COLUMBUS, Ohio (RNS) — There was a time when Lutherans were recognized as the advocates for Indigenous peoples, according to Vance Blackfox, director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United States’ largest Lutheran denomination.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lutherans vocally supported the American Indian Movement, said Blackfox, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the first to hold his position in the ELCA. They set an example for how Christians can engage in justice work for and with Indigenous peoples.
Blackfox said it’s time for Lutherans to lead again.
“We have a history, we have a heritage of doing the right thing, and we will continue to do that. I truly believe it,” he said.
Blackfox’s remarks came as the denomination — meeting for its triennial Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, this week — shared its Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to American Indian and Alaska Native People for the first time in person. Adopted by the ELCA Church Council in September, the five-page document includes confessions to Indigenous peoples inside and outside of the denomination, as well as a confession to non-Indigenous members of the ELCA.
“We confess that we are complicit in the annihilation of Native peoples and your cultures, languages, and religions, and that we have refused to truly recognize the harm that we have caused our Native siblings,” the declaration reads.
The assembly also heard an address from National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, who is vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington. Sharp, who thanked the denomination on behalf of the 574 tribal nations across the United States, said the work ahead of the denomination is “humanly impossible,” but that together they can overcome those barriers.
“Our ancestors long foretold a day of reckoning when this world and this life was not consistent with our values. At some point, there would be a day of reckoning — a moment of truth, healing and reconciliation. Those predictions from so long ago were for our generation,” she said.
“We are that generation.”
Sharp’s address was followed by a worship service designed and led by Indigenous Lutherans that included drumming, smudging, prayers to the four directions, a time of repentance and an offering collected for the denomination’s partnership with the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Later in the day, voting members of the Churchwide Assembly introduced a resolution (approved on Thursday) encouraging ELCA entities to consider returning land to Indigenous groups. At the urging of the American Indian and Alaska Native Lutheran Association, many in the convention hall wore red to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
All of these steps are a result of the denomination’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery at its 2016 Churchwide Assembly, which created the task force that wrote the declaration presented this week.
They also reflect the current reckoning in the Roman Catholic Church and a number of Protestant denominations with boarding schools — some established in the 19th century but active into the 20th — where Indigenous children were taken and separated from their families and cultures.
“It was really important to do this with Indigenous voices being lifted up, and not somehow as an accessory to the ELCA, but this is who we are. These people are in our church, and our church is also complicit,” ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton told Religion News Service.
The declaration presented by the task force contains not only confessions, but also pledges to eliminate racism and white supremacy in the denomination, to develop Native leaders and encourage the return of land. It closes with an acknowledgment that its words must be accompanied by action.
“We understand that no document, no matter how carefully crafted, will accomplish the actions of truth and the work of justice as it relates to our American Indian and Alaska Native siblings,” it reads.
Members of the Doctrine of Discovery task force shared examples of actions already being taken across the ELCA, including a Montana church that is hosting Cree language immersion programs on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation; a group of writers developing an Indigenous response to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism; and the denomination’s advocacy for a federal truth commission focused on the U.S. government’s Indian boarding school program.
The ELCA is one of several Protestant denominations and Catholic groups supporting such a commission as the U.S. Department of the Interior continues work on its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
The ELCA has launched its own initiative, Blackfox said, and is looking for researchers to help the denomination — which marks its 35th anniversary this year — learn more about the role earlier Lutheran churches and institutions played in boarding schools.
Along with his newly created position, he said, it’s a sign the denomination is moving in the right direction.
“My work in tribal relations is not only to build relationships with sovereign nations across this land, across Turtle Island, but it’s also to help this church understand how to be in better relationship, right relationship, with those sovereign nations.”
“This is a new way of doing work with Indigenous people, with Native nations,” he said.