History of Missions

Sweat Lodges in Wyoming

Ministers in Montana

Mormon and Indian

A Blackfeet Reunion


































History of Missions




Christianity has left an indelible print on the lives of Native Americans. Since the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans, the visitors sought to "civilize" those they mistakenly called Indians by telling them of God and Jesus. Later, in the nineteenth century, the U.S. government decided to assimilate the Native peoples by neatly dividing them into reservations and assigning the reservations to various Christian missionaries. This behavior was hardly understandable to the Indian peoples. Since none of their perhaps six hundred tribal traditions emphasized conversion and proselytization, it was unclear to them why the Christians wanted everyone to worship the same way they did. Some of the methods used were cruel: taking children away from their families to attend missionary boarding schools where they were punished for infractions such as speaking in their native language. To many, this time was a Holocaust that robbed them of their tribal tongues and traditions and replaced them with empty promises of a God of love who punished with a sharp whip.

Many aspects of the Jesus road seemed compatible with native beliefs. The concept of a man who sacrificed himself for the community fit with tribal stories of a Corn Mother or White Buffalo Calf Woman who also sacrificed herself for her people. Even vision quests and purification ceremonies are examples of individuals suffering to help the community. But what Native peoples could not forgive was the incompatibility of a Jesus who loved and accepted with a people who told them they must change, give up their traditions and confine their spirituality to a steepled house rather than the entire world. For many Native Americans, the drama still plays out today, as Pentecostal and Mormon missionaries seek to convert Indians by telling them to give up pow-wows, sweats, Sun Dances, Squaw Dances and the other ceremonies that are all that remains of the rich native traditions largely obliterated by Christian missionaries of the past who came to the reservation with good intentions but poor method. The traditions that have remained clearly show the mark of Christianity-- sweats started with crosses, Native American church services that treat peyote as a sacrament.. And these traditions are gaining strength as what some term as a reawakening of traditional identity sweeps across the Northwest. Although Christianity has changed tribal traditions, reservation Christianity has certainly not remained pure. The Lutheran, Catholic and other religious figures on the reservations seem more changed by Native beliefs than their congregations seem altered by Christianity. These spiritual leaders attend sweats, participate in Sun Dances and place sacred pipes on the altars next to the bread and wine. One of the most beautiful stories is that of the Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. In 1762, Chief Circling Raven had a vision that a man wearing black robes and carrying crossed sticks would come, bringin a new spiritual power. When a Jesuit priest arrived in 1842, he was seen as the fulfillment of that vision, and the tribe converted. They built what is now known as the Old Mission in Cataldo between 1850 and 1853. But a few years later, the government created new reservation boundaries and moved the tribe away from their church. Now every August 15, the tribe returns to Old Mission carrying eagle staffs and crucifixes to celebrate their heritage. Celebrating the Catholic Feast of the Assumption (when Mary ascended to heaven), they wear traditional Indian clothes and combine a morning Mass with afternoon Indian dancing.

But just how compatible are Native American beliefs and Christian beliefs? Although Native beliefs stem from over 1500 diverse traditions and Christianity has just as many variants, it is possible to compare the general beliefs of the two. Terminology is significant. Many Christians refer to God as "Lord", while many Native Americans prefer the term "Creator". The use of "Lord" and Biblical references to slave and master as the relationship between the creation and God don't sit well with many Native Americans, who come from egalitarian roots with a strong emphasis on community. According to Native beliefs, man is an equal part of creation. This is why Indian hunters always offered a prayer of thanks to their prey. In Christianity, however, man is the top of the animal kingdom. The two most important differences, however, have to do with proselytization and land. The emphasis on proselytizing in Christianity is foreign to Native Americans, who coexisted in their diverse beliefs. Finally, the Native emphasis on the sacredness of land is hard for Christians to grasp. For example, in South Dakota, the government has turned sacred ceremonial grounds into a state park. This involves building tourist platforms and parking lots on sacred Lakota land. Christianity's sordid history has left many Native Americans with a bad taste in their mouths for Christianity. "It's all the baggage that goes with it," explained Jean Molesky, an assistant professor of Native American studies at UC Berkeley. "They have a lot of wounds."

These differences have caused some experts to questions the compatibility of the two systems of beliefs. "I don't think homogenizing works," said Molesky. "I think that there is a theological difference. Although I know some who draw on both traditions, Native traditions are based on the earth and ecology, ... and the church doesn't recognize sacred place." With these differences of opinion ringing in my ears, I set out to talk to some Native Americans on modern reservations about their feelings about Christianity. The organization I work for, Group Workcamps, sponsors camps for high school youth groups to spend a week living in a poverty-stricken community, repairing homes for local residents. The purpose of the camps is twofold: not only to perform badly-needed repairs in low-income communities but to encourage Christian growth within the campers. In this way, the workcamps are evangelistic although our organization does not seek to convert the residents whose houses we repair. Even so, knowledge of the rather sordid history of Christianity caused me some hesitation about working for a Christian organization on the reservations. After two years serving as an office manager for this summer program and working primarily on Indian reservations, I still had some questions about my Christian heritage and the response of the Native Americans we served. This past summer, I set out to answer some of those questions. I didn't come up with any easy answers. One of the first lessons I learned was that despite the prevalence of churches and evangelical organizations on the reservations, many Native Americans will always have a bad taste in their mouth for the word "Christian." Many of them who fit the classical definition of a Christian-- one who believes in Christ's death and resurrection-- refused to identify themselves as Christian when asked. But I soon learned that to many other Indian men and women, it was a poorly-worded question. For Native peoples, there is little distinction between their everyday life and their spiritual life. All that they are and all that they do is their religion, and so they would rather not be limited to the label Christian. For some, however, there is simply a deep repugnance attached to the term Christian.