Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The historical record of missions among the tribes of North America has been a saga filled with enormous potential and great failures and sadness. Grief in the fact that so many of the early missionaries were unable to recognize and embrace the intrinsic Godgiven value of the people to whom they were sent. Instead they saw only uncivilized, barbaric savages who needed not only to be saved from their sin, but forced to reject all their old "unnatural" ways of life to embrace the "superior" ways of the white man. The effect of this cultural bigotry has been that today, among the hundreds of tribal groups around the world, Native North Americans are perhaps foremost among those who have never seen the rise of an indigenous church movement or a widespread revival.
This has been and continues to be a great loss to the Body of Christ.
The beginning of the end of the long colonial, subject status of the Native American churches appears to be in sight. Spaniard, Englishman, other Europeans, the Frenchman to a less degree, and the American before and after independence all conquered the Indian, subjugated him, and colonized him culturally, ecclesiastically as well as politically. The United States government used the missions to assimilate him. The Indian and Eskimo should be free now to be Native American in church and society.1
But, hope remains that all has not been in vain. In the providence of Almighty God, it was His plan that the "white man" from across the great water would deliver the sacred message of Jesus to the First Nations of this continent. Our gracious heavenly Father redeems our worst blunders and causes all things to work together for good. Had the roles been reversed I doubt we native people would have performed any better than the Europeans.
"Out of sight out of mind" describes the Native American situation among American evangelicals today. Native expressions of Christ and His Kingdom are all but absent from the mainstream of the white Church in America. This despite nearly five centuries of active, unabated missionary activity!
Dr. Paul Hiebert talks of "White Man's Burden" as his perceived need to educate and civilize the world. The early missionaries among First Nations people were not free of the prevailing societal attitudes of their day toward native North Americans. They equated Christianity with Western Culture, and the West's obvious superiority over other cultures. As is often the case today, this superiority is considered proof of Western Christianity's rightness over other cultural forms and expressions. This supposition is not necessarily based on truth, but on the "progress" of industry, science, and commerce. Clearly the West was "civilized" and the rest of the world was primitive. Dr. Hiebert notes:
The seventeenth-century New England Puritan missionaries largely set the course for modern missions. They defined their task as preaching the Gospel so that Native Americans would be converted and receive personal salvation. But early in their missionary experience these New Englanders concluded that Indian converts could only be Christians if they were "civilized." The model by which they measured their converts was English Puritan civilization. The missionaries felt compassion and responsibility for their converts. They gathered these new Christians into churches for nurture and discipline and set up programs to transform Christian Indians into English Puritans.2
And Thus Began Five Hundred Years of Bad Haircuts...
As much as anything, when the government and church run schools as well as church missionaries cut the hair of our young boys and girls, it symbolized the attempt to civilize native people and turn them into good little Englishmen, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, etc. . . . EuroAmericans. The problem with these bad haircuts, change of traditional fashion and clothing, and the forced replacement of language and culture, is that it is a denial of a people's Godgiven identity and existence. If I can be so bold, it could even legitimately be viewed as a kind cultural genocidea type of cultural circumcision.
Metaphorically, after five hundred years it is time for the Body of Christ to let First Nations people choose their own hairstyles. Given so few believers among the 3 1/2 million native North Americans, many are asking the question, why not try some new ways of doing "church" among native people.
I have grown my hair long the past few years and now often wear it in braids. Hudson Taylor, one of my heroes in the faith, a great missionary to China, also grew his hair long and wore it in a braid. Consequently, he was kicked out of the missionary compound by his fellow British comrades. He had begun to reject their "Christian" culture in favor of the heathen culture of these Chinese pagans. He went on to become one of the most fruitful missionaries ever.
Obviously, I am using haircuts as an analogy to describe the historical rejectionist approach in missionaries among tribal peoples around the world. By and large, native people have not found the new life and freedom promised in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but rather continued pain within a culture that is both alien and condemning, and even genocidal against indigenous people. George Tinker, Osage, speaks of genocide in his book, Missionary Conquest:
What I call genocide functions at times as conscious intent, but at other times at such a systemic level that it may be largely subliminal. In such cases, the good intent of some may be so mired in unrecognized systemic structures that they may even remain unaware of the destruction that results from those good intentions.
Cultural genocide can be defined as the effective destruction of a peoples by systematically or systemically (intentionally or unintentionally in order to achieve other goals) destroying, eroding, or understanding the integrity of the culture and system of values that defines a people and gives them life.3
However, a new day is upon us as indigenous people are revitalizing their languages, restoring familial kinship systems, rediscovering their music, dances, and art forms in Jesus Christ all for the glory of God!
Who Writes The History?
It is said that whoever wins the wars gets to write the history books. Recorded history is actually a very subjective accounting of past events. Some person with pen and paper sits down and attempts to accurately and ethically write down and describe their perceptions of events that they had seen, heard, and researched.
Let’s imagine First Nations people had won the war. Our historian, Sees Far, wrote that on a warm windless morning, some Caribbean tribes discovered and rescued a strange chief and his crew. They had never seen such a canoe nor men looking like these. Intrigued by what or whom they had discovered, they showed customary protocol and cared for their uninvited guests. They fed and nursed them back to health. They helped supply them with food, fresh water and other goods, then wished them well in their journey back to their country
United States history tells us Christopher Columbus was a brave and courageous visionary who discovered the new world, later to become America. I guess until Columbus’ arrival, First Nations people were “undiscovered.” Sees Far might have recorded a First Nations perspective of this event as the arrival of a lost chief of an enemy tribe who turned out to not be a new friend, but a marauding invader. His record of history witnessed these new “guests” returning after many moons with many more canoes filled with their fellow tribal members who came with greed, a lust for the gold metal, and brought great destruction and death to their way of life. So, which record of history is the most accurate? In today’s political stew pot of conservative politics, Sees Far would be accused of presenting a “revisionist non-Christian spin” on U.S. history. As a fellow believer in Christ, let me challenge your assumptions about nationalism, patriotism, and Christian love. Which do you believe is the more accurate record and why? I think they are both equally inaccurate and accurate it is a neither-and-both dynamic.
After 500 years of “discovery,” misguided types of evangelization and oppression, native people and their cultures have survived. America has often been referred to as the “melting pot of the world.” A native man said once about native people and their place in this culturally homogenized melting pot, “Whatever it is that Indian people are made out of, we don’t melt too easy.”
With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are master of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.4
In the history of North America, the First Nations were often viewed as an obstacle to the civilizing, development, and cultivation of the new land. As the above author stated, the “total annihilation” of native people was a legitimate approach to solving the native problem. It almost happened.
Estimates of the pre-Columbus Indian population range from 1 to 30 million depending upon the criteria. (Conservatively, many use the use figure of 10-12 million.) By 1900 there were only 237,000 native people left in the United States.
From the very beginning misunderstanding, a lack of respect and eventually even hatred toward Native Americans was evident and was passed down to each progressive generation of European settlers in the colonies. When Native Americans welcomed and helped European settlers they were viewed as simple, pagan adolescents who obviously did not deserve this great new land and who could be manipulated and cheated at will. For every positive portrayal of tribal life in the 1600s and 1700s, a hundred negative portrayals were penned by European explorers, traders and settlers. Until recently the negative accounts were so commonly accepted that scholars have a difficult time today separating fact from fiction.
The Heart of God
I believe there is a prophetic call from the heart of God to the Anglo Church in America to recognize their historical oversight and ostracism of native brethren from the mission of the Church and to make amends.
The cry of my heart is that the church may be one in deed and truth—and that native and indigenous people will find their God-given place in the Body of Christ throughout the nations.