Archive for Sunday, September 8, 1996


September 8, 1996


American Indians confront religious questions with a variety of responses.

Brad DrowningBear grew up with the Yakama, Snohomish and Cherokee traditions of his parents and extended family but without anything he identified as religion.

He started thinking about Christianity in 1969, and at first, it wasn't easy.

"Christians killed Indians in the name of Jesus, and Indians were considered savages," he said. "Manifest destiny, the missionary conquests and cultural genocide -- unfortunately the well-intentioned missionaries paved the way for difficulties. Some conservative Christians have said native traditions are heathen or witchcraft. So we've had to live with that, the scarring and the trauma of being told that the Indian ways were not proper."

It was at a powwow on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington in the early '70s that DrowningBear first participated in a traditional dance, following in his father's footsteps.

"I just did my best and danced my best, and through all that, a presence came to me that said there is no conflict," he said. "I just got this overwhelming peace in my heart and mind."

He became a Christian and is now the 42-year-old pastor of the Lawrence Indian United Methodist Church,

Nearly three decades later, Misty Ortiz is letting go of her Methodist upbringing in Albuquerque, N.M., and instead embracing the ways of her Navajo and Acoma Pueblo ancestors.

"I don't go to church any more," said Ortiz, an 18-year-old first-year student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. "I think of myself as Native American and try to do my best to learn about traditions and ask questions when I don't know something."

Spiritual choices

At Haskell, some students, staff and faculty members regularly perform traditional prayer rituals in sweat lodges and at an earthen medicine wheel on the southern end of the college's campus. Others attend Christian churches. Some avoid religion altogether. Still others blend native and Christian traditions.

"This is the religious discussion these days," says DrowningBear, who is now working on a master's degree in divinity at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. "How much can be mixed? Can you mix any at all? Can a Christian church have a sweat lodge in the yard?"

These questions are being asked in American Indian communities throughout the nation, some of which have strong Christian traditions.

The debate is no different at Haskell, a college for American Indians founded by the federal government in 1884 to indoctrinate young Indians in the ways of the white man. Or, as some put it then, to Christianize them.

Today Haskell promotes "culturally relevant" education, and administrators are working to turn the school into a national center for American Indian education.

But even while students there study their histories and form bonds based on their shared American Indian experiences, others struggle to define themselves in terms of religion.

"I deal with both cultures going against each other," said one Haskell freshman who asked that his name not be used. He grew up among Jehovah's Witnesses but has strong ties to his family's American Indian religious traditions.

"It's hard because you have to choose one or the other, because the Jehovah's Witness religion says you can't serve two gods," he said.

Churches stand ready

Proselytizing isn't allowed at Haskell. But as at Kansas University and at colleges throughout the country, various religious groups have set up shop around Haskell's perimeter, offering "services" such as tutoring, bible study and group meals.

"Our larger church body would really like to see contacts made here at Haskell so that young people coming off reservations might be able to go back to their reservations and share their Christian faith and help start churches on the reservations," said Ken Kueker, who started Aug. 1 as pastor of the Haskell LIGHT, which stands for Lutherans and Indians Gathering and Helping Together. It's a ministry, with a house at 137 Pawnee, sponsored by the four Lutheran churches in Lawrence.

"I find that the students in general are very open and that they appreciate what we've been able to do for them," Kueker said. "I think the Haskell students, being away from the reservation for the first time and facing a lot of issues and problems they haven't faced before, are very open to somebody who's there to support them and encourage them."

Haskell LIGHT is one of half a dozen Christian denomination churches that are members of the Haskell Interfaith Council.

"Some groups are interested in an evangelistic, proselyting framework," said DrowningBear, the interfaith council's president. "I think just a basic respect is important in any relationship."

But on a college campus, especially one populated by students whose cultures place great emphasis on spiritual concerns, religious curiosity is to be expected, DrowningBear said.

"I think the question of spirituality is always going to be predominant here," he said. "If the kids coming to college want to get away from their Christian or traditional umbrellas, they'll probably tend to look at the other things more openly. Or if they didn't grow up with anything and they meet numerous people who have different beliefs, then it makes them wonder about their own identity."

Blending beliefs

In some instances, the result of this spiritual search is a blend of Christian and American Indian traditions.

The New Jerusalem Intertribal Fellowship includes about 25 families in the Kansas City area and five to 10 families in Lawrence.

While following the New Testament, the church's worship ceremonies include American Indian rituals, like burning cedar, sage or sweet grass incense and singing American Indian hymns in various tribal languages.

"My target ministry is to show how the native people fit into the Bible story and the new testament story of Jesus, and how we are a part of his plan, and the role that native people will play in bringing about the second coming of Christ," said Marilyn Bread, a development officer at Haskell and director of its National Training Center.

Bread, a 48-year-old Kiowa, was raised with Christian and traditional views and is an ordained minister in the New Jerusalem Intertribal Fellowship.

"I'm from a line of prayer people," Bread said. "I'm supposed to be a prayer woman. The Lord called me specifically to tell the native people how they fit into the Bible. This is my calling."

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