Religious Reflections from Red Shirt, SD – Erik Franze

My path toward an interest in interfaith communication and togetherness began as many others do: through a program at my own childhood faith community. The small Presbyterian church that I grew up attending regularly embarks on summer mission trips. I have grown to understand the troublesome historical context of “missionizing” a group of people, particularly by Christian colonists subjugating Native populations through forcible conversion. However, I am grateful to these trips for the service, (typically in the form of manual labor) that we were able to provide, and the intercultural and interreligious learning experiences we encountered.

A trip in the summer before my first year at UW-Madison to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, predominantly the home of the Lakota, particularly inspired me. Pine Ridge is a beautiful place, encompassing areas of the Badlands and Black Hills, and much of its landscape is sacred in Lakota tradition. It also holds a place of grim importance in American history as the final place where Native people lived independently of U.S. government control. The Ghost Dance, itself an interreligious movement of resistance calling for unity between all tribes, culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. All of these moments in this place combine to foster proud and strong cultural traditions on the reservation, but also significant socioeconomic problems.

I articulate these historical trends to explain how my own experiences in Pine Ridge caused me to first think critically about my own religion and beliefs. In America, my religion is commonly seen as the norm. It is I who have the privilege and resources to be able to take a “mission trip.” So why, I wondered, did an entire set of incredibly diverse and varied religious practices come to be viewed by many non-Native people as backwards, antithetical to “rationality,” inferior to other religions, and monolithic? Or worse, to be considered by some as savage heresy that needed to be policed through racist legislation, expunged out of children, squelched out of existence.

The answers to these questions are multifaceted and difficult to pin down. I know I am still thinking about them, and this trip was over two years ago. I am hoping that my time as an Undergraduate Fellow with the CRGC will include discussions about similar questions, and appropriate actions to take.

Interacting with the town of Red Shirt, a community on the far western side of the “res,” was my first long-term collaboration with those of a markedly different faith than me. While I had friends growing up who were and still are Muslim, Hindu, or atheist, and had visited a synagogue as part of my confirmation process, I had never previously lived and worked in the midst of another religious group. The welcoming environment provided by leaders in Red Shirt encouraged cross-cultural knowledge sharing, most memorably when we were invited to a powwow on the last day of our trip. Witnessing these different traditions and a willingness to share them has profoundly shaped my academic and personal passions to this day as I start the year as a Fellow. In a location where Christianity often meant an attack on one’s own indigenous beliefs and religious identity (as the many abandoned churches on the res are a haunting symbol of), it was powerful to be part of an event filled with both Native and Christian spiritual leaders.

I strive to take what I learned at Pine Ridge to heart as a young person in college, where my involvement with a faith community has included sponsoring an event that featured dialogue with a reverend from Standing Rock and a UW professor active in Native circles and local leadership. The discussion ranged from recent activism of Water Protectors against pipelines to Ojibwe cultural traditions. My leadership on this event was a direct follow-up to my time at Pine Ridge and built upon the gifts I received there. Also, it is what directly led to my involvement with the CRGC. Now, I hope to continue broadening my understanding of what interfaith work can be, especially with a group of similarly compassionate young people.

Helping to coordinate this discussion once again stoked my interest in the power of interreligious teamwork to remedy and dismantle racism and xenophobia at a time when these issues are rampant. To me, advocating with someone is always better than doing it for them, as the latter in this case runs the risk of triggering a “white savior complex.” It is important to include Native faiths into interreligious networks, which despite claims of comprehensive openness are often still missing Native voices. As with all successful interfaith collaboration, greater inclusivity, empathy and awareness can then be fostered. I hope to be able to aid these causes both within my own faith community and at the CRGC.

– Erik Franze