When Fubara Ibama, the featured preacher at last weekend’s Rushing Wind Revival, called for American Indian leaders to join him at the pulpit, he wasn’t trying to convince them Jesus is their sole source of salvation. Ibama assumed their agreement.
And the assumption wasn’t totally out of line. After all, these leaders knew that Rushing Wind was billed as “an outreach to the Native American community of the Flathead Reservation.” They also knew the four-day event, which drew hundreds of attendees to a tent on the Arlee Pow-Wow Grounds Aug. 24–27, was organized by two young Native American women who credit Christianity with changing their lives.
Still, Gene Sorrell, Joey Jayne and Kevin Howlett—the executive director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Gaming Commission, a state representative from Arlee and the head of CSKT Health and Human Services, respectively—let Ibama do most of the talking.
It wasn’t hard to figure out why. Ibama’s presentation began with a Christian conversion prayer—wherein he asked the leaders to repeat assertions that Jesus is “the son of God [who] died for my sins [and whom] God raised from the dead for my justification”—before turning to the blessing of American Indians and their land.
Jayne, who later said she shares the Christian faith, though she wouldn’t label her church evangelical, perhaps best captured the thinking behind the leaders’ tight-lipped grimaces: “I wanted to know who he was praying to.” Still, Jayne believes the event’s conflation of chemical dependency and Christ offers a “different way to resolve” issues that plague American Indian communities. “What tribal people and Christians believe can be brought together,” she said.
Howlett, a former CSKT Tribal Council member, who explained his spirituality by saying “the Creator is in every blade of grass, every whisper of the wind,” agrees. “It’s not important what the higher power is; it’s only important that there is one.” Howlett also admits to not caring for Christian ontology, saying that the notion—which he took away from Ibama’s sermon—that Indian troubles “are founded in Satan is, in my opinion, an avenue to define a long-felt separation, a yearning for knowledge of ancestors and spirituality.” But regardless of differences over dogma, Howlett was present “to be supportive of families with addictions, supportive of what gives them strength.”
Two of those families are the families of Gena Sorrell and Elisabeth DeRoche. Sorrell and DeRoche, the motive forces behind Rushing Wind, are alumnae of Teen Challenge Montana Outreach, a faith-based program for women who desire to free themselves from “life-controlling problems.”
According to Teen Challenge Montana Outreach Director Jan Henderson, the program’s two elements are long-term residential treatment and faith. Of those, Henderson’s emphasis is on faith, and not just any old kind, either. “Even the 12-step program is based in “faith” in God, and that’s been one of the most successful programs in our nation. But today, they’ve turned that into faith can be faith in your shoestring. It’s God as you see it. Well, the 12-step program didn’t start as God as you see it. If I’m relying on my shoestring to bring me through a crisis, I might as well use drugs.” Henderson says that successful Teen Challenge participants discover that “true power is in the resurrected Jesus.”
Gena Sorrell concurs with her mentor. Citing the higher-than-average incarceration, poverty and unemployment rates of American Indians, as well as their lower life expectancy, Sorrell asserts, “We need something different.” More specifically, she believes American Indians need “the only one who can set us free.” That would be Jesus, without whom, says Sorrell, “You are in bondage.”
Sorrell attributes her own remarkable life change, during which she metamorphosed from a full-time methamphetamine addict into a lead organizer of Rushing Wind in just 18 months, to a spiritual transformation. And she sees nothing incongruous about applying the spiritual solution that worked for her to the issues affecting the broader American Indian population.
As for the root causes of those issues, Sorrell says, “I lay the blame on the Enemy. I lay the blame on the one who hates us and wants to see our destruction.” She also turns to spirituality for solutions: “I don’t think there is any policy that can change anything. It’s got to be a heart change; it’s got to be a life change; it’s got to be a commitment not to serve yourself. That’s what people do, they’re serving themselves. When you are serving yourself, you can’t prosper. When you serve other people, when you serve the Lord, the possibilities are endless.”
It’s certainly an attitude of service that led Sorrell to coordinate the Rushing Wind Revival with DeRoche. She describes her motivation as a desire to “keep my people from perishing.”
And according to Ibama, there is reason to be hopeful. His prayer included a prophesy: “There are certain of your tribes that have riches, I’m talking about real, natural, physical riches in your soil that you have not found out. And I believe before long, they will find out things, minerals, hallelujah, oil that will come out of this place.”
The chorus of “Amens” that answered that prophesy suggests the crowd agreed that Christianity can help Reservation dwellers overcome “generational curses” that, in Ibama’s words, “affect people who don’t even know why they are behaving the way they are behaving, why they are acting the way they are acting, things that are carried over from generations before even your grandmother ever was born.” To lift those curses, Ibama said, attendees must repent of “every idolatry, every serving of strange gods, every spiritism.”
Decrying strange gods might seem hostile to religions not professing a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. But Gene Sorrell, CSKT Gaming Commission executive director, sees no conflict among pantheistic traditional spirituality that deifies rocks, trees and animals, his personal Catholic faith, and the evangelical Christianity of generational curses and demonic influences on display at Rushing Wind. “We all have one God. You can call him by many names.”
His daughter, Gena, doesn’t quite see it that way. Asked if there is any particular difficulty in spreading monotheistic Christianity to the tribes, she says, “It’s probably the hardest thing we can ever do, especially with Native Americans, because we are telling them that everything they have is worthless, basically.”