By: Christa Meland
Across the country, there are indigenous people living through generational trauma and feeling rejected by the world. That grieves Rev. Dawn Houser, and she wants to do something about it.
“If I can help other people to understand that God created them to be Native American and that God loves them for who they are—what peace and joy that brings,” she said.
Houser is Ojibwe and a descendant of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her desire to both affirm fellow Native Americans and bring awareness to Native American people and culture prompted her to join the Minnesota Conference Committee on Native American Ministry (CONAM), which she has chaired for several years.
In recognition of Native American Ministries Sunday on April 23, we want to highlight some of CONAM’s recent efforts as well as some of the hopes and dreams of the members of that ministry team. (Download resources to use on Native American Ministries Sunday, provided by Houser and CONAM.)
In the beginning, CONAM (previously the Native American Ministry Action Team) existed to bring an awareness of Native American Christians to the Minnesota Conference and to serve as a bridge between the two. But in recent years, CONAM has ramped up the awareness piece and developed a new focus: allyship.
“We are helping people understand how they can be a good ally and how can we partner together with the church and the common culture to engage in Native American ministry with Native American people,” Houser said. “People are afraid of what they don’t know, and we can help them see that there’s nothing mysterious about Native American people and Native American spirituality.”
CONAM is partnering with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and United Women in Faith (UWF) to offer a “Being an Ally” pre-conference workshop the afternoon of Tuesday, May 30, the day before Annual Conference. Using the structure of Native American healing circles and restorative practices, attendees will learn about the ways we can be present for and supportive of marginalized people without taking over and doing harm.
All Annual Conference attendees are also invited to participate in a brief water ceremony immediately prior to the start of the gathering on May 31. Those interested should gather at the river walk outside of the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud for a blessing over the water and a reminder that water is life, followed by an opportunity to engage in smudging with sage. Smudging is a ritual used to cleanse an individual or a space of negative energy.
Last year, CONAM and Aitkin UMC (where Houser serves) partnered to allow Houser to dedicate a portion of her time each week to research Native American ministry and explore how the Minnesota Conference might engage in ministry with indigenous people.
One of the things that’s come out of that: Houser recently submitted a $10,000 grant application to the Foundation for Evangelism. If selected as a recipient, CONAM plans to partner with a strategically located church in each district to help to plant Native American ministry.
“We want to teach, walk alongside them, and give the congregation and pastor some tools to help them engage in contextualized ministry and learn new techniques for community building among Native American people,” said Houser.
CONAM is also exploring the possibility of working with another mainline denomination to relaunch a Native American church in the Twin Cities. She can’t say too much more yet, but it’s something about which she’s excited.
CONAM hopes to eventually lead the conference in an act of repentance, but Houser said the conference isn’t yet ready. She wants to make sure that such an act isn’t a matter of simply checking off a box but instead serves as a meaningful commitment.
“An act of repentance is laying down a marker saying we’re sorry for things that have been done and in repentance we’re going to make changes so it never happens again,” she said. “We want to help people understand that an act of repentance isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of a changed way of working together.”
Rev. Guy Sederski, who is part of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Odanah, Wisconsin, has been involved in CONAM since 2005 and previously chaired the ministry team.
“I want to make a difference in the ministry that United Methodists have with Native Americans,” he said. Growing up, Sederski knew he was Native American but his family never talked about it as “it was not something to be proud of and culture was never directly taught.” In the late 1990s while working as an American Indian youth advocate for special education in Duluth schools, he finally started to embrace his heritage.
“I found my life could make an impact on Native American students, and this is where my culture became part of my day-to-day life,” said Sederski, who serves Amboy and Beauford UMCs as retired clergy.
But all these years later, it still often feels like Native Americans are invisible—including in the Minnesota Conference.
“It feels like we are unseen,” said Sederski, whose father was taken to a Native American boarding school at age 5. “We do not have a UMC Native American church or fully funded project. There are around 17,000 Urban Native Americans in the Twin Cities area. Where are we?...My hope is for a fully funded center that includes a place safe for students and parents as well as other natives to know their culture is respected and practiced without judgement,” he said.
Rev. Paula Gaboury, who serves the United Church of Two Harbors, joined CONAM three years ago when she and Houser were both participating in the Native American Course of Study.
“Being able to join the circle, listening and learning from elders, and supporting the initiatives of CONAM has been humbling and exhilarating,” said Gaboury, whose eldest grandson is a member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa in the northwestern part of the state.
Gaboury said it pains her knowing how much damage the church has brought upon Native people, and it’s important to her to be in relationship with and learn from them.
“My hope is that we, as a conference, can partner with indigenous people to listen to what they have to say,” she said. “So often we non-natives want to fix what we perceive is broken, which many times does more harm than good.”
Bill Konrardy, who attends Lake Harriet UMC in Minneapolis, joined CONAM in 2012, and Houser calls him “an amazing ally.”
“I reject the religion of whiteness and desire to push that out,” said Konrardy. “I may have been domesticated into that religion and I need out.”
Several years ago, Konrardy organized screenings of “Disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery—Unmasking the Domination Code” for Minnesota United Methodists and has even taken lessons to learn how to speak Dakota.
“We have some real serious challenges to right the wrongs and end the religion of whiteness and be in right relationship with our Native American hosts,” said Konrardy. “My heart breaks when our religious language, symbols, and actions continue to harm.”
Native American Ministries Sunday
Many churches will take a special offering on Native American Ministries Sunday. Ordinarily, part of that offering stays in Minnesota and a portion goes on to the general church. Houser wants people to know that they can designate that their full offering stay in Minnesota to support the initiatives described above. Do so by sending a check to the Minnesota Conference Office or donating online and writing “CONAM” in the memo line or the notes section.
If your church or ministry wants to partner with CONAM or learn more about Native American ministry, Houser would love to talk with you. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church