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of Native People
Volume seven --
March/April 2001

Speaking the Truth in Love
Contexualization vs. Syncretism: The Dilemma of Native Ministry

Knowing Who You Are

by Ray Buckley
Director, NACO/UMCom

Syncretism, loosely defined, is the merging of multiple belief systems into one.

Contextualization, in terms of ministry, is presenting the Gospel within the cultural expressions of a community.

This issue of Voices of Native People, features the work of three men who believe that the Gospel is not minimized, or syncretized, when presented through a Native expression.

This is not altogether a popular notion. There are those in the Christian community who view any interpretation not found in Scripture as extraneous to the faith. There are those in traditional communities who view Native Christians as Native people in race only, and the inclusion of traditional expressions as religious "theft".

There is also the issue of salvation itself. The movement among many mainline protestant denominations that Native religions themselves provide the necessary elements of "salvation", is often confusing to both Native Christians and Native traditionalists. As Christians, we are often apologetic about our beliefs, while onlookers are waiting for us to live them out. Our history is soiled because we have not been the people our beliefs invite us to be. In short, we leave Native people with a sort of "Iím o.k, youíre o.k." philosophy. The reality is that not all Native people feel o.k., and neither do we.

Enter the primary noisemakers. The Native apologists who wish to convey some "other-worldliness" about Native life and religion before European contact. Talk about the caste system and slavery of the Tlingits, the human-Morning Star sacrifice of the Pawnee, the ritualistic sacrifices of the Maya and Aztec, and the rest of issues not consistent with their beliefs--and they leave the room.

Then come those who believe in the "Just As I Am--after I give up the drum" syndrome. In any Native gathering, and sometimes in General Conference, they are the ones most likely to stand and sing, I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, in the middle of any discussion of Native culture.

E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist missionary to India, remarked that our responsibility was to live out the claim of Christ on our lives. What did not edify God would become extraneous. God does not ask me to separate my "Nativeness" from my faith. God asks that I use my Nativeness as a gift--for God, my people, and the world. What is not like God will become extraneous, but--what edifies God and Godís people will become an expression of the love of God.

The dilemma, then, is that nothing God calls clean is unclean. A drum, feather, dance, music, art, world-view, totem, and length of hair--all are clean if God calls them clean.

Dr. Joseph Iron Eyes Dudley reminds us that there is a difference between religion and culture. My ancestors were not Christian, but they were People of God. They sought God. They knew God, and God knew them. They viewed themselves as part of a wide creation for which they were responsible. Nearly all of their art was made for worship. Prayer was both an act, and a way of living.

When my grandparents chose to be Christians, it impacted their religion, but their culture remained largely unchanged. They viewed themselves as part of a wide creation for which they were responsible. They made art for worship. They both prayed as an act and a way of life.

They were modest, and did not speak of themselves. But they knew that they were beautiful, and no one could convince them otherwise.

We have raised five generations of Native people who do not always remember that they are beautiful. They need to be reminded that God looked on this part of the Creation and said, -- "It is good."



Note from the Editor: Richard Twiss is the president of Wiconi International, whose vision is to see Native people find faith and life in Jesus Christ and fulfill their God-given place in the Body of Christ worldwide (www.wiconi.com). He is the author of the recently released One Church Many Tribes, Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Gospel Light/Regal Books). The Native American Communications Office/UMCom with their permission reprints this interview by the Mission Frontiers group.

Question: How would you summarize the fruits born of the last two centuries of mission work among Native Americans?

Twiss: On the optimistic side, the Scripture says that the word of God never returns void. So, there has been the faithful effort of many missionaries who have labored intensely, sacrificially, to bring the Gospel to Native people. But rarely has there been a legitimate endeavor to really contextualize the Gospel to the Native context, which has then limited the fruit that might have been. So, I think the Gospel being what it is, "Ďit is the power of God unto salvation" has brought many to Christ.

Q: You have spoken of the need to re-examine our methods and approach to bringing the Gospel to Native Americans. Please explain.

A: The statistics that most people use today indicate that somewhere from 3

to 8 percent of Native people are Christian. In some native communities, it is far less than that, in some it is probably a little higher. But in world missions there is a consensus that people need to be trained and equipped for cross-cultural ministry. Many mission agencies now require that. Yet, never has that same approach been applied to the Native context. I think because it is in North America, there is the erroneous assumption that we can just do it in an Anglo way.

The percentages require that we re-examine the way we have done missions because it is disproportionately low in light of the energy, time, money and resources that have gone into the Native work.

Q: Do you see the mistakes made over the centuries by missionaries working with Native Americans being repeated today?

A: Yes. They continue to be made all across Indian country. Even in the larger denominational contexts, there is still an on-going, inherent paternalism in the denominational structures in many of their native works. They are still under the home missions departments of the various denominations. It is really an issue of control and government, in terms of funding, allocation of funds, self-governance, autonomy and all of those kinds of issues. In some of the denominations there is almost a systemic dependence built into the Native home missions. It is sort of like a welfare dynamic, where it is easier for the Native pastor to stay under home missions it means you get money from home offices. Whereas if you were not, if you were on your own, you would have to raise your own support, your salary, that sort of deal. So it is much easier to stay within the home missions system. Which, I think, is always counter-productive in terms of talking about indigenous churches: Self-governing, propagating, supporting. home missions does not promote that sort of autonomy. It actually creates a dependence on the home mission central office.

Q: In your view is it sufficient for whites and Natives to be in agreement about the past-- that there was sin? Therefore is it necessary for Whites to accept personal culpability?

A: It is a relational dynamic. If you try to look at it through the eyes of politics and say "Well, those were political decisions made at the highest levels of government and they acted against people groups as they worked out government policy," then there is no sense of identification. But that is not real, it is like total escapist non-reality. It is like children who grow up with an abusive father and eventually make it into adulthood, but they carry all this stuff from that abuse, and then they marry, they have children, and then it manifests itself. Then, their children grow up. So, now you have this sin that is being passed on from generation to generation.

At some point, some generation has to say, "Hey, where does this thing come from?" I think the church has to acknowledge the sins of the past, and may have to do it more than once, for Natives to somehow become disengaged from the bitterness, the anger, the resentment in order to move on. But I do not think it is just up to Native people to sort of create that process and carry the weight of that so they can be free. I think it is a mutual thing.

Q: Has there been progress in dealing with previous sin?

A: I think there has been some progress. But, by and large, for the American church, it is an out of sight, out of mind kind of phenomenon. Unless they are presented with the reality of history and the situation, because they are so far removed from it, it is as though it never happened. I speak in churches all over the country, and, without fail, people will come up to me and say, "We just never knew that these things happened." So, I think there is just a high degree of ignorance in the American church about missions history. In large part, the church needs to be awakened to the reality for us all to move on.

But I think there has been good progress.

Q: How do you view the relationship between culture and the Gospel? Should it play a revitalizing role?

A: I think in every people group, the Gospel brings life to areas of death,

it brings light to darkness. Whenever sinful man is redeemed from the power of sin and death, then that man, that woman become agents of redemption and that affects all the spheres of human existence: art, language, the sciences, medicine, architecture. And so the Gospel, by its very nature makes all things new. That very process is revolutionary in terms of human existence.

Q: As you have talked about redeeming cultures, you mention the concern of syncretism. What are some primary areas you have stayed away from? Do you have any guidelines?

A: On a personal level, we have some very basic guidelines, where we feel the Scripture is very clear. We avoid the use of any mind-altering substance; we avoid the promotion or participation in any sexual immorality; we avoid any ceremony that promotes torture (self-mutilation) and any kind of ceremony or practice that was clearly anti-Christ and promoting demonic entities.

From there, what we are after is creating (in conjunction with the missions community in North America) some theological grids that Native leaders can use in their own tribal context. Then they can decipher what is good for them or not good for them, rather than doing the same thing that the Anglo missionaries did, which was to create one template, one cookie-cutter design and make all the tribes fit into that one pattern. So, what we are trying to do is develop theological approaches that various Natives and different tribal traditions can take and use in their own context.

Q: You write in One Church Many Tribes that "the injustices and rejections in the family of God between Anglo and Natives" have been the greatest challenge to reaching Native Americans. Why?

A: Well, I think it is one thing when you have sinful people behaving sinfully against other sinners. You expect [certain behavior] from a sinner. But, I think it is a whole different thing when you have the Church, the family of God, treating people in such a manner that really distorts what Jesus was after in the Gospels and what Paul continually advocated in the epistles. This was a worldview process, or a Biblically based worldview, that said God shows no partiality, but He accepts all people equally, those who fear Him.

So in North American missionís history, the church rarely treated Native people in the light of Scriptural truth. Most often, it treated them from their own European, ethnocentric worldview, which always placed Natives as lower than and inferior to themselves. Consequently, it distorted the image of Jesus. When Anglo people preached Jesus, I don't think Native people were able to see the Jesus of the Bible. They saw the Dutch Jesus, the French version, the German version, the English version. So, I think in that context, the way that the family of God has treated Native people has created a spiritual stronghold in North America that says Christianity, or Jesus, is the white man's religion, the white man's God. So, I think the church has unintentionally and inadvertently helped to create and, over the centuries, to sustain the spiritual stronghold that the god of this world uses to blind the minds of unbelieving Natives. So, the whole process of contexualization is trying to tear down that stronghold and say that Jesus of the Bible was a

tribal man and He died on the cross for Native people, so they could be all that God intended them to be.

Q: Could you briefly describe contexualization as you have advocated in the Native American sphere?

A: What we are advocating, as much as anything, is peeling away the Euro-American cultural garments off the Gospel so that native people can see Jesus and the Christian faith in the light of Scripture: the history of the Hebrews; the reality of the Old Testament under the Mosaic covenant; Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system; seeing Christ in the light of Abraham and Melchizideck as the father of faith and trying to follow in Paul's footsteps as he labored against the Judaizers who were trying to impose extra-Biblical or, at times, non-Biblical standards on the new, Gentile believers. In that light, what we have been advocating is the Jesus of the Bible that is, Jesus lifted up. Our hope and prayer is that He would

draw all men unto Himself. But native people should not have an image of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, suburban Jesus to be conformed into. So that is foundational for us.

Q: How have you worked to overcome their objections?

A: The main objections are, for example, the Native drum, or any object that was historically used or is presently used by non-believers in some type of religious, non-Christian activity. The view is that this object cannot then be used for Christian worship and to do so would be idolatry. You could apply that to a rattle, eagle feathers, to certain uses of colors and prescribed geometric patterns, and certain symbols. In missiological circles, it is the issue of form, meaning and function.

So, we are trying to bring a missiological perspective to many of our Native believers. Other voices within the Native Christian community are saying that we are promoting syncretism, the blending of the historical Christian faith with Indian religion. Again, if a medicine man uses a drum to give honor to the spirit of the Bear and calls upon the Bear spirit for direction, they say a Christian cannot make a drum and use it in giving honor to Jesus Christ in praise and worship on Sunday mornings. They say that is syncretism.

Q: So how do you view the drum?

A: We view it as any man-made object. The problem is not in the natural materials used to manufacture a particular item, it is the intended use. You have a finished product. What is the user going to do with that thing? In the same way, any musical instrument--trombone, viola, piano, organ, drum-- if the non-believer uses that drum to call on evil spirits, that has nothing to do with the Christian using that drum. As in many churches, evangelical, charismatic, non-charismatic, the prayer at the beginning of the service is, "Holy Spirit, we invite you to participate with us in this meeting and lift our eyes to see Jesus." So, we usually do it with an acoustic guitar and some praise choruses and we sing songs. But if a Native Christian takes his drum and he invites the Holy Spirit to come on his drum, we don't see that as un-Biblical or compromising Scriptural truth. Nor do we see that as syncretism. We just see that it is a man or a woman that loves Jesus, whom has taken a particular musical instrument and is using it to express his or her love, faith and devotion to Jesus Christ but they are doing it with an instrument that is most familiar and enjoyed by them.

Q: There seems to be some disagreement among Native Americans themselves about how much contextualization of Native culture should be allowed in worship services. Do you see a growing openness on the part of Native American church leaders to embrace a more contextualized worship?

A: There is a rapidly growing awareness. But, at the same time, it is as though some native denominational organizations are drawing the proverbial line in the sand and saying, "If you are going to drum in church, then we cannot fellowship with you, because that is compromise." I feel badly about that, because there is a huge and rapidly growing North American openness and I think the spirit of the Lord is in it (in terms of missions understanding). The rest of the world has already pretty much worked through this issue a couple of decades ago. And the native community is one of the last people groups to deal with it. I think that, because it is in North America, people felt that there was no need to confront these issues. But, now we are.

Q: How accepting have non-believing Natives been of Native believers who worship in these more contextualized forms?

A: Our experience is that when a non-believer comes to a contextualized church service musically, or linguistically, it comes against the stronghold in their minds that Christianity is only the religion of the White man. And they come away saying, "Wow, we didn't know that this was possible." We were always told that it wasn't. And, in terms of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the values we're promoting are: you're faithful to provide for your family, you don't abuse your wife, you don't abuse your children, you're honest, you're moral, you're a man or woman of integrity.

We're saying that you now have the power to be all these things, which are the same values that the traditional Native people are talking about and we can do them in the Native way. But it happens through the transforming power of the Gospel.

Following the Star:

An Alaskan Pastor Retells the Old Story Through Native Eyes

Adapted from a UMNS story, by Mike DuBose

Stories from the Bible have been translated into dozens of languages from around the world and printed on everything from quilt squares to microfilm, but a retired United Methodist pastor in Alaska has brought the Christmas story to life in a 12-foot cedar totem pole.

The Rev. David Fison said the inspiration for the Tsimshian Indian-style totem came during Advent in 1961, while he was serving as a pastor in Ketchikan, Alaska, and later as an interim pastor for the Tsimshian in Metlakatla.

"The thought came to me during Advent that a totem pole must tell the Christmas story," Fison said.

"When I came to do the pole, I did the research in (the Tsimshian) culture for it," Fison said. "The images we have of the Christmas story wouldnít fit into their culture, so I found the nearest equivalents of the things in the story."

During the next 26 years, Fisonís vision evolved as he researched native culture at the University of Alaska and began translating the Christmas story into an oil painting of a totem pole using native symbols. A 28-inch, scale-model wood carving followed.

Carving the final 12-foot pole of yellow cedar took about two years of spare time, Fison said.

The completed pole stands anchored to the spiral staircase in the center of the geodesic dome house he and his wife, Aleen, built for themselves in Anchorage.

Early Christian missionaries to the Pacific Northwest viewed totem poles as pagan idols and encouraged new converts to abandon their symbolism, Fison said. "The old way was, Ďyou have to give up your traditional ways and be like us.í"

But "totem poles were never idols," Fison said. Indians of the Pacific Northwest have a rich tradition of oral histories, he said. "In the absence of a written language, the Indians of the Northwest had preserved their stories and events carved from cedar logs. They were the nearest thing people had to books."

"The characters on a totem pole provide an outline so that, after hearing the story, listeners can read the pole for themselves," Fison said.

The angel Gabriel is portrayed as Raven, emissary of the Great Chief of the Heavens, the Tsimshian term for God, Fison explained. Raven, sitting atop the pole, carries the Star of Bethlehem in its beak.

Bear symbolizes the place of Jesusí birth. "They had no domestic animals," Fison said. "Jesus is born where the forest animals feed."

Fison said he received the blessing of the late Tsimshian Chief Walter Wesley after sharing the work with him.

Fison has been working on an Easter pole. The resurrection story has slowly emerged from a 17-foot cedar log in his garage.

"I worked for two months every day, drawing and redrawing," he said. Fison finished the model for the Easter pole in 1999 completed the full-scale totem for Easter 2001.

For the Easter totem, Rev. Fison selected a red cedar trunk form the Ketchikan area that he estimates is 500 years old, weighing about 1,000 pounds. His son-in-law, who owned a semi truck in the area, loaded the trunk and brought it back to Anchorage via ferry.

Before the first tool touched the old trunk, Fison spent many months in prayer, study, and mental preparation.

Of special importance was the face of Jesus. To begin that process, Fison

projected the image onto the log until he was confident enough to fashion the the remainder by eyesight.

On each side of the Easter pole are six carved faces, representing the twelve disciples. A bearded man represents the face of Jesus, with arms outstretched on the cross. The very top of the totem features three pairs of outstretched hands, one on top of the other. They represent the Trinity: God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit.

Like the Christmas totem, the Easter pole tells the story of Easter through Tsimshian eyes. The angel of the story is shown as a raven. There were no grains available, so a smoked salmon replaces the bread of the Last Supper. Instead of a rooster crowing, there is a wolf howling. The tomb in which Jesus is laid, is now a cave. These substitutions may seem strange to those from mainstream western society, but Native people

from southeastern Alaska had not seen roosters, or bread. And, the messenger from God was the raven. The message is as wondrous, but acquainting the listener with the familiar makes the story personal.

The Easter Totem, like the Christmas, becomes a tool for telling the story. "There will be some people that cannot accept anything that was not said exactly in the Bible", Fison said, "But, thereís no reason why you canít use things that were traditionally Native in a Christian way. "

"I announced it. So now, I either had to finish it or leave town," he said.

The Easter Totem arrived at St. Johnís United Methodist Church during Easter week. Men from the church had gathered at the Fisonís home to load the totem on a truck. As the totem arrived, a group of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people gathered outside to "welcome" the totem. Standing in the back of the crowd, it must have appeared similar to the welcoming of many totems down through the centuries. Button-blankets with clan symbols, and cedar-bark hats turned toward the pole. Men with hand-drums and children holding on to their parents hands. David Fison stood quietly, and then explained to the crowd the meaning of the totem.

On Easter Sunday, St. Johnís held four services. David Fison spoke at all four, and told the Easter story using the totem as illustration. Many of the people in the congregation were new to the church. They had come to "see" the Easter story through new eyes.

On Saturday evening, April 28, 2001, a ceremonial potlatch was held at St. Johnís UMC. The Reverend David Fison, 78, was honored by being made a member of the Tsimshian tribe. Amid the singing, gift-giving, speeches, and traditional food, was one central theme. Here was a man who spoke the language of a people he loved, and convinced them that God spoke their language also.

Fison credits "the spiritual side of life" for his inspiration.

"Iíve found there are spiritual resources to help you do any worthy thing," he said. "I think Godís that way. If we have something worthy we want to do, the resources will be provided.

"I tell young people, 'Thereís a book only you can write. Nobody else knows the story.í

"For everything worthwhile, somebody somewhere had a dream and somebody did it."

Resources for Native Churches

hoyannah! / Traditional Hymns on Native American Flute/ by Stephen Tindle (Cherokee)

Like flute music from around the world, the music of the Native American flute is soothing, and brings the listener into a contemplative mood. It is a perfect backdrop for the reading of scripture, meditation of spiritual things, and time to be God.

Late last autumn, I was attending a gathering of tribal officials from around the country in Estes Park, Colorado. Coming out of a hardware store was some of the most beautiful Native American flute music that I have ever heard. Going inside, I asked about the music and was told that "we simply canít keep them in stock". The store manager directed me to another store in town, where I met with a similar response.

Later in the week, while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, I heard the same music from another car parked along the side of the road. In the gift shop at the top of Trail Ridge Road, the beautiful music was playing again. The clerk in the gift shop explained that a couple had just purchased the last ten copies they had in stock.

The music was almost haunting. Hymns which I had sung since childhood played on the Native flute. Strains of Amazing Grace, Alas and did My Savior Bleed, Just as I Am, and Were You there?. stayed in my mind. Be Still My Soul, Blessed Assurance, Nothing but the Blood, and As the Deer, played simply and eloquently.

I asked the clerk if she could direct me to the producer. She said that the artist was originally from Tahlequah, OK, and now worked in Estes Park. He and his wife, both members of the Cherokee Nation, were working on a second version of flute music. She took my phone number at the lodge, and indicated that she would contact them and express my interest in their music.

The next morning, I left the room to start another day of meetings. Hanging on my room door was a small bag. Inside was a copy of hoyannah!, with a simple note that said "God bless you!".

God already had.

Little People Productions
P.O. Box 1263
Estes Park, CO 80517


Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, made the decision to grow his hair long and wear it in a braid (the style of Chinese men of that period). He wore the clothing of a Chinese peasant.

As a result of his decisions to reject the popular "Christian" culture of Britain, he was dismissed from the missionary compound by his fellow missionaries. He became one of the greatest missionaries of all time.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta adopted the garments and many of the customs of Indiaís poorest people. She felt that God had called her identify with those whom God had appointed her to minister.

Voices of Native People is a publication of the:  Native American Communications Office, United Methodist Communications, P.O.  Box 320,  Nashville, TN 37202.

Editor, Ray Buckley, office phone:  (615) 742-5414; fax:  (615) 742-5413;  E-mail: naco@umcom.org.

Voices of Native People statement of mission:

Voices is a monthly periodical for local Native faith communities within the United Methodist Church.  Its purpose is to link these communities together by providing culturally relevant information, faith stories, and information about  issues facing Native people, news about the church and other Native communities, and resources for ministry.   Voices also seeks to examine policies and actions affecting Native people within and without the United Methodist Church and their impact on local Native faith communities.

Voices is an independent publication produced by the Native American Communications Office of United Methodist Communications.

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