Increasingly, InterVarsity students and staff are becoming aware of the Native people on their campuses and in their communities. Our hearts are starting to long to see and honor the first people of the land, but many of us don’t know where to start. I hope this story, and the ideas that follow, will give you concrete steps you can take to build relationships of respect, honor and trust with Native people.
A TRANSFORMATIONAL ROAD TRIP
Learning for the first time about one of the largest massacres of Native American people in the state to which he just moved sat heavy in his heart. Matthew Michalowski knew he had to respond. On a cold, January night marking the anniversary of the massacre, he and another staff in the area, Erin McConnaha, drove five hours with a multiethnic group of students to pray.
We said a prayer welcoming the Spirit and spent time at each sign depicting the history and [heard students’ responses]. Listening prayer gave guidance to our prayers. Someone got an image of the blood on the ground—it was still visible and warm Others sensed anger toward God for what happened. We sent [the students] for individual reflection and prayer and invited them to have a posture of listening and receiving. We gathered again and confessed the sins that took place at that site. I read the passage of Nehemiah weeping. We also wept, then confessed. Our prayers transitioned into a time of forgiving the settlers and colonizers. Bitterness and anger were coming up toward those who committed the massacre, and we felt conflicted, wanting to hold on to that but also feeling compelled to forgive.
In debriefing the experience, students expressed how real it became for them. Their general apathetic posture of engaging in history transformed into genuine anger and pain, empathy and understanding. The staff cast vision to the students about taking next steps towards reconciliation on campus. Matthew shares, “We encouraged them to not be afraid of the dissonance, but to approach it with curiosity and by looking into the eyes of God.”
This is a powerful example of staff and students learning to see and honor first nations people. It was challenging, uncomfortable at times, but they learned to press into pain, and as a result their hearts were changed for Native students on their campus.
What can we learn from this example?
LESSON #1: TAKE A POSTURE OF LEARNING
Before this trip, Matthew and Erin spent years learning about God’s heart for Native people. You may be wondering where to begin if you are at square one.
The Internet: Find out what tribes traditionally lived on the land where you now live and what tribes are currently in the area. What is the history between those tribes and the immigrants?
The Library: Read a few books, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. It is a very readable, short, young adult fiction book that can give you a good sense of what many Native students experience prior to coming to college. For a strong grounding in Native American-U.S. history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a classic.
QUESTION FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION:
As you learn the stories and histories, take some time to sit before Jesus—What is happening in your heart? What is difficult and broken in this story? What is beautiful? What does Jesus have to say to you?
LESSON #2: INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS
In my experience, Native people are honored when immigrants take a sincere interest in knowing them and learning about their culture, regardless of historical or current tensions.
On Campus: Find out what is going on with the Native community on your campus. Is there an event you can attend? Is there some political or environmental activism that you might be interested in joining?
Take Initiative: Take the initiative to introduce yourself to someone at one of these events. You can let them know that you are there because you are interested in learning. You might ask their permission to ask them some questions—either about their own experience. Some examples: What tribe are you apart of? Did you grow up in your Native community? What brought you to this event? What has your experience of being a Native student on campus been like? Or, even questions you have about the event.
QUESTION FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION:
How did I experience values or perspectives that are different from my own? How does that enrich and/or broaden my view of God and the world? Where do I see Creator’s face revealed in these people and this culture.
3 TIPS ON CULTURAL AWARENESS
1. HONORING A CULTURE WITH INTEGRITY
It honors people when we make our own efforts to learn about who they are and what is important to them, rather than expecting them to teach us everything. Conversely, it dishonors them if we think we truly understand them just because we’ve read a couple of books.
2. PATIENCE IN CONVERSATION
Be aware that pace of conversation in Native American culture is typically slower than mainstream culture. Don’t bombard people with tons of questions—one or two is fine. Trust is built over time and by showing that you have an ongoing sincere interest in building relationships.
3. GIVING AND RECEIVING
So much of the immigrant relationship with Native people has looked like immigrants taking what they want and then giving charity to the now impoverished Native people. In mainstream society, much of our giving and receiving is based on economic systems where everything has a price. Native American giving and receiving is traditionally based on relational systems and on honoring both the giver and receiver. If you are visiting a Native community or the Native student center, particularly if you are going to be asking something of them (even if it is just to answer some questions), it would be appropriate to bring a small gift. Traditional gifts are coffee and loose tobacco. If you are offered a gift, or even a drink, it honors the giver to receive it with a thank you.
I believe that as we see and honor the first people of our land, that our hearts and our ministries will find new life and that our experience of Creator and His Kingdom will be richer.
If you want to start a Native small group on your campus, I’d invite you to join our Facebook group Start Something Native. Or, if you have stories to share about connecting with the Native community on your campus, please comment here or email me!
Visit Start Something Native