I had to reach out to my network to make contact with someone who could share the unique perspective of American Indians. According to this interviewee, there are approximately four million Indians remaining in America. According to my reading, “there are more than five hundred federally recognized tribes, plus more than fifty other tribal entities that have not received official recognition. Among the tribes, almost one hundred fifty different languages are spoken, and religious beliefs vary greatly. Nearly half of the Indian population now lives in urban areas. Many still live on reservations that are usually located in remote settings (Rodney Cooper, We Stand Together, Moody, 1995, 81).”
Kimberly Oxendine Owens has graciously agreed to share some of her history with us. Kimberly is a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, one of the Northeastern Tribes. She is a mom, wife, conference speaker, and licensed professional counselor. She graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte campus, with a Master of Arts in Christian Counseling.
During our conversation, Kimberly revealed, “The more I learned about my people, the more I became connected to Jesus.” The Lumbee Indian Tribe were monotheistic worshipers. They worshiped one spirit, many had visions of a foreign man coming to save them. They regularly experienced supernatural healings and occurrences. They were very spiritual people who worshiped the Creator, but they did not have the Word, the Holy Bible.
As European missionaries came to convert the Indians to Christianity, they also forced the Indians change their ways. The missionaries wanted the Indians to accept Jesus, but the missionaries didn’t want the Indians to dance. They also didn’t want the Indians to speak their native languages. As a result, Kimberly’s tribe lost their language and therefore, part of their identity.
Some converted American Indians call themselves Christians, but others call themselves Jesus Followers because they do not want to be associated with the negative connotations of Americanized Christian evangelism. Because missionaries imposed so many rules on the Indians, some Indians still believe today that they cannot be both Indian and Christian.
How have Indians contributed to making America what it is today?
The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois League, was governed by the Iroquois Great Council. Each Iroquois nation sent between eight and fourteen leaders to the Great Council, where they agreed on political decisions through discussion and voting. Although these politicians were called “chiefs,” they were actually elected officials, chosen by the clan mothers (or matriarchs) of each tribe. Each individual nation also had its own tribal council to make local decisions. This is similar to how American states each have their own government, but all are subject to the greater US government. In fact, the Iroquois Confederacy was one of the examples of representative democracy used as a model by America’s founding fathers.
The Iroquois Great Council continues to meet in the present day, although today most political matters are decided by the governments of the individual Iroquois nations.
How would you to respond to this short video?
Indians did not understand the white man coming in and destroying the earth. The Indians had no concept of that and the white man did not even have the courtesy of asking the Indians how to care for the land or even say “Thank You” for the gift of the land.
The government sectioned a lot of Indian reservations on bad land, meaning the Indians did not have good dirt and the land was not profitable. While Indians do have a choice of leaving the reservations, it’s where their family is and it is their land. So the choice to leave is really no choice at all.
I am saddened by the lost stories of Native American contributions in our land. I can count on one hand the number of times I have interacted with a Native American. When I look around, Native American stories are not in my face. Do you fear the Native American heritage and contributions will be lost?
There are so few remaining American Indians, though many people may have Indian blood in them and not know it. Few people are connected to their original tribes.
I do fear the culture and traditions of the American Indian will not continue. A lot of American Indian history is oral, and not written, so a lot of the Indian stories in the history books are wrong. For the Indians who wanted the American life, the message was clear “leave that Indian mess alone.”
For example, my parents encouraged me to marry outside of my culture, particularly to an upper crust white male. (Note: Kimberly married a man from the Chickhominy tribe in Virginia. They have three children and have been married for 16 years.) In the mind of Indians, the idea of success shifted from culture and values, to “get education and make money.” To do become successful on those terms, individual Indians (who come from a culture where the group is valued above individualism) have to leave their people, their culture, and their land to assimilate into the “white man’s” American world.
A lot of Indians who do not assimilate remain on the reservations in poverty. There are a lot of drugs and alcohol on the reservations, and a lot of the people are illiterate. The rate of alcoholism on reservations takes a toll on tribal communities. A cycle of poverty, unemployment and alcoholism plays out, contributing to further socio-cultural and economic decline on the reservation. The quality of life spirals downward due to alcohol-related health issues, including fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome may affect as many as two out of every thousand children born on some reservations, leaving them with a lifetime of developmental and neurological problems.
Kimberly has been gracious enough to provide a book list so we can further explore the topic of racial reconciliation and the American Indian culture:
Christ, Culture & the Kingdom: Presenting Biblical Principles for Native Ministry that Honor God, His people and His Creation by Richard Twiss
Play the Cross-Cultural Evangelism Game: Educational and Most Importantly Fun to Play! by Daniel Kikawa
One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You by Richard Twiss
North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians in Literature, Art, and Music by Glenn Ellen Starr Stilling
Religious History of Lumbee People: http://www.unc.edu/~mmaynor/religious/introduction.html
We will continue the Neglected Indian Voice presentation on Monday. What are your thoughts about some of this?
© Kimberly Oxendine Owens and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012