Native People and The United Methodist Church

2016 Book of Resolutions, #3321

Historical Overview and Theological Foundations

We believe that Native American/American Indian (American Indian: The US government and many tribal governments use the term “American Indian.” We understand the words “Native American,” “Indigenous people,” and “First Nations people” to be interchangeable terms.) traditions affirm the presence of Creator God, the need for right relationship with our Creator and the world around us, and a call for holy living. Through corporate and personal conviction, our people individually and tribally are led by the Spirit of God to a greater awareness of God. Traditional beliefs, consistent with the gospel and the historic witness of the Church should not be understood as contrary to our beliefs as Native Christians. The testimony of historic and contemporary Native Christians should be counted in the historic witness of the Church.

Many Native traditions were erroneously feared, rather than understood as vehicles for the grace and the knowledge of God. Such fears have resulted in persecution of traditional Native peoples (The term “Native People” in this context refers collectively to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians) and Native Christians; and,

Many Native traditions have been misinterpreted as sin, rather than varying cultural expressions leading to a deeper understanding of our Creator and the Creator’s divine presence and action in our world.

God’s creating presence speaks to us through our cultures, rituals, and languages. This contextual incarnational testimony is vital to the ongoing work of the Church among Native people. For hundreds of years, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, compelled by the gospel have chosen to become disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we have affiirmed that relationship with God and our brothers and sisters is contained in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We bear witness to the mercy of God through our faith, continuing in discipleship and ministry.

As Native Christians, we affirm for Church and ourselves that many elements of our traditions and cultures are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of the Church. We affirm that the Holy Spirit is faithful in guiding us in holy living within our Native cultures and the broader culture. We recognize that just as in the broader culture, not all expressions of traditional cultures are appropriate for all believers; God is faithful in leading us to acceptable worship and continued growth in grace, as tribal people. We further affirm that our identity as Native or tribal persons is pleasing to our Creator and vital to the body of Christ. We affirm for each other that our languages, cultures, identities, and many traditions are pleasing to God and have the potential to renew and enrich the Church and offer hope to the world. God created us as Native People; to fl how God created us is to reject the authenticity of who and whose we are.

The General Conference of The United Methodist Church affirms the sacredness of American Indian people, their languages, cultures, and gifts to the church and the world.

We call upon the world, and the people of The United Methodist Church to receive the gifts of Native Americans, including American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, as people of God. We allow for the work of the Great Spirit/God among our communities and tribes without prejudice.

In 1452, the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifix declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world, sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories. In 1453, Spain was given rights of conquest and dominion over one half of the world and Portugal the other half.

In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was adopted into law by the US Supreme Court (Johnson v. McIntosh). Chief Justice Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed dominion over the lands of America, and upon discovery, Native American Indians had lost their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations and retained a mere right of occupancy in their lands.

Indigenous people were once sole occupants of this continent. Scholars vary greatly in their estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived in 1492; however, estimates range from 40 million to 90 million for all of the Americas. American Indian tribal populations were decimated after the arrival of the Europeans. This decimation was rationalized according to:

a. the European belief in their “discovery” of the new world;

b. the arrogance of Manifest Destiny;

c. the cavalier destruction of the Native concept of tribal communal land; and

d. lack of immunity to diseases carried by Europeans to the Americas.

During the American Revolution, American Indian tribes and confederations of tribes were recognized as sovereign indigenous nations in nation-to-nation relationships with the major European powers. Later, these relationships were maintained with the newly formed US government, which formed 371 treaties with Indian nations between 1778 and 1871.

More than five million people identify as either American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the 2010 Census;

Prior to European contact, the indigenous nations of this continent were sovereign, autonomous, and self-regulating.

The establishment, enactment, and progression of the Doctrine of Discovery influenced law and behavior, perpetuated a climate of violence against Native people through colonization, forced removals, enactment of treaties that were then regularly violated, killings and the “Indian Wars” continuing today in a subtler but in a no less violent and invasive manner.

Government and religious institutions intentionally destroyed many of our traditional cultures and belief systems. To assimilate our peoples into mainstream cultures, many of our ancestors as children were forcibly removed to boarding schools, often operated by religious institutions, including historical Methodism. The Doctrine of Discovery facilitated a climate of hostility and genocide. Native peoples were targets by those seeking land and other natural resources.

Genocide became a tool of greed and a response to fear. While attempting to erase Native people from existence, traditional cultures, rituals, and languages also fell prey to acts of genocide.

A key historical fact for United Methodists to consider, acknowledge, and address is the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, a violent act influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery that resulted in the genocide of almost 200 persons, mostly women and children, at a US peace camp. The Sand Creek attack was led by a Methodist preacher, Colonel John Chivington.

In 2007, the United Nations adopted “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” that called into question the validity of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, which for centuries served as “legal” rationale for stealing land and dehumanizing aboriginal peoples, as well as justification for the establishment of boarding schools throughout North America to “civilize” Indian children.

In 2009, President Obama pledged to Native people the United States’ support of the “Declaration of Indigenous Peoples.” The declaration seeks to right historical wrongs through use of the papal bulls of the Roman Catholic Church that are official decrees by the pope sanctioning the seizing of indigenous lands worldwide.

Treaties are regarded as binding, sacred, and enduring texts by American Indians and Alaska Natives, comparable to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Therefore, it is disturbing that the US government ignored its trust responsibilities by violating treaties and other promises.

Tribal sovereignty is an inherent international right of Native nations. It encompasses various matters, such as jurisdiction over Indians and non-Indians on tribal lands, education and language, child welfare and religious freedom. Land is both the physical and spiritual foundation of tribal identity, as stated by Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker (2001) in their book, A Native American Theology: “Land is today the basis upon which tribal sovereignty rests, the rights of Indian people to live upon, use and to govern in a political sense the members of the tribe who live on the land and those whose tribal membership gives them an association with it” (p. 15). Early US Supreme Court decisions support and affirm tribal sovereignty, most notably the Marshall trilogy of cases in the nineteenth century, and Winter v. S. (1908).

Recent Supreme Court decisions, however, have ignored previous precedent and contradicted earlier rulings, undermining tribal sovereignty.

The effects of practicing the concept of a Comity Agreement by The United Methodist Church has resulted in the failure of the Church to follow through with the biblical mandate of propagating the gospel to all nations and, further, has caused the failure of the Church to create a climate for leadership development of Native Americans. A Comity Agreement would be discriminatory that violates the right of Native Americans to associate with the denomination of their choice.

Native American Contemporary Issues

A gap in knowledge exists in The United Methodist Church, in congregations and other United Methodist entities, relative to comprehending concepts of Native American life, cultures, languages, spirit, values, contemporary issues, and such. This knowledge gap has been a consistent problem over history, with minimal effort from non-Indian entities to change their attitudes toward Native Americans until more recently. Lack of knowledge, racism, and prejudice, and the absence of Native American representation at decision-making levels of the Church contribute to misunderstanding contemporary issues that affect Native people, and a history of missteps and violations of Native protocol. Contemporary issues affecting Native people need further exploration, understanding and action.

Furthermore, the American Indian population continues to shift between rural to urban population centers. The human condition of many American Indians reflects a legacy of poverty and socioeconomic factors. A serious shortage exists of American Indian pastors and trained professionals to respond to these conditions. Native American Ministry Sunday provides an opportunity for The United Methodist Church to support American Indian ministries and communities.


American Indians are the most socioeconomically deprived minority group in the United States. The poverty level for children on reservations is more than twice the national average, and unemployment rates are three times that of other Americans. American Indians continue to lead national statistics in infant mortality, suicide, alcoholism, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. The US government is bound by treaty to provide health care for all American Indians. The US government provides medical services through Indian Health Services, United States Public Health Service, and the Department of Health and Human Services to American Indians who belong to the federally recognized tribes.

The federal government’s legislative and executive branches frequently threaten to reduce funding for the Indian Health Services Program. Any funding cuts could severely curtail or cancel health care for a large number of eligible American Indians.

Leadership Development

Native American Ministries Sunday, a key United Methodist Special Sunday offering has enabled a route for Native American leadership development. Before its inception, there were fewer than five ordained elders and diaconal ministers in The United Methodist Church. As a result of the ongoing support for Native American Ministry Sunday, well over 100 Native people have been seminary trained and ordained as elders and deacons. They are serving in local churches, annual conferences, and general agency leadership positions. This program, along with laity leadership development that is culturally appropriate and carefully constructed, are key considerations in continuing to expand leadership development among Native People and in Native tribes, churches, and communities.


The concept of illiteracy is unacceptable in a time when society projects a formal demeanor of progress and opportunity for all members. Dispelling myths that Native People receive unlimited funds from the government for all their needs is a key action to understanding the educational obstacles for Native individuals seeking higher education. Past support from The United Methodist Church for the participation of American Indians in higher education has been appreciated, yet it has been inconsistent and the threat to eliminate it is omnipresent. A trend of decreasing American Indian participation in higher education is beginning to appear at the national and regional levels; and the consistently rising costs of higher education contribute considerably to the decrease of American Indian participation in higher education. Recent statistics suggest an upward trend of academic success for American Indians currently participating in higher education.

Economic Development for Native American People

For more than 500 years, Native Americans have lived and survived in the context of colonialism and capitalism, and have been impacted by the economics of greed. Many have been forced to live in poverty; a small segment of the Native American population is surviving, however, through tribal economic development based on gambling. Unfortunately, tribal gambling casinos have had negative social consequences beyond and even within tribes. The need for economic development and growth is critically acute in most Native American communities across the United States. Economic conditions are appalling, with some reservations facing exceptionally high rates (some as high as 80-90 percent) of unemployment, well above the national average.

In fact, many reservations have very high poverty rates in the United States and rank very low in health and education indicators. There is little or no tax base on many reservations. Equity for investment is practically nonexistent or equity comes from questionable sources and at an exorbitant rate. As a result, some tribes have resorted to gambling endeavors in an effort to improve their economies. The vast majority of tribes remain in desperate need of meaningful, diversified economic development, however.

Economic development encompasses everything from job creation to reform in tax codes, from the creation of banking institutions to the expansion of tribal autonomy, development of basic physical infrastructure, such as roads and sewers; telecommunications to bridge the digital divide; fiscal literacy development for Native American people. Collectively, these basic essentials are requirements for effective economic development.

The US Department of the Interior has grossly mismanaged tribal lands. It has lost track of billions of dollars in mining, logging, and other royalties that should have gone to benefit Native American tribes. Fiscal accountability and ethical management of trust funds is an absolute necessity in the quest for tribal economic self-sufficiency.

Economic realities, such as “one world economies” and “mega-mergers,” can have a negative impact on both the rich and poor of this world. Native American spirituality speaks to and challenges inequities with its understanding of how to care for the whole family of God. Native American United Methodists believe their cultural understanding of stewardship is God-given and has been distorted from its intended purpose; God’s creation has been used with greed rather than care.

Journey of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Healing

The United Methodist Church desires to move forward on a journey of repentance, reconciliation, and healing with Native People. To move on this journey we commit to the following action steps and covenant together with Native People to work toward healing of their historic grief and trauma.

Confession to American Indians

The United Methodist Church (and its predecessor bodies) has sinned and continues to sin against its American Indian brothers and sisters. The denomination apologizes for its participation, intended and unintended. For the listening to begin, we must respect the traditional ways of Native People. Therefore, The United Methodist Church pledges its support and assistance in upholding the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (P.L. 95-134, 1978).

The General Conference recommends that local churches develop statements of confession as a way of fostering a deep sense of community with American Indians. The General Conference encourages the members of our Church to stand in solidarity on these important religious issues, and to provide mediation when appropriate for ongoing negotiations with state and federal agencies regarding these matters.

Action Steps and Covenant

The United Methodist Church affirms and commits to upholding these beliefs, principles, and actions:

  1. We acknowledge that the intentions and politicization of Christianity distorted the gospel/good news for the purpose of colonization and must be decolonized.
  2. We affirm that American Indian sovereignty:
    • is a historical fact, is significant, and cannot be disregarded in favor of political expediency;
    • American Indians have a right to self-govern;
    • preserves culture, land, religious expression, and sacred spaces; and
    • ensures survival of Native People.
  3. We need to demythologize and increase our understanding of American Indians and Indian country.
  4. We affirm the sacredness of humankind:
    • affirming all persons are equal in God’s sight; Natural resources are sacred and we deplore practices of exploitation.
  5. We reject stereotypes and frames that depict American Indians in harmful or distorted ways.
  6. We observe that the belief systems of Native American Indians and non-natives may not have commonality.

Healing Relationships With Indigenous Persons

The United Methodist Church will build bridges of respect and understanding with indigenous persons. Our churches must listen and become educated about the history of the relationship between indigenous persons and Christian colonizers in their own geographic location. Through prayer and relationship building, they will celebrate the gifts that indigenous people bring to the body of Jesus in the world.

Acts of Repentance and Healing

At the 2012 General Conference, The United Methodist Church held an Act of Repentance with Native Peoples. The Act challenged every conference and local congregation to implement actions demonstrating a genuine attitude of repentance including:

  1. Encouragement and resourcing the education and training of laity and pastors by providing culturally sensitive learning environments.
  2. Primacy be given to learning and prioritizing Native American United Methodists in leadership, programming, education, strategizing, and establishment of Native ministry.
  3. Wherever the Church holds land and/or property in trust, give due priority and consideration to transferring a portion of the land and/or property back to the tribe(s) that are/were indigenous to the area.

Comity Agreements Affecting Development of American Indian Ministries

For the Church to consider and work in partnership with Native People to explore unique and culturally appropriate ways to be in ministry with Native People, The United Methodist Church will not be a party to any interdenominational agreement that limits the ability of any annual conference in any jurisdiction to develop and resource programs of ministry of any kind among American Indians.

Doctrine of Discovery

The United Methodist Church condemns the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal document used for the seizing of lands and abusing the human rights of indigenous peoples. The United Methodist Church will work toward eliminating the use of the Doctrine of Discovery.

American Indian Sacred and Religious Life, Practice, and Location

A. Sacredness and Solidarity

The General Conference of The United Methodist Church affirms the sacredness of American Indian people, their languages, cultures, and gifts to the church and the world.

We call upon the world and The United Methodist Church to receive the gifts of American Indians as people of God. We allow for the work of the Spirit of God among our communities and American Indian people without prejudice.

The United Methodist Church pledges its support and assistance in upholding American Indian practices including: Traditional ceremonies and rituals,

Access to and protection of sacred sites and public lands for ceremonial purposes,

Use of religious objects (feathers, tobacco, sweet grass, bones, shells, drums, etc.) in traditional ceremonies and rituals.

United Methodists are encouraged to stand in solidarity with American Indians on these important religious issues and to provide mediation when appropriate for ongoing negotiations with state and federal agencies regarding these matters.

B. Religious Freedom

The General Board of Church and Society will make available information on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The General Board of Church and Society will support legislation that provides for a legal cause of action when sacred sites may be affected by governmental action; proposed legislation should also provide for more extensive notice to and consultation with American Indian tribes and affected parties.

The General Board of Church and Society may enter and support court cases relating to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The General Board of Church and Society will communicate with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, declaring that the position of The United Methodist Church is to strengthen the

American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 for American Indians and preserve the God-given and constitutional rights of their religious freedom.

C. Sacred Sites

The General Board of Church and Society shall continue to support legislation that will provide for a legal course of action when sacred sites may be affected by governmental action. Proposed legislation should also provide for more extensive notice to and consultation with tribes. On behalf of the whole United Methodist Church, the General Board of Church and Society may enter and support court cases relating to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The General Board of Church and Society shall communicate with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, declaring that the position of The United Methodist Church is to strengthen the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and preserve the God-given and constitutional rights of religious freedom for American Indians, including the preservation of traditional American Indian sacred sites.

D. Repatriation of Ancestors and Religious/Sacred Ritual Objects

The 1990 National Native American Graves and Repatriation Act mandated the return of human remains and ritual objects to American Indian tribes and nations. Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival by Thomas White Wolf Fassett (a resource sponsored by United Methodist Women), On This Spirit Walk: The Voices of Native American and Indigenous Peoples by Henrietta Mann and Anita Phillips, and the “Return to the Earth” project of the Mennonite Central Committee are study guides to culturally relevant American Indian traditions that provide an opportunity for The United Methodist Church to engage in its commitment for Restorative Justice.

The United Methodist Church pledges its support in the following ways:

  1. Use the study guides as an educational resource;
  2. Engage in dialogue with American Indians in their local area;
  3. Advocate when appropriate; and
  4. Annual conferences and local churches consider identification of land and setting aside of land for the repatriation of American Indian remains.

American Indian History and Contemporary Culture as Related to Effective Church Participation

The General Board of Discipleship in cooperation with the Native American Comprehensive Plan, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the General Commission on Religion and Race will develop curriculum for the training of United Methodist pastors on the history of American Indians in the United States, their relationships with The United Methodist Church and its missiology.

The annual conference boards of ordained ministry in the United States and the Council of Bishops will ensure the implementation of the training within the next quadrennium. The Native American International Caucus will develop a list of leadership/resource persons that can be used as trainers for these sessions. United Methodist seminaries should include American Indian history and theology in their curriculum.

General Conference will advocate for the development and implementation of a training policy whereby American Indian history, culture, and contemporary affairs are an integral part of ministry and administrative training for all aspects of The United Methodist Church.

The General Conference supports a policy that the concept of “American Indian preference” be used in the selection of instructors and speakers for the proposed training components. The Native American International Caucus will provide a list of qualified American Indian leaders.

Leadership Development

It is recommended that The United Methodist Church will include Native American leadership development as a component of its overall effort to develop new leaders for the present and future of the Church. Included in these efforts will be mentoring programs, peer support systems, and restoring traditional and historic ways that bring forth new leaders for Native American communities.

Native American Ministries Sunday

All annual conferences should promote the observance of Native American Ministries Sunday, and encourage local churches to support American Indian Sunday with programming and offerings.

American Indian Representation in The United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church will develop a policy that will ensure American Indians representative of every jurisdiction will be identified, selected, and placed on pertinent boards and/or committees of general agencies. All entities of The United Methodist Church will develop a policy by which Native Americans from within all the jurisdictions will be identified to be considered to be placed on their boards and agencies.

American Indian Tribal Sovereignty

The United Methodist Church reaffirms its support for tribal sovereignty and commends the following guidance that acknowledges and affirms American Indian sovereignty as a significant fact that cannot be ignored or disregarded. American Indians have a right to self-governance. The General Board of Church and Society will identify legislation impacting American Indians, and develop communications advocating for the obligation of the United States on its treaties with American Indians.

Missions With American Indians

The General Board of Global Ministries will identify and promote innovative and culturally appropriate mission opportunities with American Indian tribes and communities.

Economic Development

The United Methodist Church supports the efforts of American Indian tribes, communities, and economic ventures compatible with the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church to create means and methods of economic development.

The General Board of Church and Society, General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Board of Global Ministries in collaboration with American Indians will develop educational tools for local churches and individuals as a study on contemporary American Indian economic issues.

The General Board of Church and Society will work with the National Congress of American Indians and other American Indian organizations in advocating for federal economic development programs and initiatives.

The General Board of Church and Society, General Board of Global Ministries, and United Methodist Women will facilitate participation of United Methodist American Indians in the work of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on economic development. United Methodist Women will continue to make available Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival by Thomas White Wolf Fassett.


The General Conference endorses and supports development, implementation, and assessment of a higher education recruitment/retention forum, sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for Native Americans throughout the denomination’s regions. The forum will be organized and man- aged by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in cooperation with Native American leadership.

Be it further resolved, that the General Conference encourages The United Methodist Church to use the information and materials generated as a result of the forum for sensitizing and familiarizing non-Indian membership about Native Americans in their respective communities.

Health and Wholeness

The United Methodist Church supports access to adequate medical services to ensure a balance of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and asks that the US Congress increase rather than decrease federal funds to operate American Indian health facilities.

The General Board of Global Ministries will support funding of economic development projects of American Indian tribes.

The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits will pursue investment of funds in American Indian financial institutions and communities.


See Social Principles, ¶ 162A.

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