Reflection on Yakama and a Culture Unknown

I, admittedly, know next to nothing about Native American History. Well, at least before I came to Washington.

Living on an Indian Reservation has taught me a lot already, much thanks to our community advocated Corey Greaves (Learn more about him and his ministry at http://www.mendingwings.net/). The Northwest Territories became a “proving ground” for many of the great Civil War generals. In the early 1850’s, Isaac Stevens was appointed as the first governor of the Washing Territory (which had included Oregon as well). In due time, he began a conquest of the Pacific Northwest that would diminish the Native American claim on the land. However, Native Americans live by a theology of the land. They see Mother Earth as a giver and provider who is to be nourished in return. Mother Earth had gifted them the land they live on. Even in accordance with Christian doctrine, Corey explains  that in the Native American understanding of the Creation Story, man and woman were placed in the land that they were to take care of. As I understand it, they believe that when God scattered people after the tower of Babel, everyone was given specific land to take care of. All this to say, the Native American tribal leaders of the 1850’s didn’t understand the demands of Governor Stevens. Land was not something that was owned, sold, bought, or conquered. It was not something that they could merely hand over to another man. However, after threats of force and war, Yakama chief Kamiakan and other tribal leaders signed over their land in a treaty that was meant to be “an act of peace.”

On June 9th, 1855, the Yakama Treaty was signed and the Yakama Reservation was created. Governor Stevens promised to give the Yakama tribe two years to relocate to this area before the territory would be opened for white settlement. However, within two weeks he open the territory for settlement. Kamiakan and other tribal leaders opposed the actions of Stevens which lead tot he Yakama War from 1855-1858, eventually ending with the defeat of the Yakama Indians.

Over the course of the following 100 years, much was done to the oppression of Native American population. Perhaps the most horrific course of action taken was the removal of all Native American children from their homes to be  relocated at boarding schools. These boarding schools were to indoctrinate the children with American culture. The government thought they could save the man from become a “savage” should they remove the children from their Native culture. When these children went off to boarding schools, they were completely removed from their families, and their culture. They were given new American names and their culture was sticken from them. Physical, verbal and sexual abuse were rampant at boarding schools for the disobedient.

The abuse in combination with the complete indoctrination of beliefs created a total disfunction in Native American children. Children would then seek solace as adults by returning to their land and to their parents. However much had changed in the parents lives since they had last seen their children, a period often longer than ten years. Many Native American parents did not know how to cope after losing their children and had turned to alcohol to find solace. When their children eventually did return home, they no longer recongized their parents, for they had turned into alcoholics. And the parents did not know they children, for the boarding schools had turned them into “the white man.” This disfunction in families was never fixed, and has resulted in many of the problems that exist on the reservations today.

Much of what I have described above was done in the name of Christ. Different denominations were given different reservations to “civilize.” The Yakama reservation was given to the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations. These denominations ran the boarding schools and attempted to evangelize to the Native Americans. However, the Good News of Christ did not come with praise and welcoming, but rather with kidnapping and the destruction of culture. To the Native Americans as a whole, Christianity has been nothing but bad news. In over 500 years of missions to indigenous people, only 3% claim to follow the Jesus Way (essentially, the prominent Native American denomination of Christianity). That is not a good return on the attempts.

Much is needed to be done to repair and mend the relationships that were destroyed over the past several hundred years. Corey understands that their are individuals who feel the grief from the actions their culture and religion has done to his culture, but to repay the awful deeds done to the Natives, it takes far more than individuals. Admittedly, he doesn’t have the all the answers, but he knows that the different denominations must humbly ask to come to the reservations, admit their wrongs, and ask forgiveness for years of oppression and abuse. Perhaps it will take longer yet to reconcile what has been done to a culture lost in time, but it must start somewhere, and it must be done collectively. I wish I knew how to get the process started, but I feel as though this is so far off people’s radar that this  mountain is near insurmountable. My time on this reservation has just begun, but I know the grief that I have already felt for this beautiful culture that was all but destroyed in the name of God is something I will take back home with me.

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