The Evolution of Christianity
The Christian Population has played many roles in the lives of the indigenous populations, some positive and some not so positive. Each role has played a key part in Native lives and therefore it is important to note each of these roles as it helps to not only understand our own histories but also to be able to understand from the Native perspective what has transpired.
In the early stages of the North American histories the Native people started to learn of the European Populations. Naturally this created a curiosity with the Native people regarding who they were. Some were of course speculative and some were curious. For the Europeans discovering this native population had them curious as well and given that they couldn't speak the language the Europeans and the Native populations worked with each other to educate each other regarding their customs and ways. This early period is called Exploration where each party learned from the other party in hopes of being able to understand the populations they were working with.
During this time as well the Native people began to see the advantages that this European population brought to them. They had guns which made it easier for hunting. They had cloth that was woven and ships that were able to traverse the waters in a different way than them. During this time the Jesuits also had their early connection with the Native populations. The Jesuits often created the first maps of the country given their propensity to travel. This is the period in which the Catholic Faith notes the martyrs of those who worked with the Indigenous populations which later paves the understanding that Native people are dangerous and need to become Christians in order to let go of their violent ways. Often during this period of history the European's tendency to murder or use the Natives to bring forward their own wars against other country's trying to claim the land is diminished.
During this stage the United States Government and Canada's Government financially supported missionaries coming to the region. The prime purpose of this stage is to have the Native populations become Christian. Part of the governments desires for this are for it's own motives. If the Natives armed themselves against the government, the government would retaliate. Often this meant that there were mass number of casualties in the Native populations and this equally would cause casualties in the United States military. Oftentimes the government would send missionaries over to Native regions in advance of their negotiations to cede their territories. This would allow the government the ability to have easier negotiations with the Native populations for these lands and would allow settlers to come into the region without disturbance.
During this stage of Christianity more missionaries worked hand in hand with the governments agenda's given that they were financially supported by the government. During this stage there was a greater tendency for the missionaries to demonize the Native cultures and traditions. Even sometimes a simple Native tradition like carrying a cradleboard on their back would be seen as Pagan and wrong. There was a staunch line drawn between the Native way of living and the European way of living. During this time if the Natives went to the Christian missionaries for help even with English so that they could understand what was happening at the treaties often times the missionaries would turn away the Natives if they did not wish to become Christian in return for their help. Due to these practices, the Native populations hypocrisy between what was being taught in their churches and what the missionaries were actually doing. This created even a greater disparagement for the Native populations to want to learn about Christianity. Nevertheless, it was the ardent desire of the missionaries to gain as many Native people to the Christian Churches as they could without sacrificing their foothold that their religion was superior to that of the Native's religions.
In many ways the advocation period started happening with the Indian Removal act that was implemented in 1830 which created a division between the eastern side of the United States and the western with the division line being the Mississippi River. Prior to the implementation of this act many Natives on the eastern side of the Mississippi had already began the process of assimilation. They had even begun learning the English language in schools and teaching it to their offspring. There were even some Natives who were land owners and even had African American Slaves working for them. Some of the Natives had even married Europeans or African Americans and thus had offspring that were both Native and European or African in blood.
The Indian Removal Act created a mass amount of challenge then with Europeans who had associated themselves with the Native populations. This removal act created additional problems in attempting to determine who ultimately should be removed from the region due to families now being connected who were both a mix of Native and European. During this time there were a number of Missionaries east of the Mississippi River who argued against the governments resolve to relocate their Native brothers and sisters. Groups would gather together in protest. The United States Government then started to have to create punishments for those who were not willing to go along with their desires to relocate the Native populations.
Ultimately, by 1837, about 100,000 Native people were removed from their lands which became known as the Trail of Tears by many. During this time there were a few missionaries who had decided to join the Native populations among the journey. By the end of the trail of tears approximately 15,000 Natives had lost their lives.
During this period there was a staunch line drawn between what was Christian and the Native practices. During this time we can see the transition which has stuck to today which includes renaming of the Natives Sacred Sites to places like "Devil's Tower" and "Witch Tree". During this time the Native traditional dances, their languages and practices were all seen as something that was Satanic. This was the time in which these dances, rites, rituals, traditions and languages also became banned in the United States Government and a time in which the saying, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" became a common slogan amongst the churches who were determined to 'save' the Native person from their Pagan ways.
This is also the time in which the Native populations began to be seen as violent even though the Native populations dwindled the most during this time in comparison to the high rate of settlers who were encroaching on their regions west of the Mississippi. Movies made the White Settlers the heroes in movies that came about later on which showcased this 'Cowboys and Indians' kind of landscape which historically took place in the Dakota such as North Dakota and South Dakota. These clashes between white settlers and the Dakota populations, such as can be seen in the Dakota uprising of 1862, created the landscape in which the Native populations were now seen as strictly demonic by the white populations.
Although assimilation has ties to the time when Europeans first arrived, assimilation really took hold when the boarding schools were in full operation. During this time the government implemented programs that completely disallowed the Native population to participate in their cultural practices and languages. The boarding schools implemented these same understandings in the school system for the Native children as well which eliminated even the family ties to their children as well. The goal of assimilation then was the completely strip the Native populations of all of their tradition and to tie a Euro-centered way of living instead on them.
There was a story that happened during this timeframe in which a Native's person's hair was cut at one of the boarding schools. He said he remembered the moment in which his hair was cut and then looking in that moment of a cross with Christ on it. He said he remembered thinking of the irony in that moment staring at Christ and wondering why it was that he had to cut his hair when Christ didn't.
One might argue that separation began when the boarding schools were created, but we can truly see how separation continued to be created even through the era of the boarding schools. Separation though, in the way that it is understood here, is less about how Europeans separated themselves from the Native populations and more about when the Native populations separated themselves from the Europeans and claim their traditions again.
This timeframe took a large amount of effort on the Native populations part to be able to be seen and be heard. This is a time when AIM (the American Indian Movement) became popular amongst the Native populations which began in the year of 1968. The Natives put themselves in the way of the government and other organizations to be able to regain their rights back again. The Natives also at this time started to stand up for their treaty rights as well which resulted in situations such as what has been dubbed the Walleye Wars.
In the end these situations resulted in the government overturning it's previous actions to prevent the Native populations from participating in their ceremonies and traditions and also granted the Native populations the rights to be able to speak their languages again. During this timeframe though there was additional challenges that were created with how the Native populations were seen. The media then started to portray the Native populations as though they were argumentative and angry. This is what happens to a population though when you have hundreds of years of oppression and the primary populations you are surrounded by continues to carry old and uneducated beliefs about the Native populations. Separation ensues as it is easier to live outside of this primary community and bring back the beliefs to which you are accustomed and feel connected to. This era then created the beginning for the next evolution.
During this stage the Native cultures have had the ability to educate the public on who they really are. During this stage the monuments in the United States which celebrated who once were considered 'war heroes' against the Native populations or people who led to our great country called the United States started to be seen for the actions that they actually brought forward in the world. The educational system, though still far behind where it needs to be, started to include greater Native histories. Museums started to include a time before the 'discovery of America' when sharing about the Native connections to the land and people are starting to recognize what tribes lived on their locations prior to the settlement of Europeans. Names of locations have even been changed back to their traditional Native names. Even Columbus day has been more broadly known as Indigenous Peoples day.
During this timeframe also is when the discovery of the 215 became known which shared with the world the amount of challenges that the Native population has gone through in relation to the boarding schools. The United States more broadly then began its journey towards understanding the number of children that have been lost in the boarding schools and ultimately what the Native populations went through throughout our histories. During this time the Pope went on what is considered a Pilgrimage for Penance to bring greater attention and awareness to the Native histories and to help set the stage for peace between the Native populations and the Christian populations. That is the stage called...
This is the building back and repairing and making amends for the wrongs that have taken place throughout our histories. In our reflection we can see as the scriptures say that we cannot look at the beam in the Native's eye without looking at the Mote in our own eye. Only when we see what we have truly done and reflect upon it do we have the ability then to say anything to our brother about what he might need to learn. And if we think that we are in a place we can do this, then I know for a fact we need to look more.
Let me share with you a story. I have a relative in my family who was a Jesuit priest. He was brought into the concentration camps in Germany during World War II which was a place that was set aside for anyone who opposed Hitler. During this time Mass was banned for my relative. Although it was banned and they knew there were severe consequences for practicing Mass, my relative and other priests practiced Mass anyway. These people who chose to keep their religion despite persecution were celebrated for the efforts they had to go through to retain it. I think of this story often when I think of the Native populations. They were persecuted by Christians for hundreds of years and told that their religion, their way of seeing the world was wrong. They were then forced into the concentration camps of the United States with the government starving them at will and handing out consequences if they practiced what was a part of their culture and heritage. If they went off the concentration camps they were able to be murdered. Only with their perseverance and their non-violent protesting (only in rare occasions was their violence on the part of the Natives) were they able to gain back some of their rights. So if I were to apply the principle of "do unto others as they would do unto me" how would that relate in this scenario? What would we have wanted if another person did all that they could to take away our Christian religion? Would we have wanted their help to bring it back again and to finally be understood? Of course we would.
As Christians we might not ever understand the whole of the Native traditions and beliefs. We are inquisitive and sometimes want to know, but their culture has been built upon for centuries just as ours has. In this situation the most we can do is to provide them the means to help undo the harms that we have done and to create a space space for them to be able to heal from the harms that we have created. It is our way of being able to make amends with our fellow brothers and sisters on whose land we are privileged to live upon. We owe them at least that much, but really so much more.