A couple of years ago, I attended a gathering of church leaders gathered to discuss racial reconciliation particularly in light of the PCA’s relations with the black community. Leading the discussion was a well-known and respected theologian and another gentleman who had recently authored a book relative to the topic being discussed. Following their presentation, there was a time of Q & A and discussion. As a missionary to Native America, I couldn’t resist voicing an observation. It went something like this, “I hear a lot about racial reconciliation being talked about, but I notice that it is nearly exclusively about black and white relations, and a little about Hispanic folks, but I have yet to hear anything about Native Americans.”
Unfortunately what followed was anything but hopeful. The main speaker acknowledged the bad history with Native Americans, but then went on to educate the room about the fact that “never before in world history there has ever been such a great displacement of people from one continent to another” (paraphrase). He went on to cite the statistics concerning the 12.5 million African slaves brought across the Atlantic to the New World. It was as if he were saying that this issue is more important than the Native American issue simply by showing the immensity of the numbers.
He then said words to the effect that if you are going to talk about Native Americans, then we are going to have to address the Japanese-Americans who were put into camps during WWII. Sadly, I heard that line of reasoning many times before. What was noticeably absent from the response was any kind of affirmation that there was a need to discuss Native America, as if it were a settled issue that does not need to be revisited.
Here is my issue with that response. First, I must say that I am glad there were no Native Americans in the room to hear that answer. Additionally, I would like to emphasize that I don’t believe for a moment that the gentleman did not care about Native Americans. But his response revealed the common lack of knowledge of our history with Native Americans in this country, especially where the church was involved. It would be easy to believe that the government alone is responsible for the injustices against Native people, but that is simply not the historical record.
How much knowledge did he have concerning the relationship between the church and state regarding laws that were designed to outlaw, therefore, destroy hundreds of Native American cultures and everything that held them together? Who today knows that it was the Presbyterian church (General Assembly 1887) that urged then U.S. President Grover Cleveland to push for legislation to outlaw all Indian cultural and religious practices? That meant all language, music, dance, art, etc. Essentially it was against U.S. law to be an Indian. How easy would the Great Commission be if everyone looked, talked, lived, and acted just like us?
Space will not allow to list all the grievances Native people have with the church, but one of the issues that is most pressing on Native American and First Nations peoples is the effects of the Indian boarding/residential school era in the U.S. and Canada. For more on that, see my blog posts, The Indian Boarding School Movement: Christian Complicity, pt 1 and The Indian Boarding School Movement: Christian Complicity, pt 2. We cannot begin to understand Native America today until we grapple with the dark reality of the Indian boarding school movement and the role the churches had with the government.
Secondly, concerning the statistics, my effort here is not to compare who is more important by showing which people group has the biggest numbers. That is not my intent. In fact, I resisted writing this response fearing that it would be seen that way. But I didn’t bring up the statistics.
By the Numbers
There are a few divergent estimates of the Native population on the North American continent prior to 1492, but 12 million is a number that has gained acceptance. By the end of the 19th century, there were less than 250,000 Native Americans in the U.S., perhaps as low as 230,000.
Much of the decline in the population was due to disease, but what must be remembered is that many Natives were exposed to disease by design. Many died due to the result of malnutrition, starvation and exposure resulting from displacement. Tribes were reduced to what we now call “refugees.” They were continually displaced and forced to live in places and regions of which they had no knowledge or skill to survive. Prisoner-of-war camps (many of which became reservations) provided inadequate and often spoiled rations. They were often killed by other tribes as they were forced westward. Population reduction was also due to tribes being splintered apart. With no land to call their own, always on the move, many tribes simply disappeared in oblivion. Space will not allow to list the effects the many massacres and wars had on the population. Whatever the proportions of each factor, the cumulative effect of European and American conquest on the Native populations in North America is staggering and heart-breaking.
Our speaker was quick to point out the sheer number of African slaves that were stolen and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Yet only 3% of the 12.5 million were sent to North America, which is about 388,000 African souls, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.* Pointing that out in no way minimizes the pain and suffering of those image-bearers of God. I would never suggest that, but if we are going to use numbers to measure historical import in the racial reconciliation discussion within our denomination, then I believe Native Americans deserve a place at the table — certainly more than a footnote or an add-on in any forthcoming resolutions.
Native tribes such as the Mobile — the namesake of the city in Alabama where PCA GA 2016 took place – are now an extinct tribe. Incidentally, the Alabama still exists, just not in Alabama anymore. They are now in Texas. What many folks didn’t know is that Native Americans also had to ride on the back of the bus in Alabama until the civil rights movement. During my time at this General Assembly, I asked person after person if they knew what Mobile was. Not a single person knew it was the name of an Indian tribe. I say this only to demonstrate our prevailing ignorance of the indigenous people of the land in which we live, worship, and carry out the Great Commission.
Numbers in Perspective
When the African slave trade began, there were approximately 12 million or more Native peoples in North America. Through the following centuries, European settlers, mostly confessing Christians, managed to take over the continent and reduce its indigenous population down to 230,000 by 1900.
There are many differences between the two people groups, i.e. Africans and Native Americans, yet there is kind of apples-to-apples comparison, even if they are different kinds of apples from the different orchards. For instance, the 12.5 million African, men, women, and children were displaced from their homeland, as were the Native Americans. It’s just that we cannot apply the word “transcontinental” to the Native Americans’ displacement, unless we count those who were sold and shipped to the West Indies.
Essentially, within the same relative period of time, both Native American and African peoples were displaced from their homelands by the same numbers (approximately 12 million) — the stark difference being is that the greater number of victims on U.S. soil belongs to the Native American side of the ledger, if we dare call near oblivion as displacement.
Where are They Now?
But there is actually hope. The Lord has given us a gracious gift. Our Native neighbors live among us everywhere, yet we often don’t recognize them unless they signal us with some kind of cultural symbol, e.g. long braided hair, turquoise or feather jewelry, etc. Not fitting our stereotypes, they have become invisible.
Today there are 573 federally recognized Native American nations in the U.S. and 638 First Nations in Canada. In the U.S., approximately 22% live on the 325 reservations, while others live in surrounding communities, or in major U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. There are approximately 2.9 million U.S. Native Americans who identify themselves as full-blood. Of those who identify themselves as full or part Native, there are 5 million. Can you imagine if all of the tribes like the Mobile disappeared by 1900 rather than the remnant of 230,000 preserved by God’s providence?
The Lord of the Harvest has given us a vast field with 1,207 distinct and federally recognized nations. We have plenty to do. By His good providence, we live in the information and communication age. We have more than enough resources to reach the lost and assist those Native pastors in Indian country. And we have more than enough history to learn from regarding destructive methods that have contributed to many of the problems in Native America. We also have an opportunity to examine our own hearts to see if we still share the same attitudes with our forefathers that drove wrong-headed and destructive methodologies. Ultimately, we have an opportunity to reach our neighbors with the Great Commission rather than the Great Imposition. Let’s give Jesus a better witness in Indian country!
In a follow-up to this article, Reconciliation: Long History, Short Memories, New Beginnings, I would like continue these thoughts and to submit a possible way forward with efforts to reach our first neighbors.