Resources for Observing Native American Heritage Month
By Bryan Tener
November is Native American Heritage month. In many places, there will be opportunities to learn about and celebrate the diverse cultures of Native Peoples that continue today and that many are working hard to protect and pass on to future generations. I’m a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma. Over the last several years, I had the opportunity to connect more widely with Indigenous peoples across the U.S. as I was serving as program director and cultural interpreter—in particular with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people—in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. I became an enrolled member of the tribe, connected more closely with relatives, and built a friendship with a tribal elder and leader among the people who invited me into one of the four warrior societies, the Bowstrings.
Entering the warrior society has been an incredible learning experience. It has been challenging as well, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It has been life-giving to begin to learn about who I am and where I come from. I’m discovering aspects of who I am that don’t seem to fit in the Western dominant culture, and I have been letting go of those aspects of Western dominant culture that I had to take up because that’s how the “world” works. At different times in my life or in different settings, school, work, home, even church, I haven’t felt that I belonged. As I wrestled with my identify, I felt that I belonged only if I conformed. In my senior year of high school, during homecoming week, one of my teachers who knew I was Native American told me to dress up for a homecoming assembly to represent the team we were playing, the Indians. My heart hurt, but I didn’t feel I had the power to say anything, only to do as I was told. I just kept quiet. It still hurts when I think about it, not so much because of what the teacher had me do, but because I didn’t have the strength to stand up and say something. The lessons I am still learning, the sacred ways of my people, this way of being, have begun to give me strength, the strength to speak up, the strength that comes with learning, the strength that comes from others’ wisdom and insight, the strength to maintain composure, yet speak up when someone shows prejudice. I am gaining strength that comes from knowing how connected I am to self, to Maheo—the Great Spirit or God—and to all those who have gone before and those who are still to come.
These new learnings and experiences are not only strengthening the roots springing from my people and culture, but also strengthening the roots of my Christian faith. As an infant, I was baptized into the family of faith. I was enriched, nourished, and supported by a community of people who stood alongside me, created space for me to wrestle with big questions, and guided me with wisdom as I discerned my path into vocational ministry. Participating in the ceremonies, being surrounded by prayer, and learning the sacred Cheyenne stories of the prophet Sweet Medicine and seeing connections to stories from the Bible brings forth questions and new insights that continue to shape my journey. Whether those insights point toward a more robust theology of creation care or whether they raise questions about the church’s role and participation in colonization and westward expansion, they challenge and empower me to learn, wrestle, and grow as I take another step along the journey.
These new learnings and experiences are not only strengthening the roots springing from my people and culture, but also strengthening the roots of my Christian faith.
A time set aside to observe Native American Heritage Month can help all of us learn about the land and the people who originally lived where we live. We have an opportunity to learn their history, hear their stories, and discern how their stories and history might begin to shape our journeys, whether that means becoming advocates or allies for Native Peoples. It may be protecting sacred land that is desired for other purposes (Manua Kea in Hawaii; Arizona and the Apache’s protecting against mining). It may be working with organizations that highlight and voice the violence that takes place against Indigenous women. It could be supporting Indigenous peoples who are working, lifting up, and celebrating the challenges struggles, and achievements of Native Peoples today. Below are links to help us learn and grow, not just during November but throughout the year, so that these voices are heard.