Corbin Renken ’16 shares his experience in the Black Hills of South Dakota studying Native American culture and theology.
When I first signed up to take Conquest and Redemption: Native American Culture and Theology from 1492 to Wounded Knee, I believed I was just saving myself time by taking a social science course during the summer. I had no idea what a transformational experience this course would be or how it would forever alter my perspective. In this class, I learned a story often left silent in this nation, and I became aware of the urgent need for reconciliation between the Church and the First Nations people of North America.
Conquest and Redemption was a two-week long course taught in June at the Wheaton College Science Station in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Being a new joint effort between the Anthropology and Biblical and Theological Studies Departments, it was led by anthropology Professor Christine Folch and New Testament Professor Gene Green. There were five students in the course, but our professors liked to remind us that we were truly a group of seven learners.
Daily experiences in the field made up the substance of the course. We travelled to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where we met Native pastors, doctors, lawyers, professors, business owners and radio hosts. These real-life encounters were supplemented by examining primary historical documents such as letters, transcripts of Congressional proceedings, and even Papal Bulls. During our two weeks together, we examined painful effects of European and American influence from the time of Christopher Columbus’ landing until the present day.
At times I found myself angry and aching as we unpacked a dark side of American history not recorded in any high school textbook. I learned about genocide and ethnocide that occurred in my own country, sometimes even heretically done in God’s name. I was hurt to learn that even people from the Evangelical Church have been involved in the mass murder of Native Americans- though clearly not because of what God’s Word says! We also saw the hardships that Natives face today, including alcohol addiction, poverty, domestic violence, miscarriage of the law and high suicide rates. My fellow students and I were challenged emotionally as well as spiritually, and through the hurting God gave us a heart for a people He desperately loves.
Yet despite the tragic events that have taken place on this continent and all of the crimes committed against this people, we found a story of hope. In the midst of hurt, disillusionment and suffering, God is at work in the Native community. More and more Natives are coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the Church is beginning the process of reconciliation. We were encouraged to worship with brothers and sisters in Christ at a Native-run church and to see new economic growth and education opportunities on the reservation. I experienced grace and forgiveness as I was welcomed with wide-open arms, even after what people of my race, culture and faith have done.
I believe we as Christians are called to mend relationships that have been long severed with the First Nations people of North America. We have done a poor job of representing who our God is, and as a result less than 1% of Native Americans today are Christian. Many Natives who are Christian still receive the message that they must abandon their culture if they are to follow God, rather than letting their unique standpoint enrich the Church. Reconciliation will take much time, and will be only accomplished through the building of personal relationships. We can all take part by becoming aware of a people group that is largely forgotten about, and by reaching out to those who are in the community right around us.
Reflecting back on my summer in the Black Hills, I will always be thankful for this eye opening experience. I have grown in my faith, made close friends, and have been given a calling that I have a passion for. I believe that classes such as this are what the liberal arts and Wheaton College are all about! Conquest and Redemption means much more than two credits from a summer class to me… It will serve to shape my future in meaningful ways.
-Corbin Renken, Class of 2016