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Commentary: Native American community welcomes prayers

 


Commentary: Native American community welcomes prayers

April 14, 2005

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. David Wilson*

I was driving to work the day after the school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., and was listening to a radio show that was recapping the news. The announcer commented that since the shooting happened on an Indian reservation, it would not get the attention that other school shootings had received. Even though it was the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history. Even though 10 persons were killed and seven others were wounded.

The tribe asked the media to give the community some space and did not entertain much coverage. The media soon left and went to other stories around the country. When the media is told to back off, they usually work harder to get stories. But not in this case. I don’t think it was because they gave up but that there were other stories the general public was interested in hearing. 

The headlines the day after and days after were the controversies surrounding the Terri Schiavo case. I found it interesting that the national media was camped out around her family. The family would call a news conference only to make the same comments they had made for months. The comments were nothing new; the family just wanted attention from the media and they had it at their immediate disposal.

The other headline was the courtroom proceedings of the Michael Jackson case. That story made headlines all week, the top headlines—sometimes even ahead of the Schiavo case. Those headlines were even ahead of the school shootings.

I thought back to the radio show that had made the comment about how this school shooting would not warrant much attention. I realized it was right, and I was saddened to think about what I perceived as the values of the media and people across the world. That is ironic as well, since values were such a big part of the last presidential campaign. There are those who focus on the sensationalism of certain stories rather than lives that have been and will be changed forever.

In my personal conversations with people in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and at Norman (Okla.) First American United Methodist Church, we have talked often about this situation. Most of us agree that while school shootings are not the norm for this country, there are other statistics that are prevalent in most native communities and urban areas where large numbers of native persons live.

The shooter himself, Jeff Weise, had lost his father to suicide, and his mother lives in a nursing home, having suffered from brain injuries in a car accident.

A recent Harvard study reported that one in six Native American youth has attempted suicide and was 60 percent more likely to report fights at school in the past year.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is very high on many reservations. A state-by-state study of graduation rates by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that 46 percent of Native American students graduated from high school, compared with 86 percent of white students. Alcoholism and substance abuse are high on many reservations and in native communities.

Unfortunately, these statistics are nothing new to us. They are a part of our lives. They are statistics that we have worked to address in native communities across the country.  They are statistics that we have worked to address in our own Native American churches across the connection and in other denominations. They are not statistics that we are proud of as native people, but rather they are statistics that are a result of where we as native people are in this time of our lives.

Many reservations and tribal communities are spending a lot of time and financial resources to address these challenges. Many are doing a great job. Many are focusing on the importance of tribal identity and culture to help our youth maintain and, in some cases, regain a sense of identity. A sense of being proud to be a Native American. Many native persons will agree that part of this problem is a disconnect with the tribal communities and the attraction that the youth culture has for our young.

Tribes and churches are working with our young to teach tribal traditions, culture, music and language. This is important to the individual well-being of people of all ages. Tribal persons understand that in order to have a good sense of self-worth, one must also have a connection and a source to draw from. This source for many native persons is their tribal identity.

In a recent conversation with an elder from the Kiowa tribe from my church, he agreed that the problems among many of our young who face these challenges in life are a result of our youth not feeling like they fit into this world. There are mixed messages sent about how to fit into the world. There are mixed messages of values and what is important. If young people are not grounded with a good sense of self-worth, then they can wander anywhere.

Many people have asked, “What can we do to help this situation?” Physically, there are not a lot of things that persons outside of these tribal communities can do.

There is often an attempt from well-meaning non-native people to come in and save the community. They sense that they can look into the situation and know how to fix the problem. That is not reality.

I asked the Kiowa elder the same question. “What can persons outside our community do to help?” He agreed that there isn’t much people can do physically. But he did begin with something that our great tribal leaders of the past and present have known for generations.

“People can pray for us,” he said. “The power of prayer for us is known in our communities. It can take care of things,” he said. 

I thought that was a profound statement because he is right. Our prayers remind us that we do not have all the answers, and we turn to the One who does have the solutions and the answers. Even in our distress, we turn to the One who listens and responds.

He then made two other points that I need to mention here. He said there are ways that the mainstream population takes care of situations like this, and then there are the tribal ways that our communities handle these situations. Our ways are not always understood.

People who wish to help can begin by understanding the context in which native persons live their lives. While we live in the same nation and in the same communities, our lives are somewhat different, dictated by our culture. People who wish to help can begin by letting tribal persons know they are genuinely concerned. There is really no advice to be offered. There are no words that need to be offered that say, “I know how you are feeling.” Rather, our tribal communities welcome and affirm the knowledge that people care.

Native American Ministries Sunday was celebrated by many United Methodist churches on April 10. This was a Sunday for churches to recognize the 200-plus established Native American churches in our connection and to celebrate our presence in the church and the world. It was a day for churches to contribute financially to Native American seminary students preparing for ministry and support for urban ministry.

The recognition and support for Native American ministry goes beyond the one Sunday a year that we think about native people through these special services. It is my hope that we can relate and support each other throughout the entire year. It is my hope that we pray for each other because we know that prayer can take care of things.

*Wilson is superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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