Review: Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape
Joel W. Martin and Mark A. Nicholas, eds. Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. xiii, 325 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-7415-4.
This wide-ranging collection of essays on religious encounters between Natives and non-Natives in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century North America jettisons the usual tired tropes in favor of an extraordinary range of responses and consequences. Disquieted by what they perceive as a failure to truly appreciate the nuanced and complex nature of such encounters, the authors stake a claim to a truly cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary approach that reveals a deeply contested world in which religiosity was constantly renegotiated and revised by Natives and non-Natives, and by Christians and non-Christians alike. In his excellent conclusion (with which readers ought to begin), Mark A. Nicholas notes that these essays are bound by an interest in religious encounter as a form of cultural capital that was expressed in an astonishing variety of ways. “Our authors,” writes Nicholas, “look at the indigenization of Christian material objects and Christian texts; the physical settings for encounter…; Natives in dialogue with Christian precepts and practices; and Native Christians’ emotions, senses, and intellectual worlds” (276). Moreover, continues Nicholas, while religious encounters in the early republic had an amazing array of forms and an equally wide variety of meanings, scholars have been reluctant or unwilling to fully examine how Native people shaped and interpreted those encounters. While some readers will think that this argument is pressed rather too aggressively in places (scholars have, in fact, been increasingly aware of and interested in the very things discussed in this book), Nicholas is certainly correct in reminding us that “Scholars have to find the ways Native spiritual leaders sought to create religious ideologies to salvage themselves, educate their own people, and engage in white American religious forums. Native Americans did think about religion on their own” (282).
The book is divided into four sections. Each problematizes the usual list of assumptions about encounter, adaptation, and accommodation that have attached themselves with unfortunate vigor to the hallowed but ultimately unsatisfying notion of the “middle ground.” As most of these essays suggest, because we so rarely look deeply and reflectively at the multivalent nature of the supposed middle ground, we tend to overestimate its meaning and to understate its complexities. One of this volume’s strongest contributions, then, is an assault on the comfortable lines of inquiry that ignore religion’s role as an agent of colonialism, or that stop short of asking how and with what consequences Native people responded to Christianity’s often disruptive but also galvanizing presence in their communities. In part one, for example, “Negotiating Conversion,” Joanna Brooks, Daniel Mandell, and Joel Martin examine the responses of three very different communities—Mohegan; a collection of southern New England tribes; and Cherokees, respectively. Brooks’s commentary on Samson Occom is especially instructive. Without ignoring the often corrosive effects of Christianity’s aggressive demands for spiritual and cultural conversion, she reminds us that Native churches led by people like Occom “became places where Indian people could connect and process the extreme pressures they shouldered as well as the difficult feelings that accompanied them” (35). Mandell’s survey of the life and work of Frederick Baylies likewise confirms a complex pattern of interaction and agency in which Native people clearly appreciated Christianity’s possibilities for positive change, while Martin’s intriguing essay on the Cherokee convert David Brown shows how Brown adroitly used his newfound celebrity as a Native Christian to convert whites into defenders of Cherokee sovereignty by appealing to their sense of decency and compassion. In all, Brooks notes, these kinds of stories reveal “Christianity in the indigenous communities as a tumultuous, variegated, highly differentiated field of activity fraught both with zones of soul-harming subjugation, coercion, and indoctrination and with opportunities for vision, innovation, imagination, and articulation.” Thus, in addition to being carefully constructed discussions of Native conversion, for example, these essays also “bring us face to face with indigenous feelings about colonialism” (24). This is an important revision of the middle ground approach in that its emphasis on religion as an overt extension of colonialism puts the sharp edges back into play.
In part two, “Practicing Religion,” part three, “Circulating Texts,” and part four, “Creating Communities,” we see a variety of narratives that confirm and extend the ideas that come to the fore in part one. While these three sections are valuable to the book’s larger conversation, the essays in part two are especially notable for their insights into the varieties of lived experience. Part four’s essays (Rachel Wheeler’s excellent piece on the Mahican prophet Hendrick Aupaumut, and David Silverman’s thoughtful examination of missionary work in the Brotherton and Stockbridge communities) might have been easily folded into part two’s commentaries thus giving that section a really robust stance. The weak link in the collection is part three, where the essays—which are otherwise excellent—seem a bit out of place. Laura Stevens’s piece on Scottish missions and the eighteenth century British Empire, for example, suggests a transatlantic frame that is sensible, but ultimately undeveloped anywhere else in the collection. As a result it tends to have limited utility for the larger conversation. Likewise, Steven J. Hackel’s and Hilary E. Wyss’s comparative piece on California and New England missions seems out of place.
The essays in part two are particularly useful. Douglas Winiarski, Emma Anderson, and Tracy Neal Leavelle confront the diverse varieties of lived experience as Native and non-Natives alike sought to come to an understanding of what these encounters and changes meant. In a fascinating and agile discussion of New England’s Old Colony and its “sprawling religious culture,” for example, Winiarski finds Wampanoag people who were “fully acquainted with Christianity yet anchored in an ancient cosmology” reflected in kinship, mortuary practices, folk religion, and the supernatural—things not unfamiliar to their white, Christian neighbors. Leavelle’s discussion of gender in New France reveals similar patterns of agency, in this case the use of the rosary as the focus of “creative cultural convergences” that “represented new forms of gendered religious practice and increased female power.” In Leavelle’s hands, these developments were not evidence of conversion as whites understood the term so much as they were the signs of “the translation of Christianity into a local idiom” (161). Leavelle’s essay, in which there are echoes of Kenneth Morrison’s work on Montagnais conversions, reminds us that context is everything.
By far the most powerful essay in this section—and in the entire volume—is Emma Anderson’s reassessment of Jean de Brébeuf’s 1649 death at the hands of the Haudenosaunee. Long celebrated as a classic case of Christian martyrdom, Anderson’s work entirely challenges the theological and historical threads that defenders of the faith have created, and instead examines the event through a three-way cross-cultural lens: Brébeuf and his followers; his Haudenosaunee captors; and a group of Wendats who forsook their conversions and allied themselves with the Haudenosaunee. In a stunningly effective assessment of motive and purpose, Anderson suggests that while Brebeuf’s faith was no doubt a factor in the larger story, it was not the factor; the decision to kill him likely had nothing to do with “in odium fidei”—martyrdom prompted by the hatred of the faith—and everything to do with Haudenosaunee views about political power and influence. This is not only a corrective to the long-held interpretations of the story; it inverts the entire paradigm surrounding it, and suggests a much more complex expression of Native agency. If readers have time for only essay, make it this one.
This is an important, wide-ranging, and insightful collection of essays. Readers interested in cross-cultural exchange, and in the history of Christianity in early America will benefit from its ideas and findings.