By M. Garlinda Burton
The U.S. Thanksgiving holiday is the most traveled, most widely celebrated holiday of the year. Its observance transcends religious, racial, generational, and cultural differences, with family, friends, social service agencies, and faith-based groups joining in a national day of gratitude. It is an observance that schoolchildren, regardless of their families’ religious preferences, celebrate with plays, fingers-for-feathers turkeys, and horns of plenty decorated school bulletin boards. And it may be the only time during the year when many of us acknowledge the presence of Native Americans, if only in a stereotyped and romanticized way.
But this year, late November calls United Methodists to a more solemn and authentic remembrance. Nov. 29 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, a shadowy day in U.S. history when John Chivington, a Methodist pastor-turned-Calvary-colonel, led a band of white U.S. soldiers to attack and murder nearly 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations.
Most of those murdered—some of them mutilated and scalped—were women and children, and they were killed after the U.S. had broken its second treaty with Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders, who allocated more and more Native American land to white settlers. Chivington and his men launched the attack after a night of heavy drinking, and were acting with the consent then Colorado Territory Governor John Evans, himself a Methodist layman.
While there was a federal investigation of wrongdoing by Chivington, he was never prosecuted.
Now, 150 years later, United Methodists across the United States are being called to a time of reflection, prayer, and repentance for the Sand Creek Massacre and similar acts of injustice perpetrated against Native Americans since the first European explorers landed on North American shores. Church leaders such as Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, whose Mountain Sky Episcopal Area includes Colorado, have taken deliberate steps in recent years to make tangible efforts at repentance with Native Americans who experienced the trauma in the aftermath of Sand Creek and other acts done by and with the consent of the church.
Last June, during their 2014 conference session, Bishop Stanovsky and 650 members of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference made a pilgrimage to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, traveling three hours by bus to the hot, barren place near Eads, Colo., which was dedicated in 2007 as a national historic landmark. The bishops, guest bishops and Native Americans from the area—including descendants of those who were attacked that day in 1864—recalled the incidents leading up to the Nov. 29, 1864, slaughter and reflected on the impact on Native people and others. Stanovsky and other clergy marked visitors on their foreheads with ashes as a symbol of atonement.
Henrietta Mann, founder of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College in Oklahoma, and a great-granddaughter of one of the survivors of the 1864 battle, told the United Methodist guests about her ancestors in a tribute to those ancestors. She also explained how Native people were further harmed by Christians who “force-fed” the faith to Native children, separating them from their families and restricting them from speaking their native languages and practicing the traditions of their nations.
“The church and state worked together to eradicate their culture,” she lamented.
The day before the pilgrimage, Bishop Stanovsky—herself a member of Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission—called on United Methodists in every congregation to seek healing relationships with people who have been harmed by the church, starting with Native Americans.
“Our own people are open-hearted people and, given half a chance, they’re going to walk through doors and develop new relations and new understandings,” the bishop said.
The United Methodist group—the largest to visit Sand Creek since the monument opened—also paid tribute to U.S. Calvary officers Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, who refused to follow orders and take part in the 1864 slaughter.
In 2012, delegates of the General Conference engaged in “Acts of Repentance” for the church’s role in exploiting and harming Native Americans and other indigenous people around the world. The General Conference further called on congregations and annual conferences to implement tangible steps toward reparations and repentance, including transferring church-owned land back to indigenous people.
In Rocky Mountain Conference, Bishop Stanovsky and the conference trustees have begun conversations about how they might share proceeds of sales of church property with Native people. The bishop regularly blogs about what members of her area are learning and doing towards repentance.
The work is changing hearts. Non-Native church members, like layman Larry Bowen of Louisville United Methodist Church in Colorado, said the experience at Sand Creek last summer has opened his eyes and strengthened his commitment to advocate for the rights of Native people in his community.
“I can’t personally go back 150 years and tell somebody, ‘God, I’m sorry!” said Bowen, a Sunday school teacher. But I can certainly take responsibility for what’s going on now.
Doing Your Own Work: How you can participate in reconciliation with Native Americans
November is Native American Heritage Month. The 2012 General Conference called on United Methodists around the world to learn more about the history and to engage in tangible acts of healing with Native/indigenous people in our congregations and communities. Use this month as a starting point for learning and acting.
Pastors and Laity in Leadership
- Contact or visit your local or state (or national) Native American heritage agency to learn more about the history and current state of Native people in your community. Ask for resources to share in your newsletter or church bulletin board.
- Connect with a Native congregation in your community and plan a shared worship or ask them for help preparing worship using Native prayers and sermon illustrations. Find some Native-influenced worship resources at the General Board of Discipleship website, plus a list of Native hymns included in the United Methodist Hymnal.
- Think before you put on Thanksgiving skits or plays, to avoid using stereotyped, inauthentic or offensive images of Native people.
Conference worship, social action, Religion and Race and Christian education chairs
- Collect and distribute a calendar of planned statewide events marking Native American heritage observances to clergy, lay leaders and local church chairs.
- Send the link for this page to pastors and ask them to consider including information about the Sand Creek Massacre, local history of Native people and worship resources in upcoming worship services.
- Plan a learning session and opening or closing devotion for upcoming meetings that incorporates the stories of Native Americans and the call to repentance and reconciliation in church and society.
- Plan a visit and conversations with local Native American leaders to learn more about the history and current issues affecting them and how non-Natives can participate with them in acts of justice and reconciliation.
More on Sand Creek and Acts of Repentance
Open Letter to United Methodist Bishops (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/news-media/documents/open_letter-on_act-of-repentance.pdf
Native Americans Share Struggles, Hopes for Church (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/native-americans-share-struggles-hopes-for-church)
Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission (http://sandcreekmassacre150.com)
Bishop Elaine Stanosky’s blogs on Sand Creek (http://www.mountainskyumc.org/sand-creek-massacre-journey)
Native American United Methodist Comprehensive Plan (http://www.gbod.org/leadership-resources/native-american-comprehensive-plan-nacp)
Article on “Acts of Repentance” by the 2012 General Conference (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/native-missionaries-welcome-act-of-repentance)
Video: The Rev. George Tinker, preaching during the “Acts of Repentance” worship service at the 2012 General Conference (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-DoOCp5XA0)
Study and worship resources
Voices: Native American Hymns and Worship Resources, a collection of hymns, songs, prayers, and worship resources; published by Discipleship Resources, 1992 (reprinted 2000). Available from cokesbury.com.
Beneke, Chris and Christopher S. Grenda, The First Prejudice. Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Hatch, Thom. Black Kettle. The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War. Wiley Press, 2004.
Hoig, Stan. The Sand Creek Massacre. University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.
Roy, Delrayne, ed., Voices of Native American Women. United Methodist Women Geographic Study, published 2010. Available from cokebury.com.
Mann, Henrietta and Anita Phillips. On This Spirit Walk. The Voices of Native American and Indigenous Peoples. 128-page study guide published by the United Methodist Publishing House, 2012. Available from cokesbury.com Spirit and Resistance
Tinker, George E. Political Theology and American Indian Liberation. Augsburg Fortress Publishing Co., 2004.