Marriages are in crisis in the new century. Native American couples are not immune from the disease of divorce, for it continues to infect their lives in epidemic proportions. As they face today’s problems, Natives are desperately searching for answers to marital dilemmas. Factors compounding current marital challenges include poor educational opportunities, racial discrimination, rapid urbanization, and acculturation. The pace of urban living, compared to less stressful reservation life, has increased the need for improved Native marital communication skills. Pressures of daily life snowball smaller problems into major marital concerns. Because Natives tend to guard their privacy, they are less likely to seek marital counseling. Couples need readily available, pragmatic communication studies. Increased computer literacy among Natives in the new century has presented new opportunities to reach and teach Native couples via cyberspace.
The Personal Investment
My father, a Cherokee, maintained relationships between our family and other Native Americans. My maternal grandmother refused to take the forced march of the now-infamous Trail of Tears in 1838. She and a number of other Cherokee escaped to the Smokey Mountains. This group formed the Eastern Cherokee Nation, while survivors of the nefarious ordeal ultimately headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When I became a Christian, through the ministry of Teen Challenge in 1971, it was natural that God would move me toward full-time ministry among other Natives. My wonderful wife, Doris, has a specific call to Native Americans as well. Continuing to experience a dynamic marriage since we wed in 1973, it is our desire to provide Native Americans with the tools necessary for marital happiness.
In 1984, I accepted the position of Academic Dean at Central Indian Bible College in South Dakota. This provided opportunities to counsel Sioux, Crow and Cheyenne couples. Pastoring Indian Assembly of God in Winslow, Arizona from 1987 through 1989 allowed us insight into marital challenges of the Navajo, Hopi and Apache. Throughout our fifteen-year tenure at American Indian College (AIC) we provided pre-marital and marital counseling for couples representing numerous tribes. Regardless of the demographic area in which we have served, the primary problem that continued to resurface was the need for enhanced marital communicative skills.
The Missional Element
As a professor of New Testament studies at AIC, I was privileged to teach and mentor students from various tribes for fifteen consecutive years. Many unique kinship systems were represented within the student body. It became apparent that the way in which students viewed marital life was strongly influenced by tribal lifeways. For example, those reared in matriarchal homes saw marriage very differently than those brought up in patriarchal families. Cheyenne and Sioux students had learned the husband should guide all marital concerns, while Apache and Navajos were taught primogenial privileges belonged to the firstborn female. Unique marital communication problems inevitably surface when one from a patriarchal home marries someone reared in matriarchy.
Although the Bible is based upon a patriarchal system, this does not disparage matriarchal systems. God is represented in the Bible as our heavenly Father, rather than our mother (Luke 11:13). Couples steeped in traditional lifeways must allow the Spirit of God to instruct them in Biblical truth, for it is only through His guidance that the scales of marital responsibility can be balanced. Paul encourages all Christians to adapt a spirit of humility when communicating with others (Phil. 2:3). The Bible does not set one kinship system above another, but commands both husband and wife to submit to one another in the fear of God (Eph. 5:21). Native couples seeking answers to marital questions will find the Bible promotes mutual respect as foundational to effective marital communication.
The missional idiom of Native American Marriage Enhancement (NAME) is: “Empowering Native Couples to Enjoy Victorious Christian Marriages.” An expansion of this maxim will help to explain the philosophy of NAME.
Empowering. Empowerment at NAME includes giving Natives great tools with which to build great marriages. Workshop and Web site studies provide the necessary resources to help couples grow spiritually. NAME promotes the power of God’s Holy Spirit, resulting in empowered familial living.
Native. Although NAME targets the Native community, these studies are freely available to anyone desiring a stronger marriage. Because Jesus has commanded we go into the entire world and teach all nations, NAME assists people of all ethnicities (Mark 16:15).
Couples. NAME seeks to restore and strengthen Native marriages and guide those who plan to marry. NAME defends the biblical premise of marriage between a man and a woman (Gen. 2:23-25).
To Enjoy. Biblical teachings regarding marriage offer the hope of lifelong intimacy, happiness, and effective communication.
Victorious. Christ’s power is available to overcome all marital obstacles, even the unique challenges facing Native couples today. The power to successfully confront marital problems is only possible through a consistent, Spirit-controlled lifestyle.
Christian. Without a personal relationship with Jesus, there can be neither joy nor victory. The salvation of both husband and wife is key to a successful marriage. NAME promotes the principle that one is Christian first and Native second.
Marriages. Because the primary relationship on most reservations today is common-law, hundreds of thousands of Native couples do not yet comprehend the Biblical concept of marriage. NAME seeks to promote marriage as a covenant, rather than a contract.
NAME was established with four performance goals clearly in view:
- To empower all who desire deeper spiritual experiences in Christ
- To encourage the study of God’s Word as foundational to marital happiness
- To enrich the lives of Natives by providing marital workshops
- To enable Native families via pragmatic and relevant Web site studies
Native American Marriage Enhancement (NAME) evolved from more than two decades of missional work among Native peoples. NAME was launched in 2003 as an Assemblies of God US Missions (AGUSM) endeavor. Dr. John and Doris Knoles are the co-founders and directors, and all NAME board members represent different tribes. The vision for strengthening Native marriages is defined through four specific missional goals:
- To establish the free academic Web site domain of NativeMarriage.com, providing a wide variety of resources, including Biblical studies and marital, familial, and cultural teachings. The site became an official affiliate site of ag.org in 2006, allowing English-speaking people worldwide to freely download the studies. As of this writing, many countries and numerous tribes have accessed over 48,000 pages from NativeMarriage.com.
- To teach marital enrichment workshops, tailored to the specific needs of Native couples in selected demographical areas. Workshops allow NAME the opportunity to interact with Native couples on reservations and in urban environments. These workshops work in tandem with the Web site to provide pragmatic resource tools. New studies are continuously added to the hundreds already online. The need for such resources is great, for there are no other missionary organizations offering free marital workshops and related Web site studies.
- To distribute Bibles to Native Americans throughout the continent. Partnering with Light for the Lost, hundreds of quality Bibles are continuously provided to Native pastors and churches.
- To mentor and prepare Certified Marriage Specialists (CMS) in Native churches. In order to assist Native pastors with marital counseling on a continuum, NAME seeks to encourage couples to be certified through the National Association of Marriage Enhancement in Phoenix.
Through Native American Marriage Enhancement, God has opened a great door of opportunity to assist all Natives to build a strong relationship with Christ. Because workshops are sponsored by Native churches, participants that have no church home can become acquainted with local pastors and church families. NAME workshops are planned with the specific goal of equipping Native couples for a happier marital life by enhancing communicative skills. However, because Natives tend to safeguard marital problems, teachings must be made easily accessible to workshop participants and non-participants alike. By posting these studies on NativeMarriage.com, couples can access them at their discretion.
Increasing computer literacy skills among Natives gives NAME the opportunity to teach myriads of couples through cyberspace. The e-mail link on NativeMarriage.com allows couples to address marital concerns in the privacy of their own homes. Assured of confidentiality, all who e-mail the NAME office receive a response as soon as possible.
The Pragmatic Purpose
Although marital challenges are prevalent among Native couples, such problems have rarely been addressed during half a millennium of missional endeavors. Native American Marriage Enhancement (NAME) understands that conventional marital teachings cannot solve complex communication problems. While the wars of earlier centuries contributed to the decimation of Native families, gaming and urbanization are factors impacting them today. Native marital problems often stem from poor educational opportunities in the area of communication.
Although the focus of NAME is on solutions, the motivation to apply these teachings is up to workshop attendees and those who access the NAME Web site. Workshop participants who provide NAME with e-mail addresses are contacted as soon as materials are posted. The complete texts of all workshop teachings are made freely available on the site.
Teaching opportunities for qualified Natives help to develop leadership skills. NAME workshop teachers are carefully selected according to their areas of expertise. Ten ground-rules for NAME instructors have been adopted:
- NAME faculty will be organized, prepared and good managers of the time allotted for their presentations. They will strive for relevance and keep objectives clearly in view. All handouts must be meaningful and motivational.
- Because Natives are often taught condescendingly by outsiders, some participants may be on their guard. No trace of paternalism is allowed.
- Because NAME workshops focus on communicative skills, instructors will model these skills in their presentations. Good rapport will be established,
maintained, and the interest of attendees will be stimulated. Team members will express genuine enthusiasm regarding participant achievement of improved marital communicative skills.
- Respect and sensitivity concerning ethnicity, age and gender will be demonstrated at all times.
- Instructors will remain sensitive to trigger-words with potentially offensive overtones. Such terms include “Injuns, red men, chief, squaw and papoose.” All stereotypical characterizations are strictly avoided.
- Team members will be approachable, accessible and pro-actively engage participants both inside and outside the classroom.
- Because missional work among Natives is first and foremost a deliverance ministry, team members will be spiritually prepared to pray with participants.
- Natives love storytelling and expect instructors to use this teaching tool. Team members are encouraged to tell human-interest stories to illustrate their points.
- A great deal of despair, frustration and defeatism have been handed down to Natives. Team members must display optimism as they teach, interface, and answer questions.
- Because obedience to the Holy Spirit is essential to successful marriages, team members are encouraged to be sensitive to the voice of the Spirit in all facets of workshop preparation, presentation and participant interaction.
NAME faculty pray as they plan, keeping at bay the spiritual forces that resist all forms of Christian education on reservations. Instructors pray before presentations, and enter each workshop with determination. They are unbiased concerning gender, age, and ethnicity while remaining tactful, courteous, respectful, and sensitive. Faculty members initiate meaningful dialogue, encouraging freedom of expression. Sensitivity and appreciation of the uniqueness of each couple are key factors in the continuing success of NAME.
The Ultimate Goal
Effective teaching in Native communities in the new century demands innovative missional strategies. NAME offers workshops that motivate Native couples to continually consult God’s Word for answers to marital concerns. However, marital workshops are limited by the time allotted to present them. Because it is not bound by time or demographics, the backbone of NAME is its Web site. Downloads from the site will increase as Native couples benefiting from these studies encourage others to access them. The NAME team believes NativeMarriage.com will continue to grow in proportion to the spiritual needs of those who apply these teachings. NAME has both the vision and the resources to transform its missional vision into reality.
New teachings for NAME workshops are continuously being developed. NAME stays in touch with Native leaders in order to pinpoint culturally-sensitive marital issues. Consultations with Native pastors help prioritize topics which can be developed into on-line articles. The vision of NAME includes posting hundreds of Biblical, marital, and cultural studies in the years ahead. Relevant on-line teachings will alert Native couples of contemporary problems threatening marital happiness and offer solutions.
NAME will build bridges pioneer missionaries did not have the materials to construct. Motivational workshops are allowing NAME to break new ground with innovative missional genre. As Natives transition into the new century, NAME endeavors to help couples fine tune their marital visions. NAME will pro-actively propel its vision into the future, not by safeguarding existing missional techniques, but by providing pragmatic electronic resources for Natives in the new millennium.
Because NAME studies are freely available and user-friendly, this ministry continues to gain credibility throughout Native America. Our Web site allows NAME to access and influence thousands of Native homes and families. As NativeMarriage.com teachings are applied, these Biblical, marital and cultural studies will benefit couples worldwide.
In the final analysis, only the Spirit of God can prompt, motivate, and direct Christian couples to improve their communicative skills. While no marriage is perfect, the Holy Spirit is perfect. The more obediently a couple listens to the voice of the Spirit, the more successful their marriage will be.
Native American Marriage Enhancement is treading an uncharted path, for no missional endeavor before has specifically targeted the enrichment of Native marriages. The clarity of our focus stems from the knowledge that only born-again, Spirit-filled Christians can enjoy the full benefits of marriage. Because the vision of NAME is crystal clear, its future is bright. NAME is determined to assist couples to build both their faith and their marital skills. Through empowered marriages, Native couples are motivated to seek the source of that power—the Lord Jesus Christ.