You didn’t need to be a weather forecaster to know which way the wind was blowing in the 1960s and early 1970s (to paraphrase Bob Dylan).
Change was in the air and the people were taking their causes to the streets. It was a time of protest, civil unrest and social transformation.
It was also a time when Lutherans in America met with a cross section of American Indians — from militant protesters to very conservative Indian people — and formed a national board to help with the organizing needs of Native Americans.
Before the 1960s, Indian activism was confined to tribal reservations and involved such issues as trespassing on Indian land or treaty violations. But on November 20, 1969, the American Indian protest and activist movement came into prominence with the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, a small island in the middle of San Francisco Bay and a federal prison until 1963.
The goal of the Alcatraz protest was to raise American public awareness about the plight of the American Indian. It was hoped that more attention would be paid to the suffering caused by the federal government’s broken treaties and broken promises and to the plea for Indian “self-determination,” or sovereignty of the American Indian tribes.
The Alcatraz movement was followed by other protests, many peaceful, others violent. In 1972 American Indian protesters occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.; in February 1973 the American Indian Movement seized control of the town of Wounded Knee, S.D.
Changes were also happening within the large body of Lutherans in the plains states. Lutherans were and still are the largest religious population in that area. Two new church bodies were formed: The American Lutheran Church in 1960 and The Lutheran Church in America in 1962. The roles of Lutheran colleges were redefined, and in 1969 Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., established the Center for Community Organization and Area Development.
Thinking that all American Indians needed to work together for the common good, American Indian Movement leaders looked to Lutheran churches for organization, funding and bringing together a diverse group of Indian people reflecting the full spectrum of political views, from radical to conservative. At a meeting at Augustana College, American Indian Movement members challenged Lutherans to create a national staff position for Indian issues and to supply funding for Indian organizing throughout the country.
The Lutheran Church in America stepped up to the challenge and supported the establishment of an office for Indian Ministry in the Lutheran Council. In 1970 Eugene Crawford was named the executive director of the National Indian Lutheran Board, a position he held until his death in 1986. He was the first American Indian to hold such a position. In the early years, the National Indian Lutheran Board used much of its budget to fund community development and advocacy efforts on behalf of American Indian sovereignty and treaty rights.
The board’s responsibilities included testifying on legislation affecting American Indians; facilitating awareness of American Indian issues on the part of non-Indians; working with ecumenical organizations to reach a wider Christian audience; and administering funds granted for Indian projects and special requests.
“Change has been slow in coming,” says Marilyn Sorenson, former director for ELCA American Indian and Alaska Native Ministries and an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe of the Sioux Nation. “We still have a long way to go, but progress has been made.”
When she was a child in the 1930s and 1940s she endured taunting epithets, hurtful insults and rude looks that came with growing up an American Indian in a tiny all-white town on the edge of Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota. She was a member of Zion Lutheran Church and a Sunday school teacher. But the town really didn’t accept her and she and her husband moved to Florida to raise their family.
Then in 2001, people from her hometown invited her to speak at an event. She recalls: “All of a sudden I am accepted. When I was a child it was a different story. It was painful, but through it all I always had God. God never left my side, I may have left him, but God is faithful.” For Marilyn, times have indeed changed, but there is still work to be done.
The DVD program “Native Nations: Standing Together for Civil Rights” provides more information and can be purchased online or by calling 800-638-3522. The price is $20.