ATLANTA – The Atlanta-based General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church is dedicating its Oct. 12-14, 2018, board meeting to educating the 37 members about issues impacting Native peoples. The focus stems from the denomination’s 2012 Act of Repentance service, which called on all United Methodists to take steps toward healing relationships with indigenous peoples.
“The Act of Repentance has helped to awaken United Methodists to Native American ministries and encouraged them to take indigenous people seriously,” said Thomas Kemper, top executive of Global Ministries. “We want to deepen this movement with a visible acknowledgement of Native Americans and their concerns.”
When the board relocated from New York to Atlanta in 2016, the issue of Native mascots naturally arose, according to Kemper. Atlanta is the home of the Braves major league baseball team, and the name offends many Native Americans. The United Methodist Church has long supported resolutions to change such usage for sports teams, including a resolution asking that United Methodist meetings not be held in mascot cities; that resolution was adopted in 2004 but changed to remove the language in 2016.
Building a healthy relationship and educating the local community on Native issues has been a priority for Global Ministries leadership, said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, who oversees Native American and Indigenous Ministries at the board. He recently led a daylong meeting with the second-largest school system in Georgia.
“Many school systems do not have curriculum on Native Americans,” said Kernell. “We are working with the DeKalb Public Schools teachers and administrators to encourage them to enhance their curriculum about Native Americans.” A 2014 study on academic standards showed that 87 percent of history books in the U.S. portray Native Americans as a population existing before 1900. Because of this, the research found, many Americans don’t know or understand contemporary Native issues.
“While some people mistakenly believe that Native mascots are harmless or even respectful, the mascots actually represent a continued dehumanization of Native peoples and do real psychological harm to Native children,” said the Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan. “It’s good to see [Global Ministries] take seriously its responsibility to indigenous peoples.”
Another important issue is the invisibility of Native peoples and their contributions in the larger society, according to Kernell. He said the city of Atlanta sits on the traditional homelands of the Creek Indians. The Creek Peachtree village was located near the Chattahoochee River and served as an important Native trading post.
“Part of normalizing our silence is pushing Native history to the wayside,” said Kernell. “We have to dig to find where our sites exist.” By 1823, the Creeks were forced from their territory, and the area became the property of the state of Georgia and home to white settlers.
Global Ministries board members will visit the Standing Peachtree village as part of their meeting to commemorate the site and to learn more about the role of Native people in this area of the country. Board members will also view a documentary on the Washington, D.C., football team and a presentation from the producer. A panel with Native scholars is also planned to discuss other contemporary Native issues.
Global Ministries added two Native Americans to its board for the 2016-20 quadrennium.
“This commitment and action by [Global Ministries] to include Native people and our issues in their board meeting is important, and it matters,” said Phillips. “We are six years after the Act of Repentance service, and only half of the annual conferences have taken steps to hold an Act of Repentance service. I don’t want The United Methodist Church consciousness to forget about us or the commitments that were made to us.”