For several years I taught a course in Western Religions for a couple of our local colleges. In one of those colleges, the textbooks were predetermined by the dean, and I faced an online text I had not seen before. My course covered Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I thought the text was a tad simplistic but the students and I coasted along through its descriptions of the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, which influenced the development of the other three major western religions. Judaism’s history is more complex, but I found that I could live with the textbook’s basic overview.
But when it started describing what Christians believe, I found myself objecting to almost every line. In fact, its flatfooted assertion that Christians believe that their Bible is the inspired word of God, that Jesus was the divine Son of God. That Jesus accomplished salvation for believers on the cross, saving adherents from an eternity in hell and delivering them to everlasting reward in heaven . . . I just kept objecting: some Christians believe those things, but many would find such beliefs to be archaic or at least metaphorical.
You wouldn’t find any top tier seminary teaching students that any of those things should be taken literally. Progressive Christians have always tried to describe their religion more in the practices of love, compassion, forgiveness, charity, and community, and not very much at all about orthodox beliefs but, the textbook version of the religion in which I grew up, seemed to me, to be a caricature, an insult, honestly, a gross distortion of my own faith history.
The Christian religion is 2000 years old and the basic divisions of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant hardly begins to account for the differences among the 2 billion people grouped into one or more of the 45,000 different divisions of Christians.
I personally now identify as a Unitarian, more to give myself separation from my Christian neighbors than to cut myself off from the roots of my education and experience. I understand that I was teaching a 200 level undergraduate course, but what this book said about Christianity would give my students more to unlearn than it gave them to learn, which made me wonder about what it had to say about the other major religions of the west, some of which are much older and some of which have even more sharp divisions within them than Christianity does. Was I just less familiar with those traditions and therefore it was easier for me to misrepresent them?
This month, and especially this week, we are asked to spend some time focusing on the history and heritage of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. As a pastor and as a professor of world religions, I have come to realize that most of what modern Americans have to say about indigenous peoples, especially when they say something like “native American spirituality,” is almost always misleading if not cartoonish . . . not so much ancient wisdom from our first nations as it is silly platitudes that “I think I heard somewhere,” if not wisdom cracked fresh out of our fortune cookies at the local cashew chicken joint.
The indigenous communities have been on these continents for between 12,000 and 15,000 years. They were here when these lands were still inhabited by woolly mammoths and the prehistoric cousins of both camels and horses. How can we speak of a singular “spirituality” among Indian nations that had been here 10,000 years before Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad were even born?
We assume that they migrated across the land bridge that existed in that time between what is now Siberia and Alaska, but they didn’t all come at one time, and they didn’t all come from one place. Over time, groups settled near the Artic circle and others spread across North and Central America, making their way out to the Caribbean islands and down to the far reaches of South America.
These hundreds of different tribes evolved from hunter-gatherer societies towards more agrarian communities at about the same time that the people of Europe and Africa were also evolving towards agricultural tribes.
Some nations of South America developed a written language and an accurate calendar, replete with sophisticated awareness of astronomy. Northern tribes did not develop written languages that we are aware of, but they certainly did develop very complex societies with different kinds of hunting, fishing, farming, weaving, pottery, and architecture.
While there had been brief Norse visitors to North America, the fifteenth century arrival of Christopher Columbus found what westerners described as “stone age” societies living here. That is a rather unfair description because the whole stone age, copper, bronze, and iron distinctions were European. Those categories do not really work in the New World.
Indigenous nations had made some jewelry out of the scarce softer metals, gold and silver, but they had not mined or manufactured copper, bronze, or iron. The prehistoric horses that once roamed North America had become extinct. They had no pack animals in the north. The indigenous tribes of the 15th century did not use the wheel, they did not have glass, or steel.
In fact, although Columbus never set foot on the mainland of the Americas, the first tribes he did encounter in the Caribbean did not only not know about Native American spirituality, they did not seem to have any religion at all. This is a very important point for us all to let soak in. Our romanticized representations of Native American spirituality are, to put it lightly, almost entirely wrong.
The first Indigenous People that Europeans encountered seemed, as reported in the diaries of Columbus’ crew, to be beautiful, peaceful, and generous people who had their own social rules about family, marriage, ownership of property, and work which were not at all like the more violent, greedy, and, admittedly, kind of “rapey” culture of their European visitors. While we know of religious rituals and beliefs among Indigenous communities on the mainland, we need to recognize that they differed broadly from one another and that not all Indigenous nations had anything that we would call a religion or spirituality at all.
Theirs was not a primitive culture that was just discovered by European civilized Christians who then dominated and converted them. It was not an inferior culture replaced by a superior one, in fact, you could argue that the islanders had the superior culture, they just didn’t have swords or metal knives or guns.
Columbus had promised his royal sponsors gold and silver. Finding little by way of precious metals in the new world, Columbus, and his successors, began to capture Indigenous peoples as slaves, many of whom were children, and take them to Europe both for labor and as sex slaves.
Those who remained, were enslaved to work for agricultural products that had value in Europe. So began a genocide that continued for most of the next three hundred years.
The introduction of African slaves began to replace the labor of Indigenous peoples who had been almost entirely wiped out.
Much of what we know of this era is from the records and observations made by the Spanish priest, las Casas, who lived on the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He claimed that in the first 20 years of Spanish rule on that island, more than 3 million of the Indians had been killed or worked to death.
Please consider this: Looking at our own history, many theoretical scientists have warned that, though we suspect that intelligent life does exist in many places in the universe, we shouldn’t get too excited about the prospects of meeting them.
Firstly, if they have the technology to travel faster than the speed of light, something that seems to be totally impossible to imagine, then they would probably view us in much the way that Columbus viewed the natives he encountered in the Caribbean.
Civilizations have a way of exploiting those which it finds to be vulnerable. We might be more interesting to them as a food source or for sport than we would for conversation. Europeans arrived in the Americas with guns and swords like aliens looking for gold and silver, and finding very little of that, we took humans to exploit for wealth and, admittedly, sex.
At the time of our much mythologized “first Thanksgiving” among English immigrants to the New World, there may have been between 50 and 100 million Indigenous people living in the Americas, probably around 25 million in what is now the United States. They tremendously outnumbered the English but, as William Bradford recorded in his history written as events unfolded, the English avoided encountering the warriors of the Pequot Indians, who would have outnumbered them and likely defeated them.
They chose instead to destroy their will to fight by attacking the villages when the warriors were not present, killing women and children. As one historian of the era observed, the Indians were terrified and learned three lessons from the Pequot Wars: that the English will break any promise when it is to their advantage, and the English would show no morals or mercy in how they fought, and finally that their weapons made them impossible to defeat. Ironically, the white Europeans called the Native Americans, “savages,” but the savagery they later exhibited, they learned from the white invaders.
The western movement was complicated and there were tribes that fought back but, within a century from the first Thanksgiving, 90% of the Indigenous population was gone. My own family settled in southern Kentucky in the late 1700’s and two hundred years later, when I walked across freshly plowed fields on the family farm, it was not difficult to find evidence of the Indian population that had been there for hundreds of years before:
As you can see, once introduced to the bow and arrow, natives replaced their flint spears with delicately made arrow heads, some smaller than a quarter, an amazing tribute to how quickly native cultures adapted to the innovations that came from their interactions with European settlers. And, yes, I have looked into donating my small collection to a museum in Kentucky but since you can still pick up thousands of these flint points all over the state, they are nearly worthless to museums. These are probably between three and six hundred years old and, as native history goes, that is just a flash in the pan.
The maps we see of where tribes lived in North America are almost as bogus as the shaman who try to tell us about Native American spirituality. They present boundaries of Native tribes in way you might look at a map of modern Europe but you have to know that the map of Europe has been constantly changing over the past 10,000 years just as the map of the Americas evolved and continues to evolve.
This is impossible to do accurately but these academic maps give us some impression of the placement of different cultures at the time when Columbus arrived in the Americas and when the English began to settle on the east coast three centuries later.
The tribes moved; some moved a lot. Their numbers would grow and diminish. At the time my family arrived in Kentucky, there were still Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Yuchi, Mosopelea, and several other tribes. The name “Cherokee” comes to mean almost the same thing as “Indian” to many of us. The origins of the Cherokee were probably on the east coast, and they moved west to escape the violent encounters they had with white Europeans. Those that did try to remain in ancestorial lands were eventually removed, most famously by Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal Act” which we now typically reference only as “the trail of tears.”
Still, in spite of how many people talk about it, of the 60,000 Indigenous people moved to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears, 15,000 were Cherokee and of that number, more than 4000 died along the way. With each forced relocation, we simultaneously erased Indigenous history, culture, religion, and rituals and even the names of tribes and languages are now lost to us.
When I have taught Western Religion courses, I show my students how the form of Judaism that existed prior to the Babylonian exile of the 5th century before the common era, bears almost no similarity to the Judaism that came after. Judaism emerged as a combination of ancient Hebrew stories and very Zoroastrian beliefs in heaven, hell, angels, and, believe it or not, Judaism was transformed from polytheism to a kind of monotheism, not by Moses but by Zoroastrian priests. But don’t tell that to your evangelical relatives at the Thanksgiving table this week.
The religions of the Indigenous tribes evolved quickly in light of the devastation of their numbers by European diseases and weapons. Some of the best known native authors writing about Indigenous spirituality are people who actually grew up in Catholic boarding schools and their views on Native spirituality show an awful lot of signs of being influenced by Catholic mythology. Frankly, it is hard to know who to believe as the most acclaimed academic books on native history disagree with one another broadly.
At a bare minimum, what I am asking of everyone in my audience who grew up in North America, is that we need to interrogate our own beliefs about the Indigenous cultures of this stolen land. This isn’t about guilt, and it isn’t about trying to re-write history. It is about accepting that most of the impressions we have from our childhood educations about the Indigenous is full of balloon juice and the beginning of honoring these people’s culture is to stop repeating silly lies and even romantic imaginary histories.
We need to apply more of a Critical Race Theory approach to our understanding of native culture. But, still, there are things that can be said about their culture, if not their spirituality, that should be sobering for us. For example, as historian Gary Nash observed about the Iroquois: they had no police, jails, court system, no judges or juries. They managed crime through community intervention. Which was easier to do since there was no income gap between the rich and the poor and most property was community owned. You realize, I’m sure, that most of our police, jails, and courts exist to protect the “haves” from the “have nots.”
Appreciating Indigenous culture first means that we have to stop looking down on them as if they were inferior to European culture. They were different, and in terms of technology they were several steps behind Europe but in terms of family, decency, compassion, and justice, they were arguably way ahead of my tribe.
So, with open minds and sincere curiosity, let’s set aside the stereotypes and prejudices, and try to make some real progress in understanding the diversity of America in the 21st century by understanding where we all came from.
Dr. Roger Ray