On a Sunday in June, Michael Tongkeamha wears a casual outfit, all black from head to toe. He stands tall at the pulpit next to Pastor JB Jackson at the Dallas Indian Mission United Methodist Church, the raised platform they share decorated with purple fleece blankets covered in a Native-inspired design, similar to ones sold at any powwow. Before them, some 40 congregants from at least 15 different Indigenous nations fill the wooden pews. Tongkeamha, the chair for the church’s board of trustees, is helping to lead service as a lay speaker, a member of the local church who is ready to serve—one of many that rotate at the church.
“Back home when we sing, they’ll just go around the room. We’ll start in this order here with Cherokee and have a Cherokee song,” he says, then pauses to look toward Jackson. “And pastor, we can have more than one Cherokee song?”
“Oh, of course!” responds Jackson, who wears a beaded medallion around his neck that hangs down his chest.
Tongkeamha is Kiowa, and a second generation relocatee who grew up in Dallas. Tongkeamha’s father came to Dallas through the Indian relocation program and never moved back home to Carnegie, Oklahoma.
“Dallas Indian Mission Church is a place for connections for me, for other Native people, while serving in worship and trying to understand exactly what our purpose in life might be,” Tongkeamha says. “It’s a wonderful place to just come and gather thoughts.”
Tongkeamha says he was a troubled youth, selfish well into his adulthood. Then, he went to Standing Rock in 2016 and had a spiritual awakening while at the resistance camps. He came back home to Dallas with a renewed purpose and commitment to be of service to his community, and found his way to the church. He doesn’t identify as a Christian, more spiritual, but a follower of Jesus’ principles as it aligns with Kiowa teachings. He sees Jesus as a person who gave his life for what he believed and for his people.
The church was founded in 1960; its first pastor was Bertram Bobb, from the Choctaw Nation, who preached out of a garage before finally settling into the current location in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. JB Jackson is only the second non-Native pastor for the church, and the 19th to serve.
In 1956, Congress passed the Indian Relocation Act, and the Dallas Indian Mission Church is braided into its impacts. During what’s known as the termination era, the federal government worked to move Indigenous people away from their communities and into cities in an attempt to assimilate Native people and eliminate reservations. At the time, a Native man could expect to make less than $700 a year living on his reservation, so with the promise of paid moving expenses, vocational training, good paying jobs, and health insurance, many Indigenous people were enticed, or coerced, into relocating to 10 cities: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dallas. By 1968, around 200,000 Indigenous people had moved to cities, and once there, they found that jobs were scarce, housing was insecure, and the promise of a better life they’d been given was a lie. Racism and segregation led to poverty and homelessness, and living away from family and community brought isolation and despair.
In Dallas, in the wake of relocation, the Dallas Indian Mission became a communal hub, a space for organizing and meeting. Community members at Dallas Indian helped establish the American Indian Center and the Dallas Indian Christian Center, which became the Urban Inter-Tribal Center of Texas—the only urban Indian health clinic in the state. Today, the church provides information on community resources, boxes of food, cultural programming for youth, and a meeting place for the Indigenous community in Dallas. Intertribal spaces like Dallas Indian have been integral for Indigenous people who moved to or grew up in the city. Today, 71 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native people live in urban areas.
The taking of land from Indigenous people, as well as the federal government’s relocation programs, have their roots in Christian doctrine that held the United States was destined by God to expand across the continent. Federal policy aimed at assimilating Native children through boarding schools was also rooted in Christian beliefs and typically enacted in concert with churches. Since May, researchers in Canada uncovered the remains of more than 700 Indigenous children buried on boarding school properties run by the Catholic Church. In the U.S., tribal nations have filed petitions with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in the hopes of forcing the federal government to account for children who went missing at boarding schools. This month, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the federal government would investigate oversight of Indian boarding schools, often run by Christian organizations and churches, in order to locate clandestine graves and identify lost children.
“Over time with Christianity, particularly with the European Christianity, they’ve used the book to their own satisfaction,” Tongkeamha says. “They took what they wanted out of it.”
The violent history of Christianity toward Indigenous people is not lost on Jackson. Even before the United Methodist Church apologized in 2016 for its role in colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples, Jackson started to advocate for a fund that all United Methodist Churches (UMC) in Northern Texas would put money into that would directly benefit Indigenous members and churches.
“It was nice for the United Methodist Church to say it was sorry, to apologize for all of the injustices but something substantial needed to be parallel with that apology,” he says. That resolution didn’t pass because of technical issues but the UMC continues to become more and more inclusive.
In urban areas like Dallas, the church is a place of cultural exchange and community despite its history as a colonizing force—a place where two things can be true at once.
At service, Tongkeamha opens up the space for tribal hymns, joking that he can sing a couple of songs in Kiowa if no one wants to volunteer or offer up a song. Jennifer Neal, who is enrolled Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and also Oklahoma Choctaw, volunteers and stands up, opening up the Choctaw hymnal she brought with her and singing a song in the language. She says she doesn’t speak Choctaw fluently but she’s learned to sing hymns in her language. Her soft voice fills the space.
Behind the congregants, on the back wall, is a bright, colorful mural by Damon Neal, who is Jicarilla Apache. Commissioned by Jackson, the mural is meant to replace the eurocentric Last Supper scene that used to hang on the wall, and make the congregation feel represented. The mural features the forms of three Native men in the clouds. The center of the painting reveals turquoise and forest green clouds framed in gold, like a pathway to heaven. Underneath the forms of the men are animals, also made from clouds, like buffalo and a fox, many of them significant to people from different Indigenous nations.
As Neal sings, many of the congregants sit, some with their heads bowed, as others sing-along. Then they sing hymns in Cherokee, then Creek, Choctaw, Comanche, Hebrew, and finally Kiowa.
Indigenous Affairs stories are produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.