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Does Christianity Continue to Stifle Indigenous Political Will?
(Image: Small cross via Shutterstock)

Does Christianity Continue to Stifle Indigenous Political Will?

(Image: Small cross via Shutterstock)

The imminent and expected destruction of the life cycle of world ecology can be prevented by a radical shift in outlook…Making this shift in viewpoint is essentially religious, not economic or political – Vine Deloria, Jr.

We must be compelled to hold this doctrine to be false, and the old and new law called the Old and new Testament, to be impositions, fables and forgeries – Thomas Paine

As I write this essay, the Bougainville Independent Indigenous People’s Foundation is preparing to once again stand against an effort to reopen the infamous Panguna gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The first stand against the devastation of the mine on land and people, which continued in a 10-year war between a coalition of indigenous peoples on the island and the military force of Papua New Guinea, supported by Australia, led to widespread human rights violations and the deaths of 20,000 indigenous people. The Bouganvillians survived a gunboat blockade around the island that prevented anything from reaching the people by using their indigenous wisdom to survive completely off the land. A number of documentary films have been made about all of this, referring to it as the first modern ecological revolution. Bernadine Kama, a leader of the foundation and daughter of one of the leaders of the original resistance is quoted in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier in August:

I just cannot comprehend why we must continue to suffer at the hands of our leaders and our government, which has been negotiating to reopen the mine, when a lot of issues which resulted from previous mining activities in Panguna remain unaddressed. Can we not be left alone to live our own lives in peace on our land? Many people are going where the wind blows them, and they will not even consider the dire consequences of mining. Once mining begins it will not end in Panguna: The whole island will be affected, and no amount of legislation or law will stop it, once money starts flying around. President Momis tries to equate mining with independence. I don’t see any logic in that, simply because we are the most independent people in the world as we are now, because we live off our land; and if we were cut off from the rest of the world, surely we would find a way to survive. We have done it before, and we will do it again.

The driving force behind the indigenous protest and demand for sovereignty was the common worldview shared by different indigenous groups. This encouraged the original resistance and the ability of everyone to join together to live totally off of, and in harmony with, the land. One group, Damien Dameng’s Me’ekamui Onoring Pontoku (very roughly translated from the Nasioi language as “government of the guardians of the sacred land”), started resisting colonialism and missionary imposition in the 1950s. They declared that, in spite of an estimated 80 percent of the population then belonging to the Catholic Church, the traditional egalitarian social structure and values were superior. I contend that without this consciously discussed basis for opposing the hegemony of the Christian worldview – and its indirect affiliation with the forces of economic oppression and ecological destruction – the remarkable achievement of the Bougainville revolution would not have come about.

Consider Boliva as another example in support of this claim. Before the 1990s, the Bolivian indigenous peoples had the same relatively absent political voice that exists in most of the other Latin American countries, even in those few that have managed to gain indigenous political parties and representation in their governments. Ann Chaplin’s article, “Social Movements in Bolivia: From Strength to Power” reveals how indigenous solidarity around their traditional worldview led to the landslide election of Evo Morales, who earned 54 percent of the vote in contrast to a historical 2 percent. “By strategically arranging and enacting elements of traditional narratives and myth, like the notion of pachakuti, these political actors have been able to produce consensus about the kinds and forms of change that are appropriate and possible in the complex historical conjuncture of contemporary Bolivia.” I participated in some of the discussions prior to the election and know that respectful but nonetheless strong challenges to Christian doctrine and the cultural hegemony stemming from it were significant, something that has largely not occurred in Mexico – where I live – and that may ultimately be partially responsible for the ineffectiveness of the Zapatistas.

Contrasts between the United States and Canada also may support my contention that Christian hegemony stifles indigenous political strength. In both countries indigenous rights and well-being are inadequate, but Canadian aboriginals have somewhat more political voice than American Indians, not enough to brag about, but perhaps enough to support my argument. From the relatively successful effort to give the tribes in British Columbia control of their own educational curricula to the existence of the growing “Idle No More” protest movement, aboriginal efforts in Canada can easily be viewed as stronger than those in the United States. It may not be a coincidence that Canada is significantly less Christianized, not so much in terms of claimed affiliations, but in attitudes. For example, a 2005 Gallup poll showed 28 percent of Canadians consider religion “very important” compared to 55 percent of Americans.

Evangelism in Indian Country

Starting with the United States government’s violation of the church-state separation contentions with its “kill the Indian, save the man” policies, a less violent, but equally enthusiastic evangelism remains strong in “Indian country.” On the Navajo and Lakota reservations, Christian missionary strategy work, churches and input into education seems more prevalent than ever, even though some reports say fewer individuals claim being Christian. As for my own Cherokee relations,

By the twentieth century Christianity was a major faith in the Oklahoma Indian community. The Methodist Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference, for example, reported in the year 2000 that it had seventy-two hundred members worshiping in eighty-nine churches in Oklahoma, Kansas, and north Texas. Baptist and Methodist congregations outnumbered the rest of the field, but there were sizeable numbers of Catholics and a growing number of Pentecostals as well (Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History).

One of many examples of this evangelical movement comes from a seminary student’s paper that is posted on the internet. In his thesis paper during his senior year at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, William Cornelius concludes, “I cannot imagine a people more in need of the gospel than the Lakota.” His paper, based on missionary work and research on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is titled, “Evangelizing the Lakota: Understanding the Differences in Order to See the Opportunities.” Referring to the high rates of disease, substance abuse, poverty and violence among the Lakota, he says it is wrongheaded for the many competing churches on the reservation to attempt to “harmonize” with the Lakota culture, such as having dance rings for traditional dances located on church property. Rather, he asserts that the Gospel “has changed cultures before and can change this one as well.”

Although my hypothesis that Christian hegemony continues to stifle indigenous political will is seldom debated in politics, education or culture, the general idea has a long-standing and somewhat illustrious history. Criticism of religion in general dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece when Diagoras Melos, the poet, criticized Greek religious beliefs. Karl Marx’s famous quote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” comes closer perhaps to describing the effects on indigenous peoples I offer here. Even closer, however, is the most influential of America’s founding father’s, Thomas Paine. He had visited the “wild Indian” and contrasted the European worldview with the life and perspectives of the indigenous people he observed. “Among the Indians,” he wrote, “there are not any of those spectacles of misery that poverty and want present to our eyes in the towns and streets of Europe.” Worried deeply about the influence of Christian religion on the manifestations of democracy, he wrote his famous text, The Age of Reason, an act that cost him dearly for the rest of his life. He writes, “It is the reverse of truth, and I become so tired of examining into its inconsistencies and absurdities, that I hasten to the conclusion of it, in order to proceed to something better.”

Professor David Gabbard writes in “Before Predator Came,” in the book, Unlearning the language of conquest: Scholars expose anti-indianism in America, about the importance of examining how “Christianization” played an important role in the conquest of both European indigenous cultures, as well as in the colonization of indigenous peoples of the Americas. He says that our collective ignorance or denial about this contributes to continuing ethnocide today. He does not mention such ignorance or denial exists among indigenous individuals themselves, but of course I am making this point.

When a professor at NAU, I taught reservation Navajo, Apache and Hopi seniors about the true history of Christopher Columbus by assigning primary source documents about his atrocities in the name of Christian doctrine. Over the years, many came to me after class shocked to finally have realized that celebrating such a person could be such a horrible and damaging practice. I was not all that surprised. When I was dean of education at Oglala Lakota College, I saw how teachers at the Christian school presented a history class one day when I was observing an Oglala student teacher handing out copies of something to the fourth grade Lakota children. It was a reading assignment created by her non-Indian mentor teacher. The handout was titled, “The First Americans.” It was about Davy Crocket, Kit Carson and Daniel Boone!

Of course, the sacred authority of Biblical scripture (should I capitalize “scripture” as well?) is at the heart of Christian hegemony. Robert Allen Warrior, a member of the Osage Nation, writes in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians,” that the Bible will always be incompatible with authentic indigenous ways of seeing the world. “The Bible is part of the heritage and thus the consciousness of people in the United States. Whatever dangers we identify in the text and the god represented there will remain as long as the text remains.”

Red and White Partnering?

My position is sympathetic, but differs from Warrior’s in that I see a potential for complementarity between the two worldviews – as long as blind acceptance of Biblical inerrancy on the part of the Christian partner is not invoked. I have written about such a partnership as it relates to solar and lunar twin hero myths from around the world. (See also the work on this by archetypal psychologist, Howard Teich (2012).) In essence, I offer that Western myths have split the metaphorical twins, making dominant the solar twin, who either kills or diminishes the lunar twin. In indigenous twin hero stories, the two work in complementary harmony. I suggest that Christianity has emerged as the “solar” twin – active, heroic, intent on mastery and physical, materialistic outcomes. I do not believe this split originated with the teachings of Jesus (the man), but with subsequent politically based interpretations set forth in the Bible, interpretations that rejected alternative realities. Thus, the dominant, assertive “above Nature” cultures, under the banner of Christian fundamentalism (and related Islamic and Jewish versions as well) may be the “twin” of the more reflective, creative, mystical indigenous spiritual traditions that focus on the complex and mutually supportive interconnections with nature.

I hold to this possibility for complementarity between the Indigenous and the Christian worldviews perhaps because the former embraces all forms of diversity and sees complementarity and reciprocity in everything. Still, Warrior may be more accurate in realizing that there is a difference between respecting another’s right to contrary beliefs and allowing such beliefs to cause harm to future generations. I am reminded of what Alice Walker told me when I proudly gave her a newly released copy of my book, Differing Worldviews: Two Scholars Argue Cooperatively about Justice in Higher Education (2012). I thought she would complement me on having invited my philosophical “enemy,” a scholar who truly believes only humans have intrinsic value, to coauthor the book with me so we might find common ground. Instead she scoffed, saying that I was “in bed with the devil.” Bruce Wilshire, in his chapter “Unlearning the Language of Conquest,” may have more eloquently captured a more appropriate sentiment:

It is difficult to imagine any of the three great Western religions seconding Black Elk’s insight that the roundness of teepees corresponds to the roundness of bird’s nets: “Birds build their nests in circles for their’s is the same religion as ours.” From this primal original point emanate salient features of the West’s worldview. It is hierarchical, dualistic, exclusivist, and divisive.

This ironic phrase (“Being in bed with the devil”) itself stems from the dualist, punitive features of dominant Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps a better phrase to describe what Alice meant, and what I am presenting here, is Audre Lorde’s, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I interpret this to mean that when good Christian activists use Biblical references and concepts to argue for the environment, for woman’s equality, against slavery or punishment or in behalf of “primitive” worldviews, contradictions ultimately surface that weaken one’s position. As Warrior notes, whatever dangers exist in the Bible that caused the genocide and contribute to continuing culturcide of indigenous peoples are still there. They likely touch some portion of our unconscious psyches, no matter what we consciously pick and choose to believe.

Even my friend and colleague, the late Vine Deloria, Jr., in spite of his lifelong critique of Christianity and his tireless work on behalf of Indigenous worldview and justice for American Indians (Time Magazine named him one of the most important religious thinkers of the world in the early 1970s), may have been compromised by his close affiliation with Christian evangelism. His family were among the earliest Sioux converts to Christianity, in the 1860s, and his grandfather and father were ministers. Vine himself received his master’s degree in theology in 1963 from the Lutheran School of Theology in Illinois.

If such a champion of Indian rights and supporter of Indigenous mythology over Christian mythology might be compromised by his Christian background, this would be another possible indicator that one cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Well, Ed McGaw (Eagle Man) feels strongly that Deloria was guilty of offering “implicit accommodation to the colonialism of the West.” Eagle Man has much in common with Deloria. Both are Oglalas from Pine Ridge; both practiced law; both wrote books on indigenous spirituality; and both were Marines (although Deloria never saw action, and Eagle Man flew 110 missions in an F-14 over Vietnam.) Eagle Man believes that Vine’s affiliations with Christianity, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, kept him from being a true ally in the struggle against the missionaries and the government during a crucial time when the Civil Rights Movement gave American Indians who wanted to reclaim their traditional spiritual ways a fighting chance to do so. Discussing the control exercised by the missionaries and the struggle to reclaim Lakota spiritual paths, Eagle Man largely dismisses Deloria’s many published challenges to doctrine and dogma in Western Christian traditions:

Vine Deloria offers no such exposure or such writing nor involvement with we who were in the Trenches of Change back in the 60s and 70s. His family, leading Missionaries, knew of the existence of Canton yet nary a word from Vine. It was I whom Chief Fools Crow sent to invite AIM to come to the Sun Dance and protect it from its detractors . . . Vine never danced with us (Personal email, August 10, 2012).


Vine Deloria wrote a book called Singing in the Spirit. It is dedicated to his great grandfather, Saswe, whom God allegedly told he had to kill four Indians before becoming a Christian. Two of these fellow tribal people were innocent Indians. One was simply sitting on a hill and was shot point blank: Justifiably so, according to Deloria. Singing in the Spirit never includes one Medicine person of Native background for references that he personally knew! He describes Sun Dance and Vision Quest from a narration by a white woman who had absolutely no spiritual respect for her subject. She claimed – like Deloria’s influencial Aunt Ella- our Spirit calling ceremonies were “Devil influenced.” Odd! We don’t have devils or Satans! He was an Indian Academic like so many who never told about boarding school, our many struggles, or our dedicated heroes. I have yet to read about one Indian academic to report on South Dakota’s greatest secret- the Federal Indian Insane Asylum at Canton, SD, and this includes those 4 academic Indians who presently sit on South Dakota’s Humanities Commission. Our Medicine Men and Women were conveniently sent there – forever – as evidenced by the surrounding graves. This was at a time when the Delorias, Rosses, and Jesuits were at the height of their missionary power in league with the government over the people.

Whether or not Deloria’s Christian upbringing made him a somewhat weaker promoter of Indigenous worldviews at the grassroots level or not cannot be known. Nor, if Eagle Man is accurate, can we say much about him not Sun Dancing or not talking about his family’s knowledge of the horrors of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. If Eagle Man is right, could Deloria, with his academic clout and reputation, have done more to move indigenous peoples closer to authentic sovereignty? Was he using the master’s tools somehow to too great a degree to make the highest possible contributions to gaining sovereignty? Such questions merely serve to give us more possibilities for seeing merit in my thesis.

It also may be that Deloria understood the risk of not working within and with the system. Rudy Colloredo-Mansfeld writes about how an authentic community focus by indigenous grassroots organizers can sometimes get in the way of more collaborative indigenous groups who have gained access to political machinery by at least partially “playing the game.” This is why this discussion must be on the table. If the evidence exists that in the long term staying within the boundaries of the system as a way to change it ultimately does not work, however, then we must have the courage to change strategies?

The African American Example

I now briefly look at how the failure of black politics may be correlated to uncritical acceptance of Christian dogma as it is generally understood in the United States (Christian hegemony). African Americans have indigenous roots that were also initially destroyed by force and were later suppressed or forgotten via evangelism. African Americans, however, unlike American Indians, went full tilt with Christianity. I have not researched to see if freed slaves in America wanted to reclaim tribal values and ways of life, instead of preferring to own a piece of the pie created by their previous owners. However, it is rare to see African-American writers arguing for their Indigenous worldview in political discourse, a common occurrence among indigenous writers and academics. Certainly a number of civil rights activists turned away from religion totally. Some turned to communism. Malolm X turned to another of the Abrahamic religions – Islam – perhaps feeling the need to offer some spiritual perspective for the movement. All seemed wary of Christianity, but none spoke of returning to African Indigenousness. In his grassroots speech three months after Martin Luther King, Jr. led the famous march on Washington, DC, in November of 1963, Malcolm X is clear that he does not want to be in bed with the devil, so to speak:

They controlled you, but they never incited you or excited you. They controlled you; they contained you; they kept you on the plantation. They invited a priest, a rabbi, and an old white preacher. Yes, an old white preacher. The same white element that put Kennedy in power – labor, the Catholics, the Jews, and liberal Protestants; same clique that put Kennedy in power, joined the march on Washington. It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak.

We know from his autobiography that Malxolm X believed that Christianity was strategically used to brainwash African Americans and fill them with self-hate by making them worship a “blond, blue-eyed God” and rob them of political power. “Christianity had made black men fuzzy, nebulous, confused in their thinking.” He chose Islam perhaps because, well, it was there for him and shared his negativity about Christianity. His activism, however, was about black people creating their own society, their own rules and values, and this is what made his grassroots organizing powerful. He understood that one does not sell out one’s deepest values for a colonial model that opposes them.

This is the lesson I hope for indigenous peoples and others who can influence political power to understand. Andrea Smith offers this warning in an interview titled, “Building Unlikely Alliances.” She says,

Native people focusing on settler colonialism sometimes don’t see how it intersects with capitalism and white supremacy. Consequently, things get articulated as sovereignty projects that really are not that great. Your sovereignty comes to be defined as economic development by any means necessary – let’s exploit the resources, let’s build a class structure within Native communities – and that ends up destroying the land as much as multinational corporations are doing. That goes against the principle of having a radical relationship with the land. And it’s self-defeating ultimately, because multinational corporations are not going to let you do what you want to do with the land because they want the resources. It ends up hurting your communities.


This has been a difficult piece to write. It has not been my intention to pull anyone’s faith from them as relates to the strength it gives them to live and die in this and future worlds. I only want to get people to use emotional, logical and intuitive reflection to better understand the impact of their beliefs on the world. My targets are first the intellectuals and activists likely to read an essay such as this, for they can perhaps be encouraged by it to continue similar reflections and dialogues. My second target, though I wish it were first, are the grassroots indigenous peoples from around the world who have suffered and are suffering away their greatest legacy and their greatest strength – their Indigenous worldview, a worldview that, if reclaimed, will not only help them rise above their current plight, but can help everyone possibly reverse the current downward trajectory of our species. My third hoped-for audience members are Christians themselves who may not yet realize how their ideas and actions have been influenced directly from Christian teachings or indirectly via Christian hegemony.

Whoever the reader of this piece may be, I know that truly hearing what I am trying to say requires courage and fearlessness. It is not easy to stand before a Christian society and respectfully exclaim that we can no longer stifle honest, reasonable and scholarly concerns about the negative influence of organized religions on the problems facing indigenous peoples, or to go further and say we cannot afford to suppress the conversation because of its effect on human survival. For the indigenous reader who has lost his or her cultural bearings, fighting in support of an Indigenous worldview relatively unknown will take special courage. If you do not speak the language, do not feel inadequate for the job. Speak from the language of your heart and DNA! The same goes for the many non-Indians willing to speak out.

With this in mind, I begin my closure with some concise words from a respected and truly courageous colleague and coauthor. Waziyatwawin is a Wahpetunwan Dakota from the Upper Sioux Reservation in Minnesota. She is currently a professor at the University of Victoria. The following is from her article, “The Paradox of Indigenous Resurgence at the End of Empire.”

In the twenty-first century, we are facing the unprecedented convergence of human-created crises. Climate chaos, fossil-fuel resource depletion, overpopulation, and the ongoing destruction of ecosystems threaten the very foundation of colonial empire, both creating emancipatory potential for Indigenous societies struggling against colonial subjugation and wreaking devastating havoc on the lands, waters, and ecosystems upon which our people must survive. While the vulnerability and unsustainability of empire is clearly exposed, Indigenous people must wrestle with the continued cooptation of our people into civilization’s fallacies and destructive habits as well as the increasing threats to our homelands that jeopardize our capacity for a land-based existence. Thus, just when liberation may be within our grasp, the ecological destruction may be so complete that Indigenous lifeways may be impossible to practice. In this context there is a simultaneous and urgent need for both the restoration of sustainable Indigenous practices and a serious defense of Indigenous homelands.

… The desanctification of nonhuman life was certainly codified in the Genesis hierarchy and embodied in Judeo-Christian teachings. While this hierarchy of creation is conveyed throughout the Old Testament, it is best elucidated in the Book of Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” This mandate for human (and male) domination over all other beings has contributed to the relentless pursuit of resources without substantive regard to the impacts on ecosystems and all the beings who inhabit them. Indigenous Peoples recognized the dangers inherent in that worldview, especially as the consequences of that worldview were materially manifested within our territories through the destructive actions of the colonizers.

Most indigenous peoples collectively recognize the inherent dangers of the “civilized worldview” of Western culture. Too many individuals and too many tribal governments, however, have embraced, bowed to or acquiesced helplessly in wake of the world’s most dominant and dominating religion. Some are too engaged with mere survival to think of these matters. Others who are more able may be choked with fear in a world that has pulled no punches in its effort to suppress Indigenous beliefs and values. Nonetheless, I say to my brothers and sisters, the urgency of the ecological situation we all face in the world today makes this conversation about the role of religion in politics and power a matter of life and death. As Waziyatwawin asserts, it may be too late for such indigenous resurgence. Yes, we are losing our indigenous languages rapidly and with them the culture. Yet hope is always a good excuse for taking action, so I continue to have hope.


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