Celebrate The Contributions of Native Americans


By Blenda Smith, Upper New York Conference Communications Coordinator for The Conference Committee on Native American ministries (CONAM)

This is great time to celebrate the legacy of Native American traditions and gifts to our present culture and country.

The United Methodist Women, in their reading program, have suggested a valuable resource: A Native American Thought of It: Amazing Inventions & Innovations by Rocky Landon is a stimulating book naming many ideas and ways of life Native Americans experienced long before Europeans arrived on this continent more than 500 years ago.

Those of us who are European Americans tend to think of all “we” brought to this country. However, Native Americans taught us many things: about medicine and herbs still used successfully today; about food production including making maple syrup and the skills for planting large vegetable crops; fishing and hunting techniques such as the use of camouflage and decoys; and sports such as lacrosse, hacky sacks, and snowshoeing.

These are a just a few examples of our treasured Native American heritage to be honored this month.

So why is it that stereotypes and negative attitudes about Native Americans persist?

Unfortunately, we have been taught an “American narrative,” a history that fits the European American perception of truth. Many grew up with the negative stereotype of “good” cowboys and “bad” Indians. We were taught the concept of manifest destiny to justify conquering lands. We needed to believe that Native Americans were “savage” to justify genocide/massacres.

We never learned in school about the Doctrine of Discovery. A papal edict from the 15th century stated that explorers who came to “new” lands should try to Christianize native people. If that failed, the natives were to be killed or enslaved and their land taken from them.

It was this doctrine that led Columbus to slaughter and rape natives he encountered. The Doctrine of Discovery continues to be referenced in rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. The United Methodist Church officially denounced the Doctrine of Discovery at General Conference 2012.

We were not taught about the Christian Boarding Schools that were instituted in the 19th and 20th centuries to remove native children from their families to be Americanized and Christianized. Children who tried to speak their native language, ask about their families, or dress traditionally, for example, were severely punished and not uncommonly killed.

Until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, it was legal for European American families to take Native American children from their parents for adoption by claiming they could provide a better home.

Even today, there are places with signs “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.”

It is time for The United Methodist Church to bring justice to Native Americans and both of our cultures.

It is not the fault of Americans living today that we were taught this American narrative. But it is time to move beyond it and learn the truth about our histories and the lives of Native Americans today. Wholeness will come when we acknowledge and honor the valuable and significant contributions of Native Americans to our culture and country today.

 How do we make that significant shift of mind and heart? The first steps are listening and learning that lead to authentic relationship building. For example, read the Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving as shared by the national historic museum Plymouth Plantation (visit the Conference website to see the online version of this story and get the link). It shares a significantly different truth about that first Thanksgiving.

The journey began at a worldwide level at General Conference 2012 with the Service of Repentance & Healing of Relationships with Indigenous Persons (AOR). Now that journey continues in Upper New York, where our Native American brothers and sisters want to engage in conversations. The Conference Committee on Native American ministries (CONAM) is planning District Learning Sessions for 2014. The schedule will be coming out soon.

These will be times to listen to Native Americans, dialogue about what you have heard, and learn how to use the AOR Study Guide DVD each local church received at Annual Conference.

CONAM representatives as well anyone interested in this issue of justice for God’s people, are urged to come to these sessions.