Jacob (Brent) Stewart
Before I begin my book review, I would like to give the reader some background information about my Native American heritage. I am half Native American and am originally from South Boston,Virginia. I identify with the Sappony tribe, which has its tribal headquarters in Virgilina,VA located on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. Our tribe has a unique identity and history that can be researched further by going to www.ncpedia.org/sappony-indians. I grew up attending various activities such as birthday parties and church homecomings at Calvary Baptist Church in Roxboro,NC where various families within the tribe would meet.
Our tribe, since the late nineteenth century, has identified themselves as Christian and further on into the twentieth century became apart of the Southern Baptist tradition. Our Christian faith has been the foundation of our tribe despite experiencing racial prejudice and mistreatment through the years. Our tribe has produced many ministers of the Gospel throughout the years who have testified to the saving power of Christ available to all people. This has been our tribe’s unique experience with Christianity, which is not common historically for all Native Americans within the US. However, the book I am reviewing has a unique light to shed using the author’s experience with Christianity that is different from my own.
Richard Twiss who wrote Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys lived from 1954- 2013. Twiss was a Sicangu Lakota who founded Wiconi International, which is a Native American ministry designed to promote love and respect among Native Americans who have suffered the effects of cultural dissemination and/or drug and alcohol abuse all while honoring their unique tribal heritage. Twiss who was a Lakota Christian recognized the negative effects that colonization, westward expansion, and Indian reservations (which incidentally were all done in the name of Christ) have had on Native Americans. Twiss dedicated his life as a Christian to honoring both the unique heritage of Native Americans and seeking to spread the gospel in a manner that honored Native American culture across Canada and the US.
There are two main concepts that stood out to me that Twiss notes historically that have made the gospel largely ineffective among Native Americans: acculturation and ethnocentrism. These definitions can be blended together, but for the sake of defining these terms, we need to separately define what is meant by each, but also how they have been used historically against Native Americans. “Acculturation is the deliberate modification of culture that stripped Native people of their language, culture, and customs.” (243) An example of this is when Native Americans were forced onto government reservations and schools. Another example of this occurred in 1952 when Congress established the Volunteer Relocation Program which Indians were coaxed off of reservations for the promises of a better economic prosperity within urban cities. (66)
The next term that Twiss discusses is ethnocentrism. “Ethnocentrism is the belief in the superiority of your own group (for example, nationality race or creed).” In Chapter 2, Twiss links ethnocentrism with early American colonial missionary efforts to the Indians. For example, “John Winthrop claimed in 1629 that ‘God hath consumed the natives with a great plague in those parts,’ and thus Puritan settlers had a ‘warrant’ to settle in New England.”(88) This ethnocentrism was supported by the early colonists who had their own false biblical interpretations of colonial America being synonymous with the children of Israel within the Old Testament. Unfortunately, this view has continued on within US history not only against Native Americans but with other races and ethnicities.
“What we are seeking is a place where the gospel brings freedom and spiritual power to follow Jesus with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, while still fully embracing our tribal identity, traditional customs, cultural forms, worldview and ritual.” Rchard Twiss
As a result of these negative worldviews experienced by numerous Native Americans, Twiss believed that it was his calling to honor the gospel with re-evangelization of Native Americans. Twiss began with teaching and discipling Native American Christians that you do not have to adopt European/American ways of worshipping God but you can still have tribal dances and Pow Wows that honor your culture’s way of worshipping Christ. Twiss along with other Native Americans began to have Pow Wows that introduced Christianity in a way that was culturally appropriate for Native Americans.
Another way that Twiss began to honor his heritage was to continue the tradition of conducting sweat lodges. Twiss defines a “sweat lodge as a dome shaped structure used by some Native American tribes as a sacred place of divine encounter with the Creator.”(244) During the ceremony the sweat lodge would be heated by glowing hot rocks where the temperature could be as high as 140 degrees fahrenheit. In this sweat lodge there would be about people who discuss their life stories and experiences. Twiss used this time to discuss with others their personal pain, sufferings, and joys of being Native Americans on the road to being Christ followers. Twiss sums up the end goal of this communal tribal practice in a thought provoking way: “What we are seeking is a place where the gospel brings freedom and spiritual power to follow Jesus with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, while still fully embracing our tribal identity, traditional customs, cultural forms, worldview and ritual.”(93) This quote entails what Twiss felt that his life and ministry calling was as a Native American Christian.
Even though Twiss had success among Native Americans, he still discusses the rejection that he faced by both non and Native American Christians for the work that he was doing. Many feared that he was blending tribal spiritualism with Christianity by not making a clear distinction between the two. However, Twiss did not embrace these false accusations; he was simply trying to untie the binding ties of Protestant ways of worship to Native Americans that did not connect them with God the Creator. Twiss expresses the intended goal of those who want to embrace the uniqueness of their Native culture, “We seek a place where we are no longer seen as the perpetual mission field of the dominant culture church, but rather a place where we are honestly embraced as co-equal participants in the life, work, and community of Christ’s followers- as Indigenous people.”(93)
Twiss did have the privilege of seeing his work among Native Americans become fruitful. There were conferences that Twiss and other Native Americans began that focused on how to effectively evangelize and disciple Native Americans both within the US and other ethnic tribes around the world. Also Twiss witnessed the growth of other Native American ministries blossoming, and the unique birth of Native American Christian worship. As I read how this ministries were growing, I was encouraged that despite all of the negativity that Twiss and others have to endure through the years that they were able to recognize the spiritual fruit from their labor.
I would encourage anyone who desires to read this book to have an open mind to what has occurred within the experience of many Native Americans. From my own personal experience, I have not encountered the ignorance and persecution that Twiss has, but I recognize that many Native Americans have had a massive wall put in front of them in what defines being a Christian. Those who are desire to understand the unique expression of Native American Christianity are greatly encouraged to begin with reading this book. My prayer is that through hearing the story of Twiss and others that we may continue the reconciling work of Christ among each other.