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New center spotlights faith among Natives

BILLINGS, Mont. (BP)–A new collection and resource center at a Baptist college in Billings, Mont., is providing a unique account of the history of Christianity among Native Americans.

It is one of only a handful of such places in the United States where the subject can be studied.

A collection of Native American artifacts is being placed on loan to the Native American Resource Center at Yellowstone Baptist College. The collection includes a full headdress, complete Crow ensemble and multiple small examples of traditional Plains Indians design — items Jack and Linda Coward gathered during 20 years of ministry in South Dakota and Montana among Native Americans.

“I wanted to share my collection with others,” said Coward, a former president of the college. “I’ve invested a lot of time in YBC, and since they started this Native American center I thought this would be a fitting place to put it.”

Yellowstone’s Native American Resource Center could be the only place in the United States that provides a history of Christianity among Native Americans, said David Roberts, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Billings.

Starting in 1995 on travels across the West and in further research, Roberts learned that the only collection related to Christianity and Native Americans appeared to be at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. Their collection is based on Jesuit priests’ work with Native Americans.

Roberts, a physician, discovered that life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, are much more common among Native Americans now compared to before they were moved to reservations.

“Before the reservations, Native Americans first used dogs and then horses to pull their belongings and walked beside them when the tribes traveled,” Roberts said. “When they quit walking and began having a much less vigorous lifestyle, their health problems began.

“As I continued researching the Native Americans and at the same time helped to homeschool my daughter, I found that there were several Christian denominations, among them the Baptists, who not only sent missionaries but also began training native pastors,” he said.

Most people don’t realize that at one time the Cherokee Nation was among the most Christian nations in the world, Roberts said. During the Trail of Tears, when they were escorted by the U.S. Army from the Eastern Seaboard states to Oklahoma, many U.S. soldiers came to know Christ through the Cherokee they were guarding.

“Information like this is being forgotten or not taught to future generations,” Roberts said, adding that he saw a need to create a home for this history that wasn’t being collected anywhere else. Every day as people die, papers, family histories, books and valuable information is destroyed or discarded when family members don’t know what to do with many of the items.

Roberts also learned in his research that Native Americans often were unaware of the role tribal people played in the spread of the Christian faith across the United States.

He suggested a Native American Resource Center be included in the newly built library at Yellowstone Baptist College, which is affiliated with the Montana Southern Baptist Convention.

Bill Phillips, Yellowstone’s president, said the Native American Resource Center is intended to help pastors and members of churches on reservations be more effective in reaching their people groups for Christ and to be a resource center for Christians of all denominations.

“YBC and the library are in the proximity of more than 30 reservations and tribal lands in the Northwest and Canada,” Phillips said. “We’re in an excellent location to minister in this way.”

In addition to loaning his collection, Coward donated a signed print for the room.

“The culture and customs of Native Americans fascinate me,” Coward said. “They’re very giving people.”

When he retired as a catalytic missionary to Native Americans in Montana, the Indian churches in the state gave him a full headdress.

“They told me it was the second most honored gift they could give me,” Coward said. “A horse would be the first, but they didn’t think my neighbors would like it in my backyard.”

To launch the Native American Resource Center, Yellowstone hosted an Indian Fellowship, where Native American pastors and leaders in the West met with two Native American pastors from North Carolina.

“At first the collection began with books that were pulled out of the regular shelves on Native Americans and Christianity,” Andrea Todd, a Yellowstone librarian, said. “Then people began donating things they had that were specific to Native Americans and Christianity.”

Roberts said many of the early church leaders on the reservations are known only to locals.

“This makes one of the library’s most urgent priorities to gather names of those who spread the Word of God among the Native Americans before they are forgotten,” Phillips said.

While Christianity among Native Americans is the main focus of the resource center, other aspects of Native American life primarily in the American West also are included.

For example, in the early 1900s the Fort Shaw Indian School girls’ basketball team near Great Falls, Mont., was considered one of the best in the world. The Native American Resource Center has a book on the subject.

Other holdings include a 1915 book on the Kiowa nation, a 1957 book on the Crow nation, a New Testament in Cheyenne and two books written by Elizabeth Custer after the battle of the Little Big Horn.

The key to growing the collection is getting the word out to those who may have interview tapes, books, church programs, historical papers or individual stories that they would like to share in written form or as oral interviews, the library staff said.

“All of us at Yellowstone Baptist College are tremendously excited to be at the beginning of what one day will be a very important resource center about Christianity among Native Americans,” Phillips said.
Compiled from a story by Jeannie Ferriss, a regional reporter for The Montana Baptist, newsjournal of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. To donate to the Native American Resource Center, contact the Yellowstone library at 406-656-9950.

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