive our own cultures in a colonized world.
Indigenous tribes are not all the same.
So one tribe or one person cannot speak for all indigenous peoples on all topics relating to Native Americans. I’ve seen it happen often, and though it’s often with good intentions, it points to a bigger problem that has always plagued America: Indigenous peoples are villainized in society and ignored within the social justice conversations of the Church. When we are painted with a broad stroke in such a way, it belittles our individuality and adds to the already underrepresented presence of native culture in our education systems, society and churches. So, to address both of these issues, I decided to write daily reflections for Native American Heritage Month in the hopes of sharing my own story and experiences as a Potawatomi Christian woman.
When people bring up race in the U.S., it’s important that they don’t leave us indigenous people out. We’ve always been here. We matter. I recently posted this thought to my community on social media and watched as people shared it with one another. I watched as those who belong to this institution we call the Church began to open their eyes to an issue that daily resonates with me as a Native American Christian.
I asked what people wanted to know more of when it comes to indigenous culture. Someone said they’d like to know how people can practice better relationships with indigenous peoples by giving presence & voice to our stories and experiences. Here are some ideas:
Give indigenous people the microphone.
In the Christian world, I’ve seen this coming up a lot in conversations about our conferences, which are often mostly white. My friend Kathy Khang and many other women of color have spoken out against this and asked Christian conferences to reconsider the speakers they give microphones to every year. This is something that the Church and other faith circles could pay attention to in the future.
Remember that there are two sides to every story.
Often times, we tell stories about American culture and history that erase the experiences of indigenous people. Recently, I spoke to a group of teachers at a training session about how to give better lessons for Thanksgiving to their students, lessons that are more honest and factual than what we’ve been taught for so many years. I shared my story with them about my experiences as a Potawatomi woman in America. When those moments happen, when indigenous people are asked to tell our stories and to share our experiences, really profound things happen, and those moments could re-shape America and the Church.
Listen, listen, listen.
Because storytelling is such an essential part of my culture, safe spaces in which people can share their stories and simply be heard is a really empowering step forward in giving voice to people who have often been left voiceless. I am grateful for the spaces in which I have shared in the last year and a half, that people have been willing to ask me to speak and have listened. But many do not have that opportunity, and it is reflected in the way our institutions are run.
I’m well aware that our educational system has ill-equipped people to have these conversations, and I’m not angry at those individuals as they learn to ask questions and to listen.
Listening is key.
But be warned: If you want to enter into the conversation and truly listen, it’s going to require you to step into pain. That much is inevitable. These stories are riddled with hurt, with trauma, with PTSD. They are stories of hope and healing, but they are stories of immense grief. We cannot separate ourselves from it, so to be an ally, you have to be willing to sit in that pain, at least a little bit, if not a whole lot. It’s essential to understanding, to story sharing.
And so it is essential to our healing as well. It inches us closer to reconciliation and shalom, these things we find as Christians in the Gospel that we do not always apply to others who we believe don’t fit the category.
If we want to move forward, there is a lot of healing to be done, and it may begin on a one-on-one basis. It may begin in the home, at the table, in the small group at church, in the coffee shop around the corner.
May the Church and the world learn to listen, and after listening, do the work that needs to be done—the hard work of making wrong things right and raising up the experiences of indigenous peoples today.