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First Published in 1999. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.
Deloria's recent book Red Earth, White Lies places tribal tradition and Western science in conversation around the question of planetary history. Framing scientific narratives as secular manifestations of religious beliefs and practices, he wants to disrupt the epistemological authority of scientific orthodoxy while simultaneously recovering the historical knowledge contained in tribal mythic narratives. This juxtaposition of colonial ideologies and indigenous realities has been a familiar weapon in Deloria's discursive arsenal and is evident in his earliest writings. The essays in this first section explore the complex relationship between Christian denominations and tribal activists, between institutions and movements, between the static center and the dynamic margins. The dialectic of rationality and experience is always evident in social relations; here we find Deloria examining this process at the conflicted intersections of religion and racial politics in America.
"Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum" is excerpted from Custer Died for Your Sins and constitutes his first published critique of institutional Christianity, though it picks up on themes he explored four years earlier in his widely circulated parody "The Missionary in a Cultural Trap" (see Appendix 1). Deloria's assessment of the missionary enterprise and its aftermath highlights the symbiotic relationship between cross-cultural proselytism and land dispossession in colonial contexts. Institutionalizing religious colonialism in tribalcommunities has produced the state of mutual dependency that still exists wherever there are mission churches on reservation lands, and declining congregations are justifiably threatened by the renewal of homeland traditions.
In the next two essays, Deloria surveys the highly publicized occupations and protests that made "Red Power" widely known, if not generally understood. "The Theological Dimension of the Indian Protest Movement" was originally published as a cover story (accompanied by an interview with Deloria) in The Christian Century, a liberal Protestant weekly news magazine. "Religion and Revolution Among American Indians" appeared a few months later in Worldview, a monthly publication of the Council on Religion and International Affairs, in a special issue examining U.S. culpability in several recent "regional" military conflicts. Both essays chronicle the rise of tribal political activism and explore "the relation of the present Indian movement to the problems, ideologies and energies of domestic America." The occupation of Alcatraz Island raised the question of land as a fundamental dilemma; activists were widely misunderstood because they pursued goals that are religious in origin. Christian churches have exacerbated this situation by overlooking the importance of both nature and culture in favor of an other-worldly individualism. Out of this "mass of contradictions," Deloria issues a call for reformed social relations and innovative tribal traditions, all grounded in a moral vision of human existence.
Deloria reflects on one of the key protest strategies of the sixties and seventies in "Non-Violence in American Society," which was the lead article for a thematic issue of Katallagete--Be Reconciled, the quarterly journal of the Committee of Southern Churchmen based in Nashville, Tennessee. Struggling to make sense of the movement in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he examines the assumptions about human nature that undergird both political citizenship and religious commitment. We are still searching for a minimum definition of human decency on which to base our pursuit of social justice. Quoting an organic metaphor used by the biblical prophet Jeremiah, Deloria emphasizes the creative power of redemptive suffering and concludes that "the non-violent response to conditions is perhaps the most explosive method of change available to the human species."
The last two essays in this section offer retrospective insights on the intersections of religion and racial politics. "The Churches and Cultural Change" is chapter five of The Indian Affair. This succinct assessment of Christian missions is more measured and balanced than the polemical criticisms of Custer Died for Your Sins, and Deloria concludes by emphasizing the vital role denominational churches can play as "a tangible expression of whatever sense of morality or integrity American society has left." Describing the situation since 1960 as "the `ideological' period of church involvement with American Indians," he expands on this "decade of disaster" in his autobiographical account "GCSP: The Demons at Work." This essay was originally presented at a conference on Episcopal Church history and was subsequently published in the Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church for a special issue assessing that denomination's recent outreach efforts. Here Deloria offers a detailed case study of how one mainline denomination responded to the power movements. Criticizing the self-serving excesses of church officials and activist leaders alike, he concludes that effective social change must be rooted in dependable, long-term relationships: "We badly need a consistent and comprehensive theology which relates human experiences of divinity in an intelligent context and speaks to human conditions that the secularization of the old Christian worldview has created. We must understand our separate historical journeys and come to see ourselves as planetary peoples with responsibilities extending to all parts and beings of the universe.... We must come to see that real differences exist among the various groups that come into contact with ecclesiastical institutions and that these differences make it imperative that church programs are not conceived as a homogenous solution to be applied with force and intolerance to conditions and peoples." This autobiographical narrative also depicts Deloria's struggle as both insider and outsider to the institutional church as well as the activist movement, functioning alternately as advocate or critic depending on the situation and the audience, pushed and pulled from both directions, negotiating his own personal intersection of religion and racial politics.
THE RELIGIOUS VACUUM
One of the major problems of the Indian people is the missionary. It has been said of missionaries that when they arrived they had only the Book and we had the land; now we have the Book and they have the land. An old Indian once told me that when the missionaries arrived they fell on their knees and prayed. Then they got up, fell on the Indians, and preyed.
Columbus managed to combine religion and real estate in his proclamation of discovery, claiming the new world for Catholicism and Spain. Missionaries have been unable to distinguish between their religious mission and their hunger for land since that time.
The first concern of mission work was land on which to build churches, homes, storehouses, and other necessary religious monuments. Like the men from New England in Hawaii by Michener, missionaries on the North American continent came to preach and stayed to rule. Or at least prepared the way for others to conquer and exploit.
Sacrifices often matched mistakes. Missionaries did more to open up the West than any other group, but in doing so they increased the possibility of exploitation of the people they purported to save. Land acquisition and missionary work always went hand in hand in American history.
While the thrust of Christian missions was to save the individual Indian, its result was to shatter Indian societies and destroy the cohesiveness of the Indian communities. Tribes that resisted the overtures of the missionaries seemed to survive. Tribes that converted were never heard of again. Where Christianity failed, and insofar as it failed, Indians were able to withstand the cultural deluge that threatened to engulf them.
The conflict between the Indian and white religions was classic. Each religion expressed the outlook and understanding of its respective group. Religious ideas of the two groups never confronted each other directly. The conflict was one of rites and techniques. Christianity destroyed many Indian religious practices by offering a much easier and more practical religion. It was something one could immediately understand, not a paving of the way for what ultimately confronted one.
The credal rhetoric of Christianity filled the vacuum it had created by its redefinition of religion as a commodity to be controlled. Although prohibited for several generations, Indian beliefs have always retained the capacity to return from their exile because they have always related to the Indian's deepest concern....
Missionaries approached the Indian tribes in an effort to bring them into western European religious life. Their primary message sought to invalidate the totality of Indian life and replace it with Christian values. Because Christian reality had been broken into credal definitions, all the missionaries could present to the Indians were words and phrases that had a magical connotation.
Missionaries looked at the feats of the medicine men and proclaimed them to be works of the devil. They overlooked the fact that the medicine men were able to do marvelous things. Above all, they overlooked the fact that what the Indian medicine men did worked.
Most activity centered on teaching and preaching. The thrust was to get the Indians to memorize the Large Catechism, the Small Catechism, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments, and other magic rites and formulas dear to Christianity. Salvation became a matter of regurgitation of creeds. In a very real sense, then, Christianity replaced living religions with magic.
And the white man had much magic. Blessed with the gun, the printing press, the iron kettle, and whiskey, it was obvious to many Indians that the white man's god took pretty good care of his people. Since there were no distinctions made between religion and life's other activities by the Indian people, the natural tendency was to adopt the white religion of recitation and forego the rigors of fasting, sacrifice, and prayer.
Missionary activity became an earthly parallel of what Christians thought was happening in heaven. Like the rich burghers of Europe, whom God bribed with earthly treasures, missionaries bribed their way into Indian societies. Once established, they began the laborious task of imprinting two thousand years of sterile dogmas on the unstructured Indian psyche....
The determination of white churches to keep Indian congregations in a mission status is their greatest sin. But it is more a sin against themselves than it is against Indian people. For the national churches do not realize how obsolete their conceptions have become and they continue to tread the same path they walked centuries ago.
The epitome of this blithe ignorance is the work of the Presbyterian Church among the Shinnecocks on Long Island. At a missionary conference two years ago, a Presbyterian minister, in charge of the Indian work for his denomination, described his church's work among this tribe. Then he asked for questions.
I asked him how long the Presbyterians intended to conduct mission activities among a tribe that had lived as Christians for over three hundred and fifty years. His answer to my question was representative of Christian attitudes toward Indian people today: "Until the job is done."
Christianity, which had laid the ancient world prostrate in less than three hundred years and conquered the mighty Roman Empire, has not been able in the same time period to subdue one hundred Indians huddled on Long Island. Needless to say, my faith was shaken to the core by this statement.
The impotence and irrelevancy of the Christian message has meant a return to traditional religion by Indian people. Tribal religions are making a strong comeback on most reservations. Only in the past few years have the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux revived their ancient Sioux Sun Dance. And this revival is not simply a reenactment for tourists. The dance is done in the most reverent manner and with the old custom of piercing the dancers' breasts.
Pathetically, the response of the white missionaries has been to set up tipis and attempt to compete with the Indian religion by holding Masses and communions during the celebration. Nervously they try to convince the Indians that the Sun Dance and the Holy Communion are really the same thing and that Christianity is therefore "relevant" to the Indian people.
In the Great Lakes area the old Medicine Lodge religion has been making inroads with the Chippewas and Winnebagos. Two years ago at an annual conference of the Wisconsin tribes, a panel of Indians discussed native religions. Eagerly the younger conference participants listened to the old men talk. They left that conference with the conviction that Indian religion was for Indian people and Christian religion was for whites.
The Native American Church, famed for its use of the peyote button in its sacramental worship life, has doubled its membership in the last few years. It appears to be the religion of the future among the Indian people. At first a southwestern-based religion, it has spread since the last world war into a great number of northern tribes. Eventually it will replace Christianity among the Indian people.
When I was growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation before and during World War II, the Native American Church was something far away and officially "bad." Few adherents to this faith could be found among the two large Sioux reservations in southern South Dakota. Today a reasonable estimate would be that some 40 percent of the people are members of the Native American Church there.
Indian people have always been confused at the public stance of the Christian churches. The churches preached peace for years yet have always endorsed the wars in which the nation has been engaged. While the missionaries have never spoken about this obvious inconsistency, Indian people have been curious about it for some time. So the element of Indian people who believe deeply in pacifism has looked to other places for a religion of peace.
From the Hopi reservation has come a prophet of peace named Thomas Banyacya. He stands within the old Hopi religion and preaches to all Indians of their need to return to a life of peace and purity before the world ends. In 1967 Banyacya and some members of the Iroquois tribes traveled throughout the nation visiting the different reservations, bringing a message based on the prophecies of the Hopi and Iroquois. In June of 1968 Banyacya, "Mad Bear" Anderson, a Tuscarora prophet, and many of the traditional leaders of different tribes had two National Aboriginal conventions in Oklahoma and New York to discuss prophecies of their religion.
Banyacya's message, and its ultimate influence, appears to me to be the most significant movement in religion in Indian Affairs today. Banyacya is very spiritual and highly traditional. He stands solidly within Hopi legend which looks at world history as a catastrophic series of events all of which the Hopi have been saved from. In the late fifties a Hopi delegation went to the United Nations to deliver a message of peace, as Hopi prophecies had required them to do. Legends said that should the Hopi delegation be refused entrance--as they were--the series of events foretelling the end of the world would begin. Banyacya's message to other Indian people is to orient them as to the number of prophecies now fulfilled....
The dilemma of Christian missions today is great. National churches have committed two great mistakes, the solution of which depends upon their foresight and ability to reconcile themselves to what they have been preaching to Indian people for years.
The different denominations have, over the years, invested an enormous amount of money in mission buildings and property. In the closing years of the last century, churches could receive a piece of tribal land simply by promising to conduct certain operations such as a school, hospital, or mission station. Consequently many of them applied for and received a great deal of tribal land.
Now they are caught with property which is suitable only for religious use and with a declining religious following. What use has a church building other than as a church? National churches have continued to pour thousands of dollars annually into their mission programs simply to keep up the value of their investments. They must soon be prepared either to take a devastating paper loss as their congregations vanish or give the properties to the Indian people for their own use. Either solution is distasteful to the materialistic instincts of the churches.
Added to the question of property is the obvious racial discrimination of the denominations against the Indian people, which is becoming apparent to the reservation people. Try as they might, the churches cannot admit that an Indian minister speaking in his native tongue to his own people is more efficient and more effective than a highly trained white missionary talking nonsense.
The major denominations are adamant in their determination to exclude Indian people from the ministry. A number of devices, which skirt "official" pronouncements of concern for an indigenous ministry, are used to bar Indian candidates.
One church refuses to admit Indians to the ministry because it is afraid that someday an Indian priest or clergyman may want to serve in a white parish. Indian ministers would not, by definition, be able to serve in a white parish. Therefore, the reasoning goes, they are not suitable for work among Indian congregations either. While they are welcome, I have been told, they don't seem to be able to qualify.
Other churches are frightened that when the sacred doctrines are translated into the native tongue, the subtle nuances created by theologians of the Reformation will lose some of their distinctions. A perfect example of this attitude happened at an orientation session for new missionaries which I attended in 1963.
A Navajo interpreter was asked to demonstrate how the missionary's sermon was translated into Navajo. So the white missionary gave a few homilies and the interpreter spoke a few words of Navajo. The trainees cooed with satisfaction that meaning could actually be transferred into a barbaric tongue like Navajo.
One missionary was skeptical, however, and asked if there were specific words in Navajo that were comparable to English words. He was afraid, he said, that the wrong messages might be transmitted. So he asked what the Navajo word for "faith" was. Quickly the Navajo replied with the desired word.
"Yes," the missionary commented, "that's all very nice. Now what does that word mean?"
"Faith," said the Navajo smiling.
Nevertheless, many denominations are skeptical about letting Indians enter the ministry because of the possibility that doctrine may become impure. So they continue to send white missionaries for posts in Indian country to ensure that the proper theological distinctions be drawn.
With the necessity of keeping large missions open and by refusing to bring Indian people into the ministry, churches have had great difficulty in filling their mission posts. The glory of intrepid pioneering is now gone, and the glory seekers as well as the devoted have long since written off Indian country as the place for service and advancement. Staff positions go unfilled for months and often the first white who comes wandering in across the desert is hired to operate the mission stations.
Some churches have an incredible turnover each spring and try all summer to fill their posts. Eventually they find some white who is a former basketball coach, a retired editor, an interested layman, or an exschoolteacher and promptly hand over the mission lock, stock, and barrel without further inquiry. The fact that the new appointee is white is sufficient to cover any theological or professional shortcomings.
Thus the quality of mission workers is at an all-time low. Most are not interested in their work and regard it as a job rather than a calling. Generally they have great contempt for the Indian people they are supposed to be helping.
But probably worse, much mission work is done by white clergymen who are not capable enough to run white parishes. In most cases, the Indian field is their last stop before leaving the ministry altogether. They are hauled from pillar to post by frantic church officials desperately trying to shore up the sagging fortunes of their mission fields. A great deal of money is spent covering up disasters created by these white misfits. When they cause too much controversy in one place they are transferred to another and turned loose again. More money is spent on them than on recruitment and training of Indian people for church work.
Pay is not high in mission work for either white or Indian workers. But it is universally higher for whites than it is for Indians. In the past there was some justification for a pay difference. Many Indian workers were only part-time workers and had another source of income. Gradually, however, Indian clergymen were assigned to remote areas and received less compensation.
Often the pay scale is based primarily upon whether a man is white or Indian. Indians receive less pay, even with seminary training. And Indians are still assigned to the remote areas with the poorest housing and least facilities. Go out to any mission field today and examine the placement of church workers and clergymen. You will discover that white workers have the best assignments, the best houses, the best fringe benefits, and receive the most consideration for advancement from their superiors.
No other field of endeavor in America today has as much blatant racial discrimination as does the field of Christian missions to the American Indian people. It is a marvel that so many Indian people still want to do work for the churches.
Documentation of discrimination and favoritism would be fairly easy were it not for the fantastic ability of the churches to cover their tracks. Instead of forcing resignations from the ministry, church officials transfer incompetents from station to station in order to protect the good name of the church. Thus some tribes are visited with a problem missionary who should have been sent on his way years ago but who has managed to hang on to his ministerial status by periodic transfer and the lack of moral courage by church officials to take action....
The best thing that the national denominations could do to ensure the revitalization of Christian missions among Indian people would be to assist in the creation of a national Indian Christian Church. Such a church would incorporate all existing missions and programs into one national church to be wholly in the hands of Indian people.
Such a church would include all ordained Indian clergymen now serving as church workers in the Indian field. The actual form of the ministry would not be determined by obsolete theological distinctions preserved from the middle ages, but would rather incorporate the most feasible role that religion can now play in the expanding reservation societies.
Each denomination that has been putting funds into Indian work would contribute toward the total budget of the new church. Existing buildings and church structures would be evaluated by the new Indian church and the tribal council of the reservation on which the property is located. Congregations of the various denominations would be consolidated and reservation-wide boards of laymen would direct activities on each reservation.
With the religious function integrated into the ongoing life of the tribe, the Indian church would be able to achieve self-support in a short time as the role of religion clarified itself to the reservation communities. Religious competition, which fractures present tribal life, would disappear and the movement toward ancient religions might not be so crucial.
Such a proposal is too comprehensive for most denominations to accept at the present time. The primary fear of turning over the sacred white religion to a group of pagans would probably outrage most denominations, too few of whom realize how ridiculous denominational competition really is.
The best example I can mention of denominational competition existed at Farmington, New Mexico, a couple of years ago. The situation has probably changed since 1965. But that year there were twenty-six different churches serving an estimated Navajo population of 250. That's less than ten Indians per denomination! Assuming each church had a choir of eight, the congregations must have totaled one or two people per Sunday. Which does not indicate a field ready for harvest.
I estimated that the total mission budget for the Farmington area that year was in excess of $250,000. Christianity, not tourism, was Farmington's most profitable industry in 1965.
Churches face literal dissolution on the reservations unless they radically change their method of operation. Younger Indians are finding in Indian nationalism and tribal religions sufficient meaning to continue their drift away from the established churches. Even though many churches had chaplaincies in the government boarding schools, the young are not accepting missionary overtures like their fathers and mothers did.
As Indian nationalism continues to rise, bumper stickers like "God is Red" will take on new meanings. Originally put out at the height of Altizer's "God is Dead" theological pronouncements, the slogan characterizes the trend in Indian religion today.
Many Indians believe that the Indian gods will return when the Indian people throw out the white man's religion and return to the ways of their fathers. Whether or not this thinking is realistic is not the question. Rather the question is one of response and responsibility of the missionaries today. Will they continue to be a burden or not?
Can the white man's religion make one final effort to be real, or must it too vanish like its predecessors from the old world? I personally would like to see Indians return to their old religions wherever possible. For me at least, Christianity has been a sham to cover over the white man's shortcomings. Yet I spent four years in a seminary finding out for myself where Christianity had fallen short.
I believe that an Indian version of Christianity could do much for our society. But there is little chance for such a melding of cards. Everyone in the religious sphere wants his trump to play on the last trick. In the meantime, Banyacya, Mad Bear Anderson, and others are silently changing the game from pinochle to one where all fifty-two cards are wild. They may, if the breaks fall their way, introduce religion to this continent once again.
|Introduction. An American Critique of Religion||1|
|1||White Church, Red Power||19|
|1||Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum||22|
|2||The Theological Dimension of the Indian Protest Movement||31|
|3||Religion and Revolution Among American Indians||36|
|4||Non-Violence in American Society||44|
|5||The Churches and Cultural Change||51|
|6||GCSP: The Demons at Work||58|
|7||A Violated Covenant||72|
|8||An Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches in America||77|
|9||It Is a Good Day to Die||84|
|10||Escaping from Bankruptcy: The Future of the Theological Task||92|
|12||Vision and Community||108|
|III||Worldviews in Collision||119|
|13||Religion and the Modern American Indian||122|
|14||Native American Spirituality||130|
|15||Civilization and Isolation||135|
|16||Christianity and Indigenous Religion: Friends or Enemies?||145|
|IV||Habits of the State||163|
|17||Completing the Theological Circle: Civil Religion in America||166|
|18||American Indians and the Moral Community||175|
|19||A Simple Question of Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of the Reburial Issue||187|
|20||Sacred Lands and Religious Freedom||203|
|21||Worshiping the Golden Calf: Freedom of Religion in Scalia's America||214|
|22||Secularism, Civil Religion, and the Religious Freedom of American Indians||218|
|V||Old Ways in a New World||229|
|23||Introduction to Black Elk Speaks||232|
|24||The Coming of the People||235|
|25||Out of Chaos||243|
|26||Reflection and Revelation: Knowing Land, Places and Ourselves||250|
|27||Is Religion Possible? An Evaluation of Present Efforts to Revive Traditional Tribal Religions||261|
|28||Introduction to Vision Quest||269|
|Afterword. Contemporary Confusion and the Prospective Religious Life||273|
|App. 1||The Missionary in a Cultural Trap||283|
|App. 2||From the Archives - December 2, 1504||295|