As a Native American novelist and conference speaker who walks the Jesus Way, I have become increasingly more aware that when Christianity is mentioned, Native Americans do not readily come to mind. And because I create Native characters who frequently experience both loss and salvation when Tradition collides with contemporary worlds and faiths, I am regarded as an anomaly.
I guess I am, though, because after over five hundred years of evangelism efforts by the Christian church, the Native Christian organization American Indian Crusade estimates that only between three and five percent of Native Americans are evangelized, while Indian Life, Winnipeg, Manitoba, places the number at three to eight percent; and even within this small group, the more vocal complain that the mainstream churches' perception of them is one of paternalism that fosters dependency and control, and perpetuates the attitude that to be a "real" Christian, Native believers must give up all things Indian (including the use of the traditional instruments such as the reed flute, rattles, and drums in church services).
Such restrictions, they believe, reinforce the unspoken expectation that the more Euro an Indian is, the closer he is to salvation. Coupled with mainstream—and even some evangelized Natives' fear of mixing of Christian and non-Christian beliefs—such thinking overshadows any gestures toward greater understanding, the raising up of Native leadership, or any empowerment of the Native Christian church.
But back to the three-to-eight percent: What is the origin of such strong resistance to Christianity? Heaven is certainly not a bad idea. The promise of everlasting life with a loving God is alluring, and the Ten Commandments are not reprehensible except to humanity's most reprobate.
The answer lies in the dusty annals of history. Thomas S. Giles, project editor for Christianity Today, cites that when Europeans came to the shores of this continent in the 1500s, certain missionaries modeled the Christian faith by living in poverty among the Indian peoples as examples of sacrifice, giving and gentleness, while the Conquistadors presented only two options: convert or die.
Wide-scale slaughter followed. Forced labor. Brutal treatment resulting in mass suicides as the only escape. Epidemics of European diseases against which Native peoples had no natural immunity contributed to the decimation of their populations while, based on these atrocities, Incan chiefs put to death those who had submitted to baptism.
Only when one considers that it is the cruel behavior of Christianity's "witnesses," and not the message itself that Native peoples reject, can their resistance be placed within its proper context. Then and only then can one understand that Native people largely regard the Christian faith as "the White man's religion" because, by their observation, only Whites have benefitted from it.
It won't be easy, but part of the battleground for Native evangelism lies in revising the perceptions of the Eurocentric church through encouraging soul-searching evaluations of the traditional ways in which it has approached evangelizing within a culture so different from its own. Only after such a submission can it understand the far-reaching impact of broken treaties. The despair of broken hearts, shattered worlds, and shattered dreams.
I am reminded of a nugget of great value attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Its wisdom sums it all, and had it been embraced in ancient times by all who came to these shores, it would have fostered a different outcome: "Preach the gospel wherever you go, and when necessary, use words."
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist and conference speaker, is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News) and Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She lives in Plantation, Florida. www.KBSchaller.com