November 1, 2019

A Growing Ministry

The church’s ministry to Native Americans is significant and largely unsung.

Robert Burnette

North American Division (NAD) Native Ministries was officially created in 1996, and I had the privilege of serving as its first director. This was the beginning of the official work for Native American people in the NAD territory, and God has worked  many miracles to advance this ministry.

Union Conference-led Native Ministries

By early 1999 each of the unions in the NAD had a Native Ministries coordinator. We viewed this as evidence of God’s blessing and leading of this new initiative.

The North Pacific Union Conference has a very strong Native Ministries program, first coordinated by Monte Church. Of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, well more than half are in the North Pacific, since every village of Inuit people in Alaska is a federally recognized tribe.

It has been difficult to establish work in remote regions of Alaska as well as on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, at the tip of the Arctic Circle in Barrow, or on the Alaska coast, which has no road access to large cities. Vast differences in culture and language exist among the tribes in Alaska, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. This is also a challenge.

Yet the work continues to grow with new baptisms almost every week in the North Pacific Union, which has seven Native American schools and two new churches being built. For more than 100 years baptisms of tribal chiefs have helped to advance the work among Native American people as the chiefs themselves became involved in ministry.

Roadblocks to Growth

Indigenous work in North America has not been easy because of wars, the desire of the U.S. government to assimilate the indigenous population, and the effort to eliminate Native American languages. The result is a general lack of trust in nonindigenous people and a scarcity of hope among Native American people. Their fight with the U.S. government saw Native American areas turned into “reservations” or economically disadvantaged areas. But Native Americans have not surrendered their fight to keep their cultures alive.

Vast differences in culture and language exist among the tribes in Alaska, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

Non-indigenous populations have developed opinions and stereotypes of Native Americans based on television programs rather than actual exchanges with communities. Interestingly, the religious beliefs of most North American indigenous communities are similar to those of Seventh-day Adventists; in fact, in the contiguous United States there is a Seventh-day Adventist Church within 25 miles of all of the 573 federally recognized tribes. Adventists are logistically close to this mission field, but most of the people of these tribes are still unreached with the true gospel of Christ. Still, there are many projects that highlight the meaningful interaction between Adventists and indigenous peoples.

Holbrook Indian School

Holbrook Indian School (HIS)—a K-12 Adventist boarding school in Holbrook, Arizona, comprising students largely of the Navajo Nation—offers an example of how our heavenly Father provides for our needs.

I remember a period when Holbrook was deeply in debt. During a board meeting to address the debt, I spoke with the Native American board members and we wept while in fervent prayer. Then as the members went to lunch, I walked to a desert area behind the property, knelt, and prayed until it was almost time for the board to meet again.

Once back on campus, I called a businessman I knew. When his assistant heard my voice, she said, “He’s been trying to reach you.” The businessman told me that he wanted to know where I needed help, and he donated $300,000—more than enough to cover Holbrook’s debt! God provided the funds without my even asking for them. This reminds us that all wealth belongs to God (see 1 Chron. 29:12; Ps. 24:1; 50:10).

The Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation stretches across four local conferences (Texico, Rocky Mountain, Nevada-Utah, and Arizona) , and three union conferences (Pacific, Southwestern, and Mid-America). Besides HIS, it houses the Chinle School, also in Arizona, and La Vida Mission in New Mexico. La Vida Mission is totally self-supporting, with faculty and staff who faithfully share the love of Christ with their students and see youth and families baptized every year. When I served as director of Native Ministries, six Navajo pastors and their spouses served on Navajo land.

Nancy Crosby, Native Ministries coordinator for the Pacific Union Conference, works closely with Navajo leaders. She and her pastor husband, James, have developed a relationship with the people based on love and trust, and are meeting needs. Under their leadership, community gardens have been established with the help of Southwestern Adventist University and several other volunteer mission teams. Events such as health-disparity workshops; Vacation Bible Schools; and training programs, such as how to give Bible studies, do outreach, and teach creation health are successful door openers.

First Nations Ministries in Canada

The Mamawi Atosketan School, a K-12 First Nations day school in the Alberta Conference of the Adventist Church in Canada, has a current student enrollment of 220. It began with only non-Adventist students, but multiple baptisms result each year.

About the year 1900 a First Nation tribal chief, Dr. G. W. Hill, who was also a Seventh-day Adventist physician, held much land in New York and the Brantford, Ontario, area of Canada at Six Nations. His history in our church documents reveals answers to prayer as he developed Native American ministries in both the United States and Canada as a pastor, writer, health promoter, and faithful servant to our Savior.

Families such as Pastor Daniel and Gina Geibosh do outreach internationally through health ministries, and young people such as Nicole Luttrell in the Maritime provinces and other regions of North America distribute American Indian Living magazine and other Adventist literature. Minnesota also has an extraordinary couple impacting Native American tribes through Bible studies, as well as health and other training events.

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The Board of National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) poses with leaders of the North American Division and the General Conference in January 2015. The president of NCAI honored the Adventist Church by presenting church leader with an Eagle feather.

More Outreach Ministries

In the Southern Union Conference, Gulf States Camp Alamisco conducts two weeks of health summer camp with more than 100 children from the Poarch Creek Nation. This last summer alone, 69 children accepted Jesus as their Savior; 53 made a decision for baptism; and 44 more asked to learn more about accepting Jesus as their Savior. Almost all are taking Bible studies.

In Oklahoma American Indian Living media thrives. American Indian Living Radio, with David DeRose, has been sharing the gospel and health messages on National Public Radio (NPR) and tribal radio stations for more than 20 years.

The Oklahoma Conference Native Ministries has a strong relationship with the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians, created by the U.S. Congress in 1944 and representing all tribes in the United States. Doors have been opened for Adventist physicians and independent health ministries to work with tribes, resulting in a strong positive reputation of the denomination.

The Oklahoma region has the most baptisms each year through programs that serve beyond conference lines. Millions of dollars in donations have flowed from tribes to Loma Linda University and Seventh
-day Adventist schools, clinics, and conferences. The Oklahoma Conference recently released Bible Study Connect, an Internet Bible study program, allowing interaction with the participant and tracking to help develop better lessons and yield a higher rate of conversions. For the NAD as a whole, Native American camp meetings are the primary tool for training and equipping members for sharing the gospel through positive, effective, and enjoyable experiences.

Fulfillment of Prophecy

John the Revelator must have seen them in this scene: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Rev. 7:9, 10).

More than 2,000 tribes of indigenous peoples reside in North America alone, with more than 2,000 languages and 2,500 dialects. A great mission field is here in North America, waiting for people who will accept the call of God to take the gospel message to every tribe and language and people.

Robert Burnette is assistant to the president of the Oklahoma Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He served as director of Native Ministries for the North American Division from 1996 to 2000.