Interracial healing is about long-time ties with Nimiipuu
By Mary Stamp
Interracial relationships, apologies, reconciliation and reparations may seem abstract, but for the Inland Northwest Presbytery those words are about people that the members of presbytery churches know because they meet each other at quarterly meetings, on the leadership team, in committee work and throughout presbytery life.
"The Nimiipuu are our siblings, integral to the presbytery," said Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, executive presbyter for 13 years.
The presbytery's relationship to the Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce—the name given by French Canadian traders—goes back to early years of the presbytery.
The ties are evident in the rapid response around the presbytery to the Nimiipuu Church Buildings Capital Campaign to repair and restore four Nimiipuu church buildings.
The campaign, which runs through 2023, began with $50,000 from ministry reserves toward the goal of $200,000.
Before the fall summit, the 100-member Pullman Presbyterian Church kicked off the giving by their session committing $5,000. A congregation member matched it with $5,000 more. Another member offered to match the $10,000 for a total of $20,000.
"Their gift was announced to invite the presbytery to give," said Sheryl. "A total of $200,000 is needed for repairs. We already have nearly $100,000."
Recently Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church gave $13,000.
The leadership team said the most crucial repairs would cost $50,000. Those include fixing the Spalding Church's foundation that rotted in a flood, the sagging roof of First Indian in Kamiah and water damage to walls of North Fork Presbyterian.
The campaign includes educational materials and a video.
These churches are the oldest active churches in the presbytery and the state of Idaho. The repairs are needed to ensure they will be around for future generations.
"All are small churches with limited resources and aging members," Sheryl said, noting that membership and attendance do not represent the number of people who consider themselves part of the churches. Many generations are involved. For them, Christian faith is important and is tied with family."
Sheryl shared some background. The presbytery embarked on a Nez Perce Church Buildings Capital Campaign as a follow-up to their apology to Nimiipuu members.
In 2016, the Presbyterian Church (USA) began reconciliation work on a national level by issuing an apology on behalf of the denomination to all native people in the U.S. They met in Barrow, Alaska, so Alaskan native people received it.
"That sparked efforts in the Inland Northwest Presbytery, where four of six Nimiipuu churches are active," said Sheryl. "They heard about it and asked what our presbytery would do."
"The presbytery's response has grown out of our ongoing mutual relationship, respect and involvement," she said.
In 2017, the presbytery's stated clerk and moderator read an apology at the Talmaks annual camp meeting of the Nimiipuu in Talmaks near Craigmont, Idaho. The two-week multi-generational gathering of the six churches, held annually since 1897, includes worship every evening and baptisms, sometimes of 20 infants.
Later in 2017, Sheryl read an apology to the whole tribe at the Nimiipuu General Council in Kamiah. Then she read a similar apology at the Spalding Church.
Each time, the response of Nimiipuu elders was: "Great words. Now what?"
"Looking at our history, our apology acknowledges our participation in the colonization of people and apologizes for actions of our early missionary, Henry Spalding, who sent clothing, artifacts and horse gear to Dudley Allen, a supporter in Ohio," said Sheryl.
In 1893, Dudley's son donated the Spalding-Allen Collection to Oberlin College, which loaned it to the Ohio Historical Society. In 1996, curators of the Nez Perce National Historical Park began negotiations for the collection to be returned, but the historical society decided to keep the artifacts. After the tribe continued to press for their return, the society agreed to send them if they could raise $608,000 in six months. They did and bought back the artifacts.
Twenty-five years later, the tribe decided to rename the collection. In June 2021, Sheryl participated in a "Renaming Ceremony" at Lapwai. The returned collection was renamed "Wetxuuwíitin," meaning "the captives return home."
At the ceremony, she repeated the apology. A representative of the Ohio Historical Society was at the ceremony. On returning to Ohio, he shared his experience with the society, which decided to return the payment in full.
Sheryl described the history of Nimiipuu churches in Idaho.
First Indian Presbyterian Church of Kamiah, which was chartered in 1871, is the oldest active Christian church in the state of Idaho and the presbytery's oldest church.
First Presbyterian in Spalding was chartered in 1873; Second Indian Church of Kamiah, in 1890, and North Fork Presbyterian at Ahsahka, in 1895.
Members of those churches are predominantly Nimiipuu.
Mary Jane Miles, who lives in Lapwai, is pastor of the Nimiipuu churches, leading worship at 9:30 to 10:30, and 10:45 to 12:15. She is ordained and holds a doctoral degree.
"The Nimiipuu have a deep faith in the Creator," Sheryl said.
"In 2018 at Talmaks, we formed the Listening and Reconciliation Team and did an interactive Blanket Exercise, an education program on the Doctrine of Discovery," she said, "but it was hurtful. Because it reviews the traumatic history, many left in tears.
"We later did the exercise for non-native people at a 2019 quarterly summit. There were tears with them, too," she said of the presbytery's learning process.
Listening and reconciliation continued until 2020, when COVID impeded the ability to meet.
The national Presbyterian Church hired a building inspector to visit the PCUSA's 95 native churches and report on needs. He worked for the Racial Equity and Women's Intercultural Ministries to inventory all Native American Presbyterian church properties and their physical needs.
They recommended helping economically disadvantaged churches fund critical repairs and improvements.
"In April 2022, our first in-person summit since 2019, we showed a KSPS video on the return of the collection," said Sheryl, noting that the summit drew nearly 80 pastors and elders from 40 churches from Canada to Kamiah, Montana to Wilbur.
In November 2022, the presbytery met on Zoom. Nimiipuu elders led worship with participants saying the Lord's Prayer and doing a singalong in the Nimiipuu language with songs, like "Blessed Assurance," that many know in English. Mary Jane preached on the theme "Ongoing Racial Reconciliation with Our Nez Perce Siblings."
In a workshop, author Randy Woodley, a Cherokee who holds a doctoral degree from Asbury Theological Seminary and teaches at Portland Seminary, shared observations as a former missionary among Native Americans. A missiologist and "decolonial theologian" with 30 years of seeing "the best and the worst" of American mission work, he called for hearing from those hurt by the mission and gave a critique on Spalding's ministry.
At the summit, presbytery leaders launched the campaign to repair the Nimiipuu buildings.
In addition to the campaign, Sheryl explained the churches and communities are also discerning between what is Nimiipuu culture and what is western culture.
"We confused the Christian gospel and culture," she said. "Some thought people had to let go of their native culture to be Christian. It confused many about what was essential in faith. It's an ongoing process."
Sheryl said Nimiipuu members help her and the presbytery understand what it means to be Nimiipuu and what it means to be Presbyterian.
"Is what I bring culturally bound or essential to faith?" is an crucial question, she pointed out.
"We helped destroy the language," Sheryl said. "Nez Perce were sent to boarding schools in Carlisle, Pa. Even though Presbyterians did not run schools, our churches supported colonialism."
Recently the Nimiipuu received a grant to revive their language. They offer classes at Talmaks gatherings. For worship, they sing and pray in Nimiipuu but preach in English.
Sheryl, who lived in Fort Wayne, Ind., through high school and had limited encounters with Native Americans, values what she is learning. Her first call after Princeton Seminary was from 1988 to 1991 at First Presbyterian in Spokane. She and her husband, Scott, returned East to be near family when their children were young but wanted to return.
"With Nimiipuu active in the Presbytery, we foster relationships as brothers and sisters. They are part of us," she said.
"When quarterly meetings were on Zoom, we opened with land acknowledgements, naming nearby tribes," Sheryl said. "To acknowledge that the land is not ours puts us in a position of humility. We continue to give land acknowledgements because it sets us in right relationships with our neighbors."
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