Archived Story

Church unites native spirituality, Christianity

Published 10:30am Friday, November 15, 2013

By Nikki Tundel

MPR News, 90.1FM

MINNEAPOLIS — 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.

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

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 told Minnesota Public Radio. “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.”

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 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.

Worshippers 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.

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