Native Americans: Response to Christianization

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Native Americans: Response to Christianization


On the Defensive. Despite the differences between the religious worlds of Euro- and Native Americans, there was no avoiding interaction. By the early nineteenth century the dynamic of religious contact was both aggressive and defensive, for the encroachment of white civilization coincided with a receding native confidence in the incontestible power of indigenous belief systems. Dispossession and removal had gradually undercut the ability of many native groups to assimilate change; involvement in trade and the consumption of alcohol, once seen as means to power, became corrosive cultural forces. Defeat in battle also opened the door to religious reexamination, leading to doubt in the efficacy of the old rituals, or to reproach for their neglect. Finally, disease often furnished the most devastating attack on Indian equilibrium. The advance guard of white settlement was often microbial, and waves of epidemics continued to ravage native populations throughout the nineteenth century. In 1837 smallpox nearly wiped out the Mandans entirely. In the next decade migration along the Oregon Trail carried cholera to the Great Plains, decimating the Lakotas and Cheyennes in particular.

Encounter with Christianity. Into this disordered universe came nineteenth-century Christianity. The Indians response to the white mans medicine was varied and often depended on local factorshow a certain tribe experienced disease, defeat, or removal, for instance, or how long a group was able to maintain autonomous relations with whites and therefore to resist unwanted elements of Euro-American culture. Many groups evinced an initial interest in the secrets of the Bible, or Great Book, and were willing to convert to learn about this new potential source of power. If the expected benefits did not materialize, one response was to reject the missionaries and turn hostile. In other cases the coincidence of a Christian representative with victory in battle, prophetic fulfillment, or healing was sufficient to win allegiance. However, this type of assimilation did not represent a shift in indigenous perception. The more substantive reactions to Christianity can be summarized as theological criticism, syncretism, and/or revitalization. All three might occur within a single group, generating community conflict as different factions arrived at different solutions for coping with disaster and change.

Theological Criticism. One criticism leveled against the exponents of Christianity decried the gap between how Christians behaved and what they preached. Writing in his 1833 autobiography, Sauk leader Black Hawk was embittered by his life-long experience with white deception and disparaged their standard of conduct: The whites may do bad all their lives, and then, if they are sorry for it when about to die, all is well! But with us it is different: we must continue throughout our lives to do what we conceive to be good. In a famous speech in 1828 Red Jacket of the Iroquois touched a sore point among Protestants in his comment on denominational divisions: You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do you not all agree, as you can all read the book? We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion. To counter the dogmatic certitude of the missionaries, several native spokesmen argued for a kind of cultural dualism, in which whites and Indians were intended to pursue their separate ways. As Black Hawk wrote, If the Great and Good Spirit wished us to believe and do as the whites, he could easily change our opinions, so that we would see, and think, and act as they do. Petalesharo, principal chief of the Pawnee Indians, registered these sentiments at a conference in Washington, D.C., in 1822, at which President James Monroe was present. The Great Spirit made us allhe made my skin red, and yours white; he placed us on this earth, and intended that we should live differently from each other. He made the whites to cultivate the earth, and feed on domestic animals; but he made us, red skins, to rove through the uncultivated woods and plains. We worship [the Great Spirit], but we worship him not as you do. We differ from you in our religion but still, my Great Father, we love the Great Spiritwe acknowledge his supreme powerour peace, our health, and our happiness depend upon him, and our lives belong to himhe made us and he can destroy us. If there was a purposeful design behind the divergent customs, then crossing over to anothers path would be contrary to the will of the Great Spirit. Although this stance seemed to offer a shield against insistent missionary overtures, its premise of polygenesisof separate origins for whites and Indianshad some dramatic implications. On the one hand it could serve as an argument for pan-Indianism: for setting aside tribal affiliations in favor of a unified Indian identity. On the other hand, by the Civil War polygenesis was also a position used by white racists to rationalize Indian oppression or extinction.

Kennekuks Religion

Kennekuk was a Kickapoo leader in the early nineteenth century whose band lived along the Vermilion River in present-day Illinois, Regarded as a prophet by his people, his religious teachings focused on reform through abstention from liquor and public whippings for backsliders. Kennekuks following drew from several neighboring groups, especially the Potawatomis. As many Native Americans succumbed to pressure to move voluntarily to an Indian territory beginning in the 1820s, Kennekuk managed to stave off removal for a decade. His strategy was a form of passive resistance, presenting himself as in agreement with relocation but unable to comply because of various practical obstacles. This adroit management of disadvantageous circumstances was also expressed in religious matters. Kennekuk evinced an interest in missionary overtures and asked Baptist Isaac McCoy to establish a school among his people. The Methodists eventually licensed the Kickapoo as a preacher. Finally, under the treaty of 1833, Kennekuks intertribal group had to move to a reserve in Indian Territory, as did most of the remaining indigenous peoples in the Old Northwest. At this new location Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians all came to call, competing for rights to mission work. Kennekuk assisted the Methodist missionary, and together they baptized about four hundred members of his community. As stipulated in the removal treaty, Kennekuk had his own church built in Indian Territory. Once it was completed, however, he allowed no one else to preach there, no doubt to the dismay of the missionaries. Kennekuk designed and conducted his own brand of Christian worship. McCoy visited in 1833 and reported that it was less Christian than ideas inherent in the religion of common wild Indians. On this occasion Kennekuk spoke for nearly three hours, pausing at specific points for set congregational chants. Flagellation continued to serve a penitential role in his religion. Later, the itinerant preacher Jane Livermore added a millennial edge to Kennekuks system: she declared that the end of the world was nigh because Napoleon Bonaparte was the Antichrist, but both she and the Kickapoos would be taken into heaven. Eventually Kennekuk proclaimed that he was the Indian Christ, just as Jesus had been the Son of God sent to the whites. In so doing, Kennekuk continued his unique brand of syncretism by merging Christianity with the theology of the two ways: that is, that Native and Euro-Americans each had to follow their own spiritual path.

Sources Robert A. Brightman, Toward a History of Indian Religion: Religious Changes in Native Societies, in New Directions in American Indian History, edited by Colin G. Calloway (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988);

George A. Schultz, An Indian Canaan: Isaac McCoy and the Vision of an Indian State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).

Syncretism. When tenacious adherence to the ancient ways seemed insufficient, some Indians chose to incorporate Christian rites and beliefs into their own framework. Syncretism did not indicate capitulation as much as an attempt to shore up Indian traditions with new materials. Religious incorporation became part of a stabilizing process of readjustment as a means to survival. Before the Civil War indigenous-Christian fusion was a silent partner of the missionary endeavor because the missionaries for the most part lacked the coercive power to root out native beliefs. For example, in the Columbia Plateau the Coeur dAlenes took to Jesuit instruction during the 1840s and honored the new medicine by building an impressive Renaissance-style church, without nails, in present-day Idaho. Yet their Catholicism suited their own traditions. The Coeur dAlenes developed a Christian war ethic, which prescribed prayer before battle, proscribed scalping and warfare on Sundays, and enlarged the meaning of charity to include killing in defense of the community. They also emphasized ritualistic elements that had a familiar ring, such as physical penitence, which paralleled a precontact tradition of voluntary whipping as punishment. Perhaps the quintessential example of successful syncretism occurred among the Eastern Pueblos in the Southwest. By the mid eighteenth century the Puebloan groups had already been missionized, had rebelled, and had made a separate peace with Iberian Catholicism. For nearly one hundred years from 1750, the Southwestern Indians were left alone to reject or assimilate what the Franciscans and Jesuits had planted among them during the century of conquest. While the Hopi, Zuni, Navajos, and some Puebloan peoples took advantage of their relative isolation and simply ignored Christianity, other groups called them

elves Catholic yet were less than orthodox. Bereft of Driests, they adapted the Christian rituals and prayers under their own interpretation, deciding that the way to preserve their traditions was by grafting Catholic belief and practice onto them. In the late eighteenth century, when the Catholic hierarchy renewed its attention to the region, it confronted a religious weaving of Puebloan-Catholic practice and belief whose threads were no longer separable.

Revitalization. Christianity could stimulate religious revitalization in two ways: first, as a negative reaction, by inspiring nativist movements; second, by offering a source of strength to Indian converts whose faith in the efficacy of their traditions had faltered. Nativist movements were often led by prophets who called for Indians to reject corrupting aspects of white culture as a first step toward purification and winning back the protection of the spirit world. What differentiated these holy men from other shamans was that their dreams or special knowledge of the Great Spirit attempted to provide a larger vision of meaning and direction for disordered Indian lives. Most prophets sought to usurp the sacred power of Christianity by transforming its rituals rather than dismissing them. Although prophets commonly depicted an Indian Utopia that was premised on the destruction of white people and the restoration of Indian lands, their advocacy of new sacred symbols and behavioral norms indicated that the future had to be more than just a retreat to the past if Native America was to survive.

Native Conversions. Perhaps the most controversial reaction to the sacred encounter between white and Indian peoples was native conversion to Christianity. The passage of time makes it impossible to determine whether an individuals conversion was in earnest, was simply surrender to the seeming inevitability, or was a utilitarian move to gain a competitive edge. Certainly it would be condescending to native Christians themselves to insist, as some opponents have, that all were deluded, succumbing to the victimization of their oppressors. Whether Indians decided to resist, to adapt, or to convert, the choices made were their own; to suggest otherwise is to deny the agency of the people themselves. Few generalizations apply with regard to native Christians: individuals of both mixed ancestry and native parents adopted Christianity, and adherents could be found among nomadic as well as sedentary groups. Those who called themselves Christian often chose a lonely path, for they were frequently harassed and persecuted by their own people and betrayed by their white brothers. The dilemma for native Christians was evident in an anecdote attributed to the Fox tribe:

Once there was an Indian who became a Christian. He became a very good Christian; he went to church, and he didnt smoke or drink, and he was good to everyone. He was a very good man. Then he died. First he went to the Indian hereafter, but they wouldnt take him because he was a Christian. Then he went to heaven, but they wouldnt let him inbecause he was an Indian. Then he went to Hell, but they wouldnt admit him there either, because he was so good. So he came alive again, and he went to the Buffalo Dance and other dances and taught his children to do the same thing.

Regardless, some Indians found in their understanding of Christianity a source of empowerment, though they had to sever Christian tenets from the actions of the Christian white race. For example, William Apess, a Pequot from New England and an ordained Methodist minister, published his autobiography in 1829, A Son of the Forest. He condemned the hypocrisy of Christian practitioners but declared his confidence in Christian teachings as the repository of certain universal truths, including the rationale for a social order in which age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference. Despite the prejudice of white Christians, egalitarianism was embedded in the fact that the Spirit of Divine Truth in the boundless diversity of its operations, visits the mind of every intelligent being born into the world.

Legacy of Religious Encounters. In the first half of the nineteenth century the decisive changes taking place in the physical world of Native America put the Indian sacred world in flux as well. In such a context, Christianity offered a benchmark for religious inquiry. Was it this that gave the whites so much poweror had the Indians merely abandoned their own spiritual resources? For a time, despite the stridency of missionary voices, the sacred encounters engaged the Indians as agents in their own religious reconstruction. After the Civil War the Protestant establishment and the government, formerly allies in the enlightened civilizing of the Indians, became actual partners in the deliberate destruction of Indian culture. Christianity became an instrument of oppression. Despite this shameful association the phenomenal religious leader Quanah Parker was able to construct the Native American Church at the turn of the twentieth century, combining the peyote road with liturgy to make Christianity serve Indian religious needs. As in so much of American and religious history, ideals battled their misuse by human actors and survived with enough energy to provide the spark for a later fire. It is this human story, often tragic but also triumphant, that forms the essence of religious encounters in the expanding West.


Robert A. Brightman, Toward a History of Indian Religion: Religious Changes in Native Societies, in New Directions in American Indian History, edited by Colin G. Calloway (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988);

Peter Nabokov, ed., Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present (New York: Penguin, 1991);

James P. Ronda and James Axtell, Indian Missions: A Critical Bibliography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978);

James Treat, Native Christian Narrative Discourse, in Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, edited by James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1996).

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Native Americans: Response to Christianization

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Native Americans: Response to Christianization