Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Going beyond stereotypes of Native faith

Conscience, culture guide the faith of a Native American


Jamie Oxendine has experience exercising his freedom of religion. He had to assert his freedom to practice according to his culture in front of a judge in 1997. He was on trial as part of a three-state investigation into people possessing items that can be illegal, such as feathers from federally protected birds. As a Christian who is also a Native American, Mr. Oxendine said that traditional items from his culture helped him to be close to God. One reason he was in court in Ohio, where he was arrested, was that his tribe, the Lumbee, from North Carolina, is not recognized by the U.S. government.

“I was facing, like, six years and $100,000,” Mr. Oxendine said. “The judge wanted to know what I did as my faith, and I said, 'Well, I do practice Christianity, and I also practice my culture.'” The argument from Mr. Oxendine and his attorney, Jeffery Crowther, was that he was born and raised in a Native American culture--federal recognition didn't matter. The judge's ruling “said that regardless of who I worshiped--and I worship God--he said the state of Ohio says that every man has a right to worship God according to his own conscience. If I am not allowed to have things that I find are a symbol to get closer to God, then I can't worship God, and so the charges were completely dismissed.”

Today Jamie Oxendine gives presentations and performances about Native American life, culture, people, and activities. He lives in Perrysburg, and, besides teaching in the Bowling Green public schools, he is director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation, a nonprofit Native American educational and service organization that hosts the annual Woodland Indian Celebration, and he is editor of the Web site PowWows.com.

Mr. Oxendine simply describes his religious affiliation as Christian; he attends First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Bowling Green. “I have no problem with [being Christian] and being Native at the same time and taught all our traditions,” he said. He did say that some people do have a problem, referring to “the atrocities of the Europeans and later Americans, and doing everything in the name of God. I say that has nothing to do with Native America. Man's been doing that forever; he takes the name of God in vain, so why wouldn't he use anything he does and say it's in the name of God?”

Mr. Oxendine said that much of what is perceived as Native American religion is stereotyped. He said that passing a pipe is something most people think all Native Americans do, and “that we all do sweat lodges and we all do the sun dance. Those are probably the most common stereotypes. Absolutely positively everything is 100 percent sacred” is another one.

“There's different types of uses of the pipe,” Mr. Oxendine said. “And the sun dance was not for all tribes, and not everybody did sweat lodges.”

He said that for drumming, “The playing of the drum and the singing is sacred, yet at the same time the drum can do a nonreligious performance like an education event, living history event, even something like, well, powwows or gatherings." That is similar to the way the Bible is used, he said. "While the Bible may be sacred, it doesn't mean you can't take the Bible with you and read it anywhere you want to. It doesn't mean the Bible has to be read only at church.... It's not exactly the best analogy, but it comes close, I think, to getting some people to understand.

Calling people chief or shaman or medicine man according to the way they are dressed is another inaccuracy, Mr. Oxendine said, "that came from bad dime-store novels and bad Hollywood movies.” Also, “Too many people jumped on the 'New Age' bandwagon and were using symbols of our culture and faith and ideas and making money off of it."

"There is no one Native American faith," Mr. Oxendine said. "There are many faiths from the Atlantic and Pacific and from North America and South America … and there are a lot of Natives that practice Christianity and have accepted various forms of Christianity.”

Mr. Oxendine said that belief in "a greater higher powerful being or beings, depending on what nations, that had created everything” is common in Native American culture. He said that Native Americans strove “to try to connect with that, and you could see that in the natural world, so you could see the living things, and we are an integral part of that.” But the religious practices of different nations are more specific to the nation, not common to all.

As for the holiday known as Columbus Day, Mr. Oxendine said, “I know that a lot of our people have a problem with the concept of Columbus Day. I try to tell them that … if it hadn't been Columbus, it was going to be somebody soon. … I would like to see the federal government not have it as a holiday.

"Native American Day, that would be nice to see the American government do.”

Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.

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