I have cried for others and I have cried for myself. They have been deep-seated tears that come from my solar plexus and make the painful journey to my eyes, nose and throat. The kind of tears that leave me tired, headachy and speechless. The kind of tears that leave me thinking I could not possibly cry more, only to stop and begin crying again. They are not one-sided tears of sadness but a mix of sadness, grief, happiness, thankfulness and questions. The kind of tears that remember the past, think about the future and demand to be felt in the present.
My recent tears have arisen out of reflecting on elders in my home church, their passing and my current reality in the church. My sadness comes in the patterned response I have seen from my birth, see now and can imagine happening before I was born and continuing well past my death. The tears don’t leave me in urgency, they do not make me feel like I need to change. Rather they remind me of the daily choice I have and make to work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and stay involved in Mennonite Church USA. I am aware of the costs of my discipleship.
I cannot change the reality in which I was born and would not want to. I am a Northern Cheyenne woman who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation attending the White River Cheyenne Mennonite Church. I grew up with strong people. I grew up knowing my tribal nation survived years of attempted genocide by the U.S. government. I knew we had to fight for our homelands, and even though we live on them we are legally only allowed “the right of occupancy.” We are not landowners. I was also keenly aware of the dangers to me specifically as an Indigenous woman. I knew that Native American women like Anna Mae Aquash went missing and were murdered especially for speaking out. I grew up knowing I had to choose between being Cheyenne or Mennonite. I knew the church didn’t think we were human and that our ways of being were assumed to be of the devil. I felt the conflict in my own family, in my home community and in the broader Native American community.
Things haven’t changed. Recently one of my Northern Cheyenne grandmothers passed on to the spirit world. I felt deeply saddened. I knew going home wouldn’t be the same, as I would miss seeing her in the last pew on Sunday morning as I had missed seeing her sister when she transitioned years earlier. I was sad and angry. I wanted someone in the broader church to remember her. I wanted validation from the broader church that they valued her as a Northern Cheyenne Mennonite woman. And I realized they didn’t know what I know.
The church doesn’t know that this woman was a daughter of chiefs and holy women, she was the granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter of the greatest leaders of the Northern Cheyenne people. She was a relative and direct descendant of survivors of the Fort Robinson massacre. In her very being she represented the strength of our women and the survival of our people. Her existence alone was resistance.
She lived through generational trauma and showed her humanness through living an imperfect life and sharing the lessons she learned. She continued to laugh when it hurt and cried when babies made their way to the spirit world. She knew that Christianity was at the root of our suffering, that Christianity told us we were inhuman and continued to oppress us. She was fully aware of the assimilation the church required to enter its doors. Knowing what she did, she still chose to love Jesus and express her love through the Mennonite tradition. She continually chose to expose her children, grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to the Mennonite USA conventions and chose to miss our annual Chiefs Homecoming powwow every year that convention dates coincided with it. She chose to see Jesus through the ugliness of the church. She chose to be in church, tithe to the church and give of herself to help translate the Bible into the Cheyenne language.
She had a deep love for Mennonite Church USA, a church that never bothered to appreciate her or value her, a church that didn’t bother to learn her history, see her greatness or even know she lived, let alone passed on to the spirit world. She loved the Mennonite faith so much she risked relationships with her tribe. She loved a broader church that never bothered to see her. She dared to be a Cheyenne woman and a Mennonite.
I am not immune to the violence being done to Indigenous women globally, and I am not immune to the violence perpetuated by the church. I know that all the work I have done with MCC and the Mennonite church will one day be forgotten or taken out of context at best. I imagine no one will cry when I pass on except my home community of Busby, Mont., and my Northern Cheyenne relatives. I imagine the church may not even notice my passing because I am in a church made up of predominantly European Mennonites that carry names and relationships I don’t have. I’m aware that the church will not bury me and will not know what to send my family as they never took the time to ask while I was alive. I am no exception to the pattern.
It is my daily truth to know the price I pay in the world and the church. I am not asking for recognition or to be elevated. I am not asking for anything. I am living out my call as a Northern Cheyenne woman in the Mennonite church, a church I care deeply about. I am following in the footsteps of the Cheyenne women who also cared deeply about the church and from whom I draw strength. They did not assimilate, and neither will I, as we both believe Jesus did not ask that of us when he speaks of “taking up our cross.”
This is dedicated to all the people of color and marginalized voices who “take up their cross” just by being themselves and being born into social realities in which they had no control yet continue to take up an “additional cross” by doing the necessary work within Mennonite Church USA, knowing they may never be heard or remembered. These are my heroes.
Erica Littlewolf is Indigenous Visioning Circle Program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Central States.