Rev. Anita Phillips, the Executive Director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of the United Methodist Church, shared her vision of what it would look like for the church to travel down the road of repentance to reconciliation with native peoples saying, “It would look like God’s heavenly kingdom.”
She shared these words as part of the Gathering at Horseshoe Bend sponsored by the North Alabama Conference Native American Ministries Team on Nov. 15, 2014. The event, held in the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Davidson, Alabama, was a continuation of the United Methodist Church’s acts of repentance and reconciliation with Native Americans and other indigenous people. The program for the day featured Rev. Phillips, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, Episcopal leader of the Birmingham Area, and the Mystic Wind Choctaw Dancers.
North Alabama Executive Director of Ethnic Ministries the Reverend Dr. Richard Stryker explains, “The Gathering at Horseshoe Bend began as a vision of the Native American Ministries Team to look to the past and remember the battle 200 years ago at Horseshoe Bend, and to look to the future towards reconciliation, repentance and affirmation.”
The day began with participants gathering in a circle for a Litany of Remembering and Prayer written by Rev. Dale Clem, convenor of the Conference Native American Ministries Team.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend occurred in March 1814. Gen. Andrew Jackson led an army comprised of Tennessee militia, U.S. Regulars and allied Cherokee and Lower Creek warriors to defeat the “Red Sticks” led by Chief Menawa. The name Red Sticks came from the Creek tradition of using a bundle of sticks to count down the days until an important event. Sticks painted red signified the event was war. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend ended the Creek Indian War. The resulting Treaty of Fort Jackson called for the Creek confederacy to cede almost 23 million acres of land to the southeastern United States. That land became three-fifths of the state of Alabama and one-fifth of the state of Georgia.
Clem explains his thoughts behind the litany, “Horseshoe Bend is one part of a very complex and sad period of our Nation’s history. At the heart of the litany was the confession that persons in the 19th century believed that a person’s character was determined by their race. European White culture viewed themselves as superior and closer to God than the ‘savages’ in the wild. Admitting that we have horrific sin in our history and lives is painful, but necessary for reconciliation. In the early 19th century, White Europeans carried a sense of superiority, coupled with power, greed and jealousy of Native People’s land which resulted in the dark history white’s might prefer to ignore. Still today, greed drives much of our world as well as the arrogant sin of thinking a person’s character is determined by their race, gender, or sexuality.”
In the litany, those gathered offered to forgive the faults and offer thanks for the goodness of all who were involved at Horseshoe Bend: the Upper Creek “Red Sticks”warriors, mothers, children as well as the Lower Creeks and Cherokees who fought along with Andrew Jackson’s militia. As the litany was read, children brought forth streamers of symbolic colors representing each group remembered.
Clem explains. “After naming in the litany all who participated as well as the dead and wounded, we prayed: ‘Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy.’ It seemed to me, on the spot of such violence and suffering, the most powerful word we as the church can offer is repentance for our own violence and complacency, and the forgiveness and mercy of God. It is important also to acknowledge that still today, the citizens of Alabama benefit from land which was gained through violence, betrayal, lies and greed. The residue of sin passes on from one generation to the next. However, God does not call us to live in self-loathing or guilt, but to experience forgiveness and seek restitution, and reconciliation.”
After the Litany and Prayer, the Mystic Wind Choctaw Dancers presented a ceremony of traditional Choctaw social dances. The dancers included members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. They explained their purpose for dancing is to teach and see the future generations keep their Choctaw traditions. They also seek opportunities to share their culture with others.
Rev. Clem says, “My hope is that this service was a baby step toward building bridges of reconciliation and respect between all peoples and God.”
Those gathered then shared a meal of Native American food including fried bread and buffalo stew at nearby Mt. Godfrey UMC. The meal was catered by Choctaw Kitchen.
The afternoon program began with Bishop Wallace-Padgett reflecting on the day saying, “Parts of our history as a nation we celebrate, other parts we grieve. Our gathering today flows out of the 2012 General Conference’s Act of Repentance. This is a continuing opportunity to understand, learn and grow in relationship with our brothers and sisters -- an opportunity to grow and develop additional depth to our relationships.”
Rev. Phillips then shared about her work with the Native American Comprehensive Plan. She answered the question, “What does it mean for the Church to be engaged with Native Americans?” By asking those gathered four questions -- Can you see us? Can you hear us? Can you see Jesus in us? and Do you claim us?
She noted that when she first was asked if repentance and reconciliation was possible between the United Methodist Church and native peoples she searched her heart through prayer and reflection and decided, “We must live that or else we all will be lost.”
As the program concluded, Rev. Phillips presented everyone with a gift of a lapel pin depicting a medicine wheel featuring the colors of red, black, yellow, white, a cross and eagle’s feathers. She noted this is a symbol of healing.
Rev. Clem also notes that in the history of the Methodist Church in Alabama and its relationship with Native Americans there are some compelling stories of ministry.
He says, “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the Battle of New Orleans thrust Andrew Jackson into popularity and after being elected President, he pushed for the Indian Removal Act. After a bitter debate, it barely passed resulting in the Trail of Tears. All my life, when I heard about the Trail of Tears, I hung my head in sadness. However, for all the complacency among the Christians in that time, Methodists were also making a lasting impact on the Cherokees living in North Alabama. We can be proud that Cherokee, Richard Riley who lived near modern day Guntersville, invited in 1822 a Methodist circuit rider to hold services in his home. This meeting grew into the first Cherokee Mission in Alabama where Cherokee children were educated and services held.& Year by year more young Methodist circuit riders came, married Cherokee women and became part of the Cherokee family, and more Cherokees became pastors. By 1830, there were over 1000 Cherokee Methodist members in the Alabama area of the Cherokee Nation. Many of the leaders were Methodist, including Chief John Ross. The Cherokee published their own bi-lingual newspaper, had their own constitution and laws. Many were so committed to their church that they disassembled the church buildings and loaded them on their wagons and took them on the trail of tears, and reassembled them west of the Mississippi River in what was then the Arkansas Conference. The first church built in northwest Oklahoma where the Indian Missionary Conference was fist held was called ‘Riley’s Chapel’ in honor of Richard Riley. Turtle Fields who fought at Horseshoe Bend, became a Methodist, and was licensed to preach in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Rev. Turtle Fields went on to become an elder pastoring several circuits in the Cherokee Nation of Northeast Alabama and later, an important Chief and leader in Oklahoma. Edward Gunter, a Cherokee who fought at Horseshoe Bend became a Methodist pastor and interpreter. The outcry against the Indian Removal Act came from many Christians, Missionaries and Pastors. Rev. Dixon McLeod, a Methodist circuit rider and missionary married a Cherokee woman and was arrested by the Georgia militia. He was dragged and walked for 70-80 miles as a prisoner. His crime was preaching and living with the Cherokee. He escaped and made his way back to his home, but other missionaries worked hard labor for 16 months on a chain gang appealing their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor against Georgia. Some missionary families went on the trail of tears with their congregations as a sign how God suffers with the suffering and persecuted. For these persons who loved, defended, and suffered with the Native People, I give thanks.”
Dr. Stryker says, “I am grateful to have been a part of the weekend events with Rev. Anita Phillips of Native American Comprehensive Plan playing a key role along with our bishop Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett.”
He adds, “This aspect of Ethnic Ministries’ work to ‘Grow Diversity, Transforming the World,’ went on without a hitch, thanks to so many people praying for and working together. We discovered new potential spiritual leaders at the events this weekend.”