When is the last time you thought about Native Americans? Non-Native people have the privilege of ignoring the realities faced by American Indians unless, of course, they are watching Disney’s Pocahontas, cheering on the Washington Redskins, or attending their child’s First Thanksgiving school play. But ignorance comes at a cost---especially for those who identify as Christ-followers and are called, in humility, to "value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). But how can we truly value others without accurate understanding, empathy, and awareness? Many Americans can drudge up memories of their middle school history classes to recall rudimentary facts about the Trail of Tears, but few recognize that the genocide, war, and disease spawned by colonization decreased the American Indian population by an unfathomable 97%.1 Yes, the majority of Americans know far too little about the history of Native people.
We are ignorant of Indian Boarding Schools, in which Native children were taken from their families and tribes in an attempt to “civilize” them through education. In off-reservation boarding schools, the Native children were forced to change their language, religion, and appearance in order to adopt lifestyles that were not their own; creating cultural chasms between parents and children. The boarding schools operated on Richard Henry Pratt’s motto: “kill the Indian, save the man.” In 1978 (yes, you read that correctly), congress finally passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave Native parents the right to refuse child placement in boarding schools as well as prioritized keeping Native children with Native families.
Few Americans know about forced or coerced sterilization of Native American women in the 1970s. A report by the Government Accounting Office stated that the government’s Indian Health Service improperly performed sterilizations of Native women, such as permanently sterilizing women younger than 21 or neglecting to obtain informed consent prior to the procedures.2
Despite these (and other) atrocities, Native people continue to persevere and endure. According to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people identify solely or bi-racially as American Indian or Alaskan Native, with the majority residing in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Alaska. Despite these numbers, many non-Natives are ignorant of all there is to learn from this ethnic group, such as the collectivistic loyalty that exists within each tribe, the deep respect for the earth and nature, and the remarkable mastery of weaving, pottery, jewelry making, storytelling, music, and dance.
Rather than being a static people frozen in the past, Native men and women stand as pillars in today’s society. Just listen to a flute song by R. Carlos Nakai, view a sculpture by Allan Houser, admire a painting by R. C. Gorman, read poetry by Esther Belin, or consider what two-term Superintendent Denise Juneau did for the school system of Montana. Native Americans continue to exemplify resilience, perseverance, and strength--but do we take notice?
Too often, we are so involved in our own internal worlds that we don’t have the energy to concern ourselves with the lived realities of others. As Christians, we must avoid the trap of self-preoccupation. Following the example of Jesus, we must be moved and deeply committed to understanding the experiences of others (consider how Jesus wept over Jerusalem [Luke 19:41] and, as He traveled, had compassion on the crowds [Matthew 9:36]). As imitators of Christ, we do not have the luxury of ignoring the horrific past of Native people, nor should we neglect to pray for the current needs of these men and women. In humility, we are to work toward reconciliation, carry each other’s burdens, and repent of our ignorance.
1. Estimate reported by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker in their work, “All the real Indians died off” and 20 other myths about Native Americans.
2. See Jane Lawrence’s 2000 article, The Indian Health Service and the sterilization of Native American women or D. Marie Ralstin-Lewis’ 2005 article, The continuing struggle against genocide: Indigenous women's reproductive rights for more information