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Commentary: Deere did ‘holy work’ for all Native Americans

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The Rev. Alvin Deer

July 7, 2005

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Alvin Deer*

When the Rev. Kenneth Deere lost his bout with cancer on June 23, I lost a friend. On June 27, we celebrated his life at his home church of Salt Creek, a place he dearly loved.   

During his 27 years of serving in the Washington-based United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, Kenneth would long for the simpler life of Salt Creek, in rural Holdenville, Oklahoma. It was a place he went many times to re-center himself before returning to the battle for equality and dignity for all Native Americans. 

Kenneth Deere was a veteran. Not only did he serve honorably in the U.S. Marine Corps, but he served on other front lines not that familiar to Americans.  

He was in Washington when the American Indian Movement took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, and he offered assistance as clergy during the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973. These events happened at the height of the civil rights movement for Native Americans. Wounded Knee was the site of an 1890 Army massacre in South Dakota against a peaceful Lakota band led by Chief Bigfoot. The 1973 siege, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover, were symbolic stands against corruption in the bureau and police brutality.

Kenneth lived with knowing that when he was born in 1936, his parents had been U.S. citizens for only 12 years, even though they were born in America. American Indians were not granted the rights of citizenship until 1924. And it wasn’t until 1980 that the United Methodist Church granted voting rights to delegates from Deere’s home conference, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. 

One of the last fronts on which Kenneth fought was the issue of Native American symbols being used as sports mascots. For the last few years, he would travel to Cleveland for opening day of the baseball season, attend a Native American conference and then picket Jacobs Field, where the Cleveland Indians baseball team plays.  

There, die-hard supporters of the “Chief Wahoo” mascot called Kenneth and the other picketing Native Americans every name in the book. The Indians whom the fans loved were pretend Indians, who conjured up every stereotype about Native Americans they could think of to the delight of Cleveland Indians followers. 

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The Rev. Kenneth J. Deere

Kenneth was behind the passing of a resolution to denounce Native American sports mascots at the 2004 General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s top legislative gathering, in Pittsburgh. Delegates from around the world rejected the use of Native American names and symbols for sport teams, calling the practice dehumanizing and a blatant expression of racism. They also noted that their denomination has been one of many faith groups calling for respect for Native American legacies and traditions. The resolution, approved 842-10, reaffirmed the church’s commitment to “participate actively in the continued struggle of building the true community of God, where reconciliation comes together with justice and peace.”  

The General Conference called upon all churchwide agencies, annual conferences and other United Methodist-related entities to hold meetings and events only in cities that do not sponsor sport teams using Native American names and symbols. After choosing an event location, the organization should state the denomination’s position regarding Native American names.  

My friend Ken died without seeing either society or the United Methodist Church take this work seriously. Recently, United Methodist-related McMurry University, in the former wild West town of Abilene, Texas, rejected changing its mascot name from the “Indians.” 

I asked the question at Ken’s funeral: Is social justice holy work? Conservative and ultra-conservative circles, both political and religious, see social justice as secular and not godly. The word we use in the church to describe the work Kenneth Deere did is “advocate.” He was a true advocate for all ethnic people.  

A funny thing is that the word “advocate” is also a word used for the Holy Spirit.  Some people might say there was nothing holy about Ken, but he did some holy work. Psalm 82:3 says: “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy.” We forget that sometimes in the church. But the very heart of God is with the least, the last and the lost. Social justice is holy work. 

Kenneth Deere once told a colleague a lesson he learned about red ants. He was told by an uncle to stand on an ant hill and wait. It wasn’t long before the ants got his attention. How Kenneth accomplished his work many times was the work of a red ant. Those tiny little red ants can bring a sting that will make someone a 1,000 times larger move. This was how Ken got the church to move. His sting, though small in a church of 10 million, was enough to get the attention of anyone who stood on his ant hill.

We will miss Ken Deere. The church will miss his sting. 

*Deer is executive director of the Native American International Caucus, a United Methodist advocacy organization.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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