"CHRISTIANS" WE NATIVES DO NOT LIKE [HUNTER GRAY 3/20/02]
It's not too often at all that I post on matters
relating, say, to
Christianity. I do hold -- and always have, as did my father -- a set of
religious beliefs that are a kind of synthesis of our traditional tribal
religious views with Roman Catholicism [or, as we put it, "Jesuit
Catholicism" -- from the Jesuit "syncretism" or blending which has always
so troubled the more precious of the Vatican theologians.]
I have no problem carrying with me both my "Bear Medicine" [ certain very
special things] and also my St. Ignatius of Loyola holy medal. We read the
generally very liberal National Catholic Reporter faithfully -- have since
the '60s -- and certainly support the ordination of women. In addition to
the Old Beliefs in my own tribal settings, I'm quite at home indeed at other
Native traditional religious ceremonials -- e.g., Navajo and Laguna and
Hopi. I had no problem with my mother being an Episcopalian -- or a special
uncle on her side an active Presbyterian layperson. I have a few LDS
[Mormon] nieces and nephews. And I even have a ten year old grand daughter
who considers herself [as she always has since practically birth] to be an
atheist. "We don't exist because we want to exist," she said at age three
in front of a number of somewhat surprised family members -- including
myself. "We exist because we exist."
No sweat on any of this. Faithful to my own beliefs, I try to be an
ecumenical soul who takes a "live and let live" view of people's religious
beliefs [or the lack of them.]
But when missionaries push too hard -- religious [or political, as far as
that goes] -- we Natives can get edgy. And downright resistant.
And I don't like shoving, sanctimonious atheists, either. They chill me
Not that all Christian missionaries [or atheists] are pushy. I have a very
high personal regard for my Jesuit friends whose courageous and primary
commitment to very substantive social justice -- and often to Liberation
Theology -- is extremely strong. And I'm much with the radical
Catholic Worker crew -- one and all. I certainly admired Dorothy Day; and
Ammon Hennacy -- the Catholic Anarchist -- was always a good friend.
Almost three hundred years ago , Father Sebastian Rasle [S.J.] was
murdered with over two hundred Abenaki men, women and children at their
village on the banks of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. When the
English killed him as he stood behind his desk in the church, his blood
flowed over his just completed life's scholarly work -- a dictionary of the
Abenaki language. His head and those of the Indians were carried together
by the English on pikes through the streets of Boston. Harvard still won't
give Father Rasle's blood-stained dictionary back to the Native people.
My wife, Eldri's, late uncle, Kristofer Hagen, an ordained Lutheran
clergyman [ the liberal ELCA] and an M.D., and his wife Bertha, spent the
whole of their lives doing medical missionary work in some of the most
challenging sections of India -- and in poverty-stricken Ethiopia -- and on
some Indian reservations. He wasn't involved at all in conversion. [He
wrote widely on his medical work and one of his several consistently
excellent books is Third World Encounters.]
And we're certainly always pleasant to the very young [19 and 20] Mormon
missionaries who come to our door over the decades. No matter where we are, we often find that we and they have a few Arizona people as mutual
acquaintances and often friends. Here in Idaho, my oldest grandson ,
Indian Catholic of course, regularly plays on an LDS basketball team. No
conversion pressure at all, by the way.
But there's another kind of Christian missionary -- the pushy kind, the sort
that tries to frighten folks. These are the ones, the really hard-core
fundamentalist zealots, that you find on the outskirts, say, of Gallup,
N.M., flagrantly attempting to frighten Native people into some sort of
ostensible"Christian" conversion -- while dangling a sack of old clothing.
And deliberately riding roughshod, say, over the ancient and very viable and
vitally complex Navajo religious beliefs -- and especially very much over
one of the most fundamental and sensitive of the Navajo harmony-preserving
taboos: Chindee, involving the dead.
You find this callous and self-serving missionary species in any of the
predominately Anglo towns bordering any Native reservation anywhere.
Our Indian family and Natives in general have never, never liked these kind
of so-called "Christian" missionaries one damn bit. Never have, never will.
Once several of us kids at Flagstaff High School were picked by a local
radio station for a pre-recorded group interview on current issues. I was
the only Native person in our little entourage and I attacked Christian
missionaries -- these wrong kind, the scaring and scary zealots -- in and
around Indian country. On the evening that program was due to air, my folks
and I waited to hear my first Air Waves appearance. Instead, we got a half
hour of "Tennessee Ernie." Dad angrily called the station and was blandly
told that a "gremlin" had gotten into the works.
I grew up with the Navajo in Northern Arizona and Western New Mexico -- and
with close Hopi and Laguna connections as well. One of the very real things
that built my fires high during that doomed Flagstaff radio interview was
something that had happened on the nearby Little Colorado River -- on the
southwestern edge of the vast [bigger than West Virginia] and almost
completely rural Navajo reservation.
There -- there was an Anglo trader and his wife. He was a rough sort of
unshaven, somewhat unkempt man. But he was honest and his little trading
post had a dependable flow of Indian business. One day a Navajo woman came, a stranger, with her small boy. Far from her relatives on the eastern end
of the reservation, she had been stranded in a nearby border town and had
made her way back onto the reservation, stopping at this trader's post. He
and his wife gave her food and a few regular jobs to do. She and her child
stayed in a hogan [Navajo dwelling] adjacent to his store and small house.
Then one day, an Anglo missionary -- the wrong kind -- came by. Spotting
the woman and shrewdly assessing her marginal and vulnerable circumstances, he began to work the "conversion" angle. She listened, was slowly, steadily, partly drawn into it all. He brought some clothes, came
regularly -- early each morning. And she began to trust him.
The Anglo trader did not trust the missionary. He was very skeptical of
those motives -- but, as per local protocol, he didn't interfere. Not at
And then one night the woman's child suddenly died.
And the missionary came for his morning, daily visit. Immediately, before
he could commence any of "his things," she asked him -- the ostensible Man
of God who she had come to trust -- for a horse.
And he -- the missionary -- knew exactly why the grief-stricken and
economically and emotionally destitute Navajo woman wanted a horse.
Because he knew precisely why, he now berated her. His voice rising, he
condemned her "superstitious beliefs" and threatened her, and very much the
soul of her little boy, with Hell and Eternal Damnation.
The unshaven, unkempt Anglo trader heard all of this. And now, with a rifle
in his hand, he interfered. Dramatically.
Walking to the nearby woman and her dead child and their would-be scourge,
he told the missionary, simply and directly, "get the hell out of here and
never come back here again."
The missionary fled to his pickup and back to the security of the Anglo
Now the trader went into his own corral where he had several horses. There
was a faithful, elderly horse for which he, in the fashion of the Navajo,
provided good care in old age. With rifle in hand, the Anglo trader took his
aging four-legged friend to the Navajo woman.
Then he shot the horse - dead.
And the woman, relaxing, cried with relief.
The trader and his wife took her into the post and their home. Before many
hours had passed, word had been conveyed by Indian grapevine to one of the
always highly trained [17 years of rigorous training] traditional medicine
men to come to burn the hogan, properly dispose of both the child's body and
that of the slain horse, and perform the very extensive ceremonies so
necessary to the preservation of healthy harmony in the Complicated Cosmos
of the Navajo people.
Later, when all of this was completed, the trader's wife took the Navajo
woman to an off-reservation bus depot -- and purchased the ticket necessary
for her return to her family on the far eastern edge of the Navajo country.
The trader had known exactly why the distraught woman so desperately wanted a horse. He knew that traditional Navajo beliefs hold that the soul of the deceased must make a long trip into and through a kind of nether world --
it will take four days -- before it arrives at the mysterious, shadowy
After World. Even though deceased kin will come to accompany the traveler,
the boy was small. The Navajo woman could only see her lonely, little
child trudging along -- on and on and on.
That's why she needed a horse. A horse for her son. And the trader, the
rough and unshaven and unkempt skeptic, gave her boy a horse to ride.
Not long ago, my daughter, Maria, was sent via e-mail one of the most
absolutely hideous Native-focused "Christian" missionary attack / tracts
that I've ever seen. It's published by something called Chick
Publications -- which has tracts for all Sinning ethnicities and other
groups [even yours, whoever You are.]
This is the link to their special "Indian missionary thing." If you took a
strangling, suffocating swamp and sprinkled it liberally with cultural
ethnocentrism and outright racism -- and then via some evil alchemy
transposed all of that into a cyber/cartoon/print/tract -- this is what
Hunter Gray [ Hunterbear ]