Some Reservations: Thinking about Native American Spirituality


I remember being held. I remember, though it was the desert, being cold. I remember the feathers of a headdress, coming up like the sun from behind red boulder. My family didn’t go all the time, but we went often enough and early enough that I recall the sunrise ceremony of the Lord’s Prayer sung in Navajo and danced by a tribal elder, his smoking pipe raised up to the east, in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona as among my formative encounters with holiness.  

It was like what I imagine midnight mass is for Catholics at Christmas. We’d get wrapped up in the darkness and trundled off to a place where we’d see our friends and where there would be songs and food and tired kids and a sense of reverence. It’s all hazy, but I’m remembering those mornings now because I’ve just read an essay in which an art historian who I respect wishes aloud that stained-glass windows would include representations of the native American mystic Nicholas Black Elk. The essay is searching and informative and fun until he tosses off a claim that stopped me cold. He claims, as though we’ll just agree so automatically that evidence isn’t needed, that “Christians did their best to eradicate native culture.” Did they? When I saw the line I read it twice, thinking I’d misunderstood. Why would Christians, those people who become all things to all people that the gospel might go forth, select this one culture, mine, out of all the others they easily adapted to for something as drastic as eradication? I not only haven’t understood native culture and Christianity to be enemies, I haven’t even known them to be distinct entities. For me anyway, one flows as imperceptibly into the other as smoke and breath.  

I should explain. My family comes from a tribe called the Wayandotte Lenape in Kansas, itself a migration from the Delaware tribe around Pennsylvania. The Delaware were early adopters of Christianity. Perhaps that is why I don’t sense tension where others might. More or less upon first hearing the gospel, the Delaware largely converted. Obviously, some cases of native conversions involved a heretical syncretism, or still worse, a misunderstanding of Christianity as chiefly a cultural conversion—the price of doing business with the whites— but many conversions were certainly sincere. One of my favorites is of Wequash, who, hearing about Jesus, replied, “Me so big naughty heart; me heart all one stone,” which is as earnest a hymn as I’ve ever heard. We may snicker at the syntax, which makes him sound primitive, but the sentiment is anything but. On the contrary, Wequash is a theologian here, naming the deeper problem than white invasion, or native magical superstition and its attendant blood rites. Another I like is the conversion of Chief Seattle, because I live in the city named for him, and love this land so dearly. Seattle had been a murderer and on trial therefore before he met Jesus. At his baptism, he took the Christian name “Noah,” which I think is just clever and great. Asked who in the Bible he most identified with, the man who had become chief of this wet district by killing some invaders as a teenager chose Noah: the guy it’s always raining on.  

Knowing about the Delaware and the Lenape helps me only because the American historical painter Benjamin West painted this group–I almost said “my ancestors” just there, but find those terms odd and sad and prideful. Raised in a rootless American west, I think: what’s an ancestor?—and the painting (1771) is a great source of comfort for me. It’s of William Penn’s first treaty with them, and one figure in the foreground, though dressed in a loincloth etc, looks exactly like me. Dead ringer. Same hairline, same aquiline nose, same overly prominent brow-ridge. I seriously wondered when I first saw it whether this wasn’t some kind of awesome practical joke wherein my head had been photoshopped onto an Indian body and snuck somehow into this book in the Scottsdale Library. But why does it make me feel so good to look like this man from 200 years ago?

I’ve always struggled with how to talk about this aspect of my heritage, about the dividing line between us and them, whoever “we” are and “they” were even in that locution, and imagine it always as a literal line, though permeable because dashed, painted down the middle of a highway. I grew up a couple of houses off of Pima road, the dividing line between the Pima Indian Reservation and what is now a nice part of Scottsdale, Arizona, but was then free horse-riding ground where my mom would take her friends’ Mustangs between the cotton fields all the way out to the Superstitions for picnics.

Now, Highway 101 goes right through the reservation and a Walmart sits, apparently on a 100-year lease, squarely, defiantly, on what was unspoiled (or “underdeveloped,” depending on who you ask) land all the way to those same mountains. They still grow cotton on much of the reservation, and much of it gets sold to Banana Republic, who ships it to Hong Kong where it gets made into sweaters like the one I’m wearing, and sent back to the store on Scottsdale Road with “Pima Cotton” right on the label. When I grew up, it was all dirt and arrowheads. We went out on weekends and just picked up whatever, coming eventually into a sizable collection of tomahawk heads, arrow points, stone corn-grinding slabs and buffalo nickels. It’s illegal now, of course, to remove any of those things from tribal land, and probably it was illegal then too, but we weren’t much concerned with the law. 

It’s easy to forget, shopping at the Best Buy, or filling up at the Chevron, that this is a reservation–as with everything in Arizona, it now looks just like everywhere else–but when I was young, the Indians decided to remind everyone exactly where the treaty line was drawn, which was right down the center of Pima Road. Before the 101 got put in, Pima Road was the major North/South artery, though it only had one lane in each direction. One day, we just decided to sit on our half of the road, tying up the hot black ribbon of traffic for miles. Why we did that I don’t really know. Sovereignty issue, I guess. I also don’t really know if I should say “we decided.” It isn’t like the council called and asked me; I was eight years old. All I remember is the fry bread, and the folding chairs whose fabric had grown brittle in the sun. 

There are obvious exceptions to sweeping claims that Christians somehow worked to eradicate native culture. For example, nearly every early translator of American Indian languages was a Christian. Usually they were missionaries who went into the frontiers with the express purpose of learning the languages so that the tribes they encountered could read the Bible in their own tongue. We may laud that enterprise or rue it as a kind of imperialism, but the bare fact is that without Christians risking (and, it must be said, very often losing) their lives to make a bridge to native cultures, many entire languages would have been lost. We only know the story about Wequash’s conversion thanks to missionary Roger Williams, for example. And whether it was their intention or not, that linguistic bridge has preserved chants, poems, and legends too numerous to name. So not only did Christians, in this case, not “[do] their best to eradicate native culture,” many gave their limbs and labor to preserve it, and that effectively. And of course, as I explained earlier, native culture was preserved in the form of food, dances, costumes, and ritual for me and my family by Christian Indians who adapted the Lord’s Prayer for the sunrise ceremony. Those dances were the way in for many of us: the understandable bit of our heritage that made us curious to know more. Without the “Our Father,” I suppose, we’d never have bothered learning the stories of Coyote the Trickster.

Obviously, I realize that atrocities were committed— and on both sides— during the Indian wars and after them. I know too well how settlers displaced, sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose, many native tribes. I know some resettlement schemes were generous and others punitive and terrible. Some presidents gracious and fair with natives and others antagonistic, even genocidal. But in what sense can any of those horrors be said to have been committed by Christians? Unless he’s using “Christians” as a synonym for “people of Western European descent” or some such thing, isn’t that a contradiction in terms? There isn’t any such thing as a Christian rapist any more than there is a Muslim terrorist: once you become a terrorist, you have left the teachings of Islam behind. So what isolated programs of  cultural eradication there may have been in a long history over immense distances, they were not committed by followers of Christ. So I think the essay is wrong at least twice in using the phrase, but there’s one more. As an example of the kinds of tools “American Christians” used to “eradicate native culture,” he lists “Indian Schools.” Apparently, they are imagined to have been assimilation factories, bent on taking the native out of the natives. I think this is wrong too; again, because it is connected with my own past. 

The hospital I was born in is on Indian School Road, so named for the Indian School, which sat for my entire life just adjacent to the rooms where I drew my first breath. It was a beautiful green space in the middle of downtown Phoenix, which, understandably, lacks green spaces, a pile of historic buildings suggesting dignity and optimism. For most of my life, it was shuttered along with the program that birthed it, but the structural reminders lasted into my adulthood. Again here, there were scores of Indian schools, and probably some of them were terrible, but in my lifetime, or in my area, the idea wasn’t terrible, or oppressive, or a tool of cultural eradication at all. 

People tend to underestimate how very rural the American west was until quite recently. My mother rode a horse to high school, for example. She isn’t very old either; these are not the foggy recollections of a centenarian; we’re talking about the United States in the 1970’s. Apparently, some breeds of horses are better than others, just like models of cars, and the rich girls had them. Palominos, maybe. Apparently, there was a hitching post out front were the horses would fraternize while their owners were in class, who would then bring apples from the cafeteria to feed them while everyone else smoked cigarettes. There were cars in Arizona of course, and movies, but also horses, and Indians. The reason I mention the cultural difference between that time and this is to suggest that the Indian schools arose as a response to a very real problem, and one that can be kind-of hard to see from here. 

After the laws were passed that every citizen should be educated—which I think most now consider an unqualified good—the native communities around the country were thrown into crises. Having been raised with different educational emphases than their neighbors left most tribal youth ill-prepared to thrive in traditional academic systems. They couldn’t read. Many couldn’t write their own names. They could do a great many other things that typical Americans could not do involving horsemanship, beadwork, pottery, cooking, singing, dancing, leatherwork, etc. but we’ll lay that aside. What hope? 

Do we, thought the educational admins, throw them into the regular pool determined by age and watch them struggle, assuming that they’ll eventually catch up? That hardly seemed fair. Do we put them in special education? No, thought they, that will create an unfair stigma: they’re not disabled, just un-Westernized. Maybe we start them all at kindergarten, learning the basics regardless of age. That too was rejected for what I take to be obvious reasons. The solution they landed on was to create—but not to create out of nothing, these were not gods—the solution was to invest millions and millions of dollars and years of labor into building Indian schools that combined basic literacy and math with job training, so that graduates would have some kind of marketable skill. True, much of the job training was in menial labor: auto mechanics throve, for example, but it was a start. Importantly, one unintended consequence of the Indian schools was a strengthening, not an eradication, of native culture. Suddenly, all our friends, all our distant cousins, every Indian we’d ever seen at a pow-wow or the rodeo was gathered in the same place. Potlucks, plays, and pow-wows were planned. Courtships and marriages conducted. Its being the 1970s, protests—like the one over Pima Road—were planned over shared grievances. Skills were transferred not only from the top down, but from tribe to tribe as so many representatives were gathered, for the first time, together. So even while the schools sought to make it possible for American Indians to succeed in changing economic circumstances through learning to read and write English—a kind of Westernization—they were not in totem, tools of cultural eradication, but often the very reverse: sites of fecund cultural practices and native cultural dissemination, if only due to the population mix they necessarily gathered. 

The Indian school experiment failed—it was somehow both chronically under-funded and too expensive—or maybe it worked so well that native youth were ready to join in the ordinary schools inside a few years, but in any case, they shut them down. And again, I really want not to minimize the suffering that took place in one or the other of them that fell under the direction of unscrupulous headmastership, or violent, racist teachers, or were simply too diverse (in culture, in skill-level) to be maintained as unified entities. Such things happen wherever there are sinful people in charge, which is to say, everywhere. But that by no means gives us permission to use the high-minded, beleaguered, and ultimately unfortunate Indian schools as shorthand for Tool of the Oppressor. 

Maybe these things are too large to speak about. I know that there are scholars writing monographs annually on these subjects; I am only remembering some scenes from my life, and noting that there was never any such thing as “the Indians” all acting in concert, but rather collections of hundreds of individual tribes spread across an area larger than Europe. Similarly, there were never “the Christians” all acting in concert, especially not bent on anything so sinister as the eradication of a culture through tools as demoniacal as schooling. 

Contrary to facile narratives of progress and oppression, the fact is that much of what we know as native culture, we owe to the Christians who preserved it and to the Christians those natives became. Many natives owe some measure of their family’s cultural assimilation, but also writing skill, wealth, stories, and in the cases of inter-tribal marriages, their existence to the Indian schools. And however much they may have been wandering in error prior to hearing and accepting the gospel, however hungry they might have been for that bread of life, many Indians are thankful to acknowledge that Christianity itself has been—in my experience and in many others’—not an eradicator, but the full flower of native culture. 

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