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United Methodists affirm Native American nations

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference Children's Choir sings April 27 during worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Green*
May 22, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference reaffirmed Native American tribal sovereignty, called for non-gambling forms of tribal economic development and continued a national comprehensive plan.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 561 tribal governments in the United States, and the 2003 U.S. census estimates there are more than 2.7 million Native Americans. The United Methodist Church has more than 18,000 known Native Americans among its 8 million U.S. members. While many are part of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Native American ministries exist throughout the country.

General Conference, the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church, amended and readopted a 2004 resolution on "Native American Tribal Sovereignty" during the assembly's 10-day meeting that ended May 2 in Fort Worth.

The resolution notes that native nations were sovereign, autonomous and self-regulating before they had contact with Europeans following the 1492 arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus. During the American Revolution, tribes and tribal federations continued to have sovereign status. Following creation of the U.S. government, 371 government treaties were signed between 1788 and 1871 that guaranteed sovereign status to the native nations.

The resolution, adopted April 30 at General Conference, says that while early Supreme Court decisions supported and affirmed tribal sovereignty, recent decisions have either ignored or contradicted earlier rulings and thus undermined tribal sovereignty. It also notes that the National Congress of American Indians has appealed to churches and religious institutions to urge the U.S. government to "exercise moral responsibility in upholding treaty obligations and trust responsibilities with Native peoples."

The resolution, submitted by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, declares Native American sovereignty is "a historical fact––is significant––and it cannot be disregarded in favor of political expediency. American Indians have a right to self govern."

The General Conference asked church leaders to call upon the U.S. government to uphold and honor all treaty obligations and trust responsibilities to Native people and directed the church's Board of Church and Society to present the entire resolution to the president of the United States, the U.S. Congress, the Secretary of the Interior, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Congress of Native Americans.

The resolution, to be added to the United Methodist Book of Resolutions, urges clergy and laity to educate themselves and their churches about tribal sovereignty, including the actions that they can take to support American, Alaskan and Hawaiian native people.

Comprehensive plan

In an April 28 vote, the General Conference approved continuation of the Native American Comprehensive Plan for another four years and approved its $1.2 million budget. Conference action also moved the plan from its 16-year home at the church's Board of Global Ministries to the Board of Discipleship.

Mandated by the 1992 General Conference, the plan was created to help United Methodists view Native Americans as partners in ministry rather than as a mission of the church. It seeks to make disciples for Jesus Christ within the Native American community while recognizing the unique cultures and languages of native people.

Specifically, the plan's mandate is to:

  • Develop and strengthen native congregations, ministries and fellowships;
  • Train and develop native leaders; and
  • Encourage their contributions to the life of the church.

Keys to each area are contributions that Native American cultures and spiritual expression bring to the mission of the whole church.

The mission, focus and objectives of the Native American Comprehensive Plan for 2009-2012 directly relate to the mission, focus and objectives of the Board of Discipleship. The plan will resource, strengthen and advocate for the local church in Native American communities. Its goals include assisting annual conferences in establishing Native American churches and developing resources, leadership and curriculum.

Economic development

In another amended resolution, delegates supported the economic development for Native Americans, outside of gambling, which the church calls "a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, and destructive of good government."

The resolution notes that the need for economic development and growth is critical in most Native American communities across the United States, particularly on reservations. Economic development, the resolution states, involves everything from job creation to tax code reform to creating banking institutions to the expansion of tribal autonomy and development of basic physical infrastructure, telecommunications and literacy for native people.

Delegates called the church to:

  • Support the efforts of sovereign Native American nations to create means of economic development that do not depend upon gambling or disrupt sacred sites;
  • Urge the U.S. government to affirm tribal sovereignty;
  • Direct the boards of Church and Society and Discipleship, in collaboration with Native Americans, to develop study documents for local churches and people to study native issues;
  • Authorize the Board of Church and Society to work with the National Congress of American Indians and other Native American organizations in advocating federal economic development programs and facilitating the participation of United Methodist Native Americans in the work of the United Nations Permanent Fund on indigenous issues;
  • Urge the Board of Global Ministries to support funding of Native American economic development projects; and
  • Urge the Board of Pension and Health Benefits to invest monies in Native American financial institutions and community organizations.

Burial sites

By a vote of 825-29, General Conference delegates added a new Native American-related resolution to the Book of Resolutions on the importance of burial sites and interment of bones to Native Americans. "Return to the Earth" describes the project by the Mennonite Central Committee that supports Native Americans in burying unidentifiable ancestral remains that are now scattered across the United States and enables a process of education and reconciliation between native and non-native peoples.

In the resolution, The United Methodist Church resolves to:

  • Support the Return to Earth project by using the project's study guide as an educational tool;
  • Talk with Native Americans inside and outside the church and engage in advocacy;
  • Help construct cedar burial boxes and sewing of burial clothes for remains; and
  • Give money to the project.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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