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Bridging the cultural divide


Richard Twiss offers prayer with traditional song and drum

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Quilt Presetnation
Neill and Edith von Gunten (left), co-directors of MC Canada Native Ministry,  and Norm Voth, MCM Director of Evangelism and Service Ministries (not pictured) present Norman and Thelma Meade (right), long time church leaders in Native communities, with a quilt during the program’s Opening Blessing Ceremony.  The Meades were guest speakers on the evening of March 7.  Richard Twiss received a similar quilt.

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March 28, 2008
- Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Nine out of ten Indigenous people reject Christianity as “white man’s” religion, according to Richard Twiss. And he finds it ironic that in the Genesis story, Adam is created from “red” earth.

Twiss is a Rosebud Lakota theologian from the state of Washington, the co-founder of Wiconi International, the author of One Church, Many Tribes (Regal Books, 2000), and a Doctor of Missiology candidate at Asbury Theological Seminary. His ministry encourages Indigenous people from North America and around the world to use appropriate aspects of their cultural traditions for expressing Christ-centred theology. Using the lense of biblical theology, he recognizes culture as the heart language of the Indigenous church – a language that will free Indigenous peoples to live the abundant life that Jesus came to provide. 

At the invitation of Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry and Mennonite Church Manitoba Twiss brought this vision to the annual Spring Partnership Circles gathering hosted at Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man.  Partnership Circles draw Manitoba Mennonite congregations and First Nations communities into cross-cultural relationships for the purpose of mutual support and transformation.  A gifted speaker, Twiss used wit and candour to share his message throughout the Friday evening and Saturday event. 

Twiss recognized that addiction and poor economic circumstances are tough issues for First Nations communities, but suggested that questions of self-identity pose larger problems.  He pointed to the conflicting notion that God loved Indians so much that he allowed his son die for them yet objected to their drums, their music, their ceremonies.  “Jesus loves us but he doesn’t like us very much,” Twiss quipped. Indigenous people have been led to believe that in order to follow Jesus, they must abandon their traditional ways and become “white.”   These “white” or Eurocentric biblical interpretations and expectations have eroded Indigenous identity, generating low self-esteem and even self-hatred. 

Twiss recalls being labeled a syncretist when he began calling Indigenous peoples back to their culture.  “I was continually accused of trying to blend Indian religion with Christian faith, resulting in a hybridized, mongrel religion that was neither one nor the other.”   Integrating culture and theology requires discernment, he cautioned, referring to the example of praying with sweet grass smoke.  “Praying with sweet grass smoke can be idolatry or worshipful.  If you thank God for giving smoke power, it’s syncretism.”  However, he explained, using smoke as a symbolic representation of prayer rising to God in heaven can be worshipful and meaningful in a cultural context.  Only when cultural tools are worshipped in and of themselves do they become dangerous.
Participants watched two videos depicting Indigenous people worshipping God through song, dance and drumming.   In the follow-up discussion some asked how to discern the theological validity of such practices. But for most, the sights and sounds of reverberating drums,  chanting, bright traditional dress and expressions of pure joy evoked emotional responses.  Norman Meade, a Metis Elder, was moved by the uninhibited dance of children.  “It comes from here,” he said, tapping his chest. 

For others, the videos stirred memories.  Hilda Franz recalled observing her adopted Native son attend his first pow wow; his connection to it, was instantly evident, she said.

Egon Enns was reminded of a young Aboriginal man who buried a traditional drum in the woods, afraid of what it represented.  Twiss noted that some Native people are hesitant about embracing their own culture because they have been led to believe it is inherently evil – but a contrary realization is gradually spreading. 

As the gathering drew to a close, Twiss suggested that the benefits of leaving faith open to cultural interpretation can extend beyond Indigenous communities.  “Take this approach sideways for youth and other groups,” he said.  They may want to inherit Jesus, but they may not necessarily want to inherit the traditionally organized church.

To hear a podcast interview with Richard Twiss, visit the Church Matters web page at


Books from the Reaching up to God our Creator curriculum

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Sidebar: Reaching up to God our Creator

Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry and Mennonite Church Canada Formation have developed a new Aboriginal curriculum.  This resource will help Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people  learn about sacred teachings that reflect the wisdom of Christ and develop respect and understanding for Aboriginal culture.  With components for children and adults, such as DVDs, storybooks, posters, teaching manuals and other resources, this curriculum is suitable for Sunday School classes, Vacation Bible Schools and other group settings.

Reaching up to God our Creator is currently being audited by the Nootka People on Vancouver Island and a Grade Five class at Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary School.  Feedback from these groups will be used to fine-tune the resource. It will be officially launched in July 2008.