Native American Christianities

views updated


NATIVE AMERICAN CHRISTIANITIES . Heretofore scholars have not fully appreciated the rich variety and complex textures of Christian beliefs and practices among Native Americans. Specialists of indigenous religions largely have left the study of Native Christianity to missions historians. Historians of missions, in turn, lacking the linguistic and ethnographic training to otherwise interpret the subtleties, have understood Native Christianity largely as the straightforward outcome of missionary intentions and efforts. But a broader examination of the range of ways that different Native communities have variously engaged the missionaries' message and a more focused examination of how Native people have improvised locally on the missionary tradition suggest that the Christian tradition thus engaged bears consideration not simply as a subset of missiology or church history but as a Native American religious tradition among other Native American religions. The attempt here will be to briefly remark on the circumstances of the missions if only to underscore the ironic nature of the outcome: the transformations and improvisations through which various Native peoples have made the beliefs and practices of the tradition their own. A range of contemporary concerns facing Native Christians will also be surveyed.

The variousness of Native Christianities is due, in part, to the great diversity of aboriginal Native religions. The United States has recognized within its borders more than five hundred distinct Native tribes, speaking more than two hundred different first languages. Generalizations across the diversity of these traditions are often more facile than they are helpful, for each tribal religion has been tied to a variety of traditional lifeways on a variety of landscapes and invokes a variety of symbols of the sacred, each with a complexity and sophistication of its own.

That said, one can be sure of one commonality: along with the shared experience of colonization and Christian missionization, each Native community has shared the consequent burden of balancing continuity of tradition with the cultural and religious changes necessary to adapt to those colonizing realities. Whether such religious changes are best encapsulated as conversion, consolidated resistance, revitalization, or hybridity, they were all shaped by social, political, economic, and environmental realities even as they were formed by internal factors, such as visions, beliefs, and a need for meaning making.

Even these colonial realities, however, are diverse in themselves. Native communities in what became the United States have operated under nearly three hundred different treaties and have been missionized by nearly every institutional branch of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christianity. The meeting of a diverse group of aboriginal religions with a diverse group of Christian missionaries produced a bewildering range of idiosyncratic Native Christianities, but as Bonnie Sue Lewis has observed, this is not simply due to the diverse missionary encounters that missions historians have long noted; it also results from what indigenous Americans variously did with the Christian beliefs and practices exchanged in missionary encounters. And here one finds the key pattern that gives shape to the range of idiosyncratic Native Christianities. To varying degrees, depending on relative levels of autonomy, all Native Christians have been active agents in their religious histories. In paying attention to how they made the Christian tradition their own, one finds that these communities often have drawn resourcefully on their indigenous traditions and idioms not so much to translate Christianity but to transpose the narratives and practices of the Christian tradition into distinctive idioms and structures of Native religions, oftentimes in ironic relation to the intentions of European American missionaries. For this reason, consideration of the fuller diversity and texture of Native Christianities cannot content itself with the history of missions proper, though of course it must begin there.

Roots in Missionary Contact

From the sixteenth century on, European economic, geopolitical, and colonial designs on North America were often conjoined with missionary designs. Missionaries were often in full complicity with other colonizing interests; sometimes they were in considerable tension. Similarly some missionaries were more invested than others in yoking cultural revolution to adherence to Christian practices, beliefs, and communities. Still, as George Tinker has importantly observed, whatever their intentions, missionaries of all denominations were "partners" in cultural "genocide," complicit in, if not directly responsible for, "the effective destruction of a people by systematically or systemically (intentionally or unintentionally in order to achieve other goals) destroying, eroding, or undermining the integrity of the culture and system of values that defines a people and gives them life" (Tinker, 1993, pp. 4, 6). Several examples, though by no means exhaustive, will perhaps be suggestive of the range of possibilities.

In the high Valley of Mexico claimed as New Spain in the 1520s, while some Spaniards questioned to what degree Indians were human, Dominican friars with millennial expectations imagined the promise of ideal Christian communities among peoples they took to be innocent noble savages as yet untainted by Europe's vices. By the early seventeenth century, Franciscan friars associated with explorers in what would become the American Southwest had established a network of mission stations in and around Santa Fe on the upper Rio Grande and later along the California coast, baptizing many and making often-divisive inroads in Native communities, even as European disease and compulsory labor were fragmenting them. In 1680 a movement known as the Pueblo Revolt gathered people of various eastern Pueblos under the direction of Popé, a visionary prophet, killed many of the missionaries and drove the Spaniards from the region for a time. Diminishing attention to the North by Spanish authorities and later those of Mexico, from the mideighteenth century to its absorption into the United States in 1848, meant that Christians in the various Pueblos were left relatively free of clerical control and thus could articulate Christian practices and beliefs in their own idiom.

In the fur-trading region claimed as New France, Catholic missionaries worked among communities speaking Algonkian and Iroquoian languages from the 1630s on. Jesuits certainly carried European assumptions about savagery and civilization, but they also studied Native languages and ceremonial customs assiduously and accommodated many Native practices in their effort to extend the Sacraments. In important respects, celibate priests identified themselves, and were so identified, with the healers and shamanic ritual specialists in Native communities with whom they consciously competed in ceremonial displays. With time, Jesuits came to view such aboriginal traditions more as obstacles than as conduits to the Christian faith. After the expulsion of Jesuits from North America in 1763, however, these Native communities, like the Native peoples of New Spain, were largely free of clerical control and enjoyed considerable autonomy in the shaping of their faith (Vecsey, 1997, pp. 2326).

In the Pacific fur-trading region claimed as New Russia, from the late eighteenth century on, Orthodox priests with even more pronounced liturgical proclivities promoted the faith among Tlingit and other coastal peoples, less concerned with fomenting a complete cultural revolution than with incorporating Native peoples into the sacramental community.

In New England missionaries took a more Protestant viewand one more consistent with settler coloniesthat the process of becoming Christian necessitated a demonstrable inner conversion that would be manifested not only in professed Christian belief but also in demonstrable radical cultural conversion. To be sure, even Protestant missionaries took a variety of positions on the precise relationship between Christianity and culture and did not uniformly preach the "gospel of soap." Moravians, Mennonites, and Quakers could point to considerable continuities between Native communal commitments and the Christian life. Still, with the Protestant insistence on a rigorous inner religious life, becoming Christian for some bespoke radical change away from aboriginal custom.

Native Transformations of Belief and Practice

If the degree to which Native Christians could shape missionary Christianity varied, depending on missionaries' commitments to other colonizing interests, to wedding the faith with cultural change, and to developing a Native clergy, amid varying circumstances of dispossession and disease, Native Christianities as a whole developed at a considerable, often ironic, distance from the missionaries' intentions. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox missionaries alike were left to scrutinize the sincerity of professed conversions; although prone to welcome any signs that their efforts were bearing fruit, they remained conspicuously uneasy with hybrid practices, which they often considered to be evidence of backsliding.

In any case, one ought to question, following Kenneth Morrison, the worth of "conversion" as an analytical term in any discussion of Native Christianities. In the seventeenth century, for example, Montagnais/Naskapi, Micmac, and Huron/Wendat peoples were surely changed by their encounters with Jesuits in New France, and Native Americans affiliated with the missions stood in no small tension with fellow tribes people. But the Sacraments, especially baptism and extreme unction, that Jesuits proffered and the notion of God that Jesuits preached were transformed in Native religious idioms that focused on the cosmological centrality of sacred power, where the workings of power mattered more than the orthodoxies of abstract theology. Here "religious change" rather than conversion better describes the way the power accessed through Christianity was embraced by those left with "religious uncertainty" in light of disease and concomitant social chaos (Morrison, 2002, pp. 131, 145).

Having developed largely outside the discipline of Euro-American clergy, Catholicism in the upper Rio Grande Pueblos has brought traditional seasonal corn dances and ceremonials into hybrid forms intermingled with devotion to Christian saints. In Cochiti Pueblo, for example, on the feast day of its patron saint, deer heads and conifer boughs adorn an arbor at one end of the Pueblo's plaza housing an image of the saint along with the Franciscan brother and village elders, as the brother and the elders preside over drummers, dancers, Kiva society members, and "sacred clowns" performing ancient indigenous dances of thanksgiving for corn.

Among Native people missionized by Protestants, such transformations are typically subtler, sprouting between the cracks of missionary discipline concerning the congruence of the Christian gospel and Euro-American culture. Still, they are significant for their indication that even here Native Christians could assert some degree of agency in the creation of their own traditions. Given the intentions of Baptist and Methodist missionaries among the Mississippi Choctaw, the historian Clara Sue Kidwell finds it ironic that mission churches and schools became havens for the sustained public practice of distinctive Choctaw traditions and core values. "Choctaws took advantage of mission churches," she writes, "as places where they could congregate and be themselves, where they could speak their own language and visit and play stickball, with its attendant gambling and drinking" (Kidwell, 2001, p. 183).

Among the Ojibwas (known to some scholars as Ojibwe), missionaries of various Protestant persuasions in the western Great Lakes began in the 1830s to vigorously promote the singing of hymns translated into the Native tongue. The Ojibwas, they learned, were more interested in the singing of songs than in the reading of translated Scripture or listening to unwieldy sermons through a translator. But pedagogical theory of the era understood hymnody to be a particularly useful tool in the moral education of children, and missionaries, having construed their Ojibwa charges to be like children, promoted and disciplined Native hymnody as a tool for eradicating Ojibwa culture and planting the seeds of Christian civilization. For their part, Ojibwas who affiliated with the Episcopalian missionor more precisely with the Native clergy and lay sodalities (religious associations) nurtured in part by the mission itselfsang hymns in ways that betokened an indigenized Christianity shaped but not determined by the mission.

While there are occasional references in the missionary record to hymnody in worship, the ritualized singing of which missionaries frequently wrote belonged far from the mission church in the semiautonomous spaces of Ojibwa homes, in all-night prayer meetings and funeral wakes. Missionaries hastened to applaud this development, but they also noted that the ritualized nature of this singing placed it, along with other funerary practices, quite outside their discipline. Hymn singing was ritualized, the province of sodalities of men and women respectively, led by elders, in deathbed scenes or in all-night funeral wakes. By the late twentieth century, on certain Minnesota reservations, such ritualized hymn singing by groups of elders was considered by manyeven many non-Christian Ojibwasas a "traditional" rite of mourning, fully Christian but also fully Ojibwa (McNally).

The Tlingit communities of Southeast Alaska also sing Native-language hymns associated with Presbyterian missionaries of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. But before the Presbyterians came, most Tlingits had become incorporated into the Christian faith by Russian Orthodox priests whose liturgical tradition, especially after the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia, paid far less attention to repressing any continuities of Tlingit culture within Tlingit Christian practice, particularly elements of the elaborate funerary ritual complex known commonly as the potlatch. Indeed as Sergei Kan finds in Memory Eternal, the Orthodox emphasis on the ongoing relations between the living and the dead and the elaborate ritualizing around death and mourning allowed Tlingits to assign "their own meanings to Orthodox symbols" and to make Orthodoxy "meaningful to them without deviating in any major way [from] Orthodox ritual practice" (Kan, 1999, p. 419). By the late twentieth century, even non-Orthodox Tlingits would categorize the elaborate Orthodox ceremonies of the forty-day funerary feast as "traditional" Tlingit activities.

One should also note a wide range of important religious transformations that drew on and improvised on Christian practices and beliefs (especially those concerning heaven and hell) in light of indigenous traditions but distinctively through the authority of visionary prophetssuch as Handsome Lake (17351815) among the Seneca or Smohalla (c. 18151895) among the peoples of the Plateau in Washington Territory, whose Indian Shaker religion continues to the early twenty-first centuryand the peyotist traditions of the Native American Church. These movements ought to be classified as new religious movements rather than as Native Christianity, given that their center of gravity lay not in Christian narratives and institutions but in the charismatic authority of prophets or in the transformative power of ritual as in the Native American Church.

Surely one can find many examples of more straightforward conversions among Native people that represent an utter discontinuity between traditional and Christian beliefs and practices, but the previous examples suggest that a consideration of Native Christianity cannot content itself with the history of missionaries and their intentions.

Issues of Interpretation

Scholarly reappraisals of Native Christianity in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have focused on what Native peoples did with the beliefs and practices that missionaries introduced. But they interpret the nature of those transformations in a variety of ways. Perhaps the idiosyncrasies of various Native Christianities themselves account for the range of interpretive frameworks. But by 2004 older models based on the concept of acculturation, through which Native culture systems, static and unified prior to contact, were seen to collide with Euro-American Christian ones and gradually to erode and acculturate, had yielded to more fluid models based on processual notions of culture. Interpretations based on the notion of acculturation could effectively account for the frequent violence and dispossession associated with culture change generally and Christianization in particular. But they could not account for the puzzling ways traditional practices and beliefs became woven tightly into the fabric of Native Christianity. At best these were seen as evidence of "syncretism," cultural aggregates pressed together by external circumstances but lacking stability or a logic of their own. Or alternatively they were seen as only nominally Christian, evidence really of disingenuous Native uses of Christian forms to promote an indigenous agenda.

By 2000 the literature had come to appreciate cultural change as something other than an oxymoron and had begun to attend seriously to the hybridity of Native Christianities. More importantly, this literature also may have begun to appreciate how at least some Native Christians remarkably have made their own a tradition whose missionary legacy had meant "continued bondage to a culture that is both alien and alienating, and even genocidal" (Tinker, 1993, p. 5). Building on Victor Turner's notion of the multivocality of religious symbols (see Kan) or Pierre Bourdieu's concept of the logic of practice as distinct from the logic of discursive thought (see McNally), some observers have noted that the indigenization of Christianity happens less through the more conventional discursive media of theology and creed and more in and through ritual practices that can more deftly address the potential contradictions of embracing a tradition associated with a colonizing history. For affirming an identity at once "Native" and "Christian" has posed considerable problems, social and existential, to Native Christians (see Treat).

Contemporary Native Christianities

Even if, as the Cherokee theologian William Baldridge has put it, "doing theology, thinking theologically, is a decidedly non-Indian thing to do," Native thinkers have begun in earnest to develop a Christian theology that incorporates distinctively Native religious idioms, just as indigenized Christian liturgical practices have incorporated traditional Native religious elements (Treat, 1996, p. 12). But these efforts often did not resemble formal theology; they were often local, collaborative endeavors, found in dialogues between Christian and "traditional" spiritual leaders or rooted in indigenous theological institutions (Vecsey, 1999). In 2001, however, Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George Tinker published A Native American Theology, revisiting the themes of systematic theology, such as creation, Christology, sin, and eschatology, and proposing new ones, like "land" and "trickster," in order to "create a dialogue in which Indian people can speak as equals to Christians," encouraging them to "recognize the uniqueness of their practices with regard to Christianity" and to challenge "Indian people to examine their beliefs" whereby "some may reaffirm their faith" and "others may decide to abandon churches in order to maintain their national ceremonial traditions in lieu of participation even in Indian Christianity" (Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker, 2001, pp. 34).

Implicit here is an observation that many Native Christians have not squared their Christianity with their traditional "Native" identities. To be sure, some Christian denominations, perhaps especially Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions growing quickly among Natives as among Americans as a whole, do not emphasize continuity between indigenous traditions and the Christian faith. Other denominations with missionary legacies, and notably the Roman Catholic Church since the theological and liturgical sea changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, have emphasized the "inculturation" of the gospel into the theological and ceremonial vernaculars of various Native traditions, have staged interreligious dialogues with non-Christian spiritual leaders, and have promoted indigenous leadership (see Vecsey; Peelman; Treat). Still, since the broad rekindling of traditional Native American religions from the 1970s on, many Native people, even the baptized, have imagined the terms Native and Christian to be mutually exclusive and have decidedly chosen not to affiliate with the beliefs, practices, and institutions of Native Christianity. Thus just as it was in the missionary heyday of the nineteenth century but even more fully as a result of Native peoples' improvisation on and transformation of the missionary tradition, a wide range of Native Christianities obtains in the early twenty-first century.

See Also

Black Elk; Wovoka.


Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York, 1985.

Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago, 1981.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Real People and the Children of Thunder: The Yup'ik Eskimo Encounter with Moravian Missionaries. Norman, Okla., 1991.

Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle, Wash., 1999.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 18181918. Norman, Okla., 1995.

Kidwell, Clara Sue, Homer Noley, and George Tinker. A Native American Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y., 2001.

Lewis, Bonnie Sue. Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Norman, Okla., 2003.

McLoughlin, William G. The Cherokees and Christianity, 17941870: Essays on Acculturation and Cultural Persistence. Athens, Ga., 1994.

McNally, Michael D. Ojibwa Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion. New York, 2000.

McNally, Michael D. "The Practice of Native American Christianity." Church History 69 (December 2000): 834859.

Morrison, Kenneth. The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Religious Encounter. Albany, N.Y., 2002.

Peelman, Achiel. Christ Is a Native American. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 1995.

Tinker, George. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Minneapolis, Minn., 1993.

Treat, James, ed. Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada. New York, 1996.

Vecsey, Christopher. On the Padres' Trail. Notre Dame, Ind., 1996.

Vecsey, Christopher. The Paths of Kateri's Kin. Notre Dame, Ind., 1997.

Vecsey, Christopher. Where the Two Roads Meet. Notre Dame, Ind., 1999.

Michael D. McNally (2005)

About this article

Native American Christianities

Updated About content Print Article


Native American Christianities