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.
What resulted when diverse peoples with varying aboriginal religions encountered a diverse group of Christian missionaries is a bewildering range of idiosyncratic Native Christianities, but as recent case studies have emphasized, the array is no mere product of the variables of Native religions meeting different denominations; it also results from the resourceful and creative capacity of Native Christians to make of the missionaries’ beliefs and practices something new. In this respect, as a number of recent studies have ably shown, the story of Native Christianity is not only irreducible to missionary history; it often meaningfully begins only after the missionaries (not to mention their prodigious correspondence) have left, and along with them the historical record.4 Bonnie Sue Lewis tracks the religious history of Christianity among Dakota and Nez Perce communities following the 1862 Dakota uprising, on the one hand, and the 1847 death of the Presbyterian Whitmans in Oregon Territory, on the other. Mission historians have frequently taken such events as emblematic of “missionary failure,” but Lewis takes them as the starting points for her history of the creative process by which Native clergy struggled to produce and maintain a faithful Christianity of their own. She begins with the religious revivals led by indigenous Christians that followed closely on the heels of these purported “failures” and traces the indigenization of Christianity through the 1930s. “While missionaries were at the forefront of bringing Christianity,” Lewis writes, “it was the Indians themselves who established Christianity among their own people.”5
If Lewis’s observation seems rather unsurprising, the evidence to support it has demanded much of historians, often requiring facility with oral tradition and the fieldwork and community relationships upon which access to such oral tradition typically depends. But in paying attention to how they made the Christian tradition their own, one finds that these communities often have drawn resourcefully on their indigenous traditions and idioms not so much to translate Christianity as to transpose its narratives and practices into the distinctive idioms and structures of Native religions, oftentimes in ironic relation to the intentions of European American missionaries. If consideration of the fuller diversity and texture of Native Christianities can be no mere coda to the history of missionary encounters and exchange, it certainly cannot but begin there, for the variations on Christian belief and practice of previous generations and efforts on the part of indigenous intellectuals to articulate sovereign theologies and theologies of sovereignty reckon in no small part with an experience common to Native American communities in all their diversity: that of the close, often symbiotic relation between Christian missions and colonialism.
1. Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975); George Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).