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Native cultures face corporate, New Age abuse

By Jace Weaver, editor
Orbis Books, 230 pages, $18, paperback


Native American religions are firmly grounded in a sense of place. Unlike the abstract concept of Christianity, which can be worshiped anywhere, Native American religions are linked to the hills, rivers, buttes and trees of ancestral native land. The features of the land function as catalysts to evoke the deepest feelings for the Great Mystery, known variously by different peoples as usen (in Athabascan), wakan tanka (in Lakota), nil’ch’ (in Navajo) and so forth.

The appearance of the white man on these lands 400 years ago changed everything for the original inhabitants. We know about the military conflicts, the raids, the warfare, the pitched battles and massacres; what we don’t know much about are the profound changes wrought by Christian missionaries, who systematically spread their gospel from tribe to tribe across the continent.

Two factors helped facilitate this process: the intense spirituality of the Indian sensibility, which made them naturally curious about other ways of worship; and their innate courtesy and generosity, which enabled the majority of missionaries to proselytize without interference.

Jace Weaver (Cherokee), an attorney and assistant professor in the American Studies Program and Religious Department at Yale University, has compiled an intriguing collection of essays by Indian writers. Ranging from first-person accounts to scholarly exegeses of historical and ecclesiastical trends, the essays examine the impact of Christianity on a broad spectrum of native people. The result is a generous sampling of contemporary Indian thought, written by dedicated people from every walk of life who share a common desire to balance their native traditions with the realities of Christian conversion.

As these essays make abundantly clear, white colonialization of Indian land remains a relentless and ongoing process. Overt military occupation may have ended, but the process continues on a corporate level, with energy companies seeking to extract uranium, coal and other minerals from Navajo, Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. Additionally, waste disposal companies in recent years have tried to turn Lakota, Paiute, and Mescalero Apache properties into dumping grounds for urban and industrial refuse.

New Age spiritualism presents a more subtle but no less damaging form of exploitation. Indians have what many white people at the close of the millennium desperately covet: spiritual authenticity. Grounded in the visible features of a specific locale, weathered by generations of hardship and persecution, venerated by complex rituals and ceremonies, Indian religion exerts a magnetic appeal upon a new generation of affluent and disaffected consumers, who, in addition to sports utility vehicles, seek to garnish their lives with the trappings of a genuine spirituality.

Every summer at powwows and festivals across the country, hordes of white wannabes appear wearing buckskin and embroidered headbands, brandishing buffalo skulls and Catlinite pipes, eager to participate in sun dances, vision quests and sweat lodge ceremonies. Reading through the essays in this piece, one comes to understand more of the spiritual treasures to which these seekers, albeit clumsily, aspire.

Choctaw writer Homer Noley’s piece on the sacrifices of early Christian Indians was revelatory to this reviewer. A young Choctaw man named Kanchi martyred himself to help other Choctaws cross the Mississippi River during the infamous removal of southeast tribes to Oklahoma in the 1820s and ’30s. After his death, groups of teenagers gathered around the campfire at night to read passages from Kanchi’s Bible, thus forming the nucleus of a newfound Christian community that was to play a pivotal role during the tribe’s difficult transition to the Indian Territory.

Viola Cordova (Mescalero Apache) dissects the roots of Christian duality, the schism between spirit and substance that has bedeviled European thought since the Enlightenment. Albert Einstein’s discovery of the physical principles underlying the basis of material reality helped rehabilitate the reputation of earlier philosophers such as Spinoza, who were vilified for contending that a universal energy (monism) infused all animate and inanimate things. It’s a concept that Indians embrace intuitively but that causes no end of turmoil to European minds.

Part of the problem, Cordova suggests, is linguistic. Compared to the fluidity of Hopi, for example, standard European languages are incapable of interpreting the inexhaustible variability of the physical world. “In the static universe of [European languages] nothing happens without a cause or an agent of causation,” says Cordova. “In the dynamic model of [the Hopi language] something is always happening without an agent because that is what the universe, by its very nature, does.”

Most stimulating to this reviewer was the Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston’s call for a global reappraisal of religious sociology in an effort to protect both our diminishing resources and the intricate tapestry of our human populations. “My goal,” the Choctaw cleric declares in his eloquent essay, “is to reconstitute our [Indian] culture as the original and continuing oppositional force to Western state colonial capitalism in North America.”

To those weary of the same old political saws dutifully parroted by Democrats and Republicans in meaningless sound bites, Charleston’s essay will ring like a clarion call.

Conger Beasley Jr. is the author of We Are a People In This World: The Lakota Sioux and the Massacre at Wounded Knee (University of Arkansas Press, 1996).

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998