Native Community: Culture & Context

June 10, 2009 · Filed under Blog

This is the second article in a series featuring my notes from Native ministry leaders who spoke at The Gathering of The Nations 2009 on Saturday, May 16, 2009 in Crystal Lake, IL. Rev. Craig Smith is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians and grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation of Minnesota.  He works through a ministry called Tribal Rescue Training, which is affiliated with the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church. - Rich Avery

Rev. Craig Smith, Tribal Rescue Training

Rev. Craig Smith, Tribal Rescue Training

There is no single way to describe Native people.  While there are a lot of similarities, there are also a lot of differences.

  • 70% live in urban communities, 30% live on reservations.
  • 4.2 million in over 500 tribes (nations) in the U.S.  Almost 2 million more in Canada.
  • 340 Reservations in the United States. 200 Reserves in Canada.
  • Over 1/2 of Indians are under 25 year old.

Great achievements:  High percentage of Natives in military service (the warrior spirit).  The Navajo Code Talkers helped win the war over Japan.

Great challenges:  Three subcultures in Native communities:  Traditional, marginal, and assimilated sub-cultures.

  1. Traditional people live in the traditional values.  They practice the religion and speak the language.
  2. Marginal people live on the fence with one foot in Native world and majority culture.  They still have ties to the communities they came from, and identities, but they live and function and work in the white man’s world.
  3. Assimilated people have been removed from their identities, perhaps due to adoption or other circumstances.  They are totally removed from their Native culture and are completely assimilated into the white American culture.

Natives are different from other minority groups in that the tribes are sovereign nations that have agreements (treaties) with the U.S. government.

Question: After 500 years of the gospel, less than 5% of Natives follow Christ.  Why is this?  Especially since we live in such a gospel-rich land?

Answer: It is because Native people view the Gospel as an enemy and not the answer.  Here’s why:

  1. Annihilation – An estimated 8-12 million indigenous people lived in the U.S.  500 years ago, but by 1900 the number was down to just over 200,000.  In the last 100 years, Natives have grown from 200K to over 4 million.  It is a very fast growing population, which is why 50% are under 25. But they were almost completely wiped out.  Known as the vanishing race.  Whole tribes were wiped out through war and disease.
  2. Assimilation -  The government forced assimilation on the “remnant” that was left.  One way was through boarding/residential schools in the U.S. and Canada (where their Native identities were beaten out of many). In Canada, most residential schools were funded by the government and run by the churches.  An estimated 50,000 Native youth and children died at these schools due to torture, abuse, etc.  We have to overcome huge challenges of perception today.
  3. Self-destruction.  The above reasons brought about a heavy brokenness among Natives, which still exists today.  Many tried to cope by turning to alcohol, drugs and suicide.  For over 100 years the people have lived in brokenness and despair.  There is a huge need among the people.

Natives are not “unreached” but “mis-reached”.  The good news is that it doesn’t have to stay that way.  Brokenness is a huge part of their past but it doesn’t have to be a part of their future.

What can we do?

1.  Ask God to give you a burden for Native people. Romans 10:1-4 tells us that Paul had a burden for his own people.  We too need to have a burden for Native people.

2.  Get to know Native people and help them connect to Jesus Christ, not “Christianity”. Jesus can relate to Native people.  He was born into a minority group, a tribal group, and a people group who lost their land.  He came from Nazareth, where the people said, “Can anything good come from there?”  This is the same thing people say about those who live on the Rez.  Native people are a spiritual people.  They believe in a creator but they don’t understand his righteousness.  The reality of who Jesus is must be explained in a way the people can understand.

3.  Focus on the potential. A lot of the ministry has been based on the plight.  Now is the time to focus on the potential for equipping Natives to reach their own people and to be a part of the work of God around the world.

4.  Act now. Acts 17:26-27 tells us there’s a right time and a right place.  God determines the time and places people should live.   God placed the Native peoples here for His sovereign purpose.  And for a redemptive purpose – that men might seek him.

5.  Empower Native believers.  People around the world are intrigued by North America’s indigenous Native people.  They know of the struggles Natives have endured.  Native people can relate to, and get at the heart-level, of other groups throughout the world who have been beaten down and broke.  Natives will help usher in revival around the world. Native believers want to be partners in reaching the world with the gospel…they don’t want to just be on the receiving end.