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Mary Annette Pember
ICT

A Christian missionary whose message condemns Lakota spirituality and religion recently hit a sort of reverse sweet spot of outrage among citizens on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In an unusual decision, the Oglala Lakota Nation tribal council voted in July to exclude Matt Monfore, a non-Native from the Jesus is King Mission, from Pine Ridge lands, saying he was spreading hate by distributing pamphlets on tribal lands.

“This week the Jesus is King Missionary was found distributing material that literally demonizes the Lakota culture and faith,” according to a letter released by the office of Tribal President Kevin Killer on July 22.

“This is unacceptable and completely disrespectful. It is the view of the President and Council that these ‘pamphlets’ seek to promote hate instead of peace. Hate has no place on Oglala land.”

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Monfore and the Jesus is King Mission have been ordered to leave Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation lands and “cease any further hate speech actions.”

In meetings July 26-27, the council also required any churches or missionaries conducting work on tribal lands to register with the tribe and to clear a background investigation, and ordered an investigation into any connections between Monfore and The Dream Center operated by Wings as Eagles Ministries.

The tribal actions are now raising questions about how far tribal authority can extend over religion and whether long-entrenched Christian churches on tribal lands will be forced to suspend operations until the registration process is completed.

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Shawnee and Lenape author Steve Newcomb, a former columnist for Indian Country Today who wrote the book, “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery,” said modern evangelical missionaries remain guided by the same tenets of the Doctrine of Discovery that describe global domination by the Christian faith as a desired goal and means to fulfill Jesus’s Great Commission to go forth and make disciples of all nations.

Indigenous peoples are pawns serving the larger agenda, Newcomb told ICT in an earlier interview.

“The evangelical agenda of converting Native Americans to Christianity is a very-well-thought-out strategy,” he said.

Monfore expressed surprise over the tribe’s reaction.

“I’m not racist; I love Native Americans,” he told ICT during a telephone interview. “I’m against Native religion. I’m not against Native people.”

‘People are outraged’

Public outcry about Monfore and his proselytizing materials emerged earlier in July when members of the Indigenous Youth Council Oglala Chapter posted copies of his pamphlets on social media.

In his written materials and information posted on the mission’s website, Monfore compares Tunkshila, the Lakota word for the Creator and/or grandfather, to a corrupt and unjust demon. He goes on to describe Nicholas Black Elk, a famous Lakota medicine man, as racist and dismisses well-known Lakota spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog as a “drunk.”

Mixing biblical scripture with his interpretations, he writes, “Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me. The white buffalo calf woman is not a savior; she is a demon/demonic belief. If your life does not bring exclusive glory to Jesus alone, it is not from God. Native teachings are of the spirit of the antichrist.”

Posting these writings on the International Indigenous Youth Council Lakota chapter’s Facebook page, Youth Council mentor Eleanor Ferguson of the Oglala Lakota tribe challenged the propaganda.

“This is modern day indoctrination and what cultural genocide looks like,” she wrote. “Why are we allowing these outsiders to disrespect us and our culture on our own territory? Something needs to be done.”

Eleanor Ferguson, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is a mentor for the Indigenous Youth Council Lakota chapter in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Ferguson’s challenge to the community came on the heels of the announced visit of Pope Francis to Canada as well as increased media attention on the prominent role that Christian missionaries and churches played in operating Indian residential schools.

The Pope traveled to Canada in a self-described “penitential pilgrimage” to issue an historic apology for the role that Catholic institutions played in promoting the government’s genocidal policies of assimilation and disenfranchisement. The Catholic Church and other Christian missionaries operated at least one third of the more than 400 Indian boarding schools in the U.S.

Many Indigenous people across Canada and the U.S. criticized the apology as not going far enough, however, and were especially critical of images of the Pope wearing a traditional feather headdress presented to him by chiefs in Maskwacis, Alberta.

Community reaction in Pine Ridge to Ferguson’s postings were strong and immediate.

“I had people contacting me late at night about these missionaries; people are outraged, seeing the Pope get a headdress in Canada just added fuel to the fire,” said Oglala Sioux tribal council member Tyler Yellow Boy during a council meeting televised on the tribe’s Facebook page on July 26.

Monfore told ICT he was genuinely shocked that people equated his message with teachings by the Catholic Church.

“People are trying to tie me into the Catholic Church’s oppression of Native people and things like that, but I preach that the Catholic Church isn’t Christian,” he said.

Monfore also noted that he has been handing out similar materials and preaching this message on and around Pine Ridge for years.

New opposition

The events leading up to the current controversy, according to Monfore, began earlier in July when he was preaching his beliefs to a work crew made up mostly of Native men who were at his mission installing a new floor.

The Jesus is King Mission is based on non-tribal lands in the town of Oral, South Dakota, near the reservation. The Wings as Eagles Ministries is also based near the reservation in Caputo, South Dakota, though The Dream Center is located on tribal lands.

Monfore said he gave the work crew some of his pamphlets and invited them to a seminar he was presenting at The Dream Center. He said he was invited by a visiting church group that was conducting volunteer work at the center.

At some point, he said, the men passed along the literature and descriptions of the conversation to Ferguson and other Indigenous Youth Council members who in turn posted the information on Facebook.

Monfore says he conducted his presentation at The Dream Center later in July but doesn’t recall if any of the members of the construction crew attended.

Lori McAfee, pastor and president of Wings as Eagles Ministries, told ICT that Monfore did not give a talk at the center and insists that he has no connection with the organization.

McAfee attended the July 27 council meeting and introduced Lee Spoonhunter, a council member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who traveled to Pine Ridge from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming to speak on behalf of McAfee and her husband Gary McAfee, who is listed as vice president and treasurer of the ministries on the organization’s website.

Spoonhunter praised the couple’s work in Wind River, especially during the pandemic when they provided meals and delivered food, water, hygiene products and other basic needs to residents.

“They mean no harm; they provide activities for children, and minister based on the life of Jesus Christ but don’t force their ways on others,” he said.

“The McAfee’s have no affiliation with Monfore,” Spoonhunter added.

The investigation ordered by the tribal council into Monfore’s relationship with the Wings as Eagles Ministries also includes examining the organization’s general operations and fundraising techniques. A report of the investigation is due to be delivered to the council on Aug. 10.

‘Untouched groups’

Evangelical and fundamentalist missionary groups and churches focusing on the Native population in and around Pine Ridge and other Native communities in the past 10 years share common elements in their messaging.

Indeed, there is a growing fundamentalist interest in converting Indigenous “untouched groups,” to Christianity.

John Chau, a 26-year-old American missionary who was killed by the Sentinelese people in the Andaman Islands near Thailand in 2019, was trained by All Nations, a fundamentalist mission based in Kansas City. All Nations is one of a faction of Christian missions such as the Joshua Project and others whose primary objective is converting Indigenous peoples to Christianity.

Chau, for instance, shared the common belief among these missionaries that the Sentinelese and their home represented “Satan’s last stronghold.”

According to Survival International, the Sentinelese are the most isolated tribe in the world and have made it clear they want no contact with the outside world. The Indian government which controls the Andaman Islands supports the tribe’s decision and forbids travel to the island.

This brand of proselytizing, however, unlike some older Christian denominations such as the Catholic Church, has no interest in syncretism – the inclusion of Native beliefs or spiritual practices in their style of worship. They are unapologetic in pushing an exclusively Christ-centered agenda and in planting churches to the exclusion of traditional Indigenous spirituality or religion.

Although many of the missionary groups describe themselves as non-denominational, they often share certain coded words and phrases in their mission language.

The more extreme missions are openly affiliated with the teachings of the New Apostolic Reformation, a growing ideological movement known to equate traditional Native spirituality with idolatry and witchcraft. Some of these groups present a benign front, such as pastor prayer networks or Christian reconciliation groups, and at a local level are sometimes represented as charitable organizations.

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Many provide much-needed social services such as food banks, child care and addiction recovery services in cash-strapped Native communities.

The ultimate goal, however, is to bring about a second coming of Christ in part by destroying Indigenous spirituality and converting Indigenous peoples to Christianity. The message, according to researchers who study the emerging ideology, is clear.

“All other religions’ systems are evil, under the control of specific demons, and must be converted or defeated,” said Rachel Tabachnick of the website Talk2Action.org. and a researcher/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.”

Indeed, although Wings as Eagles Ministries describes itself as a non-denominational evangelical relief agency and is registered as a nonprofit organization, its statement of faith and other writings state that the Bible is the infallible word of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and the literal second coming of Christ will reward believers.

Many people in Pine Ridge complain that Wings as Eagles’ programming at its Dream Center is heavy-handed in proselytizing, especially towards the youth, and conducts fundraising in ways that are misleading.

In 2019, ICT reported about the proliferation of fundamentalist Christian missionary organizations and churches on the Pine Ridge reservation. Priscilla Locke, an Oglala Lakota citizen who lives on Pine Ridge, described how the Wings as Eagles Ministries used the story of her 12-year-old grandson’s suicide as a fundraising tool on the organization’s website, without the family’s permission.

In the organization’s 2019 tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service, it describes its overarching mission.

“WAEM is a non-denominational evangelical ministry and relief organization working with the First Nations people, bringing love and hope to our forgotten lands,” according to the tax document. “The mission of WAEM is to extend the evangelical calling by proclaiming the gospel or our lord Jesus Christ to all we can by every means available to us.”

Wings as Eagles mission, however, received a failing mark from Charity Navigator in its finance and accountability score, which provides a baseline measure of an organization’s financial health.

The McAfees take a combined salary of $59,184 in Caputo, in Pennington County, where the average media household income is $59,278. Caputo is about 40 miles west of Pine Ridge and Oglala Lakota County, where the average median household income is $31,423 and where 38 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.

Missions such as Wings as Eagles and Jesus is King often receive financial and in-kind support from larger faith communities and denominations. Wings as Eagles claims sponsorship from Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Feed the Children and others. It also hosts volunteer groups from churches throughout the country, with church groups applying to participate in building and repair projects while staying at bunkhouse-style dormitories at the ministry. There is no information on the ministry’s website regarding the cost of participating in such mission trips.

On the Jesus is King Mission website, Monfore describes the church as Baptist and said it is affiliated with James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, an evangelical reformed Baptist organization based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Monfore’s mission appears to focus primarily on proselytizing versus providing charity services for the community. Financial information about the mission does not appear on the website, although the organization does solicit donations and sells a small number of books.

Despite the plethora of missionaries serving Pine Ridge, however, the reservation remains one of the poorest communities in the U.S.

“I believe the investigation into the Dream Center should include all churches on our reservation; I’m sick and tired of churches soliciting money for the poor Native Americans,” said tribal council member Michal Carlow during the July 26 meeting.

“We may be poor but we are proud of our heritage,” he said.

In 2011, the tribe enacted an ordinance requiring nonprofits and charities claiming to raise money to serve the Oglala Lakota Nation to register with the tribe and provide financial information.

The ordinance, however, has not been uniformly enforced.

‘We are angry’

Discussion about the new ordinance requiring churches and missionaries to register with the tribe were heated and emotional during the July meetings.

Many expressed outrage at what they viewed as a revived focus by some missionaries on oppressive, colonial tenets of the Doctrine of Discovery. During the Pope’s visit to Canada, many Indigenous people demanded that he and the Catholic Church rescind the doctrine.

“Our objective is to decolonize mind, heart, spirit, land and return to our Lakota ways; we don’t need any more churches to assimilate us,” Tyler Star Comes Out of the Lakota chapter of the Indigenous Youth Council told the tribal council.

“We are angry and also heavy-hearted that this is still happening,” she said.

Others at the meeting, however, expressed concern about how the registration ordinance would impact tribal members who are active members of various Christian denominations on the reservation.

Several council members wanted to know if all churches on the reservation would be forced to suspend worship services, funerals and weddings until the registration process was completed.

Therein lies the rub surrounding the complex relationship in Indian Country with Christianity.

Christian churches and missionaries have existed on many reservations and Native lands for well over 100 years and are deeply entrenched in some communities. Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, for instance, was founded as Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 by Catholic Jesuits, predating the existence of the reservation.

Although initially guided by a philosophy of Christian hegemony and disdain for Lakota spirituality, Red Cloud has a long history on Pine Ridge with ties that go back generations.

Red Cloud is currently conducting a Truth and Healing initiative seeking to examine and reconcile its assimilationist past.

A long and confusing discussion among council members regarding which churches would be affected by the ordinance ensued.

“People are texting us and getting upset. What about upcoming bible studies and other church services, will they still be able to have those?” asked councilmember Sonia Little Hawk-Weston. “Some of these are small churches that have been here for years.”

Another council member whose name was not announced asked about the ordinance’s impact on the Native American church.

“The members are all Native; their church is a teepee; would the road man need to register?” he asked.

Responded councilmember Garfield Steele, “It was never our intent to stop anyone from praying; as Lakota people we know how that feels because it was done to us.”

The council voted to amend the ordinance to include a 90-day period for churches and missions to comply; until then activities could continue.

Some members offered amendments to exclude the Native American church and other local, Native-run churches from the ordinance, but the meeting was winding down and members were clearly exhausted by the discussion. The meeting was adjourned.

Difficult decisions

Pine Ridge and other Native communities are in store for such difficult discussions and decisions as tribal citizens gain more interest and awareness in confronting and navigating the often-painful legacy of Christian missionaries in their communities.

As the tribe’s attorney, Thomasina Real Bird, explained during the July 27 council meeting, there is limited legal precedent for tribal governments to permanently banish or exclude non-tribal citizens from reservations.

Some tribes, however, incorporate language in their law-and-order codes empowering them to use exclusion as a civil remedy.

The resolution excluding Monfore from Pine Ridge includes reference to the tribe’s law and order codes addressing removal of non-members, stating, “It is the sacred duty of and obligation of the tribal council to protect its peoples ,their property, natural resources, culture, land, water rights and wildlife from any threat or conduct by non-members on the reservation and any lands under jurisdiction of the Oglala Sioux tribe.”

Monfore, however, expressed doubts that the tribe’s constitution could allow it to legally exclude him from reservation land without due process.

As Real Bird explained to the council, however, in this case, it is the tribal council that defines due process.

“The council can issue an order for a person’s removal without a hearing in an emergency situation,” she said. “Nobody can second guess you, only this governing body can determine the circumstances constituting an emergency.”

As of early August, however, Monfore said he had not received any official notification of the council’s decision to exclude him.

“My ministry is not located on the reservation,” he said. “So far, I have no plans to travel there.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Gary McAfee is vice president and treasurer of the The Wings as Eagles Ministries. The treasurer listed in an earlier version of the story was incorrect.

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