Thursday, May 5, 2011
Gathering of the Nations: A Time to Cry, a Time to Celebrate
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- The Gathering of the Nations is America’s largest Native American Pow-Wow. Thousands of First Americans—from Canada and the U.S—descend upon Albuquerque in April every year to dance, celebrate, and tout the amazing talent manifest in the various tribes. This year’s Gathering was held April 28th through April 30th.
I’ve heard about the Gathering for years, usually with glowing reviews. But I had no idea the emotional impact it would have on me as a Christian and American.
After walking through the array of vendors, Cailan and I sat down to watch the grand entrance. This entrance was impressive, indeed.
What started off with roughly fifty Native dancers—in full regalia—turned into hundreds and hundreds of dancers. Each individual dancer represented their tribe in unique dress and colors; each member danced, walked, and stood with pride as the Gathering grew in number and strength.
As the dance commenced, singers and drummers from various tribes sang traditional songs represented from each Nation. Undoubtedly, some were religiously based; others possibly folk tunes from their clan.
I must admit that I got teary-eyed during the entrance and dance. I sat in awe as dancers filed into the arena, known as the Pit.
As each line of dancers entered the stadium, thoughts began to enter my mind: Are these the last of some of the tribal members? What will become of the culture and life of many of the ethnic groups represented?
And then, in a moment of somber regret, I thought: What did America do to many of these tribes—with our broken promises and constant warfare?
I have many Native friends who are so thankful for the arrival of the message of Christ. Jesus has brought hope to many, many people of Native descent. They love and follow Jesus to the best of their ability, telling others about His death, resurrection, and teachings.
On the other hand, I know many Native people who are suspect of Christianity. Not so much because of its founder---Jesus—but because of its followers, Christians. To these Native people, the followers of Jesus do not represent its Founder.
Solemn thoughts, to be sure!
So what is a nation, or a faith such as Christianity, to do in situations where abuse has been inflicted upon a people, sometimes in the name of the One we purport to follow?
Though I do not have all the answers, I suggest three concrete steps.
First, each of us needs to seek God for guidance on the condition of our own heart. True, much of the history occurred hundreds of years ago—during a time when we had little input or interaction. But how do we deal with the ramifications of the injustice today? How will we help make things right?
Recently, a Quaker group from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, apologized to local Native Americans. According to an article written by Thomas Gates in the Friends Journal:
“The public apology was particularly apt, as Lancaster was the site of the infamous Conestoga Massacre of 1763. A remnant of the once numerous Susquehannock Indians, who were subjugated by the Iroquois, ravaged by disease and famine, and harassed by settler militias in Maryland and Virginia, had eventually settled along the Conestoga Creek near Lancaster, on land granted to them by William Penn himself in a 1701 treaty. Their numbers had dwindled to less than two dozen, and despite the fact that they had always lived peacefully with their European neighbors, their position became precarious when hostilities along the frontier resumed in 1763.
“In the early morning of December 14, 1763, an armed mob known as the Paxtang (or Paxton) Boys (Scots-Irish Presbyterian settlers from near present-day Harrisburg) descended on Conestoga Indiantown and murdered the six adults they found there. The remaining Natives were taken into Lancaster city and placed in protective custody, but on December 27, the mob returned in broad daylight and—with no resistance from local authorities—brutally murdered and then mutilated the bodies of the remaining 14 Conestoga Indians—three married couples and six children. Despite the fact that the identity of at least some of the perpetrators was well known, the murders went unpunished. The Conestoga Massacre came to symbolize the eventual failure of William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment.’”
Likewise, the Canadian Prime Minister, in 2008, apologized to the indigenous people of Canada for the abuses inflicted upon the First Nation’s people.
In an article by DeNeen Brown, written for the Washington Post, she stated: “Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a long-anticipated apology yesterday to tens of thousands of indigenous people who as children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools, where many were abused as part of official government policy to ‘kill the Indian in the child.’”
And here in America, President Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution on December 19, 2009, taking the first steps to rectify the wrong inflicted upon the Native populations of the United States.
So it’s true: We are taking appropriate actions. But we must continually extend a hand of forgiveness and a heart of humility to assist our fellow Americans when needed.
First, the physical ailments on the various reservations have not gone away and, in some cases, have increased. Widespread poverty, rising AIDS crises on some reservations (according to experts on the public broadcasting program Native American Calling), and with some tribes, basic necessities such as running water, health care, or internet access is denied to thousands of Americans.
I have seen this first hand, touring various reservations and speaking with my Native American friends. These are not fabrications—they are everyday realities.
Second, we need to ensure the culture of the various peoples are respected and encouraged.
My Navajo friend, Landoll Benally, likes to draw a distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ for Native people, and especially for the Christians within each tribe. He feels that there is a difference between the culture of people, and the tradition and religion of the people.
For Benally, it is essential to keep the culture—such as sheep shearing, silversmith work, blanket weaving, language, pottery, and folk music—intact for the Navajo. But it is not essential for the Christian Native to keep the traditional religion of the people. For Pastor Benally, new life—spiritual food—has been found in Christ. There’s no need to let the sheep graze in unproductive fields.
For Native Christians like Pastor Benally, proclaiming the truth of Christ is essential, but keeping the culture of the tribe is important for the continuity and beauty each distinctive tribe affords our National heritage, providing stability to the tribes and each individual within the tribe.
Some may disagree, but the point is—on some level—the culture must be kept intact and encouraged as an important fabric to our national identity and historic tapestry of people from the nations of the Americas.
All food for thought.
So as I sat watching the various activities of the day at the Gathering of the Nations: hoop dances by an amazing Apache dancer, a Navajo country music singer, skate demonstrations, and the craftsmanship of artists, I welled with gratification at the thought that possibly, one day, I will also be dancing with many of these people in God’s kingdom. I am thankful that the Lord has enriched His world with such a diversity of individuals to honor and glorify Him.
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