God's Politics

Randy WoodleyI recently spoke and taught at a Christian college in Pennsylvania during their annual missions week. The students took the challenge from a Native American well and they asked some very good questions. I was impressed at their engagement with the world. Before arriving at the school I stopped in Carlisle, PA, at what remains of the very first American Indian Boarding School in America. This relatively forgotten chapter in American history remains unknown to many—but not to Native Americans. It is the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”

I’ll relate to you the short version. Richard Henry Pratt, commanding officer of a unit of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” and Indian Scouts at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was given the task to re-incorporate Indian prisoners of war into a civilized life. He set up what amounted to a strict military training system at the Ft. Marion prison in St. Augustine, Florida to reform these former warriors. After release, the warriors generally went “back to the blanket,” returning to their preferred former lifestyles of freedom, however truncated it now seemed.

Pratt’s grand experiment of “assimilation through total immersion” was then directed towards the children of Native Americans. Taken from their families from as young as six years old, sometimes never to see them again, or not until after graduation, the children of five generations of Native Americans grew up institutionalized. In 1879, the first site of what would become hundreds of these Indian Boarding Schools throughout the U.S. and Canada opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pratt’s mantra became the call of missions: “kill the Indian, save the man.” The worst of this era lasted almost 100 years.

The conditions were much the same regardless of location or country: strict and swift punishment for students who spoke in their native language or “acted Indian”; a rigorous military lifestyle, mal-nourishment, isolation from family, long and difficult work hours, and short school hours for industrial school (common jobs after graduation became domestic servants for women, and the military, mostly as “cannon fodder,” for men). Severe humiliation was a common punishment. Also beatings, rape, sodomy, and torture happened much more frequently than most admit. How were the children given over to such sadistic places?

Often at the behest and manipulation of the missionary. Indian agents sometimes threatened to cut off rations from reservation families if they did not send their children for “betterment.” Missionaries and government Indian Agents often worked together towards this common purpose. Occasionally, outright kidnapping was used as a last resort. Remember, to many American minds at that time, “civilization” was part and parcel of one’s salvation. And, this was, after all, for the Indian’s own welfare.

I stopped at the first gas station in Carlisle to ask where the Indian School was located. I was hoping for a museum or at least a memorial of some kind. No one understood the question. Forgotten so soon … Finally, I was directed to the Army War College that has since taken over the grounds. I found out from a policeman that the only vestige remaining from the Indian school was the cemetery and a former stockade (a prison cell for Indian children). The cemetery was located outside the checkpoint so I decided I could skip seeing the stockade. The irony of the army searching my person and my car struck me as something I couldn’t emotionally bear at the time.

There I stood, on a four-foot wide grass strip next to busy traffic, observing the one tangible symbol of the results of what was considered to be the best of conventional native missionary methods of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Aside from disease, the Indian Boarding Schools have likely done more harm than anything else to cause the near genocide of Native American people and native cultures. Some say the boarding schools had a higher death rate than some Nazi concentration camps, and they were sustained for a longer period of time.

I read the names and tribal affiliation of every gravestone in the cemetery, Apache, Cheyenne, Sioux, Cherokee, Pawnee, Shoshone—the range of Indian nations surprised me. Most of the children died at about age 10. Over 10,000 Indian students went through Carlisle from over 140 tribes according to the road marker and Carlisle was the first of many. Today, Native American families reap the malignant results of these well-intentioned efforts of the United States Government and Christian mission agencies. Some tribes and reservations suffer much more than others. Throughout Indian Country the aftermath is measured by our grim statistics; lowest education attainment, highest poverty, highest suicide, etc., etc. etc.

As I stood in front of several thousand college students I asked if any of them knew what their own Bible College (at that time) was doing while Native American children were being brutalized, raped, and starved only a few miles away? The answer was obvious. What was occurring at Carlisle and the other Indian Boarding schools, was considered the best thing for Indians at the time. It of course, can be argued that at the time most of America only knew of the culture abuse. And I would argue, that information alone was enough to act upon.
The Government has held various policies in the past towards Native Americans including extermination, assimilation, re-organization, termination, self-determination, etc. (strange how so many of the names of past policies have “termination” in them). I asked the students (especially the evangelicals present) if any of them knew when their particular Mission Agency’s policies concerning Native American mission had reversed itself? The question is quite daunting.
I’d be the first to admit that there have been some noble attempts by both government and mission agencies to do the right thing. I would also point out that most efforts were short sighted, self-serving, and continued in the path of hegemony. If you could ask your favorite local mission group to tell you when and how they have reversed the trend of trying to make Indians into White people, I for one, would like to know.

Our Indian churches, regardless of denomination or non-denomination, are usually very small and somewhat un-healthy. Many, perhaps most, of our churches still have White missionaries or pastors. The greatest majority of them do not reflect their Native American culture (except perhaps, a few hymns sung in their language). The greatest thrust in native missions came during the height boarding school era and I must ask if anyone has really changed the directive? By the evidence, in my twenty years in Native Ministry, I can say “it appears not.” Certainly the missionary methods have become less severe but in truth, most mission agencies and denominational philosophies still end up “killing the Indian to save the man.” In reality, this philosophy just kills the Indian and it loses the person.

In spite of all the things mentioned and much, much more — we are still here. And, we will remain here as a prophetic voice to the American people — and to the American Christian. One day, “the judge of all the earth will do right.” The day I speak of will be one of those red-letter days in American history, like when women received the right to vote, the emancipation of slaves or when African Americans began to enjoy civil rights. What are we doing to hasten that day?

Whether you choose to be concerned about Native American rights in the political realm (Indians are still often vying for basic human and civil rights), the church realm (which too often only mimics government policy), a non-governmental organization, or another realm, a basic question must be asked: How can we as Native Americans get an equal voice at the table concerning our own futures and in deciding what is just, fair, and equitable? We are still here, and still looking for a seat at the table.

Rev. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian teacher, lecturer, poet, activist, pastor and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity (InterVarsity Press).

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