The Practices of Native American Christianities
Only recently have scholars begun to traverse the disciplinary boundaries that have prevented their fuller apprehension of the wide range and complex texture of the practices and theologies of Native American Christians. Specialists of indigenous religions largely have left the story of Native Christianity to missions historians. Historians of missions, in turn, lacking the linguistic and ethnographic training to otherwise interpret the subtleties, have understood Native Christianity largely as the straightforward product of missionary intentions and efforts. But this has begun to change. Informed by a number of important recent studies, I aim in this essay to examine whatNative communities have variously done with the Christianity presented by missionaries. How they improvised locally on the missionary tradition such that the Christian tradition thus engaged bears consideration not simply as a subset of missions history or church history but as a Native American religious tradition among other Native American religions.
In this regard, this volume’s attention to Native American Christians adds not only important cases to enlarge American Christianity’s larger narrative but refines it by questioning assumptions common to the history of Christianity and the history of “religion” generally. We must consider the distinctive contours of indigenous religious practices— specifically the relationship between practice and belief, between religion and culture, between sacred and profane— for the Native Christianities that emerged from missionary encounters often drew on these indigenous religious idioms in ways that defy conventional analytic frameworks of conversion and acculturation.
From the point of view of many Native people and no small number of professional historians and anthropologists, the story of Native American Christianity, associated as it must be with conquest, colonialism, and cultural assimilation, has been set in a context of tragedy. It is as true of FrancisJennings’s The Invasion of America: Missionaries, Indians, and the Cant of Conquest as it is of Osage scholar George Tinker’s Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide.1 Even as it is important to lay claim to the lived experience of those tragedies and the profound losses— human, linguistic, and cultural— that can be tied to missionary encounters and their legacy of assimilation policy, it is also important to examine just what Native peoples, with considerable resolve and resourcefulness, have made of the missionaries’ message. In this, the story of Native American Christians cannot content itself with a consideration of what Christian missionaries, along with other forces of colonialism, tragically did to Native people, but it must examine what Native Christians were able to do, albeit often within tight confines of colonialism, with that Christian tradition.
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.