Richard Twiss gets it right … on a truth commission

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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
23 June 2010
Native American tells churches, ‘It’s time for a truth commission’
By Stephen Brown
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 23 June (ENI)–A Native American leader has
challenged a global Protestant body to create a truth and
reconciliation commission to redress the injustice of Church
involvement in cultural assimilation against indigenous peoples.
Richard Twiss, a member of the Rosebud Lakota/Sioux Tribe, said the
Church had been, “a willing partner”, in the oppression of Native
He spoke at the founding meeting of the World Communion of Reformed
Churches, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Native Americans had numbered 50 million in 1400 but by 1895 accounted
for barely 230 000, as a results of war and disease, Twiss said on 22
“It was one of the worst examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing,
right here in America, which says, ‘in God we trust’,” said Twiss, the
president of Wiconi International, which supports Christian ministry
in indigenous communities throughout the Americas.
As well as the physical oppression that Native American and indigenous
peoples had suffered, Christianity and Christian mission had been used
to reinforce cultural assimilation by depriving them of their own
traditions and culture, Twiss said.
“Here in the United States our goal is to rescue theology from the
cowboys. The cowboys have controlled the language of heaven for a very
long time,” he said.
Native Americans and indigenous peoples, “are not co-equal
participants in the life, work and mission of the Church in North
America,” asserted Twiss. “We have never been encouraged to
contextualise the Gospel story.”
Twiss said a truth and reconciliation committee was necessary to
provide redress for the misappropriation of Scripture and the
co-opting of the Bible as a tool of colonialism and imperialism. He
said that when white settlers’ takeover of North American land had
been underpinned by the biblical narrative of the Israelites
conquering the “Promised Land”.
“It was like a tsunami that crushed our people,” he stated.
Addressing about 400 delegates, Twiss wore the eagle feather headdress
he received in a Lakota naming ceremony, where he received the name
Taoyata Obnajin, which means, “He stands with his people”.
With 227 churches in 108 countries, the new Reformed body was formed
as a merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the
Reformed Ecumenical Council.
The address by Twiss was one of several events throughout the 18-28
June meeting that stressed the role of Native Americans, indigenous
and First Nation peoples. Organizers said the events were intended to
allow delegates to understand the reality of local communities.
The Grand Rapids meeting is, “a historic move in the direction we need
to go”, said Twiss. “We have as indigenous people suffered in
innumerable and immeasurable ways.”
Twiss pointed to a boarding and residential school system in North
America designed to promote the assimilation of Native Americans. “Our
children were forcibly removed from our homes and forcibly sent to
boarding schools, mostly run by Christian denominations. On my
reservation it was Catholicism,” said Twiss. “They were physically
abused, mentally abused and, worst of all, sexually abused.
“We were made to feel ashamed, we were made to fell inferior … in the
name of the Bible and U.S. and Canadian nationalism,” he said.
“Although it was done in the name of evangelism and mission … the end
result was that today our native people are still struggling with what
it means to be human beings.”
Twiss recounted how, after he became a Christian in 1974, “none of my
indigenous culture fitted. I was told my drums were no longer good for
worship in a Christian church … I had to learn about God in someone
else’s language.”
In 1972, Twiss was one of 600 people who took part in an eight-day
occupation by the American Indian Movement of the Bureau of Indian
Affairs office in Washington D.C.
“During this period of my life I began to allow hatred toward white
people and Christianity to seep into my heart and into my soul,” said
Twiss. However, two years later, he said, he decided to become a
“follower of Jesus” after years of drug and alcohol abuse, and a spell
in jail.
South Africa introduced a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after
the end of white minority rule to deal with gross human rights
violations committed under apartheid.
A similarly named commission was established in Canada in 2008 as part
of a settlement between the federal government, aboriginal
organizations and churches, over abuse in church-run residential
schools for First Nations peoples. [745 words]
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