I wasn’t playing dress up. It wasn’t Halloween. And nope, I wasn’t at a sci-fi convention. But people thought I was wearing a costume.
It was high-school culture week, traditional clothing day. Being mixed-race, I had a plethora of cultures to choose from, and I decided to represent my Native American heritage.
I proudly adorned myself in my regalia: complete with deer hides, rabbit furs, and a touch of my own beadwork. With a draping of abalone shells that made me sound like a delicate wind chime as I walked by, I was off to school. My friends greeted me with a warm welcome and affirming compliments, but as the day unfolded my confidence was shaken. Laughter, pointing, and snide remarks about my “costume” became more prevalent. Inside, the sting was real. My “otherness” had been met with uncertainty, awkwardness, stereotypes. And it hurt.
If only this were a one-off experience attributed to immature high schoolers, but, alas, I learned that it was an all-too-familiar reaction to Native people.
It was summer at the Orange County Fairground and the annual pow wow was underway. Hundreds of First Nations people gathered to celebrate culture and socialize. The Northern Drum laid down a steady soundtrack for the methodic vocals hanging in the air. The grounds came to life with colors, feathers, and beads that adorned the regalia of the tribes represented. This was our space, a Native space, a space of home, even if only for the weekend.
I was a young adult and excited to join in the parade of colors. Adorned in my full regalia, I strode into the pow wow looking forward to the day ahead.
Then I heard a man yell, “Oh no, you’d better watch your scalp!” I glanced up to see him holding his head, laughing with his friends. I tried not to look shaken, hoping the insults would cease. As the group drew near to pass me they raised their hands to their mouths and started making stereotypical “Indian sounds,” you know, the ones from the old movies. They danced a little, mocking, pointing, and laughing. I was stunned. Here were grown men somehow feeling emboldened to degrade me for their amusement—just because I was different.
If only this kind of degradation came from people who did not know the Spirit of the Living God, but, alas, even in my spiritual home my identity as a Native person was not safe from ridicule.
We took our seats after worship and welcomed our pastor on stage. His messages, always peppered with humor, drew me in. I can’t recall the particulars that morning, but I found myself in an auditorium of a thousand people, dumbfounded at the words coming from the pulpit. Pastor was making fun of Native Americans, throwing out cheap stereotypes. And for what? I leaned forward and glanced at the rest of my family; looks of shock and disbelief were worn on all their faces. I leaned back slowly and waited for the event to pass. I heard nothing else of the sermon that day; I just sat in the house of God and cried. It was clear that day that I was not even safe at church; even here the ugly root of prejudice had infiltrated.
If only racial prejudice in the Church was rare and recognized, but, alas, there is a long intersecting history of racism, Christianity, and people of color.
Some years after that painful church service, I found myself in a conversation with a Native American acquaintance about what he called “the book of lies,” aka the Bible. There was much pain in his past and he bitterly recounted the corrupt history of Christianity, mission schools, and western expansion, all of which had devastated Native peoples and all of which had been justified using the pages of scripture.
For many Native Americans, the Bible is not a book of life but a manifesto for genocide and a symbol of oppression. “Among non-believing Indians the word ‘Christianity’ has come to mean only the abusive religion of the White man” (Richard Twiss). Unfortunately, the Church’s ignorance of its own history has allowed an ongoing prejudice that has stood in the way of reconciliation and kept many Native Americans from experiencing the love of God.
This story of suffering may be difficult for some to absorb, especially for those who have not experienced it. It is not a history that is easy to hear. But it is important for us together to recognize its impact.
In this pursuit, a little history might be helpful:
Richard Twiss of the Lakota Sioux Nation says, “The New England Puritan missionaries largely set the course for modern missions. They concluded that Indian converts could only be Christians if they were ‘civilized.’”
The Puritans then embarked on a mission to transform Native Americans into English Puritans. One of the most destructive systems created to facilitate this process was the boarding school. Children were forcibly taken from their families to be “educated”. In the process, they were often brutally beaten at the same time as they were being informed of God’s love for them. “Kill the Indian, and save the man” was the way Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, described it.
“One of the effects of this history of bigotry and cultural conquest has been that, to this day, Native North Americans have never experienced the rise of an indigenous church movement or wide spread revival,” says Twiss. “Most missiologists agree that after 500 years of active missionary effort, only three to five percent of the native population are born-again Christians.”
It was this history that made it easy for me to walk away from my faith during college. It seemed clear that Christians were on the wrong side of love, the wrong side of justice.
I found myself churchless but still seeking. I was wrestling with God. And then I met Jesus.
This Jesus was a tribal man, the tribe of Judah. This Jesus taught me his ways with transformative love. In the context of my Native American identity, he showed me his power over all other gods.
Jesus demonstrated that he was not the atrocities his followers had committed in his name. He redeemed the very thing that had driven me away.
Today my passion is bringing Christ’s healing and reconciliation into our cultural divisions, tragic past, and present turmoil. He’s invited me to labor with him as he transforms the sorrow of our ethnic divisions into the promise of Ephesians 2:14: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.”
If only the past with all its suffering would disappear, leaving us free to live our futures. But, alas, time alone does not heal the wounds of the past.
There is a prevailing cry of lament going out from communities of color to the Church. Will this cry fall on deaf ears? Will our suffering ever be known?
Even scarier is to ask: would our white brothers and sisters do anything if they did know? If they know and do nothing will we be able to hold to you, Jesus? Or will we abandon a faith that will not address prejudice and injustice? Will we pray on—believe on—in the face of broken relationships within the family of God?
In a world unraveling because of ethnic division, the Church has remained largely ineffective in bringing Christ’s healing and transformation. We have been paralyzed by our indifference, fear, guilt, and anger around racism.
And who but Jesus can transform this?
And where but in his Church that has he chosen to work through?
My story, as with other people of color, has been one marked with cultural suffering, but I have seen Jesus working to redeem it day by day. This is what I pray for us all, that the Lord would redeem our divisions so that we may be one body instead of many.
May we together take up our cross and become healers.
We are indeed suffering from our ethnic divisions. Lord we implore you; meet us, transform us, renew our minds, and release us to be your Kingdom healers where walls divide.
All quotes are from the book One Nation Many Tribes by Richard Twiss.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Colletta Rhoads serves with her husband and two children in South Africa where they work to see disciple making movements grow and transform communities. Born and raised in Santa Ana, CA, she has a passion for diversity, healing, and reconciliation. She writes around these topics on her blog: Black in America / White in South Africa. She invites you to join the conversation on her blog.