Indigenous Communities and Non-Traditional Christian Texts

Chebon Kernell is the Executive Secretary for all indigenous and native ministries around the world for the United Methodist Church. He was a member of the New Orleans Council that selected new ancient texts to be included in A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Including Traditional and Recently Discovered Texts, and he was the Westar Institute’s first recipient of its Advocate for Public Religious Literacy (APRL) award in 2016.Fellow minister and Westar Fellow Hal Taussig nominated Kernell for his tireless efforts to educate the general public, including not only mainstream American Christians but also native peoples themselves, about the “deep and broad religious riches” of indigenous peoples in the context of reconciliation work and the recovery of native practices.

Kernell will be one of many presenters at the October 2016 event, “Enlivening Scripture: Resurrecting New Texts and New Meanings for Yesterday, Today, and Beyond,” in Boulder, Colorado, about which you can learn more here. He will be joined there by Hal Taussig, John Dominic Crossan, Ann Graham Brock, and many other presenters all interested in exploring how nontraditional texts can contribute to our lives today.

In the spirit of that upcoming conversation and to celebrate his award, I invited him to talk with me about his work.

Does your interest in a “new” New Testament stem from your work with indigenous communities? What’s the connection between these two interests?

I wish I could say it’s all intentional. Hal and I crossed paths by happenstance. My literacy with Crossan and Borg helped open the door to get involved with the New New Testament project on early Christian writings. The orthodoxy entrenched in certain forms of Christianity concerns me, and I’ve wanted to go right at that and identify why it was framed the way it was. So it’s exciting to look at the early Christian writings and see a level of diversity that is still being worked out today.

I began sharing early Christian oral sayings with native peoples, who see the parallels across tribal cultures. New ideas just blossom when we ask how it was in the ancient world, and people find themselves with a new hunger. We need to release that information.  When I have presented this knowledge, I don’t couch it with explanations or disclaimers; I just use it. When I read from the Gospel of Truth, “You are the perfect day,” not only in the US but internationally, tears come out of people’s eyes because they have always heard the opposite.

What are most people missing when it comes to indigenous traditions? What is just not well enough understood or appreciated?

The first answer that I speak about to communities, non-native and native, is recognizing the beauty of the traditional practices we have been able to maintain. Practices that have been a part of Native American cultures since prior to contact with non-native peoples—spirituality, language, dances, ceremonies and more. This appreciation for our entire identity crosses over into our cosmology: how do we acknowledge that all of creation works in harmony, not just with humanity but all of creation? We can appreciate the diversity and the ways of life that are still in existence to this day.

That leads to a second response to this question. Indigenous people on this continent are still here, and we are still functioning. Many persons throughout our country are often surprised by this revelation.  History books have not done due diligence in understanding or teaching about native people or the history we possess. I was speaking at a conference once where one person was almost in shock that there was a native person who was also a Christian clergy person. They couldn’t believe I existed!

Finally, there needs to be more recognition of how diverse native peoples are, how diverse this continent was and is still today. We’re looking at over 500 different entities throughout the United States!

There is a lot of false and misleading information on the internet and in books and videos about indigenous traditions. How can we find reliable knowledge, respectfully given? Do you have a good rule of thumb for this?

The easiest rule is to look at the community connection, their understanding of their place in the broader picture. The majority of people who come from the community—scholars, presenters who go around talking about the practices of native peoples—will say, “I am only of this tribe, or this family.” Whereas the characteristic of other writing and presentations is to portray the author as the sole authority or the sole speaker for all Native American communities without qualification.

We have names, but that doesn’t mean we go tell anybody what those names are. Many would say it in their own language, not in English.

When someone does not have the community or tribal connections often times they begin to appropriate the culture. Appropriation is finding something and just taking it on, like purchasing a headdress from an amusement park. Assuming another person’s identity and culture, or even spiritual practices, is even more detrimental because frequently the people doing this are doing it for monetary gain. That’s something you would never see in the authentic native community.

Chebon Kernell speaks with both native and non-native communities about indigenous spirituality.

Chebon Kernell speaks with both native and non-native communities about the recovery of indigenous spiritual practices.

Are there limits to what non-native peoples should say or do when learning about indigenous traditions? At what point does interest become appropriation?

This may need more work in terms of developing guidelines in dialogue. We’re now seeing native community members bringing cedar, bringing sage, bringing drums into non-native communities as a gift, but how often do we see the interaction in another way? That’s probably how my relationship blossomed with Hal Taussig, because he came to us, to Oklahoma, to learn from us, spending time with the broader Native American community. The end result of our time together was a mutual enrichment of our personal spirituality as opposed to appropriation when visitors return to their home communities using the sage or cedar or attempting to perform dances, which is not acceptable.  We also must realize that certain boundaries do exist as some knowledge and activities belong in the context of the Indigenous/Native community.

It is and always has been a foreign concept to determine belonging to the native community based on blood percentages. What is an authentic indigenous person? The UN has put out a definition, but that’s not the full answer. We have to start looking at the characteristics we live by, the popular culture of a particular region, including languages and traditions, but it’s more than that. It’s what we inherit from our ancestors.

Guidelines for learning and exchange, developed by native and non-native participants in dialogue, is work that still needs to be done.

Where do indigenous and Christian traditions share the most common ground?

When we look at having love, compassion, and respect, I think that’s probably one of the biggest areas where I find common ground. Now that has to be stated with a caveat, because that would correspond with certain branches of Christianity. I’m often not comfortable going into this question because of the history of assimilation that exists between the development of the United States and Christianity being forced upon native people during this time. A lot of Christians in the US will still encounter native peoples as someone to convert, as a matter of proselytizing. I still hear language of “saving” in my part of the country.

That trend is changing just a little bit. Native peoples are beginning to embrace cultural characteristics, regalia, in the church, whereas at one time that wasn’t even allowed. We have to understand that people are still picking up the pieces of culture and identity that was shattered by the Christian church. How do we find the freedom to embrace a Christian walk if that is what is wanted? Do we have the freedom to deny Christianity and say, “I have everything I need to live life to the fullest”?

The majority of Native American Christians still live with the classical definition of Christianity. To this day we’re still trying to deconstruct that. When we look at some of the scholarship coming out of Westar, the Jesus Seminar, and Hal’s work, you begin to see terminology and cosmology that has been suppressed over the centuries, much that is in parallel with native people. We’ve never lived in a sense of abandonment of the rest of creation; we’ve always felt we were part of a bigger picture, and our livelihood never jeopardized that cosmology of knowing we are only one piece of a far greater picture.

Which non-traditional Christian text do you feel everybody should read, and why?

The Gospel of Truth awakened an extra sense of spirituality in me as I read it. I know the Gospel of Truth isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but imagine if, instead of expecting native people to cut their hair and put on Western clothing, instead of baptizing them without them knowing what is going on or why, what if “you are the perfect day” was the opening statement in that conversation? Where would we be today? There’s a chance we might be speaking in an indigenous language together at this very moment!

Thank you, Chebon, for your willingness to share about your work with us today!

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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