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Church addresses wide range of Native American issues

5/30/2000 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By United Methodist News Service

United Methodists took a variety of actions related to Native American concerns about sports logos, land rights, economic development and other issues during the denomination's recent legislative meeting.

Meeting in Cleveland May 2-12, the delegates to the General Conference particularly criticized the use of the "Chief Wahoo" logo by the Indians baseball team. The 992 lay and clergy delegates from around the world called for dialogue with the management of the Cleveland Indians regarding use of the logo, which many Native Americans feel is demeaning.

The delegates, which included 13 Native Americans, called on the United Methodist Church to direct the appropriate church agencies, in consultation with Native American groups, to engage the Cleveland community and the baseball team's owners in a dialogue to increase understanding and sensitivity about ethnic caricatures and mascots.

Several of the Native American delegates also joined with other supporters and local Indians in protesting use of the logo during the Cleveland team's May 11 home game.

The churchwide Commission on Religion and Race has been asked to initiate action in bringing the team's owners and the Cleveland community together with the church, said the Rev. Alvin Deer, a Kiowa Creek and executive director of the church's Native American International Caucus (NAIC).

Delegates also considered a petition requesting that future sessions of the General Conference not be held in cities where professional sports teams use ethnic caricatures as mascots. They referred the petition to the commission responsible for choosing the city where the conference meets every four years. The 2004 session is scheduled for Pittsburgh.

For the first time in the history of the church's judicial system, an American Indian was elected to serve on the Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court. Ann A. Saunkeah, a Cherokee from Tulsa, Okla., and executive director of the church's Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP), was elected as an alternate judge on the council.

Delegates rejected a plan to reduce the number of special Sunday offerings that the church annually collects. They voted to retain the six special Sundays, and affirmed the change in name from Native American Awareness Sunday to Native American Ministries Sunday. The name change reflects the fact that the money raised is used to support specific ministries with native people at the annual conference and general church levels. It will be observed with an offering on the third Sunday of Easter.

While affirming the name change, delegates also decided that students receiving money from the Native American Awareness Sunday Scholarship Fund must serve two years in an American Indian congregation. If the student fails to serve a native congregation or ministry upon graduation, 50 percent of the scholarship will be converted into a loan that must be paid back.

The delegates also referred to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries a request that Native American lands be returned without compensation to the Indian nation that resides within the boundaries of the land or to the Indian nation that was the original owner.

The United Methodist Church has historically held tribal lands for mission purposes. Some of the land is no longer used for mission purposes, according to the petition.

Continuing with land issues, General Conference delegates encouraged the churchwide Board of Church and Society to help protect and preserve Native American sacred sites that are used for religious purposes. The board is the church's advocacy and social justice arm.

The General Conference encouraged the agency to: support legislation that will provide for a legal cause of action when sacred sites become affected by government action; enter into and support court cases related to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act; and communicate with the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs about the United Methodist Church's call for strengthening the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and preserving the rights of religious freedom for American Indians.

For the last eight years, the United Methodist Church has been involved in a ministry that seeks to involve native people in the total life of the church. In 1992, the NACP was created to emphasize congregational and leadership development and Native American spirituality. A task force guides the plan, and its goal is to help United Methodists view American Indians as partners in ministry and no longer as a mission of the church.

The 2000 General Conference continued the plan for another four years at a cost of $1.14 million with changes in task force membership. While the task force originally included representatives and staff from program boards and agencies, the General Conference changed the membership to enable a broader spectrum of grass-roots native people to be involved in NACP decision-making procedures. The legislative assembly removed the voting rights for church agency staff people and the representative from the Council of Bishops. Delegates gave voting privileges to Native American members from each of the five geographic areas of the church, including the Alaska Missionary Conference and non-staff members of NAIC and the National United Methodist Native American Center. Agency staff people and the episcopal representative will have voice but no vote.

General Conference also continued funding to support the work of the National United Methodist Native American Center. Delegates allocated $904,000 to enable the center to recruit, train and deploy Native American pastors and church leaders, with an emphasis on developing innovative and focused ministries for American Indians.

One source of funding will come through a "shared commitment" between the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Of the total, $244,000 will come from the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and $160,000 will come from the Board of Global Ministries.

General Conference delegates also granted the center $500,000 in additional money from the World Service Fund, the church's basic benevolence fund, which underwrites portions of churchwide agency budgets. The center will be affiliated with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry for administrative accountability and will remain on the campus of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. The school of theology was asked to initiate a Native American Studies Program as soon as possible. The current programming at the center will not change.

In keeping with American Indian awareness, the delegates requested that the denomination's Council on Ministries maintain a forum or common table to enable the Native American ministries to collaborate and connect with the general agencies of the church. This will allow for sharing of ministry needs and identifying resources.

In a petition titled "Caring for God's Creation," delegates urged the United Methodist Church, through the NACP and program agencies, to implement a four-year study of protection and healing of the environment from a Native American perspective. Up to $80,000 will be given for the study, and a report with recommendations will be provided to the 2004 General Conference.

Native American sovereignty and gaming has been a concern of the United Methodist Church for many years. Delegates approved a petition calling on the NACP, in conjunction with the Board of Church and Society's Native American Economic Development and Empowerment Task Force, to develop "an innovative and economically strategic report for a God-centered alternative to gambling-centered economic development for Native American communities." Recommendations will be brought to the 2004 General Conference.

The Board of Church and Society also was directed to make training and consultation on social witness available to every Native American United Methodist congregation in the next four years. According to the petition, tremendous need exists for social justice ministries within Native American communities, and the congregations are not empowered.

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