This is an article from the May-June 1994 issue: Native Americans

Native American Peoples

Who is going to love them?

Native American Peoples

Christine had seven children. Their father had died years before, leaving her as a young widow to rear them alone. She did what she could, but with two social liabilities: she was a single mom and she was an Indian. When we met her, five of her children were grown and mostly out of the house, including two daughters. Each of these had borne a child out of wedlock, and it had fallen to Christine to start all over, nurturing her grandchildren.

One day when we dropped in to see her, she had a third grandbaby. She had decided to take him, too, she told us. His mother was drinking, on the street, in no condition to care for the children she kept producing.

We tried to counsel Christine to find a good foster home for them. She needed to rest. She couldn't continue to mother small children indefinitely.

But she shook her head. It was nine years ago, but I can still see the weary lines on her gentle face; her poignant words still ring in my ears: "But who's gonna care for them? Who's gonna love Native kids, Gary?" She didn't come easily to such woe. Her complaint captures the heartbeat of three million mostly unloved aboriginal people of North America.

Native Americans aren't just another ethnic minority. They were here first. Except for the Africans brought here as slaves, all the other ethnic minorities of this continent came here looking for a better way of life. But Indians were already here when everyone else descended on them. Their perspective is often back to the past, a longing to recover something of the old ways now gone forever. That may not mean much to a lot of people, but it means a lot to them and it gives them a historical significance that deserves our attention.

For eight years, Valerie and I served with InterAct Ministries as church-planting missionaries among Native North Americans. That's just long enough to understand their view a little bit, and to see why it's so important that caring Christians share the love of Jesus Christ with them and work for the establishment of indigenous churches among them. For five reasons, I believe this with all my heart:

1. They are distinct peoples

Somehow, because Native Americans have always been among us, we tend to view them as well-tanned white people. A well-meaning friend once asked me, "Gary, how are we going to help Indians assimilate into our culture?" The fact is, assimilation is not their goal. Their world view and values are very different from the white culture. In many ways, their perspective is similar to other tribal cultures of perhaps Asia or Africa. Yet their history is unique, a history we may have forgotten, but they have not. Much of the following account of the Plains Indian is true for others as well.

It is hard for the white man to realize the suffering of the red man in the first sharp crisis of adjustment to the new life. The span of one generation brought to the Indian of the plains change such as the white man experienced only through long centuries of evolution, the change from the life of primitive man to that of civilization.

In the white man's invasion of the plains and in the advent of the railroad, the red man saw his own doom. All efforts of the Indian to stem the stream of settlement pouring though his territory was as a straw against the tide. The railroad brought more white men; the buffalo vanished, and with it passed forever from the Indian the old life, the only life he had ever known.

The change was swift and cruel. "The earth is our mother," had declared the Indian. But now no longer was the Indian the free child of the prairie. Confined in reservations and fed on rations, or transported to another climate where he fevered and died; swept by disease, bewildered amid conflicting change, crushed in spirit and broken of heart, the Plains Indian at this period presents to the calm eye of history a tragic picture of the workings of a seemingly relentless destiny.

2. They are despised peoples

Christine didn't make that stuff up about nobody loving Indian kids. She had lived too long in the contempt of too many people to entertain any illusions about where society stands on the issue. It shows up in lots of ways.

Christine's own son saw it one day at the birthday party of a friend. After playing outdoors, it was time to go in for the rest of the party. He was the last one to get to the door when his host turned to him and said, "You can't come in; you're an Indian" and closed the door in his face.

I visited a home on the reservation one day and found the three men of that family building an outhouse to accommodate the crowds at the rodeo grounds next door. When I walked up, they stopped working, and I suddenly realized they were waiting for me to tell them what to do. After all, I was a white man. Never mind that I was young, entirely inexperienced at the work they were about, and had just arrived. I was white, and white guys always give instructions. It took them several minutes to see that I wouldn't take over, and they went back to work.

3. They are needy peoples.

Native North Americans were once the proud lords of the land. They have never lost their pride, but they have been reduced from landlord to mere tenant.

Robert Moffat is the Canadian director of InterAct Ministries. Though speaking of Canada's Indians, his analysis applies equally to many Native Americans as well.

"Their struggle for identity and recognition as a people seems to have made little progress. Economically and socially they still are at the bottom of almost any statistical report. Fewer natives than non-natives acquire an education, fewer join the labor force, most live in sub-standard housing and yet the Native population is growing and is younger than the rest of the population."

"Their struggle for identity and recognition as a people seems to have made little progress. Economically and socially they still are at the bottom of almost any statistical report. Fewer natives than non-natives acquire an education, fewer join the labor force, most live in sub-standard housing and yet the Native population is growing and is younger than the rest of the population."

4. They are hidden, unreached peoples.

The statistics given above are lamentable. But even more significant is the fact that, by the best estimate, fewer than two percent of the Native people of North America attend an evangelical church or fellowship.

Missionary effort has advanced from the West around the globe. In fact, the line between mission field and receiving field has all but disappeared in many places as the number of missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America is increasing much faster than those from the West. To be sure, there is still a pressing need for Western missionaries in many lands, but the North American church has largely neglected a primary hidden people under its very nose. Why? Because everybody knows real missionaries go someplace foreign and exotic. Because too few have aimed for the unreached peoples among us here in North America, of whom, the aboriginal people of this continent, are the first.

5.They are important peoples

Every people is important to God, the Scripture is clear about that. Among those of "every tribe and tongue and people and nation" mentioned in Rev 5:9 will be Native North Americans. But for another reason, they are important. Byang Kato has said of an African tribe, "The significance of the Jaba people lies not in size but in historical context." So it is with the American Indian, the first lords of this prominent land. They rescued starving pilgrims, fought America's enemies, guided its pioneers. In traditional family values, in respect for elders, in art, in sharing with the needy, in many virtues, we have much to learn from American Indians. Modern governments pattern their structure, many unknowingly, on the Six Nations Confederacy of the Iroquois Nation from the 14th century. The Six Nations founder, Peacemaker, bestowed on his generals some advice sorely needed by today's more sophisticated but no more competent legislators: "Think not forever of yourselves, O chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground.

" No culture has escaped the taint of Adam's fall. And no people have hope outside the perfect work of the Lord Jesus. But Native Americans have a contribution to make to the global church, one that we will be poorer without if we do not humbly offer the gospel to them in their context. For the sake of the Native American, for the benefit of the church, most of all for the glory of God, we must rise up and bring them Jesus.

Gary Brumbelow is the Public Ministries Director for InterAct Ministries in Boring, Oregon and has worked for many years in behalf of Native Americans. You may contact him at:

InterAct Ministries 31000 SE Kelso Rd Boring, Oregon 97009 503-668-5571 503-668-6814 fax

This article is reprinted by permission of the Great Commission Handbook, 1994 edition, Berry Publishing Services


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