Shawnee descendant, historian, and storyteller, the Reverend Fred Shaw who serves on the Native American Ministry Plan of The United Methodist Church. He has served as director of a national school for American Indian United Methodist pastors who maintain their cultural heritages while being deeply immersed in what it means to be a Christian pastor. Among his many talents, Fred is an historical actor and lecturer, scriptwriter, voiceover artist, author, and photographer. Rev. Shaw is also a retired clergy member of the West Ohio Annual Conference, having served in local church ministry for 41 years.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Welcome to the Unfinished Church. I’m LaTrelle Miller Easterling.
Bishop Mike McK…: I’m Mike McKee.
Bishop Gregory …: And I’m Gregory Palmer. Thank you for joining us for the Unfinished Church. The Unfinished Church is a place for brave conversations, to build a world in which racial prejudice has no power. God is not finished with us.
Would you imagine with me for a moment what it would feel like to be in your own home land, but it’s not yours anymore. It’s been snatched from you by other people, interlopers. To have your language ripped from your tongue, to be given clothes to wear that are not your clothes, to be told that you can no longer worship your God in the way in which you understand God, and in the customs of your culture and your community. It is taking this unimaginableness into ourselves that has to be the bridge to our understanding, both our lack of relationship with Native American, indigenous Indian people here, and our need and our call to be in relationship with them. It will never happen if we don’t know their stories, the depth of their pain, the pathology of what happened to them, and the call to be agents of healing and of reconciliation.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Bishop Palmer, you make me immediately think about the saying that we’d have so much more compassion for one another if we understood one another’s stories. You also make me think about the fact that this is why it is imperative that we sit down at table, look one another in the eye, and listen to one another. I can read about the stories of dispossession that you’ve spoken of. I can think I understand it. But until I sit down and listen and am willing to really allow my mind to be transported to the times when this happened, I don’t really understand. And I think when we do that, our ability to hate, our ability to disregard, our ability to deny will be diminished. And then we’ll be able to move into a space of real authentic relationship.
Bishop Mike McK…: One of the things that has really come into my understanding that I have to admit I did not know a lot about, and I think that’s the way history gets taught, is to keep us from learning all the things that we really need to know about why we’re in the state that we’re in. But I would say that the Christian Doctrine of Discovery is very, very alarming. The idea that a group of people from Europe were allowed to go to another land far away and to do anything possible in order to convert people to Christianity is like thinking that somebody else doesn’t have something to offer, and the end justifies the means. And that is alarming. And that may be why there’s still so much distrust of people and why there’s still so much violence.
Bishop Gregory …: Today our guest is Fred Shaw, a Shawnee descendant, historian, storyteller, and pastor. It is a powerful conversation. Fred’s vulnerability, his openness and his wisdom are worthy of our hearing and of our deep respect. Let’s listen in.
Rev. Fred Shaw: Thank you, Bishop Palmer. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m so grateful that the United Methodist Church is seeking new relationships and deeper relationships with indigenous people.
Bishop Gregory …: Amen. Thank you. We are living in interesting times, and it seems that the more we learn about our country and our church’s history, the more we have yet to learn, and dare I say to repent for, actions that started centuries ago, but the pain and the rollout of which still exists today. Brother Fred, would you help us to understand from your experiences and perspective the relationship between indigenous people and the United Methodist Church?
Rev. Fred Shaw: Well one of the first questions usually asked of me is, how can you be an American-Indian and a pastor? There seems to be some sort of concept that you have to be one or the other. But the reality is, I was raised in the old Methodist church. My maternal grandfather was a Methodist minister for 54 years, and my father taught Sunday school for 40 years.
Bishop Gregory …: Wow.
Rev. Fred Shaw: And I grew up in that kind of an atmosphere in which my family was accepted in the church, but we also maintained our culture, our heritage. We did not have the language, that had been lost to us when we had to go underground in 1832. But we still had our same ideas of relationship to the earth, how you cared for it, and my dad was what you might call a horse whisper. That was one of his great talents. He passed that on to me, and I have to my son. So we still have those interrelationships with the church from that.
But as far as the church as a whole was concerned, it very often was adversarial in that the church, although it believed it was being altruistic in trying to save our souls, our spirits, and our bodies by having the schools and getting us to be “civilized,” the reality was that they really were used by the government and others in order to help remove us. They truly wanted to help. And Thomas Jefferson, even very early in his presidency, believed that the only way to save the American-Indian people was to remove them from contact with white civilization, because he saw that they were being corrupted very quickly. That rationale continued even through the ruthless removals of Jackson, that well, we’re saving them. We’re getting them away from all this other horrid stuff that’s around them. It just simply wasn’t accurate. It was a way of legitimizing what was being done.
What native people did was they looked at what was being done around them. And for instance, Red Jacket, who was a [inaudible 00:07:13], an Iroquois, said to a missionary one time, “I’ll listen to you when I see that the people living around me are actually living by what you’re teaching them Jesus said.” And until he saw that kind of authenticity, he was not willing to listen.
One of the problems is, really, there’s no problem with native people and Jesus. There’s a problem of native people with the church and how the church has acted toward them. The church viewed native spirituality as idolatry or as of the devil. And that was reflected in a lot of names that were given to different aspects, especially sacred places. So many spiritual places for our people were named by the settlers who came in as devil. For instance, Spirit Lake in North Dakota is called Devil’s Lake because it was a spiritual place of the Lakota people. The Devil’s Tower in Wyoming was the Bears Lodge, but named the Devil’s Tower because it was a spiritual place of the people in that area. And there’s lots of examples of that throughout the United States.
But as far as that’s concerned, you understand how they would feel, those people coming in. They were aliens. Imagine an alien spaceship coming into one of our churches and seeing us sitting there and then standing and praying and singing toward a cross. They would say that we worshiped the cross because they don’t know the rest of the story. They don’t know that the cross is a symbol that calls us into relationship with a loving God. Well, the people who came in did not understand that if they saw us praying at a tree, that we were not praying to the tree. We were giving thanks to the creator for the beauty that was in front of us, another way of being in relationship with God. And they did not understand that. And so that was a part of the problem.
I became aware of just how much more accepting native people are when I was invited to go to a sweat lodge on Puget Sound. It was led by a very traditional man. And a sweat lodge is like being in a prayer meeting in a sauna, and it gets hotter on every round of the prayers and deeper, spiritually. And I was there with Roy Wilson, who is a Cowlitz and also a United Methodist pastor. The man who was leading the sweat lodge said, “There are two with us today who, in addition to following the Red Road, follow the Jesus road. And in honor of their presence with us as brothers, I would like to end this with the prayer that their master taught.” And we ended a traditional sweat lodge with the Lord’s prayer.
Bishop Gregory …: Wow. Wow.
Rev. Fred Shaw: That was very exciting to me.
Bishop Gregory …: That’s fabulous.
Rev. Fred Shaw: The other thing I would say about our relationship is that when I was the director of the Native American course of study for local pastors, one of our students is Dene, Navajo. He was raised up in one of our boarding schools, or a boarding school. And after a couple of years in the program, he wrote me a note and he said, “You know, for the first time in my life, I am Dene and I am Christian. And I do not feel that I am betraying one or the other.” That’s where we need to get with the church.
Bishop Gregory …: So that’s about right teaching versus, let me say, wrong teaching. And that said, how then, might you say, has the Christian Doctrine of Discovery contributed to all of this and manifest destiny? How has that affected you and all other indigenous people?
Rev. Fred Shaw: Well, as soon as you have the Doctrine of Discovery, of course, you have this statement that any Christian prince can send out representatives and claim land that is occupied by those who are not Christian. What happened was they quickly were seen as subservient then. Not only could you remove them from the land, but you could also use them. And even the church that had condoned this, debated for many, many years as to whether or not we even had souls, whether we could be converted. Once we could be converted, then we became a commodity, adding the numbers. And if we didn’t add in, then we were removed quite physically. And that was one of the legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery.
The problem is, the Doctrine of Discovery is still functioning. It has never been rescinded. And there is even documentation of government law and court cases being founded upon the Doctrine of Discovery when it comes to land issues. So it has deprived us of not only land, but resources, and even our sacred space, because we are connected to those places. Manifest Destiny, of course also, immensely. It was a divine right to remove people so that they could have their, the destiny that God had in mind for this nation, from sea to sea. I think that could have been part of God’s destiny, but I think it could have been worked out a whole lot differently in cooperation, in understanding, and not just simply by taking and removing.
Cotton Mather gave a speech or a sermon very early on when he arrived here in the colonies. And the diseases, the plagues that were going through, had removed almost 90% of the population before them. And he likened that to God’s angel going before the Israelites to remove the infidel from the land and praised God for all these deaths. And that’s a scar that is very hard to heal, to think that our deaths were the occasion of praising God.
Bishop Gregory …: And is it not accurate to say that a great number of the deaths that came from these plagues were diseases that were brought by European settlers?
Rev. Fred Shaw: Yes. And we had no real resilience against them. It takes about 500 years for the genome to change. We’re just on the cusp of finally being able to handle some of the things. And then we get this new thing called COVID, which has been a tremendous blight upon many of our people, especially on reservations.
Bishop Gregory …: In some recent discussions that we had in the North Central Jurisdiction through the specially called session of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference, Dr. Jerry DeVine, who was one of the facilitators in a session said, and I quote now, “No one here today participated in the creation of these historic realities,” referring to the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. And then he continues, “However, no one is exempt from living in the systemic outcomes of those realities.” Say a word about how the systemic outcomes of those realities, you’ve already hinted at it, have affected both native people and affected other sisters and brothers in the human family.
Rev. Fred Shaw: Yeah. The most obvious, of course, is that our economic system in the United States is based upon land and resources that did not belong to the United States, but instead belonged to indigenous people. And there’s no way that’s ever going to be repaid. There’s no way you could repay it without bankrupting the nation. That’s one of those realities. And so everyone who lives here in the United States benefits in some way from that, except, and there, we have the Native American people who are on reservations, because they have been put very often into the least valuable lands. And the resources that were found there then were stripped off of them to benefit those outside. And that continues to be really a problem.
Also, for us, being removed from the place where we had our origins is a way of stripping us of identity. And so other people’s identity has been enhanced by ours being taken away. And where we often found ourselves was in a land that was so foreign to anything that was sacred to us before. It’s like the Israelites crying out in the Psalm, “How can you sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?” My people, when we were removed from Ohio in 1832, were sent out to lands that did not have maple trees. Our culture was based in the maple forest. Our sweetness of life was in the maple. The things that grew in that forest, the clearings where the women were able to plant the corn, the beans and the squash, all of that had to be completely reinvented as to how do you relate to the land where you are. But in the meantime, we are looked upon as less than because we are still struggling to adapt to a different land. Sometimes that’s beyond capabilities.
Bishop Gregory …: So this adaptation, this reinvention, obviously there has been enormous capacity, even though you may still be struggling.
Rev. Fred Shaw: Oh, yes.
Bishop Gregory …: That leads me to ask this, and perhaps then other colleagues will weigh in with questions. What would it look like to fully embrace the gifts and perspectives of indigenous people, both in the church and in society more generally?
Rev. Fred Shaw: Okay. Well, the very first one that comes to mind is you’d have powerful women because we have very much egalitarian societies. Now, the European Sioux first came in, you know the old joke. They saw the man sitting in the shade of a tree while his woman was out in the field, struggling in the sunshine, hoeing the weeds out of the field, and thought they could invent a better system than that. Well, the reality was if that man had gone out there into that field, she’d have chased him out with a stick because his maleness should not interfere with her female gift of caring for the plants. He was there in that shade tree to make sure she was safe while she carried out her role. That was his role. And those roles are equally necessary, one to the other. He’s now going to go out and hunt. He’s going to bring in meat. She’s going to provide the corn, the beans, the squash. She’s the one who owns the home, all of this. And that’s very different than the European coming in and saying everything’s about the male. And the male is the one who has the power. The male is the one who owns everything. So it’s very different there.
Another thing that would be really different, I think, is that we have what we call the medicine circle. And that is a way of looking at life in a balanced manner. And I always think of what Jesus said about loving God with all of your heart, and with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul. Well, that is also what John Wesley was saying when he gave the four foundations of theology – scripture and tradition, experience and reason, the mind. All those four things are same thing that Jesus said. Well, that is also the circle. It is all of those things. And when we hold everything in a circle, we begin to understand the necessity of each for the other. One cannot be greater than the other. You have to have balance.
And if we had that balance within the church, we wouldn’t have emotional arguments going on that are requiring logic, or logic being thrown at somebody feeling something just from their heart. We would know that, although we’re spiritual beings, we’ve got to work together if we’re going to become souls. That’s what experience is. As we open up our lives to that which is other than us, and really begin then to live as human beings. And if we sit, stand in a circle, no one is more important than anyone else. And if we look at one in the circle and say, “You’re different, get out,” we will then find that the circle breaks, and the one who had been holding it all together, was the one we said we didn’t want. But that is true of every human, every race, every animal, every plant, and every ecosystem. Whatever we decide we don’t need to protect, don’t want in our circle, one day, we’re going to find out that’s what was holding it all together.
Bishop Gregory …: My gracious. Thank you, Fred. Thank you.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling has a question.
Rev. Fred Shaw: Oh, all right.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Thank you so much, Bishop Palmer. And Fred, this is fascinating. It’s a privilege to be with you and to hear your story. What I’d like to explore is, you talk about, again, one culture privileging its approach, its understanding of spirituality over others, castigating our indigenous brothers and sisters, and the ways that you have experienced God and the sacred and the holy. What do we risk? What are we missing in not allowing the approach, the spirituality, the way of being in the world, to inform and reorient the entirety of Christendom of the beloved community? What are we risking?
Rev. Fred Shaw: I think what we’re risking is the Earth itself, the survival of all people. I often am struck by the fact that John Wesley had his simple words- do no harm, do all the good that you can, and be in God’s presence daily. And I remember the fact that the great laws of my people that I learned was, first of all, do no harm. Do all the good you can to the people. Be in God’s presence, walking every day. And then we had a fourth one, and that was walk in balance, harmony, beauty, and love with all things. And I think that’s what the church has lost over the years. We have tended to think only of human beings and what human beings want, and what we need is relationships with everything.
Bishop Gregory …: I think we had another question coming in.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Thank you.
Bishop Gregory …: Thank you, Bishop Easterling. Bishop McKee.
Bishop Mike McK…: Thank you Fred, for being with us. I appreciate it very much. You said a phrase a minute ago, I thought was very interesting. We need to open up our lives to others, to others meaning other than ourselves. Could you talk about that for a few minutes and about what it would be like for us to do that?
Rev. Fred Shaw: All right. I was raised really in a very isolated community, in that my family had gone underground back in 1832. The neighbors of the area had lied for us and said that we were citizens who had moved there with them and therefore could own land. My second-grade school teacher is the one who told me that story because she was descended from one of the people who had hidden my family. She told me one day, “You need to be proud of who you are. You need to also know about everybody else.”
Well, many, many years later I married that woman’s daughter, and my horizons began to expand a lot more. Nancy had already traveled through seven European countries. She’d traveled through a lot of the United States. And I suddenly realized there was more to life than where I had been living, traveling no more than two hours away from the farm. And I began a lifelong adventure of being with people and finding out that they, each and every one of them, was just so wondrous, and that they all had their own stories. And every time I took another story into myself, I became more than I’d been. And I felt a fullness and a connection with them.
I personally believe that all of us are spirits, but we have to go through experiences that open us up to other people who are spirits. And in doing that, we begin then the nurturing of the spirit into a soul, that which is going to be given back to God as a thankful gift for everything that we’ve experienced on this earth. For me, that’s the most important part of my Christianity and my spirituality is what I’m going to give back to God. I’m not going to sit there and play a harp. I don’t like the harp. I want to be doing something. And I think God’s going to have things for us to do. And we’ll be better prepared if we have as full of background as we possibly can.
Bishop Gregory …: Wow. That’s rich. That’s rich. Boy, you are really sharing vulnerably, openly and with great wisdom with all of us. And here on The Unfinished Church podcast, we’re asking all of our guests the same two questions. And so let me give you the first of those two, as we move toward an end. How do you talk with people about racial justice who don’t think, act, or look like you?
Rev. Fred Shaw: Get them laughing. Find that common ground first. One time, I was on my way to do a program, and I was in full regalia, face paint, nose ring, everything. And I was running out of gas in a part of a town that others would’ve said was blighted. And I’m standing at a gas station and pumping gas in full regalia. And several young black men were walking down the street. They looked at me and said, “Yo dude, that’s good.” And then I walked inside to pay, and there was another young black man there. And I walked in, and he looked up at me and we made eye contact. I put my hands up in the air and said, “I’m friendly.” And he said, “Oh, I sure hope so.”
And then I told him where I was going, and where I was going was to a country club to speak to the business women’s association. And I said, “I’m lost.” And he said, “I can see that.” And then I said, “Well, can you tell me where it is?” He said, “You expect me to know that?” And he and I got to laughing. It was just so outlandish. Here’s a young African American man and at that time, still a young native man, and we’re standing there laughing at the absurdity. And when I left that gas station, I had myself a new friend. And so did he.
Bishop Gregory …: Yes. Yes. Yeah.
Rev. Fred Shaw: I think that’s the way you begin. You see each other’s humanity.
Bishop Gregory …: Yes.
Rev. Fred Shaw: And you listen to each other, and you find out where things are in common. And to this day, I’ve never seen him again, but I love that man.
Bishop Gregory …: Yes. Yes.
Rev. Fred Shaw: I really do.
Bishop Gregory …: Absolutely. Well, I said there were two questions on The Unfinished Church podcast we were going to ask everybody. Here’s the second one. And then we’ll turn to Bishops Easterling and McKee to see if there’s anything that just leaped out at them that they want to hold onto. But here’s the second question, Brother Fred. How do you care for your soul in the midst of this work of storytelling, of sharing culture, of opening yourselves to others, and in a world where there is so much racial and cultural animus?
Rev. Fred Shaw: One of the things that I do is I revisit people that I’ve been with in my mind and where they began to understand. I was with a group one time of just little second graders, and I’d been telling them stories. And I told them about the removal and all the things we had to give up if we wanted to stay put, if we didn’t want removed. You had to give up your language. You had to give up your spirituality, as far as outwardly. You had to change the way you dressed. You had to do all these different things. But as I first began to give the class the questions, I said, “What do you think you would have to give up if that happened to you today? What do you think I had to give up to still be here?” And this little second grader looked me in the eye and said, “You’d have to give up your heart.”
Bishop Gregory …: Oh, my. Wow.
Rev. Fred Shaw: And I could hardly speak after that for a while. That’s how my soul is strengthened.
Bishop Gregory …: Yes.
Rev. Fred Shaw: I know that the things that I have done have mattered, not because of me, but because what God does with it afterwards.
Bishop Gregory …: Amen. Amen.
Rev. Fred Shaw: And how other lives are changed. Plus, I have horses.
Bishop Gregory …: There you go. There you go. You have horses.
Bishops Easterling and McKee, anything that you want to hold onto and you want others to hold onto?
Bishop LaTrelle…: I just so appreciate the picture that Fred has painted for us of if we were to engage in the way that I think God designed us and created us to engage with one another, that is the beloved community, and it feels a lot like Heaven to me. So I just appreciate the picture that he’s painted and pray that we can live into this holistic relationship and respect of and for one another. Thank you, Fred.
Bishop Mike McK…: Fred, thank you again for being with us. So very much appreciated, especially what you talked about in terms of our relationship with the world, the earth, as you talked about it. Generally, we think about our relationships with other people because I think we human beings may be more transactional than we are relational. But I really appreciate what you said about the world and the earth in which we live, especially given the things that are happening around the world in terms of climate change and people who are living on the margins. So thank you for being with us.
Rev. Fred Shaw: Thank you, Bishop.
Bishop Gregory …: In the next episode of The Unfinished Church, please join us as we explore the importance of listening for understanding with Brian McLaren.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Bishop Mike McK…: Connect with us and find related resources on our website, theunfinishedchurch.org. The Unfinished Church, conversations that transform.
Listening is an important first step in the work of antiracism. Are you ready to do more? Here are some helpful resources to help you dig in deeper to the topics discussed in this episode.
“Pastor Reflects on Abuses at Indian Boarding Schools,”
from United Methodist News
No Holiness But Social Holiness by Steve Manskar