Edith and I travel a lot and have done so for years. We spent four years where we just traveled around from reservation to reservation across the United States and Canada and mentored a number of people. We also did a lot of speaking during those four years. We homeschooled our kids, and we had the rich experience of our whole family being around all kinds of Native people from almost everywhere on Turtle Island. Those were probably the richest experiences of our lives.
We’ve been doing Native American work, serving our own Indigenous peoples, for over thirty years. I consider those years the most valuable times among all my learning experiences. I’m going to share a story with you from those years because I know Canada has a wonderful practice of recognizing the host peoples of the land. Wherever we went to speak, we always sought the blessing of the host people whose land we were on because that’s what we were taught by our elders. So we were going to the Ojibwa reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. When I got there, I asked the group that had invited me, the YWAM Native leadership base, “Who welcomed you on the land?”
They had invited us to come up for a week and teach an Indigenous Leadership course, so I wanted to be sure all was being done in a good way. Unfortunately, no one had really invited them on the land, so I said, “Well then, we can’t speak.” This type of problem has actually happened a couple of different times, but we’ve always been able to work through it. Creator has always made a way for us to receive the local blessing and speak. But in Hayward, we had just learned of the problem, so we had to tell our host that we won’t speak unless the host people welcome us somehow.
Now, it just so happened that day that this young Ojibwa kid from Seattle, not yet in his twenties, was hitchhiking on the reservation. The young man and his brother were adopted out when he was about two years old and were raised in Seattle by a White family. He had recently experienced an LSD trip where he saw Jesus, and Jesus told him, “I want you to go back to your reservation.” The young man knew he was from a reservation somewhere, way out in Wisconsin. Well, it just so happened that the director of the YWAM base saw him hitchhiking on the road and picked him up. The director asked him if he knew who his people were, but he did not. He told Dave, the director of the YWAM base, that while on LSD, Jesus told him to come out here. Then Dave asked if he had any place to stay. He did not. Dave told him he could stay with them, so they fed him and gave him shelter. We got there later that same day.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to include this Ojibwe young man and had him stick with me all that day so he could learn something from it. I knew enough to know that he wasn’t there by accident. “I want to teach you some things,” I told him, and he said, “Okay.” I told him whenever we go to some- one else’s land, even now, my elders told me, even when driving down the road, to stop and put tobacco down, because that is someone else’s land and we need to respect it. But to be completely honest, I need to tell you that when driving I haven’t always done that, just because we travel through so many places, we’d be stopping constantly. But we have asked for permission wherever we teach or exercise any sort of spiritual influence. And so it was important that we do this right that day, especially now that we had a young person trying to find himself and his Indigenous identity. After some thought was given to this, we figured out who the elder was we should speak with. He was one of the two leaders of the Midewiwin Lodge, their tribal religion, and he was also a tribal elder and elder representative to the tribal council.
We went to the local store, and we made a traditional elder basket that consisted of flour and tobacco, a flashlight and coat hangers, sugar and coffee, fresh fruit, and all the kinds of things that elders like. After tracking down his address, we went to his house and knocked on the door, and his wife answered. I guess people visit him often for advice so she very naturally said, “Oh, come in and set the basket down, he’s on the phone right now.” Finally, he came back and asked respectfully, “Who are you guys and what do you want?” So I explained to him who we were and that we were going to be teaching on spiritual matters to Indigenous leaders there. He said, “Well, what are you going to be teaching?” I explained how we do things according to our traditional teachings, but we follow Jesus. We were calling it “contextual Native ministry” at the time, but I don’t really think of it like that anymore. We just live the life we are supposed to be living. Now we’re just Indians being Indians.
Then he started telling us some pretty interesting stories. He said, “You know what you all believe and what we believe is not that different?” Then he told us of a couple of subtle differences concerning hell and the devil. He said, “You know, when I was a younger person, I wanted to find out what you Christians believe, so I enrolled for a semester in this college. It’s called Moody Bible College, you ever heard of that?” We were surprised and talked about that for some time. But every now and then he would keep interrupting his own story, which meant he was trying to get a point across, and he said, “You know, my uncle told me to never disrespect Jesus, because Jesus is a great spirit and I talk to him.” And he would go on and he’d tell us more and more, and then he would say this thing about his uncle again. He told us about how he had just come back from a big meeting of Gichi Dowan, big medicine people from around the United States and Canada. These Ojibwa spiritual leaders were all trying to decide how they could get along better with the Christians. And he told us some stories about all this.
We sat there for maybe two hours, and at least six or seven times he said this thing about his uncle and respecting Jesus. Then at one point he said, “My uncle trained most of the spiritual leaders around this area. He lived to be over a hundred years old, and my uncle would tell me all these stories about Jesus. So I asked my uncle one time, I said, ‘Uncle, how do you know all this about Jesus? Did you go to residential school?’ He said, ‘Oh no! No! I never did that.’ Then I asked him, ‘Did the priest teach you?’ And he says, ‘No, I have never been to church.’ Then I said, ‘But you tell me all the stuff about Jesus. Have you been reading the Bible?’ My uncle said, ‘No, just remember what I told you in the past: don’t disrespect Jesus ’cause he’s a great spirit, and I talk to him.’ I said to my uncle, ‘Well yeah, you talk to him, but how do you know all these things he’s done?’ You know my uncle looked at me so quizzically, and then he said, ‘Well, when I talk to him, of course he talks back.’ And then the elder said, ‘I’m going to pray for you now,’ and then our time was over.”
The message was simple to understand: It’s just like when I used to pastor and I would tell the children’s sermon before the regular sermon. I would tell them, “If you understood the implications of what I just said in the children’s story, you don’t have to stay for the adult preaching—you can go on home.” If you understood the story I just told about the visit with this elder, you understand my message, because it holds the core of it.
Content taken from Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview by Randy S. Woodley, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Academic.