Last Friday marked my 15th anniversary of ordination. I am blessed in my ministry to have had some wonderful experiences, starting 23 years ago on a mission to Sisseton, South Dakota. It was the summer after I graduated from high school. My church was sending me out to live among the Dakota people to work with youth and children and prepare for a mission trip our congregation was going to take later in the year. While I had not fully realized my call at that point in my life, that experience laid a foundation that would later become a cornerstone of my ministry.
I was challenged to think about realities that were drastically different than anything I had ever had to deal with before. One of that hardest problems in that community at the time was the lack of men. Some had jobs off the reservation that pulled them away, but most were stricken with the disease of alcoholism or other drug use, or in jail. It was the first time that I had really seen a pattern of behavior that stretched from one generation to another.
My mentor on the mission was a retired pastor by the name of Sid Byrd. Sid had been through a lot in his life, and through his story and insight, he showed how the current problems on the reservation stemmed from a horrible period in American history when we tried to steal the identity and culture away from his people under the guise of civilization.
The first thing Sid taught was the importance of names and labels. His example was the word “Sioux.” Though it has been adopted by some groups, Sioux is a derogatory word that was attached to two related but distinct groups, the Dakota and the Lakota peoples. He would say that by just by using the term Sioux, you’ve already claimed that their identity is not important. As an older teen, I knew how important identity was. I was really just coming to a place where I was starting to understand my own identity, and discovering how hard it was to figure out who I was when others labelled me differently than I felt.
The second thing Sid taught was the importance of story. He said that who tells the story is important, and more importantly, that there are some stories that must be told, and other stories that can only be told by those affected. Sid had been a pastor at the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. That was a very difficult time when the government had created one story about the “Indians” and did not recognize the unique cultures of the Lakota and Cherokee peoples. This, coupled with the identity issues caused by children being taken from their families to attend the “Indian schools,” brought tensions to a height. Members of the American Indian Movement occupied a town on the reservation, Wounded Knee, to protest the murder of a Lakota man, and the failed impeachment of a tribal president accused of corruption. However, instead of listening and working with the people, the government came in and lit a fuse that is now well-known in history. According to Sid, nobody cared about the story of the people---what they cared about was the story that fit within the civilization they created.
This is something that we talked a lot about in my committee at General Assembly. At the root of the way we treated the Native Americans was a series of laws known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Laid out in British law and adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, this doctrine “ignore(s) aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments.” While the General Assembly both repudiated the doctrine as well as made formal apology to the Native American peoples, the legacy of our actions and the church’s complicity are still being felt in many communities, as I saw with the lack of men on the Dakota reservation when I did my mission there.
Here is where that experience shaped my ministry. The church must be careful when dealing with people. It is easy to think that we “know what is best.” But the reality is that when we do not listen, when we assume that we know the answers, and don’t bother to ask questions, we often do the opposite of creating community and relationship, and end up causing grief and devastating consequences.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen