Members attending worship on Aug. 10 at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly felt the first rhythm of difference that the evening would bring.
The Imnizaska Dakota Drum Group of St. Paul, Minn., greeted worshipers with its beat on the large drum, with several men drumming the song out on the percussive instrument while chanting, accompanied by the voices of women standing behind them. The song created a sense of a communion between worshipers, leaders and the Spirit alike.
But prior to the drumbeats, the Gospel text read in Lakota, the music chanted in Muscogee (or Muskogee) and a presiding minister from the Osage Nation leading worship, there were months of planning and preparation to put together the American Indian and Alaska Native service.
Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation and the first Native American woman to receive a doctorate in theology in the ELCA, said planning started 18 months to two years prior to the assembly. “I was afraid John [Weit, ELCA executive for worship] wasn’t going to let me do anything, but John was great and gave me a lot of leeway,” she said.
The planning originated from a task force of Native and non-Native Lutherans focused on active repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. The group formed after the 2016 Churchwide Assembly formally stated the ELCA’s complicity in propagating the doctrine and its desire to make amends for the hostilities, destruction and trauma inflicted upon the American Indian and Alaska Native people who have lived in North America for thousands of years.
“There was a large number of us,” Sherman-Conroy said. “Me and Bishop Eric Gronberg [of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod] were tasked with the liturgy.”
The hope, she said, was to do something similar to what was done after the repudiation in 2016, but with more voices involved in the process. To accomplish that, the team brought in leaders from the American Indian and Alaska Native desk as well as leaders who represented geographic locales throughout the United States and the different nations who have members inside the ELCA.
“Within the liturgy in itself, there are parts specifically for people of European descent and there are parts where Native people are reading.”
“We started through conversations about what was it that we wanted to do and understand what message that we wanted to get across,” Sherman-Conroy said. The message focused on understanding the “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery” and what it means for both the ELCA and Indigenous people, but also celebrating the rich heritage and identity of Indigenous people today.
“If you notice within the liturgy in itself, there are parts specifically for people of European descent and there are parts where Native people are reading, and that was intentional,” she said, referring to the repentance in the service where worshipers responded as worship leaders spoke about the harm that has happened through the years of colonization and expansion of what is now the United States. At times white leaders, such as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, spoke about how the repudiation is just a step along the larger path toward reconciliation and that more work is needed.
“You’ll see bits and pieces that came from the original repudiation,” Sherman-Conroy said.
The work also included selecting the right music to go along with the words spoken, the prayers lifted up and the word read. Some of the songs, such as the Gospel acclamation, came from traditional text sung in churches throughout the United States. Others stemmed from text created by Native people and music written by Latiné musicians.
The Latiné songs were chosen to emphasize the broad geographical imprint Indigenous people have in the world. Sherman-Conroy said she works with Indigenous Mexican people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and it helps her understand where they are in the story of all people.
“Indigenous people,” she said, “are beyond that spectrum” of what we like to think in the United States. They know there are Indigenous people all around the world, not just in North America.
Another song, “Lord, What a Time to Celebrate,” was written by Sherman-Conroy as a prayer for the World Council of Churches. An artist had put the words to music, which both she and Weit hadn’t previously heard. The upbeat sound stood out among the rest of the service, but, Sherman-Conroy said, it fit well as part of the celebration of Indigenous identity.
Harmony and community
As the liturgy came together, the unifying theme of harmony and community stood out. Before the service, R. Guy Erwin, president of United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania, said, “I’m hoping that [worshipers] have a sense that there is a central harmony, a central spirituality, a central understanding of Creation and the presence of God that everyone will be able to understand.” Erwin, a member of the Osage Nation, presided over the service.
Tying together the different cultural characteristics that make up the many nations wasn’t easy, but both Erwin and Sherman-Conroy spoke of the universalness, rather than the underlying divisions that can be found in the nations.
“It is impossible to speak of Natives as being one monolithic thing. The challenge for us is to be fair in the resources we draw from when we want to put something together that represents nativeness in North America in general,” Erwin said.
Since the 19th century, the Native population has drastically declined, now representing a small percentage of the overall population in the United States and Canada. In response, different nations have reached out to work together, representing a type of pan-Indian identity to help push through legislation and continue some of the different traditions that may be similar between the nations. Such actions lead to the central harmony and understanding that Erwin mentioned.
“I learned a lot in the process, as well,” Sherman-Conroy said. “It is hard to try to take from one or the other. We don’t want to do it that way, but we want to represent it well. So the idea is to just try and [ask], ‘What things as Indigenous people are universal?’ And it’s that we see each other as family and how we incorporate the ‘we’ instead of the ‘I’ in our language.”
“It is impossible to speak of Natives as being one monolithic thing.”
That learning opportunity goes beyond the planners of the liturgy to the worshipers who attended the assembly service and beyond. Erwin said he hopes that it fosters questions, asking why they decided to do such things as praying to the four directions of the earth or prominently using the drum circle at the beginning of the service and during communion.
The greater hope, he said, is that it also leads congregations to work to understand their place in the larger story of settlement in North America and for every Lutheran to see how Natives fit into that story. Land acknowledgment is one way to better understand the story, Sherman-Conroy said. But it must be more than just words reciting history.
“It’s not saying ‘the Sioux people once walked this land,” she said about the understanding, specifically in land acknowledgments. “We’re still here. Educate yourself in what you are doing, who the people are ….”
To do that, it’s important to understand who was on the land first and where they are now. What happened to them and how does the church play a role in that story? Sherman-Conroy encourages people to learn the history of who they are and discover the trail that connects the land to the original nations who dwelt there and then ask how the land has been disrupted specifically by a group, church or organization in more recent history.
“I feel land acknowledgments is a form of activism in how we motivate people and teach [them] about Indigenous people,” she said. She urges Lutherans to continue to foster the understanding of the American Indian and Alaska Native nations by reading literature written by citizens of the nations themselves. Their stories are told with a background and knowledge that European-descent writers could never have, she added.