Indigenous Episcopalians gather in Texas for annual Winter Talk conference

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jan 17, 2024

Attendees of Winter Talk 2024 gather for a group photo Jan. 14 at the Mustang Island Conference Center in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Shireen Korkzan/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service — Port Aransas, Texas] Episcopalians representing multiple Indigenous tribes throughout the United States and worldwide gathered in person and virtually Jan. 13-15 at the Mustang Island Conference Center in Port Aransas, Texas, for the annual Winter Talk conference.

“This endeavor strengthens our Indigenous community, which we then take with us back to our own communities,” said Forrest Cuch, a member of the Ute tribe and senior warden of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Whiterocks, Utah. “It’s just a wonderful time. It’s something we all look forward to. It’s incredible.”

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Indigenous Ministries organizes Winter Talk as a forum where participants can highlight their Indigenous traditions and contributions to the church. This year, 38 people participated in person and as many as 75 people participated via Zoom. Participants included priests, bishops, lay leaders and tribal elders. Every day of Winter Talk included morning and evening worship. Many participants prayed aloud in their native languages.

This year’s Winter Talk theme was “Indigenous Ways of Learning, Knowing and Relating.”

“Jesus had an Indigenous worldview … Indigenous people — our way of learning — is circular. It’s not linear,” the Rev. Bradley Hauff, a Lakota and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who serves as the church’s missioner for Indigenous ministries, said during his remarks opening the conference. “We see life as a lifelong learning experience.”

After Hauff spoke, participants created an altar — a table adorned with a handmade quilt and blessed beforehand by a tribal elder — by bringing forward items of significance to them personally, as well as their culture, tradition and ministry. Items included handmade jewelry, books and seashells. The Rev. Lauren Stanley, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of South Dakota, brought ashes from Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, which arsonists burned to the ground in October 2023. The historic church served Episcopalians on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Virtual participants, joining from Latin America, Africa and New Zealand, also symbolically offered items to the altar.

Cuch told Episcopal News Service that it’s important for Indigenous people to share their stories as a step forward to collectively heal.

“We must extend that up to greater communities, and the more we can share, the greater the interfacing with the international community,” he said.

During Winter Talk 2024 in Port Aransas, Texas, participants created an altar — a table adorned with a handmade quilt and blessed beforehand by a tribal elder— by bringing forward items of significance to them personally, as well as their culture, tradition and ministry. Items included handmade jewelry, books, seashells and ashes from Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, which arsonists allegedly burned to the ground in October 2023. Photo: Shireen Korkzan/Episcopal News Service

Every day of Winter Talk consisted of presentations addressing a range of topics, including a presentation from Alan Yarborough, church relations officer for the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, explaining the function of the office and the Episcopal Public Policy Network. During the presentation, Yarborough explained how the Office of Government Relations works with organization and coalition partners to address areas of concern in Indigenous communities, such as the alarmingly high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Other discussions included creation care efforts and the lasting harmful legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old theological and political doctrine used to justify colonization and the oppression of Indigenous people. General Convention passed a resolution officially repudiating the doctrine in 2009.

Several bishops from dioceses with significant Indigenous populations also participated in Winter Talk either in person or virtually. They offered words of encouragement and support for the Indigenous Episcopal communities.

“I stand here before you, extraordinarily grateful not just for your friendship,” South Dakota Bishop Jonathan Folts told Winter Talk participants in person. “Your relationship with each other in Jesus Christ, that’s tangible. I can touch that; I can feel that; I am emboldened by that, and I’m grateful for that.”

The Diocese of South Dakota is home to the largest Indigenous ministry in North America, serving the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, according to the diocese’s website.

Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray, who participated in Winter Talk virtually, informed attendees of the diocese’s ongoing reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people in the Upper Peninsula. On Jan. 26 and 27, during an event in Baraga, the diocese will launch “Walking Together Finding Common Ground,” a traveling exhibit that will take place alongside a local powwow gathering. During the launch, Ray will offer a formal public apology of Christian churches’ efforts to assimilate Native American children into the dominant white culture and erase Indigenous languages and cultures in boarding schools. Some children were forced to attend, while other families voluntarily sent their children to receive what often was the only formal education available. In many cases, students faced physical and mental abuse, even death. The intergenerational trauma caused by Indigenous boarding schools lingers today.

“I appreciate the work that’s been done by many people here in the Upper Peninsula, and we have lots more to do,” Ray said. “We’re just getting on with the healing process towards reconciliation, and we’ve got a way to go, but we are working towards them.”

The 80th General Convention created a fact-finding commission to research The Episcopal Church’s historic role in boarding schools, and Executive Council has a Committee for Indigenous Boarding Schools and Advocacy. The commission and the committee are meeting Jan. 17 and 18 at the Mustang Island Conference Center.

The Rev. Garth Howe, community/cultural liaison officer for Church Pension Group and a deacon in the Diocese of Chicago, shared CPG’s outreach initiative to establish a network of support for Indigenous clergy, many of whom are non-stipendiary, meaning they don’t earn a salary or receive health insurance.

“That’s why I’m here at this conference,” said Howe, who is of Oglala Sioux and Stockbridge ancestry. “I’m here personally to experience the good work around here … to make sure that the organization I represent here has the best understanding of the ins and outs of Indigenous thinking.”

In between presentations, the Rev. Bude VanDyke, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur, Alabama, and a part of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, played guitar and sang songs he wrote himself about pain, addiction, healing and hope for Indigenous communities. VanDyke told ENS that he picked up music after recovering from alcoholism more than 20 years ago.

“Even amid all of the institutional kind of stuff [with The Episcopal Church], what I’m interested in is this relationship with people that matter to me and knowing that I matter,” he said.

Winter Talk concluded with participants taking down the altar. Some people kept the items they shared while others gave their items away to fellow participants.

“We ended up inspiring each other, invigorating each other and building our faith together — our love and understanding,” Cuch said. “A lot of wonderful things came out of these meetings. We inspired each other with our stories, and we just shared everything that’s in our hearts.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at