After 500 years of colonialism and conquest, we must begin in this process to find ways to reclaim our own indigenous identities. We must assure our colonizer / missionary relatives that our peoples were long in touch with the Creator long before their european colonialist ancestors brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to us.
In the attempt to sort out my mother’s identity in myself, I went to seminary, became ordained, and did a Ph.D. in biblical studies. I have pursued an understanding of American Indian cultures and spiritual traditions to focus on sorting out my father’s identity in myself.
The two worlds I walk between are the colonial / cultural world of White euro-Christianity and the traditional world of American Indian cultures. American Indians live in what is best defined as a “settler colony.” The colonialism we face is different from that of Africa, Asia or Latin America. We live side by side with our abusers who outnumber us in our own land and who enjoy a far more powerful economic advantage. More like the colonisation of the Maoris in Aotearoa (New Zealand) or Aboriginals in Australia.
We must find ways to reclaim our own indigenous identities. As we struggle with the residual effects of colonialism and conquest an effort must be made to maintain or reclaim our cultures and our languages. Our theologies must focus on rebuilding our national (indigenous) communities and not on building churches. We must totally deconstruct the theological discourses of the colonialist euro-western churches that have missionised and continue today to missionise our peoples.
Any number of key euro-christian concepts simply do not fit easily into the Indian people cultural milieux. Take for example the third century doctrine of the holy trinity that has become so foundational in euro-Christianity generally. The fundamental sacred number for American Indian communities is four. Indian peoples are “relentlessly tetradic.” Christianity forces a collapse of a tetradic worldview and begins the process of crowding out the value system that is predicated on this tetradic worldview. Indegenous people that lived for centuries in harmony with nature had lost the values of nature itself under the Christian worldview.
The fall-and-redemption schematic that is at the root of german and swiss reformation theologies generally fails on several grounds to translate easily and naturally into any american Indian notion of the world and the human place in it. American Indian cultures and languages lacked any concept or word that was comparable to euro-christian notions of sin.This is also the case with African and Asian traditions. Traditionally, Indian peoples have always lived cultures that were predicated on communitarian value systems, which means that eurowestern individualism is a deeply foreign. American Indian cultures tend pervasively to understand the world in terms of the infusion of the sacred through all of life and all of creation. This knowledge of the self and the cosmos and the interrelationship between self and cosmos, then, simply cannot allow for any notion of original sin.
For Indian peoples creation itself is the genesis for the spiritual and cultural imagination. The Christian starting point of human sin and falleness is counter-intuitive for American Indians. We traditionally view of the whole world as sacred. We do not allow the cutting a tree or the killing of a buffalo without careful prayers of reciprocity. On the other hand, the Christian claims dominion over the earth. The trees or the buffalo are not images of the Creator in the Christian worldview they are mere tools and servants.
To convert Indians to any euro-western expression of the gospel and to Christianity, those who have lacked any cultural notion of “sin” must first of all come to acknowledge their own intrinsic sinfulness and need for redemption. One cannot become a Christian without first being lost and broken. People who have lived for centuries if not millennia in relationships of communal and personal harmony and balance with the Creator and with all of creation and with each other must suddenly shift to an understanding of individual brokenness that imposes a new need for a message of salvation.
Many indigenous peoples have been dismissed by colonial academics and missionaries as “animists.” Animists, we are then told, “believe” that there is a spirit residing in everything. Again, Indigenous peoples are dismissed as ancestor worshippers. This is because the Christian ethic has no reverence for the world, reverence is reserved only for man who to them is specially made in the image of the creator. So when Indians speak about trees as a close relative, acknowledging it is alive and certainly does have spirit, just as do human beings. This is considered animism. For the Christian, the world around them is dead, life only resides in man.
The relationship we continue to have with our ancestors can be demonstrated in a story, a historical report. A man went “on the hill” to make what Osages call the Rite of Vigil, for a period of days to fast without liquids as well as without food and to pray for direction and help for his family and his people. Towards evening of that first day, a man came to visit him, a man dressed the way people used to dress in the long ago. This man had a clan name that indicated he belonged to the same clan as the man who was making this ceremony. In the brief conversation, the man who had appeared promised to help the man making the ceremony, to stand with him through his life and to help those for whom the man prayed. Then the man disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. This is a common enough experience among Indian people. We tell our young people that this is always a possibility for them when they make this ceremony. It does not make them anyone special, but it does give them a new sense of direction for living life. Experiences such as this raises a significant problematic for many christian people and especially for reformation church folk who hold to a doctrine of sola scriptura. If this is a general possibility of all Indian people who engage in this traditional ceremony , then there is a pervasive source of information that would mean that any christian Indian might have a source of information not available to non-Indian. We are to however believe that Jesus visits and inspire the Apostles long after he died. The experience of Europeans being visited by a man who is said to be Jesus is not dismissed. A doctrine of sola scriptura means the Indian can no longer rely on the wisdom passed down from their forefathers, their ancestors who birth them and survived many challenges of life. Instead all guidance must come from this one book, a book of the colonisers culture not of ours.
As churches became established institutions in their own right, doctrine took on a different contextual force. Doctrine becomes its own control device to help maintain control of the faithful. Specialization of scripture study had made the bible less easily accessible to lay readers of the text and has put growing power into the hands of those specialists who are so trained. The discourse of biblical interpretation has become so technical today that even clergy are not always trained in ways sophisticated enough to interpret the text authoritatively for their congregations. But these problems pale when compared to the particular problems it raises for indigenous peoples whose native language competencies are in languages outside of the family of historic languages of Christianity. In this regard, Indian Christians, and other indigenous Christians, are destined to be forever “one down” because they are not native speakers of or educated in the technical languages of Christianity—Greek, Hebrew, German, Latin, Italian, etc.—and neither are they as comfortably conversant in the cultural-linguistic concepts almost automatically presumed by euro-western Christians. Thus, Indian Christians must rely on “professional” interpretations of their christian faith (i.e., euro-western interpretations) from the missionaries that the denominations have sent us. Even when we do learn Greek and Hebrew, we learn it from the same professional eurowestern interpreters and, thus, we merely learn to mimic the coloniser. As a result we seem invariably to internalize our own colonised status finally affirming the normativity of the coloniser worldview.
The texts called the New Testament were written in greek and there can be no adequate reading of those texts without some understanding of greek language and culture of the first christian century. One curious oddity is the canonical inclusion of the Hebrew Bible within the Christian sacred tests. This means forcing all adherents to embrace a history that is not the natural or actual history of the persons or peoples who become adherents—unless they are “Jews”. All converts and their succeeding generations are expected to embrace the history of one small, relatively insignificant Asian country, ancient Israel, as their own history, investing their lives with meaning and identity rooted in the historical experiences of a people distant from their own both in terms of culture and time. This business of appropriating a foreign history as one’s own means, in some regard (more for some than for others), the denial of one’s own proper history. This is the heart of colonisation. Any intellectual understanding of the history of christian doctrine, is inevitably a european history.
Euro-western colonisers validate their own theft of property and murder of our ancestors by , affirming Israelite history of the conquest of the land of Canaan. Puritans in coming to Turtle Island (american continent) used the Exodus narrative of Israel’s escape from slavery and conquest of the land of Canaan empowered their colonial invasion of Indian lands and justified in their minds the murder of Indian people. It is the same narrative that gives birth to the religio-political doctrine of “manifest destiny” (and eventually the absurdity of the Monroe Doctrine) and all contemporary religious and political forms of american exceptionalism. The conquest narrative is one in which we always discover ourselves to be the Canaanites, the conquered, and never the Israelites. Similarly this is the case with African Americas said to be descendants of Ham, thereby justifying slavery. The net result of this process is self-disavowal and even subtle forms of self-hatred on the part of American Indian peoples who are converted.
It must lead the perceptive and sensitive observer to wonder whether any appropriation of the euro-christian gospel can be liberative for American Indians. Can it liberate indegenous Africans, Asians, Maoris in New Zealand or Aboriginals in Australia? It is curious that Christians are led logically to believe that “God,” until the birth of Jesus, cared only for one small people on the face of the earth, leaving all others to ignorance, “sin”, idolatry, self-destruction, and eternal damnation. For Indian peoples the message only becomes more difficult since it is conveyed through the clear inference that “God’s” love in the Jesus event was denied to the Indian peoples until God, in God’s graciousness, sent White people to kill us, , steal our land, and proclaim the saving gospel to us—that is, convert us to their religion.
Deconstructing these imaginaries that have been imposed on us by mission theologies is our first order of business in constructing indigenous theologies.