Christianity as an American Weapon: Native America and Religion by Dakota O’Leary

Vine Deloria, Jr, a leading Native American scholar best known for his book “Custer Died for Your Sins” has been called one of the “greatest religious thinkers of the twentieth century,” by TIME magazine. It is worthy to take a look at what colonialism has done at home because American colonialism of Native America has used Christianity as a weapon to subjugate the Native American community quite purposefully. The effects of such misguided colonialism are still evident today in the extreme poverty one sees on the reservation, the fact that it was not until fairly recently that Pine Ridge even got a water pipeline. For years people were trucking water or walking miles to a community pump or well to get water for their homes. People still live on the rez with no running water or sewer, relying on government commodities for food, forced to submit to unequal education, thus ill equipped to live in the “white” world. The “tolerance” and ignorance of this poverty and hardship amongst Native peoples in this country has always been part of the planned obsolescence of the Native peoples by the US government. Schools do not teach children Native history; for the most part Native issues are largely ignored. It was not until the 70’s and 80’s that the American university began to have Native American departments. The decimation of Native peoples, as Vine Deloria Jr’s classic book “God is Red,” now in it 30th anniversary edition asserts, has been aided and abetted by Christianity. Deloria Jr himself is Oglala Lakota born at Pine Ridge, and educated in reservation schools. He received his law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970 after deciding not to pursue a theology degree as his father had. This article will focus on the chapter in “God is Red” called “The Religious Challenge,” in which Deloria investigates the meaning of Christianity as a social justice challenge in the way that white America treats minorities, particularly Native Americans.

The issue with Christianity and colonialism as laid out in “God is Red” is that the main weakness of the United States is Christianity’s intolerance and inability to respect those who are different from white America; after the Nuremberg Trials, Delora says that Civil Rights became inevitable as it forced white America to look at its own Christian conscience:

“After the Nuremberg Trials, it became more or less inevitable that the Western nations would fall victim to the moral and intellectual weaknesses in their own societies. Could one really judge Nazi leaders when in one’s own nation captured German prisoners of war received better treatment than the black soldiers who had captured them? No, the Civil Rights movement was inevitable once the Nuremberg Trials had taken place. The logic of national identity called for an effort to realize the reality of the Christian religion on a political basis. America had no choice but to embark eventually on a quest for post-Nuremberg meaning. That the Civil Rights movement began under the benign Eisenhower administration was an indication of the terrible conflicts in which America and its religious sensitivity would engage. If nothing else, Eisenhower personified the good citizen, the American Christian gentleman, the man to whom all good accrues because of his faithful adherence to the American credo. That Dwight D. Eisenhower was compelled by the logic of the law to order federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, over the protests of members of his own party and the South to enforce a Supreme Court decree seems ironic, yet appropriate for the unveiling of the American religious question and its resolution” (48-49).

The American Civil Rights movement also afforded an opportunity for Native America to take a hard look at this inconsistency, and to re-discover their own culture:

“In attempting to distinguish Indian issues from the concerns felt by the black community and understood by their white allies, many Indians began to discover their own culture. They began to trace out the reality of their own religious experiences and to distinguish between the technological superiority of the white man and his moral corruption and the falsity of his religious facade. It was during the Eisenhower years that some of the religious ceremonies of the tribes were first openly performed after many decades of suppression”.

It must be remembered that the Native religions were suppressed by the US government out of the governments prevailing fear of “Indian rebellions.” Thus, Native religions were stripped from them by law, and this law was enforced by members of the clergy installed on Indian reservations, who would promptly report to the government any incursions of this law by Native peoples until the government gave Natives back the right to practice their own religion in 1978. This is shameful in a country that guarantees freedom of religion to all of its citizens.

At the time of white European contact with indigenous American cultures, indigenous cultures had their own coherent religious systems, including cosmologies–creation myths, transmitted orally from one generation to another. Most Native people worshiped one Great Spirit, a being that assumed a number of forms and identities, not dissimilar to God in Genesis, who appears as a man, the wind, a burning bush, and a being of light to Moses, and finally, in the New Testament, God appears as Christ. Native Americans also venerated a host of lesser spiritual entities, including an evil god who dealt out death, disaster and sicknesses (not dissimilar to the Christian Satan). Finally, most tribes believed already in the immortality of the soul, and an afterlife, where there was food in plenty, and which was very beautiful, like the Christian heaven. (

The main difference between native faith and Christianity is in how Christianity interprets care of the land. The academic study of Christian environmentalism is relatively new, and is occurring mostly in the discipline of religion and literature. John Gatta recently came out with a book investigating Christian responsibility to the environment as viewed by the Bible and American literature called “Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present.” This book makes the view that Delora does, that historically Christianity as a colonialist tool of oppression has systematically used the idea that land must be conquered, rather than seeing the Christian as part of the land itself, a point that seems to be systematically missed by theologians and ministers who regularly preach the well known Bible story of the creation of man from the dust of the earth. Deloria addresses this concept:

“Finally the ecologists arrived with predictions [in the 60’s] so chilling as to frighten the strongest heart. At the present rate of deterioration, they told us, mankind could expect only a generation before the species would finally be extinguished. How had this situation come about? Some ecologists told us that it was the old Christian idea of nature: the rejection of creation as a living ecosystem and the concept of nature as depraved, an object of exploitation and nothing more. Almost immediately young whites who were attracted by ecology were accused of copping out on the Civil Rights movement. A diversion, black activists cried, a means of taking the pressure off the corrupt governmental structures that refuse to give us our rights” (51).

Deloria also acknowledges that along with Christian disregard for the earth, despite God’s adminition to “tend it and keep it,” the collapse of the Civil Rights movement happened because white America, despite its protests regarding how Christian America was, did not believe in the basic tenets and goals of the Civil Rights movement–that all humanity is equal. “The collapse of the Civil Rights movement, the concern with Vietnam and the war, the escape to drugs, the rise of power movements, and the return to Mother Earth can all be understood as desperate efforts of groups of people to flee abstract articulations of belief and superficial values and find authenticity wherever it could be found. It was at this time that Indians became popular and the widespread and intense interest in Indians, as seen in the fantasy literature and anthologies, seemed to indicate that Americans wanted more from Indians than they did from other minority groups. For many people, the stoic, heroic and noble Indian who had lived an idyllic existence prior to contact with whites seemed to hold the key to survival and promised new meanings for American life” (51).

The truth was, however, that Indians mistook this interest as being sincere. While commercials with Indians crying over a littered landscape ran on TV, real Indians were trying, as Deloria says “to make corrections [to white ignorance of Native culture] that would not insult their white friends or erode their apparent belief in things Indian” (52). When Indians marched on the BIA headquarters and stormed the building, they did so because they became frustrated at the shaky support of white America at large as evinced by being refused a meeting with Nixon. It became clear to Natives that the government and Americans themselves had no more real interest in Indian issues than they ever had. And so, Deloria says the only way to get the attention and support of Christian churches in their civil rights movement was to take over the BIA headquarters, to react in a revolutionary way. And churches responded:

“Church officials often gauged their relevancy (a civil rights group’s relavancy) in proportion to the groups they were funding. Any church not receiving its share of frothing-at-the-the-mouth demands for money felt isolated from the great events of the American social movement. Thus, it was that when AIM captured a dormitory at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD, and presented a set of demands carefully worked out by Lutherans in secret sessions, the Lutheran churches eagerly embraced the Indian cause. While they had not been overly enthusiastic about helping the blacks during the Civil Rights movement, some church officials felt that they could get the same kind of action from the Indians without taking a position on a social movement that would antagonize their church members. Many Lutherans were ecstatic when informed by Indians that they were guilty of America’s sins against the Indians, and they embarked on a massive program of fund-raising to pay for their alleged sins. But they were not the only victims. Because the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists all gleefully responded to the accusation that they had been responsible for nearly all the problems of American Indians, they also decided that they could purchase indulgences for these sins by funding Indian activists to do whatever they felt necessary to correct the situation. By early 1971, almost every major Christian church had set up crisis funds to buy off whichever Indian protesters they might arrange to have visit them…in a real sense, Christian churches bought and paid for the Indian movement, and its climactic destruction of the BIA headquarters as surely as if they had written out specific orders to sack the BIA on a contractual basis (46-47).

Deloria talks about, in this chapter, about how philosophers such as Nietzche announced the death of God in Western culture long before the Anglican bishop John Robinson did. The alternative, according to Nietzche, was the creation of the superman, an idea that found its downfall in Hitler’s ideology of National Socialism, which invested ordinary citizens with a destructive idea of superiority. This is something that white Europeans had had a sense of way before Nietzche, and something that Deloria notes is a major idea in Christianity–that Christianity sees itself as the superior religion, and as long as this idea of superiority persists in Christianity, religious colonialism will never end–it will simply assume different forms. The current form, according to Deloria, is the rise of Christian fundamentalism.

“An increasing number of Americans have become members of the religious right, the fundamentalists. As mainline churches lose members rapidly through their constant efforts to pander to the “unchurched” [no respect for the fact that the “unchurched” may be quite happy with their religion or lack thereof], and make themselves relevant, mindless fundamentalism makes greats strides, even among the educated people in society. When the fundamentalists seized on abortion as an issue, they found the key to political power. Thus was created the irony of modern American life. The fundamentalists could care less about human life after birth. They unquestioningly accept American military ventures around the world, and cry for more blood with each invasion or carpetbombing of small countries. They steadfastly support the death penalty, and see nothing wrong with its one-sided application to racial minorities. They close their eyes to blatant theft of American assets by government officials, executives and bankers, and oppose EVERY social program that is proposed. Yet on the abortion issue they wax eloquent about the sanctity of human life as if their salvation depends on it. Thus, through nearly two decades while American Indians were rediscovering the integrity of their traditional religions, the rest of American society has torn itself and its religious traditions apart, substituting patriotism and hedonism for old values and behaviors”

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