In preparing for this week’s article, my original intent was to write about contemporary issues facing Native America. Quite frankly, this week provided stark reminders that many people have not begun or are unwilling to understand the contemporary Native experience.
My original intent was to provide a wrap-up to the series of three articles produced by members of the General Board of Church & Society’s Native American Task Force. Two Native Americans — a clergyman and a laywoman — and a young woman have shared very personal stories about either being Native or understanding issues facing Native people.
I started my preparation by accompanying some visiting family members to the National Museum of the American Indian, which is on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As I stood outside the museum, a young family approached.
“Should we go in here?” the woman asked her husband.
“Naw, it looks like a museum for whiners,” he brusquely responded.
As a Native American myself, I was disturbed by his callous comment.
Letters to the editor
On another front, the three articles, which were timed to lead up to the United Methodist Native American Ministries Sunday, prompted a few letters to the editor.
There was no shame about being the ‘indians.’
One person wrote: “When I was young we used to play cowboys and indians. I remember words like warriors, braves and chiefs. There was no shame about being the ‘indians.’ I remember John Wayne and the indian show he starred in. Though the ‘enemy,’ the indians were usually presented as honorable and brave.”
Another defended schools in his area that use Native mascot or team names as a form of “honoring” Native people.
Willingness to try to understand what it means to be Native in contemporary American society is a critical attitude missing from these responses. It’s as if the feelings of Native people just don’t matter.
565 federally recognized tribes
I won’t pretend that Native people of the 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States all agree on every subject. Each of these tribes has unique cultural traditions, values and rituals. American Indians have a common experience, though, especially our young children and youths who are negatively impacted by stereotypes every day.
I won’t pretend that Native people … all agree on every subject.
I remember as a young person, wanting to always play a Pilgrim and never an Indian in the school Thanksgiving play. Virtually everything I was taught and read about American history and watched on television — John Wayne movies included — portrayed Indians negatively. This had a powerful adverse effect on my self-esteem and feelings of self-worth for years afterward.
When we discount or ignore how Native people feel about stereotypes or justify perpetuating the stereotype, it affects another generation of American Indian children. Tragic statistics among American Indians indicate that suicide is the second leading cause of death among our adolescents and young adults ages 10 to 34. Suicide among our 15- to 24-year olds is twice as high as the national average for that age group.
Something is broken
Something is broken in our society if we care more about our mascots than human lives.
Native people rejoiced the day the United Methodist General Conference, our denomination’s highest policy-making body, approved the Native American Awareness (now Ministries) Sunday. I was sitting in the bleachers that day in 1992 in Louisville, Ky., watching General Conference delegates vote. It was one of the most powerful and loving actions I had ever experienced in the church.
Much is left to do, however, within United Methodist congregations to educate and raise understanding on behalf of Native people. Native American Ministries Sunday provides an opportunity to make a difference by fostering enlightenment. Ultimately, I hope the Special Sunday observance will encourage self-reflection as well.
Editor’s note: The Rev. Cynthia Abrams directs the Alcohol, Other Addictions & Health Care work area at the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS). She is a member of the Seneca tribe and originally from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Western New York.
This is the fourth in a series of articles from members of GBCS’s Native American Task Force:
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).