Still Vertical: Unleashing the Hope Inherent in the Native American Community

By Jamin Casciato

In this paper, I will argue that the resolution of the now-endemic social problems of Native American communities have their basis in the unleashing of the latent potential of the people themselves through the advancement of personal agency and a rediscovery of a heritage of harmony with nature. What is proposed is not simply a form of development, but of discovery. The fuel that powers the Native American community is the marrow of the unfossilized bones of their still-vertical frames. This subject is important to me personally because I have spent time among members of the indigenous American community, both on and off reservations, and have found that they possess a treasury of invaluable “natural knowledge” that would greatly increase the quality of life of both its possessors and would-be recipients should it be more widely disseminated. Further, in my time spent traveling throughout South Dakota and New Mexico years ago, I visited Native American museums and historical sites, which bore witness to a history quite different from that which I was taught in school. I was shocked to learn how deeply entrenched popular education is in misinformation regarding the indigenous peoples of this country. The disenfranchisement of these people groups is, I believe, a historical wrong that warrants as much a reversal as possible.

In what follows, I will first explore the predicament of Native Americans currently living on reservations, the population on which this paper will focus. I will examine the features of reservation life that provide obstacles to human agency and the pursuit of opportunities for self-expression. Second, I will express how this dispossession of the soul of a people is both detrimental to our society at large and contrary to the sentiments of the Gospel. The Gospel of the kingdom of God confronts social inequity and dispossession of those created in the image of a God who is both personal and communal. Third, I will explore the idea that this issue is rectified through collaboration and communion, through which we minister to one another as a community operating out of a single will, reflecting the triune nature of God. Proper resolution is only possible through mutuality, with Native Americans teaching us how to properly care for creation and live a more sustainable lifestyle, and with our provision of opportunity for inclusion of them within our communities outside of the reservations.

Historical abuses directed toward natives have damaged both personal and collective identity, and have impaired their ability, as a people, to be self-determining in the expression of their earthly lives. These abuses continue to bolster vast inequities in the distribution of opportunities between native and non-native populations. The history of the Native Americans is one of oppression and cultural devastation, which occurred over centuries through broken treaties, reconstitution of means of subsistence, forced removal, and outright state-sanctioned violence. Manifest Destiny waged war on Native American identity and culture, drastically reducing the indigenous population of North America. Today, there are over 2.5 million Native Americans in the United States, and approximately one million of them live on one of 310 reservations across the country.[1] It is estimated that five hundred million acres of land have been expropriated from natives over the years through treaties, often signed under duress. Cornel University professor of sociology Charles Geisler draws attention to this in a recent paper published by the Rural Sociological Society: “By discriminating against Native American farmers and ranchers, the federal government has enabled the erasure of title, livelihood opportunities, and cultural identity among Indian farming and ranching communities.”[2] Their progeny remain on reservations to this day, bereft of land ownership rights, resources, and opportunity. Though this is a common theme among indigenous tribes across the country, for the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the situation of a particular tribe, the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota.

Situated on 2.2 million acres of land in southwest South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation is home to an estimated population of between 28,000 and 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe.[3] Only 84,000 acres of reservation land are suitable to agricultural purposes, and there is little to no industry or commercial development, so inhabitants of the land have very few opportunities for work.[4] As such, the unemployment rate is estimated to be around 80%, poverty and alcoholism are rampant, and the infant mortality rate is three times the national average. Further, the reservation has “the highest suicide rate in the western hemisphere with an epidemic of teenagers killing themselves.”[5] The suppression of the ability of those on reservations to develop skills and survival mechanisms rooted deeply in cultural tradition limits their opportunities to find satisfaction in and glorify God with their work, resulting in hopelessness, apathy, and a fatalist view toward life.

The tribe's leadership views the formerly signed treaties as traps that have provided just enough “support” to create a culture of dependency and despair (McGreal, paragraph 18). According to Theresa Two Bulls, the tribe’s president, “We were taught to feel defeated. Look how they brought welfare and our people lived on welfare and some of our people don't even know how to work…That's the state the government wanted us to be in and we're in it" (McGreal, paragraph 18). Far from helping the indigenous population, this falsely charitable reservation welfare state objectifies and commoditizes people, keeping them just above the survival line so that they are forever relegated to the reservation, living outside of community with others. The goal of our work is thus to work with Native Americans both on and off reservations to resurrect the tired, yet unbroken spirit of their people, so that they might honorably provide for themselves, release themselves from dependency on those contrary to their interests, and share life with non-natives by living in community with us.

The dispossession of Native Americans is harming everyone, and is at odds with the Gospel of the kingdom of God. The work in which we would engage with them constitutes a re-enfranchisement, a demarginalization of a community with an immeasurable wealth of understanding and potential to bless others. We would together seek to emancipate them (and ourselves) from the false charity of the reservation welfare system. In the words of Paulo Freire:

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world. This lesson and this apprenticeship must come, however, from the oppressed themselves and from those who are truly solidary with them.”[6]

It seems that, originally, Native Americans were interested in collaborating and sharing life with European settlers. However, after a series of betrayals, they have withdrawn. As someone recently asked in my hearing, “Can we try again?” I submit an affirmative answer to that question, and argue that, for our sake, we must. Our modern industrialized society is buckling beneath the burden of scale. Militarism and the thirst to resurrect the Roman Empire through American society are denigrating both our way of life and the very soil beneath our feet. We suffer from a culture of dehumanization for the sake of development, wherein people are reduced to consumers or producers in an endless parade of blind consumerism. This is unsustainable by the standards of even the most liberal economic calculus. It is imperative that we return to the land and learn how to live properly with and from it. As E.F. Schumacher argues in Small Is Beautiful, “In the simple question of how we treat the land, next to people our most precious resource, our entire way of life is involved, and…there will have to be a great deal of philosophical, not to say religious change.”[7]

It is high time for a change of heart among the inhabitants of this land, and the Native Americans are the ones to help us along. As the myth goes, the natives could not behold the ships of the Europeans when they arrived, for their eyes were not accustomed to the form of the vessels. Now it is the Europeans who cannot behold the ark of the native community, which cargoes the millennia-old wisdom of the wild—the knowledge of the stewardship of the earth. The ability to return to a proper relationship with the land is currently locked up within the sleeping wisdom of the Native Americans, who historically have had a strong relationship with the land, and know how to live in harmony and unity with it. We all suffer because of the marginalization of their ideals, and we should share and propagate the ways of life of this people whose cultural heritage is worth preserving. John Christopher, the American herbalist who started the School of Natural Healing in 1953, recognized the value of the knowledge of natural healing possessed by the indigenous peoples of North America. Native Americans have historically used more sustainable agricultural techniques, have used natural medicine that is more affordable to the masses and causes less long-term damage to the body, and have been more cognizant of the necessity of maintaining a balanced ecosystem in their hunting and gathering endeavors. Far from the contrary, those native to these lands should be our teachers. We must be vulnerable regarding our predicament and seek their wisdom. After all, we are truly vulnerable on account of our ignorance.

The emancipation of the prostrate potential of Native American communities is imperative to fostering their inherent power and the capacity to use their productive energies. The inequity in opportunity and social participation due to an assassination of agency raises its hand against the will of the triune God for His children to develop the faculties with which He has endowed them, keeping them isolated from those with whom they were designed to share life. The kingdom of God is a kingdom for all, and as those created in the image of God, we are individuals who are meant to be part of a community. As God Himself is three unified Persons, neither the individual nor the community should be neglected. The fact that there are members of the social body who are rotting away in the relentless heat of indifference before our eyes is unacceptable from the standpoint of the Gospel. We are called to spend ourselves on behalf of those in need. “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”[8] Christ identifies Himself with the dispossessed, and makes it clear that the way we treat them is the way we treat Him.

The resolution of this issue of Native American disenfranchisement and disempowerment lies in sharing life with them on the reservation, learning from one another, and understanding how we can work with them to improve their opportunities both on and off the reservation. Freire reminds us that, “The man who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, whom he continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived” (Freire, p. 47). This in mind, we would invite them to share life with us in our communities as well, where they could teach us how to build sustainably from the land, how to return to our roots using God’s medicine for healing, and how to “use the whole buffalo,” respecting nature, and ourselves, in our use of resources. We need them; otherwise we will destroy ourselves through overconsumption, chemical-laden, unnaturally cultivated produce, and the destruction of the land due to industrial pesticides, deforestation, and monoculture. The reciprocal exchange of education and ministry would involve combining indigenous knowledge of sustainable industry, medicine, and agriculture with the micro-enterprise and financial expertise of non-natives. Mutuality is of utmost importance in this scenario, for both parties have something to offer.

As John Perkins states in Let Justice Roll Down, “human development without economic development is impossible.”[9] A cooperative could be developed, wherein we would pool together our resources, with the Church providing practical business assistance for the opening of small, native-owned enterprises selling produce, herbal formulas, and art, among other things tribe members have in the their hearts to create and share. Further, church members with idle land could devote it to collective farming, wherein reservation residents could work with us to cultivate produce using sustainable techniques. The produce could be sold both on the reservation and off-site at local churches through out-door markets modeled after those still extant in Mexico and Central America. This would create local economies both on the reservation and on church grounds, and tribe members would have opportunities for self-expression.

This all begins from a posture of humility and brokenness, and an understanding that it is only accomplished through God’s work. “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”[10] In order to cultivate Trinitarian mutuality in our work together, we must strive to submit to one another in love in order to be of one will, just as all that God does is done by a common will among Father, Son, and Spirit. The apostle Paul reminds us to “be of the same mind toward one another.”[11] If we can receive the grace to empty ourselves of our own will (kenosis), giving ourselves over fully to the work of God, we will not fall victim to the self-serving temptation Kierkegaard spoke of when he said, “The man who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”[12] The unity of the human community, which mirrors the image of God, is something in itself that teaches all involved about the nature of God, and allows each and all to live out, together, our role as the beloved.

This work calls for a rediscovery of the Native American spirit—for all of us—which abides in spite of centuries of repression.

 “Can these bones live?”[13] The answer is a resounding Yes.


“If you extend your soul to the hungry

And satisfy the afflicted soul...

The Lord will guide you continually,

And satisfy your soul in drought,

And strengthen your bones.”[14]

Jamin Casciato has spent years studying sustainable development throughout the non-industrialized world. He has taught economics in Mexico and Iraq, where he traveled extensively among the indigenous communities of the regions, studying local social traditions, music, and alternative medicine. He has also spent time among the nomadic communities of northern India and Egypt, and has undertaken economic development research in Central America, Africa, and East Asia.


[1] Chris McGreal, “US Should Return Stolen Land to Indian Tribes, Says United Nations,” The Guardian, May 4, 2012, accessed November 8, 2015,

[2] Charles Geisler, “Disowned by the Ownership Society: How Native Americans Lost Their Land,” Rural Sociology, Vol. 79, no. 1 (March 2014): 56, accessed November 6, 2015, EBSCOhost.

[3] “Standing Silent Nation: Film Description,” POV, PBS, July 3, 2007, accessed November 7, 2015,

[4] Matthew Williams, “Reservation Road,” Time, June 2006, accessed November 7, 2015,,29307,2048598_2235606,00.html.

[5] Chris McGreal, “Obama’s Indian Problem,” The Guardian, January 10, 2010, accessed November 8, 2015,

[6] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Continuum Publishing Corporation, 1970), p. 32.

[7] E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p. 109.

[8] Matthew 25:40, NKJV

[9] John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (Ventura: Regal Books, 1976), p. 223.

[10] Psalm 34:18, NKJV

[11] Romans 12:16, NKJV

[12] Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1938) p. 69.

[13] Ezekiel 37:3

[14] Isaiah 58:10-11, NKJV