Educating about Native Americans

"Stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians!" Hand slapping mouth to make sound of "Woo.Woo.Woo." "How!" "Hey, Chief!" Non-Indian children dressed up as Indians at Halloween and Thanksgiving declaring, "Look, I'm a real Indian!" Sports fans putting on imitation eagle-feather headdresses, face paint, carrying a tomahawk and pretending to chop at something while whooping and hollering.

Bo Harris


These behaviors reinforce historical trauma and unresolved grief. They also serve to pass it on this trauma and grief to future generations of Native peoples.

My father attended Indian boarding schools run by a church. I experience historical trauma and unresolved grief firsthand, as does my father.

Native elders today have shared horrific stories of living in church-run boarding schools for Indians. It was common practice in the early years of the Christian church in the United States to "take the Indian out," to make Natives white so they could be Christians. Indian children were punished severely if they spoke their native language or showed any display of their native culture.

Emotional wounding

Historical trauma is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over a lifespan and across generations. Historical trauma emanates from massive group trauma experiences. Consequences of historical trauma often include depression, self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions.

Unresolved grief is the associated effect that accompanies historical trauma.

Unresolved grief is the associated effect that accompanies historical trauma.

Historical trauma and unresolved grief are still being experienced by Native people. It stems from continued stereotyping, institutionalized racism, disregard and disrespect of Native people and their culture.

We would like to think that in today's church, no behaviors exist that would contribute to historical trauma and unresolved grief. God created all human life to be valued, sacred and have self worth. Unfortunately, many Native Christians do not feel valued or of sacred worth.

Put faith in action

As a people of faith, we must take ownership of this situation and become faith in action. We must continue the church's journey of being an all inclusive, healthy church where we do not allow any of God's people to be diminished.

Awareness and being culturally sensitive enables us to be faith in action.


  • Be careful not to generalize about Native Americans. People of Native backgrounds come from urban areas and reservations; they may speak a variety of languages, and they have a multiplicity of cultures and backgrounds.
  • It is inappropriate to dress in what you consider Native American attire. Native clothing can have traditional, cultural and spiritual significance to people. It is important to respect this.
  • Drums are an important aspect of Native American culture and powwows. Who can perform drumming varies according to tribal traditions. Because of its sacred nature for many Native people, it is not appropriate for just anyone to perform drumming.
  • Hundreds of tribes and traditions exist in Native America. Be careful that you do not "stereotype" with certain images of Native Americans.
  • Do not speak about Native Americans in past tense. They are a people of a living culture.
  • Avoid trying to imitate things from Native culture that you do not understand. It is important not to borrow words or actions from Native traditions and use them out of context. To do this is cultural theft and offends traditional Native people.
  • Many Native people dislike themselves being characterized as mascots. They feel it is disrespectful and demeans the sacredness of the warriors, their eagle feathers and honor paint.
  • Cartoon characterizations of Native people demean, demoralize and disgrace Native people.
  • Engage in conversation with Native people to better understand what honoring, dishonoring, respect and disrespect looks and feels like to them. What non-Native people think are respectful and honoring may not be so to Native people.
  • Contact your conference Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM) to help plan a Native American Ministries Sunday service. Resources for the United Methodist Special Sunday services are available at Native American Ministries Sunday.
  • Make sure your church or charge has filled the position of representative to conference CONAM (United Methodist Book Of Discipline, 2008, pp 458, 654).
  • Be a church that takes its faith into action! Always bear in mind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter"

    Editor’s note: Boe Harris is co-chair of the Committee on Native American Ministries of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference. A resident of Seaford, Del., she is a member of the Board of Directors of the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS).

    This is the third in a series of articles from members of GBCS’s Native American Task Force:

  • Native American mascots must go,” (Faith in Action, April 6).
  • A deafening silence” (Faith in Action, April 14)
  • Native American Ministries Sunday, one of the six United Methodist Special Sundays with offering, is May 8. Be sure to order free offering resources to promote the offering that supports Native American ministries and helps United Methodist Native American seminarians become church leaders. More information about the United Methodist Special Sunday is available at Native American Ministries Sunday (Faith in Action, April 6).


    Letter to the Editor