Indian people and the missionary’s book

Beginning with Spanish invaders, and continuing with French and English counterparts in later generations, the New Americans were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to convert the people already here to their versions of Christianity. One reason, as Ake Hultkrantz points out, is that Native American religions do not have sacred texts whereas Christianity does.

In Bringing Indians to the Book, Albert Furtwangler explores the difficulties that were caused by this fundamental contrast in the form of these religions. Although this volume focuses upon the first generation of Protestant missionaries working with Indians along the Columbia River, Furtwangler’s analysis helps us understand the challenges facing all missionaries throughout the 500 years since the Spanish monks and friars began working with the Pueblo peoples. Furtwangler studied journals, correspondence, and news reports from the missionaries. He came to understand the book-centered way of life that missionaries brought with them. In his book is explores the almost irreconcilable conflict between the literate culture of the missionaries and the oral culture of the Indians.

The dilemma facing these missionaries, who were “people of the printed page” was to learn how to address the illiterate. The corollaries to this fixation upon the printed page were fixed laws and history and geography that included all time and the entire globe. “They came to impart salvation to the Indians, but salvation as they understood it included this literate worldview” (10). The work was very difficult and some missionaries lost heart and quit, a few “hit upon fortuitous convergences of Indian and Christian patterns,” and some “turned to the whip—or the whip writ large in bureaucratic form, the federal Indian agent’s armed patrol” (10).

When the missionaries arrived, they met people who had always lived according to the patterns of an oral culture. They had “lived through generations without any notion of literacy, any need of it, or any remote contact with it.” Even after the first Europeans and Americans had come, “Indians went on for decades without a pressing need to read and write.” Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, Furtwangler notes, the explorers and traders got along with Indians fairly well because the new comers were “divided between literate commanders and illiterate underlings.”

The Protestant missionaries, however, were marked by the “pressure of very intense literacy.” Says Furtwangler: “Such people were at one extreme of a literate spectrum; the Indians they met were at another. The explicit task of the missionaries was to reach across this difference and bring Indians into a new understanding of the universe. But to put it not entirely figuratively, the Indians could not hear their literacy any better than they could read the Indians’ voices” (117).

Near the end of his book, Furtwangler evaluates the achievements of these early missionaries. “Even if the missions achieved very few enduring religious conversions and taught very few Indians to read well or stick to farming or manual trades, they began an irreversible shift in perception about laws and ethics and education. Head flattening, child murder, and hurried burials to appease the salmon—all had to be questioned by native people themselves once white ministers intruded on the scene and found one way and another to insist loudly and persistently to them that these ways were inhuman.

“This is not to deny that white settlers also used force and violence to suppress native practices, and that Indians found ways to resist for a century and more. It is rather to stress that Indians had minds of their own, and were affected by persuasion, and began to realign their lives in the face of hard new questions” (180).

Furtwangler provides an interpretation of Indian culture that seemed to be operative nearly a century later when the Yakima Indian Christian Mission was getting started. He quotes Henry Perkins: “An Indian tribe is like a great family, every member connected with another; and as all the members of a family feel a mutual interest, so with all the members of any tribe.” Furtwangler continues with his own interpretation of the meaning of that quality of Indian life. “In such a world, the eternal welfare of an individual soul mattered much less than the immediate well-being of entire households and villages.

When the missionaries tried to impart ideas of personal repentance and salvation, they had to pry an individual out of this tightly-linked situation, just to make him individual in the first place, an isolated reader-like person. They had to slip a razor-sharp paper message between Indians and the living voices among which they lived” (119). (Albert Furtwangler. Bringing Indians to the Book. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005)

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2 Responses to Indian people and the missionary’s book

  1. Deb Phelps says:

    Keith,
    Right now I wouldn’t have had time to read this work, but the excellent review gives such helpful insight. I am glad I stumbled upon this blog while enjoying your photos/posts.
    My intrigue in Native American religions was whetted by spending my childhood in Oklahoma. I am wondering as society moves back to a more oral culture, albeit digitally equipped, how this will shift emphasis within religious culture and practice?
    I suspect it would parallel the contrast mentioned here in the paper message vs. a family focused culture.

    This raises in me a sense of excitement in the need for the table to broker relationships within the diversely rich family of God….what do you think?

    • Deb, I hope that you can read the book sometime. I understand, however, the problem of having too little time to read the books that look interesting. Have you seen my blog early in this year’s posting that describes briefly my book on the Yakama Christian Mission? Keith

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