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Will Arson Attack Cause Holy War Between Born-Agains and Natives?

A story about a conflict between born-again Christians and Native Americans.

The Big Drum house was so much more than a building—it contained the stories and memories of our people,” says Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe tribal member Jackie Cadotte. “Some remember sitting on their father’s laps during ceremonies there. I was just devastated when I found out it was burned.”

On the night of July 17 and early morning of July 18, six suspicious fires destroyed three traditional ceremonial structures on the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe (LCO) reservation in northern Wisconsin, and two other structures were also severely damaged. The destroyed buildings included a ceremonial lodge, historic home for generations of big drum ceremonies and two private sweat lodges. A big drum dance ring as well as a structure at the pow wow grounds, home of the long-running Honor the Earth pow wow was damaged. An RV that served as the residence for Paul DeMain, a longtime journalist on LCO, was completely destroyed, and the main building on his property, home to News From Indian Country was also partially burned.

Most of the burned structures were used for traditional ceremonies and healing, and DeMain says the message is clear: “Someone is attacking traditionalism in the community.”

Just a few weeks after the arson incidents, efforts to rebuild the Big Drum lodge were already moving forward. Watching the demolition of the remaining bits of the house, Cadotte fought back tears. “Maybe now we can begin healing and moving forward from this thing,” she said, adding that the burning of spiritual items and places is “like what the missionaries did to our people long ago.”

Christopher Grover, an LCO tribal member, was reportedly arrested not long after as a “person of interest” in the cases. Grover, 38, has ties to local evangelicals who embrace elements of a growing ideological movement that has been known to equate traditional Native spirituality with a dangerous form of idolatry, even witchcraft. This idolatry, some believe, is responsible for the social ills in Indian country. This ideology is rooted in the teachings of the New Apostolic Reformation movement (NAR), which has aggressively been targeting both mainstream denominational evangelical churches such as the Assemblies of God, as well as small nonaffiliated Christian evangelical groups. Some of these NAR-linked organizations present a benign front—such as pastor prayer networks or Christian reconciliation groups—and at the local level are sometimes presented as charitable organizations.

“But at the top level of leadership the message is very clear: All other religions systems are evil, under the control of specific demons, and must be converted or defeated,” says Rachel Tabachnick of the website Tabachnick is a researcher and writer on issues pertaining to the impact of the religious right on policy, politics, education, economics, environment and foreign policy. She describes the movement’s efforts as “stealth evangelism of other evangelicals.”

The Transformations video series has been described by some as a major promotional tool for the advancement of the NAR agenda; it has been seen by many members of the evangelical community, including one at the LCO Assemblies of God church where, Grover’s mother says, she, her son and her husband are members. The videos depict spiritual warriors taking control of communities by expelling demons that cause societal problems. After territorial demons are driven out and generational curses are removed, the communities are healed and experience a miraculous recovery from poverty, disease and other problems. The videos, produced by the Sentinel Group, a ministry group founded by George Otis Jr., are reportedly marketed as documentaries and depict reenactments of various indigenous people burning traditional religious items in order to free their community from demons.

Let the Sea Resound, a 2004 video from the Transformation series, draws a powerful connection between the destruction of traditional indigenous religious items on a Fijian island and subsequent eco-miracles, such as the sudden cleansing of a polluted stream.

The LCO Assemblies of God church is one of about a dozen small Christian congregations on the reservation. Pastor Marvin Wilber of the Menominee tribe and Debbie Wilber of the Oneida tribe of Wisconsin live on the reservation and have served the church and community for more than 30 years. They are well known and liked in the community for their annual summer Bible basketball camp, one of the few organized activities in the area for young people. Although they eschew the inclusion of any form of Native spirituality in their worship services, they say they respect those who practice traditional spirituality. “We don’t label the Midewiwin lodge as evil,” says Pastor Marvin Wilber.

Despite this claim of neutrality, however, Wilber says they have shown the Transformations videos. She seemed unaware of the strong message of demonization of traditional spirituality in the films and described them as simply “showing how prayer can positively change a community.”

The slick feel-good nature of the videos belies the aggressive message of intolerance for any spiritual practice that deviates from the NAR’s ideology of Dominionism, which has been described as the belief that Christians are designated by God to take dominion over every aspect of culture, government and politics in order to bring about the return of Jesus Christ.

Tabachnick writes about the increasingly militant language of such groups that uses military terminology. The Two Rivers Native American Training Center in Bixby, Oklahoma, headed by Jay Swallow, who has reportedly appeared at a ceremony performing ritual destruction of Native objects and Negiel Bigpond, who says he has destroyed merely symbolic objects, features Strategic Warriors at Training, “a Christian military base camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strongholds in America.”

During a recent interview, Bigpond was reluctant to discuss his role in the destruction of Native ritual objects, and described the acts as symbolic rather than literal. Although Bigpond does not advocate destruction of ritual objects owned by others, he did say, “Witchcraft is alive and well in Indian country, and it must be rooted out.”

Kathy Crone, Christopher Grover’s mother, speculates that her son may have believed that his troubles were the result of bad medicine being worked against him by others. She confesses, however, that she is “afraid to ask him” about this as a possible motivation for the arson.

She is not alone in her speculation. DeMain says investigators from the Wisconsin State Fire Marshall Office asked him if it would be possible for a member of the traditional Ojibwe Midewiwin lodge (of which DeMain is a member) to engage in witchcraft and/or put a curse on others. DeMain is an Oshkaabewis, or helper, in the lodge, akin roughly to a deacon in a Christian church. Practitioners of traditional Native spirituality are reluctant to answer such direct questions but it is widely believed that the power to curse is possible. Officials from the fire marshall’s office declined to comment about this line of questioning.

DeMain says he was shocked to hear that someone would think he possesses such potent powers. “If I was going to throw a curse on somebody, I’d choose Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rather than some guy on the rez that I barely know,” he says with a laugh.

Grover was reportedly arrested as a person of interest, but has not been charged with any crimes relating to the fires, and shortly after his arrest, he was turned over to authorities in a neighboring county where he had jumped bail after being arrested for allegedly stealing a semitrailer weeks before. He entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity for those charges. (Grover, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Mary Annette Pember

The Big Drum dance ring was also damaged in the attack.

How Grover reportedly became a person of interest in connection with the cases of arson is a convoluted, confusing story. The day after the fires, his mother and stepfather turned him over to police after noticing that his hair and eyebrows were badly singed, says his mother. Jeff Crone, Grover’s stepfather, made an emotional speech during the Honor the Earth pow wow days after the arson, and apologized for his son’s participation in the crimes, according to several tribal members who were present; they report that Crone said his son had mental health issues. During his speech, Crone lamented the damage the fires might have on relations between the traditional and Christian communities, and called for forgiveness and healing. (Jeff Crone declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Grover’s mother says her son was struggling with an addiction to pain medication when the cases of arson occurred, and speculates that the withdrawal process may have triggered uncharacteristic aggressive behavior: She says her son is a good father to his six children and an essential member of the family who can always be counted on to help out.

According to Crone, shortly before the arson, her son tried to withdraw from pain medication cold turkey, on his own, and sought spiritual help from various evangelicals in the community. It was during this process that he was arrested in regards to the theft of a semi in next-door Washburn County. He was released on bond. On July 18, the day after the arson, his mother says that when he showed up at his parents’ home he had singed hair and eyebrows.

Grover has not confessed to any connection with the arson.

The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe has reportedly asked the FBI for help in investigating the cases of arson. Reportedly, neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Wisconsin would comment but a spokesman for the FBI did confirm that tribal officials have requested help in investigating the case. The FBI spokesman confirmed that the U.S. Attorney’s office is reviewing the case and will determine if there are any federal violations.

According to a November 12 story by WQOW, an ABC affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, officials from the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that they have identified a “person of interest” but are waiting for test results from the state crime lab before making any decisions to pursue prosecution.

The lack of public information about the investigation is frustrating to many in the community, and Cadotte says many members are hurt and angry. Word has leaked out about the possible connection between witchcraft and traditional spirituality as a motive for the arson. Cadotte was shocked to learn that some evangelicals have been said to liken traditional spiritual practices to witchcraft: “We had absolutely no idea that these people felt so strongly against our traditions. We minded our own business; we weren’t harming anyone; we never tried to influence anyone to follow our ways or suggested that any other religion was wrong.”

The fires at LCO have sparked concern and debate among members as they realize they are not fully informed about the spiritual beliefs and practices of their neighbors. Overall, in Indian country, where politeness discourages direct questioning regarding spirituality, people are beginning to have

Mary Annette Pember

Gordon Thayer

some difficult discussions regarding religious practices and beliefs.

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On a broader level, the events on LCO call attention to a burgeoning movement of fundamentalist evangelical Christian groups who view traditional Native spirituality as not only heretical but also a dangerous form of idolatry or witchcraft. Members of these churches and ministries believe they are warriors engaged in spiritual warfare against forces of evil that prevent Native peoples and others from following Jesus Christ.

The movement drew national attention in 2008 when it was revealed that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had been a member of an Alaskan Assemblies of God church. A YouTube video shows Palin being anointed by a prominent apostolic network witch-hunter from Kenya, Thomas Muthee. In the video, Muthee calls on Jesus to protect Palin from witchcraft. Muthee has gained fame among churches and groups with links to NAR by claiming to have liberated his village from evil forces by spiritually defeating a local witch.

People with links to the NAR have reportedly conducted ceremonies and prayer meetings that feature the ritual destruction of Native “artifacts’ symbolizing traditional religion. Bruce Wilson of Talk2Action, a website dedicated to challenging the claims of the religious right, published what he says is an archived report by International Coalition of Apostles member Tom Schlueter in which he describes a ceremony in Olney, Texas in 2007 during which apostles—including Jay Swallow, Cheyenne-Sioux—smashed “Native American matrimonial vases” representing the demon powers of Baal and Leviathan.

Journalists with Right Wing Watch and Talk2Action have researched links between the beginnings of the federal Native American Apology resolution and the New Apostolic Reformation movement. The resolution, which was attached to a defense appropriations bill in 2010, stated in part that “the United States, acting through Congress…recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.”

According to an interpretation of Dominionist ideology, the Native American Apology is a first step in removing demons that prevent Native peoples from accepting Christ. Some people linked to NAR publicize such “reconciliation” efforts while downplaying their ultimate goal of removing generational curses that they believe are actual demons inhabiting certain ethnic populations such as Native Americans.

C. Peter Wagner is considered to be the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation, but he says he is just the first to observe and name it. Wagner, theologian and missionary, was a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission for 30 years and has published several books about Dominionism and spiritual warfare. On his Global Spheres website, he describes the movement as the “most radical way of doing church since the Protestant Reformation.”

The New Apostolic Movement has Pentecostal and charismatic origins. Forrest Wilder, a writer with the Texas Observer, an online news site, describes the movement as having “taken Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on ecstatic worship and the supernatural, and given it an adrenaline shot.” He says the group’s bizarre beliefs are relatively unremarkable except for their interest in controlling government and politics.

The movement’s apostles and prophets, Wilder reports, believe they have a direct connection to God, who communicates specific warnings and instructions to them. For instance, NAR followers believe mankind’s failure to heed God’s warnings resulted in the recent devastating earthquakes in Japan, the terrorist attacks in New York City as well as the recent economic downturns. Wagner has said he “made an apostolic proclamation in the name of the Lord, that mad cow disease in Europe would immediately stop.”

Tabachnick and her team offer compelling evidence regarding the influence of NAR ideology into both right-leaning evangelical denominations as well as nondenominational para-church organizations.

In 2000, the Assemblies of God, a major evangelical Pentecostal denomination, took a public stand against Dominionism. According to the Texas Observer article, they labeled the idea that the church is to take dominion over earthly institutions “unscriptural triumphalism.” Now, however, some Assemblies of God churches offer assistance and access to groups that have been linked with the New Apostolic Reformation.

“This is a movement growing in popularity, and one of the ways they’ve been able to do that is because they’re not very identifiable to most people. They present themselves as nondenominational or just Christian-but the New Apostolic Reformation is an identifiable movement with an identifiable ideology,” Tabachnick says. “Nondenominational should not be confused with interdenominational, which indicated an openness to accepting other faiths.”

Mary Annette Pember

DeMain displays the few possessions that survived including his pipe) after his RV was torched.

Andrea Smith, of Cherokee descent, is a professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and author of Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. She says the splinter evangelical groups are very fluid in their affiliations, often changing details of their ideologies, sometimes collaborating with other more militant Christian groups on short-term projects, not necessarily in total agreement with each other’s ideologies.

For the people at LCO, the fires have prompted an urgent discussion about religion, spirituality and culture throughout Indian country.

Several born-again-Christian Native people interviewed for this story insist that they are not any “less Indian” because they eschew Native spiritual practices. “Culture is made up of many things, including language, foods and traditional dress. Those things are part of who I am. Those things, however, that are in conflict with the word of God, I have to reconsider,” says John E. Maracle, of the Mohawk tribe and chief-president of the Native American Fellowship of the Assemblies of God.

Andrea Smith observes, however, that for Native peoples, culture and spirituality cannot be separated; they are a part of everyday life. The notion of respecting Native culture while simultaneously condemning spirituality, she notes, contributes to a practice that inevitably pits Native Christians against Native traditionalists.

Grover’s mother and pastor say he is a member of the Assemblies of God church. People in this Pentecostal denomination are evangelical and believe in speaking in tongues, a more literal interpretation of the Bible and personal conversion, commonly known as being born again. Like other evangelical Christian denominations, the Assemblies of God believes in a literal second coming of Christ when, many believe, those who are not saved will be subject to eternal damnation. In a 1999 position statement by the Native American Fellowship of the Assemblies of God, the church forbids any attempt to mix Native religious practices that are contrary to scripture with Christianity. Native religious cultural practices must be avoided, including the use of tobacco in prayer or burning of sage. Native dances, instruments, songs, regalia and language may be used only to express worship with the Lord.

Like many evangelical Christian groups, the LCO Assemblies of God church routinely works on community projects and mission efforts with similarly minded nondenominational groups such as On Eagle’s Wings ministry, the organization that helped inspire the LCO Safety Center. The LCO Assemblies of God church coordinates its summer basketball Bible camp activities with the work of the Safety Center, offering summer activities for reservation youth. LCO has had a long-standing problem with gangs, so the Safety Center and the Bible summer camp fill a void in LCO, providing safe, structured activities on a reservation where such programs are few and far between. Assemblies of God vans scurry throughout the reservation on summer days, picking up and dropping youth off at their homes. Youngsters and teens swarmed over the makeshift basketball court in the church’s parking lot during a recent visit. Members of a visiting Christian youth mission group served healthy snacks such as apples and oranges and provided plenty of water as well as a full lunch. A CD player blared Christian music in the background, exalting Jesus.

According to a tribal member who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from tribal leadership, the programming at the Safety Center puts a strong emphasis on evangelical proselytizing. “I have heard many of our youth complain about the heavy handed Christian message and indicate they are not comfortable at the Center,” said this person.

According to Tabachnick, many ministries emphasize the progressive nature of their programming—such as recovery from drugs and alcohol or rehab work—but skeptics claim their ultimate goal is to gain access to communities for the purpose of proselytizing. As local governments become more and more strapped for cash, they may not look too hard at offers to help address social problems in their communities.

She adds that most Americans know nothing about the agenda of the Christian right and typically brush off concerns about their activities, dismissing them as backward. Many people who are linked to the New Apostolic Reformation movement, however, are very sophisticated, she says. “They have developed a community organizing agenda that is incredible and is working very well for them.”

In interviews and online “spiritual testimony” LCO Tribal Chairman Gordon Thayer provides a powerful, heartfelt description of his struggles with the dark powers of traditional spirituality and his recovery from addiction. For a population that has been devastated by drugs and alcohol, his story presents a powerful case. Born and raised on LCO by family who followed traditional Ojibwe spirituality, he makes no secret of his decision to “put aside” his traditional items and ways. A 2001 article in World Magazine tells of him “burning his Native American spirit paraphernalia.” He says traditional medicine men worked witchcraft on him, bringing spirits who threatened to kill him. While in the hospital after a heart attack, however, he says he was released from the torment of these spirits after choosing to follow only Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, he declares, was he able to overcome his long-standing alcoholism. He has since dedicated his life to helping others recover from addiction, running recovery services through his Overcomers Outreach Ministries in Minneapolis.

Tabachnick says that in 2004 Thayer was listed on the United States Strategic Prayer Network of Minnesota, which are now referred to as Prayer Warrior networks. He also has ties to groups such as Craig Smith’s Tribal Rescue Ministries, which has ties to the Christian and Missionaries Alliance, which also has links to the New Apostolic Reformation. Smith was also involved in founding the On Eagle’s Wings ministry. Thayer was elected as chairman in 2011 and does not take a salary for his work, preferring instead to dedicate the money to reservation youth and other social programming.

Many tribal members, especially those whose personal property was targeted in the July incidents, are wondering if these were the acts of a single disturbed individual or was it a coordinated effort by those opposed to traditional spiritual practices. An uneasy calm has settled over the reservation. People are going on with the business of living but some are keeping a wary eye on their fellow community members.

LCO tribal member Gary Quaderer says it had never entered his mind that someone might burn down his sweat lodge. “That’s where I go to pray,” he says. “It’s like my church.”

DeMain, who normally would have been sleeping in the RV that was destroyed, believes the perpetrator—or perpetrators—meant to kill him. He notes that five gallons of gasoline were dumped on the ground at the entrance to his RV.

If Grover did, indeed, commit the crimes, it is not known if he acted alone or what ultimately spurred such a coordinated attack. “How could one man do all this so quickly, in just one hour?” says Quaderer, pointing out that the various locations torched are miles apart and not easily accessible from the road.

Thayer hopes that eventually the community will forgive whoever was responsible for the arson and come to a healing, rather than letting the events further divide people because of their faiths. “It will take time to heal,” he says.

DeMain and Cadotte say that the attack has strengthened their spirituality. As DeMain sifted through the ashes of his home, he uncovered few objects still intact, but he did find his two ceremonial pipes. “My faith has been fully endorsed,” he said. “My pipes and I made a grand entry at Honor the Earth pow wow.”

Cadotte added: “Although they destroyed our building, they didn’t destroy our faith.”