DENVER, Colo. — The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals here has ruled a United Methodist pastor can continue his suit against the state of Oklahoma over the license plate image of a Native American shooting an arrow into the sky because he feels it violates his religious liberty.
Even though neither his church nor his ordination is mentioned, the suit has stirred up some negative feelings in the denomination.
The suit has stirred up some negative feelings in the denomination..
The Rev. Kevin Cressman, pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Bethany, Okla., said the case is not an attack on Native American religion, culture or beliefs. “One is mistaken to characterize it as such,” he said.
The image to which Cressman objects is a photo of a sculpture by Allan Houser titled “Sacred Rain Arrow.” It is based on an ancient Apache legend about a warrior who had his bow and arrow blessed for ending a drought.
“Being a citizen of the United States entitles Cressman the rights to express his opinion, but being a United Methodist minister does not entitle him to speak for The United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. David Wilson, district superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. “I think there are many who understand this lawsuit [to be] as frivolous as I do.”
Many art galleries around the world display Houser’s work, and the Smithsonian Institute owns a version of the “Sacred Rain Arrow.”
“The Rain Arrow sculpture to my understanding is the artist’s attempt to show an aspect of Apache life,” Wilson said. “It reminds me of the artist’s connection to God and the people’s desire to connect with God.”
Oklahoma and the UMC
Oklahoma is home to two United Methodist annual (regional) conferences: Oklahoma Conference and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference includes 6,000 members in 84 churches in ministry with Native Americans. Oklahoma is home to the majority of the conference’s congregations; there is one church in Dallas, three churches and one fellowship in Kansas.
Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. is episcopal leader for both Oklahoma conferences.
“I find it troubling and disturbing that one of our pastors would find this symbol offensive,” Hayes said. “I wish Rev. Cressman could have said something to me so that I could have entered into some dialogue with him and some of my Native American brothers and sisters who could have explained the symbol. I view it as a distraction to the ongoing healing relationships.”
The 2012 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, dedicated a significant portion of its time to an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.”
Nate Kellum, the attorney representing Cressman, explained his client’s views in a post on the Facebook page for the Center for Religious Expression:
The standard Oklahoma license plate, introduced in 2009, depicts a statue of a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky. Based on a sculpture entitled “Sacred Rain Arrow,” the image illustrates a story of an Apache warrior shooting arrows blessed by a medicine man toward the clouds to end a drought.
Cressman doesn’t believe in the myth and doesn’t want to promote it. As a Christian pastor called to ministry in an area steeped in Native American tradition, he frequently encounters individuals who cling to these beliefs, and he tries to convince them to cast off myths and accept the truth of the gospel.
The case presents legal issues of freedom of speech that are important for all Americans of all religious, nonreligious and ethnic backgrounds, according to Cressman. “Repeated efforts were made to find a resolution without filing a lawsuit,” he said.
What’s the issue?
Enoch Kelly Haney, a Native American artist and former Oklahoma state legislator, said he does not understand why Cressman has an issue with the artwork.
“I did know Allan Houser, and he was a very kind and gentle man,” Haney said. “I can’t recall that he had anything bad to say about anybody. His art is much like mine; often, it is an illustration of who we are and what we think.”
Haney, a member of Norman (Okla.) First American United Methodist Church, pointed out that many Native people were forced to be Christians, “but a great percentage of Native people today are Christians in spite of all that.”
Native tribes were the first to bring The Methodist Church to the state, according to Wilson.
“We are the Mother Church of Methodism for Oklahoma,” Wilson said. “It was the Indian Methodist preachers and lay persons who laid the foundation for the future generations such as me.”
The Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, a member of the Seneca Nation and of the Native American Ministries for the Upper New York Conference, chaired the 2012 Act of Repentance General Secretary’s Advisory Council of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns.
Fassett called the message Cressman’s lawsuit sends to Native Americans by a clergy leader of a Christian denomination “more disturbing.”
“Do we violate the religious liberty of others when we pray in church and send our prayers on the smoke of burning cedar or sage?” Fassett asked. “Do our sisters and brothers in our Native American United Methodist churches in Oklahoma need to be wary of suits against them because they may dance a prayer or wear ribbon shirts or blouses as celebrations of their joy in the faith?”
Fassett said the image of a Native shooting an arrow into the sky on a license plate is a cultural image that can be embraced as a part of a celebration of diversity and the intention to live equally together.
Hayes said Cressman is exercising his rights and has not violated any United Methodist Book of Discipline rules. He said the courts will decide the case.
“Once it is dealt with, we will go on with our lives, we will go on with ministry,” Hayes said, “and we will go on with the work of the church.”