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A reservation in South Dakota bans outside missionaries

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since arriving in North America, Christian missionaries have been trying to convert Native Americans to their faith. The practice continues, but after one distributed a pamphlet the Oglala Lakota found offensive, the tribe responded by regulating visiting churches and even banning one missionary. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger reports.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: In July, Michael Monfore with the Jesus is King Mission near the Pine Ridge Reservation distributed a pamphlet to tribal members saying the creator Lakota people worship is a false idol. Monfore, who is white, recognizes the pamphlet is offensive to those who believe in Lakota spirituality.

MICHAEL MONFORE: According to the Bible, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him. And I know that may not be considered politically correct or it might be considered intolerant or bigoted, but that's what Christ said.

STRUBINGER: When the pamphlet was distributed on social media, outrage was swift both locally and among Indigenous people across the country.

JIMMY LEE BEASON: What I see happening with the Oglala is just kind of a continuation of this missionary interference in tribal communities.

STRUBINGER: Jimmy Lee Beason is Osage and teaches Indigenous studies at Haskell Indian Nations University.

BEASON: Ridiculing and undermining our traditional spirituality, our belief systems, which is all rooted in a type of Euro-Christian supremacist ideology.

STRUBINGER: This controversy comes as the federal government is now formally acknowledging that, for decades, it forcibly removed Native children from their families and sent them to Christian boarding schools, where many were abused.

BEASON: Now is the time to really bring these conversations more into the forefront.

STRUBINGER: The Oglala Tribal Council debated how to respond. Myron Pourier is a descendant of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader who is also Catholic and is under consideration for sainthood. The pamphlet said Black Elk had a racist vision.

MYRON POURIER: To have any type of church entity come on this reservation, regardless of the denomination you are, you have to accept who we are as a people and our spirituality as a nation.

STRUBINGER: Councilman Ryan Jumping Eagle said the tribe is also concerned about pictures of Native children being used for fundraising efforts and about a lack of vetting for groups that interact with kids.

RYAN JUMPING EAGLE: We just want to ensure that our kids are safe when they go with these groups.

STRUBINGER: The tribal council eventually voted to require all churches and missions visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation to register, and they banned the missionary who distributed the offensive pamphlet. Oglala Sioux president Kevin Killer says they need to protect the community.

KEVIN KILLER: They should also respect the way that we believe.

STRUBINGER: Scott Moreau, a dean at Wheaton College and longtime editor at Evangelical Missions Quarterly, says he doesn't blame the tribe for banning the missionary after they saw his pamphlet.

SCOTT MOREAU: Never would I use something like this as a vehicle of evangelism because I think it evangelizes through offense.

STRUBINGER: Moreau says the pamphlet evokes the same disparaging approach that many missionaries took in the early days of western expansion.

MOREAU: I found ultimately that can generate fear-followers of Christ rather than loving followers of Christ. And that's where I would have, perhaps, an ethical problem with the approach.

STRUBINGER: Moreau says local churches should make decisions about what a relationship with Christ looks like as opposed to outsider determination. The Oglala Lakota's new ordinance requiring churches and missions to register does not affect local Native-run churches and ministries. For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Rapid City.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIPSEY HUSSLE SONG, "CHECC ME OUT FT. COBBY SUPREME, DOM KENNEDY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.