Missionaries Among American Indians
Missionaries Among American Indians
The loss of Native homelands through the movement of tribes by means of warfare, treaty, and political policy, coupled with the strategy to “civilize” Native peoples through religious conversion, represents the common experience shared by First Peoples in what is now North America. Political and religious attempts to dismantle the cultural and spiritual existence and the familial structures of Native tribes varied from place to place, whereas the timeline and severity of these efforts were connected to the unfolding of European contact experienced by each tribe. The enactment and enforcement of European and subsequent U.S. federal policy are clearly marked both in time and experience. Religious conversion efforts, however, varied significantly among tribes and bands.
The identification and labeling of Native people as “less than human,” “heathen,” “neophytes,” “soulless,” “wild,” “uncivilized,” or “pagan” by those charged with the efforts to religiously convert and educate them solidified the racialized construct of Indian people. Family structures that deviated from biblical charges, such as polygamy, gay relationships, and matriarchal systems, were marked for genocidal, or at the very least, ethnocidal policies that have impacted Native life ever since.
To fully understand the complexities of the contemporary American Indian situation, one must consider how Christianity was used by Europeans to further their goals of conquest and capitalism. The so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which had its origins in the Crusades and the papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V, was tantamount to a declaration of war on all non-Christians. This carte blanche understanding of the rights of conquest was furthered by papal documents issued to Spain and Portugal by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. Subsequent decrees from European monarchs, such as the English Charters, also utilized the language of conquest that originated in these papal documents. In other words, Christian nations believed that they had God’s blessing to lay claim to all “discovered” lands and their non-Christian peoples. These documents and their supporting ideology laid the groundwork for the largest and most violent land grab in the Western Hemisphere.
The resulting dehumanization of Native peoples was grounded in the Europeans’ archetype of “humanity,” which they defined as white and Christian. Both of these components—being white and being Christian—are inherently intertwined and must be understood as such. This dehumanization process allowed Europeans to wage extreme violence and brutality against indigenous peoples on both the North and South American continents. The historical record includes numerous examples of Europeans hunting and killing Native people for sport, including playing sword games in which they tried to kill a Native child with one swipe, or using their dogs to hunt down Native peoples and subsequently feeding them to the dogs as a reward for catching their prey (Churchill 1997).
Jesuit communications recounting their first contacts with American Indians continually and systematically describe them as neophytes and savages, terms that were also in common use in communications among the church hierarchy and with non-Indian parishioners. A neophyte, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is one who lately entered a new and higher state or condition of life, such as those who have entered the Christian ecclesiastical life. It was also used to describe people who had recently converted from heathenism to the higher life of the Church. The Council of Nicaea (325 CE) decreed that, after baptism, each neophyte must undergo a period of “fuller probation,” the duration of which was left to the discretion of individual bishops, before they could be declared Christians. This probationary status clearly inferred that the newly converted were not yet wholly human, meaning that they could not be trusted to act in the manner of white Christian Europeans.
In the North American colonies, the English settlers’ legal system followed English common law. It was also in direct conflict with many American Indians’ traditional methods of maintaining social order. The settlers’ understanding of God’s will and vision of themselves as bringing salvation to the savages perpetuated their racist attitudes and actions toward American Indians. This is evidenced by the formation of “Praying Towns” inhabited by “Praying Indians” in the New England and New York colonies. A corporation formed by the English Parliament in 1646 allotted sums to establish these towns, which were formed on the outskirts of colonies and used as a political and physical barrier to encroaching non-English white settlers. Some Native groups in the area did not succumb to conversion and were hostile to these towns, and these groups were often used as scouts by non-Puritan settlers. Ironically the “Praying Towns” were decimated during King Philip’s War (1675–1676), and the English settlers did not come to their aid. The inference is that they were in a racialized neophyte status and not worthy of being saved.
As the land changed from a conglomeration of settlers and colonies to the United States, government policies towards Native peoples remained rooted in the antiquated and racist pillars of the Doctrine of Discovery. When, for financial and political reasons, the United States’ policy towards its Native inhabitants evolved, the views rooted in this doctrine also justified using religious conversion and education as means of “civilizing” or assimilating American Indians. Many politicians during the formation of the United States government saw American Indians as “sons of the forests” (in the words of George Washington) and part of nature (according to Thomas Jefferson). Again, the inference was that, as creatures of the land and nature, they were inherited by the Christians of the United States along with conquest of the land. As such, it was as much a duty to civilize (i.e., Christianize) the Indians as it was to civilize (i.e., conquer and cultivate) the wilderness. Further, if these efforts failed, the duty was to extinguish those who would not comply.
It is also important to note the historical shift in language that occurred before the Revolutionary War. Although the religious terminology of heathen and neophyte began to be replaced by the more secular term savage, the equation of Christianity with civilization remained. Indeed, as a result of continual contact with Euro-Americans settlers and the importance of the fur trade, some American Indian Nations succumbed to the forces of civilization, and missionaries taught them to become Christians and farmers. The early political leaders of the United States advocated either Christianizing (civilizing) or exterminating American Indians. So, in essence, Christianizing and civilizing were reduced to one ideology in federal Indian policy.
The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act, passed by the first U.S. Congress in 1790, was the first step in dealing with the “Indian problem” in the newly formed United States. This act allowed the government to license traders as agents of the United States to trade with American Indians. This is the birth of the ubiquitous “Indian Agent” and the imposition of the federal government in every aspect of American Indian affairs. Another important feature of this act was that land was no longer taken under the auspices of conquest. Instead, it was acquired through the “sale” of American Indian lands under the authority of the U.S. government and in the form of a treaty. During this first Congress, the government also put in place the bureaucracy that has surrounded American Indians since the formation of the United States. The “Indian problem” was subsumed under the office of the secretary of war, and the 1802 Congress reinforced this relationship between American Indians by giving the secretary of war control over all American Indian affairs.
Non-Indian settlers believed that, by living among the Indians and serving as exemplars of the highest Christian values, they could inspire and teach them to become like the archetypical white yeoman farmer; that is, they could make the Native peoples both civilized and Christian. The Massachusetts legislature bought land and established Stockbridge as a township for converts (not unlike the “Praying Indians”) and interested white Christian families. In response to the encroachment of increasing numbers of white settlers, many American Indians moved to this settlement, where the Mahikan language was used in church and as the shared language of the settlement. Many Indian warriors from Stockbridge fought with the Americans in the Revolutionary War. While the Native males were gone to war, however, the missionaries divided the church into Indian and English congregations, and the Christian Indians’ were forcibly removed to Central New York.
By the time the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act became law, the Stockbridge Mission Indians could speak, read, and write English; they had developed a stable farming community modeled after the white yeoman farmer; and were serving as cultural brokers between other American Indians and white settlers. Shortly after the first Congress, the War Department held the Stock-bridge Indians up as models and argued that the rest of the American Indians should also become “civilized.” Even as model American Indians, however, the Stock-bridge Indians could never fully escape being thought of as neophytes or savages. They were forcibly relocated seven times before obtaining a small piece of land from the Menominee in what is now Wisconsin. As late as 1982, the Stockbridge Indians (known as the Mohican Nation) had to sue a museum in Massachusetts to have their original Bible and communion set recognized as their patrimony and returned to them.
A version of the Christian-influenced Doctrine of Discovery was institutionalized in the 1823 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh. The Court decided unanimously that Indian peoples were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom and the government was allowed to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands (Wheaton 1855, p. 270). In his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall specifically cited the English Charter issued to John Cabot, which authorized Cabot to take land regardless of the occupancy of “heathens” or non-Christian people. Marshall claimed that this authorization carried over to the United States government. The Supreme Court reiterated the premise of the Doctrine of Discovery in its 1831 ruling in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that the Cherokee Nation was not wholly sovereign and the United States did not have to recognize Indian Nations as free from United States control (Newcomb 1993, p. 4).
These rulings infused the religious doctrine of Christianity directly into United States law regarding the Indian problem. Hence, it could be said that the U.S. government became the ultimate missionary. By implicitly incorporating the distinction between Christian people and Native peoples, these rulings became the premise on which all legislation towards American Indians was based, beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and extending all the way through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Thus, the Doctrine of Discovery became incorporated into the law of the land, subsumed under the nationalistic ideology of Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was the Christian God’s will to expand “white American’s liberty” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and used by politicians and expansionists to further the goals of conquest. Andrew Jackson, a politician who had long been involved militarily in Indian conquest, cleared the way for the southeastern land grab by putting forth and signing legislation known as the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Explicitly allowing the government to “negotiate” land-based treaties with the tribes and “encourage” them to relocate on land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase west of the Mississippi, the unscrupulous tactics used in obtaining treaties and subsequently removing Indians from their lands was far from voluntary. For instance, the Treaty of New Echota, which required Cherokee removal, was not signed by the leaders of the tribe, but it was enforced at gunpoint. Many southeastern Indians were strong stewards of their land and quite proficient in agriculture, making their land prime real estate. Even though many Native communities in this region had welcomed missionaries, established churches, and sometimes used enslaved Africans to farm their land, the intersection of Western capitalism and the ideology of Manifest Destiny continued to fuel the push for land. The Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations) were removed from their land and several thousand Native people died on the trek to the newly named “Indian Territory” because the government did not provide adequate transportation and provisions. The federal government had contracted these services out to the lowest bidder and did not follow up to see if the supplies and health care were adequate. This forced genocidal trip is known as the “Trail of Tears.”
As romantic stories from explorers such as Lewis and Clark about the available fertile land on the other side of the Mississippi spread eastward, the ideology of Manifest Destiny became even more pronounced, fueled by visions of a transcontinental railroad and great wealth in the form of natural resources such as gold. Another factor that played into expansionism and Manifest Destiny was the addition of more than a million square miles of land in what is now the western United States. This land was acquired through war with Mexico and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States also “inherited” the indigenous peoples of this area. The Indians of the western United States had previous contact with the Spaniards and had already experienced the Doctrine of Discovery through Spanish rule. The Mission Indians of southern and central California were used as forced labor on their own land by the twenty-one Spanish missions established from 1769 to 1823. Part of their “education” was being indoctrinated into the Catholic faith. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest had also encountered the Spanish settlers, and by the 1500s many of them had faced forced conversion to the Catholic religion.
In 1849 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) transferred administrative responsibilities from the War Department to the Department of the Interior. The shift was based on
fiscal reasoning, for it was getting more and more expensive to guard the settlers as more of them continued to pour westward. It was simply less expensive to assimilate American Indians than kill them. Carl Schurz, the commissioner of Indian Affairs after the Civil War, argued that the estimated cost of killing an Indian in warfare was approximately a million dollars and educating them was approximately twelve hundred dollars (Adams 1995, p. 20). Thus the emphasis on an assimilationist educational policy was based on fiscal reasoning rather than any recognition of humanity.
A war-weary United States changed its policy towards American Indians after the Civil War. The Peace Commission of 1867 was developed to study the “Indian Problem,” resulting in the onset of President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy in 1869. The policy marked a significant transition in religious conversion efforts, which now came to include more Protestant influences, including Quakers and Episcopalians. Furthermore, the policy continued to solidify “civilization” efforts through assimilationist Christian policy versus warfare. Orthodox “Friends” were appointed by President Grant to serve as Indian agents and superintendents. A group of highly religious men, their purpose was to promote civilization of Indians via Christianity conversion. The “Friends,” upon the request of Grant, met to identify and provide recommendations for appointments to the Indian agent posts. Once in place, not unlike previous conversion efforts, agents were empowered to assess the seriousness with which Indians repented their past ways and converted fully to Christianity. The position of agent and superintendent was delicate and ripe with power and reward.
The Dawes Act of 1887 created a land allotment system that would divide tribal lands into parcels for individual Indians. The intent was to break up the communal land holdings of tribes and establish tribal adult males as the archetypical freeholding yeoman farmers often associated with the formation of the United States. The dismantling of traditional economic systems through individualizing and taxing Indian lands was imperative in bringing forth Christian civilization. Politicians and missionaries alike argued that allotment was necessary in order to transform the tribal heathens into Christians and productive taxpaying members of Christendom. The “Indian Problem” would resolve itself as Native people became fully assimilated as landholding, taxpaying Christians.
Again, the imposition of Christianity was to play a significant role in federal education policy. Missionaries played a considerable role in enacting the concept of “killing the Indian and saving the man.” The government awarded tribal lands to churches with the understanding that they would support the government’s goal of assimilation. Often, when the federal government did not want to follow through on their treaty obligations to educate, they would pay missionaries to set up schools or contract with established churches on the reservations to educate American Indians. The Tulalip Indian Mission School, located in the Puget Sound area in the American Northwest, became the first contracted school in 1857. Mission schools followed a curriculum that attempted to indoctrinate Native students into a Christian lifestyle.
Most of the educational opportunities offered to reservation Indians during this era were in federal or church-run boarding and day schools. Children were often forcibly removed from parents to attend the twenty-five off-reservation schools. Parents were often left with no choice but to send their children away, as the Indian agent used this as a bargaining chip for provisions. Parents were told that their children would be taken care of and would have food to eat on a regular basis. The goal of these institutions, whether federal or church-based, was to eradicate any cultural traits that white society deemed as savage or heathen. These schools were the first “English Only” educational institutions, and they integrated biblical principles into the curriculum. There was no separation of church and state in the educational process, a core theme that ran through the educational process was one of equating civilization with Christianization.
Thus, the shift away from physical genocidal policies allowed the federal government to use more subtle methods of cultural ethnocide. The idea was to focus on the younger generations and teach them that Indianness was bad and uncivilized, whereas whiteness was good and civilized. Further, one could not be civilized or “good” without being Christian. Most of these schools stressed vocational and agricultural training, limited contact with families, and boarded students out during school vacations with “good Christian families.” These students were to practice the vocational or domestic skills they were “learning” in schools at these white homes, which were often affiliated with community churches.
In 1926, at the behest of the Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, a government study of Indian conditions was undertaken. The Merriam Report (named for Lewis Merriam, who headed the study) came out in 1928. The report was exceptionally critically of this type of “education,” and the system soon began to be dismantled. However, it is important to note that some federal boarding schools for American Indians still exist in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This failed ethnocidal federal policy may have been one of the most damaging undertaken in Indian Country, for it removed children from their families and cultures and taught them that Indianness was shameful.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity and Indian Policy in the United States were so entangled that they could not be separated, though not many policy-makers were concerned about the enmeshment. One official did recognize how assimilationist policies were damaging American Indian cultures. John Collier became Indian commissioner in 1933, and he challenged the entanglement of missionaries in American Indian affairs. His concerns led to the Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934. The act allowed tribes to establish tribal governments and govern themselves, at least to some extent. However, these newly established tribal governments were modeled after the U.S. legislative model, not on traditional Native social, political, and economic systems.
Collier’s reforms and ideals about preserving traditional cultural patterns encountered a response movement among Protestant missionaries and certain politicians to advocate for the end of federal guardianship of American Indians and the eradication of the BIA. Their philosophy of “rapid assimilation” advocated that the BIA and trust relationships inhibited assimilation into white Christian society. Gustavus Lindquist, a leader of the Home Missions Council, was at the forefront of the termination and urban relocation policies of the mid-twentieth century.
The termination policy was first termed “liquidation” and was supported by politicians and Christian organizations alike. According to the Menominee Nation Web site the “termination” program was a federal policy of forcing tribes to assimilate by withdrawing federal supervision. This meant releasing the government from its obligation to protect the sovereign rights of American Indian tribes. This policy also served as a catalyst for urban relocation. The idea of urban relocation was to remove American Indians from their culture and force them into white society. Relocation agents often met the relocated individuals and families the first time in urban centers and provided them with nominal assistance to get started in their “new life.” It was very common for the relocation officer to arrive with a local minister or pastor in tow to help the removed American Indians adjust to their new surroundings. Relocation was quite simply an extension of termination. The congressional termination of tribal status would resolve the “Indian Problem” and force American Indians to adapt once and for all to white society. It was common for politicians and religious advocates of this ethnocidal policy to use assimilated Indians as examples, and these individuals also misrepresented the implications of termination. These assimilated Indians were often referred to as “mixed-bloods” by religious leaders and politicians with the clear inference that their “white blood” and acceptance of Christianity made them “acceptable” Indians.
Like numerous other genocidal and ethnocidal federal policies, termination and relocation forced many American Indians into an underclass in urban centers and created another land grab in Indian Country. Many terminated tribes, such as the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin and the Klamath in Oregon, had rich timber resources and lumber mills. Termination allowed lumber companies and land developers to encroach on these lands that were formerly held in trust. Termination eroded more of the land base of numerous tribes that had the misfortune to experience this federal policy. However, many tribes fought back. The Menominee people established grass roots efforts such as the Determination of Rights and Unity of Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS), and Menominee social reformers worked to halt the sale of land within the reservation boundaries and restore the federal status it had formally held. The Menominee Restoration Act (Public Law 93-197) was signed into law by President Nixon on December 22, 1973. Tribal assets and land were returned to trust status; however, the development of Legend Lake (prime lake-front real estate largely owned by whites) and the establishment of Menominee County were not reversed.
Federal policies regarding American Indians during the late twentieth century had a less religious overtone than previously, but the ideals of the Doctrine of Discovery still existed. The federal government continued its nonrecognition of American Indians as completely separate sovereign entities. Without such a change, the perception of “domestic dependency” creates an environment in which American Indians must negotiate a highly politicized system created and reinforced by the Doctrine of Discovery at several levels. Federal, state, and local governments continually demand that tribal political entities not be treated as equals, and each level of government creates obstacles for sovereign tribal governments.
While many American Indian Nations exercise their political power through the United States court systems, they are continually forced to negotiate their cultural and spiritual beliefs. The constitutional framers appropriated Christian language when creating the separation of church and state. The language was crafted in such a way that only Christian theology defined sacredness. Indigenous sacredness, because it did not fall under the auspices of this theology, was completely disregarded. In the twenty-first century, concepts of sacredness in the United States continue to be framed in a Christian context, forcing American Indian people who adhere to traditional belief systems to have to define what is sacred against a Christian backdrop.
The unfairness of this is illustrated by the way that places sacred to Native peoples, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, are a common tourist site for mainstream Americans. It is very uncommon to see people climbing or using the Vatican as a recreational activity, or having to explain the use of a rosary during a religious ritual, but American tourists see no problem in climbing Devil’s Tower or using other sacred Native sites as recreation areas. Many American Indian Nations have had to fight to claim their ancestors’ remains and sacred objects from museums, universities, and private collections, even after the Native American Graves Protection Act was passed in the late twentieth century. Some scientists fail to recognize the sacredness or “ownership” of tribal cultural patrimony.
The Doctrine of Discovery was forced upon Native peoples by missionaries, who used languages the Indians did not completely understand. As this absolute ideology was put into effect, it brought disease, exploitation, and violence. It has been more than five hundred years since Pope Nicholas issued his edict against non-Christian peoples, and American Indians are still resisting efforts to be subjugated to the Doctrine of Discovery.
Adams, David Wallace. 1995. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Berkhofer, Robert, Jr. 1971. “Protestants, Pagans, and Sequences among the American Indians, 1760–1860.” In The American Indian: Past and Present, edited by Roger Nichols and George Adams, 120–131. Waltham, MA: Xerox College Publishing.
Brasser, Ted. 1974. Riding on the Frontier’s Crest: Mahican Indian Culture and Culture Change. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
Churchill, Ward. 1998. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Coleman, Michael C. 1985. Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837–1893. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Daily, David W. 2004. Battle for the BIA: G.E.E. Lindquist and the Missionary Crusade against John Collier. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Newcomb, Steve. 1993. “The Evidence in Christian Nationalism in Federal Indian Law: The Doctrine of Discovery, Johnson and McIntosh, and Plenary Power.” The New York University Review of Law and Social Change 20 (2).
Wheaton, Henry. 1855.Elements of International Law, 6th ed. Boston: Little Brown, and Co.
L. Marie Wallace
Amy Fischer Williams