Native Christian Narrative Discourse

This anthology of recent essays by native writers in the United States and Canada documents the emergence of a significant new collective voice on the North American religious landscape.  It brings together in one volume articles originally published in a variety of sources (many of them obscure or out-of-print) including religious magazines, scholarly journals, native periodicals, and topical anthologies, along with one unpublished manuscript.  These essays represent a new form of literary expression among contemporary native people, and they bring a fresh perspective to the global liberation theology movement. Not all of these essays are “academic,” in the institutionally determined, professionally privileged sense of the word, though they all demonstrate the intellectual sophistication suggested by the practice of “scholarship.”  Tribal footnotes are implied in the writings of native Christians, who silently cite extended families, tribal elders, oral traditions, sacred landscapes, visionary messengers, and mythic imagination as points of reference in their communal “bibliography.” The native writers who contributed to this collection come from a number of distinct tribal backgrounds and work as academic scholars, church administrators, ordained leaders, and lay activists; they write on the basis of their involvement in a variety of Christian religious traditions including mainline Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic church, Evangelicalism, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, Mormonism, and the Native American Church (peyotism).  These religious leaders are engaged in formulating and articulating their own distinctive religious identities; their experiences and interpretations bear important insights for anyone interested in the intersections of religion, culture, politics, and race in a diverse and conflicted world.

The terms “native” and “Christian” categorize humanity in ways that are both ambiguous and contested.  I am using these words as broad, generic signifiers that point to acts of intentional, coherent self-identification.  “Native” refers to all indigenous individuals and communities in the United States and Canada; it includes people who are commonly called American Indians, Native Americans, Eskimos, Inuits, Native Hawaiians, and First Nations people, and who are also known by a variety of assumed and imposed tribal designations.  This term includes both recognized and unrecognized communities and both full-blood and mixed-blood individuals.  “Christian” refers to all religious individuals and communities who are associated with the historic complex of religious traditions (beliefs, ceremonies, ethics, scriptures, institutions) commonly attributed to Jesus Christ or his followers.  This term includes both orthodox and unorthodox communities and both affiliated and unaffiliated individuals.  I have not relied on any other specific doctrinal, behavioral, legal, or biological criteria in using these terms to signify self-identified native Christians, and I am not prescribing a hierarchy of identity in formulating the compound noun “native Christian.”

The essays in this collection were selected on the basis of several specific criteria.  I looked for recent articles and manuscripts by native writers that focus on the problem of native Christian identity and that attempt to grapple with this problem in a serious and substantive manner, whether doing so on theological, political, communal, or personal terms.  What does it mean to be native?  What does it mean to be Christian?  Should Christian identity be subordinated to native identity, or vice versa?  Is it possible to be both native and Christian in any meaningful way?  All of the native authors represented in this collection have faced these questions, though not all of them would today identify themselves as Christian, which is one indication of the gravity of this dilemma.  These writers describe a wide range of solutions to the problem of native Christian identity, but they all share certain common assumptions:  (1) they take seriously both the native cultural/religious heritage and the Christian cultural/religious heritage, as well as their own relationship to each; (2) they value their own spiritual perceptions and experiences and those of their extended communities; (3) they acknowledge that the idea of a native Christian identity is problematic, both culturally and historically; and (4) they realize the need to work through this problem in order to arrive at a reasonable accommodation that will facilitate personal and communal survival.

I also looked for writers who could represent the widest possible range of native communities and Christian communions in the United States and Canada, and I especially worked to achieve a balance of women’s and men’s voices.  This anthology approximates, but ultimately falls short of, each of these goals.  A variety of complex and interconnected historical, social, and cultural factors have quieted native Christians in many tribal and religious contexts and have made it particularly difficult for native Christian women to publish their spiritual convictions, though I take full responsibility for any unnecessary editorial oversights or omissions.  Taken together, these essays document the style and substance of an ongoing debate among native Christians over the nature of religious identity.  The powerful vitality of this debate demonstrates that many native Christians will be the agents of their own religious destinies; they have chosen to be theological subjects, not the objects of missiological or anthropological or any other form of colonial or neo-colonial domination.

Forebears

“The religion of the Indian,” wrote Charles Alexander Eastman, the Santee Sioux physician, “is the last thing about him that the man of another race will ever understand.”  Dr. Eastman published The Soul of the Indian in 1911 in order to remedy the cross-cultural misapprehensions that were afflicting many non-native Americans, a condition he attributed both to simple ignorance and to racial and religious prejudice.  His self-conscious “interpretation” of Indian spiritual philosophy was rooted in his own childhood experiences with Dakota beliefs and practices; he readily admitted that his “little book” would not be mistaken for an ethnological monograph, filled with pristine data on exotic tribal cultures.  Dr. Eastman examined white America and diagnosed the colonial myopia that envisioned Indians as vanishing Americans, the cultural narcissism that branded them as primitive savages, the religious arrogance that christened them as devil-worshipping pagans, and his book is the prescription for a simple remedy:  human empathy and respect.  “I have not cared to pile up more dry bones,” he averred in the foreword, “but to clothe them with flesh and blood.  So much as has been written by strangers of our ancient faith and worship treats it chiefly as matter of curiosity.  I should like to emphasize its universal quality, its personal appeal!”  That the book is still in print eight decades later is testimony both to the clarity of Eastman’s analysis and to the resilience of the social pathology he hoped to cure.

Eastman was born in present-day Minnesota in 1858, and four years later fled to Canada with his paternal relatives as refugees from the 1862 Sioux Uprising.  They called him Ohiyesa (the Winner), a name that commemorated his band’s victory in an athletic contest, and together they lived a traditional subsistence lifestyle, hunting buffalo, elk, antelope, deer, sheep, and grizzly bears, while also trapping and fishing in the wooded river bottoms of southern Manitoba.  At the age of fifteen, Ohiyesa “was about to enter into and realize a man’s life, as we Indians understood it,” when his father unexpectedly arrived at their camp.  Many Lightnings, who had served three years in prison for his role in the uprising, had also assumed a Christian identity and taken the name of Jacob Eastman.  Ohiyesa reluctantly returned with Jacob to the newly founded Santee Sioux community of Flandreau, and eventually acceded to his father’s wish that Ohiyesa join him in following the Christian way.  Ohiyesa was baptized Charles Alexander, names he chose for himself out of a book he borrowed from a local minister.

Eastman enrolled in mission schools at Flandreau and on the Santee Reservation, learning English in the process, and then took college preparatory courses for several years at schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Hampshire.  In 1883 he matriculated at Dartmouth College, where he excelled both academically and athletically, and then went on to the Boston University School of Medicine.  Eastman attended a Congregational church in Boston; “I continued to study the Christ philosophy and loved it for its essential truths,” he later recalled, “though doctrines and dogmas often puzzled and repelled me.”  He graduated in 1890 and applied for an appointment with the Indian Health Service, and was soon commissioned to the Pine Ridge agency, arriving in early November of that year.  Less than two months later, Dr. Eastman was the attending physician for the Lakota victims and survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre; he treated wounded and dying Ghost Dancers as they lay on the floor of the Episcopal mission chapel.  Eastman left Pine Ridge in 1892 and practiced medicine sporadically during the next decade, as he increasingly turned his attention to speaking and writing about Indian life and government policy.  Eastman soon became one of the leading public figures in Indian affairs and worked with a variety of organizations including the Society of American Indians, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Boy Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  During his long and noteworthy career, Eastman published eleven books and numerous articles (many of them written in collaboration with his wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman), including two autobiographies.  He undoubtedly had his experiences at Pine Ridge in mind when he ended his second autobiography, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, by reflecting on the legacy of American Christianity:

From the time I first accepted the Christ ideal it has grown upon me steadily, but I also see more and more plainly our modern divergence from that ideal.  I confess I have wondered much that Christianity is not practised by the very people who vouch for that wonderful conception of exemplary living.  It appears that they are anxious to pass on their religion to all races of men, but keep very little of it themselves.  I have not yet seen the meek inherit the earth, or the peacemakers receive high honor.

Eastman struggled throughout his life to reconcile two seemingly contradictory allegiances:  native and Christian.  This struggle is evident in his writings, in which he labored to represent his paradoxical sense of self before an American public that ever prefers essentialist definitions of religious, ethnic, and racial identities.  In the minds of many of Eastman’s white admirers and benefactors, his life story was proof positive of the logic of assimilation, a classic example of primitive acculturation and ample testimony to the potential for the civilization of all native people.  But Eastman rejected superficial solutions to an existential dilemma that carried both personal meanings and political implications; he refused to resolve colonial conflict through clever cultural terminology.  He survived his own life by moving between two religious cultures through space and time, but to label him as “bicultural” and leave it at that is only to mystify the complex internal negotiations he engaged in.  For Eastman, there would be no easy accommodation in moving from the deep woods to civilization.  “I am an Indian,” he concluded, “and while I have learned much from civilization, for which I am grateful, I have never lost my Indian sense of right and justice.  I am for development and progress along social and spiritual lines, rather than those of commerce, nationalism, or material efficiency.”

Despite his personal affinity for Christian teachings, Eastman remained a sharp critic of the hypocrisies of white religion.  In The Soul of the Indian he argued that there is much in “primitive Christianity” that would appeal to native people, “and Jesus’ hard sayings to the rich and about the rich would have been entirely comprehensible” to them.  “Yet the religion that is preached in our churches and practiced by our congregations, with its element of display and self-aggrandizement, its active proselytism, and its open contempt of all religions but its own, was for a long time extremely repellent.”  Eastman generously pointed out that “the white man’s religion” should not be discredited solely on the basis of the poor example set by “the drunkards and licentious among white men,” but he argued that it is “not so easy to overlook or to excuse national bad faith.”

When distinguished emissaries from the Father at Washington, some of them ministers of the gospel and even bishops, came to the Indian nations, and pledged to them in solemn treaty the national honor, with prayer and mention of their God; and when such treaties, so made, were promptly and shamelessly broken, is it strange that the action should arouse not only anger, but contempt?

Yet Eastman realized that religious hypocrisy is always an easy target, so he summarized his perceptive critique by moving to a deeper level of reflection.  We know that conventional wisdom, both in Eastman’s time and today, suggests that “native” and “Christian” are mutually exclusive identities:  a native who has become wholeheartedly Christian has lost some measure of native authenticity; a Christian who is still fully native has fallen short of Christian orthodoxy.  Like many other native Christians before and after him, Eastman recognized the folly of maladaptive dogmatism in a rapidly changing world.  He responded by appropriating the language of religious/ethnic/racial determinism, redefining the criteria for comparative analysis, and offering this startling reversal:

It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years of experience of it, that there is no such thing as “Christian civilization.”  I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the same.

Many observers would judge a native Christian identity as inauthentic or unorthodox.  Eastman’s formulation suggests that religious and cultural and racial contradictions are socially constructed rationalizations, not self-evident facts; his life embodied a reconciliation of these oppositions that arises from human freedom and personal choice, not from the predictable conflict of deterministic identity politics.  “The Christ ideal,” he reasoned, “might be radical, visionary, even impractical, as judged in light of my later experiences; it still seemed to me logical, and in line with most of my Indian training.”  Eastman was probably right:  the religion of the Indian may very well be the last thing about him or her that the person of another race will ever understand—especially if that Indian also happens to be Christian.

Charles Alexander Eastman was not the first native Christian to wrestle with the problem of identity and, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, he was certainly not the last.  Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom, was a contemporary of Eastman’s and the author of Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, which she published in 1898, the same year that the United States completed the overthrow of her government by annexing the “Sandwich Islands.”  Like some other members of the Hawaiian royal family, Liliuokalani was a devout Christian; she directed church choirs and was known for her remarkable musical abilities, composing more than two hundred songs and hymns during her lifetime.  Hawaiian independence had been increasingly threatened during the nineteenth century and was actively subverted, beginning in the 1870s, by a small group of wealthy white American merchants composed of Protestant missionaries and their descendants.  Queen Liliuokalani assumed the leadership of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy in 1891 in the midst of an intense power struggle with the “missionary party,” which actively opposed her legitimate assertion of Hawaiian sovereignty.  The Queen was forcibly deposed by the missionary party in 1893; two years later, after a failed rebellion by Hawaiian loyalists, she was charged with treason, held under house arrest, and compelled to sign a formal abdication of political authority.

Liliuokalani endured deception and betrayal at the hands of white religionists and was publicly condemned, both before and after her coronation, from the pulpit of Kawaiahao Church, the leading Protestant mission in Honolulu and her religious home since childhood.  Yet she remained a Christian throughout her life, though this was a religious identity she maintained on her own terms.  The provisional government attempted to erase her testimony by destroying most of her letters, papers, and diaries, but Liliuokalani would not be completely silenced. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen is her autobiographical account of the overthrow, a four-hundred-page indictment of American imperialism and white religious hypocrisy.  Liliuokalani’s modern biographer concluded that she was “remarkably tolerant” of religious diversity and believed that “all religions had their ‘rights’ and were entitled to equal treatment and opportunities.”

At various times in her life Liliuokalani identified herself with the Protestant mission church as well as Episcopals, Catholics, Mormons, Eastern mystical traditions, and Hawaiian traditional religion, finally developing “a synthesis of her own, which she felt was the basis of mysticism, hidden in all religions.”  She defended Hawaiian religious insight and self-determination by asserting that “the habits and prejudices of New England Puritanism were not well adapted to the genius of a tropical people, nor capable of being thoroughly ingrafted upon them.  But Christianity in substance they have accepted; . . .”  In 1888, leaders of the missionary party had tried to enlist her participation in a conspiracy against her brother, King Kalakaua, but she refused:  “Perhaps it was because I had gone hand in hand with them in all good works that they thought I would cast in my lot with them now for evil, . . . If so, they found themselves much mistaken.”  Liliuokalani concluded her written argument for Hawaiian autonomy with a plea to the American public, whose elected leaders were then debating the annexation of Hawaii under the provisional government led by Sanford Dole, the wealthy son of a Yankee missionary:

I implore the people of this great and good nation, from whom my ancestors learned the Christian religion, to sustain their representatives in such acts of justice and equity as may be in accord with the principles of their fathers, and to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, to him who judgeth righteously, I commit my cause.

The United States Senate responded by ratifying the annexation treaty on August 12, 1898, and in 1900 organized Hawaii as a territory, rewarding Dole’s exploits by appointing him as the first territorial governor.

Several generations before Eastman and Liliuokalani published their autobiographical works, another native Christian recounted his own life story and in the process addressed many of the same questions Eastman and Liliuokalani faced.  William Apess, a Pequot from New England and an ordained Methodist minister, published A Son of the Forest in 1829; it is the earliest autobiography published by a native writer, and the first of five literary works Apess produced during his brief but remarkable career.  Born into an impoverished Pequot community lingering on the margins of white society, Apess’s childhood was defined by abandonment, abuse, and indentured servitude.  In A Son of the Forest, Rev. Apess recounted his religious pilgrimage; he described his early confusion over identity, his intense spiritual struggles beginning at the age of eight, and his teenage conversion to Christianity—a conversion not from Pequot religious traditions, but from being “friendless, unpitied, and unknown, . . . surrounded by difficulties and apparent dangers.”

Apess, like Eastman and Liliuokalani after him, used his autobiographical narrative as an opportunity to articulate a passionate critique of American society.  Like Eastman and Liliuokalani, Apess condemned the hypocrisies of white religionists who preached universal salvation while practicing exclusionary racism, wondering aloud “how much better it would be if the whites would act like a civilized people.”  Like Eastman and Liliuokalani, Apess found in Christian teachings the rationale for an egalitarian social order, becoming convinced that “age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference.”  Like Eastman and Liliuokalani, Apess believed that certain religious ideas and experiences are universal truths; he considered the “internal witness” of the Spirit to be a fundamental religious principle, asserting that “the Spirit of Divine Truth, in the boundless diversity of its operations, visits the mind of every intelligent being born into the world.”  Barry O’Connell, who edited Apess’s collected works, has argued convincingly that Apess “employed his Christian identity so as to assert, more forcibly and coherently, his identity as a Native American,” and that, in Apess’s understanding, “for a Pequot to convert to Christianity is not . . . to take on white ways but only to claim one of her rights as a human being.”

Rev. Apess, Queen Liliuokalani, and Dr. Eastman are three of the few native leaders who experienced a measure of educational opportunity, professional stature, financial stability, and media access, the prerequisites of literary production in the dominant culture.  Their lonely but uncompromising voices speak on behalf of countless native Christians who harbored similar convictions but who found themselves silenced by historical circumstances and the culture of domination.

Native and Christian?

Today, native Christians throughout the United States and Canada are continuing their centuries-long struggle for religious self-determination.  Denominational missionaries have settled in native communities preaching a gospel of cultural conformity, condemning native religious history on the basis of ignorance and dictating artificial criteria for institutional acceptability.  Academic anthropologists have toured native communities looking for pure, primitive culture, dismissing native religious adaptability as tragic acculturation and attempting to reduce human experience to ethnographic data.  Government agents have dominated native communities in the service of colonial expansion, enforcing laws that restrict native religious freedom and manipulating political power through bureaucratic patronage.  Radical activists have defended native communities against these and other impositions, calling for the outright rejection of “the white man’s religion” and the immediate revival of esoteric indigenous traditions.  Native Christians have been called heretical, inauthentic, assimilated, and uncommitted; they have long endured intrusive definitions of personal identity and have quietly pursued their own religious visions, often under the very noses of unsuspecting missionaries, anthropologists, agents, and activists.

Despite their determined persistence, many contemporary native Christians have also acknowledged, as did Eastman, Liliuokalani, and Apess before them, that they face a fundamental existential dilemma in attempting to resolve their hybrid identities into an organic unity.  The idea of a native Christian identity is both historically and culturally problematic.  The blatant opportunism and oppressive dogmatism of the missionization process, the open complicity of white religious leaders in widespread land dispossession, and the growing strength of the native traditionalist revival work together to challenge the legitimacy of the personal religious choices many native Christians have made.  An educational resource recently produced by native people in the Episcopal Church for use in their own congregations addresses this challenge as a central problem.  In the Spirit of the Circle is a series of thirty-two color posters depicting various biblical and cultural traditions, with background stories, discussion questions, and group activities printed on the reverse sides.  All of the posters are concerned with formulating and expressing a viable native Christian identity, while one poster deals with the issue of legitimacy explicitly.  In a high-contrast, black-and-white photograph, it shows a turn-of-the-century Indian family dressed in their Sunday best and bears the caption, “Can I Be Indian and Christian?”  The text on the reverse side begins by succinctly restating this question:  “The story of Christianity among our Indian people is often a sad, confusing story. . . . Why would any Indian want to belong to a religion that was so much a part of the tragic history of our people?”  Why indeed?

Yet this is precisely the choice that many native people have made, and continue to make.  Native Christians have constructed and maintained their own enigmatic religious identities with a variety of considerations in mind.  Like native traditions, Christian institutions can mediate social power and material resources and provide avenues for the development and recognition of religious leadership.  Like native traditions, Christian liturgical forms can facilitate community reconciliation and allow for the fulfillment of ceremonial obligations.  Like native traditions, Christian teachings can articulate beliefs and values that provide direction in daily life and in overcoming personal struggles, and that form the basis for prophetic critique and political action.  Like native traditions, Christian spiritual practices can cultivate meaning and purpose through religious devotion, offering a viable alternative to secular materialism, and can challenge devotees to a life of responsibility and service.  Native people who choose to identify themselves with Christian institutions, liturgical forms, teachings, or spiritual practices do so while bearing in mind the community circumstances, family precedents, and personal experiences that define their lives.  Furthermore, many native Christians accomplish this identification without abandoning or rejecting native religious traditions.  While it may be true that some native Christians have adopted the theological blindnesses of their missionary trainers in what appear to be textbook examples of internalized oppression, many others have not.  To dismiss all native Christians as acculturated, anachronistic traces of religious colonialism is to miss innumerable demonstrations of their insightful historical and social analysis, their complex and sophisticated religious creativity, and their powerful devotion to personal and communal survival.  To disregard Indian Christians, either as Indians or as Christians, is to deny their human agency, their religious independence, and—ultimately—their very lives.  The story on the Episcopal poster captioned “Can I Be Indian and Christian?” ends with these words:

Christianity does not belong to any one group of people.  It never has.  It never will. . . . Can we be  both “Indian” and “Christian” at the same time?  Yes.  It may take some courage.  It will certainly take commitment.  It will even take a sense of forgiveness when we think of all that has happened to us along the way.  But the answer, the very personal answer . . . is YES.

Native Christian Theology?

Native Christians have become increasingly bold in making their voices heard, especially during the past decade, and many of them have also committed their voices to writing.  This anthology documents the emergence of a new form of literary expression among native people in the United States and Canada:  the theological essay.

Native people have a long history of adopting and adapting the literary tools and techniques of the dominant culture, and have demonstrated their literary expertise in a variety of genres including poetry, drama, novels, autobiography, literary criticism, journalism, history, and ethnology.  Contemporary native Christian leaders have considered the possibilities for developing native Christian theology for some time; Steve Charleston (Choctaw), for example, writes that he has been talking about “a Native People’s Christian theology” since the mid-seventies, and the Native American Theological Association was founded in 1977 to promote leadership development among native Christians in mainline Protestant churches through education, research, and advocacy.  Native Christian theological expression is one measure of religious self-determination; William Baldridge (Cherokee) declares that “a unique Native American expression of Christianity, a Native American theology, is a worthy, a good, and a just goal, and we will continue to develop it.”  As Robert Allen Warrior (Osage) points out, this trend has found support among those non-native Christians influenced by the liberation theology movement, who have encouraged native Christians to jump on the liberation bandwagon.  “Native American Theology of Liberation has a nice ring to it. . . . There are theologies of liberation for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, women, Asian Americans, even Jews.  Why not Native Americans?”  Charleston suggests that the absence of native Christian theology from the “theological supermarket” reflects the inordinate demand for native spirituality by “shoppers” from the dominant culture:

Well-intentioned shoppers may have simply thought that this talk about spirituality was the voice of Native America in the religious dialogue.  And up to a point, they’re right.  Traditional Native spirituality does represent a major and crucial voice for Native People.  It is a voice that has frequently been misquoted, distorted, or co-opted, but it’s a voice nonetheless. . . . Still, the spirituality section alone does not complete the supermarket.  It is still not an expression of a Native Christian viewpoint.  As good (or bad) as these works may be at articulating Native tradition, they do not offer a clear voice for Native American Christianity.  They are not a Native People’s Christian theology.

But many native Christians have also recognized the potential dangers in attempting to express native religious experiences and perceptions using the English language and the formalized conventions of theological writing.  They have problematized and deconstructed the Christian theological tradition in the very process of critically appropriating and reconfiguring it for their own purposes.  James West (Cheyenne) calls theology a “non-Indian concept,” and prefers to describe native religious traditions as a “spiritual way-of-life.”  “Indian people have a long tradition of words about Maheo [God],” he writes.  “But, theology as an intellectual discipline, sometimes very separated from the every day life of people, is a very foreign concept to most Indian tribal experience.”  Rosemary McCombs Maxey (Muscogee) points out that native religious diversity means that “there is no way of presenting a single homogeneous view” while engaged in theological dialogue with non-native Christians, and that “conveying ideas in our common language of English is incomplete and misunderstood because of our differing world views, which remain largely unexplored and foreign to one another.”  Stan McKay (Cree) admits to “a sense of compromise” and “hesitancy in placing images on paper that reflect our spiritual insights,” and suggests that this accommodation represents a reasoned response to the important issues facing global society.  “The present urgency to come together for a healing vision for the Earth, ‘our Mother,’ has brought our elders to advise us to share and risk even by writing what has been our oral tradition.”  Baldridge has issued, in an earlier essay, one of the most serious challenges to the idea of a native Christian theology:

Doing theology, thinking theologically, is a decidedly non-Indian thing to do.  When I talk about Native American theology to many of my Indian friends, most of them just smile and act as if I hadn’t said anything.  And I am pretty sure that as far as they are concerned I truly hadn’t said anything. . . . Theology is not a natural nor a normal product of Native American cultures.  I know that some things are reduced, not increased by too much thinking, too much analyzing and many American Indians share my attitude and conviction regarding the relative worth of entering into experience versus thinking about experience.  When Indians theologize they must place one foot into the Euro-American culture; and if they are not careful they will soon have both feet outside of their own culture.

If native Christian “theology” were to develop as nothing more than the elite intellectual culture of native Christian leaders, then it would promise only to reinforce colonial configurations by replicating the intellectual elitism that has characterized Western religious discourse since the Emperor Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E.  Most native Christian “theologians” have very different goals in mind, and this is clearly evident from a close reading of their texts.

The ongoing debate among native Christians over the appropriateness of theological conventions highlights two important methodological features of this emerging body of native literature.  First, nearly all of these texts are directed at a primary audience composed of non-native Christians.  After generations of struggle with church hierarchies over spirituality, liturgical traditions, ordination, congregational finances, community life, morality, biblical interpretation, and doctrine, native Christians are increasingly putting their admonitions in writing.  They are engaging the North American religious establishment at the discursive level, articulating their demands for religious self-determination in a form and style comprehensible to those who still exercise some measure of institutional control over native Christians and their churches.  Their writings, like many other types of contemporary native literature, cross cultural boundaries in order to facilitate intercultural understanding and respect and to effect structural change; they are cross-cultural epistles to the cross culture.  While many of these authors are also intent on dialoguing with other native Christians about their common identity and shared struggle, their central goal is evident in this public act of discursive advocacy.  In general, contemporary native Christian literature is apologetic (in the theological sense, meaning defensive or demonstrative) rather than evangelistic.  This apologetic literature is also self-consciously contextual and particular; native Christian writers are not proposing just another “universal” theological master narrative.

The contextual orientation of contemporary native Christian literature points to the other important methodological feature of these writings.  Most of these texts employ autobiographical narratives as primary methodological techniques for making (and not merely illustrating) theological points, and many of them also make use of stories drawn from a more general collective, cultural context.  Native societies are traditionally oral cultures; only a few native communities enjoy a substantive literary tradition and widespread literacy in their native language.  Spanish, French and English have become the primary languages in many native communities, but even in those where European-language literacy is commonplace, a high degree of orality still survives, especially in family and ceremonial contexts.  Oral cultures typically preserve worldview and tradition in stories, which teach through example rather than by catechism.  The prominence and centrality of narrative accounts in contemporary native Christian testimony suggests that native Christians consider personal and collective experience to play a central role in the development of religious insight.  While conventional Christian theology is typically doctrinal and rational, native Christian reflection is experiential and performative; while conventional Christian theology is often dogmatic, native Christian discourse is confessional.

Contemporary native Christian writers have problematized and reconfigured the theological tradition, challenged the Christian establishment by articulating their demands through cross-cultural discourse, and used autobiographical and cultural narratives to express their own religious identities.  This new genre of native literature resists the interpretive boundaries implied by literary categorization, but it might very well be described as native Christian narrative discourse.

Native Christian Narrative Discourse

Contemporary native Christian writers face many of the same challenges that in earlier times circumscribed the lives and writings of Charles Alexander Eastman, Liliuokalani, and William Apess.  Native Christian narrative discourse has emerged in recent years as the unanticipated product of several distinct varieties of social change in the United States and Canada; developments taking place in a wide range of popular, institutional, and intellectual contexts have intersected to create new opportunities for native Christians to make their voices heard.  Native Christian writers ground their literary work in communities that are struggling to survive, both physically and spiritually.  Many native people, whether living on reservations or in urban areas, face structural and situational obstacles that often prevent them from satisfying their own basic needs in nutrition, housing, health care, education, and employment.  Many native communities are also the battlegrounds for intense religious contestation and conflict; religious life in these communities is characterized by unusual forms of religious diversity, involving a variety of tribal traditions, intertribal groups, and denominational churches that often compete for human resources.

Native people responded to these community crises in the 1960s by organizing for social/political and cultural/religious change on tribal, national, and international levels.  This period of overt activism (which in many ways continues today) saw the emergence of a new generation of native leaders, who pursued their strategic goals along two parallel and overlapping courses of action.  The “Red Power” movement focused on social and political reform, reasserting tribal sovereignty and native legal rights and in the process forcing non-natives to acknowledge the contemporary native presence; the American Indian Movement has received a great deal of publicity, though many other tribal and intertribal organizations have accomplished important reforms during this period.  Native people also worked for cultural and religious revival through the traditionalist movement, guided by an extensive network of native elders who have successfully reinvigorated and reestablished a wide range of ceremonial and philosophical traditions; the little-known Indian Ecumenical Conference has played a pivotal role in facilitating revival in widespread native communities.  Native Christian writers have both responded to and participated in the growing sense of native consciousness this activism has generated.

Contemporary native activism developed against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which also provided the impetus for important institutional changes that have taken place within Christian churches during the last three decades.  Minority Christian constituencies have demanded equitable participation in church governance and resource distribution, forming racial/ethnic caucuses to make their voices heard within religious power structures.  Native Christians, many of whom also participate in other activist organizations, have played key roles in this process; the formation of the native Christian caucuses is an important dimension of contemporary native activism that has been almost completely overlooked by academic scholars.  For example, native Episcopals organized the National Committee on Indian Work in 1969, one year after Vine Deloria, Jr., completed an important study of native ministries entitled “More Real Involvement”; the Committee was reorganized as an all-native body in 1977.  Native Presbyterians formed the Consulting Panel on Indian Ministries in 1969 after an advisory meeting held on the Nez Perce reservation a year earlier proposed a number of significant reforms to mission policy; the Panel became the Native American Consulting Committee in 1974.  Native Methodists created the National American Indian Committee in 1970 after participating in a consultation on native ministries two years earlier; the Committee was reorganized as an all-native body in 1972 and is now known as the Native American International Committee.  Native Anglicans established the Sub-Committee on Native Affairs in 1970, a year after the publication of the influential report Beyond Traplines: Does the Church Really Care?; the Sub-Committee was reorganized in 1980 and is now known as the Council for Native Ministries.  Native Catholics revitalized the Tekakwitha Conference, which had been a support group for missionary priests for more than thirty years, beginning in 1977, and have played a key role in the leadership of the organization since the mid-eighties.  These and other native Christian caucuses have engaged in advocacy on a wide range of issues including leadership development and ordination, curriculum design, spirituality and theology, racism, cross-cultural education, healing and reconciliation, health care, women’s issues, legislation and public policy, land rights, and tribal sovereignty.  Most of the leading native Christian writers are also active participants in these denominational caucuses.

Liberation struggles taking place in North America and throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America also provided fertile ground for the growth of a radically new variety of Christian theological expression, a diffuse movement of critical, politicized, contextual formulations commonly referred to as theologies of liberation.  Black Theology in the United States and Latin American Liberation Theology emerged simultaneously but independently in the late-sixties, the former among black Protestant theologians and ministers, the latter among European-trained Roman Catholic theologians and priests.  Despite the obvious differences in their religious orientations and sociopolitical contexts, these and other liberation theologians have made surprisingly compatible methodological choices and thematic interpretations.  Liberation theologies are the intellectual expressions of Christian life on the underside of history; they are based on rigorous social and cultural analysis and on a personal commitment to solidarity with the oppressed, and they advocate a radical reordering of human relations rooted in prophetic religious critique.  North American Christians responded to the growing liberation theology movement by organizing Theology in the Americas, a multiracial coalition of theologians and activists, at a conference held in 1975.  A year later, Christian leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America gathered at Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and formed the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, which has become the most influential international organization in the global movement.  Theologies of liberation are among the most vital and dynamic voices in current Christian intellectual debate; they have set the agenda for the future of Christian theology and have revolutionized the way many Christians understand and express their own religious identities.  Black Theology in the United States, which emerged at the intersection of black radicalism and the black church tradition, has played a key role in the global liberation theology movement.  In much the same way, native Christian narrative discourse is the organic product of contemporary native activism and the native Christian caucuses, and has developed in dialogue with theologies of liberation worldwide.

As a veteran of activist organizing, church politics, and theological debate, Yankton Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., is uniquely qualified to speak from the intersection of these popular, institutional, and intellectual contexts.  Deloria is the son and grandson of Episcopal priests and graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology (Rock Island, Illinois) in 1963.  He did not pursue ordination, however, and instead embarked on a career in Indian affairs, serving as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, earning a law degree at the University of Colorado, and teaching American Indian Studies at several major universities.  Deloria became a leading spokesperson for native people by publishing a series of important books during the height of the Red Power movement:  Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), We Talk, You Listen (1970), God Is Red (1973), Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974), and The Indian Affair (1974).  These works demonstrated Deloria’s sophisticated understanding of the symbiotic relationship between politics and religion in American society, as well as his razor-sharp sense of humor; years later, he described his religious affiliation as “Seven Day Absentist.”  In God is Red, Deloria examined a number of Christian doctrines and beliefs in light of native philosophies and argued that these two basic views of reality “appear to stand in direct opposition,” especially on the question of whether human existence should be understood primarily in spatial or chronological terms.  For example:

Indian tribal religions and Christianity differ considerably on numerous theological points, but a very major distinction that can be made between the two types of thinking concerns the idea of creation.  Christianity has traditionally appeared to place its major emphasis on creation as a specific event while the Indian tribal religions could be said to consider creation as an ecosystem present in a definable place.  In this distinction we have again the fundamental problem of whether we consider the reality of our experience as capable of being described in terms of space or time—as “what happened here” or “what happened then.”

Furthermore, “the opposition is more than conceptual; it colors the manner in which non-Indians view the world and the people they deal with in that world, particularly Indians.”  Deloria was also the first native writer to mount a sustained critique of the liberation theology movement, which he found to be methodologically problematic because of its (initially) uncritical dependence on Western philosophical assumptions and modes of social analysis.  If we are serious about “the necessity of liberation,” he wrote, “we are talking about the destruction of the whole complex of Western theories of knowledge and the construction of a new and more comprehensive synthesis of human knowledge and experience.”  Deloria’s early writings articulated a devastating critique of American cultural and political history that scandalized conservatives and liberals alike, but it is his analysis of religious philosophies that has proven especially challenging for native Christians.  By emphasizing the glaring differences between idealized native and Christian worldviews, Deloria highlighted the existential dilemma facing contemporary native Christians and implicitly delineated their discursive options.  His critical books and essays are foundational texts in the emergence of native Christian narrative discourse.

Native Christians became increasingly outspoken during the seventies and eighties by advocating for native concerns through their denominational caucuses.  Some individuals also began publishing articles and essays during this period, though most of these early pieces focused on historical and social analysis more than they explored the complexities of native Christian identity.  Two important interdenominational organizations articulated a native Christian voice beginning in the late-seventies:  the Native American Project of Theology in the Americas and the Native American Theological Association.  The Native American Project began in 1978 as an “ecumenical working group” involving both native Christians and traditionalists who were committed to interreligious dialogue, social analysis, and strategic action; this collaboration led to the publication of a number of position papers, essays, and reflection pieces.

The work of the Native American Project has been to open a dialogue amongst ourselves in the hopes of lessening the gaps between our peoples.  It is a job of recreating the true feelings of oneness amongst ourselves and the Creation.  It is a job of affirming who we are, in the context of the environments we were born into, and the changes that have occurred that we must analyze and draw the best from.

We are faced with the job of recapturing our humanity for the purpose of our survival as distinct peoples of the Mother Earth.  As we proceed with this work we will begin to evolve toward a theology that is owned by the Native peoples, and genuine to their experience.  It will also probably mean the restructuring of the institutions that have come to our lands.  We recognize that we are not alone in this process, that it is a process being undertaken by many peoples throughout the world.

The active participation of non-Christians in the Native American Project challenged some of the fundamental assumptions on which Theology in the Americas was based.  The coalition responded by organizing a series of “Inter-Ethnic/Indigenous Dialogues” during the early-eighties, the first of which was hosted by the Haudenosaunee people (the Iroquois Confederacy) in 1981 at their Native Self-Sufficiency Center near Utica, New York.

The Native American Theological Association also sponsored a series of interreligious dialogues during this period, and published the proceedings from two major conferences held in 1979 and 1981.  These exchanges facilitated cooperation between native Christians and traditionalists and helped all participants to reflect on their own religious identities, though not without some controversy.  At the 1979 meeting, Lakota traditionalist Leonard Crow Dog criticized missionary conversion strategies by making unnecessarily broad generalizations that deny native religious agency:  “Indians became Christian by force.  Often they were killed if they did not convert.  Indian Christians have a very hard time these days as they are caught between two ways of seeing the world.  I feel sorry for those of you who don’t know who you are.”  Several native Christians who knew who they were challenged Crow Dog, including Sydney Byrd, an ordained Presbyterian minister:  “I am a Dakota and I freely chose to be a Christian.  I agree that force was used to convert Indian people, but the loving example of my grandparents who were Presbyterian missionaries to our people, made me want very much to be like them, to be a Christian.”  Dakota traditionalist Joe Rock Boy was asked to make a statement after further discussion the following morning, and he expressed the consensus:

My mother was an Episcopalian, but my father believed in the Indian way.  I was taught in the Christian way to love, to forgive.  I became a lay reader and they wanted me to be a priest.  I still go to churches some.  But I offer prayers.  That’s my gift.  I must be right with my Creator to pray, so I must love people of all denominations.  We must try to understand each other’s ways!  The Creator is understood differently, and called by different names.  But there is one Creator, and we all worship this Creator.  We must respect each other.

Native Christian narrative discourse has achieved an unprecedented degree of prominence in the last ten years, with new writers and new articles now appearing on a regular basis in religious magazines, scholarly journals, native periodicals, and anthologies (see Selected Bibliography).  A number of recently published books by native Christian writers are also evidence of this growing literary tradition.  Lutherans Paul Schultz (Chippewa) and George Tinker (Osage/Cherokee) collaborated on Rivers of Life: Native Spirituality for Native Churches (1988), the first systematic attempt at a comprehensive overview of native Christian theological perspectives written by and for native people.  Rivers of Life begins with two chapters devoted to historical, social, and cultural analysis in an attempt to understand why so many native people “do not identify with any expression of faith,” whether traditional or Christian, and why so many of these are “still unable to take the risk” involved in exploring “spiritual options.  For many those spiritual options are not yet real.”  Subsequent chapters discuss creation and the creator, Jesus Christ, the doctrine of justification, the significance of land, community ethics, and ceremonial traditions, each topic considered from a native Christian perspective.  The book closes with a challenge to native Christians who want to participate in rebuilding the spiritual life of their communities:

What is the responsibility that we must then carry in attempting to assure that more and more members of our communities can benefit from the spiritual transformation we have all so longed for?  The answer is basically quite simple.  We must continue to do all that we can to realize new and individual spiritual growth while at the same time praying for the kind of openness with one another which allows the Creator to become the central focus for other Native American persons and communities.  In order to do this we must maintain our awareness that too many of our brothers and sisters have been judged and categorically denied any sense of spiritual worth by many different churches over the years.

Through the process of unpacking inappropriate theological and biblical interpretation, which was only meant to exclude rather than include human differences, we find ourselves in a position to understand better and experience the healing power of God’s love for all persons—past, present, and future.  Interpretation which maintains theological and biblical integrity can also be focused inclusively in a way which allows and encourages a healthy and dynamic encounter with the Holy Spirit.  At last, all of us will be free!

Recent books by Owanah Anderson (Choctaw), Homer Noley (Choctaw), and Tinker have focused on the history of missions, while those by George Lee (Navajo), Arthur Holmes (Ojibwe), and Joseph Iron Eye Dudley (Yankton Sioux) have offered autobiographical accounts of contemporary native Christian lives.

Themes and Perspectives

The essays selected for this anthology of native Christian narrative discourse cover the central themes and represent the range of perspectives evident in this emerging literature.  These twenty-one selections are arranged in four sections organized around the key questions facing native Christians today.

The essays in part one, “Spirituality and History,” focus on the intersection of religious experience and historical tradition.  How do native Christians understand the relationship between immigrant and indigenous traditions, between Christian history and the native religious heritage, between written scriptures and oral traditions?  How do native Christians critically appropriate these collective, historical realities in light of their own personal, subjective spiritual experiences and perceptions?  What are the foundational ideals and values that define what it means to be native and to be Christian, and how do native Christians negotiate the similarities and differences between these distinct identities?  What are the theological principles, methodologies, and emphases that determine how native Christians will arrive at their own interpretations of conventional Christian beliefs and practices?  These essays introduce the theoretical questions at stake in formulating, expressing, and articulating native Christian identities.  Native Christian writers are engaging in historical and social analysis that sheds new light on the history of Christian missions and on the native traditionalist revival, and they are grappling with the implications that each of these influences has for native Christians today.  They are relying on foundational native values such as holism, equality, respect, harmony, and balance in articulating native Christian perspectives on important theological doctrines including creation, God, humanity, Jesus Christ, salvation, and scripture.  They are also employing methodological techniques that demonstrate the centrality of oral tradition, story, and visionary experience in native Christian narrative discourse.  Native Christian writers are theorizing a new paradigm of interreligious interaction grounded in respect, dialogue, and cooperation, which will allow native Christians to nurture meaningful solidarities with other native people and with other Christians while maintaining their own distinctive religious identities.

The essays in part two, “Liberation and Culture,” focus on the relationship between religious activism and cultural priorities.  How can native Christians respond to the situational and structural injustices perpetrated against their communities without losing sight of the religious ideals that guide their lives?  To what extent can native Christians defy the Christian establishment in order to reclaim a greater degree of religious independence, and what are the practical implications of adopting a more or less radical stance?  How can native Christians relate to the global liberation theology movement and to liberation struggles in other sociopolitical contexts?  Where can native Christians look for a paradigm of liberation that is consistent with native cultural criteria, and what political strategies can they employ?  These essays suggest ways in which native Christian conceptions of liberation are grounded in the struggle for survival and the pursuit of religious self-determination.  Native Christian writers are engaging in dialogue with liberation theologians throughout the world while struggling with the domineering power of institutional churches in their own communities.  They are critiquing the cultural presuppositions behind conventional liberation theologies, particularly the widespread, uncritical reliance on the biblical paradigm of Exodus as a basis for understanding historical process and social praxis.  Suggesting new ways of thinking about the relationship between justice and peace, they are challenging Western cultural understandings of history and creation, of rationality and experience.  Native Christian writers are issuing a prophetic challenge to the lazy habits of mainstream religious life by calling for an engaged spirituality of personal responsibility and sacrifice.

The essays in part three, “Tradition and Community,” focus on the connection between religious heritage and community life.  How can native Christians organize their religious communities in order to promote meaningful participation and to foster reconciliation and unity?  To what extent can native Christian leaders incorporate native traditional ways as they preach, teach, pray, sing, worship, celebrate, heal, and share among their people?  How do native Christians understand the relationship of their own religious communities to those of native traditionalists and of non-native Christians?  How do the answers to these questions change according to the specific context of a native Christian community:  reservation or urban, tribal or intertribal, denominational or interdenominational?  These essays show how theoretical and political considerations are brought to bear on the practical challenges of native Christian life.  Native Christian writers are validating their own religious histories and conceptualizing their own forms of religious community in order to serve the needs of native people.  They are addressing the practical consequences of a phenomenon that church administrators and academic scholars variously refer to as indigenization or inculturation, syncretism or acculturation.  Native Christians are facing a number of specific issues in developing viable forms of community, including:  religious leadership and the ordination process; preaching and teaching; prayer traditions, sacred music, and liturgical forms; physical and spiritual healing; and the tension between institutional affiliation and congregational autonomy.  The pervasiveness of tribal and denominational diversity only complicates this situation even further, making native Christian life a highly localized phenomenon.  Native Christian writers are drawing attention to the importance of religious sensitivity, dedication, and creativity among native Christian leaders.  They are outlining an approach to cultural integrity in religious life that speaks to the problem of identity affecting many other Christian communities around the world.

The essays in part four, “Transformation and Survival,” focus on the nexus of religious pilgrimage and personal identity.  Why do native Christians make religious choices that, to many other people, appear to be unwise or even irrational?  How are these choices influenced by the specific circumstances facing each individual native Christian, such as visionary experiences, personal crises, guidance from elders, parental responsibilities, community affirmation, political conflicts, and institutional support?  Is religious growth and change among native Christians an instantaneous event or a lifelong process?  How do native Christians sustain or recover a sense of native identity, and how do they maintain or formulate a sense of Christian identity?  Are the terms “native Christian” and “Christian native” interchangeable, or does each one imply a hierarchy of identity that represents more than just a linguistic distinction?  These essays offer autobiographical insights on the complex religious choices many individual native Christians make.  Native Christian writers are illuminating the ways in which religious identity unfolds in response to the challenges of daily life, and they are testifying to the importance of religious motivations and behaviors in maintaining personal, family, and community relationships.  They are struggling with institutional churches and private insecurities, social dysfunction and substance addiction, elders’ teachings and children’s demands.  Native Christians are drawing strength from living traditions and actively constructing their own meaningful, viable religious identities.

Moving Forward

What does the future hold for native Christians, and for native Christian narrative discourse?  The road gets rough in places; it is hard to be misunderstood by so many people for such a long time.  Sometimes the obstacles seem too great and the passion for the journey fades, healing visions become obscured by painful realities, hope gives way to despair.  We can take heart in knowing that the spirit of resistance and survival that inspired Dr. Eastman, Queen Liliuokalani, and Rev. Apess is alive today among native Christians throughout the United States and Canada, who are continuing their centuries-long struggle for religious self-determination.  Native Christian narrative discourse is only the latest expression of an enduring struggle over goals that are worthwhile and honorable:  respect, equality, independence, peace.

This collective voice represents a reasoned attempt to persuade the dominant culture and the religious establishment to acknowledge the undeniable veracity of native Christian identities.  This pluralistic voice expresses the intellectual acumen of an ongoing debate, crossing tribal borders and denominational boundaries, about the nature of native Christian life.  This intimate voice alludes to the intensely personal dimension of the struggle, the challenge to find faith in the midst of conflict, described so eloquently by Laverne Jacobs (Ojibwa) as “a lifelong dialogue with self,” uncovering “different aspects of that reality like the many facets of a precious gem.”  Native Christian narrative discourse is native literature; it is liberation theology; it is each of these, and more.  Native Christian narrative discourse is a hallmark of patient persistence and a herald of spiritual healing; like Charles Alexander Eastman, native Christians today are helping men and women “of another race” to understand “the religion of the Indian.”

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