Many in North America have been trained to equate Christianity with a type of bleaching universalism; an overcoming and killing of tribal identities. But that is not the picture given by Scripture. At Pentecost, at the great rushing of the Holy Spirit, “the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). The population, filled with the various tribes of the Near Eastern neighbourhood, did not expect to hear God in their native tongue. And so “they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” (Acts 2:7–8). This historical happening is a sign of the final apocalypse, where tribal identities, rather than being lost, are brought into their proper place. “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9). Robert Soto, a pastor, tribal leader, and member of the Lipan Apache tribe, is a living embodiment of this apocalypse. He is a man who has experienced apocalyptic losses: of land, of identity, of culture, and of life. But, as you will see below, that isn’t the end of his story, or of ours.
Brian Dijkema: Robert, you are a pastor in the Brethren church and a vice chairman of the Lipan Apache tribe. My guess is that a lot of people will not understand this. Can you describe how these two things hold together?
Robert Soto: One of the things I discovered very early in my Christian walk as a Native was that in our community there is no separation of church and state. In the United States, however, there is a separation. How do we hold these things together?
When I was younger, there was an elder who rested a drumstick in the middle of a drum. For us that’s taboo. We don’t put things on top of drums. And yet here was our mentor breaking the rule. Not wanting to question his integrity, we silently wondered, “Why is he putting a drumstick on a drum?” Because of course if we had done so, he would have rebuked us. So we waited.
Finally, he said, “The drum is our world. The drumstick divides our world in half. What’s on the left is secular and what’s on the right is sacred. But notice: They all come together in the middle. So in our world, what is secular is sacred and what is sacred is secular, because they both meet in the middle and they both work together in harmony.”
What he was conveying was that as Natives, we have our so-called secular events, but in these we pray and we do our ceremonies. And we have our “sacred” events, where we invite the public and share our tradition. For us there is no separation of church and state.
And so it became a no-brainer, especially after I became a Christian, that I was here to serve the world, and to do the best that I could for humanity in light of Christ’s salvific work in my life. But I had to do these things in harmony with one other key truth: I didn’t become an Apache. I was born an Apache. So the question is, what do you do with that?
BD: Can you tell our readers your story of faith? When did you become a Christian? And how did that happen?
RS: I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour on July 26, 1973. A lot of people just kind of walk into faith, but for me that decision ended a twelve-year search for spirituality that started when I was in second grade.
Back then I had a little best friend who had a birth defect in his heart. One day we were both playing when we crashed into each other. In short order, my friend suffered a massive heart attack and passed away—right in front of me. I didn’t understand it, except that I knew I was never going to see my friend again.
So I learned to fear death, and that’s the way Apache people are. A lot of us are afraid of death. Traditionally, when someone dies, we never mention their name again, because we are afraid that their spirit will come to haunt us. This means that anybody with the same name as the deceased has to change their name. It will never be mentioned again, in the family or among the tribe itself.
So I was brought up understanding death as a hugely destructive event in our lives. And for the next twelve years, I would pray and ask God: What is beyond the grave? What is beyond that day when you close your eyes and take your last breath? Of course I was also asking God not to take anybody I loved home, because I didn’t know if I could stand another death in my life.
Well, God let me down. My dad died when I was a freshman in high school and left nine of us to fend for ourselves. We were a large family, and my mom never had an education; she was your typical submissive Apache woman. All of a sudden we had to learn to rely on ourselves, sometimes with no money. And the more miserable we became, the more bitter I grew against God and this whole concept that there was a God.
By the time I was a sophomore in college, I was so mad. I was a drug addict, numbing myself to my fear of death, numbing my depression. I had this little sacred spot where I meditated and prayed, and one day I went there and said, “God, if you really exist, you show yourself to me right now. I need to talk to you. There’s some issues that I’ve got.” And of course, I waited for something to happen, and of course nothing happened. I then remember saying, “You know, God, you don’t exist and if you do exist, you don’t really love me. You don’t really care for us.” And I walked away.
I always tell people that to a non-believer, God is not obligated to answer your prayers, unless you’re praying a plea of salvation. In retrospect, that moment was a plea of salvation. I was tired of searching. The very next day, I was looking for work because my family was hungry. No one would hire me because my hair was long. We call that being indigenous, but back in the seventies they called it being a hippie. And so while I was eating my last two dollars’ worth of burgers, a friend that I hadn’t seen in years walked in and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was looking for a job and he said, “Do you know anything about bicycles?” I said, “Does it pay?” And he said, “Yes, it does.” I said, “Well, I’m your man.” I knew nothing about bicycles, and what I’d really done was get hired into a Christian track. He and his staff were all born again.
From day one they were trying to encourage me to accept the Lord, always sharing Bible verses. I told them that I believed there was no God, and that was that. The secretary was a committed Christian, and we’d graduated in the same high-school class. We’d known about each other, but she was white and back then our Texan town had the philosophy that you can look at our daughters, but don’t you dare touch our daughters. So we were not friends, because racism and prejudice told us we just couldn’t be friends. But we knew about each other, and so she took an interest in my spirituality and bugged me daily.
One day she wanted me to go to this youth conference. I was a college sophomore, and I thought most of it would be junior-high and high-school kids. So I said, “Well, I would go if I could, but I can’t because I’m working.” So she said she was going to pray that God would give me the time off to go to this conference. And I told her she was stupid because God doesn’t care whether I go to a stupid camp or not. And she said, “Let’s see what happens.” Well, the next day I got laid off.
So I went. I was a non-Christian in a Christian world—about two thousand Christian kids—and bored to death. But on Tuesday morning of July 26, 1973, a tall, dark-skinned, black-haired man got up and said, “My name is Dr. Stanford. I’m a Native American. You took my land, and I want you to pack up your suitcases and go back to Europe.” And I thought, “Wow, this is my kind of speaker.” He was a Cherokee Indian and president of the Bible college that was hosting the conference. He said, “Give me an hour of your time, and if I can’t convince you to believe the way I believe, you can do whatever you want for the rest of the week.”
So I said, “Okay, I’ll listen to you for one hour, and then it’s party time.” But the more I listened to his testimony and his life as a World War II pilot—praying and surviving and becoming a Christian—the more I wanted to hear. At the end he said that salvation was as simple as faith in Christ, and what he did for us on the cross, and that he paid for our sins. I mean, because of what Christ did, and what he did on the third day, he forgives you of your sins!
I carried a heavy burden, and that morning I prayed and accepted the Lord. It was very emotional. I tell people, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t see how you can not be emotional when you accept the Lord, knowing that your sins are forgiven. That you have a new life with Christ, a new start in life.”
I used to be a power lifter and would squat four hundred to five hundred pounds. Have you ever carried five hundred pounds on your back? It crushes every vertebra. When you release that weight, the vertebrae start to stretch, and you actually feel your back stretching back to its normal size. That’s the way I felt when I accepted the Lord. Everything was just taken off my shoulders, and it was an amazing time for me. I dedicated my life that day, and I told God, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” And that’s the beginning of my faith. I will never waiver from that promise.
BD: Many people in Canada and elsewhere think that Christianity is a white person’s religion. Can you share a bit of your journey in navigating the many residual effects of this myth?
RS: As a Native at the time of my conversion, it was natural to associate Christ with the problem and not the solution. I would see contemporary teachers of Jesus acting in ways that harmed Natives in the church, and I’d think, “Well, that must be what Jesus was teaching.” After all, he was Jesus, this was a Christian church, and the church follows the teachings of Jesus.
But one day I came across a Bible verse, John 10:10, when Jesus says, “For you have come to kill, steal, and destroy, but I have come to give you life, and life to its fullest.” And I thought, “Wait a minute. To kill, steal, and destroy? Those are the three things that the church came to do to Natives. They killed us, stole our land, and destroyed who we are and who we were created to be.” All of a sudden I realized that it wasn’t Jesus doing all these injustices, like in the boarding schools and all that kind of stuff, but it was denominational preferences.
When people today ask me to speak to their church, I say, “I’ll speak, but I’m going to tell you the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.”
When I became a Christian, I thought, “Everybody must believe the same way I believe, because everybody’s so excited.” But the more I hung out with Christians, the more I discovered that it was sort of contrary. All the denominations could not get along with each other, though they claimed to have the same Saviour. There were all these denominational biases, and though they said salvation is through faith in Christ, what they seemed to be saying was, “We want you to come, just not as you are.”
At the beginning of my Christian walk, I was in a church where everyone was very properly dressed in three-piece suits and long dresses. And there I am in a T-shirt and a pair of holey jeans, wearing moccasins and beads around my neck and head, and I felt like I was an embarrassment.
I struggled with that, because the church seemed to be telling me that everything I did was wrong. They would quote passages like “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old is gone and the new has come.” And they would tell me, “You’re now a child of God. The Indian has gone, and the new has come. So let’s forget about being an Indian and let’s just follow a new path.” But the new path was to be a Christian in their image: Wear a three-piece suit. Cut your hair. Don’t practice your culture. Don’t be who you are.
I bombarded my pastor with questions. “You tell me that God doesn’t make mistakes. Well, I think you’re lying to us, because God did make a mistake with me.” He responded, “No, God doesn’t make mistakes. He’s perfect.” I’d retort, “That’s what you tell me, and that’s what you say the Bible says, but you’re telling me that being an Indian is wrong. That being an Apache is wrong. If this is so wrong, then God made a mistake when he created me an Apache. The church seems to be telling me I can’t be who God created me to be.”
A lot of people think you become an Indian when you put a feather in your head. They don’t realize that we’re born this way. We’re born into this world with parents who were brought up a certain way, speak a certain language, have certain customs and religious traditions. I remember a lady came to me once—she was Mexican American—and she said, “I’d like to ask you a question. How can you justify being a Christian and an Indian at the same time?” I always like to answer questions with a question, so I said, “Well, I’ll answer your question if you answer my question: How can you be a Mexican and a Christian at the same time?”
She said, “Well, I was born Mexican.” And I said, “I was born Indian.” And it took her a little while, but she finally said, “Oh, I see.” I told her, “When you came to Christ, you know that not everything Mexican American people do is right. You let the Holy Spirit take away the bad and keep the good, isn’t that right?” She said, “Yes.” And I said, “It’s the same thing with me: Not everything Native people do is wrong. If we allow the Spirit of God to speak to our heart, and take the bad and keep the good, we can then take the good that we have and use it for his honour and glory.”
BD: Amen. At the beginning of our conversation you were telling me that you were afraid of death, that among the Apaches there was a cultural fear of death. I think that’s true for all kinds of cultures including our own today, and including my own from very long ago. I come from a Dutch background, and it wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of the Lord’s eyes that my ancestors, my tribe, were worshipping oak trees and were petrified of death and much else. You described that when you became a Christian, your view of death, which was a common understanding for your culture, changed. And yet you’re still Apache. It’s not like it was that one part of your background that was liberated through Jesus, and that that liberation obliterated the rest.
RS: Exactly, exactly. My view of death changed tremendously. Soon after my wife and I got married, we had a child, a little boy. I tell people, “Without my Christianity, I could not have survived my son’s death 365 days after he was born.” He died on his birthday; his first birthday. My understanding of my son now, as a Christian, is that you’re absent from the body and present with the Lord. The assurance that one day I’m going to be with him, this allowed me to keep going. But if this had happened before I become Christian, it would have been enough to make me commit suicide.
BD: You are someone who has dealt with a lot of loss. When I first heard of you, it was through a legal case where your eagle feathers had been stolen and you were being represented by the Becket Fund. As I listened to that interview with you, I was struck by how you were living out exactly what you just said, that you are an Apache and that means that when you worship God, you bring that heritage to God. Tell our readers that story.
RS: Well, first of all, the dances that we do are more inter-tribal, accepted by all tribes. Tribes will come together and be unified when we celebrate, but there are no written rules, and many of them are social. I love the social dances—they’re something that we lost and started to integrate back in again, because they’re just a lot of fun. They’re a time of celebration. If you ever participate in the fun of an Apache social dance, you almost don’t want to leave. You want to stay there, because you look around and everybody’s smiling and everybody’s laughing and everybody’s having a great time.
And in our religious dances, if people understood the significance and the meaning of these dances, they would see that they’re very theocentric, very God-centred. Our religious dance is always the battle between good and bad, and at the end good wins, because God the Creator intervenes. And so it’s a family celebration.
A long time ago, when I was a little boy, every spring we had a coming of the new year festival. The vegetation would produce its foliage in the desert, and because we were desert people that’s when we gathered most of our food. Our main staple back then was cactus, and that’s when the cactus produced its new buds. That was the beginning of the new year. We would also gather at the end of the old year; that’s when we had the harvest, and we had a celebration about harvesting corn.
So at some point the elders were dying out, and the people who would come to these festivals would all just sit down and nobody knew what they were doing. So I instigated a spring powwow in celebration of the new birth of the creation, and an October powwow to celebrate the end of the harvest, the end of the year, before we’d go into four or five months of fallow where nothing grows. And so these dances, even though they’re tribally oriented and more inter-tribal, are speaking of history. It’s speaking of our history: Why did we do what we did? The reason we do this dance now is so we can teach our children about our history.
And so basically, what happened on the day when the feathers were taken is this:
The government knows the only way they can defeat us is to bring an Indian against an Indian. As a matter of fact, the Apaches had the Apache scouts who were traitors hired by the United States government. They said, “We’ll give you a rifle, we’ll give you your food, we’ll give you a little bit of money, if you show us where all the rest of the Apaches are hiding.” And the United States government is still doing that today, bringing Indian against Indian.
And that’s what happened with this case. I won’t mention the details, but there was a federal agent who worked as a biologist and turned us in to the Department of the Interior. He said, “You need to investigate this gathering, because there are some people there who are non-Indians using eagle feathers.” Now, I need to clarify the word “non-Indian.” When the Department of the Interior says “non-Indian,” they’re not talking about white people. They’re talking about Indians that the federal government has not acknowledged. There are two kinds of tribes: those that are acknowledged by the Department of the Interior, by the federal government, and those that have been acknowledged by the individual states. And then you have some tribes that are not acknowledged by anybody, even though they’re still a tribe. And so the United States government considers tribes that have not been acknowledged by the federal government as non-Indians. But they don’t tell that to the other Native communities, so when they argue about non-Indians having eagle feathers, they aren’t talking about a bunch of white people getting eagle feathers.
The only way to obtain an eagle feather is through the federal government. You have to submit your application to the Department of the Interior and then submit it to the repository. And they say, “Yes, he’s Indian. Give him his feather” or “No, he’s not Indian, don’t give him his feather.”
BD: Can I pause just to ask a question to clarify? My understanding is that many of these feathers have been in the family or in a tribe for quite some time. And that they weren’t actually taken from live eagles. Is it accurate to say, though this was ostensibly about environmental or biological protection, that this was not really what your case was about?
RS: Yes. It wasn’t the issue of the eagle feather, but it was the issue of control of our spirituality and society. When it comes to the Native community, there is no separation of church and state, because the state, the federal government, the Department of the Interior, establishes laws to govern our people, and they say, “If you don’t belong to a tribe acknowledged by the federal government, you cannot possess an eagle feather.” We use eagle feathers at powwows and to adorn our outfits, but a lot of us, especially people like me who are spiritual leaders, use eagle feathers for our religious rites. For our religious practices. I have three Native churches, all Christian, and we use part of the eagle feathers in our services. I get called to do funerals, and I get called to do weddings, and children dedications, and blessings and prayers, and I use my eagle feather. So the eagle feather for me was not just part of my traditional upbringing, but also necessary for my practices as a pastor and as a Christian. And so it’s like telling people you have to ask permission from the government to use your Bible, and you have to prove that you’re a Christian before they give you one. Or a Catholic with a rosary, and so forth.
But we’re the only ethnic group in the United States that has to prove who they are, to be able to obtain these sacred objects. And if they catch you with these sacred objects without a permit from the United States government, then you’ve violated federal law. And the thing that I found out is that I cannot even say, “According to the Constitution, I have the right to worship God if I please.” Because the moment you say you’re Native, you no longer fall under the protection of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and so on. You fall under the protection of the laws established by the Department of the Interior for all Native people.
When certain Christian denominations came to this land, they went into our villages and they saw no church, no steeple, and no cross. So they said, “There must be no God here,” and concluded that we didn’t have a soul, that we were no better than animals. When this country was established, they asked themselves, “What do we do with the Indians? Because the Indians are no better than animals, because they have no soul.” So they put them under the Department of the Interior, which governed the natural world.
Now, I hope they believe we have souls now! I don’t think they do, but I like to think they do. I mean, this is a religious-freedom violation, but I couldn’t cry to the Constitution, because I said I was Native, and as Native I violated federal laws that said, “If you’re not acknowledged by the federal government, you cannot possess an eagle feather.”
BD: You said you use eagle feathers in worship for a blessing at a marriage or at a funeral. What does that look like?
RS: Our services, which are Christian, are very Native. From the worship to the songs we sing, we gear everything to our cultural practices. So when you come to our church service we will have a prayer to the four directions. Or when we take the offering, instead of passing a basket, we put a blanket on the ground, and if you feel like getting up and giving, you give, and if you don’t, you don’t. And even our sermons are not point one, point two, point three. We love stories, and so I always try to get a story interspersed with biblical concepts. At the very end we close with prayer. We start with prayer and then we close with prayer, but the prayers at the end are more geared to our Native community, to the country, and to what we do as a Native community. And so at that point what I do is ask for a share of what we’re going to be praying for.
We have a little cooking pot that we use in the place of shells. People say, “You should be using shells,” but they get expensive. Shells break after a while. So when we’ve heard prayer requests we light up the sage in the cooking pot. One of the things that we say about sage is that with the sage, as the smoke ascends to the heavens, the prayers will be carried to heaven above. And as people come before me I fan the smoke to them and they fan the smoke upward to heaven. The sage is like the incense that the Jewish priest would burn in the holy of holies, and as it burned the smoke would rise and they would say that the prayers are being carried to God above.
And people say, “What does the smoke represent?” I said, “Well, the smoke is white, and when we come to Christ, we’re white as snow. So the white smoke just represents our spiritual cleansing. And that we have the power and the ability through Christ to enter the throne of grace and go before the Father and offer our prayers.”
BD: It’s a beautiful picture of reconciliation. To what extent does the reconciliation that you have experienced before the face of God fuel your desire for wholeness or a reconciliation and justice for Native Americans? How does that work? And do you see any hope for that apart from that person of God?
RS: A lot of people say I’m a destroyer of reconciliation. I’m not really a destroyer of reconciliation, but that’s what they say. Why? Because today, when we see a reconciliation service, what do we see? We see the church or the government bringing us gifts. Blankets and hugging and kissing and words of forgiveness. The church or whatever organization comes, seeking forgiveness, and they walk away and say, “You know what, we did our part to apologize to the poor Indians.” But they walk away and nothing is changed. We’re still dying of depression and the highest rates of suicide. Nothing’s really changed, but the church feels happy because they went ahead and they gave blankets to the poor Indians.
In my pre-Christian life, I was a very hateful person. My wife jokingly says, “You’re just nothing but a Christian racist.” But I say, “No, I’m just a Christian Native who still tells the truth.” You’ve got to put the fault where the fault is. I’m not going to say that we lived in a perfect, utopian society before Columbus; honestly, I don’t even blame Columbus for our problems, because obviously, we already had our problems. We were already killing each other. We were already fighting for territorial rights and hunting rights and land rights. We were fighting each other, we were killing each other, before the white man came. And sometimes I wonder, maybe that’s why God judged us, because we could not even find peace among ourselves.
And so no matter how many times people try to tell me they were sorry, I say, “Yeah, but you’re going back to your home and you’re going back to your stress-free, problem-free lives. You’re going back to the piece of land you call yours, and your family. And here, we’re still struggling with all these issues, nothing’s changed for us. I mean, you as a Christian feel happy, but we’re still struggling.” And to be honest here, and it’s going to sound like I contradict myself, but there are a lot of issues that we have to deal with within our Native community. And a lot of those issues deal with the issues of anger and frustration and against those who did the atrocities against us.
And that’s why I was a very hateful person. I hated the white man, and not just the white man, but I hated the Mexicans and I hated people of colour too. It wasn’t just the Mexicans, but the blacks. They came in too.
In a massive state, I don’t think there can ever be reconciliation. But you can start in a personal way. Because if anybody is in Christ, we are a new creation. I mean, something has changed inside of us, where I have the power to forgive people for the atrocities and all the evil that has come against us. Because that hasn’t changed. Nothing’s changed. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and I’m still saying, “Nothing’s changed.” And then the government comes in as I was talking about in the case above, and I say, “Nothing’s changed with us and the government. They’re still doing everything to kill, steal, and destroy.” And so I concluded that the only way there could ever be reconciliation is going to be a personal revival. A personal revival, where God cleanses the heart and the attitudes and the soul of a person, and in many ways that’s why I could learn to forgive.
And that’s how I learned to move on in life, and take this attack and be ready for those, because there’s another version that says, if you decide to do a Christian life, a guiding life in Christ Jesus, you will be persecuted. And I tell people, “That’s the price you have to pay, if you’ve been a good Native, if you’re going to try to reach our people within the culture that he gave us. That’s the price, and if you’re not willing to pay the price, then by all means don’t do it. Don’t go and do that.” I said, “Because it’s going to hit you, and it’s going to hit you hard. And if you’re not strong, your faith is going to go down with it.” And I once told my wife, “Either I’m a very stubborn Apache, because we are, or I really believe what I’m doing is God’s will.”
Ten years ago I was going over to northern Illinois to speak at a church. At the end, a lady pastor came to me and some elders and they said they were going to go and do a reconciliation service for the Lakota people. And I said to them, “Don’t bother.” Because they told me they were going to give gifts and blankets and things like that. I said, “Don’t bother. Don’t do it.” And she goes, “Why not?” I said, “Unless you’re going to do this as a long-term relationship, don’t even bother going. You’re going to go with your blankets and you’re going to feel fuzzy and warm, and you’re going to come back and say, what a great testimony. We told the Indians we’re sorry and they gave us hugs and they forgave us and we gave them blankets, and that’s it.” And they said, “What do you expect us to do?” I said, “Go ahead and do your service, but before you go just call the pastor or whoever your contact is and say, is there a clinic in the area? And if there is, ask him to give you the phone number and a contact person. And then call that clinic and say, we’re with this church here in Illinois, and we want to ask you, what do you need in your clinic to make it more functional? And ask them for a list of things. And then when you give them the list of things, you go and do your best to fulfill everything there. But then don’t do it just once, or maybe two or three times a year. Keep going back to the same place, the same people, the same church. Go back to that same clinic and keep asking them: What else do you need? What else do you need? What else do you need?”
This church has one of the most successful outreach programs among the Native community that I’ve ever seen. It’s just this little church. Because they’re now returning four to sometimes as many as five times a year, and every time they go they take a trailer full of supplies. And then they set up their tents and they have a group and they give little concerts and people come to the Lord. People respect them because all of a sudden they see a church that’s gone beyond the words and put their words into action. And their ministry is succeeding that way. I’ve even heard that the reservation has allowed them to buy a piece of land and a building to be a home for battered women and abused children, so that they can use it to help the Native community. You know? That seems to me to be the best way of reconciliation.
And on this type of thing, and with my case too, it’s been an experience. But I think God got the glory at the end.