The Sad Legacy of the Church and Her Relationship with Native Americans

Most of us know that the church in America did not always deal with native Americans honorably. In fact, in many cases (if not most) the church was used by the government to help suppress Indians and their culture. Children, for example, were taken from their mothers at age two and three and removed to boarding schools between 1870 and 1930 as a regular part of America’s treatment of tribes. Treaties, made and respected by the U. S. Constitution were routinely broken and Christians looked the other way. Only when the Civil Rights Movement emerged in the 1960s did this begin to seriously change among American Indians. And the church became the willing partner of the state in educating these children, breaking these treaties and forcing the Indians off their lands. The church helped to carry out these tasks in such a fierce anti-Indian manner that this history should call all of us to some measure of shame and deeply humble response in the present time.

I confess that I knew very little about the various tribes of American Indians and even less about their history before I saw six videos in the past few weeks. I spent a part of the summer of 1969 in New Mexico working among Navajo Indians. My young life was profoundly marked by that experience. But I have not remained close to the story of America’s indigenous people since that early experience.

This all changed recently when a neighbor, who knew how much I loved documentary film, loaned me a set of six films on the Ojibwe nation (Chippewa is the English name). These films.made by a relative of my neighbor, enriched my understand profoundly.

The Ojibwe are the second-largest tribe in North America and live in the upper Great Lakes region, not that far from where I live in Chicago. They have a rich culture and history. In these six hour-long episodes I saw their history stretching from the pre-contact of Europeans right up to the present time. The focus of this series is on Ojibwe language, leadership, economic development, education, health, religion and the environment. There are over 100 interviews in these six hours and leaders from 19 different bands of Ojibwe in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota are featured.

epsd1_3_photo The Ojibwe people were originally impacted by the European fur trade. This contact changed them from hunters, fishers and gatherers to traders. It effectively began the destruction of their language and culture over time. Their story should be understood by anyone who believes in Christian mission because it will reveal precisely how not to do mission in the name of Christ.

True Christian mission respects diverse cultures and ideas. Faithful mission does not seek to tear down but to build up. This comes from the message of Christ’s love, not from fierce threats about hell if people do not adopt Western culture. Real mission involves incarnating the teaching of Jesus into the ways of people with profound respect for what is good and right in their way of living. As I watched this series I was not only educated about American Indians but about how the gospel of Jesus Christ became so closely identified with the culture and ways of Europe. In this process the gospel itself was compromised and misused in tragic ways that closed doors and damaged whole people groups, like the Ojibwe.

I am not sure how easily you can find these videos for purchase but a visit to an educational Ojibwe web site will yield more than a little information and provide the background these six were based upon. There are even some video excerpts on this site. My eyes were profoundly opened and my heart deeply challenged to be more faithful to the gospel, not to Western culture. There is a great deal the Ojibwe can teach us about nature, creation, stewardship and family. Not everything Western is either good or godly.