Native American Christianities
Michael D. McNally takes an in depth look at a largely unexplored subject - Native American Christianity.
BY: Michael D. McNally
Of course, a consideration of what Native people have done with the Christian tradition must include consideration of the colonial context and the tragic legacies of the missionary encounter. But it must also reckon fully with how Native Christians remade missionary Christianity not simply through a process of translation but through a creative and complex transposition through Native religious idioms of practice and belief.
The Varieties of Native American Christian Practice
If their connection to the Christian tradition unites such a wide range of instances, the first word in any careful consideration of Native American Christians must be “diversity,” for Native Christianities reflect three different sources of variation: the dynamics of indigenous religions, the varieties of missionaries and the contexts of their encounters with Native people, and finally the artful creativity of Native Christians themselves.
It may seem counterintuitive, given the position of many Christian missionaries—that they were bringing the gospel to peoples without religion—but Native peoples’ own aboriginal religions did much to equip them to make something of missionary Christianity. Native religions have differed greatly across more than 500 recognized tribes speaking over 200 languages and informing economies and cultural ecologies tied to landscapes ranging from Alaska’s tundra to Florida’s swamps. For some, the circle is sacred; for others, the square is sacred; for some, the salmon or the whale are sacred; for still others, wild rice or the cultivated corn plant are sacred.
Still, the many religious traditions indigenous to North America share the distinctive dynamics of, first, orality and, second, profound connections to specific landscapes and lifeways tied to living well on those landscapes. These shared characteristics produce a rich variety of highly sophisticated traditions of religious belief and practice, but they also produce religious traditions that are highly— make that profoundly— local, and thus set in sharp contrast to the universalizing claims of missionary Christianity. Joseph Epes Brown called the ethos of religious relativism that belongs to many indigenous traditions “non-exclusive cumulative adhesion,” a term whose very awkwardness suggests the ill fit between wooden analytical abstractions of systemic religion and supple indigenous traditions of practice.2 Sam Gill and others have noted that Native religions proceed more in terms of the logic of religious practice than they do in terms of the logic of insistence on orthodoxy or theological consistency. These approaches each suggest in their own ways that aboriginal religions have predisposed Native people to regard missionary Christianity as a resource among others rather than as the all-or nothing tradition that missionaries so consistently proffered.3
Secondly, the diversity of Native American Christianity owes much to the variety of encounters with missionaries representing the whole gamut of American Christendom: Roman Catholics, Protestants, Russian Orthodox, Moravians, Mormons, Pentecostals, and others. Missionaries represented the great variety of distinctions their respective denominational traditions carried in terms of doctrine, ritual, and ethos. Added to denominational variables are those of historical context, and especially of the particularities of the relationship between missionaries and the agencies of political, economic, and cultural colonialism extended over nearly 400 different treaties and successive waves of U.S. Indian policy.