Native Americans tell churches that it's 'time for a truth commission'

By Stephen Brown
27 Jun 2010

A Native American leader has challenged a global Protestant body to create a truth and reconciliation commission to redress the injustice of Church involvement in the cultural assimilation [which acts] against indigenous peoples.

Richard Twiss, a member of the Rosebud Lakota/Sioux Tribe, said the Church had been, "a willing partner", in the oppression of Native Americans.

He spoke at the founding meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Native Americans had numbered 50 million in 1400 but by 1895 accounted for barely 230,000, as a result of war and disease, Twiss said on 22 June.

"It was one of the worst examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing, right here in America, which says, 'in God we trust'," said Twiss, the president of Wiconi International, which supports Christian ministry in indigenous communities throughout the Americas.

As well as the physical oppression that Native American and indigenous peoples had suffered, Christianity and Christian mission had been used to reinforce cultural assimilation by depriving them of their own traditions and culture, Twiss said.

"Here in the United States our goal is to rescue theology from the cowboys. The cowboys have controlled the language of heaven for a very long time," he said.

Native Americans and indigenous peoples, "are not co-equal participants in the life, work and mission of the Church in North America," asserted Twiss. "We have never been encouraged to contextualise the Gospel story."

Twiss said a truth and reconciliation committee was necessary to provide redress for the misappropriation of Scripture and the co-opting of the Bible as a tool of colonialism and imperialism. He said that white settlers’ takeover of North American land had been underpinned by the biblical narrative of the Israelites conquering the "Promised Land".

"It was like a tsunami that crushed our people," he stated.

Addressing about 400 delegates, Twiss wore the eagle feather headdress he received in a Lakota naming ceremony, where he received the name Taoyata Obnajin, which means, "He stands with his people".

With 227 churches in 108 countries, the new Reformed body was formed as a merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council.

The address by Twiss was one of several events throughout the 18-28 June meeting that stressed the role of Native Americans, indigenous and First Nation peoples. Organisers said the events were intended to allow delegates to understand the reality of local communities.

The Grand Rapids meeting is, "a historic move in the direction we need to go", said Twiss. "We have, as indigenous people, suffered in innumerable and immeasurable ways."

Twiss pointed to a boarding and residential school system in North America designed to promote the assimilation of Native Americans. "Our children were forcibly removed from our homes and forcibly sent to boarding schools, mostly run by Christian denominations. On my reservation it was Catholicism," said Twiss. "They were physically abused, mentally abused and, worst of all, sexually abused.

"We were made to feel ashamed, we were made to feel inferior … in the name of the Bible and US and Canadian nationalism," he said. "Although it was done in the name of evangelism and mission … the end result was that today our native people are still struggling with what it means to be human beings."

Twiss recounted how, after he became a Christian in 1974, "none of my indigenous culture fitted. I was told my drums were no longer good for worship in a Christian church … I had to learn about God in someone else's language."

In 1972, Twiss was one of 600 people who took part in an eight-day occupation by the American Indian Movement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington DC.

"During this period of my life, I began to allow hatred toward white people and Christianity to seep into my heart and into my soul," said Twiss. However, two years later, he said, he decided to become a "follower of Jesus" after years of drug and alcohol abuse, and a spell in jail.

South Africa introduced a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of white minority rule to deal with gross human rights violations committed under apartheid.

A similarly named commission was established in Canada in 2008 as part of a settlement between the federal government, aboriginal organisations and churches, over abuse in church-run residential schools for First Nations peoples.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

[Ekk/3]

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