When Europeans came to the new world, they brought their religion along with their old world culture, diseases, guns, technology, and lust for land. Until recent times, the dominant point of view was that in order to become Christians Native American would have to make major modifications to their religion, culture, and traditional institutions.
One theater where this story has unfolded is the vast and agriculturally rich Yakima Valley in central Washington, most of which lies within the Yakama Indian Reservation. A key player in the drama is the Yakama Christian Mission, which was founded in 1921 by members of First Christian Church in Yakima, with the strong assistance of that church’s national mission board. Among the original sponsors of the mission was Lucullus V. McWhorter, who was one of the region’s most ardent advocates of the rights of Yakama people.
When the Mission was founded, near the town of White Swan, only 3,500 people, almost all of them Native American, lived on the Reservation. For the first time, Indian children could enroll in public schools, and the Mission’s primary work was to provide boarding facilities for children whose families still followed their ancestral migratory patterns.
Today the population on the Reservation is ten times larger. Half of the people are Hispanic and there are more Whites than Indians. The Yakama Christian Mission has evolved and over the years has provided a wide range of religious and social service ministries to the people of this region.
One of the most successful of these ministries was Sundown M Ranch, an alcohol treatment program, which was begun on Mission property in 1968. In later years, it became an independent agency and relocated to its current location north of Yakima.
Under the leadership of David and Belinda Bell and Jill Delaney, the work of the Mission continues, with a special emphasis upon work educational ministries children and youth. The Log Church on the original mission location continues to be a program center, but the Mission’s work also takes place in other parts of the Reservation, including the Justliving Farm where the Bells live and which they use as a teaching location. The current work of the Yakama Christian Mission is depicted on its website and insights into its work are posted regularly on the Mission Journal.
I became interested in the history of the Mission while participating in a work-study seminar at Mission sites. The result is a book, A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission. The “heart of the story,” says Loretta Hunnicutt, Ph.D., is “the gradual evolution of the Mission from an ethnocentric emphasis on reeducation/acculturation to one of acceptance of Native America practices of Christianity.” The book can be purchased from its publisher, the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee. Hunnicutt says that “lovers of historical story-telling will be drawn by Watkins’ narrative style which details the birth and evolution of the Yakama Mission—one of the most sustained efforts to convert Native Americans and meet their physical needs as well.”