Indigenous Veterans Day (Nov. 8) is a day of remembrance in Canada to recognize, commemorate and remember the sacrifices of Indigenous peoples in service to Canada.

In Canada, the military service of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people has deep roots. And, in the United States, Native American and Alaska Native people serve in the U.S. armed services at a higher rate than any other group. While many Indigenous veterans experienced and still experience profound discrimination and are denied many of the benefits given to other veterans, some view their service as part of reclaiming their culture and traditions and are actively working to help veterans in need.

NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community honors those members of the Learning Community who have served, including NAIITS faculty member and Indigenous Pathways board member Leonard “Casey” Church.

Casey is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi of Southwest Michigan, and his Potawatomi name is Ankwawango, which means “Hole in the Clouds.” He is also called an ogitchida, meaning “warrior,” for his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Casey served from 1980 to 1984 in active military, and then from 1984 to 1986 in the Marine Corps Reserves, achieving the rank of E-5 sergeant. He also served as a vehicle mechanic in the 2nd Medical Battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. While in the USMC, Casey attended religious services and made connections with various chaplains, which inspired him later to work at the chaplains’ office at the veterans’ hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He assisted with the sweat lodge ceremonial area on its campus, providing prayer and healing ceremonies for veterans.

In addition to his service, Casey teaches about Indigenous spirituality and formation with NAIITS and pastors Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, where he lives with his wife, Lora Church, a member of the Navajo Nation. Good Medicine Way is a contextual ministry designed to minister to the urban Native American community in Albuquerque.

Read more about Good Medicine Way here and about Casey's military service, his faith as a Potawatomi follower of Jesus and his journey with NAIITS, below.

Why do you believe so many Indigenous peoples join the armed services? 

Casey: I think the desire to join the military began, as I call it, “B.C.” or “before contact” with white culture and settlers. We had warrior societies, and their job was to protect and preserve and care for and defend their communities, their people, their families.

We have the military now on the land Native people are a part of — this Turtle Island we call Canada, the United States and Mexico. If we’re fought against, we step up to fight for ourselves because we are part of this land and part of this country. Even though we didn’t have citizenship in some of those wars, we still stepped up to fight for this land. In our communities, it’s quite an honor to serve as a veteran, and they’re looked at and highly respected. And it’s a position that in many clans — not all — is a position of being a defender of the community.

So joining the military was just a natural outflow for Native men. Because of contact, we have lost a lot of our connections to our traditional ways, and the military has been helpful to help fulfill the positions we used to have in our communities before contact.

How has your service impacted your ministry at Good Medicine Way and at NAIITS?

Casey: In the early days of my work in contextual ministry, after my time in the military service, I felt a calling to serve my Native community. The white, Western forms of religious ministry were, in my opinion, not meeting the spiritual needs of the Natives in Grand Rapids, Michigan; therefore, I asked the leadership of the United Methodist Church if I could start a ministry to reach out to this segment of the Grand Rapids community. I was told I could not because I was not an ordained minister. This response really bothered me, so I started a meeting anyways.

Stepping up to serve my community has always been my desire. Religious and spiritual leadership in the Native community is not controlled by a denomination. The Potawatomi word Banai means “spiritual leader” and is a recognized position placed on a person because of the life they live and the example they set. It is a respected position and comes with great responsibility. I am recognized as a Banai, and I am humbled to serve as one.

This ministry start in Grand Rapids was called All Tribes Gathering. It became a success and was the beginning of my learning for the work God would lead me into in the future. During this season, I began to work with Richard Twiss and travel with him and Terry LeBlanc with their Many Nations One Voice (MN1V) conferences, where I was able to share my contextualized rituals and ceremonies. These two leaders and others started NAIITS — then, the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies — although during this time I was busy with All Tribes Gathering. Later, I joined up with NAIITS in the beginning years of creating Indigenous Pathways and eventually became a board member.

I consider Richard and Terry my spiritual brothers and “spiritual warriors,” so serving with these two warriors fit my desire to serve our Native people and communities perfectly. They became family. I served together with Richard with Wiconi International, where I was asked to help begin the Wiconi Family Camp and Powwow in Turner, Oregon, in 2001 and served for the next 22 years. Contextual families came together at this camp, and our children all grew up together. We became family. Richard and I became uncles, and Katherine and Lora became aunties. This “family feeling” is what started NAIITS to be what it is today. I hope that we can continue to grow by becoming close family, and that the growth of NAIITS as an organization makes this a priority.

As NAIITS has grown, the need for contextual ministries has also grown. As a result, Lora and I have started what has become known as Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In military terms, we have become an “outpost” where Indigenous ministry is needed the most. During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of Natives peoples were relocated to the urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York in the United States and Winnipeg, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. These cities are some of the biggest mission fields for Native ministries. Good Medicine Way has taken up this challenge to create an example for other to follow on how to begin a contextual ministry in an urban center.

We have come a long way in our work in contextual ministry, and this is only the beginning. I would like to stay in the work as long as I can, but getting older is making it harder to do the work I would like to see done. Many workers are needed to do this work. God has used Lora and I to break down many of the barriers and lead to way for others to follow where they can learn from us and others who are doing contextual work.

Can you talk about your journey toward living more fully and freely as an Indigenous follower of Jesus?

Casey: Well, my journey started back in 1988 in my church where I grew up. It was a Methodist church, but it was mostly led by a Native pastor, my uncle.

Something I grew to notice over time that I wasn’t fully aware of in my younger years was the church was totally denying who I was outside the church in my Native community. This sense of feeling my Native identity was not accepted really started to hit me as I watched my cousins and their families, who were following more traditional ways. If they came to church, the doors were a barrier to who they were outside and had to become inside. You couldn't bring the drum, the feathers, the dance, anything Native or your spirituality in those past those doors.

This unacceptance really bothered me in my teens, which set me on a track to where I just finally made a decision that this has got to change. My call to ministry led me to live more freely as an Indigenous follower of Christ as, in the words of Scripture, I can now worship Christ “in spirit and in truth,” with the biggest truth being that I am a Native person who worships Creator God.

How has this impacted your reading of the Bible and how you think of yourself as a follower of Jesus?

Casey: One of the issues I started to grapple with whenever I would read Scripture was I would notice how the majority of the text seemed to be more about Native culture than about white, Western church culture. The stories of Scripture were lived out by people of the earth and people connected to land. So I was reading the Bible with what I call my Indigenous eyes; for example, when I was in school studying for my doctoral dissertation, I was looking at how ancient Israel used incense just as Native Americans use incense. I see how Scripture connects to our people and how it speaks to me in my values, vernacular, and speaks to me in my heart language.

For the last five and a half years, we've been doing this ministry called Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, and it's a beginning church plant to do something that hasn't been done in this area ever. Within the United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, there has never been a ministry or a congregation for Native American people in the city limits, even though the Native population in Albuquerque city limits is one-tenth of the population.

Good Medicine Way is showing that Jesus is good medicine. We've created Indigenous expressions of the order of worship. We moved away from the non-biblical clergy-laity split to being more of a "priesthood of all believers" ministry. We have a different speaker every week, and we always have a time for question and response after the message. It is this time of interaction we feel is making the most growth in those attending our unique approach, where we share in-person, virtual Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube Live formats simultaneously. We began this approach due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced us to be creative and venture into the new virtual meeting world.