Students, faculty, and guests gathered for a convocation this winter to learn more about the Pine Ridge Reservation. Following the presentation by representatives from Pine Ridge, as well as students who traveled there over January-term, round table discussions were held to further explore personal responses to the presentation.
This is the story, not of the entirety of the convocation led by the January-Term group who visited Pine Ridge Reservation, but of simply one table. Our conversation was, perhaps, a bit halting, for none of us are experts on the subject of Native Americans, either in the past or the present. However, we did exhibit a good deal of heart and caring for the subject, showing openness to what others said and being open with our own thoughts.
The first question we were asked to address were the differences between a mission trip, a service project, and cultural immersion. A mission trip, for our group, meant traveling somewhere else for a lengthy period of time. While ideally it will include cultural immersion, too often it instead takes the shape of works based tourism. Many of us have images of buses of youth showing up to a site, doing some work, and leaving again, without ever meeting people or learning about the culture. For many in the group, service projects were similar to mission trips, though locally based and short term. Participating in a service project entails hearing from an organization what they need done and then providing the labor for the task. On the other hand, cultural immersion is being with people and learning about their lives and culture by being in it. It can often happen by accident in an organic way. It is about interacting with people and building relationships, not merely giving and working.
Question two asked us to explore our views on Native Americans and the church. In our table discussion group, we quickly discovered that there were vast differences in our answers to this question based on our ages and where we grew up. Those who went to school in the mid-west learned a different history than did those who grew up on the east coast. However, we all agreed that the lives and stories of Native Americans were never shown in a favorable light or were never shown at all. We who were not Native Americans did not know a good deal about missionary work with Native Americans, but were sure that it did not go well and was not always effective or based on God’s love. Often missionaries entered situations carrying incorrect assumptions about those with whom they were working. Our impression as a group of non-Native Americans was that missionaries were trying to civilize Native Americans and convert them to Christianity in any way possible, claiming it was for their own good.
Our third question focused on how people treat Native American today. One group member noted that non-Native Americans are both responsible and not responsible for the sins of the past. Regardless of how one’s ancestors may have treated Native peoples, guilt should not hinder care of people, for we are called to serve our neighbor. This led to questions about whose land is this? While non-Native Americans or their ancestors may not have been directly responsible for the death of Native Americans, they may still have destroyed livelihoods and uprooted lives. This land non-Native Americans inhabit was not theirs to begin with, so why do they cling to it so tightly now? People are tempted to say that the way things are now has nothing to do with past policies and actions. However, history is one long narrative connected with the present.
When we see the problems and do nothing, we carry blame. We are invited to change our reality. Instead of hiding, we have the privilege of communication, asking questions, listening, and showing hospitality, not because of fear or guilt or blame, but because we truly love each other as God’s beloved children. We are all called to spend quality time with people who are not the same as us, getting to know their real lives, their joys and their sorrows, their pain and their stories. In this way, we can help break the cycle of degradation, displacement, and fear.