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I’ve been thinking about how we as Christians respond to the Montana Human Rights Network, The ACLU of Montana, and the Extreme History Project, whose letter to the editor expressed concerns about “the racially inflammatory costumes and behavior displayed during the Helena Vigilante Parade. The perpetuation of Native American stereotypes exemplified by the Buffalo Jump float in the parade is unacceptable.”

I’m interested in responding to this group’s statement, “We encourage Helena Public Schools to begin facilitating these conversations with the community and to join us in taking responsibility for providing and seeking further education regarding racial equity, Indigenous history, and the appropriate way to honor both. “Although the public school is a great place to start the conversation, the conversation has to go beyond the schools to the wider public arena. I believe that we in the church need to participate in that conversation.

As Christians, we are taught to love one another and value the dignity and worth of each individual. Paul preached to a pluralist culture in Athens in Acts 17:26 saying, “For through one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the earth.” Paul wrote to a divided church in Galatians 3:28 saying “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ. “ I believe Paul’s words for Christians “there is no longer Indian or White.”

I personally believe that if a group of people are offended by how another group of people outside that group depicts or represents that group, then we as Christians living in that community have an obligation to listen to the objection and work toward peace, harmony, and reconciliation, bringing down those barriers that divide us as a community. We in the churches should take the lead in facilitating this conversation.

Unfortunately, Christians have been responsible for inflicting harm and injury upon the Native American people, perhaps unintentionally by the students in the parade. We are often blind and ignorant to our complicity in causing harm, offense and division towards our American Indian neighbors. The systematic injury inflicted upon Native Nations here in the United States has dissolved the trust needed for healthy community between cultures.

It began with the Doctrine of Discovery. I recently heard Miss Erica Littlewolf, member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe here in Montana and a resource staff person for the Mennonite Church, talk about the Doctrine of Discovery at a pastor’s conference I attended. She said, “For more than five centuries, the Doctrine of Discovery and the laws based upon it have legalized the theft of land, labor and resources from Indigenous Peoples across the world and systematically denied their human rights. This Doctrine originated with the Christian church in the 15th century. The Doctrine of Discovery had its official beginning with Pope Nicholas V's issuance of the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex in 1452.

Bishop Jessica Crist, bishop of the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, explained the Doctrine of Discovery in this way,” In the 15th century, when Europeans began their voyages of discovery, Christianity was synonymous with European culture and its understanding of God’s will for creation. Europeans set out for places unknown to them much as they had set out centuries earlier for Palestine, armed with what they saw as the truth-which was often boiled down to “We are right and everyone else is wrong.”

Europeans came to the Americas convinced that because the lands were uninhabited by Christians, they were entitled to claim the land for themselves and their monarchs. And they did. And because there were already people living in those lands, the Europeans had to come up with a way to explain them away. So it was decided that the people already living on the land were less than human, just as the slaves brought from Africa later on were classified. “

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court used the same pattern and paradigm of domination to claim in the ruling Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh that the United States was the successor to various "potentates" had the "ultimate dominion" or "ultimate title" (right of territorial domination) over all lands within the claimed boundaries of the United States. The Court said that as a result the Doctrine of Discovery , it authorized "Christian people" to "discover" and possess the lands of "heathens. The tribes which occupied the land were, at the moment of discovery, no longer completely sovereign and had no property rights but rather merely held a right of occupancy. Further, only the discovering nation or its successor could take possession of the land from the natives by conquest or purchase. Natives could not sell the land to private citizens but only to the discovering government. “

Bishop Crist writes, “From the taking of land -- by force or by deceit-to the imposition of alien cultural values, European-Americans have committed cultural genocide against the indigenous peoples of the Americas (and elsewhere), and the Christian church has been complicit. The vast majority of non-Native Americans today have no idea of the treaties made and broken, the way of life destroyed, and the near-genocide of the peoples who originally lived on this land that we now call the United States of America. And they have no idea of the role that Christianity played in this terrible tragedy. It is for this role in the systematic degradation of the indigenous people of the Americas that we as contemporary Christians need to repent.”

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My own church, the Montana Synod, passed a resolution in 2010 which recognized the long history of injustice towards the Indigenous Tribal Peoples of the United States. It says, “We, the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, express our profound sorrow and repentance for the grief and pain suffered in the past and in the present. For too long, we have remained silent, ignored the violence perpetrated against the Tribes, ignored the violation of treaties, and ignored the tragic aftermath that haunts the original peoples of the land. We ask for forgiveness, forgiveness for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. As a sign of our repentance and a desire to be reconciled, we pledge to walk with our brothers and sisters of the Tribal Nations. We offer our support for the honoring of treaty rights, the healing of lives torn asunder by forced cultural changes, loss of language, racism and poverty.” We have begun the conversation but more than words are needed.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church In America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Mennonite Church, and the Moravian Church have all recently passed resolutions to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. The Mennonite Church has some excellent resources and videos for education and discussion.

Will these resolutions make any difference in our conversation with our Native American brothers and sisters here in Montana? I hope so, perhaps it’s a step in the right direction. I think churches and Christians in Montana can study the Doctrine of Discovery and talk about how prejudice and racism is part of our Montana history that we need to face but also part of our present experience, as shown by the recent controversy over the Vigilante Parade event. We as Montanans can be united by a common love for this land and the people living under “Big Sky Country.”

But if we really are going to understand racism and prejudice that is part of the Montana landscape, we need to have conversation with our Native American neighbors that we live with here in Montana. My prayer is that as we look back on the Doctrine of Discovery, it may propel us forward from the Vigilante Parade experience to share a conversation that leads to greater peace, understanding, and reconciliation with all of us who are children of God, children of the Creator. At least it’s a start! Count me in!

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Pastor Brad Ulgenes has served St. John’s Lutheran Church here in Helena for the past four or so years. He and his wife, Elaine, have enjoyed living and serving in the Helena community. Brad enjoys God’s gift of music, plays guitar, and has sung in his church choir and the Helena Symphony Chorale.


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