American Indians balance native customs with Christianity

Rev. Robert Two Bulls
Rev. Robert Two Bulls takes a look around All Saints' Episcopal Indian Mission on November 3, 2013. He'll prepare the sanctuary of the Minneapolis, Minn., church for an evening celebration.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Some people assume Jason Thunderbird prays to eagles. Others are convinced he worships rocks. They seem disappointed, he said, when they learn he spends Sunday mornings reciting liturgical texts from a church pew.

Native American spiritual practices are the source of countless misconceptions, he said. Mainstream society has long viewed American Indians as disciples of Mother Earth, but "all the stereotypical stuff you saw on John Wayne is not real."

Thunderbird attends All Saints' Episcopal Indian Mission in Minneapolis. It's a tiny church -- services average about 20 attendees - and one of just a handful of ministries in the country that unite the spiritual customs of indigenous communities with the religious traditions of Christianity.

Photos: Ministry unites spiritual customs, traditions

During worship, the Rev. Robert Two Bulls covers the altar with a star quilt. Instead of burning incense, he opts for sweet grass.

All Saints' Episcopal Indian Mission
Congregants arrive for Sunday service on Nov. 3, 2013. Minnesota's All Saints' Episcopal Indian Mission is one of just a handful of churches across the country to balance native values and Christian beliefs.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Rev. Two Bulls is a fourth generation Episcopalian. He's been a priest for 13 years. Yet he's frequently asked if he truly wants to be a Christian.

His answer is always the same.

"I'm a follower of Jesus Christ," he said. "That's kinda what it boils down to, you know."

For America's indigenous people, late 19th century Christianity meant forced assimilation and cultural domination. Through government-sponsored boarding schools, Christian missionaries worked to convert native children, who were often referred to as "savages."

Generations later, Native Americans who chose Christianity were said to have "sold out" to white people. In some circles, they're still considered traitors.

"Why embrace Christianity?" is a question congregant Melody Spears hears often.

"Some of my relatives are anti-church," she said. "There's just bitterness, I guess. I think it's their way of coping with what has happened in the past in our history with the church."

All Saints' altar
Like most churches, All Saints' places candles on its altar. But the American Indian ministry also has sweet grass and sage on hand.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Attitudes are slowly changing, though, said Melody's mother, former vicar Melanie Spears.

"People are not forgetting what happened in the boarding schools," Melanie Spears said. But, they "allow themselves to come into a new part of what makes sense for them spiritually."

For 3 percent of American Indians, that means praising a Christian god while honoring the traditions of their non-Christian ancestors.

At All Saints' church, native traditions include native foods.

"There are two buffalo roasts there and two more here and they're still cooking," said congregant Charmaine Bird, as she pointed around the bustling kitchen.

For the last five years, the church has operated First Nations Kitchen, an outreach program that provides free Sunday night dinners to those in need. It averages 90 visitors per week, native and non-native.

"I like the fact it's indigenous food, volunteer Wendy Johnson said on a recent afternoon as she chopped vegetables for a wild rice salad. "So they're serving people their diet that would have been their diet had they not been oppressed."

"The deeper you go into any spiritual practice, how can you not see that it's related to all deeper spiritual practices?"

The program is open to everyone, no matter their ethnicity or beliefs, said Bird.

"We don't proselytize. We don't make people pray to eat. I think we try to practice what we don't preach in this case," she laughed.

Worshipers gather in front of a beaded cross as the sounds of a traditional Indian drum fill the sanctuary.

Integrating indigenous practices with Christian customs isn't always easy.

Some feel uncomfortable with scripture being read in native languages. Others refuse to see how drums can produce "church music." But that's all secondary compared to the process of creating community, Melody Spears said.

"I'm not really around a lot of native people," Spears admitted. "It's rare for me to be in a class with another Native American. Just being around people who are Native American is comforting to me."

Bird is a fixture at All Saints'. But as a descendant of Blackfoot Indians, she never imagined a life devoted to the church.

"I was really angry for a long time. I would tell people. 'No, I'm not a Christian. I don't want anything to do with something that,'" she said.

She views things differently, she said, now that she's older.

"I can look at some of these things and go 'It really has nothing to do with the person of Jesus,'" she said. "What that embodies for me has nothing to do with the things other people do in the name of Christ."

To some, American Indians who accept Christianity are also accepting two opposing belief systems, though Bird says nothing could be further from the truth. Sweat lodges and stained glass aren't so far apart.

"The deeper you go into any spiritual practice, how can you not see that it's related to all deeper spiritual practices?" she asked.

"Yes, the disciplines have different origins in the human world," she said. "But spirit is spirit. I don't care what tradition it is. If there's anything that helps to heal the people, I think it's really important."

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