The summer after my college graduation, I had the opportunity to live on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. In honor of Indigenous People’s day, I wanted to share a few reflections from my experience.
#1 – I’m not an expert
First and foremost, I lived on the reservation for a summer. It would be inappropriate to assume that I can relate or represent the great Cheyenne people. I know that, in typical white-male fashion, I have brought up this experience whenever the conversation goes towards indigenous people. I am quick to share “I lived on a reservation, so listen to me!” There is something inside of us that we want to prove we should be heard. But bringing up the fact that I lived on the reservation for a summer when people talk about Native Americans is like bringing up the fact that I’ve been pulled over by a police officer when talking about racial profiling. It’s inappropriate. (A dear friend of mine made sure I knew it wasn’t appropriate when I followed up his story of being pulled over because he was driving while black with my story of getting pulled over because I was driving late at night—one is not the same as the other). All that to say, I have no desire to present myself as an expert. I simply want to share my reflections, as a celebration of my experience and the gifts that I received from my time there, and nothing more.
#2. – Creation Care
Last year I did a sermon series on creation care. Theologically, Christians believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) yet in reality, I have never met an American Christian who lives this way. The intrusion of capitalism into the American faith remains pervasive. We believe in individualism, and it’s at the root of much of our issues related to systemic racism. (The book “Divided by Faith” explains this well.) The one place where I saw this ideology lived out was on the reservation. It seemed that the Cheyenne people viewed the land as the people’s land, not individuals. While I’m not an expert, it appears, looking back, as a view that is far closer to the Old Testament understanding of land ownership than our American Capitalistic view.
And this plays out in profound ways. I remember someone explaining to me a debate happening on the reservation. I guess, there is a lot of coal on the reservation. No surprise—just off the reservation, the largest community was Colstrip, and it was exactly what you imagined. It was a coal mining community with a power plant. Some believed that if the reservation would open themselves up to strip mining, they could lift their people out of poverty. But the tribal leaders have felt this would go against their charge to care for their sacred land. While they remain committed to making sure everyone in their tribe has enough, they have put their faith above the pursuit of wealth. This is convicting, and while it’s complicated, it seems more in line with biblical principles of creation care than the capitalist vision the American church has adopted.
You can read more about this debate here.
#3 – Slow down
On the reservation, things slowed down. Not only did conversation take longer, and the overall diction of speech was slower, but the workplace was slower too. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I found this pace to be rewarding. Of course, I was working for a white-run Christian organization, that had many goals and expectations that would burden me and cause me a lot of anxiety, but when I was off the clock and had the chance to hang out with people who lived there, there was a peace and pace that soothed my soul. To this day, I try to pull from that experience. When things get hectic and feel out of control, I try to relax by slowing down. I will go as far as to yell it—when I sense things escalating, at home or work, I will quietly shout, “Everybody just needs to slow down.” I have found many problems can be solved by slowing down.
#4 – Historic Injustice
Not far from the reservation is Little Bighorn Battlefield, formerly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” We would take groups there as part of the cultural heritage component of the trips we were running. If you want to understand racism, here’s a good example. General Custer was not a good guy. On top of that, he lost the battle—it was his “last stand” literally. But, in 1881, a memorial was erected to commemorate this. For the next 100 years, this site was used to remember the US soldiers who died at this battle without zero mention of the Native Americans who lost their lives—even though the site’s closest neighbors are two Native American reservations. It wasn’t until 1991 that an “Indian Memorial” was approved, and ten years later, in 2001, that it was financed and completed soon after. Imagine growing up on the reservation, and a half hour down the road was a monument celebrating the general who tried to wipe people like you out?
Of course, not everyone agreed there should be an Indian Memorial on the site. Some felt it would be like putting up a memorial at the Vietnam War Memorial for the Vietnamese who were killed—you can imagine how that would go! This NYT’s article talks about the push back. Then the author says this: “Part of the anger of the white traditionalists stems from a sense that they are losing control of history.” I found this line very telling, as it’s been a major theme today as it relates to our relationship to historic racism. Here is how I would respond. There are two ideas that make me proud to be a Christian, and frustrated to be American.
First, the adage “history is written by the victors” is not true for the Bible. I believe that the sacred texts of the bible are inspired by God and thus, I am encouraged that all of the stories are told, especially the ones where God’s people messed up. God does not cover up the mistakes of great leaders—there are dozens of examples of this in scripture. The same should be true for our country. We need to tell the whole story, not just the parts that make us look good.
Second, Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…” (Matt 5:43-45). This speaks for itself, and it is a truth that cuts to the very depths of who I am. So yes, I think a war memorial should remember the lives of everyone, even our enemies. I’m not saying we should celebrate the lives of abusers, but if we are going to remember lives lost, it should include everyone regardless of arbitrary national identities. I don’t expect everyone to have this view. It’s radical and controversial. Some would say it’s un-American. And I agree! It’s not very American, but as a Christian, my allegiance isn’t to America. And failing to love my enemies is very un-Christian. So, I do expect Christians to have this view—I mean, it’s kind of the whole thing, isn’t it? To refuse to do the same is to refuse Christ. To deny this is to deny Christ.
These are just a few reflections—nothing is meant to be definitive, but I am thankful for my brief time exploring Northern Cheyenne culture and hope to return someday. One of my hopes is to bring Allyssa and Finn with me, so I can share this piece of the world with them. It’s a truly beautiful community.