Approaching Native communities:  some thoughts from the Committee on Native American Ministries

The most important, current statement regarding the UMC and Native Communities was written from national Methodist Native leaders. This statement provides the best perspective on the context of seeking to make an Act of Repentance for our histories with Native peoples.

The first thing to consider about reaching out to another culture is the understanding we are asking to meet another community of people, and another culture, that operates with a different paradigm, which we can’t predict.   Their culturally defined ways of being include different perceptions, assumptions, experiences, interpretations, and practices than our own. 

This is true even if they may appear to have acculturated to what we take (often unconsciously) to be as normative cultural practices and language. As a member of the dominant culture, we may not notice how members of a minority culture, living in our midst, have to adjust to our way of talking and looking at life.  It’s important to remember that no matter how they may seem able to talk our paradigm, or represent our way of thinking, theirs may be very different.

By definition the dominant culture, at least in terms of apparent resource control and rights, has an upper hand.  And being used to our culture having the power to set the rules can prevent us from perceiving the elements of another culture. 

We essentially have to work to remain open to the mind-blowing experience that can happen when we realize we are learning the mystery of another person, except that this experience will be multiplied by a new, entire culture.  We must be careful to notice if we’re making assumptions.  The only reasonable approach is to honestly and humbly seek to learn about another person or their culture.

Establishing trust comes first, which typically does not happen quickly. Establishing relations with a native community is not a weekend assignment, and may not move quickly.  In the process be open to the Spirit’s calling, and ask your Native friends as you get to know each other, what seems like the next best step?

Some people feel it is helpful to first spend time reflecting on one’s own ethnic history, so as to dispel the notion that as members of “the dominant culture” we don’t have any ethic background or cultural norms.  This is like pretending that people nearly everywhere else have an accent, except in our home area, a kind of arrogance to be watched for and strategized against. 

In fact, there are tendencies to which, unfortunately, we tend to become trained in the process of growing up in the dominant culture, toward making assumptions that people in other ethnic groups somehow “don’t get it.” As much as we may not consciously think this way, we need be on a sharp, introspective lookout for unconscious judgments or assumptions about others. 

Sometimes it helps to simply remind ourselves that we don’t really know what’s going on for another human being unless they actually tell us.  And it is important to accept that for another person, especially someone from another culture who has been abused by our cultural forefathers it will likely take some time for enough trust to be established for honest dialogue.

Each person you meet is an individual.  They will have their own receptiveness and/or reluctance to engage in the process to help us make progress toward authentic repentance of unconscious or historical cultural violence.  Listening for what remains unsaid, as well as deeply listening to what is said are very important skills to practice. 

We have a need to understand how the histories of our culture’s relations with the first nations of our lands, painful as they may be, are still felt, where we still need to face the past and how we can authentically ask forgiveness.  These are huge questions, and it’s our need.  We cannot simply assume someone else will agree to meet us in the middle of this historical pain, and we must be willing for it to be difficult for us to experience if we are really asking for an encounter regarding the truths of the past and the present.

Also, because patience is not our culture’s strength, this works against us and so sometimes needs to be consciously practiced.  If we feel this ought to be just a weekend assignment, we might quickly foul the waters of dialogue.  Allow the process to move at the pace that emerges by honestly seeking a mutually respectful dialogue.

Just as individuals are different and will be variously interested, or willing and able to work to establish trust, each community is different. The appropriate ways to approach and dialogue with the community as a whole will be different.  Proceed by respectfully asking and listening to the answers you receive, (being sure to be prepared in some way to respond to what you’ve heard, at the time that seems right).

An informal inquiry may be the best start, perhaps with someone from the tribal community with whom you are already acquainted.   A more formal introduction at a ceremony, or at the Tribal Council, might be appropriate should there develop a mutual need to establish more formal relations, group to group.  For some communities, it may not be respectful to try to establish relations without going to the Tribal Council.  Again, wisdom dictates simply to not make assumptions.  Likewise, one tribal member’s sense of what might be possible may, or may not prove, to be the sense held by the tribal community as a whole.  On the other hand, if there is someone willing to accept the sincerity of your approach, then their advice, counsel, and possibly introductions may prove invaluable.

At some point in the evolving dialogue, we might want to explain that our connectional church (nationally) is seeking to explore Native histories, and that at the regional level, (the Annual Conference) are preparing to make an authentic Act of Repentance (regionally) for all that has been done to Natives by the dominant culture, (especially repenting of the arrogance and violence perpetrated under the banner of Christianity).

It may be appropriate to invite them to visit with your church leadership.  Asking them to talk at your church may be too much, too soon, in some situations, while in some other circumstances, it may be just what they would like.  It’s most important to dialogue and listen. 

Asking them about their spirituality and their history, and honoring their perspectives are all important.  Paying strict attention to what the Spirit seems to be creating in the process of dialogue is critically important.  Finding common language, or ways of praying together with our Native brothers and sisters, no matter what their religious practice, can be powerful, if it is welcomed.

Be aware that for some Native peoples, the past curses and violence perpetrated by Christians seems to have permanently given us a bad name.  Each tribal community likely has at least some members who are strongly prejudiced against Christians in general.  This calls us to be a light in the darkness, to practice love in the face of distrust.  And let’s acknowledge (at least to ourselves) that this is actually what we are asking of our Native friends.  Implicit in this dialogue with the folks with whom we are asking a relationship is a request that Native communities in our area be open to taking a higher road of forgiveness and consideration on our behalf, and to show us love and respect, even though our culture has still not, to this day, provided sufficient reasons or actions for real trust.  Being aware of how much we are asking in this regard is important part of the requisite humility, respect, and patience which we need to bring to the situation, along with prayer and a practice of intentional listening, both to our Native sisters and brothers, and to the movement of the Spirit. And let’s face it, our culture is not known principally for humility, respect of other cultures, or for patience, so we will do best by being intentional about sharing those qualities!

Roy Pina, Pastor at Round Valley, is a Native leader well remembered, by those who were at Annual Conference in 2014, for his passionate urging for all those gathered to realize that a genuine embrace is what Native culture is entirely capable of receiving and giving.  It has been absent a long and painful time.