Thursday, September 2, 2010

Creating Christian Indians

If there is one ongoing theme to this blog, it lies in the idea that in many cases, American Indian converts to Christianity weren't fakers, many of them genuinely understood, accepted, and/or sensed something about the missionaries' messages. A second, and equally important point - that I've not emphasized as much - is that becoming a Christian doesn't make a new convert into a non-Indian.

One historian who promoted both ends of this line of thinking a few years before I started blogging was Bonnie Sue Lewis, a professor of mission and Native American Christianity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Lewis is the author of Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003). Much of her book focuses on the Dakota Sioux and the Nez Perce.

However, in the book's much more general introduction, Lewis observes that a "growing number of historians have begun to show an appreciation for Native ingenuity in shifting cultural boundaries to gain their own ends."

She gives a number of examples of recent descriptions of Christian converts who never stopped being Indians. One of those descriptions came from the anthropologist Raymond DeMallie, who studied Black Elk's conversion to Catholicism. As Lewis puts it, DeMallie saw Black Elk's conversion as a sincere one "but reasoned that Black Elk remained Indian insofar as he used the resources of the Christian church to fulfill traditional Indian leadership roles" (page 26).

Despite being well-renowned for their conversion to Calvinist Christianity back in the colony of Massachusetts, the Stockbridge Mohicans had become an insignificant "western" tribe by the time the events in Bonnie Sue Lewis' book take place. While it is possible that she was aware of the ABCFM*-sponsored mission to the Stockbridge Indians that took place in what is now Wisconsin, there is no mention of the Stockbridge Mohicans in Creating Christian Indians. I'll have more to say about that in a future post.

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