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Disciples Institutional Racism Towards Native Americans

June 15, 2015

Mission First

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as Abba God knows me and I know God – and for these sheep I will lay down my life. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold – I must lead them too, and they will hear my voice. And then there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

John 10:14-16
The Inclusive Bible, 2007

Missional ministry, culturally competent missional ministry, is an awesome thing. Reaching out to people who are challenged by generational trauma, tyranny, oppression, social stigma, racism and isolation to empower them in improving the quality of their lives through hope in God is what being a believer is all about. But for it to be truly spirit-led we must be “hollow-boned,” we must be willing to set aside our egos and let God work through us despite ourselves and not because of who we are. For many Christians, this is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Personal agendas, expectations and cultural assimilations taint and even distort God’s message to the people.

My first encounter with one of the Mission First videos was at Pam Holt’s installation service as the new Regional Minister in Oklahoma. As a filmmaker, I found the format and content to be incredible in its structure and presentation. After just a few short minutes I began to despise it and hoped it would never used again. Within the video I saw many white people of all ages, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but, to the best of our knowledge, not one Native American was represented. The videos send the subliminal message that Native Americans and missional ministry to Native Americans is to be ignored and unsupported. This video and the other three like it scream Disciples Institutional Racism towards Native Americans.

Many Native Americans do not trust European-American Christians and are all too aware of how many generations of European Christians have used the Bible as a weapon of oppression for personal and political gain.[xxi] The fact that this lack of trust exists demonstrates the magnitude and depth of double standards that dominate within Christianity of North America. The absence of a viable Native American Missional ministry within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a testament to the contemporary reality of Institutional Racism towards Native Americans within the denomination.

Disciples Complicity

“You will be able to tell them by their fruit. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, a sound tree produces good fruit and a rotten tree produces bad fruit. A sound tree cannot produce rotten fruit, and a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. Any tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. I repeat, you’ll be able to tell them by their fruit.”

Matthew 7:16-20
The Inclusive Bible, 2007

For decades before its closure and subsequent sale by DHM, many Disciples visited the Yakama Mission in White Swan. I imagine that some of those reading this article will recall your visit to the plains of Washington. Seeing generations of Native Americans who have converted to mainline Christianity must have been quite an adventure. Yet, how many of those same people ever bothered to study the social, economic and cultural impact assimilation was having on the lives of Native Americans? How many of those who have visited Yakama have done just one act of advocating for culturally competent missional ministry to Native Americans? Anyone? Where has Disciples voice been all these decades?

Since its inception, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has internalized and perpetuated a culture which pays only cursory attention to the existence of Native Americans. Time and again Disciples have taken a stand for social justice for non-Indians but have remained suspiciously silent for social justice for Native Americans. Despite the many efforts on the part of Native Americans and their supporters to advocate for change, where was Disciples voice in support of:

  1. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Building takeover in 1972?
  2. The Wounded Knee conflict in 1973?
  3. The passage of the Native American Rights Act?
  4. The passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act?
  5. The United Nations passage of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act?
  6. The murders of Native American youth by white supremacists, like Donald Beartrack, Jr. in Oklahoma 1994?
  7. The Big Mountain Support Group protest of strip mining coal on Navajo Nation sacred grounds?
  8. The Taos Pueblo struggle for reclaiming Blue Lake?
  9. The kidnapping of children from reservations to forcibly attend boarding schools?
  10. The ongoing struggles for protection of fishing rights?
  11. The ongoing struggles for protection of water rights?
  12. Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline going through reservation lands?
  13. Elimination of racist mascot and sports team names?
  14. The ongoing struggles to overcome poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, racism and suicide among native youth both on the reservations and in the suburban environments?[xxii]

The list of struggles Native Americans have faced, and continue to face, over the past five decades is a long and sad reminder of how Institutional Racism towards Native Americans continues to grow. The reality that Disciples voice has been absent, even with the existence of a Justice Board to advocate with, reflects how little regard Disciples must have for the plight of Native Americans and especially Native Youth.

I have lived near, worked on, and been involved with many reservations for most of my adult life and am all too keenly aware of how racism has had a horrific impact on the lives and cultures of American Indians/Alaska Natives throughout North America. Today, life for Native Youth is more challenging than ever. In his article “Racism at Core of Native Teen Suicides in Pine Ridge”, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation high school teacher Dominique Alan Fenton reveals to the world that since December 2014 to April 2015 there were 11 child suicides among native youth aged 12 – 17. More were treated for attempting suicide. All of these suicides have been directly connected to racism as the primary cause.[xxiii] This represents just one small reservation the size of a county and does not include the other more grim statistics which could be added. So while you are reading this a Native American child has either been victimized by racism, attempted suicide or has committed suicide.

It is inappropriate for us to post names of those Native Youth who have taken their lives due to racism. We hope to honor them through our relentless efforts to bring about change in the hearts and actions of Christian religious leaders, congregational lay leaders and members. It is not okay for Christians to continue to act out, or enable through inaction, any form of racism towards Native Americans and especially Native Youth.

By Disciples refusing to take a stand against the exploitation and acts of racism against Native Americans more and more white people are bullying and persecuting Native Americans. Racism towards Native Americans is so prevalent today that an apparent epidemic of teen suicide among Native American youth now exists! The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination appears to be one of, if not the most, Institutionally Racist denominations in North America. This means that the blood of generations of Native Youth who have committed suicide due to racism is on Disciple’s hands as much as on those being overtly racist towards Native Youth.

So, on the one hand, many other denominations have taken responsibility for their part in co-creating contemporary problems for Native Americans and are actively seeking to increase their budgets for healing and to help improve the quality of life for Native youth. On the other hand, Disciples have yet to make any concerted effort to create a viable Native American missional ministry.  In fact, termination of Sacred Hoop’s resolution appears to reflect an effort to shut down the most viable opportunity Disciples have to build a bridge between Native Peoples and Disciples, one that could last for generations to come.

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One Comment
  1. BARBARA ANN MITCHELL REXFORD permalink

    I’m so ashamed of these people who
    are racist.They are supposed to help
    all peoples. Native Americans have been
    used & abused.It’s time to give their land
    back to them & solve their many problems, that were caused hy the
    Europeas & our ancestors. SHAME ON
    US ALL, DAMMIT …

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