An honest retelling of the interactions between European Christians and Native Americans in the land we know today as North America is fraught with the horrific realities of genocide, colonialism, and racism, often done in the name of Christ.
What was often framed in terms of “evangelism” and “mission” towards the Native American people were truly acts of patronization and cultural imperialism with pious flair. Native Americans who did convert to the Christian faith often did so on the condition of cultural assimilation—they had to shed their Native culture and traditions in order to be fully included among the people of God. Necessary work needed to be developed on what it meant to be a Native American follower of Jesus without throwing out Native culture and prioritizing European culture.
It’s in this context that Richard Leo Twiss, Tayoate Ob Najin (“He stands with his people”) entered the scene and brought about profound developments in what it meant to be a proud Native American confessing Jesus Christ. Twiss was born on June 11, 1954 to parents in South Dakota. His father was an enrolled member of the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation and his mother was from the Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Twiss’s family history was familiar with various forms of “Indian Mission Schools” and “Native American Boarding Schools” that tried to remove Native American culture, language, and traditions for the sake of “evangelism” and “mission.”
“I am a follower of Jesus, though I would not call myself a Christian,” Twiss once profoundly remarked. After living in the Rosebud Sioux Reservation for the foundational years of his adolescence, Twiss and his family relocated to Silverton, Oregon in 1962. It was there that Twiss came face-to-face with what it meant to live as a Native American in a White world.
In 1972, Twiss famously participated in the American Indian Movement’s forced occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office Building in Washington, D.C. The movement had been protesting the U.S. government’s long history of breaking treaties with Native peoples. At this point in his life, Twiss saw Christianity and the history of European oppression of Native peoples as virtually one and the same, and with good reason.
Following this pivotal moment in his life, Twiss went on a long spiritual search, inquiring into various religions. In 1974, while hitchhiking in Maui, Hawaii, Twiss was picked up by two Evangelical Christians who shared the gospel with him. Initially outraged with what he saw as an imposition of “the White man’s religion,” Twiss later recalled the words of these same Evangelical Christians during a drug overdose, and it was at this point that he considered himself a follower of Jesus.
Twiss went on from this point to pastor a community church in Vancouver, Washington for over a decade and then founded Wiconi International in 1997 with his wife, Katherine. The goal of Wiconi International was to provide a message of reconciliation, community, and spirituality. Twiss was an educator at heart, writing several books on what it meant to be a Native American follower of Jesus, teaching numerous workshops, trainings, and lectures on diversity, and serving on various leadership roles. He is most famous for Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way and One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.
Near the end of his life, which was cut short by a sudden heart attack on February 6, 2013, Twiss began to focus on local ministry to the Native community in the Portland, Oregon area. Twiss is most well-known for his sincere desire to live out his Christian faith without stripping himself of his Native culture and calling Christians of all cultures and backgrounds to the same. Twiss was known for regularly leading worship with powwow drumming, singing, and dancing in traditional Native clothing and regalia. The boldness by which Twiss would worship Jesus Christ in the fullness of his identity as a Native American inspired many, both from Native and non-Native backgrounds.
For more information about Richard Twiss’s life and impact, please read a biography featured on Christianity Today, Twiss’s own retelling of his faith journey, and an interview with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah who wrote a chapter on Twiss’s impact on him as a mentor in Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice.