As a first-grader in Ironwood, Michigan, at the request of the teacher, I had the experience of disclosing my racial heritage to my peers. We all did. She went around the class and asked each of us, “What is your nationality?” Most of the class was Finnish, Swedish, Italian, German, etc. Everything seemed normal. However, when it was my turn to share, “I am Native American,” the room became oddly silent. After an awkward feeling set in, an incredulous boy exclaimed, “You survived?” Everyone laughed. It was the first time I really ingested the fact that I was something quite a bit different from Finnish, Swedish, Italian, German, etc.; the first time I recognized that my national history was dark.
Since then I have graduated from high school, then college, and now graduate school at Luther Seminary. At Luther, my work focused on biblical characterizations of Canaanites. As many people know, the Canaanites are the quintessential bad guys of the Bible, pagans par excellence, the Platonic Form of infidelity.
In the Old Testament, God chose Abraham and promised to give him the land of Canaan. Subsequent generations experienced enslavement and harsh treatment in Egypt. However, through Moses and the famous ten plagues of Egypt, God delivered Israel and brought them to the land of Canaan. Once Moses died, Joshua, his successor, led Israel into the land of Canaan, which God had promised to Abraham (i.e. the promised land). The only problem was that this land was full of its native inhabitants, the Canaanites. The divine solution was annihilation and today would be referred to as genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc.
American Christians historically have employed the biblical attitude towards Canaanites in their relations with Native Americans, even though they did not always directly interpret Natives as Canaanites. As a Native American, studying the Canaanites was analogous to studying how Europeans characterized and dehumanized Native Americans throughout history.
For example, Col. John Chivington, before the outbreak of the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), infamously admonished his troops to “kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” The army then proceeded to slaughter 450 Cheyenne and Arapahoe villagers, two thirds of whom were women and children. This does not sound all that different from Detueronomy 20:16, “But from the cities of these people, of which the LORD your god is giving you possession, you shall not spare anything that breathes but you shall ritually destroy them [. . .]” (emphasis added; my translation; yes, I can translate Old Testament Hebrew).
In fact the Chivington incident sounds like it could be the aftermath of the God’s command given in Deuteronomy. From these examples it is very clear to see that such mental gestures, i.e. placing Native Americans in the same mental category as the Bible does Canaanites, have enabled the U.S. Indian policies of annihilation and assimilation.
It is not so apparent these days, but the current state of affairs is tied to legal justifications and ideologies inherited from Christendom and promoted by an ostensibly secular legal institution. For a great discussion on the cognitive dimensions of early U.S. justifications to land title of Indian territories, check out Pagans in the Promised Land by Steven Newcomb (Fulcrum, 2008).
The history of the United States’ violent intrusion into Native America, commonly referred to as Manifest Destiny, was rooted in the biblical notion of a chosen people with a national destiny to possess North America, “from sea to shining sea.” This destiny was ordained by God. It was the basic chosen people – promised land paradigm depicted in the Old Testament with the same basic problem of native inhabitants that sought the same solution, annihilation.
This history is a serious roadblock for many American Indian Christians who take a serious look at it and consider Christianity’s viability as a morally credible institution.
The corollary of this violent emergence of Christianity among American Indians is the ongoing legacy of missionary dominance. Natives are often chided by European American pastors for honest attempts to reconcile Indian worldviews with Christian convictions.
I have experienced this mostly in my relationships with white pastors who have warned me about worshipping animals and trees. This is not something that Natives do or ever have done. Worship is a Christian mental construction which descends from the experience of monarchy in Europe and is a completely foreign concept to Native Americans.
In the historical situation, white missionaries on their “frontier” have misunderstood Native spirituality. For example, on the Great Plains, the Sun Dance ritual was misconstrued as worshipping the sun by the stock and barrel of Christian missionaries. In reality, the event, which is very sacred, features a dancer tethered to the top of a central pole through piercings in his chest.
It is not about worshipping the sun.
Its central idea (as is central to many spiritual rites of the plains cultures) is about suffering physically for the greater benefit of the community. This should sound to you like the notion of Jesus suffering on a cross for the benefit of all humanity. Yet charges of heresy, pluralism, and syncretism abound. The unfortunate impact of these charges is that many Native Christians now have a reluctance to enter into meaningful conversations with their white brothers and sisters in the faith about these issues.
These problems are phenomena that American Indians have in common with the ever-growing population of non-European Christianity throughout the world. That population is rapidly growing. We are often considered “the mission field.” Churches do ministry in the suburbs and in rural America. Conversely, churches do missions in urban settings, on Indian reservations, and throughout the third world and Asia. The settings for ministry and missions obviously demand different moral configurations from ministers and missionaries toward the objects of their work. Unfortunately, Western missionaries tend to be condescending. After all, missionaries claim be bringing light into darkness, truth into falsehood, and salvation to the damned, etc. But Christians need to rethink these categories, ministry and mission, in ways that preserve and promote the dignity of everyone subjected to their work. These “subjects” represent a rapidly growing population around the world.
If your looking for an example of this I suggest the work of a Native American theologian named George Tinker. Tinker’s works are paramount considerations for Christians who honestly want to do the work of restoring justice in the church—and really, in all of creation. I commend to you his essay, “Struggle, Resistance, Liberation and Theological Methodology: Indigenous Peoples and the Two-Thirds World,” in American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Orbis, 2008). Really, I commend the whole book to you.
Many of the international students at Luther hail from African countries. These friends have confirmed in many ways that the legacy of missionary dominance is an experience Africans have in common with Native Americans. If these issues do obtain on a global scale, it follows that the need for rethinking ministry and mission is significant to an equal proportion. Most imperative to the effort (of rethinking) is to acknowledge the fact that indigenous Christians, on whatever continent, are uniquely qualified to negotiate the cultural and spiritual exchanges which we are facing.
If I could go back to the first grade, I would answer my young colleague to say that in fact I had survived.
Those of us who are left have survived the abuses of Western Christianity and we want to talk about it.
But are you ready to listen?