ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Though they came from seven countries, indigenous believers discovered common experiences and emotions during summer gatherings.
They mourned losses of their languages and their land. They carried with them pain from white oppression. And they expressed joy in joining with their sisters and brothers from across the continents.
The North American Indigenous Delegation of nearly 30 people, plus 10 indigenous Mennonites from Guatemala, Panama and Peru, and representatives from various Mennonite agencies met with Paraguayan and Argentine indigenous groups following the Mennonite World Conference Assembly Gathered in July.
Believers met in two Chaco locations—first in Yalve Sanga, Paraguay, then in Formosa, Argentina—and with their hosts spoke a dozen native languages, as well as Spanish and English.
A grant from the Stella Devenpeck fund through Mennonite Mission Network, with support from Native Mennonite Ministries leaders in the U.S. and Native Ministry Partnerships in Canada, helped with travel and meeting costs. Additional funding for Latin American travel came from the Council of International Anabaptist Ministries and related agencies.
Visitors were hosted by local indigenous churches and mission workers among Nivacle, Enhlet, Ayoreo, Toba and Mocoví leaders communities.
Rosenda Diarte, a Toba leader involved in Bible translation projects, said the gathering was a source of encouragement and education, allowing indigenous believers to compare practices, wisdom and stories—including stories of how whites have tried to oppress or squelch indigenous language and expression.
“We were able to understand each others’ sufferings because of our similar histories,” Diarte said, through a translator. “But God was walking along with the Toba people and was protecting their culture. God never forgot the Toba people. There is a parallel to his care for the people of Israel.”
Emiliana Gonzáles, an indigenous Argentine auxiliary teacher, said when she was in grade school, she was forbidden to speak her own language. Similar stories from the visitors touched her heart.
“It made me think of all the persecution of the Qom people [an ethnic grouping that includes Toba, Mocoví, Pilagá] in the Chaco of Argentina,” she said.
Keshia Littlebear of Busby, Mont. said the indigenous in the Chaco are still holding on to language. “For us [the Cheyenne], it was more difficult than that,” she said. “We lost our language through boarding school and our land through reservations and colonization.”
Littlebear said issues of colonial assimilation and systemic racism pervaded her experience. She noted how some German Mennonite culture had seemed to replace some indigenous traditions—including four-part harmony sung in indigenous churches in Paraguay. At the same time, she saw how the German communities have incorporated health care for indigenous people and are aiding indigenous farming efforts.
Norman Meade, Aboriginal Neighbours program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee - Manitoba, wondered if the replacement of past indigenous ways has increased benefits. He noted that non-indigenous settlers had built large, modern homes and churches on large tracts of land while those he called the “people of the land” went without amenities on the smaller plots to which they were offered. And signs warning against trespassing, posted by the settlers, effectively prevent the local indigenous groups from subsistence gathering and hunting of the few wild animials that remain.
Littlebear said that the U.S. government’s model for dealing with indigenous populations through racial domination and assimilation is being used as a model for other parts of the world. She called for Christians to pray.
“We need to remember the struggles of colonization going on [and] their struggle to hold onto their language and their land,” said Littlebear.
In Paraguay, the visit coincided with a baptism ceremony for 19 new believers—a fitting celebration since the North American group had hoped to experience how indigenous communities in South America teach their youth and young adults.
Littlebear watched as older church members wrapped the newly baptized people in blankets and led them from the baptism waters. During the rest of the service, Littlebear said, elders made sure to surround the new members in the pews. She watched one older person move a young woman from the end of a bench to the middle where she could be surrounded.
“Welcome to our church. We support you,” Littlebear said, repeating the message she received from their actions. “I don’t think we do enough of that here in accepting newly baptized people and offering a commitment to walk with them and grow together spiritually.”
Two members of the Montana group were baptized in the months following the tour.
The delegation also shared a common-cup communion with more than 100 fellow worshipers following the baptism. Meade noted the deep spirituality and closeness to God among the Chaco believers.
Keith Kingsley, part of the Mennonite team that walks alongside indigenous believers in the Argentine Chaco, said the participants offered each other gifts of their presence, through both their differences and their shared experiences and language patterns.
Kingsley said he sometimes wonders if indigenous people can offer a fast-moving, fast-talking, global market culture an alternate way of communicating. He noted that indigenous speakers from all of the represented areas spoke gently and plainly, following a tradition of openness, courtesy, vulnerability and honesty.
Some North American visitors noted the spirituality and family-focus of the South American groups. Dennis Sinclair of the Canadian delegation said, “It was just like it used to be among our Aboriginal people in Canada 60 to 100 years ago when families had strong kinship ties. This made the families strong. Parents knew what their children were doing. Not like today, parents often don't know what their children are doing.”
On the last night of the gathering, Toba pastor Rafael Mansilla expressed his deep longing for the recovery of land on which his people might once again build a more self-sufficient life. As the session ended, Kingsley translated a conversation between Mansilla and 16-year-old Ronatta Horse from Montana.
Horse told the tall Toba cacique (chief) that she had heard similar concerns about land expressed by her grandparents in the U.S., and she wanted Mansilla to know that they had told her these injustices would someday be set right. With courtesy, Mansilla thanked Horse for her grandparents’ counsel, creating a connection with the American teenager.
Quotes from Diarte and Gonzáles were translated into English.
This story included reporting from Gretchen and Keith Kingsley—members of the Mennonite team practicing a ministry of presence in the Argentine Chaco and Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Latin America.