If you were to travel to North Dakota in the middle of July, your friends might question your motive for such a trip. The temperatures soar into the high 90s and many describe this land as barren and devoid of anything interesting. The American Indian people who live on this particular landscape would disagree.
The countryside displays beautiful wild flowers and medicinal plants, notably the echinacea plant. Sage, juneberries and bitteroot also grow plentiful here. The North Dakota badlands form an arresting aspect to this geography and the great Missouri River winds directly through the region, creating magnificent bluffs and vistas.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arickara, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, have a longstanding relationship with the landscape of the northern plains. One of their tribal members, Sekakawea, served as guide to Lewis and Clark on their exploratory journey to the west via the Missouri River. For the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, July is the perfect time to visit their region.
High summer is the time for their communal celebrations in communities such as White Shield and Mandaree. While these celebrations are distinctly American Indian and tribal, they are not unlike communal celebrations anywhere. There is the strengthening of the communal spirit, renewing of friendships and kinship ties, passing on tradition, bestowing honor, giving of gifts, and of course much feasting.
The United Church of Christ is present on the Fort Berthold Reservation, in the midst of the communal celebrations on the northern plains. The people of Fort Berthold refer to the United Church of Christ by its polity, "the congregational church" on the reservation. Congregational missionaries began this ministry in the late 1800s and its witness continues as part of the communal life today. Six churches on the reservation form the Fort Berthold Council of Congregational Churches. Generous gifts to the Neighbors in Need offering support the ministry at Fort Berthold through the Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM).
The Council for American Indian Ministry receives one third of the Neighbors in Need Offering to support the ministry of congregations on reservations in North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, and one urban intertribal church in Minneapolis. The congregations rely on this support for pastoral salaries, continuing education, youth events, support for seminary training and other educational programs for preparation for ministry. The Council supports other initiatives such as the development of the Learning Center in Eagle Butte, S.D., designed primarily for leadership development on the reservations, and also a theological consultation group comprised of native American scholars "doing their own thinking." Lastly, but most important, CAIM engages in activity to address the many injustices aimed at American Indian people.
The Neighbors in Need Offering provides a way for all of us to do something that is difficult to do in our society: build relationships with our neighbors. As you prepare for the NIN offering, remember that the people on Fort Berthold are planning their own ways of revitalizing their ministry so that the UCC may have an even stronger presence in their communities.
Kim Mammedaty is executive director of CAIM, the UCC Council for American Indian Ministry, with its office in Minneapolis.