Wind River, Wyoming is a reservation with incredible people, plagued by two heartbreaking issues: post-colonialism and meth.
It’s the fifth largest Native American reservation by population. Almost 27,000 people live on the reservation, and around 12,000 of them are from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. The community has a horrific colonial history. In the past, Natives were dispossessed from their land, forced to assimilate, ripped away from their families, and had to watch their culture be destroyed. While they’ve managed to revive and keep their rich traditions alive today, the legacy of colonialism has led to generations of poverty, alcoholism, crime, and broken homes.
It was a perfect target for drug-ring leaders.
Between 2000 and 2006, meth took a stronghold of the Wind River reservation. Drug possession increased by 163%, spousal abuse 218%, and child neglect 131%. Meth contacts in IHS facilities rose by a whopping 250%. Over fifteen years later, the Northern Arapaho Tribe Counsel says it hasn’t gotten significantly better. In 2020, they declared a state of emergency over meth use.
This is the reservation where Allen and Mirjam Peil minister. They plant house churches, serve the homeless, do bible studies in their home and rehab centers, and write letters to prisoners. They aren’t Native American themselves, but their goal is to raise up indigenous leaders from within the community and eventually support them in the background.
From the Alps to the River
Allen Peil was born and raised in Wyoming, not too far from Native Americans. Mirjam grew up in Switzerland. If you had to guess which one them has had a heart for Wyoming Native Americans since childhood, you would probably be wrong.
Mirjam grew up in a Christian home and was saved at an early age. Her parents would regularly take in alcoholics which gave her a heart for people suffering. She’s always known she wanted to be a missionary, and one day a missionary who worked with Native Americans in Wyoming visited her church in Switzerland. She immediately felt called to go there. During her apprenticeship, she lived in Wyoming and worked with Native Americans in jails and detox clinics.
Mirjam married Allen and they lived in Switzerland for a few years. They felt God calling them back to the US to do ministry, but Allen believed his wife would be working with Natives while he did vocational work. He didn’t have the same heart for Natives that Mirjam had. Although he was saved at a young age, like most of the people around him, he grew up apathetic towards Natives and their struggles. But when they moved to Wyoming, the Lord called Allen to be an assistant/youth pastor at his old church, and he surrendered. As he pastored, Mirjam’s passion for the Natives grew, and it sparked something in him. Doors kept opening and eventually, Mirjam and Allen entered full-time mission work with the Wind River reservation.
Three months later, covid hit. The three indigenous leaders that were joining them on this endeavor passed away.
Life on the Reservation
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes are no longer considered unreached, but Allen disagrees. “Most of the institutional churches on this reservation have shut down. I know of one church plant,” he says. Sadly, the western church style has failed many Native Americans. They often associate church with institutionalized pain and a cold atmosphere. That’s why the Peils plant house churches. Natives are family focused and more comfortable in them. To them, it’s more culturally relevant to meet around food. On Sunday mornings, they invite people to join them for a meal later at their house church. Many of the Natives prefer having church at night.
Currently, they have two house churches. One meets on Thursdays with an Arapaho family and is called PBJ Church – pizza, bible, Jesus Church. The Peils see that one as an evangelist effort because apart from the mom, the family isn’t saved. The other meets on Monday mornings and is more discipleship oriented. Most of the Peils contacts come from the bible studies they do in treatment centers a couple of nights a week. They also hand out clothes and toiletries to those in need once a month.
Like mentioned above, the community has many problems. A typical household can have multiple substance abuse issues. Many families have several fathers, and a lot of children are raised by their relatives or siblings because their parents are out looking for drugs, leaving them vulnerable. “I don’t have a friend here who doesn’t have some sort of history with sexual or physical abuse,” says Mirjam. Unsolved murders and missing people are common. In 2012, it was considered one of the most dangerous reservations in America. When the Obama administration increased Wind River’s officers from six to thirty-seven, crime actually surged by 7%. At the time, life expectancy in that area was forty-nine.
Native History and the Gospel
The U.S. originally promised the Arapaho their own reservation, but after the army defeated the tribe at the Sandcreek Massacre, the Arapaho were ordered to share land with the Shoshone. This led to resentment because the land the Shoshone were promised has gotten smaller over time. While this may seem like old history, the tension between these tribes has resulted in gangs, and inter-marriages have led to family feuds. “Even the homeless people are segregated,” adds Mirjam.
Understanding the history of this reservation plays an important part in giving the gospel. While may are open to having a spiritual conversation with the Peils, the past hurts of war, colonization, and missionary abuse almost always come up. This goes beyond just recalling the numerous broken treaties between them and the government. The older generation can personally remember being taken away from their parents and forced into boarding schools. In these schools, they were ordered not to speak their mother tongues, had their names changed, and had their long hair cut short. The cutting of hair has a deep cultural significance for them because it’s an act of mourning. They were forced to forsake their heritage and convert to Christianity.
“Many missionaries have come to native tribes and failed because they gave them a White man’s gospel and didn’t want them to be Native anymore,” explains Mirjam. The Peils often explain to Natives that they aren’t preaching a “White gospel” or “White Christianity,” but are basing everything they believe off the bible, which is reverent in Native American religion.
Although Allen and Mirjam have been missionaries to these tribes for two years, they are praying for indigenous leaders to rise. “We didn’t grow up in that culture. Indigenous leaders already know their culture and how Jesus is a part of that picture,” Mirjam says. Allen adds, “We’re cross-cultural missionaries who want to create a self-replicating house church network. We’re looking for leaders for their own people, who can then go and evangelize to their own people, start house churches, and train leaders on their own. Cross-cultural evangelism is difficult. It takes a long time to develop trust, whereas an indigenous leader doesn’t have that issue from the get-go.”
There are family members and people in the nearby town, Riverton, who don’t understand Native American ministry outreach. Allen can’t help but see similarities to how the Jews treated the Samaritans in the bible. It hasn’t deterred them. They’re working with a few couples to figure out how they can put their ministry skills together to serve the community more. They’ve been able to network and partner with other Missions Door missionaries in Native ministry and are using Mission Door’s resources to train leaders in a non-western format.
We are incredibly proud to support Allen and Mirjam in their much-needed ministry in the United Stated. Pray that God raises up indigenous leaders in Wind River, and support them at their page here.
How Can You Help
The Great Commission is what spurs us to do indigenous ministry. Around the world, Christians are making disciples in their hometowns and bringing the gospel to their people. How will you be a part of that?