At the core of CONAM, the Committee on Native American Ministries, is an ethos of partnership that comes from a spirit of connection. November is Native American Heritage month and the INUMC celebrates the ways God is at work through CONAM.
At the Conference level is the IN CONAM which has been led for the past eleven years by Linda Madagame, an enrolled member of the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa/Chippewa Indians. Rev. Fred Shaw, a Shawnee descendant, is the director of the North Central Jurisdiction CONAM.
Rev. Fred, recalled a time when representation at NCJ did not exist. “People didn’t think there were Native people in the area. There was a misconception about where Native people are.”
Indiana means “land of the Indians.” While many presume that Native peoples live on reservations, Indiana is home to over 55,000 Native American peoples including the Miami, Wea, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokee, Blackfeet, Sioux, Chippewa, and Navajo. The Miami, Wea, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Eel River and Delaware are among tribes that are historically indigenous to Indiana.
Addressing the complex history through local, regional, and national partnerships is central to IN CONAM’s mission. They provide education and understanding of the American Indian cultural traditions both within the congregations of the INUMC and beyond.
While the COVID-19 pandemic limited the relational scope of IN CONAM’s ministry, their faithfulness persisted as they sought to partner and support the needs of Native peoples around the country.
In 2020, rising case counts of COVID-19 were witnessed across the nation with Native peoples experiencing a disproportionate rate of infection and morbidity. In response to this crisis, CONAM leapt into action.
With monetary funds given on Native American Sunday, CONAM was able to send a $5,000 donation to the Navajo Nation. Linda Madagame said, “We felt blessed to be able to use these funds to make a positive impact on the Navajo Nation during such a time of great need. Megwetch (thank you).”
The impact of the NCJ CONAM extends into the realm of spiritual and identity formation with an innovative initiative for theological education. Rev. Fred recently retired as Director for the Native American Course of Study (NACOS) which provides theological training for Native American Local Pastors.
NACOS works to empower Native pastors in leadership and challenge the relationship that the Church has had with Native people historically. This relationship has largely been one of pain and trauma through the legacy of colonization and boarding schools.
Indiana had two boarding schools for Native American children. St. Joseph’s Normal School located in Rensselear, IN, was open from 1888-1896. White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, IN, was open from 1882-1895.
While the two schools in Indiana were not Methodist, that doesn’t negate their influence for CONAM in Indiana. “The children of those schools became adults who are in our Methodist churches with their descendants,” said Rev. Fred.
In boarding schools, children were forbidden and punished for speaking their language, leading to a loss of connection to their culture and family. Language is foundational to Native American identity, ceremonial life, and culture.
Rev. Fred shared that when a child first arrived at a boarding school, the first thing that happened was a haircut. In many Native American cultures, cutting one’s hair was a sign that a close loved one died. This meant that children then spent much of their first year without the ability to ask—in their own language or in English—who had died. In the wake of being ripped from their family and culture, they were plunged into silence and grief.
NACOS works to heal the generational losses of identity that Native Americans endured, a loss that is intertwined with Christianity’s role in boarding schools.
For some Native Local Pastors, there is a dissonance between their identities as Christians and Natives. NACOS helps students explore the ways their identities are not mutually exclusive.
One NACOS student of the Diné tribe was raised in a boarding school. After being in their school for two years the student said, “For the first time in my life I am Dene and I am Christian. I don’t feel like I’m betraying one or the other.”
“That is the work we are trying to do,” said Rev. Fred.
Rev. Fred is encouraged by the increased openness to Native ministries in the NCJ. The Church needs Native peoples. “Here we are,” said Rev. Fred. “We have gifts we would like to share with you. We have understandings of life that can enrich your understanding of God and experience of life. It’s a partnership.”