ASHLAND, Mont. (Mennonite Mission Network) — High in the majestic Montana mountains near the Great Divide, more than 200 Native Mennonites and their allies from across the U.S. and Canada made a joyful noise to the Lord from July 19 to 22.
Two Latin American friends, who hosted their North American brothers and sisters during the indigenous tours following Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay, were also present –Alina Itucama from the Wounaan group of Panama and Brigido Loewen from the Lengua (Enlhet) group of Paraguay.
The Native Assembly theme, “I am the potter, you are the clay,” from Isaiah 45:9 and Jeremiah 18:6, encouraged all present at St. Labre Indian School, Ashland, Mont., to embrace God’s vision of each person as a reflection of the image of God.
Mary Fontaine, a member of the Mistawasis Cree nation and Presbyterian minister in Richmond, British Columbia, said it is time for the church to listen to the indigenous voice. She tearfully recalled the discovery of her own voice while listening to elders singing in Cree for the first time.
“These were healing words of love and respect from Jesus,” she said.” God has brought me back to my culture.”
Experiencing sacred native history was an important part of this assembly as groups traveled to Deer Medicine Rocks and the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Deer Medicine Rocks, located on private land near Lame Deer, Mont., is a holy place for the Arapahoe, Cheyenne and Sioux nations. These rocks are covered with centuries-old petroglyphs which illustrate love of the creator and all creation. A guide pointed out the glyph of the mirror, a primary sacred symbol. Some indigenous peoples believe gazing into the mirror is to see the image God in one’s own reflection. The mirror also serves as a reminder to be faithful by keeping one’s eyes on God.
At the Little Bighorn site, a Native American account of the battle has challenged many of the assumptions made by United States history textbooks in describing the events of June 25, 1876, when George Custer and his United States cavalry were prevented from attacking a large peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux men, women and children. Today, the bravery and ingenuity of the native people are recognized along with the acknowledgement that there were no winners in this tragedy.
A memorial stone tells the story well: “A‘Kavehe’Onahe, Limber Bones, A Cheyenne warrior fell here on June 25, 1876, while defending the Cheyenne way of life.”
In his address to the assembly, Norman Meade, a Metis tribal elder and co-pastor of Manigotagan (Manitoba) Community Chapel, evoked the mirror symbol from Deer Medicine Rocks and the reference in Romans 9 reference to “the potter melding humans in order to make us useful rather than of no use.”
We have been taught long enough,” Meade said. “We know where things have gone wrong. Our elders have told us, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the Lord.’ Are we allowing God to mold us into useful vessels and use us for the Creator’s work?”
Mary Fontaine spoke of the healing that is still needed.
“'Don’t let anger grow in your heart.' That is what my grandfather and my mother, as well as the teachings of Jesus, told me when I would rage against all the indignities First Nations people have experienced. They said if we didn’t let the anger go, it would take root, become bitterness and consume our lives,” Fontaine said.
Fontaine, director of Hummingbird Ministries that works toward reconciliation between aboriginal people and the church, said that in her studies at Vancouver (British Columbia) School of Theology, she discovered what it meant to be both Cree and Christian.
"The potter was able to mold me through my people, my life experiences and my theological studies at VST. That [healing] knowledge is within us,” Fontaine said.
Paula Killough, Mennonite Mission Network’s senior executive for Advancement, attended the assembly and described it as a moving experience.
“Native and First Nations peoples are claiming the voice of healing as they open themselves to the potter and the promise of new life,” she said.