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Native American United Methodists celebrate new museum

 


Native American United Methodists celebrate new museum

Sept. 22, 2004

By Shanta Bryant Gyan*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian represents a final recognition by the United States of Native Americans’ existence, according to United Methodists at the ceremony.

"We’re finally being recognized as humans," said the Rev. Harry Long, a retired United Methodist pastor and member of the Muskogee-Creek tribe in Oklahoma. "It shows that we belong."

The 83-year-old pastor was among an estimated 20,000 Native Americans and supporters from throughout the Western Hemisphere who gathered Sept. 21 to celebrate the grand opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.

The day was marked by speeches, native dance and drumbeats, and an evening concert by Native American musicians.

The museum opened with a colorful procession of American Indian nations, organizations and individuals. The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race and the Board of Church and Society organized a delegation of 35 supporters who marched to the site of the grand opening ceremony, at the foot of the U.S. Capitol building.

Sporting T-shirts that read "Racism - Our Church’s Unfinished Agenda," members of the United Methodist delegation said onlookers cheered them as the group walked to show appreciation and support for Native American people.

This historic gathering of Native Americans allowed members of different tribes to become better acquainted with one another.

"It’s great to be in community with each other, with people of different tribes," said Betty J. Admussen of the Eastern Shawnee tribe, who traveled to Washington from Kansas City, Mo. "I’m excited to learn about other people’s traditions, and this is a good opportunity." Admussen, 78, is a member of Platte Woods United Methodist Church in Kansas City and serves on the board of directors of the commission.

The museum will enable Native American youth to reclaim some of the rich history that was suppressed in the generations when speaking Indian languages and observing local traditions and customs were prohibited.

Suanne Ware-Diaz of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma said she lost the Kiowa language by one generation when her father was sent away to a boarding school and forbidden to speak his Indian language. The school indoctrinated the Indian children so they could be assimilated into the dominant American culture.

"It was done by ‘good’ Christians," said Ware-Diaz, a staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. "It causes deep hurt to know that that went on before me." Ware-Diaz is a member of Culver Palms United Methodist Church in Culver City, Calif.

The museum will serve as a positive symbol for Indian youth, said Cynthia Abrams, a member of the Seneca nation and program director for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. "Our community has some brokenness, and with the museum, they can experience good role models. It’s a good thing."

Museum Director Richard West Jr. said he hopes all visitors will gain more knowledge and understanding about the culture and history of native communities in the United States and around the world.

"Visitors will leave this museum experience knowing that Indians are not part of history. We are still here and making vital contributions to contemporary American culture and art," said West, a Southern Cheyenne.

The museum on the National Mall opened with exhibits on the tradition and histories of Native Americans, as well as on the lives and identities of residents of eight Native communities in North America. An exhibit titled "Native Modernism" explores the work of contemporary Native American artists George Morrison and Allan Houser. The National Museum of the American Indian also has facilities in New York and Maryland.

"I hope people take away (from visiting the museum) that we are a people with a culture, language and sense of pride," said the Rev. Ken Deere, a member of the Muskogee-Creek nation and former staff executive for the Commission on Religion and Race.

Native American staff in the ecumenical community hosted a reception at the United Methodist Building near Capitol Hill for participants in the week’s activities.

The United Methodist Church has about 20,000 Native American members.

While the denomination has funded and started programs to uplift the Indian community, much more remains to be done, Ware-Diaz said.

"The denomination still doesn’t have a bishop that is Native American," she said. "We don’t have a voice, and that makes a huge statement, although I know we’re working on it."

Long challenged the church to be more at peace with creation. "I pray that the term ‘connectional’ would really mean connection, that we are connected," he said, "and by that I mean connected not only to other human beings, but to animals, fish and plant life - all of creation."

*Gyan is a freelance writer in the Washington area.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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